Seeing a spider gives me a visceral, physical reaction. My whole body will shake long after the spider’s gone, and I’ll keep swallowing down nausea for the rest of the day
When I say I’m arachnophobic, I don’t just mean I jump when I see a spider in the bathtub, or that I have to watch as someone else covers it with a glass and carries it outside. I mean that seeing a spider gives me a visceral, physical reaction that I’ve yet to experience from any other stimulus.
I lose all inhibitions – any regular social behaviour completely deserts me in the interest of getting away from the spider as quickly as possible. My whole body will shake long after the spider’s gone; I’ll keep swallowing down the nausea for the rest of the day. Even writing this now, it makes me wince to write the word “spider”; my stomach contracts just seeing the word on the page.
My arachnophobia has long been one of my defining features; and this time of year, it actively dominates my life. Early autumn is ‘spider season’ – the time when we can expect to find large house spiders crawling their way across our carpets, unexpectedly running out from under the sofa or lurking in the sink – and as a severe arachnophobe, the thought takes up permanent residence in my brain all the while I’m in my house.
During spider season, I’ll look over my shoulder when I’m washing up, scanning the floor around me and feeling prickles on my spine akin to eight legs traversing my body. I’ll turn the bathroom light on and hover in the doorway while my eyes comb the bath, the sink, the floor around the loo.
I’ll wait ‘till the last possible second each night to take out my contact lenses, because I don’t like the idea of my surroundings being blurred; I need to be able to see every stark detail of what’s around me all the time. It’s like being in a slightly muted, ongoing fight or flight mode – except my only response to the threat I’m poised and ready for will always be flight. Several nights a week, my dreams become populated by spiders, tangles of legs make their way up and down my synapses until I’m jerked awake, heart pounding.
Just last week, there was (according to my housemate) an ‘enormous’ spider in my kitchen. We were chatting, and then her eyes focused on a spot on the floor. 'O … my god," sy het gese, as her eyes widened and her body stiffened; but I was already halfway out of the door, because I’ve become highly attuned to the way people tend to respond to seeing a spider in their space. I knew what she was about to say, and I couldn’t stay in the room long enough to hear it.
I’d only moved in a few days previously, and I felt cripplingly embarrassed even as I dashed upstairs; I knew how overdramatic I must have looked. But I couldn’t even be in the room while she got rid of it, let alone help. She was incredibly understanding about it and sensitive to my fear, but as I hovered on the landing I felt feelings of frustration mounting. Frustration that there’s a time of year, every year, when I’ll regularly be hovering on the landing, frustrated that I can’t stand firm in the kitchen instead, holding the window open as my housemate deposited the spider outside.
Natuurlik, that’s not how phobias work. If anyone else told me that they were feeling frustrated with themselves for having a phobia, I’d tell them that they need to practice self-kindness. I’d say that frustration is ridiculous and unwarranted; that irrational fears are out of our control. My phobia is certainly out of my control – I know, because I’ve tried. I had hypnotherapy years ago that didn’t work – but I’m not sure that was the hypnotherapist’s fault. I’d hoped that three short sessions would leave me totally arachnophobia free, but I suspect my phobia is so deeply entrenched in the core of my psyche that it’s going to take many dedicated hours to tease out some coping strategies that really work.
But conversely, despite all the phobic associations that spider season holds for me, it’s also my favourite time of year. Spiders very much aside, I love everything about autumn. I love the crisp, clean smell of woodsmoke that lingers in the air, I love watching the leaves change, I love going for long walks surrounded by piles of orange leaves, before heading to a pub for a fireside mulled wine or straight home to curl up on the sofa with enormous mugs of tea. I love my best friends and I pouring our hearts out to each other as the sun sets over golden canopies of leaves and the world hunkers down for another year.
It’s these things that I repeat to myself when the mental glass containing my arachnophobia teeters on its precipice and threatens to spill over into every aspect of my life. It’s spider season, but it’s also my favourite season. Arachnophobia hasn’t yet succeeded in sapping the delight out of autumn for me, and I don’t plan to let it. Spiders may be more common at this time of year — but so are the pinpoints of joy.