A ripple of skepticism snakes through my body. I close my eyes and slow my breathing, determined to give John a fair chance. His voice is soft, lulling me into a state of calm. After a few minutes, he begins his chant: “From this point forward, you will be calm, relaxed and at ease in the presence of spiders.” I try to absorb his words, to internalise them, to really believe them.
“You are in control,” he continues. “You are calm, relaxed and at ease in the presence of spiders.” His words come in different incarnations but always assure me that I will remain “calm, relaxed and at ease in the presence of spiders.”
This hypnotherapy isn’t like the TV shows in which a member of the audience dances like a chicken whenever someone shouts ‘soup’. I feel groggy and relaxed, but am well aware of my surroundings: lying in a large room with 20 or so other arachnophobes, eyes closed to the light, deeply hoping that Clinical Hynotherapist John Clifford knows what he’s doing.
The afternoon had started with all of us gathered in a theatre. John and London Zoo’s spider expert Dave Clarke told us what to expect of the four-hour session. They explained that, yes, it seems farcical that a lifelong fear could be extinguished in a mere afternoon but that it had proven effective for thousands of people.
Officially, I was there to review the programme for Rough Guides. Unofficially, I was preparing for Atlas and Boots’ trip around the world. I knew I’d be trekking in the Amazon, camping in Colombia and exploring Venezuela. I couldn’t let my fear of spiders spoil the trip – and so with uncharacteristic optimism, I enrolled onto the ‘Friendly Spider Programme’ at London Zoo.
After the introduction, we had a group ‘bonding’ session in which we explained just what it was about spiders that freaked us out (‘the way they crawl so fast’, ‘their furry legs’, ‘so many legs’, ‘their black bodies’ and so on). John carefully wrote down all the reasons. After this, Dave took the mantle and explained a few facts about spiders, highlighting the fact that they always run away from humans. He detailed their habits and motivations, in essence trying to ‘humanise’ them.
After a break for refreshments came the group hypnosis session, which brings me to why I’m lying on the floor with 20 strangers, trying to believe that I would remain calm, relaxed and at ease in the presence of spiders. After half an hour of this, John tells us to imagine our fear as a heavy black cloud. He tells us to imagine it drifting higher and higher in the sky until, eventually, it’s pulverised in our minds. When we rise from the hypnosis, we are all a bit sheepish, complicit in our silent doubt.
After this comes the real test. We head to the zoo’s ‘BUGS’ section to meet some spiders first hand. I touch a few house spiders, still feeling chills up my spine. I then try the capture and release. I have never before captured and released a spider, opting instead to suck it up with a vacuum. I pass the test but can’t help wondering if it’s only because I have the safety blanket of the spider keepers.
After this, I am handed Maggie, the zoo’s tarantula. I hold her with little difficulty. You see, tarantulas aren’t really spider-like at all. They’re big and slow, and it’s the faster house spiders that really freak me out.
I leave the session in two minds. On one hand, I handled real-life spiders without freaking out. On the other hand, could I really be ‘cured’ in just an afternoon? I try to keep in mind what John told us in the session: that if we see a spider, it’s natural to react with surprise but then the calm would kick in, overriding our initial reaction.
‘We’ll see,’ I thought, part dubious, part hopeful.
Fast forward a year and I can say with confidence that I’m cured. I’ve picked up a spider in my living room and deposited it outside, casually brushed one off a colleague’s shoulder, gone to sleep with one crawling in the corner of the room, and nonchalantly showered with one nearby. I can’t quite believe it but I’m cured. My only wish is that I had a similar session for general creepy crawlies. In a strange dichotomy, I remain calm in front of spiders be they house spiders in the UK or tarantulas in Colombia…
…but still freak out over bugs of nearly every other variety.
When I’m back in London, perhaps I’ll hunt down John for another session.
Friendly Spider Programme
Adult = £135
ZSL Member = £121.50 (10% discount)
Concessions = £94.50 (30% discount)