Phobic is a great word to lip read. But it isn’t so great to be phobic, especially when your phobia is regarded as girlie or stupid. While it is understandable to be claustrophobic – and such sufferers quite rightly get sympathy – if it’s creepy crawlies that make you scream in that hysterical child-gasping-for-breath way then all you get is banal advice. “It’s just a spider, it can’t hurt you” or “just trap it under a glass and shake it out the window”. The problem is that a) it is not just a spider, it is a monster that you know will defy all insect logic and suddenly learn to fly and fly into your face and get trapped in your hair, and b) to trap it in a glass would mean getting near it and anyway, haven’t these people heard of spiders that are too big to fit under a glass? Spiders that were hats in former lives. What kind of klutz would say to a claustrophobic: “Oh, it’s just a small space?”
I am deeply ashamed to admit that spiders, or cockroaches, or anything crawly with seeming malicious intent makes me hysterical and sweat like a fat man going up a down escalator. Bug phobics have not only their fear to contend with but the useless advice and ridicule hurled at them by people who have no idea what it’s like. One friend I rang during one particular great September spider incident (it’s always in September) said: “Oh, it’ll die in a day or two, they don’t live very long.” For goodness sake, I am embarrassed enough that I have ring people and ask for help, why humiliate me further? Another advised: “Get it on a copy of Vogue and just tip it out the window.” This spider didn’t fit on a copy of Vogue. We were talking centre pages of a broadsheet.
My arachnophobia is a recent acquisition. I don’t remember being frightened of them as a child. I do remember being scared of ring-pull cans and the Daleks and Zebedee. And cockroaches which, unfortunately, we had plenty of in our flat. The block was big and old and there were lots of them living in the pipes. They quite often got out and got on me. I remember finding one on me in church – it had hitched a ride there in my coat. I screamed in such a pathetic high-pitched voice that the priest thought I had discovered another verse to “Hallelujah”. And one once fell off the ceiling into my sister’s hair and then into her cornflakes. She didn’t eat it, but she’s very thin to this day and has never been able to look at a date stone since.
How fondly I remember the two hours we spent one afternoon with one of her high heeled moccasins – all the rage in those days – poised over this adult cockroach which was trying to mate with the pattern on my parent’s hall carpet. “You do it; no you” we trilled for far too long until finally she killed it with such force that the carpet fibres were flattened a la crop circle and remained so until well after we had found boyfriends and left home.
My first big spider incident was one September two years ago. Watching television one night, I saw an impossibly large object on the ceiling. Thinking it must of course be a light fitting I had hitherto not noticed, I switched on the bedside lamp to see a spider the size of a CD. The only people near enough to come to help me were my best friend Emma (also arachnophobic) and her spider-loving husband. I procrastinated for five minutes – it was very late – before calling. Up strode Mark, all gallant and brave with a look of “Oh dear, these women”. Until he saw this huge beast and gulped loudly. “Where did it come from?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I answered “but yesterday I carried my groceries home in a banana box.”
Exactly a year later another one appeared, with a look of the one of the year before. This time it scuttled away somewhere and I had to move out and check into a hotel for the night. Several friends came round the next day and moved stuff and shook things in search of it. “It’s gone. It’s only a spider. It’s most probably more frightened of you.” But I knew that it hadn’t and wasn’t and the next night as I sat shut into one room making phone call after phone call, wearing tight-fitting clothing, I saw it limbo under the door and thud its way across the floor. As I started screaming and hyperventilating my friend on the other end of the phone, getting ready to call 999 said: “Just kill it.” Just kill it? But I had to, of course, stamping on it hysterically until it was dead and I had fractured at least three bones in my foot.
For those who still don’t understand, let me tell you about camel spiders, that grow large and mean, have fangs and live in countries where there are camels. They burrow into the camel’s flesh to lay their horrible eggs. And they carry scorpions on their backs before they eat them and are capable of leaping and jumping. Unsuspecting folk falling asleep al fresco have been known to wake up and find these spiders gnawing at their noses. So although I may not live in a country that has camels and although it may be more frightened of me than I am of it, it’s never “just a spider”. They can eat your face.
This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday on 27th October 1996.