HUFFPOST PERSONAL

My Fear Of Spiders Was So Debilitating, I'm In Exposure Therapy. Here's What It's Like.

This is about so much more than arachnophobia. It’s about learning to accept discomfort as a necessary part of growth.
The author holding a tarantula.
The author holding a tarantula.

Five months ago, I could not bring myself to tap on the spider emoji on my iPhone. One month ago, I began carrying a tarantula around with me. 

It’s dead, to be fair, but still ... a tarantula. The first time I held it, I was terrified. Intellectually, I knew it was dead, but that didn’t keep my skin from crawling or my stomach from turning. I was still afraid it was going to start moving.

“It” is a “she,” actually. She’s an Indian tree tarantula who died two years ago and now goes everywhere with me, as part of my exposure therapy. I have her on loan from my spider-expert colleague at the Wisconsin university where I teach. I’ve named her Michelle. It feels nothing short of surreal that I’ve been totally fine with Michelle the Dead Tarantula sitting next to my laptop watching me type this.

I have been petrified of spiders my entire life, and at 48 years old I decided it was finally time to confront my fear. The decision was precipitated by three distinct incidents that illuminated how serious and life-limiting my arachnophobia had become. A few years ago I nearly caused a multi-car accident when a spider crawled out from under my driver’s seat visor, inches from my face. Two years ago, I declined a job I wanted because it was in Georgia, and I found out they have “giant” banana spiders there. Last summer, I panicked when I saw a spider on my balcony and, while trying to “fight” it with a broom, accidentally sent the broom plummeting over the railing and seven stories down to the sidewalk, where, thankfully, no small children were walking at the time. Clearly, this needed to be addressed.

Two years ago, I declined a job I wanted because it was in Georgia, and I found out they have ‘giant’ banana spiders there.

Because I’m a reader and writer, I initially sought out books. Since arachnophobia — defined as an extreme and irrational fear of spiders that results in avoidance behaviors and interferes with one’s life — affects 1 in 3 women and nearly as many men, I assumed there would be self-help books about how to overcome it. There are, but every single title I found featured a picture of some horrific spider on the cover. I couldn’t even bear to stay on the Amazon page to read the summaries.

A few quick Google searches verified that the gold standard of treatment in overcoming any kind of phobia is exposure therapy under the guidance of a trained practitioner.

I’m fortunate that the institution where I work provides comprehensive mental health benefits. I’m also fortunate to live 15 minutes from a specialist in exposure therapy. My therapist ― let’s call her Brianne ― works primarily with trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder patients. I’ve struggled with OCD since childhood, but I’d never connected my fear of spiders to my fear that I’d left the house with my curling iron plugged in or to my rule about always maintaining an even number of emails in my inbox.

From the second I made the initial appointment to begin exposure therapy, I began to regret it. At that point, intentionally exposing myself to spiders seemed like it was going to be infinitely worse than continuing to be terrified of spiders and controlled by that terror for the rest of my life. People have fears, right? This is just mine. It’s normal! But I’m also a “committer.” Once I start something, I tend to finish it, and making that first appointment felt like signing a contract.

I’ve struggled with OCD since childhood, but I’d never connected my fear of spiders to my fear that I’d left the house with my curling iron plugged in.

I told Brianne at our first consultation that if she could just help me get to the level of “normal person fear of spiders,” I would be absolutely delighted. I also told her I had zero faith that such an achievement was even possible. What Brianne taught me is that you don’t have to believe you can overcome your fears; you just have to do the work. Exposure therapy isn’t about exploring or confronting your feelings. It’s about methodically and incrementally exposing yourself to your worst fear and then sitting in that fear until it peaks and begins to decline. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

The way Brianne framed it, as being a matter of discipline rather than bravery, changed everything for me. I knew I could do the work. If you put things in work ethic terms for me, I’m good. I’ll work myself to the bone. That was the first shift in my thinking and perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned so far: You don’t have to be courageous; you just have to be committed to the process. You don’t even have to believe in the process so much as you just have to do it.

I didn’t start by holding a dead tarantula. I started by watching YouTube videos of Lucas the Spider, an endearing and somewhat adorable cartoon spider created by animator Joshua Slice. Lucas’ whole job is to help people become comfortable with spiders. From there I progressed to images of tiny real spiders, to images of medium spiders, to images of big spiders, to videos of spiders, to where I am today ― carrying a dead tarantula named Michelle around with me.

Exposure therapy isn’t about exploring or confronting your feelings. It’s about methodically and incrementally exposing yourself to your worst fear and then sitting in that fear until it peaks and begins to decline. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

My first exposures to pictures of real spiders were rough. Brianne directed me to spend five minutes at a time, three times a day, staring at images of spiders. During these exposures, I was to track my SUDS level, which stands for “subjective units of distress,” on a scale of 1 to 10. One being perfectly comfortable and 10 being the most terrified I’ve ever been. The goal was to stay with each exposure until I got my SUDS level down to about a 3.

