I have a profound fear of heights. The level of this fear can vary, from a slight vertigo when looking down to a dread so intense that my toes dig into my shoes in an attempt to be more firmly planted on the ground.
If only to mock the very phobia I have, I’ve gone skydiving, hang gliding — I’ve been to the top of buildings like the CN Tower and Florence’s Duomo and looked down at the ground as much I could. I love climbing to the tops of mountains and I love looking over cliffs into the vast valleys below. I seek out heights like a masochistic on the loose.
There are other fears that I have: fear of driving by big rigs, fear of active volcanoes, fear of calling up a complete stranger and asking them for something (even if it is their job to provide whatever it is that I’m asking for). And – for all of these — I intentionally find situations that make me face said fears.
Because, while a healthy dose of caution is good when driving by a big rig or spending time by an active volcano, having outright fears just doesn’t make sense. Fear limits me, and I’m not a fan of being limited. So I go to tall bridges. I pass big rigs on highways. I call up whoever it is that I need to call up. There are no active volcanoes in New England, but I’m still working on a way to spin “Vacation in Hawaii” as purely a way for me to confront my fear.
However, there is one fear that I refuse to properly confront: my fear of spiders.
It’s not that spiders just give me the heeby-jeebies. I’m the type of arachnophobic where just seeing a spider can send my autonomic nervous system into a tailspin. If I’m not careful, I can legitimately feel like I’m going to die, simply because a spider is in the same general vicinity as me.
Out of all the things to be afraid of, this one seemed the silliest. One can easily fall from great heights or get smushed by a big rig or be incinerated by lava. But – especially in New England – a spider is relatively harmless. I’ve heard it all before: spiders are our friends, spiders are more afraid of us than they are of them (to which I say bullshit; spiders don’t have a limbic system) and so on, and so forth, et cetera, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.
And it’s not like I don’t hear those people. I’ll see a spider in the corner of my house and I’ll attempt to remind myself that it’s eating other bugs for me, that it’s barely the size of my thumbnail, that it’s not a black widow or wolf spider so I should just calm the fuck down… this lasts about thirty seconds, before I’m internally freaking out and begging a braver person to kill it for me.
When I confront my other fears (and walk away in one piece), I feel exhilarated. I get a rush unlike any other, which propels me forward to confront even more fears. When I confront a spider and walk away in one piece, I have only one thought on my mind: “Why the hell did I do THAT?” Then I wonder if the spider caught on to what I was thinking and is now planning revenge against me.
In a way, this phobia might make sense. Some people think that arachnophobia was once an evolutionary advantage. It is possible that some of our ancestors once dealt with a proliferation of nasty, venomous spiders, and those who were scared shitless lived to tell the tale.
I remember once doing a super long, super intense outdoor yoga session a little while back. I was getting my zen on when I noticed a super tiny spider crawling across my foot. I went a solid minute, telling myself that the Buddha harmed no creatures and we are one and peace and tranquility and blah blah blah… before I could finish this train of thought, the miniature spider was nothing more than goo and exoskeleton on my mat.
It was around this time that I realized that I was never going to fight this phobia, but I could learn to redirect it. My “fight or flight” response is always going to be set off when I see an arachnid, but I can shift my mindset away from “flight” and more towards “fight”. I can use this feeling like I’m going to die in a way that is slightly more empowering than scampering away. I might not necessarily care that I’m so much bigger than the spider, but the laws of physics sure do. I can channel that surge in adrenaline into finding something heavy.
While straight on fighting my phobia has been an abysmal nightmare, redirecting it has been pretty successful. Who knows: maybe someday I’ll take that extra step forward and redirect it even further, using that “fight or flight” response to maybe – say – redirect the spider to outside. But I’m not holding my breath. Coincidentally enough, seeing a spider usually causes me to hold my breath.
However, things might be changing. A few days ago, I walked downstairs to my basement, only to be confronted with a spider hanging out in a corner. I took a long, slow, deep breath, and said to myself, “If that thing is still here when I come back up the stairs, I’ll deal with it then.” After twenty minutes finishing up a chore in the basement, I went back to the stairs to see that the spider was gone and – much to my surprise – I was not filled with a sudden sense of dread and panic.
Then, barely 48 hours later, I then smushed a spider on my garage floor with the closest blunt object I had (which happened to be a sledgehammer). So, yeah – no promises.
Confronting fears is a pretty empowering act. But learning to cultivate that fear into stoic violence works in a pinch, too.