Aside from nuclear warfare, the collapse of the power grid, and forced female genital mutilation, one of my greatest fears in life is being trapped in a roomful of spiders. It doesn’t matter whether they’re poisonous or simply lethal-looking; I fear all of them equally.
My earliest exposure to spiders happened via the piercing screams of my mother, whose fear of spiders is only marginally better than mine. There is nothing more frightening to a child than seeing her protector lose her calm. After witnessing my mother scream and cry over a miniscule object with scurrying legs, I knew that spiders were evil. Between Halloween decorations and The Muppets episode of Miss Piggy trapped in a web, my phobia seemed normal and perfectly justified.
One summer, my friend and I went on a camp canoe trip – water was another phobia of mine, and therefore, I barely knew how to swim. My friend said in a shaky voice, “Uhm, Heidi… I think there’s a spider by you.”
“What?” I said, distracted. Our canoe was lagging behind the others, and I was worried we’d be separated.
“I said that I think—”
“Honestly, Nicki, if you spent less time talking and more time rowing, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” I snapped.
“Less talking, more rowing!” I commanded. Being stranded in a body of water with no food was fast becoming my newest phobia.
A minute later, Nicki shrieked, “There are TONS of them!”
“Tons of what?”
I have never moved so fast in my life. I jumped out of the canoe, ignoring the fact that I couldn’t swim. Obviously, death by drowning was a better fate than sharing a boat with spiders. My friend jumped out, too. Luckily, we both had working life vests, and excluding the questionable color of the water and the myriad of seaweed entangling our legs, it was an enjoyable swim.
Everything changed once I became a mother. I knew I had to conquer this fear for my children’s sake. I sought the help of a therapist who specializes in phobias. Dr. Johnson assured me that he’d had great success curing fears of people, many of them being Ashkenazi Jews. “Look,” I said pointedly, “if your people had been persecuted since the beginning of time, you’d all be a little crazy, too.”
He had me do several exercises over the course of many weeks, the first one being looking at the word spider, to eventually scattering toy spiders throughout the house for desensitization purposes.
For my last session with Dr. Johnson, I wanted to give him a special thank-you gift. He had mentioned once or twice that he thought tarantulas were cool. So I decided to buy him one.
I journeyed to the local pet shop and asked to see their tarantulas. “Male or female?” the worker asked.
“What’s the difference?”
“About thirty years,” he replied. “The males typically die at two, but the females can live up to thirty-five.”
I thought about Dr. Johnson. I thought about the fact that he was a bachelor in his mid-to-late thirties with no loving family to greet him at the door after a full day’s work of handling lunatics like me. What a depressing existence. Obviously, he needed a woman in his life. “I’ll take the female,” I said decisively.
At home, I donned a pair of workman’s gloves and held the tarantula, just to prove to myself that I could. And to freak out my husband.
“I got you a gift!” I told Dr. Johnson an hour later, walking into his office.
He looked nervous. “You did?”
“Meet your new companion!” I said, opening the box with a flourish. “She’ll be with you for the next thirty-five years.”
“Shit!” Dr. Johnson said, jumping several feet back.
Not quite the reaction I had envisioned. “Pick her up!” I suggested.
He muttered, “Nah. She looks tired.”
We stared wordlessly at the tarantula as she wildly thrashed her tentacles about the cage, looking anything but tired. In fact, she looked like a walking advertisement for spiders with ADHD. And that was when it hit me—Dr. Johnson was scared out of his mind. He walked toward the cardboard box and folded down the tabs, as though the sight of her was too much.
“So, you…like her?”
“Y-yes,” he stuttered, wiping his sweaty brow. “Thank you.”
That was six years ago. My children (remember, they’re the reason I sought therapy) are terrified of spiders. Actually, my boys aren’t too bad, but my daughter lives in fear of them. But look, it’s not my fault! I did everything right. I bought toy spiders and anthropomorphized them through play. I read the book Charlotte’s Web to them. I even picked up spiders with my bare hands and said things like, “What a beautiful creature!”
I recently overheard my daughter tell her friend, “I’m scared of spiders, but my mother looooves them.”
“Really?” her friend said.
“Yeah,” my daughter replied. “She’s weird like that.”
If overcoming arachnophobia helped my kids out, even just a little, then I’m okay being called weird. I’ve also discovered that when it comes to emotions, love is a lot more powerful than fear. Plus, I’ll always have the memory of Dr. Johnson’s face when he saw the tarantula, and that alone, made this process totally worth it.