Fear 101

My cousin Dave is one of those people that somehow knows a lot about a lot.  Frankly, I’m not sure where he gets most of his information.  But, no matter his sources, I’ve yet to be disappointed with his knowledge and advice. The man is a carpenter by trade, but has interests that run the gamut.   For example, he wrote a book on investing in the penny stocks; he has read most of the Bible; and he has a good understanding of  Phobia Exposure Therapy.

Exposure+TherapyYou read that correctly.  Exposure Therapy.  And wouldn’t you know, this turned out to be really helpful when I announced I was moving to Thailand.  Truth be told, I didn’t do a lot of research about Thailand until AFTER I was hired by my school.  So, it wasn’t until  I had signed my contract, quit my job in the States, put my house on the market and given away our piano, that I realized that Thailand is full of…..snakes.  And not just little garter snakes. No no. Real snakes. Cobras, Pit Vipers and Pythons. Sea snakes. Kraits and Keel backs. Of the over 300 snake varieties in Thailand – more than 35 are venomous.  

While everyone should have a healthy fear of venomous snakes,  I definitely had an irrational snake phobia. Just talking about snakes would make my palms sweat and send my heart racing. I would beg to discontinue any conversation on the topic.  In snake prone areas, I would avoid any possible sighting by simply staying indoors. I never watched the snake scenes in Indiana Jones movies and never looked at pictures or watched You Tube videos of the creatures.  I didn’t want to hear about anyone else’s sightings. And, I NEVER went to the Reptile Man’s annual assembly at the boy’s elementary school.  (“The #1 Rated School Assembly performance in the Pacific Northwest!!”) So, you can imagine my feelings when I realized I was moving to a place actually famous for it’s snakes.  

But, I was determined.  I wanted to beat this stupid fear and have it behind me.  I wasn’t going to let something like this stop me from exploring the world.  I was done with being afraid of snakes. But, it isn’t that simple to just erase a phobia.  As a counselor, I actually have training in Exposure Therapy.  So, I started.  Me the counselor. Me the client. And, that worked for a while. I created an “exposure ladder” which is a list of tiny steps in which I exposed myself to all things related to snakes.  First, I just thought about snakes for a few seconds at a time followed by a relaxation exercise. I moved up to saying a few words about snakes and looking at pictures of snakes.  It was working.  I became less prone to unbearable anxiety with these first small steps. But, there is a limit to self-therapy.  I needed a little nudge to move on. I was going to need help.  

So, somehow the whole thing came up in conversation with my cousin Dave.  Can’t remember how.  Beer was probably involved.

I told him what I was doing and he said, “Well you know, you gotta put your hand on the pictures when you look at them.”  I looked surprised. “What?” He continued. “Well, there’s that whole brain thing where your hand will send a signal to your brain that the picture isn’t a real snake.  Then, your brain won’t act like it’s an emergency. You won’t panic. Then, the next time the picture won’t start the anxiety.”

So where the hell was I during my graduate level classes on the subject?  Clearly, this man could help me. So, with his advice, I went from pictures to videos pretty quickly.   And then, I was ready for a big step.

Just a few months before our move to Thailand, Rick and I were going to move some furniture out to Dave’s place in Gold Bar, Washington.   A couple days before, Dave had called and said, “Hey. You wanna go see the Reptile Man exhibit when you’re up here?  You know. For your phobia.” Yep.  The one and only Reptile Man had his permanent exhibit about 10 miles from Dave’s house.  Same one of elementary school assembly fame. “You can see the venomous ones and put your hand on the glass terrarium.  If you’re feeling like it, they will let you hold a Python. I’ll be there if you want,” Dave suggested. Oh man. I was scared but I had to do it.   So, with Dave by my side, I went to see the Reptile Man exhibit.  We walked from one glass case to the next where I would put my hand on the glass and look at the snake for a minute or two.  No real anxiety. My stateside therapy was complete.

Fast forward to Thailand.  No snake sightings. Not one.  Well, I saw a dead one on the street.  I saw pictures of the baby cobra that a friend found in his house; heard about the cobra in the preschool play yard at school; heard about the python and the monitor lizard fight behind my friend’s restaurant.  Lots of stories. I did go to the  Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, also known as the Snake Farm (famous for the extraction of  venom to make anti-venoms) here in Bangkok and saw lots of beautiful snakes in captivity.   But, no wild snake sightings.

So, during a hike when the boys were here in December and our Karon guide asked us, “Do you want to see a Green Mamba?”  I was surprised. “A snake?” I asked. “Yes.” he said. He had seen it on his way to meet us. I asked him if it would be safe and he said  “yes” and I said “yes”.  About a mile into our hike, the guide smiled and pointed at a branch about 5 feet away from us. On it, the biggest green snake I had ever seen. I would never have spotted it on my own.   It was beautiful! Clearly, it had just eaten something and was not going to be moving anytime soon. I looked at the snake with a bit of caution – not paralyzing fear. Now, I’m not sure it was a Green Mamba, as they are native to Africa.  It may have been a green Pit Viper. Either way, highly venomous.  It was one of the most memorable moments of my time here.

IMG_4050

I was calm enough to take the picture! Thanks Dave.

I’ll bet that when the guide asked me if I wanted to see that snake and I if I had said “no”, we would have just walked past it and I would never have known it was there at all.  It was highly camouflaged in the tree. It made me wonder how many snakes – or other wildlife – I have walked past without knowing.  Or not wanting to know.  Like many things in life I suppose.  Looking intentionally at the life around us isn’t always easy. Facing your fears isn’t easy.  Being engaged isn’t easy.

But, it’s magnificent.

Thanks Dave.  Definitely owe you one.

 

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