On this page, I have removed all photographs, so those still living with lizard phobia can read my story.
Allow me to share this story of mental health with you.
And I knew while most of those things weren’t true at all, they felt true. They felt possible enough.
I remember one encounter in high school, when my friends and I gathered on a second-floor breezeway at the front of campus after lunch. While I sat on the railings--my feet propped on the bottom rungs and my hands gripping the bars to support the majority of my weight—I listened to the girls chatting and continuously scanned the area. Outside, my attention split into unequal partitions: a small one for people, a larger one for the walls, for the ground, for roofs and trees and bushes and furniture and shutters.
A lizard ran across the concrete breezeway, and my body shifted backwards, my legs and arms throwing me a few degrees closer to the open air and to the ground probably 10-feet below me.
I don’t remember how I kept from jumping. I don't remember if the other girls noticed, if they chased the lizard away or laughed at me. I don’t remember if the thing disappeared immediately or perched far enough away that I felt secure. But I remember my instinctive reaction to go over the railing rather than interact with a small, harmless pest. I remember how immediately I put myself into harm’s way and the complete absence of any cognizant decision. I remember that lurch in my gut and the stretching of my arm muscles as I leaned backwards into actual danger. I remember that fleeting sensation of lightness, of endless dream-falling.
Few people ever understood my lizard-phobia (which is far easier to say and type than scoliodentosaurophobia).
I tried to explain it. I used to say, “It’s not an ‘ew, gross, I-don’t-like-that-icky-crawly-thing’ fear. It’s an ‘I’m-alone-in-an-alley-with-a-gun-at-the-back-of-my-head’ fear.”
I’d say, “It’s not that I ‘don’t like’ them, it’s that I’m completely paralyzed by the entire concept of their existence.”
I’d say, “I know they can’t hurt me--that’s never my concern. There’s no concern involved at all. I see one, and I’m done, I’m out. It’s immediate.” When I took a psychology class, I learned the term “fight-or-flight,” and I incorporated it into my scripts.
As a kid, I didn’t know the word “phobia,” and I only learned the term “scoliodentosaurophobia” about two years ago. This lack in my vocabulary crippled me. I could only say, “I’m scared of lizards. I’m really, really scared of lizards,” and those weightless words always provoked the same, unspoken curiosity, the interest to see my potential reaction.
To this day, when the people I trust most in the world tell me to close my eyes and hold out my hands, I feel intense anxiety and discomfort. Because I know they’re going to drop a lizard into my hands, even though I know they’re not--even though that’s never happened.
In graduate school, I hosted large gatherings almost every weekend. My friends were dear, were loyal, were fun and passionate and overwhelmingly tolerant. And every weekend, I formulated my escape plan should someone decide to catch a gecko and test me. I rehearsed in my head as I’d fall asleep at night, prompting nightmares worse than my conscious imagination could supply.
Because once a person knew about my phobia—and I took great pains to mask it when possible—that person had complete power and control over me, though I assume few ever considered my position in those specific terms.
A traumatic experience with lizards in my mother’s childhood followed her into adulthood. I always knew how scared she was when lizards were around, and in southern Louisiana, they’re always around. She tried not to react in front of me, but the entire problem with phobias is the person’s inability to control that reaction.
When I was four or five—young enough to strip off all my clothes, jump into my uncle’s pool, and nearly drown while the adults were still in the process of greeting each other—my parents took me to Florida on vacation with relatives. At some point during the visit, while my mom was otherwise involved, my dad’s brother pulled me off into a back room and showed me a plastic iguana.
“I’m going to scare your mom with this,” he said, grinning, letting me in on the joke.
Two things about me: (1) I’ve always been intensely protective of the people I love. (2) I’ve always despised pranks. The idea of mocking a person you value for being naive enough to trust you has always bothered me on a level too intense for words.
The idea of mocking a person you value for being naive enough to trust you has always bothered me on a level too intense for words.
No one takes advice from four-year-olds.
