How many of you are arachnophobes? Apiphobes? Ophidiophobes? If you raised your hand, you understand what I’m about to talk about.
This post, like so many of my other recent articles, begins with a story from Japan. On our last full day on Okinawa, Nick and I decided to go to the local botanical gardens. We were there at the peak of summer- early August- and had miraculously managed to avoid typhoons the entire time. We expected the tropical flora to be at its finest, and I was excited to take an abundance of high-resolution photos to bring back to my botanist mother as a souvenir. After paying our admission fee, we followed the path to a wide bridge over a koi pond, with stumpy palm trees lining the way. In my enchantment, I went dashing over to the nearest palm tree to take photos of the enormous pond. As I snapped them, I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. Something large and dark.
A moment later, I realized that “something large and dark” was a spider the size of my face. In the same moment, as I propelled myself backward at the speed of light, I realized that there was such a spider strung between every single palm tree lining the bridge. Unfortunately, when moving at the speed of light, directionality can be a problem- and I wound up on the wrong side of the bridge. The only way out of the nightmarish, (to me) spider-infested park would be to cross it again.
I don’t remember the next 30 minutes. Apparently, I spent it crying and asking Nick to get me an airlift out of there. Eventually, he managed to talk me into running across the bridge (also something I don’t remember) and called a cab so we could escape, and we fled back to our friend’s apartment, spending our last day on-island recuperating from the morning’s drama.
In case you can’t tell, when I refer to myself as an arachnophobe, I don’t mean “I hate spiders” and I don’t mean “I’ll go ‘ew’ and gingerly squish them with a shoe.” Those definitions of arachnophobia almost offend me, they’re so…basic. For me, when I call myself an arachnophobe, I mean “I’m so afraid of spiders that I lose awareness of what I’m doing.” For a person with a strong taste for adventuring away from the known and familiar, this can be a major problem. In the back of my head I’ve been keeping a running list of places I’d love to visit- rural India, Thailand, Kenya, Pakistan, anywhere along the Amazon- that I’d promised myself I’d experience once I’d recovered from my pesky phobia. In case you aren’t aware, all of these places are the host countries for some extremely large spiders. And as my last morning on Okinawa demonstrated, my ability to make those visits is a long way off.
In the meantime, the problem obviously isn’t solved by staying in one place. Much like cockroaches, spiders are found everywhere on the planet- including Mount Everest- and have the horrifying tendency of showing up between me and the nearest exit. In our storage closet in Germany, for example, I got startled by a palm-sized one hanging out on the wall next to the door when I was already inside. Of course, for the remainder of our time in that apartment, I unequivocally refused to go in that room. But at the same time, camping in my native New Hampshire- where some of the local eight-legged freaks can reach equally unsettling proportions- rarely caused me worry, even though in theory there were far more spiders surrounding me in the woods than in my bedroom at home. This doesn’t mean that the idea of camping in the forests of Okinawa doesn’t make me want to wet my pants, but it does mean that in some circumstances I’m more willing to push the boundaries of my phobia than in others.
So I’m putting it to you, the readers and writers of this magazine, to tell me something about your experiences with deep, primal fear(s). As I stated before, this isn’t about things that cause us mild discomfort, but rather about the things that make us literally lose our minds with terror. Where do they cut our adventures short? Where do we manage to push past them? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we balance our lives so that we can do the things we want, while accepting some of our intrinsic limitations? For example: I have no interest in seeking therapy at this point- as a licensed social worker, I know what my options are and will exercise them when ready- but the fact that I’m okay with camping in particular climates, in spite of spider risks, intrigues me. Have any of you noticed these discrepancies in your fears? How have you adapted to them? Please post your answers in the comments section below- I’m really interested to see who else has adventures while dealing with phobias like mine.