One of my parent’s favourite stories is about when I was a child and they took me to the reptile park. We followed the nice reptile man around and watched him feed all of the snakes. And then we got to the Death Adder. I was two, twenty years on and I still can’t even handle looking at a picture of a snake without freaking out. Thanks Mum and Dad! It’s only in the last few years that I realised this fear was actually a phobia. Ophidiophobia to be more specific.
The main difference between a phobia and fear is really simple. A fear is experienced by most people; it can be when you get butterflies in a new situation, or when looking down from a height. It’s how you sometimes feel when you’re watching a scary movie or horror and your heart is pumping at a thousand miles an hour. And, sometimes it can even be hard to catch your breath. But a phobia is something different, it can leave you completely psychologically and / or physical incapacitated. Phobias are characterised by extreme reactions that are irrational and almost impossible to explain.
There are a huge number of phobias, and they all have some very interesting names. But, what’s it like to actually experience such a debilitating fear?
To start with, I think it’s important to point out that I have two real passions in life, writing about science (and whatever else takes my fancy), and conservation ecology. Normally that would be fine, but I LOVE semi-arid and arid zones in Australia, and guess what they have a lot of? Snakes! So a phobia of snakes is not exactly useful and something that I have to work at every day to overcome. Just finding the images for this article was a huge trial, and I had my feet on my chair the entire time. Because you know, snakes are likely to crawl out from under my seat to attack (see what I mean about irrational?)
The most debilitating moment I’ve ever experienced was when we were in Darwin. I went into the nocturnal house with my family, not realising that there were a LOT of snakes in there. I was suddenly in this awful situation where I had to try and control my suddenly racing heart, sweat-covered body and unreasonable belief that the snakes would break out and devour me. The scene when Harry Potter unleashes a boa constrictor upon Dudley? That’s one of my worst nightmares. Even without seeing the reptiles or hearing them, just knowing that they were somewhere nearby sent me into a tailspin. I don’t remember much of the next hour.
Being so close to these animals, which were largely pythons and therefore not actually likely to do any damage if they somehow did get through glass caused me to start hyperventilating. My younger sister had to half carry me out of the building. Having tears stream down your face as you gasp for breath is an incredibly uncomfortable experience. Partner that with shaking, sweating and this weird roaring in your ears that stops you from hearing anything and you have a full-blown panic attack. Half an hour of my sister talking random nonsense to me was enough to help me become coherent again. It took the next 24 hours for me to settle down and stop feeling upset, stressed and just generally on edge. Extreme psychological and physical reaction? Check.
There have been countless other moments where my completely irrational fear of snakes (even tiny pythons that are as long as my finger) has stopped me from doing what I want. I changed my Science Honours thesis to a different field site, just because I’m worried that there would be too many snakes. I’ve been out with friends, or going to go for a hike, or just wanted to sit outside in the sun and I can’t because there’s this completely unreasonable part of my brain that’s telling me there’s a snake there. Even in the middle of Winter. Or better yet, waking up in the middle of the night screaming because I dreamt that a python was squeezing every last breath out of me.
I’ve heard a lot of really weird comments from people who think that phobias are just a bit of fear such as “I wish I thought of a snake phobia to get out of chores” (we were cleaning snake enclosures in South Africa). It always drives home the idea that for some people the line between fear and phobia is indistinct and non-existent. But the two are very different feelings and experiences. Just ask anyone who is too terrified to look at a picture.