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Freida and me          August 2005

Loulou brown holding Tarantula spider  

Freida and Me

Loulou Brown, a self-confessed arachnophobe, gets close up and personal with a spider.
 

‘Mum!’ I bawled joyfully over the phone, ‘I’ve met Frieda, and HELD her!’



‘Oh?’ said my mother uncertainly.

‘She’ll think you mean Frida Kahlo,’ hissed my husband.

‘Mum, Frieda was a tarantula spider.’

‘No! You’re not serious?’

‘Oh yes I am. I’ve got a photo to prove it!’

 

It’s unusual for anyone to hold a tarantula in England, but amazing for someone who has arachnophobia.

A conversation with my mother last autumn when I was staying with her was very much less robust.

‘Mum! There’s a spider in the bath. Please could you remove it.’ This wasn’t just a frightened daughter asking her mother for help and comfort; it was a sixty-three-year-old grandmother asking a ninety-year-old great grandmother to cope. Leopards don’t easily change their spots.

I’ve been an arachnophobe all my life and was not best pleased when my son and daughter-in-law paid for me to go on the Friendly Spider programme. I’d put off the invitation for eight months before finally landing up in June 2005 at the London zoo.

‘It’s going to be a wonderful afternoon; I can feel it in my bones,’ said one of the many volunteers helping with the afternoon’s experience. I was sitting with my fleece fully buttoned up in a freezing cold room, very much doubting that the experience would be anything but horrible.

The Friendly Spider programme,
a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy, is now in its eleventh season. It has an 85 per cent success rate, and the remaining 15 per cent are ‘better than they were originally’, according to John Clifford, who organises it. The aim of the programme is to be able to deal with spiders in a cool, calm and relaxed fashion, to ignore or to be able to pick up a spider and put it outside.



What is it about spiders?


Arachnophobia is a learned experience, the result of a trauma, or because of a series of negative images or events. There are as many arachnophobic men as women. Children up to the age of two or three are not scared of spiders, so it’s unlikely arachnophobia is inherited.

What is it about a spider that stimulates negative responses?
Everyone (about twenty people) on the course had ideas on this subject: it’s their unpredictability, their speed, their legs, the way they move, the fact that they bite, their colour, their hairiness, their knees, their disjointedness, the list is endless…

Reactions to seeing spiders are numerous,
often excessive and may be serious: your heart rate soars, you sweat, jump, cry, scream, attack, freeze, feel cold, get goose pimples, shout, feel faint, nauseous, defecate, go into shock, have a panic attack, or become hysterical. These reactions are instinctive; it’s part of the body’s natural defence system.

The responses to the reaction are also numerous and equally excessive: probably you want to get away as fast as you can and, if possible, get help. But you might want to throw something, attack the spider, hammer it to death, hoover it up, squirt it with insect repellent, hair spray or firelighter, use cats or dogs to capture and deal with it.

‘You don’t want to be doing this, surely?’ says one of the volunteers. ‘After all, a spider is fifty times smaller than a bunny, and you wouldn’t want to hammer a bunny to death, now would you?’ The trouble is, a spider is emphatically NOT a bunny.

A brief history of the spider

 


There are about 40,000 types of spider. They have been around for three hundred million years, a lot longer than we have, thus they are not going to evolve into something we want them to be. Most spiders can bite, but they usually can’t pierce the skin.


There are four dangerous types of spider:
the funnel web (only found within ten kilometres of Sydney in Australia), the black widow, the violin and the wandering spider. There are no dangerous spiders that live naturally in the UK. Therefore it is perhaps surprising that there is a high incidence of arachnophobia in the UK but a very low incidence in South America and Australia, where there really are dangerous spiders.

Spiders are not out to get you. We should be nice to them because they are ‘good guys’; they do a natural, organic job of getting rid of predators. They are predators themselves, but only eat things their own size or smaller. Birds eat them in turn.

How we get to meet the spiders


Following the facts, we were allowed a cup of tea and biscuits, most welcome because of the temperature. Then there was light group hypnosis, conducted by John Clifford that lasted for about half an hour. We lay down with eyes closed, were asked to imagine a comfortable room where we would feel safe and were told that we would no longer be plagued by fear of spiders, that we would be able to confront our fears, that everything would be all right.

Afterwards I felt slightly nauseous and, for a short while, a little dizzy
, but somehow ‘better’ and certainly a lot warmer. I was able to unbutton my fleece and it remained unbuttoned while we walked over to the bugs department in the zoo. This was the bit I had been really dreading: meeting and, horrors, touching the spiders.

To obtain a certificate – or, you might say, a degree in bravery
– you have to place a bottle over a British house spider, entice it on to a napkin, then hold the napkin and walk around with it with the spider on top.

Egging each other on was most important for a positive result. To start with, no one volunteered, but after a while one poor, white-faced trembling man was induced to do what had to be done. Then, one by one, we all did, or at least all of us that were able to. (One person on the course couldn’t get to the bugs department and another managed to get there but could do no more.)

You could do rather more – achieve a Masters in bravery – if you were man or woman enough.
For this you had to touch the legs of a spider and move it around a plastic box – to show that you rather than the spider are in control. It took a good ten minutes of thinking, sweating and shaking before I could bring myself to do this.

For the PhD, you had to hold a tarantula.
Frieda seemed to me to be about a mile high, six miles wide, with talons the size of a tiger. In fact she fitted very neatly into my cupped hands and didn’t move. Her talons were the size of ten grains of sand. Her underbelly was as soft as a baby’s bum. I don’t know how I did it, but I did. After all my fears I was in fact one of the 85 per cent who had succeeded.

Will the effect last?


I’m not sure how long the treatment for reducing my arachnophobia will last
. On the following day I went into a garden shed to find a spider but (conveniently perhaps) didn’t find one. Yesterday, a tiny spider of less than one millimetre in diameter crawled over a manuscript I was working on. I gently brushed it away rather than using an angry flick, hitherto my wont, so I guess the treatment is still working.

For further information, contact the Friendly Spider Programme, London Zoo, Zoological Society of London, Regent’s Park, London NW1 4RY; 0207 449 6400, or email ppk@zsl.org .

 
 


   

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