Diary

Jenny Diski

Autumn looms darkly and terrible in my life. From midsummer I start to worry, and by late August I am filled with dread. My arachnophobia has ensured that the autumnal mating urge which causes spiders to wander into our houses – confused by some sudden indefinable but compelling ache in the forefront of their small minds – in search of a nice warm dark corner to nest (don’t think about it), ushers in my personal annual festival of anxiety and horror. Not that I felt secure during the other ten months of the year. My ex, having been my ex for some years and grown tired of being called out in the middle of the night to deal with a spider, gave me a blowtorch, which I used with desperate abandon. It’s a professional version of the hairspray and lighter technique, more or less likely to have resulted in my charred remains (oh God, and the daughter, the cats, the occasional lover . . .) being found in the smoking ruins. But death was never a worse alternative to being in the same room as a spider.

I suppose this sounds like a writer’s hyperbole, and if you are not an arachnophobe nothing will convince you otherwise, but I discovered in late June that there are those who will recognise the simple truth of what I say. An irrational fear of spiders is common. Roughly 35 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men in the UK have it, though not all of them have it so badly that it is called clinical. Just as clinical depression is different from being a bit down (pace Campbell and Blunkett), so clinical spider phobia is different from a slight shudder of the kind you get when the spider you are cupping delicately in your hand as you take it out to the garden tickles your palm. It’s only thanks to the new-found me that I can even write that sentence.

To anyone who isn’t a member of an Iron John chapter, confronting a crippling fear violates common sense, and in addition and speaking personally, joining anything, but particularly anything with a stupid name, goes against every grain in my body. Which is why I waited until I was 58 before I signed up for the Friendly Spider Programme at the Zoological Society of London. It made me cross: tell me, if you must, that spiders are not wholly devoted to terrorising me, but don’t suggest they’re friendly – I don’t want them around whatever they feel about me. Being loved was never on its own a satisfactory basis for taking a lover. I see no reason why it should be any different with spiders. None of the 18 people on the four-hour course at ZSL headquarters across the road from the Zoo could say what tipped the scales and decided them finally to try and deal with their arachnophobia. Everyone had lived miserably with the problem for as long as they could remember. We were a range of ages and social classes and from all over the country. The only obvious thing we had in common (aside from our terror of spiders and of what was going to happen that afternoon) was that we were all women. This, we were assured, was very unusual, unprecedented actually. John, the psychologist in charge, showed his acumen by suggesting it had something to do with it being June and therefore bang in the middle of the World Cup. It occurs to me that this might also explain why I finally decided to deal with my fear: between another afternoon of football mania and confronting spider phobia, the latter was the lesser of two evils – chewing my own leg off was a similarly attractive option.

We sat centred in the two front rows of the ZSL lecture theatre. The woman on my immediate right was crying. She’d been gently led to her seat by one of the volunteers who had come in to make tea, smile in a reassuring manner and act as support during the later part of the afternoon. Eighteen fearful people secreted enough anxiety and reluctance to make breathing in feel dangerous. Dave, the head keeper of invertebrates at the Zoo, and John, the psychologist and hypnotherapist, spoke to us in turn about fear, theirs (spiders’, not Dave and John’s) and ours. Dave gave us spider behaviour; John dealt with human behaviour. First, however, we were to pair off and share our feelings and experiences of spiders with the person sitting on our right. Third on the list of things I really don’t like, after spiders and football, is sharing. I was mortified, at having been suckered into a self-help group, after the considerable trouble I have taken in my life to avoid them. Sharing does the same visceral thing to me that happens when your mother pushes you forward at a party to sing a song. Nor did I need to be told that spiders didn’t want to go near me as much as I didn’t want them to. If I could reason the problem away, I wouldn’t be here. If being part of a suffering group was the answer to my – someone used the word – issue, then I was lost. Just fucking hypnotise me and make me feel better.

