Last summer, I saw a small snake curled up in the middle of my long, red dirt driveway that lead to our farm house nestled among rolling hills and towering poplar trees.
I brought my big one ton truck to an immediate halt and quickly backed out of the driveway without a moment’s hesitation. As I turned the truck around, I quickly locked the doors, just in case the hideous beast tried to crawl up my tire, open the truck door and chew my face off. I resolutely drove the thirty minutes back to town where I patiently sat in the local coffee shop, allowing the disgusting reptile ample time to slither from my driveway .
As you might have guessed, I am absolutely, completely and irrationally terrified of snakes.
I am not just terrified of snakes; I have a true phobia. Thinking back, I have come to the conclusion that two seemingly unrelated childhood events somehow fused in my subconscious mind to eventually become the basis of a totally irrational adult fear.
Would it surprise you to know that in part, my fear of snakes was derived from a poster I saw in a store when I was about four years old of Jaws coming out of the seat of a toilet? Let me tell you how my phobia of snakes and sitting on the toilet in the dark lead to my deep understanding of how fear can rule and even ruin our lives, but only if we give it the power to do so.
One hot summer day when I was about four or five years old, my mom and I went on a fun filled adventure to a local river in the Okanagan Valley with the rest of our family. Even in the shade it was blazing hot and I couldn’t wait to jump into the cool water as my mother zipped and clipped my lifejacket securely around my little body. I can still remember peaking excitedly over what seemed like a giant cliff as my aunt and uncles jumped into the slow moving river below. Satisfied that I was safe, my mother tossed me into the river and jumped in right after me. I giggled at the antics of my uncles as we floated down the river, laughing and splashing in the cool water. It was an idyllic afternoon and the perfect setting for a wonderful childhood memory.
Little did I know that a life altering event was about to take place.
When we eventually floated to a very shallow part of the river and the adults instructed me that we were getting out, I dutifully stood up and began to walk toward the shore. Likely it was the feeling of something brushing the skin of my leg that caused me to look down and see the large dead snake wrapped around one ankle.
Even thought that experience scared me, I don’t remember being terrified of snakes after that day. Looking back, I believe it took two more negative encounters with snakes before the fear really took up residence in my mind. The first one was probably that same summer. I was at the game farm with my big, fun family who love nothing more than to tease each other mercilessly. I was proudly sitting beside my mother on the hood of my grandpa’s big gold Lincoln as it ambled slowly through the park when we noticed people dispersing from around the snake pit in a hurried fashion.
The snake enclosure was basically a large round cement structure that was completely open at the top, allowing visitors to peer over the edge and view the reptiles below. Apparently, the rattle snakes had mounted a successful prison break and where at large in the park. I don’t remember being particularly concerned that there could be deadly snakes lurking under the park benches or hiding in the hotdog stand.
At least, I wasn’t afraid until my uncle playfully called out window to watch out for rattle snakes trying to crawl up the tires because they like to eat little girls.
Neurons started firing in my child’s brain, connecting thoughts, ideas and pictures and suddenly an unconscious association was made between snakes being dangerous and their supernatural ability to crawl up tires. (I’m not really afraid that snakes can crawl up tires. I say it now because it is funny but this memory definitely played a big role in my fear).
The final chink in my inability to view snakes rationally was firmly mortared up several years later.
It was really all Darren Stevenson’s fault.
I was in grade two and it was recess time. Like most kids that age, I was having a great time running and playing with my classmates; until Darren Stevenson ruined it. He had a crush on me and in true 7 year old fashion, he tried to show his affection by terrorizing me; he caught a small snake and put it down the back of my jacket. I am sure the creature was only looking for way out when it wiggled into the arm of my coat.
A full-on, true phobia was created in that instant as I screamed my head off while I frantically tried to disengage myself from my jacket. Just the thought of that little-girl-eating beast wiggling over my left arm –yes, I can remember which arm it was- gives me the willies and I have to squeeze my eyes shut to block out the terrifying memory.
Flash forward sixteen years. I am in university, working on a biology degree and my fear of snakes is growing every year. During my Vertebrate Biology course, I had to have someone tape pieces of paper over the pictures of the snakes so I could read the text around them. It was not long after that I started pulling the blankets back before I got into bed just to make sure a snake wasn’t curled up at the end of my bed, waiting to gnaw off my toes!
My self-induced pathology continued as jaws in the toilet from the poster I saw as a child, morphed into a snake in the toilet. I told myself that it was really ridiculous as I hovered over the toilet seat to pee but not even that acknowledgement could motivate me to change my ways.
Then one day while my husband was watching the TV series COPS, I happened to walk past the TV at the most inopportune moment. The segment was about a venomous snake that crawled up from the sewers of New York and came out an unsuspecting woman’s toilet.
“That can really happen?” I said in near hysteria.
My husband just shrugged, “Yeah, I guess so. Wouldn’t that just freak you out!”
“OH MY GOD!”
Now my fears were no longer irrational and totally unfounded. I had just been given verifiable proof that my fear that snakes could crawl out of toilets was real and true. This is pivotal to understanding fear so hold onto this thought while I describe my alarming decent into phobia madness.