My mom sat on the living room couch. My aunt was vacuuming. When my aunt pushed the vacuum beneath the couch and pulled it back, the plastic iguana came with it.
My mother screamed, leaping over the couch and running into the adjacent kitchen. I could hear her crying.
I ran after her, screaming, “It’s not real! It’s not real!”
But she was standing on the kitchen table, too distraught to hear me. When I turned around, I saw the plastic iguana’s head inching into view. My uncle made it look like the toy had followed her, had crawled across the ground and was now looking into the kitchen.
Her hysterical panic paired with his roaring, red-faced laughter made me scream, cry, and run away, too upset and overwhelmed to sort out the confusion.
Every time my mother saw a lizard, even a fake one, her negative reaction was instantaneous. I learned an instantaneous, involuntary response.
As I grew older, I became more and more phobic. I couldn’t look at cartoon drawings or say the word “lizard” without feeling intense discomfort. When I found a lizard in my bedroom, I evacuated, sleeping on our couch for over a year and only braving my room long enough to rip clothes from hangers and flee.
At the zoo, after they installed the komodo dragon exhibit, I stood stricken, small, and silent beside the glass enclosure, listening while a voice described the carnivorous habits of the lizards-larger-than-me, a thing I felt should not exist and simply could not exist. I imagined it biting my hand, poisoning me, following me around until I died, then consuming my flesh as the voice explained was customary for their species.
I imagined it biting my hand, poisoning me, following me around until I died, then consuming my flesh.
A long, covered walkway flanked by overgrown bushes and sun-drenched brick walls connected one half of the school campus to the other. Lizards covered those walls. One night, I dreamed that when I was halfway down the corridor, four enormous, blue, adult-sized lizards trapped me, two in front and two behind, the menacing bushes on either side.
Except when chaperoned by teachers leading the entire class, I’d always run from one end of the path to the other. And kids notice these things. (Also, at that age, I bet I told some of the other kids in an attempt to seem “unique” or “special.”)
One day after I’d been out sick, my friends told me, “So-and-So was looking for you yesterday! She caught a lizard!” I’d only narrowly escaped my worst fear, or so I thought. Looking back, my friends were probably lying to provoke a reaction. But I learned to be on guard.
My friends also tried to “fix” me, checking out a picture book on lizards from the library. One friend held the book, and I had to stand in front of it with another friend behind me, her hands on my back. The harder I pressed against her hands, the more scared I was, and the longer I’d have to look at that particular photo.
People seem to love when seemingly innocuous things bother other people. They love to watch the overreaction, to feel superior because they can withstand a thing that completely incapacitates someone else.
I noticed a trend as I grew older. Once a person learned about my phobia, they often wanted to tell me their “stories,” the times when they had unfortunate or crazy encounters with lizards.
The time he found one in bed, the time one dropped on her head from a tree, the time they found a nest in their closet.
I’d beg them to stop, and in between my pleas, they’d keep rambling. No matter how harsh I made my voice, how intensely I insisted that I’d have nightmares or develop additional neuroses based around their experiences, they’d grin and keep unfolding the horror story.
Worse, if a friend came across a photograph of a lizard that they knew would bother me, they’d often feel compelled to email it to me or post it on my profiles, usually accompanied by lots of exclamation points and digital laughter and friendly emoticons.
The public references particularly bothered me, considering how genuinely (and absurdly, unnecessarily) concerned I was that someone who disliked me might mail me a lizard corpse at any time if they learned the truth.
A few weeks into the relationship, my first boyfriend asked me, “What would I have to do to make you angry enough to break up with me?”
I said, “Well, cheat on me,” because I didn’t want to lead with my actual first thought, and cheating seemed like an easy red herring. “Or, you know, test my phobia in any way...”
At times, my lizard-phobia put me in real danger—not the perceived, hypothetical danger of realizing I might involuntarily jump to my demise to avoid a lizard, but genuine, reckless jeopardy.
