I fear nothing-- except spiders.
October 13, 2010 5:19 PM   Subscribe

I thought that I was over my arachnophobia seven years ago, but today it came back threefold when I heard that brown recluse spiders now reside in New York City (my locale). My rickety old apartment is just teeming with nooks and crannies to worry about. Please help me sleep tonight!!

I spent most of my childhood growing up in Southern California, land of plenty to coyotes, mountain lions, all kinds of snakes, scorpions, and an exotic array of spiders. Even the common house spiders were the size of gerbils. When I moved to upstate NY, I was told that black widows and brown recluses are not known to the state. While that may or may not have been accurate, it allowed me to live in near-bliss. However, the spiders that I did come across there were still monstrous in my eyes and just the sight of one could send me into total paralysis.

When I moved to New York City, my first apartment came with two tough-guy roommates who would scream like old ladies every time they saw a spider, cockroach, mouse, moth... so I became the exterminator and thought that was the end of my irrational fear of spiders. I figured it just came with the territory of being a grownup.

Boy, was I wrong. My coworker started to tell me the horror story about brown recluses being found in Manhattan and my self-composure went out the window. I was standing bolt-upright in the center of my cubicle, hands clutching the back of my neck going "stop. Please, stop. I know you think this is funny, but I can not work like this. Oh god, stop with the details!"

So you see, my fear is irrational, humiliating, and intense. I have faced wildfires, earthquakes, and riots. I do not fear rats, cockroaches, worms, public speaking, the boogieman, or anything but spiders.

Final bit of pertinent info: my fiancé and I both lead busy lives and both have some measure of ADD. This means that our apartment is a mess. Of course we do dishes, laundry, take out the trash very regularly, but there's stuff everywhere. Papers, boxes, totes, art supplies... our apartment has zero storage and so is in a perpetual state of explosion. What's more, we live above an unfinished basement, there are pipes galore running through our apartment surrounded by gaping holes, and major appliances poorly built-in long ago that we can't clean behind.

Oh dear god! Tell me there's hope...
posted by poppyseed to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The reason they have recluse in their name is because these spiders are rarely aggresive.

I took a class on insects and we spent some time speaking about common spiders. My professor had been doing outreach with the community for 20+ years and said she saw maybe 2-4 confirmed brown recluse bites.

Many people who think they have been bitten by a brown recluse actually have a staphylococcus infection, which looks similar.

I know you say the fear is irrational, so maybe this doesn't mean anything, but the chances of you actually getting bitten by this spider is very small.
posted by rancidchickn at 5:39 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is advice that you will need to "buy in" to, but it is worth a try:

1- Nothing has changed except your perception of the situation. You haven't seen one yet, you probably won't.

2- You've got to declutter. Clutter (imho) "amps up" those lizard brain senses.

And I say this as a spider-shrieker and ADD person.
posted by gjc at 5:42 PM on October 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

there's hope.

venomous spiders are generally very shy. you usually have to work to get bitten. I have a houseful of red widows - there are two above my desk where I can see them, but they're a little high for me to get to right now. knowing they're there, and in a dozen places I haven't thought about, gives me the willies, but I mostly don't do anything except kill the ones within reach.

about once a year, me & MrDoodley go on a vacuum and bug spray rampage. spiders aren't particularly susceptible to bug spray, so you generally have to kill them in person, like with a broom, magazine, shoe or vacuum. (I don't bother killing wolf spiders, no matter how big and scary they are, because they eat 10x their weight in roaches).

try not to let clutter pile up too much in corners, and just look at what you're doing when you clean there - don't stick your hands blindly into a pile in a corner under a dresser or whatever. the vacuum is your friend.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:45 PM on October 13, 2010

I'm terribly phobic of spiders, and I grew up in Tennessee, where brown recluses are everywhere. My mom is a contractor who works in people's attics and crawlspaces all the time, and she says people would absolutely flip out if they had any idea how many recluses are down there.

That sounds terrifying, right? But the key point is, they have no idea the spiders are down there. As rancidchickn said, the chances of getting bit by one are really tiny. As also said, that may not help with an irrational fear, but it is basically the truth.

In 18 years living in brown recluse central, I've come across a few dead ones, but never a live one nor anyone who was bitten. They're small, truly reclusive and they aren't that interested in you. As a general rule, they prefer to be in the dark, damp places in the basement, not your kitchen floor.

