Autumn looms darkly and terrible in my life. From midsummer I start to worry, and by late August I am filled with dread. My arachnophobia has ensured that the autumnal mating urge which causes spiders to wander into our houses --- confused by some sudden indefinable but compelling ache in the forefront of their small minds --- in search of a nice warm dark corner to nest (don't think about it), ushers in my personal annual festival of anxiety and horror. Not that I felt secure during the other ten months of the year. My ex, having been my ex for some years and grown tired of being called out in the middle of the night to deal with a spider, gave me a blowtorch, which I used with desperate abandon. It's a professional version of the hairspray-and-lighter technique, more or less likely to have resulted in my charred remains (oh God, and the daughter, the cats, the occasional lover...) being found in the smoking ruins. But death was never a worse alternative to being in the same room as a spider.
I suppose this sounds like a writer's hyperbole, and if you are not an arachnophobe nothing will convince you otherwise, but I discovered in late June that there are those who will recognise the simple truth of what I say. An irrational fear of spiders is common. Roughly 35 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men in the UK have it, though not all of them have it so badly that it is called clinical. Just as clinical depression is different from being a bit down (pace Campbell and Blunkett), so clinical spider phobia is different from a slight shudder of the kind you get when the spider you are cupping delicately in your hand as you take it out to the garden tickles your palm. It's only thanks to the new-found me that I can even write that sentence.
To anyone who isn't a member of an Iron John chapter, confronting a crippling fear violates common sense, and in addition and speaking personally, joining anything, but particularly anything with a stupid name, goes against every grain in my body. Which is why I waited until I was 58 before I signed up for the Friendly Spider Programme at the Zoological Society of London. It made me cross: tell me, if you must, that spiders are not wholly devoted to terrorising me, but don't suggest they're friendly --- I don't want them around whatever they feel about me. Being loved was never on its own a satisfactory basis for taking a lover. I see no reason why it should be any different with spiders.
None of the 18 people on the four-hour course at ZSL headquarters across the road from the Zoo could say what tipped the scales and decided them finally to try and deal with their arachnophobia. Everyone had lived miserably with the problem for as long as they could remember. We were a range of ages and social classes and from all over the country. The only obvious thing we had in common (aside from our terror of spiders and of what was going to happen that afternoon) was that we were all women.
This, we were assured, was very unusual, unprecedented actually. John, the psychologist in charge, showed his acumen by suggesting it had something to do with it being June and therefore bang in the middle of the World Cup. It occurs to me that this might also explain why I finally decided to deal with my fear: between another afternoon of football mania and confronting spider phobia, the latter was the lesser of two evils --- chewing my own leg off was a similarly attractive option.
We sat centered in the two front rows of the ZSL lecture theatre. The woman on my immediate right was crying. She'd been gently led to her seat by one of the volunteers who had come in to make tea, smile in a reassuring manner and act as support during the later part of the afternoon.
Eighteen fearful people secreted enough anxiety and reluctance to make breathing in feel dangerous. Dave, the head keeper of invertebrates at the Zoo, and John, the psychologist and hypnotherapist, spoke to us in turn about fear, theirs (spiders', not Dave and John's) and ours. Dave gave us spider behaviour; John dealt with human behaviour. First, however, we were to pair off and share our feelings and experiences of spiders with the person sitting on our right. Third on the list of things I really don't like, after spiders and football, is sharing. I was mortified, at having been suckered into a self-help group, after the considerable trouble I have taken in my life to avoid them. Sharing does the same visceral thing to me that happens when your mother pushes you forward at a party to sing a song. Nor did I need to be told that spiders didn't want to go near me as much as I didn't want them to. If I could reason the problem away, I wouldn't be here. If being part of a suffering group was the answer to my --- someone used the word --- issue, then I was lost. Just fucking hypnotise me and make me feel better.