This is a self-therapy session. If you have problems with it, don't read. But I know that there are many people out there who share my anxieties, many many more than would admit it even to themselves. Whenever I feel that my conversation partner is anxious about something, I share my anxiety, and they always thank me afterwards.
Yesterday, I saw a snake in the garden.
I was marking my territory, as I do several times a day, dead-heading flowers, picking raspberries, trimming hedges, weeding – not serious trimming or weeding, but in passing, as a short break from writing. I heard a rustle and turned to talk to the cat, and there it was, slithering – uuuh, this word! - along the paved path. I saw clearly that it was a harmless garden snake: big white spots on the head. But it doesn't matter. Snakes are my worst nightmare, my Room 101 if anyone would want me to denounce my children.
Some of it must have a tangible reason. Adults do scare children to protect me, and I was always told as a child to wear rubber boots when walking in the wood, because there may be snakes. In Karelia, where I spent most of my childhood summers, adders were common. I would see a dozen every summer, sometimes almost stepping on them. One year, a small boy was bitten. My mother was in panic and managed to get one of the two antidote vials available in the whole Soviet Union (or so she said; they were certainly hard to obtain), which we dutifully kept in the refrigerator during winter and brought with us on holidays. I was also taught how to treat a bite. But I have actually never been scared of being bitten. It is simply that the sight of snakes makes me physically sick.
Some people are scared of spiders, birds or wasps. Some are scared of heights, tunnels or caves, small toilets or crammed rooms. When I say “scared” I mean horror that you cannot cope with. And don't tell me you can be hypnotised. My kids once made me watch a television programme in which people with phobias were made to do things there were scared of. One woman who was scared of birds had to go into a bird cage with hundreds of pigeons, each with a hundred-dollar bill tied to its leg. The woman could keep all the money she managed to untie in five minutes. The kids argued that I should do something like this for my herpetophobia. I argued that if that woman had a real phobia she would not enter the cage for a million dollars.
On another occasion we visited the Stockholm Aquarium during a petting session. I was absolutely fine with huge hairy spiders, but that scaly python that Julia let hang over her neck... I did touch it, and it was unexpectedly soft and warm.
Anton and I went to a snake show in Australia. I went because he was very eager. He was nine then. Obviously herpentophobia is not hereditary. The snake master brought one of his pets close to the public to watch. I climbed back over three benches. “You don't take any risks”, he said. We also watched a snake swallow a rat (which luckily was dead). It sort of draw itself over the carcass. It was disgusting, but the snake was behind glass. I am fine with snakes behind glass. Although when we watch nature programmes and there are snakes, I close my eyes till Staffan tells me it's over.
Anyway, I saw a snake in my garden yesterday, and I was shaking for the rest of the day and felt sick and couldn't work any more and cried myself to sleep because I knew I would never be able to go out into the garden again. Staffan told me I was silly. Most people would tell me I am silly. The garden is surely full of snakes that I hadn't seen before. This particular snake is by now far away. It was probably more scared of me than I was of it. Garden snakes don't bite. They bring luck. And so on.
But the people who have a secret phobia would say to themselves: “I know exactly how it feels”. It's silly, it's irrational, but it's there and it won't go away.
I haven't been in the garden since then. I have this vision of a slithering body under every shrub, everywhere I go with my garden tools, with my bare hands. Never, never again. Which is very sad, because gardening has become the foremost joy in my life. I have just about got it the way I want it.
My cleaning lady Helen listened to my confession this morning and suggested that I buy a portable radio and play it very loudly when I am gardening. She said she didn't have a phobia but thought she could understand it. I know she cannot, but it was nice of her. She made me promise to make a list of all my ventures into the garden and show her next week. So far I haven't been further out than the patio.
Yes, I know that hedgehogs are skillful snake hunters.