Face Your Fears Week starts today, encouraging people to do just that and raise money to help people with disfigurements. Sarah Millican, Susan Calman and Zoe Lyons tell Standard Issue how they overcame their phobias and how their lives changed as a result.
Illustration by Louise Boulter
A childhood fear of spiders stayed with Sarah Millican into adulthood. Until she moved to the countryside and learned how to deal with the arachnid arseholes.
As a kid, whenever I wasn’t inside playing imaginary libraries or giving my teddies homework, I was outside collecting caterpillars or picking up animal poo and running to my parents to tell them I’d found some monkey nuts. Okay that last one was a very specific occasion that I may well have forgotten if my parents didn’t bring it up every time someone mentions animal poo, monkey nuts, other nuts, Kielder (where it happened), holidays or picking things up.
I was a grubby sort of child but there were limits. There was a boy around the corner we called SpiderMan purely because he always seemed to have spiders in his hands. I like a literal nickname. If I’d worked at Marvel Comics in 1962, no doubt I would have invented Swingy Through the Air with String from his Hands Man. When SpiderMan wasn’t shoving grass cuttings down my homemade terry towelling boob tube (thanks Mam!), he was running after me with a spider in his hand.
It’s no wonder then, that I’ve never liked spiders. I used to have a rule: if they’re outside, back away quietly; inside, you’re allowed to kill them. I think I learnt something about killing tresspassers from Sleeping With the Enemy and applied it to spiders. The only indoor spider I didn’t kill was one in my friend Ruth’s house that I noticed while in her bath. I came downstairs and said, “Did you know there’s a massive spider in your bathroom?” I did. I’d not taken an eye off it for a second. Even when I was brushing my teeth, I was watching it through the mirror. “Oh, Henry,” she said, and I was instantly thrilled I hadn’t squashed then flushed him.
Now I live in the country, things are different. If I killed every spider I saw in the house, it would be like having a part-time job. A friend said “You mustn’t kill spiders, they eat the flies”, to which I responded, “We don’t have any flies! … Oh.” So I’ve had to get over my fear or I’d be crying most of the time. My new rule is if I see a tiny spider, I pretend it’s fluff and just leave it alone. I’m sharing too much about my houseworking habits, I think. If I see a slightly bigger spider, I point a cat at it.
I made the mistake of telling an Australian friend that we get huge spiders in the country. My time in Melbourne was mostly spent looking under toilet seats and in beds and in shoes and up curtains waiting for the pattern to move and kill me. I’m still a little scared of the massive ones. That’s okay though. If I compare my fear to that of flying then massive spiders are the equivalent of plummeting to my death before the food’s been served.
I was watching (and doing) Countdown not long after I moved to the countryside. During the last letters round, something ran out in front of me. Properly caught my eye, like when I forget the telly is reflected in the conservatory and think Eamonn Holmes is in the garden. I had to be brave. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for even a second. I grabbed my workings out from the last maths round, held it over the arachnid arsehole and punched the sums. I killed a spider with maths. Proper nerd’s revenge.
AUTHOR: Sarah Millican
Sarah Millican is a comedian, writer, reformed workaholic, feminist, cat mam, wife and lover of food.
Terror-vomiting every time she stepped foot in an airport was really putting the kibosh on Susan Calman’s holidays. Until she tried hypnosis.
People say that life isn’t a competition. But we all know it kind of is. The important thing is who you play against. For me, every single time I go into battle, it’s against myself. For example it’s my own fault that, for over ten years, I made my own world as small as possible because I had a self-perpetuating fear of flying.
You may be nodding your head with recognition, but when I meet people who say that they’re frightened of flying I ask them two questions. Firstly have you ever been physically removed from a plane screaming “We’re all going to die!”? Secondly, can you set foot inside an airport without vomiting on yourself? If you answer no and yes respectively, then while you are certainly frightened, you haven’t got a proper, arse-clenching, terror of the skies. I do.
Let me put my fear into perspective. I’ve been with my partner for 12 years and, until recently, only went on holiday to destinations that were accessible by train. Surprisingly she started to become more than a little bit angry about the situation. Apparently the few days of warmth that constitutes summer in Scotland isn’t the same as two weeks by the pool in Greece. My wife’s happiness aside, I was also starting to turn down excellent work opportunities rather than even contemplate getting on a plane. For my love life, and my career, something had to give.
