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My Snake Phobia, My Boyfriend, And Me

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SNAKE PHOBIA JESS
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"The way I felt yesterday is how you would feel if someone held a gun to your head." That was the only way I could explain the paralyzing, suffocating fear that washed over me on The Day There Was A Snake In My Office.

I've been living with a severe snake phobia for as long as I can remember. I'm told it was a learned behavior -- when I was 4, I saw my mom panic because of a snake in our yard. Her phobia was passed down from her mother. It's genetic, I say. Until very recently, the mere sight of a snake on TV would send chills down my spine, walking on grass wasn't an option and even saying the word "snake" made my throat close up. My phobia made living in New York City all the more appealing -- reptiles don't exactly hang out on my cemented front lawn.

And then on The Day, a coworker hesitantly broke the news. There was a reptile segment being filmed on HuffPost Live, the company's streaming network that shoots one floor below my desk. Within seconds, I found a room to lock myself in -- breathless, tears streaming down my face -- while a friend tried to talk me down from my hysteria. I kept myself from vomiting somehow, and eventually got confirmation that my scaled enemy had left the building.

It's understandably difficult for phobia-free people to grasp the difference between a fear and a phobia. I am fearful of many things -- loved ones dying, horror films, people who wear Crocs -- but I can cope, go to the movies, ignore poor shoe choices... My snake phobia, however, severely disrupted much of my life. It took over my thoughts at illogical times, and there was no way I could shake it. After The Day, I was afraid to go to work, always wondering if I'd meet a slithering guest while walking to my next meeting.

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I was skeptical that sitting on a shrink's couch could cure me, but I decided it was time to try therapy.

A few weeks later, I was sitting on a couch on the Upper West Side, arms crossed, and my new psychologist was explaining how the process works. She analogized my behavior to a person who is depressed because of loneliness. I was avoiding saying the word "snake" or looking at photos of them in the same way that a depressed person might avoid human interaction. My actions were training my brain to be afraid the way the depressed person caused herself to become lonelier.

Over the next two months, I looked at pictures of snakes, one at a time. I learned that an image on a computer screen couldn't kill me -- or even hurt me at all -- from the comfort of that couch. But, in order to maintain the progress I made during therapy, my therapist said I had to expose myself to snake images in between sessions. There is no way I am going to force myself onto NationalGeographic.com on my own, I thought.

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"Will you do my homework with me?" I asked my very-new boyfriend that night. We'd only been dating for two months, which made asking that question all the more difficult.

I had asked him for help before -- the "will you take my air conditioner out of my window?" variety of help -- but inviting him down this path opened a whole different emotional can of worms (ew, I'm afraid of worms, too).

It's not that I didn't think he'd be understanding. The first time I told him about my phobia, he encouraged me to get help, and asked why I'd want to continue my life with this fear. I knew he'd be supportive, but I was scared of appearing weak, and therefore, in my mind, defective.

He didn't belittle me or crack the "are you afraid of penis?" joke I have heard no fewer than 5 billion times before. He said "yes."

Before homework session no. 1, he didn't know what he was in for. I unfolded a printed photo, and there they were, the tears. As I stared at the photo (I wasn't allowed to look away), rapid dialogue ran side by side in my head. "I wish I wasn't doing this. This is so painful. You stupid, ugly creature, you're ruining my life," and "Does he think I'm crazy now?" I was possibly more afraid of that second thought than the snake. Maybe this was progress.

Irrational phobia aside, I have spent my life replacing emotions with logic. I solve problems. I don't cry about them. Before I met this guy, I assured everyone, myself included, I'd never be a girl who "needed" someone. Destiny's Child wrote "Independent Women" for me, I was sure of it.

But here I was, letting someone -- a boyfriend someone -- comfort me while I cried.

Weeks, therapy appointments, homework sessions went by and it all started to get... easier. I could say the word "snake" without tensing my muscles, I could look at a photo without gagging. My boyfriend and I went to the Bronx Zoo, and I walked out alive.

And on one recent Saturday, as he stood next to me, 20 feet away from the snake tanks at a local Petco, the real accomplishment dawned on me. Not only was I literally facing my phobia, I was leaning on a guy for support. For the first time in my life, I knew that was OK. Having someone beside me didn't deplete my personal strength or knock down my independence. It just made me a person who needed another person. I think Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle would approve.