In the very, very unlikely event you ever come across a dead one, it would probably make you feel better to knock out your shoes before you put them on, just to make yourself feel better. But honestly, as with all phobias, this is just one of those things where you have to try not to give too much credence the irrational thought spiral. Easier said than done (says anxiety girl with the obsessive thought tendencies) but that's really all you can do.
posted by mostlymartha at 5:52 PM on October 13, 2010

I live in the land of the recluse spiders (Texas) and I've never, ever seen a live one. Our dog did get bitten by one and it was pretty nasty but we didn't realize what happened for awhile. I've known a few people who were bitten but a trip to the doctor for a cortisone shot helps limit the damage. Don't look at pictures on the Internet; those are extreme, extreme examples. These guys are no fun but nothing like a black widow and very scared to come out around people.
posted by tamitang at 6:00 PM on October 13, 2010

Do you want to make sure they don't hang out in your house, or do you just want to avoid seeing them?
I don't know how to get rid of them, but they're easy to avoid.
Store coffee mugs or opaque glasses upside down in a cupboard. When I lived in Texas we'd find them in mugs that were hanging from hooks.
If you wear pants multiple times between washings, fold them, and possibly put them in a drawer instead of leaving them on the floor or over a chair. Whack the clothes you have hanging every once in a while too. Most of the people I know who've been bit had it happen when putting on pants that spiders had decided to camp out in.
Get a duster with a long handle and use it often. Get in wood window frames, under and behind furniture, etc. They like small spaces.
I also hate spiders. My girlfriend recently got to see me run away and scream like a little girl when an orb spider decided to drop right in front of my face.
posted by gally99 at 6:06 PM on October 13, 2010

Also, don't go to www.brownreclusespider.org.
I have chills from the moving spider in the corner of the page.
posted by gally99 at 6:08 PM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: I'm arachnophobic, and I grew up in a recluse-infested house in Kansas. I'd like to say, "Naw, you'll never see 'em," but you occasionally will. It's a fact, and if you're like me, it doesn't really matter if it's a brown recluse or something "harmless". All it needs to be as a spider. But here's what helps me deal as much as I can.

For the rational fear: Brown recluses will not attack you in your sleep. I've heard that their fangs are too small for them to actively bite you. The "bite" usually occurs when they're crushed up against you or when you swat at them, thereby forcing the fangs in. So, the chances of your being bitten are low even if you see them. Just shake your clothes and shoes. It'll become a habit, and you'll never have to worry about coming into contact with venom through the brute force of your pants.

For the irrational:1) Don't keep any cardboard boxes in your place. Spiders love cardboard. Store your things in plastic tubs. I feel a tiny bit stronger every time I throw away a box. It's like I'm saying, "Fuck you, spiders! I'm not giving you a damn thing!" Actually, sometimes I really say that. It's a good thing I live alone.

2) If you're not concerned about pesticides, keep a can of Raid within easy reach. It is an enormous comfort to me to know that I have some means of defense that will not involve me getting physically close to it while it's still receiving orders from the Arachnid Collective.

3) The above doesn't help me when the spider is on the ceiling or anywhere even remotely above my head where spraying it might cause it to defy physics and fall at me. For this, I have a vacuum cleaner. The attachments are always in place for that reason. Again, just knowing I have defense makes me feel a lot better.

4) When neither 2 nor 3 will help me, I like to put on my oven mitts and boots in case it's actually a Matrix bot, grab something long and heavy and quote Sigourney Weaver in Aliens before I roar a battle cry that goes something like, "Get away from my toilet paper, you bitch!" and then run full speed ahead to squash the hell out of that sucker. If I stop to think, I get the fear.

All of the above deals with actually facing a brown recluse because you likely will. Not every day. They don't like to get together for Rocky Horror callbacks. They're loners. But it isn't true that you'll never know they're there. Just know you're prepared, and you'll have jumped the biggest hurdle.
posted by katillathehun at 6:19 PM on October 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I work for a legal services organization in New York City that talks to at least 50 people a week about housing issues. We've only had one call about brown recluse spiders. Your co-worker was presumably talking about the person whose recluse problem was reported in the media. It is not a widespread problem. It is an aberration. A rational argument won't usually work against a phobia, but brown recluses are seriously not an issue in NYC.
posted by Mavri at 6:41 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had an active recluse infestation in my house for several years. We would see live recluses (confirmed by the exterminator; there are several lookalikes) all throughout the summer. They would get very close to us. I don't want to freak you out with details about the human closeness, but I even saw one of my cat playing with one and pulling off its legs. None of us was ever bit. We still see them around every once in a while.

Main things you want to do: no piles of clothing on the floor. No sheet or clothing highways for them to crawl up onto furniture. You'll be fine.
posted by Addlepated at 6:42 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, recluses... sit down and have some coffee. I am in Oklahoma and we have dealt with them on and off for over 10 years. We picked up some at our last house and our workshop has a lot of them. My wife and I have even had runins with large female recluses walking around on our arm or hand once or twice, and they didn't bother biting.

That said I've become a lot less concerned about them. I also have concluded (having researched them over the years) that a lot of the gory bite pictures on the Internet are very questionable; in the vast majority of cases the correlation between any bite and a spider sighting is dubious. So I think a lot of them are other types of wounds or are bites compounded by immune system issues (e.g. the staph infection mentioned above is possible). On a parallel tangent there is also some anecdotal but credible evidence that the spider bite reactions are from bacteria rather than toxins.