And so, last year, I decided to do something about it. I’d heard of hypnotherapy and, at a loss for any other solution, I contacted a mind-reading comedian I knew from my time at the Edinburgh Fringe. I warned Doug Segal before we started that I wouldn’t be an easy case, that I felt sick whenever I even thought about flying, that I had been known to break down in tears watching a film in which one of the characters was in an airport. That I genuinely thought I was a lost cause. Heroically, or foolishly, he said he could help me.
The main purpose of the hypnosis was to speak to my subconscious, the part of my mind that was stopping me from being rational about the dangers of flying. I was initially sceptical of the whole thing, of course I was. For a start I was pretty sure I was one of those people that couldn’t be hypnotised, that I would stay stoically conscious throughout the whole thing and it wouldn’t work in the slightest.
I was under in five seconds flat. Genuinely. Unconscious yet completely conscious at all times. After 45 minutes of gentle persuasion, and the creation of a safe place for my mind to go to when I’m terrified, I woke feeling no different than I had before.
But I was different. When I thought about flying I no longer felt sick. I could watch films that I’d previously avoided. This year I went on holiday to Portugal with my wife (although I still maintain that a beach holiday in Scotland is more fun). More impressively I flew to Dublin to film a television show. On my own. The fact that I was able to do that without sobbing the whole way is proof that phobias can be overcome. You may want to use CBT, or a fear of flying course or the wondrous drugs that are available. But if you have a phobia as severe as I had you can do something about it. You really can.
When Doug spoke to my subconscious he gently told it that it was stopping me from enjoying life. That the world was a huge place that I’d never see. That making my world so small was something I’d regret. Now I can see everything. And I will. I’ve already booked flights to Tuscany for a holiday next year – and I even smiled as I did it.
The score so far is Susan 1: Phobia 0. Next up, my fear of raisins. That should be fun.
AUTHOR: Susan Calman
Susan is a comedian and writer who sometimes appears on things like The News Quiz and QI.
No stranger to panic herself, comedian Zoe Lyons helped her wife take the plunge on a diving holiday.
Panic and I are old friends. We spent an extended period of time in each other’s company when I was at university. Panic would visit unannounced in short intense crippling attacks that would leave me dizzy, short of breath and clinging to the floor. I was prescribed anti-depressants, which I flushed down the loo; I have never liked taking pills and I was determined that these attacks weren’t going to control me but rather I would get the better of them. I did it, but I am never fully off my guard; I do still fear an unwanted visitation and I hope I am ready for it.
I have in the past described my attacks to my partner, Sindy. She is blessedly a person who is largely unaffected by anxiety and she certainly had never experienced anything as all-consuming as a full-blown panic attack. That was until last year. We had decided to go on a bit of a different holiday and ended up on Roatan, an island off Honduras. It lies in the Caribbean Sea and is one of the world’s best diving spots. Sindy is a strong swimmer but had always told me that she could never try diving as it was one of her greatest fears so I didn’t even broach the subject of us perhaps learning. After a week spent sipping rum in the sun talking with people who can come from all over the world to dive the clear warm waters my other half suddenly proclaimed that we would be fools if we didn’t give it a go. Somewhat taken aback I agreed as long as she was sure.
8:30am the next morning we were wading into the blue sea with our instructor kitted up and ready for our first lesson. It didn’t go well. Sindy sat on the seafloor breathed through her regulator and I watched as behind her mask her eyes widened until they resembled those of a chemically enhanced possum at a 90s rave. Utterly terrified she broke the surface of the water like a Polaris missile. Each time she tried panic gripped her. I knew what she was feeling, but encouraged by our lovely instructor she gradually managed to spend longer and longer submerged. After four full days of lessons she managed to break through the panic. We discovered that if she hummed Elton John’s Tiny Dancer while underwater, it distracted from the fear. By the end of the vacation we had bother qualified as PADI open water divers something Sindy never dreamt she would be able to achieve. I don’t think I have ever been so proud of her.
I write this a few days after returning from our second (this time planned) dive holiday. We have just spent five days flinging ourselves off the back of a dingy into the choppy Atlantic waters around the Azores. It really is never too late to tackle your terrors. We have learnt something challenging and wonderful together and we now have a frighteningly expensive new hobby.
AUTHOR: Zoe Lyons
Comedian, dog owner, skier, eater, drinker, procrastinator, bad spellor
Sarah Millican is a comedian, writer, reformed workaholic, feminist, cat and dog mam, wife and lover of food.