Overcoming My Childhood Fear of Spiders

Banded argiope, Argiope trifasciata

Banded argiope, Argiope trifasciata

When I was a kid, I was scared of spiders.  As great as my parents were about letting their kids explore the world and letting us develop our own opinions about the organisms we encountered, I think my fear of spiders was largely my dad’s fault.  He still tells me stories about how our house would have been “overrun with black widows – overrun!!” if he hadn’t hauled a can of Raid out into the backyard and sprayed the heck out of every black widow he found once a week.  He talked about the sun spider (not a true spider, but still an arachnid) in the laundry closet with a hint of fear and has told me the story of my first encounter with a spider several times.  It goes like this.  One night, I called out to my dad, telling him that there was a spider in my crib.  He looked around and didn’t see anything, so he told me I was dreaming and should go back to sleep.  A few minutes later, I called out again, saying that there was a spider in my bed.  He looked again and still didn’t see anything.  I kept insisting there was a spider, so he eventually started pulling off blankets to prove that there was no spider.  Of course there was a spider, THE BIGGEST BLACK WIDOW OF ALL TIME!  Or at least that’s how my dad tells it.  You’d think this spider was about to devour his beloved firstborn, that I was lucky he was there to save me and vanquish the black widow foe.  He wouldn’t ever admit it, but these sorts of stories have led me to believe that my dad might have a touch of arachnophobia.

Long jawed orb weaver spider

Long jawed orb weaver spider, Tetragnatha sp

When my dad, who is rather fearless and tells stories of brave encounters with rattlesnakes and an angry swarm of yellow jackets, actually showed any sort of fear, it sort of rubbed off on you.  So, I was scared of spiders too.  I remember growing up thinking that most spiders were dangerous, that killing a spider was better than risking being bitten.  I used to be so scared of spiders that I’d have nightmares about them lurking menacingly under my blankets.  I would wake up in a panic and start ripping off the covers to prove to myself that there wasn’t actually a spider in my bed.  I knew there wasn’t a spider in my bed, but then again…  My dad had told me that story about the black widow in my crib, so maybe my subconscious mind was trying to tell me something…

Crab spider

Crab spider, species unknown

As I became more and more interested in insects, I learned that the vast majority of spiders really weren’t going to hurt me.  I knew that the wolf spider crawling up the wall or the little harmless brown spiders in the basement weren’t going to do anything to me, but the fear persisted.  I felt a little stupid for being scared of spiders when I wanted to become an entomologist because what entomologist worth her salt is scared of a little spider?  But I couldn’t help it.  They bothered me.  So, I arrived at grad school in the city of my birth imagining that black widows lurked in every corner and I would have daily encounters with all manner of huge spider.  Every now and again I would envision a spider crawling up the back of my couch while I was doing homework or something and it would make me shiver just a little.

crab spider

Crab spider

So, how did I get over my fear of spiders?  It all started on a class field trip along the border with Mexico that where there was a series of little ponds.  The desert is, by definition, a dry place where water is scarce.  Ponds are important to a huge variety of animals and there are often animals at any little pond you come across.  I wandered around one of the ponds looking for aquatic insects and happened to look down at one point.  The ground was absolutely covered in spiders!  Many different species were writhing about in a huge mass over the shores of the pond.  They were crawling all over my legs and I was scared at first.  But…  I also really wanted to scoop insects out of that pond.  So, I decided to ignore the spiders and keep collecting.  I let the spiders crawl all over my legs.  I let them crawl all over my backpack.  I didn’t worry about the fact that I might find a spider, dead or alive, in my pack when I got home.  I just went on with the more serious business of climbing into the pond to collect aquatics.  I wasn’t about to let some weenie little harmless spiders get between me and the aquatic insects in that pond!

Green lynx spider

Green lynx spider, pink phase (Peucetia viridans)

And you know what?  That was the end of my fear of spiders!  I don’t know how or why it worked, but I told myself to ignore the spiders and suddenly they stopped bothering me.  No more spider nightmares!  They can crawl all over me at those desert ponds and I don’t care.  Black widows are beautiful spiders and I love to watch them.  I enjoy seeing the big orb weaver spiders when I’m in the sorts of habitats where they’re found.  Sun spiders – spectacular animals!  And who doesn’t love a good jumping spider?  I might not pick spiders up, just in case I misidentify one I shouldn’t handle or have a strange reaction to tarantula hairs (those things make me itch like mad!), but I’m perfectly okay with spiders living in and around my house.  Sometimes I knock their webs down as I dust, but otherwise they’ve got a pretty good thing going living with me.  I just don’t care that they’re there.

All in all, I am happy I went on that field trip.  Forcing myself to walk through the spiders to get to the pond seems to have done me a world of good.  Now, if only I could get over my fear of centipedes…

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