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September 24, 2009

This Wonderful Life: I sssssseeeeeee you there

The first thing you should know is that I used to suffer from a snake phobia. The operative word there is phobia. It wasn’t just a matter of disliking snakes. It wasn’t a fear of being bitten. It wasn’t a simple reluctance to touch their impossibly dry, nimble bodies.

I was phobic. It was a fear completely devoid of reason or logic.

The technical term for it is ophidiophobia. The lay term for it is buuuuuhhhhuuuuuuugh. Or maybe it’s aaaiiiiiieeeeeeeekkkk!!!!!! There are different levels of severity.

I avoided outdoor experiences because of the possibility that I might see a snake. Just see one. When the family went to zoos, I stayed outside while they toured the reptile exhibits.

Once, while riding in a car down the long strip of highway that runs the length of Pensacola Beach in Florida, we saw a rattle snake making its way across the sweltering asphalt. I screamed.

Let me repeat that: I was inside a car traveling some 55 miles per hour, and when I saw a snake on the street, I screamed and curled into a fetal position. Thank goodness I wasn’t behind the wheel.

So, a few weeks ago when I wrote about Serpentina, the snake who hangs out in the garden along our front path, it wasn’t just a reflection on my relationship to my surroundings. It was a reflection on my relationship to my internal landscape as well.

I no longer have a snake phobia, and that’s just one of about half a dozen irrational fears that no longer take precious time out of my days.

Flying in airplanes, needles, surgery, hospitals, driving on rainy roads, driving on snowy roads, driving on roads that may become rainy or snowy... Gone.

How my fears left me is complicated and boring. I survived cancer. I became intimate with a number of my phobias, and they became ordinary, everyday elements of my life.

I do not recommend that route to phobia mitigation. There are easier ways. Suffice to say that I once had a snake phobia, and now I do not. Until one recent morning.

Our little dog Murphy, who is not yet a year old and not yet predictable in his behavior, had nevertheless gotten into the habit of walking alongside his people out to the dogs’ fenced area. Unfortunately, he figured out that the horrible piglike smell that was coming from across the meadow was indeed produced by our two pigs. For days, any time someone opened the front door, Murphy bolted out and headed around the back of the house, away from his fence, toward the pigs. I can understand his fascination. They’re very smelly and big — each one about 10 times his size.

Of course, these jaunts never happened at convenient times. Somehow, he always decided to visit his pig friends when I was running late for a meeting or trying to get the girls to school.

That’s exactly what happened on the morning in question. Posey was already in the car, waiting to be driven to school. I had run up to the house to get one last thing, and as I was closing the door behind me, Murphy bolted — a streak of red and white fluff around the back of the house.

I darted after him, but was halted in my tracks by not one, but two snakes. One slithered through the grass to the left and into the Queen Anne’s lace. The other headed to the right and the embankment covered in myrtle. It stopped, and looked at me, presumably to determine whether I was holding a hoe.

That’s when I realized that, surrounding the snake on the hill just a few feet from me and my bare, besandaled toes, were five others. Six snakes — seven if you count the one over in the Queen Anne’s lace.

Seven snakes. I could feel 14 little eyes on me. All of us still and silent. Waiting. Seven snakes.

It seems like you should have to be on a vision quest, or fall asleep with Jim Morrison playing on the stereo to see something like that. I was the one who backed down first. I turned, walked back to my porch and called for Murphy with promises of cookies. He returned and the day went on as planned.

For weeks, though, I was unable to take that route to the backyard. I started going the long way around. I got jumpy walking up my front path, and quickened my steps because I knew they were there. I knew they were looking at me.

I researched ways to get rid of snakes, and learned that direct, hand-to-snake combat is the only surefire method.

I began to wonder whether a mongoose can make a decent pet. Fears are powerful like that. They enter through the keyhole of a bad experience or two, then multiply exponentially. They change the pattern of living around them. They’re bossy and sneaky and shrill.

They’re worse than snakes, and much, much more vicious.

And even when you think you’ve gotten rid of them, they can make another appearance and start to build nests in the corners of your life. It pays to exterminate them. Elizabeth Trever Buchinger has a hoe and she’s not afraid to use it. You can connect with her at www.moremindfulfamily.