Essays

Terror on Eight Legs

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It was about six weeks after my boyfriend of five years had moved the last of his things out. My new housemate was out, and I had just got home from work. I was on my own in my Victorian brick Brunswick terrace house, and absolutely terror-struck. About the size of a 20-cent piece, a spindly-legged, bulbous-bellied jet-black spider was sitting in the middle of my window blind, directly over the head of my bed.

“Oh shit”, I thought – my feet glued to the spot.  Here’s the thing about phobias; you are both attracted to and repelled by the things you most fear, and so when confronted by my worst nightmare – a free-ranging arachnid – I am usually completely unable to look away. Or do anything, really. It takes about five seconds for my brain to unfreeze and start digesting the situation.

Newly independent, I decided I would have to tackle this on my own, prove to myself that I could do it. “It’s not that big,” I reassured myself, edging slowly towards the bed. My runners were on the floor near the door and I picked one up. I got up onto the mattress and knelt about halfway up the bed. I’m not sure I’d even blinked.

“You can do it – just hit it with the shoe. It won’t even know it’s coming. Just. Hit. It.” I knelt there, shoe raised, willing myself to act.

The spider didn’t move. What must have been 20 minutes passed.

A key turned in the front door, and my housemate stepped into the hall. She glanced into my room as she walked by, calling out a hello. I heard her stop midstride and backtrack to my bedroom.

“What are you doing?” It was a reasonable question.

“There’s a spider. And I wanted to kill it myself. I mean, I have to do this stuff now so I just have to do it.” As I spoke I maintained eye contact with the spider.

“Right.”

“Except, I just can’t, I really can’t. I’ve been sitting here for ages and I just keep thinking, what if I hit it, and then it’s not dead and it runs away somewhere and I can never find it or sleep in my room again.”

“Here,” she said, very gently. “Give me the shoe.”

Thank heavens for good housemates.

Living in Melbourne the spider that crossed my path the most was the garden orb weaver. Garden orb weavers are not large, but also not too small. They make intricate webs each night and hide from predatory birds during the day. They are harmless to humans. And if you’ve got them in your yard, you’ve got a nice little ecosystem happening. Just thinking about them makes my pulse quicken.

My cat would watch them weave their webs (well out of his not-so-enterprising reach) each night, following their cautious industry with an ardent curiosity. I would lock the back door, and refuse to head outside until the birds came out the next day.

If you detect some level of respect in my descriptions of these eight-legged monsters, it’s because you should always respect that which can reduce you to a quivering mess of skin-crawling fear. Even if it’s so small, your lightest breath could carry it five metres.

According to Beyond Blue, approximately nine percent of Australians will have a phobia in their lives, with the problem affecting twice as many women as men. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder.

Arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias. But knowing I’m not alone is not exactly comforting.

I once lived with two women who shared my fears. We were at university, in a run down but large brick semi at the southern end of Newtown, in Sydney’s inner-west. The back wall of our house was mostly made up of louvres and some of them were always open.

One Saturday afternoon we arrived home from the shops with our groceries and went to put the perishables in the fridge. One of the largest huntsman spiders I’ve ever seen sat fat and happy on the back louvres.

We screamed. Fear, when it’s sanctioned by the people around you, becomes less functional and more panicked.  We tried to calm down and deal with the problem ourselves, but after three attempts with the broom of pushing it outside and shutting the louvres, and it just sidling casually back into the house through the cracks between them, we retreated.

Sitting on our front steps, we called some friends who lived nearby.

“Are you at home?” I asked one.

“Yes,” he paused “why?”

“Well you see, there’s this giant huntsman in our house and we can’t get rid of it.”

“You’ve called the wrong person. I’m petrified of spiders.”

So my housemate called her sister. We sat out the front waiting for half an hour, occasionally checking to make sure the spider was still where we could see it.

My housemate’s two older sisters and their boyfriends turned up. They’d been having coffee up the road.  The spider was quickly disposed of. I will never forget how ridiculous I felt that day, a grown woman, absolutely frozen and willing to cede her home if necessary.

There are about 2000 spider species in Australia and most of them are harmless. Only two are considered life-threatening: the funnel web and the red back. No one has died from a spider bite in this country since 1981, according to the Australian Museum (not a single person in my lifetime, then). But knowing that spiders aren’t going to kill me doesn’t make me less afraid.

“They’re probably more afraid of you then you are of them,” my mother would say whenever I spotted one growing up. In Brisbane it was the golden orbs you’d run into the most. Of all the spiders I cower from, I manage my fear of these the best.  They are gross to look at, but easy to predict. The golden orb, while extremely large, and sometimes able to consume whole birds (I didn’t sleep for a week after I read about that), will build their web – usually up high – and stay there. So, for the most part I am able handle them. They make my skin feel like it’s covered in ants, and walking under their webs my heart beats faster but I can manage it if I have to.

The golden orb has one of the stickiest, strongest webs around. In high school I used to go for a jog in the mornings. In the late spring, when the trees started to thicken, I took my usual route and ran straight into the newly constructed web of a golden orb. It took all my willpower not to scream and wake the whole neighbourhood. I wanted to tear off all of my clothes because the spider might be on them. When I got home I made my mother check and make sure.  I never used that particular section of footpath again, and even now, over a decade later, passing that spot makes me nervous.

A study at Northwestern University in the United States found that people with arachnophobia could have their fears reduced with just one counseling session. “After a two or three-hour treatment, they were able to walk right up and touch or hold a tarantula. And they could still touch it after six months. They were thrilled by what they accomplished,” the study’s lead author said in a statement when the findings were published in May, 2012.

The study found giving people information about spiders to counter their irrational fears really helped. But I’m not sure it would work for me. I know my fear is irrational – I even try from time to time to talk myself down, but it never works.

I’m drawn, almost masochistically, to information about spiders. Little facts and figures I can keep in my head, terrible encounters, folklore and the like. I know it’s not really true that you’ll eat eight spiders while sleeping each year or that Daddy Long Legs are the most poisonous spider of them all, but their teeny tiny fangs can’t pierce human flesh. I can’t help but read news reports about people who go to put their shoes on and encounter a giant huntsman. I always hang my socks on the line inside out, and peg them at the open end just in case a spider might try to hide in them.

When Victorian towns were blanketed in spiders earlier this year following floods I couldn’t stop clicking through the photo galleries.

The research says people with spider phobias will notice them in a room far more quickly than those who aren’t afraid. That’s certainly true for me. And I’m constantly on the lookout. I fear them in a ridiculous, cartoonish way. And part of it is knowing that for every one I can see, there’s probably a lot more hidden nearby.

Waiting for me to accidentally consume them while I sleep.

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