It had been a restful weekend in the new attic apartment I was renting in Atlanta, Georgia for my current gig. Tucker was already up on the bed, head up by the pillows. I was in the bathroom, and just finished putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush when a single, large, amber-colored cockroach emerged from the bathroom drain, antennae searching the air. The instant my eyes saw it, a primordial scream flew from my lungs, echoing off the bathroom walls. I swiftly opened the bathroom door, crossed the main living area and was on the bed next to Tucker before the rest of the cockroach was out of the drain.
My scream had no effect on my gallant canine companion who turned to see me fleeing the bathroom; he merely put his head back down on the pillow to brace himself for my body flop onto the bed. The cockroach, however, in the brief moment I was still picking up information from the threat, appeared to cower. Evidently the scream as a survival instinct isn’t so much to alert others around you that you’re in peril, but really to show the thing you’re frightened of that you’re so crazy, you’re not worth messing with.
I lay on the bed, toothbrush still in my right hand (and strangely the toothpaste in my left hand, although I didn’t notice that for another twenty minutes) unsure of what to do next. I was paralyzed with fear. I certainly could not return to the bathroom with the cockroach wandering about. I texted a friend whose sage advice was simply to return to the bathroom with a solid shoe and good aim. But I couldn’t kill it. I simply cannot take the life of something unless in defense of myself or someone I love.. My friend and I continued texting about our number one non-mammal fears. For her, the wolf spider the size of your hand. For me, the Jerusalem bug (current cockroach still a top contender though.) Warning: do not Google image search either of those two animals. Trust me.
Knowledge is my only weapon against fear, and I needed to know why I was so afraid. It reminded me of an incident almost a decade ago. I had been subletting an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island while working on a gig there. Late one night in bed, I felt something on my lower leg, and I brushed it off… hitting it hard enough to make whatever it was sail through the air and land with a splat. Consciousness hit me as hard as whatever it was that hit the floor. I flicked on the lights to witness a multi-legged insect scurry across the hardwood floor into the kitchen. It was my first experience with a centipede.
I was terrified. I felt the immediate need to kill it. Checking under the sink I found nothing but Lysol. For your reference, although Lysol does kill 99% of all germs, it does not kill centipedes. It does frighten them though. And make them wet.
I phoned a friend to keep me company while I tried to rid the apartment of this strange creature when he started listing facts about centipedes to me. Centipedes do not have a 100 legs (it just looks that way.) They are generally solitary creatures. They have no stinger. They may bite if handled, but don’t attack. They like to hide from people—probably because they get dosed with Lysol when they encounter one and all they were trying to do was eat the mosquito that was biting them.
As he piled on the proof that this centipede was actually no threat to my physical being—and in fact it would eat bugs who could harm my physical being—my fear drained away. I put away the Lysol. And the broom. And the bowls I had planned to trap it with. It had every right to live as I did.
Back on the bed with the cockroach somewhere in the bathroom, I searched the internet for some fear-reducing knowledge. To make these giant cockroaches sound less scary, they got a PR boost by being called “Palmetto Bugs.” They sound like something cute, a ladybug for the south. They are not. They are simply giant cockroaches with a nicer name.
But what is inherently scary about cockroaches? My scream made it seem like a very deep-seeded instinct, some sort of survival necessity to vacate any place with them. So what can they do? Well, they cannot give me the Zika Virus or give Tucker heartworm like a mosquito can, yet I don’t fear mosquitos—I simply kill them in defense if they attack me. They can’t give Tucker or me Lyme Disease or a whole other host of diseases like ticks can, which again, although I find creepy, I do not fear. I merely remove them in a calm, efficient manner with no drama or trauma. Some scientists have found a link between cockroaches and allergies and asthma, but I do wonder what else is present when the cockroaches are. Cockroaches can spread some disease because of where they’re walking, but no more than an average housefly, who also does not make me let out a blood-curdling scream as if I’m being chased by an axe murderer.
