On phobias

I’m generally quite sympathetic to people who confess to being afraid of snakes, especially since I’ve got a phobia of my own — entomophobia, or a fear of insects — well, arthropods generally.

Phobias vary in intensity, I think, and mine isn’t particularly severe — or at least it’s not as bad as it was when I was young (and teased mercilessly about it). It helps that I have no choice but to be exposed to it every summer, particularly living out here. You just can’t avoid insects, so each summer I get a little more desensitized.

Because I analyse things to death, especially myself, I’m much more cognizant of what makes me uncomfortable. So I know, for example, that small insects cause no troubles at all. I hardly even notice mosquitos, and can tolerate even medium-sized insects so long as they are not in great numbers. There are, however, three factors that contribute to my difficulties:

  1. Size: Insects significantly larger than, say, a housefly make me nervous.
  2. Number: I can tolerate a few insects of a given size better than a lot of them. For example, I have actually handled individual mayflies. Unfortunately, mayflies rarely come in twos or threes, but in thousands. That’s a problem.
  3. Speed: Flying insects are more of a problem than flightless ones, and speed matters. For example, I can better tolerate grasshoppers than dragonflies, crickets better than grasshoppers, and spiders better than crickets.

An insect’s ability to cause harm is not a significant factor: I’m equally uncomfortable surrounded by wasps than I am by horseflies, and despite their beneficial qualities, I’d be worse around a swarm of dragonflies. I’ve concluded that I simply don’t want them to land on me. If I cannot control whether I am in physical contact with an insect, I suffer great discomfort.

I am regularly caught off guard when I visit areas swarming with them. For example, on Friday evening we visited my friend Robert, and, en route to a nearby lake, I suffered a panic attack while being surrounded by horseflies, bees and other insects. I simply needed to retreat indoors, immediately. Normally I don’t react so strongly, but normally I’m not in such a bioactive area.

So, as I say, I’m sympathetic to ophidiophobes — but only to a certain extent. I recognize the reaction — the panic — and the irrationality of being terrified of something inherently harmless. But those who are terrified by snakes haven’t had the same — enforced — desensitization that I have. In an urban environment, somebody deathly afraid of snakes may spend their entire lives without ever actually encountering one. Maybe half a dozen times — enough to freak out every time, but not enough to get used to it, or learn how to cope.

Some have only a mild case and can be brought around at a reptile show — something I find quite rewarding. (Sometimes, when they touch a snake for the first time, their faces light up. Enlightenment. Then it’s hard to get them to leave my damn snake alone.)

But others can be quite stubborn: refusing to be in the same building as a snake, even if it’s in an escape-proof cage; or refusing to visit someone who keeps them. (The latter happens to us a lot, as you can imagine.)

In some ways, I understand that it’s a result of not having enough opportunities to desensitize. But the net effect is that entomophobia is my problem, because bugs are everywhere and I just have to deal, whereas ophidiophobia is also my problem, because ophidiophobes don’t see anything wrong with being afraid of snakes and expect those with snakes to solve their problem for them. In their view, being afraid of snakes is perfectly normal.

But if entomophobia was given the same treatment as ophidiophobia, if it was considered just as normal, I would be able to go to the town hall and demand that the town be blanketed in carcinogenic insecticides, and I wouldn’t be satisfied until every insect was dead.

I understand the fear; I just don’t like the double standard.