Oprah goggled her audience in that oh, so "Oprah" way. All eyes, taking us all in quizzically, with that slightly patronizing school ma'am stare.
It was a show on fear, but the only thing I remember were the results of the pre-show survey. Apparently, Oprah's color co-ordinated audience was more afraid of spiders than death.
She scanned her audience again, incredulous. Yet despite her Alpha Dog pose—hand on hip, shapely calves firmly planted into her Manolo Blahniks—she chastised but like a sassy friend. For that was part of her brilliance, enfolding us into a comfortable camaraderie, while never relinquishing the last word.
"More afraid of spiders than death?! REALLY!?"
For me, it was never death, but dialysis. But dialysis is pretty close to death. Yeah. Spiders and dialysis were pretty neck and neck.
THIS was a show I could get on board with.
I don't remember if any reasons were presented to explain this irrational phenomenom. I mean, phobias by nature are irrational, aren't they? Or are they?
I'm pretty sure I can pinpoint the genesis of mine.
"NO, DADDY, NO!!!"
My world, my higher power, my everything.
I was 8 years old. It was 1976, the inaugural year of the monthly kids' magazine, "OWL"—a Canadian nature and science magazine for children. I'm not sure about today, but back then, every issue spotlighted a different animal, insect etc... and part of that profile always included a centerfold photograph of said pick of the month. I flipped through the magazine, excited, eager to explore brave new worlds beyond the black squirrels and red-breasted robins of Toronto's High Park. I flipped and flipped. I couldn't find it. I was simply manic to meet the "Animal of the Month". I stopped cold. I had found it. This - this - THING was just staring at me. I shuddered. It was SO CREEPY. The photograph was a microscopic close up of a spider. It's beady eyes penetrated me like a laser. Thin wispy legs—legs! so! many! legs!—sprouted out from behind it's alienesque face like a wild weed no-one would ever want to pick. I flinched and threw the magazine to the ground—a melodramatic reflex that did not escape my Daddy.
He put 2 and 2 (and 2 and 2) together and sprang into action, grabbing the magazine from the floor and flailing the picture in front of me like a 8 year-old boy. I shrieked, jumped up and ran away from him, tearing down our apartment hallway as freeway. Get. out. of. my. way. The louder I screamed, the faster he ran. Clearly, he thought my terror was hilarious. Or maybe he was just drunk.
[Too soon? My blog.]
I had not yet mastered the art of deflating The Tease—to ignore, do nothing, say nothing, was key, but I simply couldn't stop screaming. I was CONVINCED the spider was inside the magazine, ready to—i don't know—crawl out from the glossy pages, plant itself in front of me and just—just—be CREEPY. It was coming to get me! I knew it! My frenzied flee just egged Daddy on. Hysterically giggling, he continued to chase me all around the apartment, flapping the magazine victoriously. Unable to escape or deflate him, I did the only thing I could. I tore out onto our balcony, 6 stories high, with a south view over the city's largest park. Outside, in the dead of winter, I stood shaking from the good ol' Canadian cold and my new spawned fear, screaming into hands that covered my blubbering face, "Stop it, Daddy! No!" I stomped and cried, then finally whirled around, simply maddened, desperate to squash this silly scenario once and for all. I moved to yank the glass patio door wide open and froze. I was completely paralyzed; nothing but a silent scream escaped my open mouth. Time stood still, like the noiseless seconds after a child falls on the ground before the gap between time and pain is bridged and he wails like an air raid siren. There it was. It had found me. Pressed flush up against the glass wall that ran the length of our apartment was The Spider.
It was my inauguration into pure arachnophobia.
My phobia was hard core.
I wouldn't go into pet stores for fear I might see one in a terrarium.
I would shiver, a convulsion of revulsion, whenever I glanced at a book on reptiles with a spider on the cover. It's 8 legs seemed to sprawl across the cover threateningly, pimpling my skin with a thin coat of goosebumps.
In Toronto, the largest spider I ever came across was a house spider, barely the size of a quarter. Television was the thing to avoid—commercials especially. I would memorize the opening moments of certain commercials, the opening note, opening frame—burying this sense memory deeply inside— like an third rail that would electrocute me with fear—so when they came up on the screen my head would instinctively know when to whirl away.
And tarantulas? Forget about it. I could barely say the WORD, never mind picture one.
And I knew I would die if I ever saw one.
Such a horrible prejudice I have, really. To not like something simply because it doesn't appeal to my personal aesthetic. No, the spider does not possess the fragile beauty of the butterfly, it does not flutter gracefully on the technicolor transparency of wings, but rather, scurries away in a ungainly panic, a blur of black and gray slime and hair.
In California, all bets were off.
When we lived in Hollywood, I was reasonably protected within a hyper-urban environment of overcrowded apartment blocks and car-lined streets of cement. I declined the Canyon hikes so popular with the wannabes, preferring the bass-thumping, generic sterility of the gym. So despite the odd encounter with the Hollywood-house spider, I was safe; protected from The One That Would Get Me.
10 years ago we stumbled upon a new neighborhood in Los Angeles—Shadow Hills. It was unlike anywhere we had lived before—horse-filled ranches and oleander-laden lanes combined to create a surprisingly appealing new neighborhood. We fell in love instantly. And then we stumbled upon our new rental—a house so high up in the hills, you had to drive a quarter mile up in the sky to reach it. The long and winding driveway led to a huge house we shared with another family on the main floor below us. There was a trellis covered in hot pink bougainvillea, a 360-degree view of the desert Foothills and complete silence.
"Yeah, we get all kinds of critters up here. Coyotes, hawks, tarantulas..."
