Snake Away: How I cured my phobia and learned to face fear

photo copy 17For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated snakes. Really. Hated. Snakes. Some of my earliest memories involve unpleasant encounters with snakes. At the tender age of six, I found my cat wrestling with a large, thrashing snake in my bedroom. I’ve seen pythons “in the wild” in South Asia and Africa. I’m not a religious person, but I can really get behind Genesis 3: ‘…now the snake was the craftiest of all God’s creatures.’ No kidding. “Evil” never seemed like that much of a stretch to describe them. I hated snakes!

Except that the word, “hate” doesn’t even begin to capture the complex and wholly irrational dread and sicko attraction I’ve felt toward snakes since I was a toddler. A better description of my snaky disposition– beyond calling it a phobia, which it undoubtedly is, to the umpteenth degree – - is to admit that I’m someone who has spent way, way too much of my life thinking about snakes. For example, I am an obsessive collector of Appalling Snake Stories. Having visited many of the world’s snake hot spots, I’ve never had any trouble getting people to cough up a grisly anecdote about so-and-so’s hapless cousin. My teenage nephew worked with a reptile expert in New Delhi and routinely went on ‘house calls’ to remove pythons from people’s city apartments. He worked with a reptile hook and his wits and, one presumes, adequate adult supervision. One of his ‘clients” was a young motorcyclist who’d gone to the shop with engine trouble. Presto: out slithered a cobra. (My nephew regaled me with that one on my last visit to India during which, unbeknownst to me, he and his parents and siblings were engaged in an elaborate web of lies to cover up the big reveal that I was sleeping but one floor above a “cute,” “juvenile” ball python. My beloved sister’s defense: “You wouldn’t have come to see us if I’d told you about the snake!” Correct.)

photo copy 13Until a couple weeks ago, the mere thought of snakes gave me palpitations and a sense of doom not unlike what people feel (I’m told) right before having a heart attack. Snakes repulsed me so viscerally that the mere sight of a snake in a magazine, if I hadn’t prepared myself, could send me into paroxysms of hysteria. I dread the cyclical embrace of snake skin as high fashion accessory. (We had a bad year recently but I think we’ve moved into cat prints.)

photo copy 16And yet, in spite of – or much more likely: because of – my phobia, I’ve also had a perverse fascination with the source of my terror – like watching a train wreck. I loved the Rudyard Kipling story about the snake hunting mongoose, Riki Tiki Tavi, as a child. My favorite line came when Nagaina, the she-snake, hisses, “If you move, I’ll kill you. And if you don’t move, I’ll kill you.” How horrible. How irresistably horrible. On an outing to the zoo with my children, I would stare, transfixed, at the monstrous constrictors behind glass at the zoo, imagining them dragging me into their lair. On some crazy level I’m at a loss to explain, it would have been disappointing to miss a visit to the reptile house at the zoo. Is it a coincidence that my husband’s nickname name for me is “Riki”?

I’ve always loved to travel and also to walk in the woods. Translation: I have encountered a lot of snakes in my day. In the past, I was able to keep the fear under control, just barely. I didn’t let it interfere with a trip to Africa or Australia; it even added a little frisson to the adventure – mainly because my limited encounters were under highly controlled conditions.

photo copy 4But this summer was a new low in my Travels with Snakes because I actually saw them – on my own turf – on a daily basis. I live part-time in Vermont and it seemed to be a particularly snaky summer for people with houses in isolated, deeply forested places that have suffered too much rain. The waterlogged ground seemed to throw up snakes every where I looked: I counted 10 or 15 snakes (maybe even 20, if you count the dead ones) in a span of two weeks. You see, when a snakephobe (that’s “Ophidiophobe,” to us insiders) lives in fertile snake habitat, there is high potential for sightings. This is because one spends a lot of one’s outdoor time with head pointed directly at the ground, and not, for example, in the direction of my beautiful mountain view.

photo copy 8It got worse. One day, a friend saw a garter snake up in a tall hydrangea bush, overhanging our deck. A Vermont native, he said he’d “never seen a snake around here climb so high.” I really thought I was going to die hearing this. The possibility of snakes dropping from the trees became a “thing” I had to consider. How could I look at the ground and  the sky simultaneously without tripping? What would happen to my daily five mile walks I found so rejuvenating? Then, a few nights later, my daughter accidentally stumbled in the dark right onto a huge, coiled up rat snake, apparently spoiling for a fight right by our garage door! She estimated its size at four or five feet long and my internet research didn’t contradict that. My daughter was understandably freaked out – and she isn’t even afraid of snakes! What hell was lurking around to greet a wimp like me? This was a bridge too far. What I hated more than anything was to be startled by a snake. I need warning. (I’m sure that’s my DNA talking, right?). If I could be ambushed ambling over to the freezer in our garage for a late-night Ben and Jerry’s appointment… it was the last straw. You know your phobia is taking over your life when it starts to interfere with activities of daily living. Not having access to ice cream? Deal breaker.

