I think the one that clinched my snake phobia was the one that almost landed in my lap. For those of you unaware of the niceties of snake patterns, a Coral snake and a King snake look very similar. The former though is deadly poison while the latter is harmless. There’s even a lovely little mnemonic to help you differentiate the two of them: Red on yellow kills a fellow, red on black brings him back. – OR – helps out Jack. Like anyone has time for such niceties when the snake falls off a tree limb onto your lap. Ugh.

As the title says though, snakes and I have a history. Infant, snake climbs in crib with me. Mom, according to the family story, is hysterical. (I have a hard time believing this as my mom was always so capable, but I digress.) Dad is off on duty somewhere. Neighbor kills snake. I believe that one was hastily decapitated with a shovel.

Age four, living at the Coast Guard lighthouse, snake comes at me from a bush, misses, I cry hysterically. Either Dad or the dog got that one. I think it was the dog. Mom and Dad buy a canoe, brother and I get stuck on cushions in the middle, wallah, snake falls off tree limb into lap, Dad beheads it with paddle, I have snake guts all over me for hours. Yuck. Gross. Am told to quit whining, so I sit there freaking out in my head instead.

Dad actually dried that thing out and mounted in between plexiglass. Turned out it was a scarlet King snake so I was never in any danger, but hello?! Adrenalin didn’t know that. And I was all of what? 6? 7 maybe? There was also a mounted rattlesnake skin, but I was thankfully never part of that experience.

I got a 3 and a half year hiatus from the attacks because we moved to Valdez then Ketchikan in Alaska. No snakes in Alaska. Hallelujah!! Of course, I did have to walk past those skins Every Freaking Day because Daddy decided they looked nice hanging in the hallway to the front door. Gave me the shivers. But still, thank you Coast Guard for putting us somewhere safe!!!

On to North Carolina where my brother thought it was great fun to throw garden snakes at me. “Boys will be boys” did not help me get past my growing phobia of all things SNAKE. In Mayport, Florida I managed to avoid them – USUALLY –  by being too dang busy with school, band, theatre and other such indoor things, but they were there and occasionally one would cross my path. I was past shrieking and into full catatonic, frozen immobility.

By the time my children were born I couldn’t even look at snakes in books. Crazy, right? I’m a psychologist. I understand the basis of phobias. There are ways to deal with these things. One day in Psychology class, I was talking about Systematic Desensitization and a student of mine challenged me to try it with snakes. He had come to my room with the biology teacher’s corn snake once. My reaction was memorable. I began my attempt at desensitizing myself to this phobia.

The idea behind Systematic Desensitization is to take whatever the least offensive/ damaging/ frightening form of the phobia is, expose yourself to it and do relaxation exercises until you are calm. Gradually you up the ante until you are able to declare yourself phobia free. Generally this should be done under the care of someone who specializes in this type of therapy so that you don’t induce further trauma. I decided to take it very, very slowly using yoga breathing exercises to make certain that wouldn’t occur.

I started with black and white cartoon drawings in a children’s book, extremely gradually worked up to more realistic pictures then to moving images on a television. Got to where I could be in the same room as the two snakes over in the science classrooms. And finally even managed to care for a friend’s snake when she went out of town for a week. I didn’t have to touch him or feed him, just put fresh water in his cage. He had just shed so I forced myself to handle some of his skin. Altogether Systematic Desensitization took me about eight years.

I still haven’t touched a live, moving snake. Don’t know if I ever will. I don’t really have a desire – or need – to do so. But I can watch other people do it now while I’m in the room. The hair on the back of my neck still rises, my skin feels way too tight on my whole body, yet I can stand there within a foot or two and breath – not panicking. Best of all – I’m really proud of the progress I have made in conquering my snake phobia. But I’m not in any hurry to move out of Alaska either.