‘The end of my snake phobia’

no more fear of snakesEven as a young child I was not very fond of snakes. I was definitely more of a cuddly animal  lover and not  a scaly slithery enthusiast as I was never very fond of the lizards or crocodiles either. Nevertheless I was not afraid to visit them at the zoo and frequently did so as my elder brother was very interested in snakes and always wanted to visit the snake house. The competition between us and the choice between the cuddly animals and the snakes is what led to an event which  left me traumatised and with a phobia of snakes.

When I was 8 years old my mother took my brother and I to Thailand to visit my sister who was travelling the world for 6 months on her gap year. I remember being really excited to go and see my big sister on her adventure. During our time in Thailand we were in Bangkok and then travelled north to the Chiang Mai region. It was in Chiang Mai that my phobia started. We had spent the day doing various activities. My brother, sister and her friends did a Bungee jump (much to my mother’s consternation).  As I was too young to do the jump (even though I was desperate to) they all thought it was fair that I chose where we went next. I chose Monkey World.  Really excited to see the monkeys, I ran in with my basket of fruit and was very upset to see lots of cute baby monkeys tied up with chains . I can still remember the distressed expressions on the faces of these poor monkeys as I fed them my fruit  basket . Pretty shaken by what I had seen and upset that Monkey World was not how I had hoped I left in a bad mood

After our visit to Monkey World our driver offered to take us to Snake World, which was just around the corner. My brother really wanted to see the snakes so my mother agreed.

I remember so well walking into Snake World. I kept to the middle of the path avoiding the snakes which lined the path in rabbit hutch cages.  As we walked around I noticed that some of the padlocks (which looked hopelessly feeble) were not actually locking the cages. At this point my anxiety began to increase.

I worried that one of these massive snakes could nudge the cage door and slither out.

Upset about Monkey World and worried about the snakes I did not imagine that things were about to get a whole lot worse. Snake World held shows for the visitors so after we took our seats for the next show. The stadium had three sets of seating in a U-shape, with a pit in the middle where the handlers performed various acts with the snakes. The handlers were taking it in turns to taunt the snake to make it rear up or play music to the snake to try and charm it. During the performance one of the handlers actually got bitten as he got too close to the snake he was taunting. They rushed him off to hospital. This greatly alarmed the audience.

For the last part of the show, there was a separate trick performed to each of the three sides of the enclosure. The first side had a massive snake lay across the laps of the front row of spectators; the second side saw one of the handlers squeeze a snake’s venom into a cup, and then finally it got to my side. The handler announced over the microphone that in a box they had an extremely dangerous snake. It was very poisonous and could jump up to 10 metres. At this point I moved right up to the top of the seating. The handler then ceremoniously opened the box pretending to be very careful. Then, as if the snake had jumped, he threw it straight at our side, straight at me! The audience screamed. The snake fell between the two rows of seats. I was absolutely terrified. I was crying and hyperventilating for half an hour. No one could comfort me. The handlers apologized profusely when they saw how distressed I was, but I could just not get myself to calm down.  It eventually turned out that what the handler had pulled out of the box was a piece of disguised rope, and the snake was still in there, but the illusion and effect was enough to trigger my phobia.

As I live in London, for years after that I did not have any contact with snakes but I would always become terrified walking through long grass.  We went to visit our cousins in Australia and were on a walk when my cousin called out to her son to watch out for snakes. It was at this point (when I hadn’t even seen a snake) that I jumped on my brother’s back and forced him to carry me the rest of the way. Progressively over the years my phobia got worse, with at one point I missed out an entire page of my GCSE Biology mock purely because there were two pictures of snakes to compare.

The height of my snake phobia came when I was in Kenya last summer on a safari holiday. I could not talk or even think about snakes without getting very scared. Every time we were out on drives and we stopped off for a picnic or an evening drink I would be so scared that I would not want to get out of the car for fear of there being snakes around. One day my family planned to do a walk up a giant rock, which gave you fantastic views for miles. At this point I put my foot down. I could not go for a 3 hour walk. Just the thought made me have tears in my eyes as all I could think about was the number of snakes I would see. My family finally  persuaded me to be driven to the rock, whilst they walked there, and to only do the walk up and down the rock.

