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 drove the 30 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.
Let me tell you how my phobia of snakes, going pee in the dark and a poster I saw in a store when I was about four years old of Jaws coming out of the seat of a toilet led to my deep understanding of how fear can rule and even ruin our lives (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 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 life-jacket securely around my little body. I can still remember peeking 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. 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, I 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 though 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 to view the reptiles below. Apparently, the rattlesnakes had mounted a successful prison break and were 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 the window to watch out for rattlesnakes 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; snakes are dangerous and are capable of physics defying feats.
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 seven 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 16 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 TV, I happened to walk past 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!”
Now my fears were no longer irrational and totally unfounded. I had just been given verifiable proof that snakes could crawl out of toilets! This is pivotal to understanding fear so hold onto this thought while I describe my alarming descent 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 overcome them. He talked about how fear was a 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 do 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.
I had to admit to myself that in all honesty, my fear was becoming a bit of a problem. It wasn’t inhibiting my ability to work or be a good mother or be at the top of my classes. 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.
I didn’t like it that such contradictions existed within me.
It was time to make some changes. 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 100 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 National Finals Rodeo.
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 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 sleep. 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.
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 to avoid our fear rather than face it.
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. Remember, 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 been 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 or is reinforced.
It is a more complicated battle when it comes to emotional issues like fear of abandonment or fear of trusting someone enough to put your walls down and let them get close to you. Sometimes, part of the battle is recognizing what you are actually afraid of. Once you do, acknowledge that your fear is irrational and to force yourself to stop running. It will be a battle but one very much worth winning.
Then you can sit back and watch your life transform!
Author: Jennifer Lemkey
Apprentice Editor: Keeley Milne/Editor: Travis May