Take my latest pet for example – Charlotte - named after the eponymous E.B. White character (and just as likely to spin a web). When I first bought Charlotte I’ll admit it, I was a bit scared of her. Not in a phobia kind of way, mine was a very sensible fear, she has the potential to deliver a venomous bite and I'd rather not be bitten by anything at all, least of all by anything venomous! But I said to my dubious husband – just give me six weeks and I’ll be cuddling my new pet like I do any of the others. Six weeks later and what do you know, we’re the best of friends and I’m completely fearless in my handling of her.
So did I know I would overcome my fear so quickly? Well pretty much because I’ve been on this merry go round before and I've worked out what to do. I used to be terrified of rats – really terrified – to the point where I couldn’t sit in public parks in case one turned up. So what did I do? I bought three huge rat like creatures (my infamous degus). Now a big black sewer rat could share a sleeping bag with me and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
Same with my fear of cockroaches. I bought two geckos who eat horrid black cockroachy looking crickets. At first I had panic attacks if I dropped one with tweezers, now I pick the crickets up in my fingers with no trouble. By seeking out and familiarising myself with the objects of my fears I was able to gain control over the fear itself. (Next stop is probably installing a great white shark in a swimming pool in my back garden – or is that going too far..!)
I was also pretty confident that animal wise I could bond with just about anything. I knew my instinct to look after my pet would be stronger than any fear of it. And I was right. Apparently I can mother anything!
Its been very interesting for me to see how other people handle their fears. My head on acclimatisation approach doesn't seem particularly common. But other people have their own individual ways of coping. My husband, for example, is mildly arachnophobic, not at all keen on anything with more than four legs. But he knew how much I really wanted Charlotte so he was able to put his own fears aside to give me something I wanted. In his case fear was overcome by his feelings for his wife (though to be fair I did swap my right to have a Charlotte for something he really wanted so his fear was also negated by the desire for his own gratification).
My closest friend (a very stubborn girl indeed) is also arachnophobic and I didn’t think she would want anything to do with Charlotte. But she is so completely rational that she just talked herself out of the fear. It was actually quite funny watching how stern she was with herself. And after deciding there was no rational basis to her fear she simply brushed it aside. Several weeks later she’s gone from being a person who keeps all the windows shut in summer to letting Charlotte put a leg or two on the back of her hand. Now that really is a true triumph of rationality over racial memory.
And everyone who has had contact with Charlotte has commented on how they feel less scared about her species in general. Familiarity really does seem to breed comfort. I wonder sometimes if fear itself is more frightening than the actual object of the fear. Or do people just become so entrenched in fear that they lose the ability to imagine living without it?
There were of course other reactions to my placid new pet (devoted though I am even I have to admit that she doesn't actually DO much...). One close friend refuses to set foot in my home anymore. And another is so irrationally terrified that I can’t even tell her I’ve got Charlotte (I pop her in my knicker drawer when she comes to visit!)
While I would never intentionally use my pets to frighten people I actually find these reactions to be quite alien to my own way of thinking. I don't understand how it isn't possible for people to overcome these primeval fears. Surely they see being fear free as desirable? So why do nothing about it? Why let fear have an impact on the way you live your life?
If something frightens me I see it as a challenge and I challenge it right back. Nothing gets that much power over me. I don't understand why anyone would cede that level of control to a fear or a phobia. In all honestly I'd rather be thrown naked into a pit of cockroaches themselves than admit defeat in the face of fear... (Actually I'd probably also prefer the cockroach pit to the medically preferred psychotherapy treatment, but there's an alternative for those of you who don't fancy the hands on approach...)
So here's some free advice to anyone struggling in the grip of irrational fear. Bite the bullet, get out there and face it. If you don't like snakes, buy a snake. If you can't cope with buttons start hanging round the local haberdashery. Face it, confront it and overcome it. Because if you don't you're giving the driving seat to your fear and you're letting it defeat you. And fair play to you if you don't mind being beaten and you're ok with being the loser in the battle but if you'd prefer to be in control of your life take the power back and get it sorted.
Image http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1035400 (cielieke). Because nobody can be scared of penguins!