I fight my impulse to flee. It is difficult for me. I feel my pulse racing and notice that my breathing is frantic. I try to apply what I have learnt—to work with my physical reactions instead of ignoring them. I concentrate on my pulse and count my breaths—twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three. I focus my attention on my revulsion instead of making a pointless effort to suppress it. My revulsion is in my chest, beneath my fear. It is thick and sticky like mucus. I examine it carefully; it swells and subsides, like toothache. I want to dodge it; I want to get away. It’s a normal desire—that’s something else I have learnt.
The instinct to flee is normal. But there’s no point in evasion, in trying to avoid pain and fear. I grope for the mantra I’ve formulated with the therapist and cling to it: The way out of fear leads through fear. The way out of fear leads through fear. The way out of fear leads through fear.
The man looks at me enquiringly. With a mute nod, I signal to him that I am ready, although the exact opposite is the case. But I have been looking at the bird-eating spider for ages now. It is sitting in its jar, quite still most of the time, only stirring now and then, making my hair stand on end. Everything about it looks wrong: its peculiar movements, its body, its black and tan leg joints.
The therapist is patient. We’ve come a long way today. At first I couldn’t even be in the same room as that creature.
It was Charlotte who opened the door to the man with the bird-eating spider and cajoled me into greeting him. Charlotte thinks I’m researching for a book; she thinks the goings-on today are research for a novel, just like all the other crazy things that I’ve got up to here in the house these past weeks.
It’s a good thing she thinks that; it means that she doesn’t bat an eyelid when I shut myself away with a retired policeman to study interrogation techniques, or have ex-army trainers explain to me how elite soldiers are made mentally fit enough to withstand torture without disclosing information. These experts, who come to my house day after day, are received by Charlotte discreetly, and she passes no comment on the arrival of the therapist specialising in treating people with phobias using ‘confrontational therapy’. Charlotte has no idea that I’m trying to find out how much fear I am capable of withstanding before I collapse.
I am soft and I know it. The life I’ve led over the past years has been free of discomfort. I’ve been mollycoddled so much that it’s an incredible act of willpower for me to have a single cold shower instead of a warm one. I have to learn to be tough on myself if I want to take on my sister’s murderer.
Hence the bird-eating spider. Can’t get more discomforting than that. As long as I can remember, there’s been nothing I loathe more than spiders.
The therapist takes the lid off the jar where he’d temporarily stowed the spider while I got used to the sight of it.
‘Wait,’ I say. ‘Wait.’
He pauses. ‘Don’t think about it too much,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t get any easier, no matter how long you wait.’
He looks at me, waiting for a sign. He won’t do a thing until I’ve given him the go-ahead. That’s the deal.
I recall our conversation at the beginning of the session. ‘What are you frightened of, Frau Conrads?’ he’d asked.
‘The spider, of course,’ I replied, annoyed at the question. ‘I’m frightened of the spider.’
‘The bird-eating spider that’s in a container in my bag?’
‘Are you frightened right now?’
‘Of course I’m frightened.’
‘What if there was no container in my bag with a bird-eating spider inside?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Let’s assume, for a moment, that there’s no spider because I forgot to pack the container. What would you be frightened of then? You couldn’t be scared of the spider, if there wasn’t an actual spider.’
‘But I thought there was.’
‘Exactly. You thought. That’s where fear begins. In your head. In your thoughts. The spider has absolutely nothing to do with it.’
I pull myself together.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘We’ll do it now.’
Once again, the therapist removes the lid and places the jar on its side. The spider begins to move at a speed that terrifies me. I force myself to keep looking at it, even when the therapist lets it crawl onto his hand. I suppress the urge to jump up and run away, and I feel a drop or two of cold sweat running down my spine. I force myself to remain seated and watch. The spider comes to rest on the man’s hand—a nightmare of legs and fuzz and repulsiveness.
Once again, I try to apply what I have learnt over the past weeks. I focus my attention on my body and realise what an unnatural posture I have adopted. My torso is inclined as far to the left as it can go, and I’m cowering in the far corner of the sofa. I ask myself whether this is the way I want to be: like a rabbit in front of a snake. Whether I can afford to act like this, either now or in future.
I sit up straight, throw back my shoulders, lift up my chin. I reach out my hand and give the man with the spider a nod. My fingers are trembling, but I do not withdraw them.
‘Are you okay?’ the therapist asks.
I nod, letting all my energy flow into my hand, which I hold still.
‘All right then,’ says the therapist and brings his hand nearer to mine. For a moment, the creature squats there, motionless. I watch it, with its thick, hairy legs and its round body—that, too, is hairy but with a small bald spot. The legs are striped: black and tan, black and tan—each with an orange dot in the middle. I only notice that now. The spider sits there, quite still on the man’s hand, and I tell myself I can do it.
Then it starts to move. Everything about it looks wrong. My stomach rebels. Specks of light dance before my eyes, but I keep still, and the creature crawls onto my hand. The first tentative movement of its legs on my palm throws me into panic, but I remain motionless. The bird-eating spider crawls onto my hand. I feel its weight, the touch of its legs, its body brushing my skin. For a terrible moment I think it’s going to crawl up my arm and across my shoulder to my neck and face, but it stops on my hand. It squats there, shifting its legs. I stare at it. This isn’t a nightmare, I think; this is real life, it’s happening right now and you can take it. This is your fear; this is what your fear feels like, and you can take it. I feel dizzy; I’d like to faint, but I don’t. Instead I sit there with a bird-eating spider on my hand. It has stopped moving. My fear is a dark well that I have fallen into. I’m suspended vertically in the water. I try to touch the bottom with my toes, but I can’t.
‘Shall I take it off you?’ the therapist asks, startling me out of my trance.
I can only nod again. Carefully, he picks up the creature in the hollow of his hand and stows it back in the container that he carries in a kind of sports bag.
I stare at my hand. I feel the throb of my pulse, the furry feeling on my tongue, my tense muscles. My T-shirt is clinging to me, drenched in sweat. My face contracts as if I were about to cry, but as so often in the past years, no tears come and I cry in dry, painful sobs.
I’ve made it.