This morning I had the pleasure of feeling a spider scamper across my bare, goose-bumped skin. It had been on the inside of my robe, waiting to greet me as I emerged, wet and groggy, from the shower.
Or at least it was a piece of fuzz impersonating a spider. It would have been a better story if it were a real spider. But for all intents and purposes it was, given the full body spasm I had.
I have a thing about spiders. I didn’t grow up having any particular thoughts about them, other than the vague notion that they were benign or even helpful (Charlotte’s Web was great for spider PR). We had lots of harmless daddy long legs around, and they never bothered me. But I do remember that they smelled peculiar and foul when they were squished.
In those days, my high tolerance for critters was probably due to the fact that I spent so much time in the arroyos near my house, which put me in proximity to things like lizards, horny toads (yes, this is what we called them in Santa Fe), and caterpillars.
Subsequently I left the high desert and lived in highly populated, urban areas. There, I was not concerned with creepy, crawly things. Parking tickets? Yes. Getting run over by careening, wayward taxis? Yes. My upstairs neighbor who liked to have drunken karaoke parties? Yes. Other than rats and pigeons (which are really just rats with wings anyway), there were few living things to contend with.
Now that I’m back in Santa Fe, things have changed. I am surrounded by black widows. They stare at me while I sleep, and wait to bite my toes when I slide them, unsuspectingly, into a pair of shoes I’ve not worn for months. Black widows seem to have taken over the city, infesting the Mayor’s office and sending tourists scurrying from Canyon Road.
Or maybe not.
But we really do have a lot around our house—under rocks, in our flower beds, in the wood pile, even in the garage. The other day, I found a black widow and its web right next to the double stroller–the same stroller that carries my innocent, non-black widow-fearing daughters to the park, their alabaster flesh exposed, smelling juicy and inviting to the nasty, 8-legged beast.
Although I tend to lead the charge in killing spiders—not all spiders, but the big or scary ones—my husband has some very hard-soled shoes and he isn’t afraid to use them. Recently he found a black widow near the sandbox in the backyard and decided that, rather than kill it, he should trap it inside an empty yogurt container. It was all part of his plan, he said, to donate the spider so that it could be used for anti-venom. Yes, anti-venom. (He claims to have watched Indiana Jones every day after school in fifth grade. This does not surprise me.)
I wish I could have been on the phone to hear how the woman at poison control responded when he offered to bring the dead black widow to her office, or directly to the hospital, so that they might extract the venom to make the anti-venom. I’m sure that made her day.
But the point is this: I know that I am overly fearful of spiders, and I don’t want to pass along this fear to my kids. I’d like them to be appropriately cautious, but jumping onto the table and screaming is not the response I seek. In truth, I don’t have a full-blown phobia, but my reaction is definitely disproportionate to the danger at hand. Meaning I can tolerate seeing an Orb Weaver on a rosebush, but I wouldn’t invite it inside for tea.
To learn more about whether my extreme reactions are seriously screwing up my kids, I asked my very smart friend, Alisa. To the rest of the world, she is Alisa Robinson, Ph.D., co-creator of the Anxiety Clinic for Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego region. She has facilitated groups to teach children, adolescents, and adults how to deal with anxiety using cognitive behavioral and mindfulness techniques. In short, she knows this stuff.
In response to my question about whether kids can “catch” a phobia (or merely an exaggerated fear response) from their parents, here is what Alisa said:
We know from early research on classical conditioning that children can be taught to fear an object. A boy famously referred to as “Little Albert” was conditioned to fear a white rat when experimenters paired the viewing of the rat with a loud noise. In a similar manner, children can learn phobic reactions to objects and situations by watching their parents- especially if the child is young. However, not all phobias are learned and some people may have a genetic predisposition to developing a phobic reaction to situations and objects. For example, some research has indicated that individuals who are phobic about blood have a more sensitive vagus nerve reflex and therefore have a stronger physiological reaction when they see blood, and may be more likely to pass out.
(Nice–I’m going to remember that “sensitive vagus nerve reflex” thing next time one of those vampires from United Blood Services tries to guilt me into giving blood.)
Children can certainly learn to be anxious from watching their parents, even if the parent doesn’t have a full-blown phobia. If a child sees a parent overreact to anxiety provoking situations, they often are more likely to respond in a similar manner.
So, it’s possible that I have some sort of underlying genetic stuff (technical term) going on that makes me prone to anxiety (huh? Me?). And somewhere along the way, I got the message that spiders are scary. I became more fearful and reactive than I was as a child, when I was rolling in the dirt with ants and centipedes, having tea with tarantulas.
The bottom line is that, in addition to any possible genetic predisposition, my daughters could learn to emulate my not-so-subtle reaction to spiders if I don’t chill out. Perhaps I should take it down a notch, try to eliminate the full-body spasm to real or imagined black widows, if only to increase the odds that my children turn out somewhat normal.
Although it might be a bit too late, with their father being Indiana Jones and all.
P.S. Dear spider aficionados and arachnid defenders, please do not email me about this piece. I KNOW that black widows get a bad rap, and that most people, contrary to popular belief, do not die from their bites. Likewise, I know that black widows don’t typically camp out in shoes (that would be the much scarier brown recluse) or watch people when they are sleeping (bedbugs do this). I was taking some poetic license. So give me a break. Same goes for United Blood Services workers—I was JOKING. I strongly encourage those of you who like needles to donate your blood. Like every day.
All photos from Flickr’s Creative Commons by the following individuals: 1. Trevor H, 2. Steve Velo, 3. Janielle Beh.