CONTENT WARNING Buddies who have phobias of long wriggly creatures with no legs, this email is all about them, so please DELETE THIS NOW if that’s going to make you shivery.
I’ve spent my whole life being terrified of snakes. Yes yes yes yes, I know that this is “irrational” and most of them are probably well-mannered long bois who just want to be left the heck alone, but I’m sorry, I just can’t trust anything that has no eyelids.
I’ve had a recurring nightmare throughout my life where I’m sitting in the garden of my childhood home (one of those lush Durban jungle-gardens), digging my hands in to the rich, brown soil, when suddenly I realise that the ground around me isn’t ground at all, it’s snakes. Millions of writhing, twisting snakes. They are the soil and the grass. They’re the vines and the branches. They’re wrapping themselves around my limbs and dragging me down into the seething dark snake ball and then I wake up with my heart pounding.
(Anyone who says anything about Freud or penis envy can just SHHH please).
So, I decided as a child that I was scared of snakes. That’s just at thing about me, like how my favourite food is artichokes and how I have webbed toes (I do. No, you can’t see pictures).
Anyway. This fear of snakes didn’t impact my waking life very much, until a few years ago when I started getting super into hiking (like, obnoxiously: I’m the person who wants to spend twenty minutes talking about different types of Jetboil stoves and I’m so sorry I am this way). Being afraid of snakes when you hike around the Western Cape a lot is no way to live your life, I tell ya. They might as well call it Table OF SNAKES Mountain. 🐍
I was fine hiking right up until the moment I let my brain think the word “snake”. From the moment the word “snake” entered my mind I couldn’t think of anything else. I’d have to move right at the back of the hiking group and hope that the snakes accepted the sacrifice of my friends and left me alone. It made hiking a much less calming activity for me than it would otherwise have been.
I got so good at snake avoidance that I hadn’t actually seen one in the wild, in years.
But last year, a funny thing happened. I was hiking through the Drakensberg with some friends and came across a snake. Just hanging out, right there in the middle of the path, refusing to budge, looking shifty as heck.
And before I could squeal and jump out the way, I remembered something: the person walking behind me wasn’t just afraid of snakes, she has a proper phobia of them. It’s so bad that she can’t look at a photograph of a snake. She can’t even say the word: she calls them “nope ropes” or “danger noodles”. I knew that if I freaked out, she would panic.
So I turned around to her, very calmly, and told her that she needed to just hang back for a minute while I sorted something out.
And then I picked up a long stick, and, like an absolute badass who has NEVER KNOWN FEAR, I coaxed that little bit of hazard spaghetti right off the path. Friends, I was Wonder Woman. I was Chuck Norris. I was Khutulun the Mongolian freaking warrior princess. It was epic.
And in that miraculous moment, I realised something: I’m not actually scared of snakes any more. It’s just something that I’ve believed about myself for so long, that I’d made it feel true. I do believe that I USED to be very scared of snakes. But the person I am now thinks they’re… kinda cool maybe? Still untrustworthy (I wouldn’t, like, lend one money), but not scary.
This got me thinking about what other things I believe about myself, that might not actually be true any more. For a long time, I thought I was terrible with money and destined to be broke. Shaking off that narrative about myself was part of how I changed my life.
Narratives that you have about yourself can trap you in the past. Saying, “I am like this” can work as a promise to yourself to keep being like that, even when being that way is not serving you.
Thinking I was a person who was afraid of snakes was what made snakes scary. But humans are awesome, because we can change.
So here’s my wish for you, dear reader, as you begin the next decade: I hope that you let some things go. I hope that you feel strong enough to pick up the pieces of yourself that you’re most ashamed of, the stories about yourself that trap you, stare them properly in the face, and prod those bastards right off the path.
From the magnificent couple’s therapist Ester Perel: “What outdated stories are masquerading as promises in your life? I’m not successful because I didn’t start with a trust fund. I’ll never find a partner because I’m unlovable. I will fail my children because my parents failed me. The new year is a good time to be forward-thinking about who you want to be; but it’s also a great time to look back at what you’re ready to let go of: the wrong partner or job; the narratives we use to justify our setbacks; the versions of ourselves—past, present, future—that no longer make sense.
Wishing you fresh starts, long sticks and the Jetboil Flash cooking system,
Your friend Sam