photo copy 10I knew I had to get a grip on myself. I started researching phobia clinics. My psychologist friend, Dan, had mentioned to me once that phobias are the only 100 percent treatable mental health condition. How could this not get my attention? I had a 100 percent chance of a cure! Why had no one told me about this before? Of course, there was a little problem. One has to be ‘motivated’ for treatment and, up to this point, I hadn’t been. But the ground was beginning to shift a little. There was genuine cognitive dissonance: the place I loved most was also increasingly a source of genuine distress. Something had to change. I started seeking real advice from people about my phobia, not just going for the cheap laughs. I bought a self-help book on phobias. A lot of the content was annoying and made me indignant. I’m not that crazy. (Well, yes, I was that crazy.) I was supposed to gradually de-sensitize myself by learning about the source of my phobia but the problem was that I already knew too much. I wanted to think less about snakes, not more! I didn’t need to be told that snakes aren’t slimy and are actually more scared of me than the reverse (because, you know, the phobia book authors have consulted snakes on this point.) But I went through the motions. I completed the Crazy Person Work Book. I learned that I likely had other ‘issues,’ along with my genetic aversion. I completed dumb exercises. A particularly embarrassing low point: I bought a realistic toy snake to acclimatize myself. Laughable, I know. But it creeped me out all the same. I instructed my husband to ‘surprise’ me by placing it in unexpected spots. Good morning… snake! I found it in the cereal cupboard, on my keyboard, even on my pillow. Hahaha. This is really working!

But exposure therapy only took me so far. I was nowhere near ready to touch an actual snake. The more I thought about my phobia (with the help of my phobia book, which forced me to deconstruct exactly what upset me so much), the more it became clear that I had some sort of contagion issue. It was the thought of touching a snake that felt so unbearable. I wasn’t afraid of being bitten. I didn’t care about any of the things a lot of people worry about. In my phobic imagination, it’s never made much difference to me if a snake were poisonous or not, massive or small. In fact, once, in India, when we were on a wildlife safari and the guide casually pointed to cobra holes, I really didn’t feel any worse than if he had pointed to, say, Milk snake holes. Crazy, right?

It’s wildly irrational but I just couldn’t face touching the snake. I had reached an impasse. Meanwhile, the final last straw (of many) was walking back to the house from our mail box one afternoon and seeing not one but two small snakes crawling simultaneously across the driveway… as if they had just emerged, together, from a massive, writhing (I imagined) snake hibernaculum possibly located under my bedroom. I felt paralyzed. I felt like I was in the Amityville Horror House, but for snakes. I was started to fantasize about living on a houseboat somewhere off the coast of Antarctica.

photo copy 14My dear nephew (the snake wrangler) stepped into the breach. My sister and her kids were visiting and I knew that George, my nephew, had brought along his snake hook and other equipment. (This had been authorized by me in advance, a promising sign.) The boy is serious about snakes. He enjoys catching them and setting them free. He knows lots of grotesque facts about “musking” and how to stabilize a snake so it won’t go berserk. He was finding a lot of snakes on our property  – ten ‘babies’ by our pond in one day.

So, one afternoon about two weeks ago, I heard a little commotion and my husband’s voice cautioning, “Put it back in the woods, George. Keep that away from your aunt…”

My snake detector went off immediately. It was clear he had bagged one really close to the house. I took a breath and ran to the front door. And there was my nephew holding what looked like a RIDICULOUSLY TINY snake. Even within my irrational snake taxonomy, this was not a threat. It couldn’t have been more than six inches long and was the diameter of a pencil. I kid you not. (See photos, above.)

So I decided to go for it. My eldest son and daughter were there with me. My husband came outside. My sister and her boy and my 11-year-old niece. There they all were, smiling soothingly, talking encouragingly. And you know what happened? I. JUST. COULDN’T. DO. IT. I got really close, close enough to see the absurdity of it all. I’ve never been afraid of spiders, so I understand how hilaroius other people’s phobias seem to the non-phobic. I started sweating and feeling dizzy. My heart was racing. I was crying and becoming frankly hysterical. My husband was trying to soothe me: “it’s okay. You’ve made a good start. We can try again. It’s really okay. There will be another chance.”

