As a boy, I was fascinated by any and all reptiles, especially snakes! I read every book and watched every TV show dealing with these exotic, scaly animals, and the more dangerous or the more exotic and untouchable they were, the better. I would sit glued to the screen, jaw agape, while the narrator would describe in vivid detail the habits and habitat of the reticulated python, the spitting cobra, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the anaconda- the list goes on and on! Yet, when a neighborhood friend would capture grass snakes or garter snakes in a local vacant lot, I could not bring myself to touch them. If I knew of a common place they were known to frequent, I would not frequent that place. In my mind, I knew, as I know now, that these are harmless species which can be a little aggressive at first but are easy to tame and make good pets, but I just COULD NOT so much as approach them without the fight or flight response kicking into high gear!
Yes, I was snake phobic. Completely so. As with any other phobia, I logically knew what species were harmless, and which ones to watch out for. I was born in South Dakota, where Prairie Rattlesnakes are common- and I heard a saying as a child that if you’ve seen a rattlesnake, you probably walked by ten of them. They really just want to be left alone. They only want to bite what they want to eat, and if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. When they feel threatened, they will try to get away first, and will only rattle, hiss, and strike as a last resort. Even knowing all these things, I would feel compelled to run from any snake, and would avoid going places I thought any snake might be. Even watching the television shows I loved so much would make me itch uncontrollably. This phobia was with me well into my twenties!
That was then, however, and this is now- I have a pet snake now, in fact- a ball python- and she is among my favorite pets of all time, tied in first place with my Salvin’s Amazon parrot, Willy.
So how does someone go from itching uncontrollably watching a snake show on TV to having the object of the phobia as a pet? It may sound overly simple, but how I did it was to just face it. Not all at once, but the first steps I took were to make the choice that I wanted to conquer my fear. I never really hated snakes- quite the contrary! I just couldn’t beat the feeling that wherever a snake was, I had to be somewhere else! My family, and my friends for the most part were pro-snake and some actually had boas or pythons as pets, so I made a choice that I would be completely pro-snake too! I probably would have been able to avoid making the change forever, had my children not wanted to visit the reptile zoo. I cringed at the thought, but didn’t want to say “no” so I gave in- we walked into the place, paid our admission, and looked at every nerve-wrenching exhibit, and I felt the need to either run out of the building or itch uncontrollably, so I itched, and as much as I looked at the snakes, I was also looking at the cages to make sure no one had mistakenly left the door open. Against all logic, isn’t it? That’s exactly what a phobia is, and even at that point, looking in the eyes of a Diamondback Rattlesnake with only a sheet of Plexiglas between us, that’s exactly what had a grip on me!
As we walked out of the building, we were given the opportunity to hold some of the snakes. I wanted to run out of the building, but I simply made the choice to stay. My question to myself at that time was whether it was more important to hold onto a phobia I didn’t even want, or face it and let my children learn something and maybe avoid the phobia that had plagued me for so long. The owners of the facility went to another room and when they came back, they had 2 beautiful snakes from their collection: a Mexican Black King snake and a Checkerboard Garter Snake. I held the larger of the two first, the King snake and at first, the signs started coming back with full force- the tightening of the chest, increased heart rate, among others- but then I started noticing other things! The snake was remarkably soft, quite strong, but very gentle- it wrapped around my wrist, but not to constrict- only to hold on! It crawled on me and though I still wouldn’t let it climb on my neck or near my face, I was amazed at how it only wanted to find out more about me, and I started to think that maybe it was almost as curious about me as I was about it! I couldn’t believe the coloring on this magnificent creature, and before I knew it, the fear I once felt was replaced by genuine fascination and awe!
I completed that visit by playing with the garter snake, a species I’ve never seen before or since- a garter snake with a checkerboard pattern in place of the stripes I had always been familiar with, and I left that building feeling like a weight had been lifted from my chest. I only wish I had visited that place a long time before I did! I am not a doctor of any kind- I cannot claim to have any significant knowledge about behavioral therapy, but I can say with authority that this approach to conquering my personal phobia worked like a dream! I believe firmly that if you really want to overcome a phobia, it undoubtedly can be done, and the hardest, but most valuable step is to face it head on and take the control away from it!