Sunday, March 3, 2013

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Finish this sentence: I would rather be be caught naked in a crowded lecture hall than X.

With what creature, object, or concept did you substitute for X? To be fair, a great many people would use "being caught naked in a crowded lecture hall" as their X. I can't blame you: those halls are cold!

We all have a phobia. Some of us have several. Some have very specific phobias, while others are more general. Some phobias are understandable from the point of view of the non-sufferer, such as the fear of heights (acrophobia), while other phobias sound as though someone just made them up (again, from the perspective of the non-sufferer), such as the fear of otters (lutraphobia).

This Giant River Otter is disappointed that you crapped your pants at the mere sight of him. Photo: National Geographic Animals.
No matter how illogical (such as the fear of knowledge, or gnosiophobia) or just plain odd (forget Valentine's Day if you have anthophobia, a fear of flowers), phobias are very real to the afflicted, and have very real physiological consequences. MedlinePlus describes phobias as "a type of anxiety disorder....a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger." I think most people can reason that many phobias were, at one time in our evolutionary history, quite rational. It was better to avoid that black and orange slithery thing because everyone you knew who received a bite from it died. Maybe all long slithery things can kill! However, when these fears start interfering with our day-to-day lives they become disruptive and disadvantageous. Does that fear of balloons (globophobia) reduce you to a nervous wreck anytime someone in your office has a birthday party? Or how about a fear of food (cibophobia), which can be quite dangerous for a person's health if it is taken to an extreme. One of the benefits of the Internet is that you can find not only a myriad of phobias, but online support groups for phobias that you probably didn't even know existed.

There are several things for which I have no fond feelings. Take clowns for example: I think they are creepy, but the sight of one does not hit my primal panic button. I find a writhing mass of maggots or worms visually unappealing. The twang of country music grates against my aural sense of decorum. These are low-key aversions and preferences rather than actual phobias (coulrophobia, scoleciphobia, and cacophonophobia, respectively).

I do have an aversion serious enough to be classified as a phobia. I am afraid of spiders. I have Arachnophobia.

This is where my brain splits into the dual personalities of Practical Me and Timid Me. My practical, logical side knows that A) spiders, especially where I live, pose no serious risk to me, B) all spiders are of great importance to the ecosystem as both predators and prey, C) spiders are fascinating in their diversity and adaptations, and D) my fear is completely irrational given the fact that I am a biologist and thoroughly understand Points A through C. Timid Me hold the trump card with Point E: despite all the biology training and fascination, I would rather walk naked down the street singing country music than willingly hold a large spider.

I am painfully aware of how irrational my fear is of spiders. Spider are great. Watch the video below of the male Peacock Jumping Spider's mating dance and then tell me that spiders have no redeeming qualities.

How cool is that? Here is a tiny 4mm long spider with flamboyant coloration engaging in the arachnid version of flag semaphore! This is my favorite spider.

No matter how I rationalize it, or berate myself for being the world's largest wimp, I cannot control my automatic physiological response when confronted with a spider larger than my pinkie nail: my heart rate increases, I feel "crawly" and ill, I become hypersensitive to touch, and I'm sure to vocalize my displeasure. There is something about the eight legs and the way those legs move in their rhythmically deliberate yet surprisingly speedy pattern that sends chills up my spine and urine into my pants (figuratively, of course). Merely thinking about spiders to write this post has made me extremely twitchy: I've flinched at my own hair tickling my neck several times.

I know I am not alone in my phobia: the Internet is chock-full of imagery designed with the arachnophobe in mind. Go ahead and Google "spider in/on toilet paper". What I expected to see was that classic image of the ginormous brown spider sitting on the roll, daring the viewer to try to take a square. I was not expecting the bulk of what my search revealed. You can look for yourself. I may never use the toilet in the middle of the night again without first beating the living hell out of the roll with a mop handle. A completely irrational reaction, but I'm not going to be the one who wipes with spider. 

One of the ways people deal with fears and phobias is to identify the moment the phobia was established. I have no problem pinpointing the onset of my arachnophobia. This stems from a childhood encounter.

That ascending scale on the harp that you hear in the background is the signal for a childhood flashback. Cue the sepia tone of memory. It is actually the neon pink, lime green, and Jellies shoes of the 1980s, but I think you appreciate my attempts to set the scene.

