I used to believe that your fears were a part of your personality. We have favourite things, and things that frighten us. If you’d told me that I didn’t have to be afraid of spiders, I would have told you to sod off, confident that you didn’t understand me. I would have clung to my fear like a raggedy baby blanket.
Personal identity is a complex tapestry of threads, which I don’t pretend to understand, but I’ve come to realise that it is fluid, and this can be a great help to your personal wellbeing.
I have learnt this from beetles.
Yeah, you were with me until that last sentence and now you’re wondering… is she one of those people? But, hear me out.
All my life I’ve been a loud and proud feminist. If a man can do it, then so can I. Girl power!
Except when it comes to creepy-crawlies, particularly spiders.
If a spider crawled into my world and was smaller than a 1p piece I would throw books at it until it was dead. If the spider was larger, I would become hysterical. I’ve called male friends in the middle of the night to save me from spiders. I’ve knocked on neighbours’ doors. Once, when a spider was Aragog-sized, I screamed and ran out into the street, wearing only a negligée, refusing to re-enter the house until my boyfriend produced the corpse for certification of death.
I was embarrassed by my behaviour, but it was who I was. I couldn’t help myself, could I?
Ten years ago, I went through a divorce. It was an unhappy time. I experienced crippling panic attacks and overwhelming waves of anxiety followed by numbing days of depression. It got so bad that, one Sunday, I ventured into Tesco to buy soup for lunch and the act of trying to decide which soup to eat brought on an attack. I had to leave the shop and sit outside on the pavement with my head between my legs.
I was invited on to Blue Peter to celebrate National Insect Week. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, except there were going to be live insects on the show and, although I’d written a book about beetles, I had never actually picked one up
I went to my doctor. She recommended a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). It was brilliant. It taught me that panic attacks are a sudden flush of adrenaline, the kind that you might experience in the wild if a lion were attacking you. The therapist told me that my experience of fear was valid, because my brain had tripped the fight-or-flight switch, but there was no lion. I was literally afraid of nothing. Our job, she said, was to work out what was making my brain hit that panic button. Eventually, I discovered that a #MeToo experience I’d had when I was 11 had led to an acute fear of being trapped and powerless. Trying to extricate myself from my marriage, which felt like a trap, and then the experience of being a single mother in a job where I was bullied, but needed the income so desperately that I had to smile and take it, had sent my brain into “What if?” spirals that left me unable to choose soup.
Around this time, I began writing a book about beetles.
Despite being one of the most valuable creatures on the planet to the environmental cause, invertebrates get a bad press. I had noticed invertebrates were commonly characterised as evil, dirty and frightening in stories, whether in books or on screen, and I wondered if that had any connection to my own fear. Where had my fear of insects come from? Was it the way my culture perceives insects? Was it learnt from my mother? Was it a childhood experience? I decided to try to write an adventurous and educational counter-narrative for children, to encourage readers to like insects and value them.
Beetle Boy was published in March 2016 and I was invited on to Blue Peter to celebrate National Insect Week. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, except there were going to be live insects on the show and, although I’d written a factually accurate, well-researched, positive story about beetles, I had never picked one up and had to admit to myself that I was frightened.
Worried about embarrassing myself on TV, I travelled to The Bug Farm, a working cattle farm in Pembrokeshire that also has an invertebrate research centre, a bug zoo where you can handle critters and Britain’s first insect restaurant, where you can eat them! I explained my predicament to Dr Sarah Beynon, the entomologist who runs the farm and proofreads my books. She took me into her zoo and pointed out to me that I had already done the hard part. In questioning my fear, identifying my ignorance and combatting it with six years of research into invertebrates, I’d been working hard to reprogramme my mind so it would view beetles positively. All we had to do now was overcome my knee-jerk physical reaction. I had to handle the bugs.
My heart was hammering. I thought back to my CBT. What was tripping that fight-or-flight switch?
What was I frightened of? Holding a beetle.
Was my fear valid? No, most beetles are harmless.
Is there a lion? No, just a beetle.
Is this a fear I learnt when I was young, playing out like a bad habit? Yes!
Do I want to be frightened? No!
The rainbow stag beetle was placed on to my hand and all the revolting things I imagined insects to feel like fell away as I experienced the truth.
Six weeks later, I was the proud owner of Hector and Motticilla, a beautiful pair of rainbow stag beetles. On Blue Peter, they politely told me to leave the beetles alone, I was picking them up so much. I’ve since taken my beetles on to Springwatch Unsprung to meet Chris Packham and into schools around the UK, inviting children to get to know them.
My newfound love for beetles is a constant reminder that life is better if I don’t let my fears rule me. The mind is a powerful thing. It’s purely down to questioning myself and using my imagination to tell a new story about invertebrates that I have become the beetle lady, author of four books about beetles and owner of pet rainbow stags. I couldn’t be happier about it.
PS Holding a tarantula feels like holding a baby kitten, although it still looks like a massive spider.