Once, as a college student home for the summer, I drove to the store where my mother worked and parked my car beside some landscaping, too wrapped up in concerns of the moment to realize parking in front of a bush might be a bad idea for me. When I returned, I opened my car door like any normal person (without scanning the surface of my vehicle for threats, like I’d learn to do) and drove off down the road.
As I belted out the lyrics of whatever played on my radio, driving in the right lane, I noticed movement on the hood of my car.
The flick of a green tail. The bending of a wrinkled neck.
I managed to recover from swerving toward the ditch on my right, successfully avoided overcorrecting into the lane of traffic on my left, and somehow navigated into a parking lot without causing a pile-up. I sped to an empty parking space isolated from the other cars, groaning from deep in my throat, breathing rapidly, staring at the lizard rather than the road.
Parked, I let the terror--what I would later recognize as anxiety, not terror—overwhelm me, staring at the lizard as it stared back at me, not knowing how I would escape this situation.
I couldn’t get out the car. Even if I got away, I’d be abandoning my vehicle and letting the lizard out of my sight. What if, while I looked away, it got inside my car? What if it crawled its way to the door, preventing me from getting back into the car?
It perched just above my windshield wipers, and I considered turning them on, but I anticipated two possible outcomes: (1) The lizard would speed away onto the roof of my car where, again, I would not be able to keep an eye on it. (2) The windshield wiper would catch the lizard.
But lizards’ bodies aren’t flimsy like insects. Lizards have bones. I imagined the windshield wiper breaking the lizard’s back, pinning it; I imagined its thrashing body as it beat against the windshield, alive and disturbed; I imagined it furious, its mouth red and open and screaming.
Lizards’ movements, the unpredictability of where they might go, always produced the most anxiety in me. Their rapid, lurching, bobbing, slinking bolts for freedom...
With the windshield wipers too risky, my mother incapable of coming to my rescue, and my father at work across the lake, I had only one other option: my grandmother. She came and rescued me, though she added to my distress, attempting to kill the creature in much the way I’d anxiously imagined and losing track of its location in the process.
This happened once more in my life with much the same outcome. Still, the threat of dying in a car wreck didn’t convince me to seek help.
The threat of dying in a car wreck didn't convince me to seek help.
If I wanted to overcome my lizard phobia, I thought I’d have to be tied down in a tub and covered with a sea of reptiles. For someone whose life was crippled by lizard-phobia, who maintained that phobia with a strict regiment of avoidance, not even the promise of living life phobia-free could entice me to agree to the worst-case-scenario of my fear.
When I turned 25, I moved back to New Orleans from Monroe, Louisiana. I loved (and still love) my new job, but as I soon discovered, the office had a small problem.
A small presence, I should say.
Because we’re located with a forest behind us, lizards found their way into the building with some frequency. I’d just started, and I didn’t want my new employers to decide they’d hired a complete lunatic. Unfortunately, I had to confess my phobia, still gulping past the word “lizard” and bumbling to convey the severity of the fear.
After I encountered one in the kitchen, I holed up in my office for weeks, not even using the bathroom during work hours. The organization hired an exterminator in an effort to accommodate me, but oddly enough, no one likes the idea of killing lizards.
I’d spent an exorbitant amount of time over the course of my life researching ways to poison or repel lizards, and a funny thing happens online whenever someone asks for help in this regard.
“Why would you want to KILL the LIZARDS??? They eat bugs!”
“LIZARDS ARE IMPORTANT TO THE ECOSYSTEM!!!”
“Lizards don’t hurt anyone! Just leave them be.”
That’s all fine and fair, and as a general rule, I’d rather not kill anything I can avoid killing. But let us consider the cockroach: a harmless creature, good for the ecosystem, that presents no threat to humanity other than the likelihood of outliving us.
How many exterminators offer cockroach killing services? How many drug stores and grocery stores sell roach spray in cans, right there on the shelves?
For whatever reason, no one’s interested in developing anti-lizard spray. So, I knew when my office hired the exterminator that their best option was to work on killing the lizards’ food source, and that likely, they’d have no real impact at all.
