Monday, April 4, 2011

Fear Does Not Stop Death, It Stops Life

From Wikipedia: "A phobia is an irrational, intense and persistent fear of certain situations, activities, things, animals, or people. The main symptom of this disorder is the excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid the feared stimulus. When the fear is beyond one's control, and if the fear is interfering with daily life, then a diagnosis under one of the anxiety disorders can be made."

My phobia has a name: Ophidiophobia. I'm more than scared of snakes; I am paralyzed by the thought of encountering a snake. It doesn't matter if it's a 3-inch garter snake, a rattlesnake, or an anaconda..they're all the same to me. I remember being scared of snakes as early as first grade when I couldn't look at pictures of them on the covers of my Ranger Rick magazines, and I vividly remember running screaming out of the room when my classmate brought his bull snake for show-and-tell. I really have come to realize that this is a phobia, rather than a fear. I'm not thrilled with spiders and I don't love the dark...but I'm able to push these fears away. My feeling about snakes is irrational and gradually consuming more and more of my energy in an unhealthy way. I spend more time than I'll even admit here thinking about snakes.

This phobia of mine has intensified throughout my life. I used to happily hike and boat through the desert, and while I may have been a bit jumpy every time I heard a rustle, I still enjoyed the outdoor activities that these locations afforded. At this point in my life, I actually can't imagine going on a river trip in southern Colorado or Utah because of the snake factor. I made a new friend a year or so ago, and she asked me if I wanted to go hiking in Castlewood Canyon, a supposedly amazing and beautiful natural gem practically in my backyard, and I turned her down because I believe that there are rattlesnakes there. I will only go hiking in arid, "desert-like" locations (of which my community is in abundance) during winter months. In the summer I will drive for hours to go hiking or camping in high, alpine regions because I'm convinced that there aren't snakes in these types of places. There's a beautiful, concrete bike path near my house that runs along the creek that I used to love to walk along. One time I saw a snake from afar on the path, and I haven't been back since. Every time I go to a new place, the first thing on my mind is "what is the potential for snakes in this place?". Pathetic. For all of its beauty and its wonderful, transformative power on my life, I really think my favorite thing about living in Alaska was that there are no snakes there. NONE! Four wonderful years of not having to think about snakes. Ever. Ah, that was wonderful.

A couple summers ago, while Sadie was quietly nestled on my chest in her Ergo while I hiked along the Colorado Trail with my family, I screamed so loudly that I made her cry as I ran down the trail after being surprised by a small black snake. I fear that there are times I am not as observant as I should be when doing certain types of field work for my job because I am so worried about seeing a snake. I've woken my husband up too many times to count because I'm screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night after another snake dream. I've embarrassed myself in front of countless people because my reaction to snakes seems over-the-top and completely irrational.

Needless to say, this phobia of mine has gotten much worse as I've gotten older, and it has certainly escalated to a point where I feel like it is inhibiting my life. I also worry about passing this phobia on to Sadie...definitely something I'd like to avoid.
So, I'm currently working with my therapist to address this phobia. We briefly worked on it about 6 months ago, but we've recently decided to revisit the therapy. She is confident that this summer I will playing in the creek bed in Castlewood Canyon with Sadie.

I am by no means an expert on anxiety disorders or appropriate treatments for them (which is why I've reached out to a professional). But I thought it would be interesting to share some of this process here (and hopefully track my journey to a life free from this crippling fear).

My first step was to make a list of my top ten most-feared snake scenarios from most benign (1) to most debilitating (10). Here it is.
1. reading about a snake
2. thinking about a snake
3. seeing a live snake on TV
4. seeing a picture of a snake in a magazine
5. seeing a dead snake
6. seeing a snake in a cage
7. seeing a snake in the wild, from afar
8. seeing a snake in the wild, in close proximity
9. touching a snake
10. having a snake crawl on me

The next step was to spend some time writing the word snake over and over again. Seriously, that was actually an issue at first. But look how many times I've already said snake in this blog post! Progress!

I was also instructed to buy myself a rubber snake. I asked really nicely if she would take care of that task for me, but she insisted that I needed to do it myself. Of course I waited until the last second, and begrudgingly went to a great little toy store near my office. I finally asked where the toy snakes were and the salesperson pointed me in the right direction. I looked at this big display box of rubber snakes..and looked...and looked...and tried to talk myself into just picking one up and taking it to the counter. And I honestly couldn't do it. I finally just took the box to the counter and asked them to please put one in a bag for me. She looked at me rather strangely, but I explained what was going on, and she actually commended me for taking this step! The snake rode in the bed of my truck on the way home; I couldn't bring myself to welcome it into the cab at that point. My therapist LOVES my rubber snake (which she insisted I name...he's Herbert). He's blue. I actually started crying the first time she took him out of the bag. Really. I still haven't touched him and it's been almost a year. Really. Apparently that's happening next week. Not sure if I'm ready. I'm hoping she'll let me start with him just sitting on the couch next to me. That probably sounds crazy to most of you, that I can't even touch a fake, rubber snake. That's what I'm talking about people....irrational fear over here!

My therapist, who I truly respect and trust, is also a very big proponent of the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), or "tapping". EFT is a form of alternative psychotherapy that uses tapping on acupuncture points to reduce the anxiety that I feel in relation to snakes. EFT is supposed to release energy blockages that cause negative emotions by tapping on meridian points on the body. It is dismissed by many people as a being psuedoscientific, but there are also many proponents of the power of this technique for all types of anxiety disorders and stress management. And I'm really willing to try anything.

So, we're also using EFT during this process. We start out by discussing one of the scenarios I listed above, I assess my anxiety level, and rate it on a scale between 1 and 10. Because we've started at the beginning of the list, my anxiety level is usually between a 5 and 7 (just from talking about these scenarios, not actually experiencing them). After going through a series of tapping exercises on various points on my body, I reassess my anxiety level. In all cases, I've found that it seems to have decreased.

The idea is that within a relatively short period of time, my emotional reaction to snakes won't be something that I "hook" onto. I can see that this is the problem. I experience a moment of intense fear whenever I see or hear about a snake, but then it stays with me. If I see a snake on the side of the road, I'm sure that it has somehow gotten into the car and I can actually imagine that I feel it crawling on me for the rest of the day or longer. If I see a picture of a snake, I continue to replay that image in my mind for days, and experience the accompanying fear over and over again.

Apparently, there will also be an actual snake involved towards the end of this process (duh). My therapist's children are going to catch me a pencil snake once we're well into spring. I don't know what that is. I'd google it, but obviously, that's something I'd prefer not to see a picture of.

That's the reason I've put off dealing with this for so long...because I assumed (correctly) that any sort of snake therapy would inevitably involve a snake...which until now I've been unwilling to consider. But whether it's for Sadie's sake, or because I just want to get on with my life, I've really committed myself to addressing this phobia and sincerely hope that I can make some progress...I'm tired of snakes. It's either this, or move back to Alaska.


Wendy said...

Good on you Rachel! You could also move to New Zealand or Ireland. Definitely want to avoid Australia though. :) I know you can do it.

Angela said...

Thanks for sharing. You're venturing into some major personal challenges these days and kicking butt (and gut - that's where fear lives)!! Proud of you!