Thursday 19 September 2019

Arachnophobia

Ella Griffin

Ella Griffin had two choices: take a fumigated capsule into space or tackle her spider phobia. It was a tough call...

I am the 27,867th person to watch an adorable eight-year-old girl called Amena playing with her pet, Eliza, on YouTube.

"She's a little bit shy," Amena giggles as Eliza snuggles into the crook of her arm, then changes her mind and starts to climb up her T-shirt.

Eliza has more hair on her legs than the entire Irish rugby team and only slightly fewer legs.

She is a Chilean rose-haired tarantula.

The fact that I can even look at a spider the size of a mini pizza crawling over another person is a miracle -- five years ago, it was about as likely as George Clooney finally settling down with Kerry Katona, or Seamus Heaney turning up as a judge on 'The X Factor'.

For most of my life, I have been terrified of spiders.

I read an article once that said we are never more than a few feet away from a creepy-crawly. "To be spider-free," it said, "you would have to go into space in a fumigated capsule."

Unfortunately, it didn't mention where you could buy one.

I would lay awake endlessly imagining spiders running over me in my sleep or, worse, getting tangled in my hair. The sight of the tiniest one sent me into a full-scale panic -- skin crawling, heart racing, palms sweating.

"Come on, it's tiny," people would say. "It's harmless". "It's more afraid of you than you are of it."

But I couldn't hear them, either because I was screaming too loudly or because I had already left the room/house/county.

When a fear becomes irrational, it is a classified as a phobia. I did some pretty irrational things when I encountered spiders over the years. Things that I'm really not proud of.

The outside of a spider was terrifying enough, but I couldn't even think about what might lie inside it, so squashing one was out of the question.

I threw things at them instead. Phonebooks, boots, dinner plates. Once, I hurled a ghetto blaster that continued to play 'Karma Chameleon' while I cringed on the other side of the room, too afraid to lift it up to see the corpse.

And yes, I do see the irony now.

Sometimes the spiders were on the ceiling and throwing things wasn't an option, so I used the vacuum to get rid of them.

Afterwards, I'd stuff the nozzle with tissues and put the hoover in the garden and then lock the back door, just in case.

Once, when I was driving along the Merrion Road in Dublin, one of those spindly little ones descended from the sun visor. I cut the engine, leapt out and abandoned the car.

I was standing by the side of the road in the rain, whimpering and wondering whether spider removal was covered in my AA membership when a nice man pulled over.

He got into my car and, after a minute, he got out again, brushing something from his hand. "Gone," he said.

I couldn't shake his hand to thank him (not after that had been on it), so I had to kiss him instead.

Being an arachnophobe in Ireland was tough enough, but, in my 30s, my part-time job as a travel writer took me to places where they keep the really big fellas.

I'd land on a tropical island and, while everyone else was 'oohing' and 'aahing' about the white-sand beaches and the turquoise water, I'd be checking out the telephone wires, which is where the local spiders like to literally hang out.

Huge does not even begin to describe the size of some of them. You could see their fangs from a speeding minibus.

I'd shut my eyes and try to figure out where the nearest English-speaking psychiatric unit might be because if one of those guys decided to visit my beach hut, I was going to have a nervous breakdown and I'd prefer to have it in my own language.

In Malaysia and Mauritius, I carried a roll of masking tape and sealed up my windows with newspaper. In Mexico and the Seychelles, I slathered myself with peppermint oil because I'd read that spiders don't like the smell of it.

I was getting blasé when, in a bathroom in Bali, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed something black scuttle across the floor.

I let out a blood-curdling scream and my boyfriend began to hammer on the door.

The black thing, offended by the racket, rose up on its back legs and waved some serious-looking pincers at me. "It's okay!" I shouted, relieved, "it's only a scorpion!"

"Only a scorpion," my boyfriend was still muttering after we'd moved room. "That thing could have killed us. Do you think you might need help?"

One night, on a beach in Thailand, I walked under a tree and felt something land in my hair. Something with lots of legs. It was my nightmare come true.

Everyone stopped watching the fire-eaters to watch me having hysterics. It wasn't a spider, as it turned out -- it was a huge stick insect.

After that, I put the travel writing on hold for a while.

It was only when I moved to Wicklow that I finally got help. Maybe it's something in the air or the water, but the spiders in Bray would give the Mexican tarantulas a run for their money. Think big, brawny and butch.

We moved into our new house in September, which, it turns out, is when they like to move indoors. I was washing a dish when I surprised one in the sink. I am ashamed to say I tried to drown it and it wasn't happy about that.

It didn't run away. It stood its ground, on all eight legs, and glared at me. I was so hysterical when I called my husband that he couldn't understand me.

"I'm not sure you were even speaking English," he said afterwards. So much for the English-speaking psychiatric unit.

A friend recommended Aisling Killoran, a hypnotherapist who treats all kinds of phobias. The most common are fears of driving, flying and public speaking, but she has treated people who are terrified of Barbie dolls and buttons.

Aisling used a combination of Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), hypnosis and desensitisation technique to deal with my fear. This last bit turned out to mean huge rubber spiders.

EFT is a kind of psychological acupressure without needles. Aisling taught me to tap acupuncture points on my face and the chest while I remembered how scared I'd been in my kitchen.

She promised me that this would take the emotional charge out of the memory and I didn't believe her for a second.

I made her promise to keep the rubber spiders in their box and, in between the tapping, I opened my eyes to check that she hadn't cheated and taken them out.

By the second session, I was able to let her put them on the floor between us. And by the fourth and final session, I was able to put one on the back of my hand.

But a rubber spider is, well, made of rubber. What would happen when I met a real, live one?

Before I went to Aisling, just imagining that was enough to ring every alarm bell in my mind, but now I felt oddly calm.

A few weeks later, I came across a mammoth spider on the bathroom floor. Without even thinking, I picked up a toothbrush mug and popped it over him before either of us had a chance to leg it.

My husband released him when he got home. "How did it look?" I asked him. "Startled," he said, looking kind of startled himself.

That was more than four years ago and I haven't killed or maimed a single spider since.

My sister, who has never squashed anything in her life, presented me with a spider catcher and I have caught and released around a couple of dozen into the back garden.

Or maybe I just keep catching the same spider and it keeps coming back.

If it is the same one, I might have to think about giving it a name one of these days. What do you think of Eliza?

You can watch Amena playing with Eliza at www.tinyurl.com/76k6ohs

Ella Griffin is the author of 'Postcards from the Heart', a romantic comedy published by Orio

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