Since I was very young, I’ve been terrified of snakes.
I remember an instance when I was standing very still, playing hide-and-seek I think, and a small garter snake wrapped itself around my ankle. I think this was the trigger. If you don’t have any phobias, you may be thinking, “But that’s not even scary.” No, it’s really not. Also when I was very small, I fell off a balcony or something and broke my arm, but I’m not afraid of heights or balconies or anything related to that.
You can’t make sense out of a phobia.
There are two different things people tend to say to you when you mention that you suffer from ophidiophobia (or snake-phobia, which is not a real word but is easier to spell).
The first: “They’re not slimy!” True. They’re not. It’s interesting to me that people across the board so quickly arrive at the conclusion that the only potentially upsetting thing about snakes is a misconception about their texture. I’ll happily let frogs and newts, despite sliminess, crawl on me. The difference? THEY’RE NOT SNAKES.
The second thing: “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” I dispute this assertion. If you hook a snake up to a heart rate monitor and show it a not-terribly-realistic drawing of me, does that snake have clearly measurable arrhythmia? I have never actually done this study, but I feel pretty confident about the outcome.
As an adult, I didn’t find this phobia that limiting to my existence. I chose to live in urban areas without much in the way of nature around (there are many reasons, but the snakelessness of city sidewalks is right up there on the list) (also I am allergic to grass and trees). The biggest risk was TV shows and movies. Or clicking through on nonspecific “Wow, this is amazing!” links online (I feel so validated in my cautiousness on the rare occasions in which the comments make it clear that it actually was a snake).
But then I had a kid. And not just any kid – a boy one. This opened up whole new worlds of grass and dirt and terrifying picture books. I thought surely people who knew me well would check books they were considering as gifts for potential freakout-inducing images. I soon found out that people don’t necessarily check books they’re buying for small children for anything; a picture book about Dizzy Gillespie stands out in my memory – got it as a gift and was reading it to my then-preschooler until I got to the part about how badly his father used to beat him. (If I ever buy your kid a book, I promise I will have read it first.)
So I made a resolution. I couldn’t prevent the uncomfortable physical effects that happened when I saw a picture of a snake, but I could damn sure keep them to myself. My kid wasn’t going to grow up with irrational fears like mine – at least not ones I could prevent. For several years, mostly through the use of deep breathing, I successfully stuck with this plan.
He was just four when, after he’d spent some time with a relative, he came home with many hilarious stories about times Mommy, who was absolutely terrified of snakes, had encountered one – or a drawing of one, or whatever – and wigged out.
Lesson learned: If you plan to fake anything about your personality for the benefit of a small child, you might want to send out a memo to the people who actually know you.
Anyway, I’m slowly making progress. I can look at cartoon snakes without any measurable reaction (well, as long as they’re not moving). The last time I encountered a real snake went less well; we were at a presentation about my kid’s afterschool program and some guy way at the other end of the auditorium had a massive snake wrapped around him and – well, I spent the entire event with my face buried in my mother-in-law’s bosom. Making tiny whimpering sounds. Not real big on dignity. But I used to be pretty sure that if I saw a real live snake I’d have a massive heart attack and die, so I’m still counting that as progress.