The urgent need to run for my life lost out, just, to the even more powerful conditioning against being rude to strangers or making a scene, which so often get well-mannered people who don’t want to make a fuss, robbed, raped and murdered, as well as singing through gritted teeth at children’s parties. So I shared. The voice of the woman next to me trembled with emotion, and gulping tears back she told me that she actually passes out if she sees a . . . she couldn’t say the word. I dug deep and shared that while watching CSI I had to close my eyes during every scene set in Grissom’s office because he had a huge . . . in a glass case behind his desk. I might have mentioned the nights I’d sat bolt upright in the dead centre of the bed because an unreachable spider was in the room, or the Wellington boots I kept beside the bed (one boot inside the other for obvious arachnid reasons) for night-time search and destroy missions. Then we shared groupwise what we had shared in pairs. None of us would walk into a room without scanning it minutely, or having it checked by someone else, though of course trusting someone else to be as thorough as you would be was impossible, so no one ever believed any room was really spider-free. Dark cupboards and the bottom of wardrobes were forbidden territory. Attics and cellars out of the question. Travel was only possible to cold and inhospitable parts of the world, our only consolation being an easy moral superiority about luxury holidays in impoverished hotspots teeming with eight-legged life. I once wrote a novel set in a rainforest based entirely on textbooks and three trips to Kew Gardens’ tropical houses. We all saw spiders much more often than anyone else, always the first to spot them, because always alert, intensely on the lookout. It turned out not to be just my paranoid theory that I summoned up spiders through the power of thought, that the dust in the corners of rooms conglomerated into the living beasts, given existence by the strength of my fear and apprehension.

Maybe God had a neurotic fear of the idea of people and that was how we came about. No wonder we keep getting swatted. Dust to dust. I spent hours and hours at night trying (as fruitlessly as any intelligent portion of me knew it must be) not to think about or visualise spiders in case I made them come to me. Which, of course, they did; and where there was one spider there was always another that I hadn’t spotted, somewhere, somewhere . . . I had a special stone (as well as the blowtorch), heavy, large and flat, on the bedside table that enabled me when desperate to deal with spiders from a great height. Arachnophobia was the only sympathy I had with Bernard Levin, who devised a fine solution to the ancient problem of disposing of spiders in the washbasin: an old-fashioned soda-siphon. Taps are too close and you have to touch them to turn them on. There has to be a critical distance between your being and the thing that disposes of the spider: preferably air, or a stream of water. Something directly connected, however long, to your hand will not do. But where can you get a working soda-siphon these days?

Spiders are malevolent. Spiders and the awareness of malevolence inhabit an identical area of my brain. Scan it and see. Silent scuttling movement, legs rising above a dark central body (yes, we’re coming to that), uncanny watchful stillness. They know me and they hate me, whatever irrelevant truths Dave might tell us about them being frightened of us. They only come towards us in order to get under the sofa we’re sitting on, because it’s a safe, dark space away from the horror of the noisy, strobing light of the TV. Natural history versus blind terror has only one victor. The finest moment of the confessional came when a women spoke up in a clear, in no way self-mocking voice: ‘What I hate about spiders is that they won’t stay still and let you kill them.’ It was a perfect expression of the rationality of our irrational fear.

John, the hypnotherapist, gave a brief talk about the symptoms and causes of phobia. Sweating, palpitations, paralysis, fainting. There are those who believe it was fear of spiders that made my very own particular ancestors more fit to pass on their genes so that they could eventually produce me. Ah, yes, the days when arachnosauruses ruled the earth, and australopithecines competed with hominid-eating spiders for a food niche. Lucky my forebear from whom I have inherited no terror at all of snakes didn’t get bitten by a cobra or crushed by a python. In my rational mind, I’m sure there were far greater dangers to survival than even the most poisonous spiders; and in my irrational being, a dangerous spider is no more terrifying to me than a mild-as-milk variety. A young acquaintance of mine had a phobia of that well-known evolutionary threat: supermarket labels on fruit.

Psychoanalysis has a take. (So you are frightened of a black body surrounded by hairy legs coming at you? You find it a threat? What could such a thing represent? No, really? You don’t mean my mother’s vagina as I was coming down the birth canal? Well, thank you, I feel better now.) But I haven’t got the years to spare for their talking cure. And there is a practical but dull psychological theory that phobias are caught by young children from fearful mothers (them, again) or traumatic encounters. Spiders, I think, were the least of my mother’s worries, and my most traumatic youthful encounters were not with eight-legged beings (though I admit that does rather take us back to psychoanalysis, above).

