Unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia

If you tell someone you have an animal phobia, there’s a good chance they will respond with unhelpful platitudes and alarming anecdotes. They may be completely well meaning, but plenty of well meaning people say uncomfortable things.

This has been on my mind because I had an incident the other day. It was a split-second ripple of silver as a snake fled under a shrub. Suffice it to say, the snake, who may not even live on the property, is now Lord and Master of my front yard. If I spend any amount of time standing there, a sense of panic starts to build until a voice starts yells in my brain, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT ARE YOU DOING IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN. GET OUT OF HERE.” Like when you watch a horror movie and someone goes up to the dark attic.

My phobia is bad enough that I felt sort of icky and unhappy writing the last paragraph. This is why, from here on out, I will be using Miniature Schnauzers for all my examples*. Thanks to wikipedia, I just learned that ophidiophobia is something I have in common with one third of all adults. I couldn’t even find a specific term for a phobia of Miniature Schnauzers (though I apologize to any general sort of cynophobes reading), so I hope this is a less alarming way to put things.

And so, here is my list of unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia:

You’re bigger than it.

Size has nothing to do with it.  Of course I should be more afraid of the Giant Schnauzer, which can wrap itself around its prey and suffocate it. But a Miniature Schnauzer is small enough that you might not see it slithering along in the grass until you’ve almost stepped on it, and that freaks me out more.

It’s more afraid of you than you are of it.

No, no it isn’t. It’s a reptile small canine, with an itty bitty reptile canine brain. It doesn’t have the mental capacity for a severe, activity-restricting phobia. Also, the degree of the animal’s fear has nothing to do with the degree of my own fear.

We don’t really have poisonous Miniature Schnauzers around here.

Doesn’t matter. Phobias aren’t about logic. The amount of actual danger isn’t always a factor in how strong the fear is. Even when it is a factor, it’s usually exaggerated. Eventually, this kind of knowledge can help dispel a phobia. Eventually. But having someone tell me—just as an offhand comment—that I shouldn’t be afraid comes across more as blowing off fears that are very real to me.

empty pantry shelves

A tidy pantry is less attractive to Miniature Schnauzers.

Except for this one type of poisonous Miniature Schnauzer you see now and then.

Yes, this is a legitimate concern. Now, because I have a severe phobia, I ‘ll be freaking out about the small possibility that I’ll one of the rare poisonous types.

That’s ok. A lot of people are afraid of them.

I don’t care. That sucks for those other people, and I feel for them. But other people sharing my phobia doesn’t change its negative impact on my life.

The most shocking story you can think of.

“You’re afraid of miniature schnauzers? Oh man, my Aunt Dolorothy used to have one. Poppy was so friendly, and she used to lick everybody’s hands. Then one day my Uncle Freddington found my aunt in a bathtub of ice water and no kidneys and Poppy had the kidneys in her food dish.”

ALL the horror stories you can think of involving that animal.

“You’re afraid of Miniature Schnauzers?”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her mailbox and it bit her.”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her tent, and she still can’t go camping.”

“One time I saw a Miniature Schnauzer eat a frog and it was so disgusting but I couldn’t look away.”

“One time a Miniature Schnauzer came at me when I was swimming, and let me tell you I never swam so fast in my life.”

“One time I was doing laundry in the basement—we live in an old house–and a Miniature Schnauzer came out of a crack in the wall and I dropped my hand towels that have a picture of a sweet little cottage on them.”

“Remember the restaurant that used to be on the corner of Main Street and MadeUp Road? Yeah, they had to shut that place down because the kitchen was infested with Miniature Schnauzers.”

I used to know someone who was aware of my phobia, and would come to me with any Miniature Schnauzer story she heard. I guess it was a way of bonding, a topic she figured we could talk about. A lot of these stories took place near where I lived, like at the trail where I went running. It became harder and harder for me to use that trail.

Exposure therapy is an effective way of dealing with a phobia, and learning to cope with this kind of story would be an eventual goal. However, one key to exposure therapy is that it be voluntary.

You probably shouldn’t watch…

Actually, some of the more helpful comments I’ve gotten are about movies to avoid. Sometimes I can handle them, and sometimes I can’t. But if someone goes on to describe the scene in question, it goes right back to being unhelpful. On the other hand, I could probably make a nice list of movies to watch if I want a mental challenge. Movies to watch when I’m a braver person.

Mostly, I’ve learned that if I tell anyone about my phobia, I must be clear. I’m not a little scared; I have an irrational fear to the point that I don’t want to see or hear anything at all. No stories, no pictures, no movies.


*A therapist told me that it’s better in the long run not to use code names like this. It’s another avoidant behavior, and it only gives the phobia more power. But it was funnier to me this way, because Schnauzer is a funny word.

Please Kill Me and then go do some stuff

A few years ago, I picked up Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk on the used book shelf at the grocery store. We put it on our cinder block bookshelf next to our Star Wars books and our giant thesaurus, and whatever other books we have on display in our living room that we think make us look cool, but actually do the opposite.

Please Kill Me sitting on the shelf

Please Kill Me thinks it’s cooler than the other books on my shelf. Even the Star Wars ones.

For years, music books were among the few types of nonfiction that could hold my attention through a few hundred pages. One day, I picked up Please Kill Me on a whim and read a few pages. I remained hypnotized in its pages until I finished it.

There’s less about the music itself than I would like, and the focus is on a fairly small number of bands. Plenty of TMI moments as well. However, it stitches together direct quotes so seamlessly that sometimes it doesn’t feel like reading separate voices. And despite the overwhelming number of people whom I’d probably hate if I met them in real life, it really conveys the living community of the New York punk scene, and it makes me want to be there. It reminds me of how important community is.

I wanted to share this quote from Legs McNeil, one of the authors of Please Kill Me (from page 334):

“Overnight, punk had become as stupid as everything else. This wonderful vital force that was articulated by the music was really about corrupting every form—it was about advocating kids to not wait to be told what to do, but make life up for themselves, it was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.”

At its best, punk wasn’t about studied coolness or meticulous safety-pinning. It was about doing shit. Kicking down doors. It was refusing to be stopped by roadblocks on the obvious path in front of you, roadblocks that say “you can’t go here,” and taking that DIY spirit and making your own road out of salvaged bricks and broken glass and a found bucket of tar*.

That quote reminds me to make my own damn artwork to hang in my apartment rather than to buy manufactured art from Target or someplace, and to make that artwork out of subjects and materials I like rather than worry about getting things a certain way. It’s better to do something creative and true than it is to make the place you live a poor copy of something in a magazine.

It reminds me of why I’m going to help make a new wooden table top for what used to be a glass deck table but, thanks to an incident** that qualifies as “embarrassing, awful, and stupid,” is currently just an empty frame sitting on a sad deck.

It reminds me to write the things that I write, and that the things I write usually have to start out as a mess.

It reminds me to experiment and do things and learn, because so, so many people do not do things, only consume them. It reminds me that the biggest difference between many of my bad days and my good ones is that I did real things on the good ones. I made life up for myself.


*You can tell I know a lot about making roads.
**We didn’t buy a base for our umbrella because we didn’t like any that the store had. We knew we needed to get one, but the umbrella didn’t blow away, which sort of caused an idea to creep into our heads—an idea that maybe we didn’t need a base after all. Sometimes, we left the umbrella open, though we knew not do this. But again, nothing tragic happened, and another idea crept into our heads—an idea that it’s probably not the end of the world if we leave the umbrella open sometimes. One day, we came home to find that our umbrella had nearly blown off the deck in a big gust of wind, and a pile of tempered glass pebbles sat underneath what used to be our table top. And we knew better.