I was four and a half years old. It was a hot, cloudless summer day in rural southern British Columbia. I was bombing around my parents' acreage pretending who-knows-what: one day I would be riding my imaginary talking horse Shadow, the next I would attempt to construct a crude bow and arrow and be a questing knight. Given the amount of running around I did that morning, I'm sure I was on an adventure with Shadow.

Being four years old and rather daffy, I refused to listen to Mom's orders to take a break, drink the water I was given, and wear a hat. Instead, I gave my water to Shadow, used the hat as a Frisbee and tore around like a lunatic. Meanwhile, Dad was repairing some loose boards on the fence next to our house. Something popped into my heat-addled brain that I needed to tell Dad about right away, so I ran around the corner of the house at top speed, and was stopped dead in my tracks by what I saw.

Now comes the part where I have to tell two versions of the same story: what really happened, and what I thought happened. First, I'll describe what really happened. While Dad was working a large spider, very likely one of the cat-faced spiders that are common in southern B.C., lowered itself from the eaves and was dangling over Dad's head. Dad, not wanting it to land on him, took a couple of swats at the spider with his hammer. Pretty dull, right?

Here's how I remember the scene (brought to you by Heat ExhaustionTM). Dad was trapped under a spider at least three meters in diameter. It was brown and spotted, with a cluster of gleaming black eyes and thick brown hairs protruding from its tree branch sized legs. It was hanging from a rope as thick as a mooring line for a huge ship. It was writhing its legs and wriggling its chelicerae. Dad was wildly swinging his hammer to fend off the hellish creature with one hand while holding up his other arm in defense. Gargantu-Spider bobbed a couple of times and then shot straight up on its line, disappearing from sight.

As soon as Gargantu-Spider vanished I fully intending to run to the house and get Mom (what she would have been able to do against a giant spider, I have no idea). The first thing I saw when I turned around was a small cat-faced spider mere centimeters from my face, dangling from the apple tree. This is where my heat-addled brain snapped. I do not remember what happened after that. Talking with Mom years later, she does remember me coming inside (without my hat), looking pale and babbling something unintelligible about large spiders and Dad, and then sitting down to read or color. I didn't venture outside for the rest of the day, which for me was odd.

I do not remember being terrified of spiders before that day, but after this incident the crippling fear followed me through elementary and high school. I couldn't steel myself to walk past a wall with a spider on it because I was convinced the spider would leap out at me. A spider in my room meant the room had to be thoroughly inspected before I would fall asleep. Finding a spider crawling on me? Cue the hysterics.

Over the years I've had to train myself not to give in to my primal reactions when I encounter a spider. I spend a lot of time in the field, which means I come into contact with spiders on a regular basis. The wolf spiders in the sub-alpine of northeast B.C. are particularly large and impressive, and they like to hunt and hide under the rocks I need to turn over when looking for fossils. Spiders cover our tents in the summer. Spiders fall in my hair when I hike in the woods. The lead hiker is called the Spider Sweeper because they clear all the webs off of the trail that have been constructed by industrious spiders. I either deal with spiders in a non-disruptive manner or become paranoid every time I set foot in spider territory.

I have conditioned myself to let small spiders crawl on me, and to not react if I find a small spider on my arm or leg, but if they catch me off guard I will still freak out. My field colleagues and crew are familiar with my Spider Dance. I have even touched a wolf spider. This is as far as I've gone with facing my fear. Finding a large spider on me still sends me into panic mode. I have no desire whatsoever to touch a tarantula, no matter how many times people assure me they are perfectly harmless. It is not even the fear of being bit by a spider that makes me nervous: it's the sensation (or, more precisely, the concept of the sensation) of all of those legs crawling on me.

Brr! Now I am thoroughly creeped out. It is time for a relaxing cup of tea. Have an phobia story? Have a spider story? Please share!

Strange Woman out.

Dedicated to all the spiders that met their untimely demise from my panicked flailing.

Jazz Hands! (Darlington's Peacock Spider, image modified from Otto and Hill, 2012)

Take a Bow! (Darlington's Peacock Spider, image modified from Otto and Hill, 2012)

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