For the first exposure, I sat alone in my apartment and searched “baby black widow spiders” on Google Images. When the pictures materialized with a quickness that replicated the speed of live spiders, it was a visual assault. My stomach churned, my skin stung, and I struggled to choke down the lump in my throat. In someplace outside myself, I felt ridiculous for crying over something I was doing to myself, but I still felt rattled and disgusted to the point of sickness. For reasons I still don’t understand, I kept glancing behind me at the door to my apartment to make sure no one was coming in. Brianne theorized that this was probably a subconscious response to an intersection or generalization of fears — of vulnerability, of violation and of unnamed danger.

I labeled the first exposure a SUDS 8, knowing that I needed at least two units of wiggle room to account for the fact that these spiders were only two-dimensional. For the first week, every time I closed my eyes to rinse my hair in the shower, the spider pictures reappeared behind my eyelids like a negative image. I could never escape them.

I didn’t start by holding a dead tarantula. I started by watching YouTube videos of Lucas the Spider, an endearing and somewhat adorable cartoon spider.

Over the next week, I stared at the baby black widows for five minutes three times a day, and somewhere around day three, it started to feel, well, not as bad. I didn’t like looking at them, but I wasn’t terrified anymore. The physical responses — the nausea and the skin sensations — subsided and then eventually disappeared. By the end of the week, staring at baby black widows, while not pleasant, had become rather boring. I labeled the final set of exposures a SUDS 3. Brianne said this is exactly how it’s supposed to work: When you start to get bored, you’re getting desensitized, which is the whole goal of exposure therapy.

Now, five months into exposure therapy, I’ve stumbled into a series of other epiphanies that transcend how I feel about spiders, affecting every other dimension of my life. One week, Brianne asked me to hold the dead tarantula for seven minutes three times per day. The first time I held it was in her office. It felt so bizarre to lift Michelle out of her canister by one tiny spider foot and place her into my other palm, as though my hands belonged to someone else entirely, someone much braver or crazier than me. I wanted to run screaming from Brianne’s office. But instead I just sat there allowing myself to be excruciatingly uncomfortable.

I reminded myself that Brianne was not asking me to enjoy this. She actually wanted me to focus on how disgusting it was, to imagine that Michelle might at any second come back to life and start crawling up my arm. Who knows, Michelle might jump on my face. This sounds sadistic, I know, but it’s not. It’s a concrete lived experience that demonstrates how accepting and even purposefully engaging with fear is what enables you to overcome it.

I’ve learned that it’s much easier to change your behavior than it is to change your feelings. Instead of checking every corner of my car, apartment and office for spiders, I needed to simply sit down and search Google Images for “wolf spider” and then remain with the tiled display of hairy, eight-legged horror, preferably on the giant, high-resolution Mac monitor in my office. To passersby, it appears that I am doing nothing but fixedly staring at a grid of terror, and that’s true, but I’m also getting better. Do the behavior and your feelings will follow.

I’ve learned that it’s much easier to change your behavior than it is to change your feelings. ... I’ve also learned that training myself to tolerate and even lean into fear is incredibly empowering.

I’ve also learned that training myself to tolerate and even lean into fear is incredibly empowering. If I can force myself to sit here and watch YouTube videos of black widows fighting brown recluses, then there’s really no stopping me from taking on a whole bunch of other intimidating stuff. I’ve learned that “sitting with your discomfort” is perhaps the most useful and transferable skill that anyone can seek to develop.

It makes everything else seem easier. Encountering spiders is my absolute worst nightmare. Now that I do it multiple times per day every day of my life, getting through something like a public speaking experience or a visit to the dentist (a much more minor phobia of mine) is small potatoes.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my balcony reading when a spider dropped from the balcony above and skittered across my thigh before falling through the grated floor beneath me. I jumped a little, sure, but I didn’t scream or fall apart or get up and jump around while flapping my hands, as I used to do. I just went back to my book. Old me would have held onto that fear for days. I would have stayed off my balcony for weeks, if not months, afterward.

I’m not yet ‘cured’ of my arachnophobia, but what I’m learning is that it’s about so much more than conquering spiders. It’s about learning to accept discomfort as a necessary part of growth.

The things that hold us prisoner are the things that will set us free. If you’re missing out on visiting beautiful places because you’re afraid there might be spiders, then you need to confront spiders. If you’re afraid you won’t be able to financially support yourself, then you need to launch yourself into the universe in a way that requires you to do so. If you’re staying in an unhealthy relationship because you’re afraid to be alone, then you need to get out of it and see how you do. These are not hypotheticals. I’ve walked through them all and I’m freer and stronger for taking the risks, for tolerating the discomfort.

I’m not yet “cured” of my arachnophobia, but what I’m learning is that it’s about so much more than conquering spiders. It’s about learning to accept discomfort as a necessary part of growth. It’s about refusing to sacrifice the richness of new experiences because there is some contingent element of threat. It’s about challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves so far outside our comfort zones that we cross the thresholds of entirely new galaxies.

I may or may not ever hold a live tarantula, but that’s not the point anymore. I’m going to keep doing my exposures. I expect to at least hold a smallish live spider sometime in the near future. The important thing is that, through the work I’ve done with Brianne, I now have a toolbox and a method of being for approaching the frightening parts of life: I don’t have to feel brave; I just have to do the work. And that I know I can do. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the Lucas the Spider animator as Joshua Splice. His name is Joshua Slice.

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