Courting the Serpent

I cannot remember a time that I wasn’t terrified of snakes. One of my earliest memories is of the summer my family lived in Buffalo in company housing, technically an efficiency, but for our family of six, it served as little more than a glorified hotel room. I was three years old, so much of that time is represented by singular images taken out of context, flashes, an abstract collage of miscellany I connect with but without explanation as to why, but one memory is very clear, intense: A black snake has infiltrated our home. My sisters, eight and nine, are screaming at the top of their lungs. I jump up onto the bed. My mother grabs a broom to sweep it towards the door. She is screaming, too. I curl up into a ball on the bed and cover my head, overcome with sheer terror. And the memory cuts out.

*

To this day, when a snake emerges, I jump up, let out a blood curdling scream, and run as far away as I possibly can. It is a completely irrational response, visceral, instant, reflexive. Zero thought goes into this intense fear. Until about a year and a half ago, I lived nearly all of my life in Central Maine, a climate in which only the garter snake, usually of modest size, can live. They are completely non-lethal to humans, and if anything, they’re largely helpful for gardening because they eat insects and rats and other pests.

But the fear doesn’t negotiate. It just exists, grips me, throws me into a state where I have no control.

For years, I tried desperately to minimize my exposure to snakes. Back in the day, I purchased a trailer with a beautiful garden. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to try my hand at maintaining the plot – that was until the night I met the baby garter snake who was living there. I was seized with terror; I gave up on rifling around in there, let the weeds set in, tried to walk at a quick pace past the garden and avert my eyes so as to not risk catching even a glimpse of the snake. I never walked barefoot on my property again.

*

It’s natural to avoid the things we fear.

Seeking out what terrifies me seems insane on a certain level, but more and more, I find myself drawn to my most intense feelings, both good and bad. It seems that they are screaming out to me for a reason and that I have to know what they’re trying to say.

Some of my biggest rushes exploring kink have come as a result of having buttons pushed that took me well beyond the limits of comfort, skating off into the unknown, and much of my personal growth over the last few years has come from making the life decisions that made the most sense to me regardless of how much anxiety they provoked.

I suppose fear should be an instructive reaction, a helpful instinctive way of knowing that danger is near, that I ought to modify my behavior to match the situation, and yet, the more I challenge it, the more I discover that often it’s a false alarm, a paralytic, an emotional immune system gone into overdrive, cannibalizing my happiness.

No more. I do not belong to fear. I refuse to be its slave.

*

I have nightmares about snakes. Usually, a lawn is crawling with them of all colors, like the tropical rainbow of the fake ones you get at the dollar store, huge jungle snakes completely saturating the mowed grass. I have to get from the street to the house, get indoors, and I am barefoot. I leap across the lawn, landing on my toes, springing from point to point, my brain grappling to wrestle lucid control of the scenario and warp me onto the steps. Sometimes they bite me; the poison weakens me; I collapse on the lawn and pass out, ostensibly to be devoured. Sometimes I make it across the lawn, bitten up, but my feet are hopelessly damaged, and I worry I’ll never walk again. On the rare occasion, I wake up before anything bad happens, or I manage to intervene on my dream and warp myself onto the porch, unscathed.

They are dreams I’ve dreaded, that cast bitterness over days that should start out as neutral.

I’m not going to dread them anymore.

I hope I dream of the snakes.

This time, I’ll lie down with them, and they’ll slither harmlessly over me, barely registering my presence, listening to the suburbs, feeling the grass in my fingers, feeling my own breath move through me.

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