This is my experience of the Living with Spiders education program at Bristol Zoo, an arachnophobia therapy program. Could they take a total arachnophobe like myself and turn me into a calm and rational human around the many, many, many 8 legged, hairy ones that share our space every day? Read on to find out!
To say I was afraid of spiders is like saying that there are a few different species of spider in the world.* My fear was so bad that it actually started to affect my life. I wouldn’t get wood in because so many live in the wood pile, I couldn’t rummage round in the bottom of the wardrobe, I’d struggle getting something from the shed, the garage unnerved me totally, and worst of all, if I saw a spider in the house, I would freeze. If you would like to read a hilarious, (and excruciatingly embarrassing!), account of a spider encounter in my younger years, you can read it here. *Cringe*
I’ll try and describe the reaction I’d have to seeing a spider. I’d usually spot it out of the corner of my eye, it’s a bit like having heightened senses, I was so aware of them, that if one scuttled past, even if it was quite far away, I’d spot it instantly. My heart would first miss a beat and then start pounding. If it was close, I’d be up out of my seat and on the chair or across the room in a heartbeat. I would then squeal or shriek for help. If my children were home, I’d try and keep a lid on it for their sake, as I was so desperate not to pass my phobia on, (I’m not sure I managed that, but hopefully, they won’t be crippled with it as I have.), but also be too terrified to actually do anything about it.
I felt like they were everywhere. I don’t think I could truly relax anywhere as I was on such a heightened state of alert without even realising. Being in the garden wasn’t something that appealed to me. I so wanted to join my husband and children on the grass but the grass is always full of spiders and I’d sit there for a while before I’d get the overwhelming urge to move inside, where it was ‘safe’ without even realising why, probably not even until I’m writing it down now actually.
I hated it. I’d been looking for a long time for an arachnophobia therapy treatment, namely at spider phobia courses in zoos, but we lived in Wales, miles form anywhere, then we moved closer to Bristol Zoo four years ago, and I’d keep checking their page to read about the course. The time was never right though, couldn’t leave the baby, and then they were quite sporadic in their running times and actually, a big part of me was glad!! The most irrational thought I had about the course was that I didn’t ever want to be not scared of them because then I would go near them. Sound silly, yes, I knew it too, I just couldn’t change it!!
So finally an arachnophobia therapy course came up, I contacted the zoo, they had a place, did I want it. Erm, yes, no, YES! The course isn’t cheap at £95 however, now I’ve done it, I cannot tell you how worth it I think it is!! They weren’t sure if they had enough people wanting to take part, they would let me know. I didn’t find out until the Thursday before the Tuesday that it was definitely going ahead. Gulp!
I was a nervous wreck beforehand. Seriously. The day of the course came, it started at 6pm in Bristol, so the second my husband got home from work, I jumped in the car and headed off, straight into traffic!! The usual 50 minute journey took far longer thanks to an accident on the M5. When I finally arrived, late and panicking about where I’d left my car, I was such a stressed out ball of anxiety that I felt sure no hypnosis would work on me. I’d also missed a significant chunk of the course.
I did however, arrive right on time for the hypnotherapy part. I made a massive effort to calm down and focus. I really thought it wouldn’t work as I was so tense, but I really de-stressed quickly with the soothing music and Greg Nejedly‘s (literally!), hypnotic tones. Afterwards, there was a break with refreshments, tea, coffee, sandwiches, crisps and fruit and a chance to chat and catch up on what I’d missed, which was mainly lots of info about phobias and how they form etc, a lot of which I knew as I’ve done a lot of research in my quest to combat it already, plus I did Psychology at school. They also explained how the arachnophobia therapy worked, using a combination of hypnotherapy and education.
Next up was an education section led by Dave Naish who is the king of all things bugs at the zoo. Although we’d all stated that we didn’t want to know more about the 8 legged hairy ones, (I think I’d even written on my form that I’d rather pretend they didn’t exist!), I found this fascinating. He really taught me a lot about spiders, their physical beings and also about their behaviour patterns, dispelling a lot of the myths that I’d heard and clung on to in my need to justify my ridiculous fear. I knew there would be spiders later, (there always are at these things aren’t there, why else would it be held at the zoo?!), and that was on my mind as we moved onto the next stage, more hypnosis.
I really felt as though I wasn’t managing to do it properly, I was struggling so much with the visualization and wasn’t ‘under’ I was fully conscious of everything in the room and my inability to see certain ‘pictures’ when asked. I did try and get really into it though, and I only had one point where I felt a little like I was losing control and drifting away, Greg was very reassuring though, and I let myself drift, I was still totally aware of everything around, where I was, what I was doing, the fact that I wasn’t able to see these certain images. With this in mind, I was very surprised when the hypnotherapy section finished and Dave came round, handing out some spider books and showing us some slides of spiders on the big screen, and…….I wasn’t petrified.
I was holding a book about these enormous spiders in my hand, and flicking through the pages and the usual reaction wasn’t happening. I wasn’t delighted with them and desperate to give one a cuddle or anything, but equally, I wasn’t screaming, flinging the book across the room and not being able to touch the page in case one ‘jumped out at me’. (Yes I know how silly that sounds!!) It was weird, I was amazed that I could feel like that.
Then we moved on to looking at some of the spider exo-skeletons that the tarantulas at the zoo had grown out of, and also some other bug ‘shells’ too. I wasn’t particularly comfortable with these but then I’m not a massive fan of dead crispy stuff at the best of times! 😀 I did manage to touch and turn some bits over to look at though.
Finally, the bit you’ve all been waiting for….out came the tanks!!
And I didn’t run screaming to the car. In fact, I was quite curious, and almost all of us gathered round for a closer look. There were 3 of the zoo’s tarantulas and a massive, (they even said it was the biggest they’d had yet!), house spider, the kind I’d been so terrified of. But I just wasn’t anymore. I didn’t want it on me, but I could go near it, look at all the bits of it’s anatomy that we’d been learning about and even pick up the see-through box with it in! This was HUGE for me. Before I’d never been able to get close enough to put a glass over, never mind actually touch anything with one inside. It felt so freeing. Then Dave took the lid off….and let it out onto the carpet!
That was a bit worrying if I’m honest, and I felt the old fear resurfacing a little, but I managed to keep a lid on it, and listened to Dave explain would would happen next, then felt slightly amazed as the spider did exactly what he had told us it would.
I then…….fanfare, drum roll, cheers please………with only minimal initial freaking out……caught the spider in the glass, then held the glass!!!
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that moment. A spider in the same room has made me actually gibber and even cry before and there I was, holding one in a glass and just looking at it naming all the bits of it calmly. I managed to catch it a further few times too, and I know I’d be able to do the same at home next time one wanders in instead of ‘calm screaming’ at my husband that ‘we need you right now, now, NOW!!!!’
Oh, and after that, I stroked a tarantula, as you do! It wasn’t at all what I was expecting actually. Usually I’d struggle to even look into the tanks from behind the glass at zoos but I was amazed to find that I wouldn’t have been adverse to holding it on my hand, it’s just that the spider didn’t fancy it much! Maybe it was human-phobic! 😀
*Massive understatement, it’s about 40,000. Since doing the arachnophobia therapy course, I’ve actually turned into a bit of a ‘spider bore’ would you believe, one of the main aims of the zoo courses are for educating people and I certainly feel they achieved that, and now I’m passing on my knowledge to anyone who will listen!!
I’d love to hear from you, tell me in the comments or on Twitter if you suffer in the same way as I did, and if an arachnophobia therapy course like this is something you’d ever consider.