Today I’ll be interrupting the usual programming to write a little something about phobias, specifically targeted at people that don’t have any. It’s probably going to come across a little killjoy and lecture-y but stick with me, it’s an important topic worth understanding.
I have a phobia of spiders. I’ve read very little of the academic work around phobias. I am speaking almost entirely from my own experience, the experience of people I have met and spoken with, and some light Googling around the topic.
Yup. I can deal with small ones on my own, where small is no larger than a British two pence piece. Any larger than that and I will do everything within my power to put distance between me and it, then I will seek assistance in removing it from the building I am in. If assistance is not readily available I will stare fixedly at it until assistance arrives. If assistance does not arrive, or am I with other people who also have a phobia of spiders, I will attempt to kill the spider with projectiles. I am not proud of this, but I cannot bring myself to be near them. I’m sorry.
On a couple of occasions I have been outwitted by the spider and been unable to find it after missing with a projectile. I can’t bring myself to settle down if this does happen, and sleep is simply not possible.
I honestly have no idea. Searching through my memory, I cannot recall a single time in which I have touched a spider, or one has been on me or bitten me or anything. I am aware (and frequently reminded) that the vast majority of spiders in the UK are completely harmless, and fewer still have the ability to kill an adult human. This knowledge does nothing to assuage my fear.
Phobias: how do they work?
When I see a spider, or even something that looks a bit like a spider, I completely tense up. I have to stare at it. Looking away isn’t possible. My chest constricts, my heart-rate suddenly increases and often I’ll make some involuntary movement, from a general spasm to leaping away from where I believe the spider to be. It’s quite embarrassing, especially if somebody witnesses it.
I can liken how I react to how most people would react if, completely unbeknownst to them, someone came up behind them with an air-horn and blew it right next to their ear. You know that feeling where your chest basically implodes and you fall of your chair? Seeing a spider is a lot like that.
I was visiting family in Bristol a few weeks ago. We were drinking tea, eating cakes and being about as British as it’s possible to be without being Stephen Fry. I was telling a story when all of a sudden I notice a rather large spider (leg-span of about the palm of my hand) crawl out from behind a chair. I stopped mid-sentence, stood up, and left the room repeatedly saying: “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope…” I didn’t re-enter the room until I had to walk through it to leave.
Phobias aren’t like normal fears. I know that I’m not in danger. The spider crawling out from behind the chair doesn’t care about me. I’m even logically convinced that, as people say, it’s more afraid of me than I am of it. That doesn’t help, though. It doesn’t change how I’m going to react to it.
Bro, can’t you just like… Face your fear?
No please. I’ll pass. I don’t see how that would help or why I would want to do it or why you would even suggest it. I hate to lecture but this really is the worst thing to suggest to someone who has a phobia. Maybe it’s different for really debilitating phobias, ones that you can’t escape, but for arachnophobia it’s just a terrible suggestion.
Lol okay but… *throws spider at you*
No. If you’ve ever done this, really, you’re not funny at all. Sorry to be a killjoy. I’m sure you derive endless enjoyment from taking advantage of other peoples' vulnerabilities, but it’s totally not cool. You wouldn’t lock a claustrophobic person in a cage, you wouldn’t dangle someone with a fear of heights off a tall building.
I fundamentally do not control how I’ll react to having a spider thrown at me. My first reaction will most likely to be to get away from the spider, but very shortly after I’ve done that I will probably seek to attack you. I won’t even have a choice in the matter, that’s just what will happen. If you get pissy about that, well, maybe you shouldn’t have thrown a fucking spider at me.
But they help catch flies in your house!
I don’t care.
A lil' list of dos and don'ts
With that out of the way, if you know someone with arachnophobia or any other phobia, please, I urge you to keep the following things in mind:
- Do take their phobia seriously.
- Do whatever you can to remove whatever triggers their phobia.
- Do make sure that the person is okay. Some people react incredibly strongly to phobic situations and it can leave them very shaken.
- Don’t assume that just because the thing that triggers the phobia can no longer be seen that the phobic reaction will subside. In my case, it usually just gets worse.
- Don’t directly or indirectly suggest that their phobia is a form of weakness. Things I hear on a regular basis: “Don’t be such a pussy”, “you’re being a girl”, “don’t be a big girl’s blouse”, “it’s just a spider” and so on.
- Don’t make fun of people with phobias. In the process of removing a spider, it’s not fun to pretend to throw it, pretend to drop it, or otherwise bring it anywhere close to me.
Lots of phobic people will appreciate it :)