Ultimately, the existence of the cockroach wasn’t the issue; the location of the cockroach was. Had I encountered this little beast outside while on a hike, I would simply walk away from it. But its trespass into my space made me quake with fear. I tried to think again, why though? What is making me so afraid?
I delved into this topic over the next few days as the cockroach saga continued. The next night while sitting on the couch, a shadowy figure scurried across my lap. I jumped up, but did not scream. I was less afraid, now armed with the knowledge that it meant no harm. But I certainly wasn’t going invite it to watch the movie with me and share my popcorn. In discussing with others, it seems cockroaches are hated. Hate is driven by fear. But why such animosity to a seemingly innocent creature who is just trying to make its way in the world?
Because they’re different.
They have hard outer shells. Their movements are almost robotic. Yet they have these antennae that feel about, seeking information. They rise up on the front legs and look about, and then scurry at amazing speeds. They can cling onto vertical surfaces, and they really do seem to live forever.
The next night while sitting on the couch, when a cockroach (maybe the same one; I rudely didn’t ask) crawled into my space, I watched it move to the back of the couch. I thought perhaps I could coax it to the doorway and it would simply move outside. After all, its location more than its existence is what upset me. While still harboring some unjustifiable fear of touching the little creature, rather than gently trap it in a lidded bowl and place it outside (which would have been the kind choice) I found a large flat piece of cardboard, and at arm’s length, attempted to fling the little beast toward the door like a lacrosse ball. It fell off the back of the couch, hit a small table and then disappeared. It had made a superhero move, bouncing off the top of the table, sliding off the edge, and then miraculously hanging on upside down out of reach and sight. I knocked the table, and it dropped to the floor. As I watched it race back under the couch to safety, its fear was palpable. I had scared it. This little being was just making his nightly rounds, and I went after it, chased it and attacked it. It had done no such thing to me. I was the evil one. I was the one to be feared.
I didn’t want it in my house because it was different. It posed no actual threat. But I posed a threat to it. A big threat. Two days later, my landlord used myriad of bug killing potions, and the attic apartment became a battlefield of dead and dying roaches. I couldn’t in good conscious stand there cooking a dinner I diligently planned to not involve the death, harm, or suffering of any animal while all around me animals suffered horrific deaths.
Ultimately I moved out. Maybe the refugees of that roach war have moved out, found a safer couch to live in. Or maybe they all were killed. But I wanted no part in it. Because it showed me the awful truth of being human, and how hard it is to overcome the fear of that which is different from us. Rather than look with curiosity at the hard shell and robotic-like legs of this ancient creature, I feared it. Rather than take delight in comparing the way I experience the world with how another does, I condemned it for experiencing it at all.
I’m not saying we should let cockroaches into our homes and live amongst us. We should set up boundaries so they don’t live in our homes. Rather than get to the point of killing all trespassers, make sure they don’t get where you don’t want them first.
But I’m not here to give pest control advice. I’m suggesting that the next time you find yourself so afraid that you hate, ask yourself why. Is it become it looks different from you? Acts differently? Moves differently? Is a different color? Does it make sounds you can’t comprehend? What is it really that makes you so afraid?
A long time ago, back in my theater days, during a rehearsal, a director was working on a romantic scene with two actors who didn’t want to share the stage together, let alone a kiss. His words have stuck with me all these years. “Your bodies—our bodies—are just the packaging we come in. They’re not who we are; they’re just the thing our soul drives around in and experiences the world from.”
I think of that often not just with people but with all animals. We don’t chose the vehicle our soul gets to “drive around in” while we experience life. That vehicle contributes a lot to how we experience the world and where we get to go. So next time you encounter another soul in a different vehicle than yours, don’t fear it. Marvel in how different they are from you. Wonder what makes you the same. If you can, ask them to share their view. And you share yours. Maybe you’re just as scary to them as they are to you. And maybe together you can learn from one another and change your fear into curiosity and your hate into love. Because big or small, broken down and worn out or brand new, it’s not the car that matters but the driver inside. That’s you. And me. And even the cockroach.
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.org.