It was no longer enough that I would check my bed once and get in. Now I would pull the blankets back, feel all around, pull them back up and minutes later, check again just in case a snake had made a nest at the bottom of my mattress in that short period of time. When my tiny bladder woke me up in the middle of the night, I now had to turn on the light so I could see that there wasn’t a snake in the bottom of the toilet before I would assume “the hover” position. And eventually, I had to watch the hole in the toilet the entire time in case a snake crawled out while I was in such a delicate and vulnerable position.
Luckily, as part of my requirements to graduate, I had to take some non-biology credits and I chose Psychology. During in one such class, my professor gave a lecture on how phobias are created and how to cover come them. He talked about how fear was survival mechanism implanted into caveman brains so when the bumbling oafs watched one of their cave mates get eaten by a Saber Tooth Tiger, they knew to be afraid; that fear kept them alive and ensured the survival of the species. The interesting thing about fear is that the more we avoid the thing we are afraid of, the worse our fear of that thing becomes. In psychology, this phenomenon is called reinforcement.
I listened intently as my professor described the two most common methods to overcome fear: one, simply force yourself to what you are terrified of or two, a radical and to my mind, horrifying practice called flooding. In simple terms, I’d be locked in a room full of snakes (think Indiana Jones) or someone would strap me to a chair and let snakes crawl all over me.
Just the mere thought of something that radical made my entire body shake uncontrollably and sweat like I’d just run the Boston Marathon in August!
And then he said something that was really interesting: Phobia’s really aren’t that big of a deal and they don’t generally require treatment, unless they are interfering with your life.
I had to admit to myself that in all honesty, my fear was becoming a bit of a problem. It’s not like it was inhibiting my ability to work or be a good mother or be at the top of my classes. To the outside world, I was a highly function woman. The term “Superwoman” had even been applied to me on more than one occasion, which was ironic considering that I obviously had my own Kryptonite; snakes.
To the outside world and to myself, I really was this strong, capable, superwoman who would put her nose to the grindstone and plow through any obstacle. However, at night Ms.Hyde would make her appearance as I began to rip my bed apart five or six times and nervously watch the bottom of the toilet for the slightest sign of a snake as I hovered delicately above. I didn’t like it that such contradictions existed within me.
It was time to make some changes.
There was absolutely no way that I was going subject myself to the flooding technique. My only other option was to force myself to do what I was afraid of. Armed with sheer determination that I would not be ruled by ridiculous fears, I got into bed that night without pulling the covers back to check for a snake and forced myself to slide my feet all the way to the bottom of the bed. You have no idea how hard that was for me to do! I was just as terrified as someone with a fear of heights, standing on a suspension bridge and peering one hundred feet below them at the nauseating abyss below.
I was sweating and terrified as my imagination ran wild. I tried to rationalize with myself as my mind screamed at me to get out of bed because at any second, I was going to feel something slither across my legs. I held onto my resolve as tightly as a cowboy on a raging bull in the qualifying round at the NFR. The ancient part of the brain I like to call the “lizard brain”, the part that was designed to keep humans alive, battled with my more evolved and logical brain.
It was a matter of willpower and mind over matter. I was stronger than this fear, I told myself. I stuck it out and fought with my Lizard Brain until I finally fell into an exhausted asleep. When my bladder woke me up a few hours later, I refused to turn on the light so I could check the toilet first. Once again, I was consumed by sheer terror but I refused to give in to my fear.
It took three agonizing days and I was exhausted by the end of it but I won! While I have not attempted to get over my fear of snakes in general, after those three days of battling my more irrational fears of snakes being in the bed and in the toilet, the fear completely disappeared and never came back. Ever.
While some of you may be thinking that my fear was ridiculous and there was no reason that it should have been so hard for me to get over it, fear is fear; it doesn’t matter if you are afraid of spiders or afraid of abandonment or afraid of heights or afraid of commitment. Fear can cause you to ruin your chance at a promotion, consume you with worries that don’t really exist, destroy opportunities or sabotage the best relationship of your life.
Fear isolates us from love and opportunities and prevents us from really living.
We can be so irrationally ruled by fear that we do truly ridiculous things. Sometimes we recognize that our behavior is not logical but we continue to act that way because it allows us to continue avoid our fear rather than face it. Other times we are too blinded by our fear to see the absurdity of our behavior.
The saying, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, couldn’t be more true.
Fear often has deep roots in our childhood and we bring it forward into our adult lives. Sometimes it stays true to its original form and other times it morphs into something very different making it hard to recognize. However, its purpose is the same; to protect us. That doesn’t mean that it’s rational or that it’s a good thing because it comes from a very primitive part of our brains.
Many of us have even had our deepest fears confirmed; maybe you had a childhood fear of abandonment as a child and years later, your spouse leaves you for someone else. Or maybe you were always picked last for the sports teams in elementary school and you are repeatedly passed over for a promotion as an adult.
Whether or not your fear has bee confirmed by your experiences or not, if there is one thing I know for certain about fear it’s that you can’t run from it because every time you do, it gets worse. Running away may make you feel safe in that moment but you are only reinforcing that fear.
So do what you are afraid of, recognize that your fear is irrational and to force yourself to stop running.
Then you can sit back and watch your life transform!