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Fear and the Psychotherapist: A Personal Confession

According to experts in neurobiology, when we are afraid we are at our least intelligent. Literally. We stop thinking like grown human beings with our cortex and frontal lobes and start thinking with that small walnut of a lizard brain we call the limbic system.

The other day I had a personal experience of just how foolish fear can make a person. With all my training in psychotherapy, trauma, and crisis counseling, with all my years in the trenches seeing the very worst that humanity is capable of, with all the professional composure and philosophical peace I have made with the suffering and idiocy of the world, I still acted like an ass in a thunderstorm. One little peel of thunder and off went my adrenal glands, madly galloping away with my cerebral cortex, disappearing into the sunset, never to be thunk [sic] of again.

It’s all about a small insect…well, he wasn’t very small at all and that was where the first problem began. He was a six inch, armored tank of a whip scorpion, what locals in New Mexico call the Vinegaroon.

Baby Whip Scorpion

My husband and I were sitting outside in the morning with our teas, watching the slow trickles of last night’s rain slide from the roof into the canals and down the side of the house. It was a cooler morning than we’d had in weeks of 103 degree temperatures and we were relaxed in the western breeze.

I watched the rain and thought about a catchment system, following the water upwards to the canal when I saw him.

I nearly dropped my mug.

“SCORPION!” I thought.

I pointed. That was the only word that came out of my mouth for about 3 seconds, which is a long time when you’re trying to speak.

My husband looked where I was pointing, saw nothing (it was still early and the sun hadn’t fully risen) and kept asking “What? What?” The more he asked, the less I could speak.

I’d seen and reluctantly dispatched scorpions before. But they were less than an inch long and pale, seeming somehow less threatening. This one was on our portale, it was about 6 inches long if you don’t count the whip at the end of his thorax, it had an exoskeleton to make a Hummer jealous, and it was MOVING.

“It’s a scorpion!” I finally eeked out.

How pathetic, I thought even as I was being pathetic. A damsel in distress over a bug. But I was already in the hooks not of the bug but of my own neurobiology. My limbic system had been turned on, the adrenal glands were on red alert, and all I could think of was that damned thing could kill our little dog and do some serious damage to our bigger one. In my fear, I forgot about everything I ever said I believed in–the sanctity of all life, the intricate balance of the ecosystem, the divinity and love of God in all His creatures. And I do feel that way, now. Then, I had all the philosophical wisdom and forethought of a swamp croc.

After we both went over to look at it, my husband, being the saner of us, asked, “Are you sure it’s a scorpion? It kinda looks like that bug we found by the garage that time and it turned out to be a big nothing, remember?”

“NO! What about the dogs?”

“Well, I don’t know…what if we put him in a bucket?”

“How?”

“A shovel.”

As he went to get a shovel and a bucket, I herded the dogs inside and kept a watchful eye on what I thought was the most venomous creature I’d ever seen.

By the time Dave walked across the house, into the garage, got back out and crossed the courtyard, my fear had infected him and his limbic system had apparently kicked in. So, instead of scooping the poor fella into a bucket, he picked up a shovel and swung hard enough to crack the stucco. The bug never knew what hit him.

While knowing his death was quick and hopefully painless gave me some measure of absolution after my adrenalin crawled back to the walnut whence it came, it didn’t make me feel less stupid or remorseful when I found out that he was in fact not a scorpion at all, but a vinegaroon—a rather harmless, non-toxic night stalker that eats crickets and other unpleasant pests. So not only was he not a scorpion, not only was he not harmful to my dogs or me, he was an asset to our garden.

They say it takes 1/12,000th of a second to go to red alert but that it takes a lot longer to think a situation through.

Stupid is fast. And, as I found once again in my life, fast is also pretty stupid.

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