My day was coming. I knew it. It was coming to get me.
I was lucky. I avoided direct contact for a long time. One night during a rainstorm that had been pelting Los Angeles for 3 nights, Kevin came inside from the garage, stood very still and warned,
"Um. Don't go outside."
It was his tone, the hesitation in his voice, his completely inability to have anything resembling a poker face for more than 3 seconds.
"WHHHATTT!!!" Did you see one!?!? Are you serious!?!? Is it still out there!?!?"
The details did not go down well. Kevin had approached the tarantula and it had begun to climb up the side of our house. This meant it was calculating and mean, not that it was drowning to death inside its burrow and trying to stay alive. Kevin returned outside with a glass and "spoke" to him. Yes, my own personal St. Francis of Assisi exercised his "reptile-whispering" skills and was victorious in moving the tarantula to a tree far, far away. Kevin named him Julio. This did not make him cute. Kevin or the tarantula.
I lay in bed many nights wondering if tarantulas had opposable thumbs.
In 2006, we bought our current home, also here in Shadow Hills, just down the street from our rental. One morning as I went about the very gradual metamorphosis from infuriated night owl into barely human, I brought a few items over to the kitchen sink. I glanced down. My brow furrowed. "Huh", I thought, " "Why is there a black sock in the...AAHHH!!!! Yes, it was a baby tarantula. Small enough not to throw me into cardiac arrest, but large enough to send me running for the hills. Literally. I stood in our doorway, one leg planted outside and one leg barely inside the threshold. I was waiting for Kevin to return from the post office. I had no cell phone. Could make no panicked text, no hysterical call. I stood half-dressed, keeping a bulging eye peeled on the sink. You know, just in case the tarantula figured out a way to escape from the plastic cup I had imprisoned him in.
Kevin moved this one down the street.
And so it was a gorgeous November evening in 2012 when I finally met my nemesis. It was exceptionally warm. The Santa Ana Winds had been active—stirring up red flag warnings for wildfires and, oh, that throbbing ache for one's unrequited love. Nostalgia on the breeze. I was sweeping the kitchen debris outside and down a brick walk that runs the back of our house. Next to this path, a erection of rock, a crag of crevasses covered in succulents and sand, extends upward about 25 feet to the next level of our hilly property. I could have swept all night, the repetitive motion so meditative in nature. I was outside in November! I was cleaning! Bliss.
I thwacked the dust-filled broom against the side of our house. In my peripheral vision, something different. I did a double take and froze. It was 1976 and I was 8 years old. The moment I had dreaded all my life had arrived. I was face to face with a tarantula. He was sprawled territorially on the jut of a rock above a hole. It had to be his home, den, lair. He didn't move. I didn't move. It was a Reptilian Standoff. I made a run for it. With 2 giant, tiptoe-formed steps I leapt inside with the grace of Baryshnikov and the panic of, well, me. And then those noiseless seconds were bridged and I let it all hang out...
I flew around our cabin, slamming every window and door closed with a resolved thud. They climb walls! They have opposable thumbs! Kevin from the bathtub yelled out, "What's wrong?". KEVIN! I didn't have TIME to TALK! I was too busy screaming and slamming. I had to nut and bolt this place down. Dripping, with a towel around his waist, The Man Who Knows Me Too Well emerged and guessed my truth.
"You saw a tarantula."
If you had stopped by our house that night, you would have found 2 grown adults staring out the window of their back door, peering in nervous awe at a creature you just don't see roaming the roads of The Great White North. Ah, but my husband was determined to make me feel more comfortable. He decided this He was a She and named her Lois, which he curiously decided to speak with a cockney accent."LOIS!" This did not make her cute. Kevin or the tarantula.
It's funny what Life lays on your doorstep.
My fear of spiders began to die that night.
I kinda went through the 5 stages of grief:
DENIAL: "This can't be happening! I'm just a nice (debatable.) girl from an apartment in downtown Toronto! There can't be a tarantula living by my back door! Aren't they endangered!?"
ANGER: "OMG! KEVIN! You HAVE to move it! I CAN'T look at it every day! What did I do to deserve this! (wrong question.)"
BARGAINING: "Well, she only comes out 6 months out of the year. And always after dark. And she's not poisonous. She's more afraid of me than I am of her. (again, debatable.)"
DEPRESSION: "It's not her fault she's so creepy. SIGH. But, why is she so creepy? Oh, WELL."
ACCEPTANCE: "She's a creature, too. God's creature. Live and let live."
Peeking out my back door window every night was like exposure therapy. It became a challenge to see how long I could watch her. I would clean my glasses and really study her. She was huge. Legs sprawled, she wouldn't have fit inside my extended hand. It almost looked like she had 10 legs, 2 extra ones near her face. I can't say I didn't do the shivery quiver whenever I saw her, but as she emerged in the soft gloaming every night, my fear began to retreat. My husband, turns out, was wise in his wit. Calling her Lois helped me accept that she, as my husband liked to quip, "Was just trying to make a living." Butterfly or beast.
It's no coincidence that I was able to do this after getting into recovery. Through sober eyes I can now see that fear is an illusion—the more we walk through it, the stronger our gait, the more empowered we become—acceptance our strongest weapon.
We get through our fears, dialysis or 8 legs, one step at a time.
Lois has not emerged for several weeks now. We don't think she's coming back. It was with a funny flutter in my tummy that I put 2 and 2 (and 2 and 2) together and felt a melancholy; an odd awareness that the chokehold of fear has now relaxed into a casual clutch around the shoulders.
I can now walk through the fear that used to cripple me.
And I will miss the creature that taught me this lesson.
[I wonder what Oprah say about that.]