I do find brown recluses annoying; they're astonishingly efficient they at packing themselves up with humans and nesting in their stuff, and since they're still poorly studied some vigilance is required. But I have found that we've been able to keep them out of our house per se by simply (1) reducing their food supply, i.e. sealing all places where insects get in, (2) thoroughly cleaning any stuff we bring in, and (3) taping up all box seams by habit (when we're storing stuff) and keeping them up off the floor on shelves. They do seem to have an affinity for cardboard and loose clothes, so if you keep your place neat and vacuumed frequently you won't have to worry about it.

If you see a possible recluse you may also want to learn to ID them since some house spiders are often mistaken for them. The "violin" mark, if it exists, is rather specific in its appearance, and the eyes have a specific pattern (a jeweler's triplet will help with this). It's always good to ID what you find so you can be sure what's going on. Some of the "What's This Bug" blogs are good places to start.

(I don't bother killing wolf spiders, no matter how big and scary they are, because they eat 10x their weight in roaches)

Funny this was mentioned as I recall reading in a reference that recluses prefer to eat wolf spiders. In our last house we had some wolf spiders, which I tolerated, and it did nothing to control the recluses; in fact one night I found a recluse and wolf spider entangled in a battle behind a bookshelf; the wolf spider lost. Based on that experience I am not inclined to use any other spiders for any population control.

Believe me, I'd rather have a houseful of recluses than those bedbugs I hear about.
posted by crapmatic at 6:54 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Part of your problem is that you've been primed to be afraid. For whatever reason, one person can get a rash, have it diagnosed as a brown recluse bite and generate the same amount of hype that Al Qaeda would if they blew up any two states with fewer than 12 electoral votes between them. For example, here's a story about a child who was diagnosed with a brown recluse bite but it was merely anthrax.

There may be a few recluses found in NYC but these are pretty much going to be like the ones this essay describes in California - travelers from the Midwest. (In town for a week to get in everyone's way in the subway and gawk at the sub-basements of the skyscrapers.)

The article I link has some quaint little vignettes of life in the Midwest including:

An 8th grade teacher in Oklahoma checking up on his students avidly collecting material by some loose bricks around a flagpole on an insect collecting trip. In about 7 minutes, 8 students collected 60 brown recluses, picking them all up with their fingers and not one kid suffered a bite.

A woman in Lenexa, Kansas who collected 2,055 brown recluse spiders in 6 months in 1850s-built home. This family of 4 has been living there 8 years now and still not one evident bite.

So even if that the area behind your major appliances were the new brown recluse branch office for the east coast (and it isn't) they wouldn't be coming out to chat.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:20 PM on October 13, 2010

Declutter. I'm pretty arachnophobic and that's the only thing that makes me feel better. That, and making sure to always have a spider-whacking shoe handy. If you can visually scan your area it's a lot more comforting.

*But* if, for some reason, you do get bit (and it honestly doesn't sound like NY has a big problem), don't wait too long to get it checked out because everyone's telling you they're not a big deal. I know two different people who've gotten bit, both in Arizona where I'm from, and they both had serious reactions. One of them was my mom, and she almost lost her finger/hand because she waited so long to go to the doc (2 days). The other person had some severe scarring. Then again, I know another guy who was bitten twice (in Missouri), and he had no problems or reaction whatsoever. But, yeah. I'd rather know there were brown recluses in my basement than bed bugs any day.
posted by wending my way at 8:19 PM on October 13, 2010

OK most of what the other folks have said is correct.

Brown recluses are reclusive. Here's a story or two from NPR.

I have been the victim of a brown recluse spider. Apparently, yes, I kept my jeans on the floor. In a mobile home. In rural Tennessee. On 40 acres of wooded property. So I didn't notice for a couple of days, until I was feeling patches of itchy and weird along my left leg. Eventually I went to a pharmacy and showed the pharmacist the lesion on my left ankle. He immediately suggested I seek advanced medical care. So I ended up at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, with about half a dozen lesions up my left leg. The worst was at my ankle, getting progressively less intense up to just inside my upper left thigh. I had doctors confirm that it probably was a brown recluse that got in my jeans.

You know something? It really wasn't that bad in the end. Yeah, I was laid up for two weeks with a massively swollen leg, with cellulitis and localized necrosis, but that was probably due to my scratching and staph infection as much as it was to the original spider bites.

Still have the scars.

Given everything else I've done in my life, and given the value of spiders in the world, and given how mostly harmless brown recluses are? Forget about it.

Thank whoever/whatever you choose that you don't live near Sydney AU.
posted by yesster at 8:36 PM on October 13, 2010

What everyone else said, but have you considered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? What if you didn't have this fear in your life? What if it was completely gone or a tiny fraction of what it is? It would probably increase the quality of your life quite a bit.
posted by zeek321 at 4:23 AM on October 14, 2010

Until recently, I lived in an apartment in an eighty year old house in Tennessee, where there were bugs and spiders all over the place. I wasn't so concerned about the occasional bug getting in, but I wasn't so blase about the idea of spiders. What helped was buying spider traps. They are glue traps that you can put under the bed, or wherever there is clutter. If you want to ID your spiders to see if they are harmless or harmful (ours were brown recluses, unfortunately), that's a good way to start.
posted by zoetrope at 7:21 AM on October 14, 2010

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