The trip up and down the rock was a disaster; I spent the entire journey up crying and shaking uncontrollably. The only reason I managed to get up there was thanks to our lovely guide who held my hand the entire way up and tried to calm me down. Finally reaching the top instead of being relieved, and proud of my achievement, I was quite the opposite. My mother tried to congratulate me and give me a hug and I just flipped. I could see I was being so irrational but I could not stop myself having anger and fear flooding through me.

The trip back down was slightly better. Our guide managed to distract me by encouraging me to sing songs with him. The distraction worked. I still climbed down the hill as fast as I could but at least I did not have tears pouring down my face.

After returning to London and reflecting back on the whole experience, I realized I needed to seek help. The phobia was getting out of hand and I reacted to even a mention of snake. I was planning my gap year travelling starting in January 2014 for six months visiting Australia, and South East Asia . The probability of seeing a snake was high. In Kenya, I had reacted badly when I had not even seen a snake, I was scared for what would happen if I did come face to face with a snake.  I realized I needed help urgently.

I started looking on the Internet for ways to get over phobias and considered hypnotherapy and then found Paul Levrant’s number. After calling him and discussing my phobia we arranged our first meeting. I had no idea what to expect and was nervous driving to my first appointment. I thought maybe it was the sessions one sees in the movies, but I could not have been more wrong. I had weekly sessions with Paul on a Friday evening, after finishing work and it was a very relaxing way to finish a long week. In the sessions Paul not only targeted my phobia but spent time getting to know me and discussing my history as one cannot just pinpoint the phobia and get rid of it. I felt I really did make progress during my sessions but it was hard to judge as I did not have any encounters with snakes.

The beginning of January came and it was time for me to set off on my 6-month adventure and see if my sessions with Paul helped. At the end of February I left New Zealand and headed off to Australia, which was the most likely place for me to come across a snake. My fears were confirmed. I had two different encounters with snakes. My first encounter was during a bush walk on a group trip to Fraser Island. We were walking to a lake when the girls in front of me suddenly pointed out something in the bushes next to the path. I asked shakily what they had seen and they were looking at a snake! Initially I broke down into tears and freaked out for about 30 seconds. Then I remembered Paul ‘s teaching and the technique I should adopt. I managed to calm myself, have a look at the snake and carry on the rest of the hour and a half bush walk. This was my first proper encounter with a wild snake and I was very impressed. I had previously tested the waters of my phobia by walking around a snake enclosure at a zoo in Sydney, with my boyfriend and best friend holding my hand and managed this with ease.

After succeeding with this I was happy with my progress and then during our stay in Magnetic Island I took it a step further. There was a Koala Sanctuary on the island where you are able to go and hold a koala and various other animals. My other friends had told me how they bring snakes out for people to hold, but had also warned us that if you said you were scared they would be more forceful with getting you to hold it. It got to the snake part of the show and initially I was just going to see how I reacted to being only a metre or so away from the snake. I also warned the guide that I had a really severe phobia of snakes and to not force a snake onto me because I would freak out. As the guide wandered around with the snake and the other members of the audience started to hold the snake. I just focused on thinking about my “safe place” (as Paul had taught me to do) and concentrated on remaining calm.  After my friends had had their turns at holding the snake it finally got to me, I initially said no way and backed away. The guide however, managed to persuade me to hold the end of the snake’s tail, but only on the promise that he would keep its’ head away from me.  The guide kept to his promise, and held the snakehead away from me and gradually managed to get me to slowly move my hand further up the snake’s body; then put two hands on the snake and hold it completely. He then managed to persuade me to hold it around my neck, again he had to keep its’ head away from me but I did it, until he let the head come near me at which point I handed it back very quickly. Even though I had a small freak out right at the end when the snakehead came towards me, I was elated. I had a great rush of delight; I was so shocked and pleased that I had managed to hold the snake!end snake phobia

A year ago I would have never thought I would ever be able to face a snake let alone hold one. I am still scared of snakes but now it’s more of a fear rather than an irrational phobia. Getting to South East Asia on the latter part of my trip I didn’t have any contact with snakes, and unsurprisingly I did avoid the Snake World again in Chiang Mai even though I had an offer to go. There was a point in my life when I did let the phobia control me. I would not walk in certain areas if I thought there were snakes but I was lucky because my encounter with snakes are few and far between compared to some people who have face their phobias in everyday life.

To anyone who has a phobia however big or small I would really urge you to give getting help a go because it helped me and the sense of achievement is incredible. Thank you so much to Paul for all the help in achieving this, I really could not have done it without you.

Annie Bolgar-Smith