I spent the bulk of my childhood as an arachnophobe, all because of two incidents which occurred when I was rather young. The second incident was even more jarring than the first, and scarred me for many years.
The first incident occurred when I was six years old while I was at summer camp. All the kids had gone swimming in an effort to beat the triple digit heat, and were in the locker rooms getting dressed after a fun afternoon in the pool. I was standing at one locker, almost completely dressed, and just needed to put on my socks and shoes, so they were sitting on top of a bench. Suddenly, one of the girls shrieked, which triggered a domino effect, causing several other girls to follow suit. These girls jumped on top of nearby benches, looking down at one spot on the floor. I simply stood where I was, puzzled by their reaction.
Our teacher came in and asked one of the girls what all the noise was about.
“There’s a spider on the floor!”
The teacher looked at the floor, then said, “Oh yeah, that’s a black widow. We’d better kill that one!” Whereupon she grabbed one of my sneakers and deftly smashed the spider to a mushy black pulp.
I was so horrified that I refused to wear my shoes. When my mom picked me up, she asked me why I wasn’t wearing my shoes. “The teacher squashed a black widow spider with my shoe!” I was so adamant about my refusal to wear those sneakers that I wouldn’t even wear them after my mom had scoured the soles of the shoes, removing any remaining spider residue from them.
The second incident occurred less than a year later. I was staying at my best friend Tammy’s house in Sun Valley, an area which is known to have rattlesnakes and tarantulas. Tammy’s family had a habit of catching tarantulas and giving them to their poolman, who would defang them and sell them to pet stores.
One afternoon, we decided to go to the movies, and returned to the house shortly before dark. I was sitting in the rear passenger’s seat, Tammy’s brother Chad in the middle, Tammy on the left, her sister Wendy in the front passenger’s seat, and her mother in the driver’s seat. Tammy’s mother pulled into the garage and closed the garage door, and we began filing out of the vehicle.
As soon as Wendy set foot on the garage floor, she exclaimed, “Nobody move! Tarantula in the corner!” Sure enough, there was a large tarantula in the far right corner of the garage, about six feet in front of me. Wendy carefully tiptoed past me to the wall to pick up a small, empty aquarium to place over the tarantula, thus trapping him. Her movement must have startled the tarantula, because it sprung up about two and a half feet in the air and forward, landing about eight inches from my feet.
Wendy said, “Don’t move!”, which was almost unnecessary because I was paralyzed with fear. By this time, she had grabbed the aquarium, and quickly placed it over the tarantula, who sprang up and hit the base of the aquarium and fell back to the garage floor, trapped in its glass dungeon.
That second incident really solidified my arachnophobia. I spent the next 28 years so afraid of spiders that, although I would never shriek or lose my cool, I would simply leave a room if I saw a spider in it. My mother became accustomed to me leaving a room and saying, “Mom, please kill the spider there!”. Once I was an adult living on my own, I would ask my boyfriend to rid the room of any spider who dared to chase me out of there.
What cured me was a touch of desensitization therapy which took place at, of all places, the Los Angeles County Fair in 2001. My then-husband Pete and I encountered an exotic pet petting zoo at the fair, and two tarantulas were featured in the zoo. Pete was well aware of my arachnophobia, as he had been ridding the house of spiders for me for a few years. I never liked his method, which consisted of capturing the spider and letting it go outside, because in my arachnophobic mind, he was just releasing a pissed off spider who would find its way back into the house and terrorize me once again.
It was Pete’s idea for me to hold a tarantula so that I would benefit from desensitization. I honestly think that his psychiatry rotation (he was a medical student then) had influenced him to make the suggestion, but it made a lot of sense to me, so I begrudgingly agreed to hold a tarantula.
I remember the handler placing this hairy, scary creature into the palm of my hand. I have very small hands, so the tarantula’s legs extended along my fingers and my wrist. It rested there for about 15 seconds, kind of hovering, and I could barely breathe at first, then I calmed down when I realized the spider wouldn’t do anything to me. Then it decided to crawl along my forearm, and that is when I told the handler to get the f*$@ing thing off of me!
Guess what though? It worked. Since that day, I have not been freaked out by a spider’s presence. More recently, I saw two black widow spiders, and quickly stomped on them with, you guessed it, a shoe-clad foot.