But I knew – deep down – there would never be another chance. If I couldn’t deal with a tiny baby snake, handled by an expert in the presence of my loving family, there just wasn’t going to be a better opportunity. Was I going to walk into a pet store and ask for an assist? (An actual suggestion from the phobia book.) It just wasn’t going to happen. I cried and cried, trying to explain my predicament to all assembled. My husband noted the obvious: I was having a full-blown, physiological panic attack – my first ever, as it turns out. Yes, the feeling was rooted in my biology, in my genes, just like the snake-fearing primates. But what the hell – I’m not a biological determinist! My family understood that I had to push through. My 21 year old son said something that got my attention:  “Mom, it’s like touching a little baby’s shoelace. That’s all.” For some reason this odd image resonated a little. A little. My nephew was holding the snake so its tail was hanging in the air; Sebastian volunteered to hold my hand and we would touch the very tip of the snake tail together. We did very quickly, like the way I’d run my finger through a candle flame on a dare when I was a kid. I barely felt the snake and … it was exactly as described, like touching a little child’s shoelace. Smooth. Benign. Just fine.

And, interestingly, THE UNIVERSE DID NOT COLLAPSE. The sky didn’t unleash ten thousand plagues. I didn’t die. I didn’t die. I repeat: I didn’t die. This was a weird sensation, the “not dying” from touching the snake. I reached out and touched it again, more slowly. It was incredibly smooth – silky, silky smooth. Yes, I had known it wasn’t “slimy” but I hadn’t really appreciated how soft it would feel. Touching the baby snakes was a less disgusting feeling than touching that ridiculous rubber snake that had been stalking me for weeks.

And this is the weird part: it was somehow less frightening precisely because it was alive. At first, everyone kept telling my nephew to keep the snake’s head away from me so I didn’t have to ‘engage’ with the snake as a real animal. But I actually found its aliveness the least frightening part. I was completely fascinated, transfixed even (but in a good way) by this fully formed, tiny little creature with sparkling eyes and a tiny, tiny little forked (good god: FORKED) tongue. I let it “sniff’ me with its tongue. It looked at me; I looked back. My husband was incredulous. My kids were delighted.

On some level, I knew how ludicrously lame this snake de-programming business was. Everyone was so supportive and happy for me, like parents urging a baby to take his first steps. Big Deal. She touched a six-inch snake no bigger than an earth worm. But on another level, I felt: Wow. I’m actually facing a phobia that has dogged me – plagued me – my entire life. I let the snake weave its way around my wrist. I held it in my hand. It was hard at first to cup it in my hands – my big son cradled my hand in his large hand and together we held the baby snake. I had a brief (fleeting) appreciation for the beauty of a snake. I got quite bold and started laughing and almost didn’t want to put the snake down.  My sister joked that my snake phobia could easily be converted to a weirdo snake lover obsession. Two sides of the same coin, and how creepy would that be? For the record: I think not.

But the next day, I ramped up the game. George caught another snake, natch. It was an adult garter snake – bigger and uglier than the baby and not happy to be handled. It did the revolting musk routine. George stabilized it most impressively with his hook, gently but firmly. I was disappointed to discover that I was actually – in the face of an adult snake – still quite repulsed. I guess I was hoping I would be magically cured but I found I didn’t want to touch it. It turned out there was a difference between a tiny little snake and a regular snake. But I merely felt disgust, not mortal dread. I can’t put too fine a point on the difference. I pushed myself to touch the snake with the back of my hand. It felt exactly like the baby: smooth, innocuous, benign. Even the underside of the snake – that horrible ivory belly that always particularly repelled me – was completely smooth, innocuous, benign. The snake was getting pissed off and we could see its “opening,” for lack of a better word, where the musk is ejected. Yuk. Seriously: yuk. This had all the ingredients for a total freak out on my part and, yet, somehow, it was just vaguely and very unthreateningly icky, the way I would feel if I saw a cockroach crawling across my kitchen floor. It really didn’t bother me at all on a psychic level, really just on an aesthetic one. I made myself stroke the snake all along its smooth, silky-soft back one last time and then retreated as George let it free in the flower bed.

I can’t tell you I would be thrilled to see another snake. If I were startled by one in my house, I’m sure I would scream. But here’s what’s new: I don’t have to worry about finding a snake in my house anymore. It doesn’t have to be on my radar screen of things to think about – even up here in Vermont where I’m apparently living in New England’s most welcoming snake habitat. The truth is, I don’t even anticipate seeing that many snakes anymore for the simple reason that I won’t be searching for them. I’ve got a beautiful mountain view to enjoy instead.

I can’t quite bring myself to imagine the energy I’ve wasted on my decades of snake phobia. But I honestly didn’t know how to de-phobicize myself. No one told me it was an option. I just thought you had to live with this level of craziness if you were this crazy. A genetic legacy, like burning-never-tanning, or blushing too readily. But now I realize – cliché alert! – biology isn’t destiny. And all fears can be faced.

Even the real fears for which these silly, hardwired phobias are just a mere proxy.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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3 Responses to Snake Away: How I cured my phobia and learned to face fear

  1. Alyssa smith says:

    Great story!

    Out of curiosity, what were some of these repulsive “facts” about snake musk you mentioned? I’m going to be working with snakes next week and am wondering how bad it is…what’s the smell like?

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