I once had a sociology teacher who tried to convince me that I did not know the real meaning of having a phobia. He asked me to describe the worse experience I had with the thing I feared.
I answered, "One time, I was watching television while lying on my parent's bed. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a spider land on the bed. I threw the blankets off of me, left the room and did not return for a couple weeks."
The teacher looked at me and said, "Okay, you might have a phobia."
The funny thing is this phobia of mine only got worse over the years. As a child, I was not afraid of spiders. I certainly didn't like them, but that never stopped me from killing them when I saw them.
But after a close encounter with a giant black spider in Mexico (and I mean tarantula territory here), I could not even get close enough to a spider to kill them. Photos of spiders, or even me just thinking about one, could trigger a strong reaction that included trembling, an increased heart rate and nausea.
Yep, I definitely have arachnophobia.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 19.2 million adults live with some type of phobia. I guess that should make me feel like I am in good company - right?
On that same trip to Mexico, I met a woman who was afraid of birds and I've heard of people who are afraid of wind, pigs or antique furniture. So being afraid of spiders seems pretty normal.
But it is rather funny how people react when they realize someone has a phobia.
Some like to exploit it - one time, I was playing Mario Kart with my family and I was winning the race. One of my siblings suddenly said, "Emma, there's a spider on your controller." Without looking to confirm, I threw the controller and lost the race. Afterward, we laughed about my reaction, but at the time, I was stricken with panic.
Other people get angry. With me, they can't seem to comprehend why I don't just kill the spider, especially since I hate them so much. They say I overreact and need to get over it. They don't realize I recognize how irrational my response is - that I wish I could just squash the arachnid and move on with my life.
Another portion of the population likes to tease people with phobias. Fake spiders are, of course, the easy way to get a reaction from me. They don't realize that even fake spiders trigger a physical response and my skin will crawl all day long.
But with all these people who know someone with a phobia, almost none of them seem to understand it. They think our reaction is either funny or annoying - even I think my reaction is funny or annoying - still, the fear is real and it is powerful.
With 19.2 million people experiencing the same issue, whether it is triggered by high winds, piglets or great-grandma's sofa, I like to imagine there could be more understanding that phobias are uncontrollable.
No one chooses to be terrified of something.
No one likes to have to change travel plans because they can't get into a plane.
No one enjoys having to washing their hands 100 times a day because they're afraid of germs.
No one likes staying shut in their house because open spaces petrify them.
I certainly don't like being unable to sit in a room with a spider on the wall.
Irrational? Certainly, but that's what a phobia is and people like me just can't help it.