It’s that time of year again.
As no famous ode to autumn by John Keates ever went:
Season of mists and mellow fruitlessness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring spiders scuttle into houses
Hoping to scare the crap out of everyone
Every day I check the social media, expecting to see images of friends’ kids eating blackberry crumble; of the flag that still represents the UK (smug); of pets with interesting diseases.
But sometimes I unsuspectingly scroll right into a high-definition close-up of a hairy knee, jointing out from a swollen abdomen. With a caption reading something like: look what I found in the shower!
Yes: Spiders are big this year. There’s a prize-winning specimen living in Tiddler and Toddler’s bedroom. I’m sure that Tiddler could ride it, given a saddle.
They’ve made it into the workplace, too. I was chillaxing in the staff-room yesterday, when a receptionist arrived:
‘Someone wants a vet to look at a house spider. He’s seen something like it on TV and wondered whether it might be poisenous?’
None of the vets moved. In fact, we all went uncharacteristically quiet.
‘I’ve seen it,’ said the receptionist. ‘It’s only a small spider.’
Then some intelligent chap on the management team piped up, ‘I saw this on the news. Apparently spiders are bigger what with the weather, so some of the big ones are actually irritant when they bite.
‘Just tell them all spiders are poisonous, but if it’s a small spider it won’t have enough venom to cause any trouble.’
The receptionist disappeared. The noise level began to rise again.
And then she returned.
‘He says he wants you to tell him what sort it is.’
Ah. The vets looked sideways at one another. Eventually, one of the nurses stood up. She’s nursed in Austrailia: they have real spiders over there.
‘I’ll google it,’ she said.
Let me be honest: I’d sooner volunteer to see a bad-tempered rott-weiler. Hell, sooner a bad-tempered chihuahua (small aggresive dogs are infinately harder). And rest assured: I know that a British house-spider probably wouldn’t hurt me. I am a qualified veterinary surgeon after all.
But arachnaphobia isn’t a logical choice, or even a conscious one. Rather, there is a series of reflexes. Visual stimulus: spider. Body jerks away, pupils dilate, heart speeds up. On a conscious level, it takes me a few seconds to work out what has happened – why am I jumping across the room with a taste of acid in my stomach? What’s that undignified little squeak I’m making in my throat? Oh wait – there’s a spider moving over the carpet, with its funny little gait like a mechanical toy.
Behaviourists say we learn by negative reinforcement. According to Wiki, this….
……. occurs when the rate of a behavior increases because an aversive event or stimulus is removed or prevented from happening.
This means, that if we do something that causes an unpleasant thing to stop, we are more likely to do it again. The oft-quoted example is in horse-training: the rider puts pressure on the horse’s flank with his right knee. This annoys the horse, who might turn left, whereupon the uncomfortable pressure immediately stops. Over time the horse learns that when the rider applies pressure with one knee, even if it’s just the gentlest of nudges, he wants him to turn to the other side.
Avoidance of spiders also works by negative reinforcement. Being near a spider feels horrible. If I move away, this negative stimulus eases. So the more I avoid spiders, the more it is reinforced in my head as a good thing to do.
Except that it isn’t actually a good thing to do, because I have been learning helplessness: sometimes an inability to deal with spiders can affect your quality of life.
My first ever locum job came with a flat above the vets’. The flat was spider-ridden. My washing pile in the corner quickly became a no-go area because I had seen an arachnid scuttling towards it. Within four days, I was running out of clothes. I inspected my towel carefully every time I left the shower. Worse, I could only shower at certain times of day, when Eric the big-hairy-fat-one wasn’t watching – and this never seemed to coincide with any hot water.
The nurses in that place were as bad as me (except one, who killed Eric, which was worse) so I had to get used to sharing my flat. The secret was to dart one’s eyes around the room before walking in; to clock where the beasties were sitting and to keep half an eye on them in case they moved. I hated taking my glasses off because every mark on the wallpaper and ceiling (there were lots of marks) could be misinterpreted as being an out-of-focus arachnid. I didn’t turn the light off very much, either.
Occasionally, there were monsters. The first time a giant one stalked across the floor, I phoned my Mum. It must be hard to be so far from your youngest when they are experiencing so much distress, but Mum was amazing. She talked me through approaching the creature and putting a bowl over it. After an hour of comments like:
‘OK I’m going towards it now…. oh shit, I was so close but it moved so I ran away again…‘
there was utter relief when I completed the task. Except for the spider, whose traumas were just beginning. It was three days before I pscycked myself up to slide a bit of card under the bowl, and another hour before I took the whole lot outside, threw it down and watched fixedly from a distance as the poor, hungry critter scuttled away.
Anyway, the story has a happy ending because I started to work at my Spider Thing. I can now pick up a tiny one and look at a big one, provided that I sneak up on it and not the other way around. I show them to the kids when I see one, just in case it makes any difference. Kissing the children goodnight has been nerve-racking at the moment, but so far they don’t mind Godzilla in the least, so I haven’t had to confront moving her.
Back in the staff-room, the nurse returned after a while.
‘It’s a garden spider.’
She was carrying one of those plastic containers into which supermarkets pack four muffins. I must have feined too much interest, because she thrust it towards me….
….and I reached out, cool as a cucumber, took it from her and studied the stripey creature inside.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘A garden spider, you say?’
I stuck my bottom lip out and raised my eyebrows in a ‘what-do-you-know’ sort of a gesture, then passed it nonchalantly on to someone else.