Whenever I see a large brown spider, something happens to my body that I can’t control. I freeze, cry and shake uncontrollably. Sometimes I dry heave over the sink, clinging on with ice white knuckles as my knees tremble under me. Staying in the room, even while someone else gets rid of it, is a physical impossibility.
In short, I have extreme arachnophobia. So when I heard an advert for ZSL London Zoo’s ‘Friendly Spider Programme’ on the radio, my ears instantly pricked up.
The Friendly Spider Programme is a group course that aims to ‘ease or eliminate the condition of arachnophobia.’ It utilises a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy to reduce spider-related fears, and culminates in an optional visit to see the Zoo’s display spiders (yes, tarantulas), plus a chance to practice catching British spiders. There’s also the option to bring a ‘support person’ with you.
I signed up – and last Saturday, I went along to London Zoo to join a group of 25 other self-defined arachnophobes.
Straight away, I could feel that I was part of a squad. Several times during the first portion of the course – a talk by the hypnotherapist, John Clifford, about how phobias become established – we had to call out the things we hated about spiders, or the ways they impact our lives.
“I hate pulling curtains,” I blurted, “because they crawl into the folds during the day.” Murmurs of acknowledgement and agreement rippled around the room, and I knew that – for one of the first times in my life – I was around people who really understood.
After the phobia talk, there was another talk – from course leader and spider expert Dave Clarke, about spiders –; then a tea break; then the hypnosis itself.
I’m not going to go into details on the hypnosis session. If anyone reading this does actually do the course (and I do recommend it), I don’t want to interfere with how receptive your mind is to the process. Suffice to say, Clifford describes it as “a relaxation exercise.”
He points out that most people’s idea of hypnosis comes from movies, where people have their minds tinkered with. “That’s not how it works at all,” he says of this course. “We just relax people down, to the point where their mind becomes more receptive.”
Post-hypnosis, we set off to the Zoo. The plan was that we’d see the display spiders, and then move to the next door room – set up with three trestle tables (each of which housed a British spider) – to take part in the ‘training’; getting used to these spiders and practicing catching them. There would also be the opportunity to have our photo taken while holding a tarantula.
As we crowded into the Zoo’s ‘Tiny Giants’ building, the first spider was in a white bathtub with glass over the top. I hovered at the back of the group, and the anticipation started to get to me. I could hear exclamations of ‘Wow, it’s huge!’, and I could see that my fellow arachnophobes were mostly unaffected. But I still couldn’t see the spider.
“I just need to see it,” I kept muttering to my friend Alice (my support person), the butterflies churning in my stomach.
At last, the crowd started to thin and I tentatively moved forwards. My eyes landed on the spider, and my stomach lurched. It was enormous – one of the big brown spiders we see in our homes during autumn, legs stark against the white porcelain of the bath. I gasped, involuntarily jerked backwards and tears started to stream down my face.
“This is very common,” one volunteer assured me, as I stood sobbing by the entrance. “We get people crying like this all the time; you’ll be doing the walk-through [a jungle-like room where the spiders sit, loose, in their webs overhead] before you know it.”
I didn’t do the walk-through. I barely looked at the tarantulas in their tanks. I did not hold the Mexican red-knee tarantula, like everyone else. In fact, I was the only one of the group not to get my ‘certificate of completion’, for which you have to successfully ‘catch and release’ a large British spider: cover it with a clear plastic tub, slide a piece of card underneath and deposit it down somewhere else. Surprise, surprise; I did not do this.
Instead, I cried – a lot. I left the building, then went back in, then left again. I tried my best not to snap at the kind volunteers who were trying to help (and didn’t always succeed). I gave Alice my tissues and water bottle to hold as I kept inching forward to the trestle table that housed the smallest British spider, then kept inching back again.
But I was there for nearly three hours – mainly due to Emma O’Brien, the Steward Keeper in the Tiny Giants exhibit.
Emma helped me break the process down into tiny, barely discernible steps. She had the smallest spider in a clear sealed box and, as the minutes passed, she helped me inch the tip of my finger further and further towards resting on top of the lid, directly over where the spider was sitting.
Clarke and Clifford were supportive and patient, too. In the end, I managed to put my hand over Clifford’s as he took a plastic tub and placed it over another plastic tub that already housed a spider. I also stood pretty close to the Mexican red-knee tarantula as it was passed from person to person; and I didn’t need to bolt.
That was as far as I got, and it took hours. But it was still progress.
This was a difficult article to write, because I struggled (to say the least) and I still have arachnophobia – but this programme does work in general. Actually, it’s brilliant.
I saw people who swore they could never go near a spider complete every step of the programme without incident. A woman who’d previously told me she couldn’t sleep if a spider was in her bedroom was holding the tarantula; a man who said he once jumped into oncoming traffic because there was a spider on the traffic light was walking around with a certificate. Another guy who’d initially rated his fear a ‘10 out of 10’ when asked was – quite literally – dancing for joy in the walk-through room.
I don’t know why the programme wasn’t as effective for me as it was for everyone else. But in general, it is effective – it’s been running since 1993 and Dave told me the tested success results over the last two years is “98% on the day”. The results I saw in everyone else were mind-boggling.
As for me? Maybe I’ll try again; with this course, or with some 1:1 hypnotherapy. Goodness knows, I want to be fear-free when it comes to spiders.
Actually, I need to be fear-free. Earlier in the day, we were asked how many of us thought we’d accidentally crash a car or deliberately jump out of a moving vehicle if we were trapped in it with a spider. 11 of us – myself included – raised our hands.
Those other 10 people would, I’m sure, have a different answer now. But my answer is the same. So while I’m not ‘cured’ yet, I’m not done trying: in the name of road safety, as much as anything else.