Eventually, as my lizard-brain had already anticipated, a skink found its way into my individual office, its wiggling black-and-blue body entering my last sanctuary and blocking my only exit.
I called across the hall for my superior, and she gave me the opportunity to escape while she and a co-worker wrangled the lizard now hiding behind my desk. I fled into our board room, clawing my own arms, pacing back and forth in my anxiety as I drew blood, nails burrowing into flesh.
While I worked to regulate my breathing, I admitted the truth: I couldn’t live like this anymore. I loved my job too much to lose it to this thing, this fear that had humiliated and debased me all my life, making me feel worthless and pathetic and weak.
After a few abortive attempts to find a psychiatrist or psychologist or therapist that offered appointments during the nights and weekends, determined not to have a weekly “I’m off to lizard therapy!” conversation with anyone, I’d almost given up. Then I discovered single-session phobia treatment.
In 1989, Dr. Lars-Göran Öst published “One-session treatment for specific phobias.” (Öst’s OST, if you will!) According to the abstract, mean treatment time during the study was about two hours, and even after four years, 90% of patients were still much improved or had completely recovered from their phobias.
Fortunately for me, the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans practiced single-session phobia treatment.
I dragged my feet for a while, still unsure even after watching videos of the process and enjoying the lizards’ winter hibernation. But summer was coming.
Finally, I emailed the Center and made my appointment for March 20, 2015--the first day of spring.
Ahead of time, I’d scouted the location out with street view on Google Maps. Bushes and metal fences surrounded the place. I tortured myself with daydreams of arriving at my phobia treatment only to have to call the doctor to help me into the building, because a lizard would be by the door, and of how absurdly mortified I would be.
But I forced myself to go. That Friday, I took a personal day off work and drove myself to the Center. The building had two doors: one in the front, with a wooden staircase surrounded by bushes leading up to a porch, and one on the side, with a wooden walkway surrounded by a wooden fence next to a tree. I stalked around the edges of the property, finally determining that the main entrance was the fenced-off side door.
Taking deep breaths, reminding myself how wonderful it would be if I never felt this way again, I pawed at the doorknob on the gate. I knew if I shook the door enough before opening it, I lessened the risk of a lizard surprising me on the other side.
Fortunately, as I opened the gate and appraised the hellish walkway in front of me, nooks and crannies and lizard-topias abounding, the door into the actual building opened and a woman ushered me inside. I hurried, shutting down all my mental faculties as I’d always done in these situations, blurring my vision intentionally because I knew the main risk was in my seeing lizards, not in lizards actually being present.
When I met with the doctor, he walked me through the procedure I’d already researched heavily. We discussed “subjective units of distress,” or SUDs, which I would use to communicate my levels of anxiety. The scale ranged from zero to 100, with 100 being, “I’m so anxious that I have literally had a heart attack and died. You should have taken me to a hospital at around 90.”
Hearing about SUDs reminded me of my middle-school friends gauging my reaction by the force of my retreat. Their methods turned out to be insightful--I just wasn’t ready at age 11.
Before starting the exposure therapy, the doctor asked me to identify my “catastrophic belief,” the worst-case scenario with a lizard, the thing that I worried would happen if a lizard were to touch me.
“I’m not worried that anything will happen. I know nothing will happen,” I said.
He pushed me. I liked this man—he joked at all the right times, never joked at the wrong times, and he worked to make me feel uncharacteristically comfortable.
After a bit of back and forth, I said, “I just wouldn’t like it. I’d just feel awful, my anxiety would be through the roof, just from it being there.” For me, a lizard’s presence was its own worst-case scenario.
And the doctor smiled, and he said, “So you aren’t afraid of lizards. You’re afraid of being uncomfortable.”
The entire core of my reserved, guarded, suspicious personality made sense. I protect myself from discomfort at all costs, avoiding confrontation, embarrassment, and certainly lizards with the desperation of a fugitive.
