Yesterday I went on London Zoo's Friendly Spider Programme to cure my spider phobia. I arrived typically early and spent half an hour standing in an entrance hall, rigid with fear, trying to make small talk with other people equally rigid with fear.
Eventually, they ushered us into a lecture theatre where a hypnotherapist gave us a talk on phobias: what they are, why we have them and how they can be cured. We were put into pairs to discuss exactly what it was about spiders we didn't like. I was paired up with a sour faced woman who complained loudly about people arriving late and was convinced that she wasn't going to be cured. After some general discussion amongst the group which made me realise that some other people have got the phobia much, much worse (five attendees had once crashed a car because there was a spider in it, and one woman spent the majority of her day walking the streets to avoid encountering a spider in her house), we moved on to learning about spiders themselves.
This was brilliant. There is so much about spiders I didn't understand. For example, if you're watching TV and a spider starts running towards you, it's not actually aiming for you, it's running away from the noise of the television. This made sense, and I started to think of them as frightened little creatures rather than small Nazis out to get me. I learnt that most spiders are good parents. I heard that houses are actually a really bad place for them but they're not always clever enough to know that, and learnt that even an extremely venemous spider can't kill a healthy adult.
We then had a coffee break and I was surprised how excited I was about the rest of the course. I actually wanted to meet some tarantulas. After coffee we moved to another room where we had hypnotherapy. This was pretty much as I expected. We lay down on the floor with the lights out as the hypnotherapist talked us into a state of relaxation, and made us imagine our phobias pouring from ourselves into a cloud in the sky. He told us that after the session we would be calm around spiders, and as I lay there floaty-light, I believed him. I came out of hypnosis feeling dizzy and slightly odd, and hurriedly stuffed my face with a cereal bar as we made our way over the road to the zoo.
Being in a zoo after closing time is exciting in itself. We felt like naughty children which just added to my feelings of excitement. In the Bugs building, we firstly had a look at some spiders in displays. I normally walk extremely quickly past this part of the building, hugging the wall as my husband lingers at each of the displays. But this time, I was pushing to the front, desperate to have a look. A white-kneed tarantula was wandering about its cage and I watched, fascinated. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I didn't want to move on, and then felt bad for hogging the best spot.
Next we met some house spiders that were in plastic boxes without lids. We took it in turns to touch their back legs and see how they ran away from us. I was even brave enough to let them run over my fingers. Don't get me wrong, there were still moments where I felt scared. The first time I let a spider crawl over my fingers, I had several false starts of pulling my hand away, and when I actually did it, I had my eyes tight shut and felt sick.
To get your certificate for completing the course, you had to perform 'capture and release'. This basically meant that you had to put a glass over a house spider running across the table, slide a bit of card under it, and pick up the glass and the card as if you were going to put it outside. I have never once been able to do this at home. At first I didn't think I could do it. I hung back, anxious, watching the others. When it came to my turn, I was surprised how easy it was. The spider didn't run anywhere near as fast as I expected; it was quite easy to predict where it would be as I calmly placed my glass over its head. After I'd done it once, I wanted to do it again and again. I did it twice more on the table and once more on the floor. I felt perfectly calm. I even helped out a girl who was in tears saying she really couldn't do it. I offered to catch the spider for her, and got her to put the piece of card under the glass. Gradually she built up the confidence to do the whole thing herself. It was a huge boost to my confidence to find myself being the brave one in an encounter with a spider!
After that I met a tarantula named Joanna, which was actually less scary than my encounters with the house spiders. I held her in my hands and she was delicate and soft.
I feel a huge sense of achievement, and have spent the last few hours scanning the house for a spider to practice my new-found bravery. I'm slightly apprehensive that if I don't see one soon, my bravery's going to disapear, so I'm considering returning to the zoo to meet Joanna again to prove to myself that this change is long-term.
I feel completely different about spiders now. I would never call a spider ugly. I see them as beautiful, delicate, elegant. I just hope that feeling stays...