I had very little interest in the nature of my phobia, I wanted it only to go away. Just hypnotise me, John. Finally, he did. We lay on the floor of a meeting room while he talked us through a relaxation sequence, a body scan no different from what you might do at the end of a yoga session. Then we were instructed to descend ten mental steps, find a nice place to be at the bottom, and relax even deeper. Not a problem, nicely relaxed, and so? Now he was going to address our ‘subconsciousnesses’ directly, John told us, and did so by repeatedly assuring us that ‘Spiders are safe,’ throwing in for free the handy suggestion that daddy-long-legs didn’t worry us either. He had warned us that we might think nothing was happening. He was right. Apparently, the ability to be sceptical is not impaired by deep relaxation. Certainly, my ‘subconscious’ didn’t let on to me that it had heard a thing. Well, it wouldn’t, would it? I sneered in a relaxed manner to myself. It’s a powerfully difficult task to convince a person who isn’t entirely sure they have a conscious, let alone a subconscious, that you are getting through to it. After twenty minutes we had a nice cup of tea and then crossed the road to the Invertebrate House at the Zoo where the volunteers had meanwhile been searching the flower-beds for the sizable garden spiders that waited for us in small plastic aquaria on four tables.

Well, I did put my finger against the back leg of a big, black spider and follow it as it ran in the direction I pointed. I did put my whole hand in and let a volunteer chase the spider across my open palm. I did put a clear plastic cup over it after it had been released to scurry around the table, then slid a card under the cup and walked around the room holding it. And I stroked one of the incredibly soft hairy legs of Frieda, the four-inch red tarantula, then held her in my cupped hands, though her stillness suggested that she was rendered as catatonic by human contact as I usually was by a spider encounter. I did all those things not with terror but a kind of awed amazement. Only one person couldn’t bring herself to go near the spiders. The rest of us were elated and astonished by what we were capable of doing. If we were hesitant at first, most people went back for more, to re-experience this remarkable freedom from fear. The woman who had sat next to me in tears walked up to me with her cupped spider. ‘Look,’ she said in the first flush of the new her.

Mixed feelings don’t come any more entangled than when, after a lifetime of terror, someone says spiders are safe at you half a dozen times, and three months later you discover yourself gazing empathetically at a handbag-sized arachnid sisyphusing in the bath. Since that afternoon autumn has arrived and I cup-and-card spiders out into the garden, watch them web-weaving between the wheelie bins and dashing across the open space in the living-room between two dark corners, with intense interest, and have no sense at all that they are my enemy. I am suffused with remorse at the numbers I have caused to be killed, and I am living contentedly with a spider who has taken up residence in a corner of the kitchen window. But although life has become altogether lighter and much less fearful, for which I am profoundly grateful, I have the strangest sense of loss. A person who is not afraid of spiders is almost a definition of someone who is not me. So it is uncanny (in a properly Freudian sense of the word) to observe myself without that fear. Some way in which I knew myself has vanished. It is slightly frightening not being frightened of spiders. And then I wonder, why not get hypnotised out of all my anxieties and nervous habits, make everything awkward and resistant go away, so that I could become . . . well, nothing is the alarming image I have. I can’t picture what would be left after I had chipped off the difficulties. I really don’t believe there is a solid nugget of the person-that-is-really-me underneath it all – the difficulties and such are fragments of the fragmented thing we choose to call the person. And what if the difficulties, as the analysts of whom I am only partly contemptuous would say, were merely the armouring, the screens, that kept the really bad stuff at bay? Now, without my arachnophobia, I worry what dark repressed beast is about to return to consciousness and make my life really unbearable?

A psychiatrist friend almost saves me from the spiral of horror I’m about to plughole down. Over dinner, listening to my bold tale of new-found spider freedom, she looks unimpressed. Simple, specific phobias are the easiest of conditions to cure. Complex social phobias (fear of other people or going out) are of a different and more intractable nature. The feeling I describe to her of having been given permission not to be afraid of spiders is exactly that. What has happened to me is similar to a hysterical conversion. Phobias of spiders, snakes, flying, even labels on fruit, she says, are the closest condition that there is to normal if such a thing as normal existed. Any kind of behavioural or suggestion treatment is likely to work rapidly with a willing patient. Then she blows it: ‘In psychodynamic terms,’ she explains, ‘phobias are the fears that the mind can afford to express directly and therefore they don’t lie deep in the unconscious.’ Just as I’m feeling better about not having lost some essential part of myself, or at having been merely relaxed into relinquishing a life-long terror, a threat, a new dread appears on the horizon. Oh Christ, what have I done? Here comes my eight-legged, multi-eyed, hairy, vaginal mummy scuttling towards me, and this time it’s personal.