Over the course of my therapy, the doctor said something which has been my mantra in the months since: “Let yourself be uncomfortable.”
Let yourself be uncomfortable.
The session lasted three hours. The entire concept of OST demands that the patient always be in control. No one would tie me down and dump a bucket of lizards on my head—I had to make the choice to take each next step, though often through the prodding of the doctor.
I progressed from looking at lizards in the wild, to moving closer to lizards in the wild, to tolerating his attempt to catch a lizard.
When he actively tried to catch a lizard and was unable to touch one, unable to get near them due to their fear of him—which I’d always rationally recognized—I felt my SUDs drop dramatically.
We returned to the Center, where he had a small garden lizard already trapped in a La Choy can. We sat on the frightening front porch, and I had to resist my urge to scan and appraise the environment in order to focus on the terror of the can.
Despite all my daydreams and nightmares and invented scenarios, I’d never touched or been touched by a lizard.
He asked me if I wanted to name the lizard, and I’d expected the question, but my mind was too distracted to reach for any kind of name.
“I think you’re ready to hold it,” he said, smiling.
I disagreed fervently. “There are a lot more steps, a lot more progressions, between touching it while it’s trapped in your hands, and holding it in mine.”
We discussed our options and eventually agreed to go inside, where we could experiment without risking the lizard escaping back into the wild.
After poking the lizard with a stick (gently, I promise!) so it would move around in the can; after petting it in the can; after it escaped several times and I had to take a break because I’d begun to feel nauseated and dizzy; there finally were no more progressions between me and the end.
We practiced with a pen cap. He held the pen cap between his hands, I held my shaking hands beneath his, and he dropped the pen cap into my palms before I shut them tightly to prevent escape. We practiced a few times.
Though the lizard did escape during our first attempt, the doctor caught it again, and eventually, I sat on the ground with a lizard between my hands.
I sat there disbelieving. Eventually, I admitted, “I can’t feel it in there. I’ve convinced myself it’s not in there at all.”
He asked, “Do you want some help?” and I nodded.
He reached out and shook my hands in the air. The lizard jerked and thrashed against my skin.
Eventually, I was able to shake my hands myself. I began to feel sorry for the lizard, trapped in my sweaty grip, having been scared out of his mind by two humans for the past two-and-a-half hours.
Then, the doctor convinced me we had to take the last step. I set my hands against my thigh and let the lizard go.
He stayed on my jeans for a little while. I held my open palm against the side of my leg, and he crawled into my hand. He perched on my thumb.
I named him Eric. Eric “sounds green,” to me.
After the doctor took some photos of Eric on my shoulder, we put him back in the can and released him where the doctor found him. When we came back to the Center, I opened the gate and walked confidently toward the door.
A lizard crawled across the frame.
“I’ve never seen one here before,” the doctor said in wonder.
Though I’d spent my life petrified of this situation, unable to rent homes with landscaping or attend backyard parties lest a lizard block an entryway, I walked up to the door. I waited for the lizard to run away from me. And then, I passed through the door to the other side of my life.
The fact that it only took three hours is a credit to the power of the treatment, not an indication that my phobia was really a mild thing in the end.
I’d still be furious if someone dropped a lizard in my hands. I doubt I’ll ever own a bearded dragon as a pet. But the next time a lizard showed up in my office, it didn’t bother me. The next time a friend hosted a largely-outdoors party, I not only joined my friends in the heat—I leaned against the wall beneath a light fixture.
My whole life, I’ve wanted to explain the severity of phobias, the misery they can cause, and the frustration I felt when people treated my handicap like a silly quirk. But because discussing my phobia would have invited the world to test my phobia, I kept silent.
Now, I can say anything I want, because I know I’ve kicked this.
Phobias aren’t silly; they aren’t jokes; they aren’t easy to overcome.
So, respect and support the people you love who are battling a phobia.
And if you’re living with a phobia, seek treatment. You don’t have to live in fear forever.