Deep in tender recesses of our cranium lies a small chunk of neural tissue that, should I prove its existence, will explain a lot about human behavior. I believe we all have this structure, though it may lie dormant for many years, perhaps forever.
It’s the arachnobellum.
It’s a small, primitive bit of grey matter tucked right in the center of the brainstem, that area that controls our deepest, most primal instincts.
It’s the part of the brain that blames all maladies, no matter how big or small, on spider bites.
As a veterinarian, I see this in action all the time. Owners can blame almost any sort of condition on arachnid venom. Pustule? Spider bite. Bruise? Spider bite. Laceration? Spider bite. Tick? Spider (OK, that one is kind of almost true.)
The most extreme example of arachnobellum overreaction came to me while I was a vet student. A three legged Bernese came in for vomiting while I was on the small animal medicine service. The couple, a very nice pair from Berkeley, were sitting with the patient out in the lobby when I first met them. He was easy to spot; the dog was covered in citronella oil, choking out all other smells in the room including the bulldog with the impacted anal gland sitting next to him.
I moved the dog’s collar to the side to palpate his lymph nodes. I felt a hard stone, and pulled a purple crystal out of his fur. “We do a lot of alternative therapies,” they explained.
“We went to a shaman,” they said, “And he did a vision quest on Chewy.” I was amazed that this sort of service existed outside of the Amazon, but apparently it is not uncommon in the Bay Area. Who knew. “He told us” – of course- “That he had a spider bite.”
The medicine residents, trying to suppress their smirks, paged the oncology resident over. Dr. Newton had seen this dog previously, for an osteosarcoma a year prior that required the dog’s leg to be amputated. He was one of the finest residents I ever met at Davis, a man who had practiced for 15 years before going back to school to become an oncologist. He was smart, slightly cynical, and extraordinarily compassionate in a rough field.
He glared at the smirking residents, who wiped their faces back to neutral and quickly excused themselves, before gently explaining to the owners about metastasis, bloodwork, and other oncologic type vocabulary terms whose diagnostic regimen involved the most Western of techniques and not a single drop of ayahuasca. He was right, by the way. It was not a spider bite.
Despite this experience, I still found myself chuckling over the years at the vast array of medical maladies masquerading as spider bites on a regular basis. Until this weekend.
So there I am, standing in the kitchen talking to my daughter, when my finger starts to hurt. I look down and see my ring finger, looking kind of red and puffy. I noticed a small hole and poke at it, wondering if I somehow got a splinter.
As I’m examining my finger, I note there are not one but two small holes, black. And now my finger, stinging more each second, is starting to blister.
“Oh my god,” I say, the girl who cried wolf for so many years in the face of such injuries. “I think I got BIT BY A SPIDER.” Then, from the recesses of my brain, my arachnobellum kicked into action.
I ran over to the computer and did exactly what no one in my situation should do, which is to google “Spider Bite.” (don’t do it.) Three seconds later, I was in full panic mode, wondering how I would ever manage to function without a finger and whether the amputation would be tonight, or tomorrow.
‘Signs:’ said WebMD.
‘Small puncture wounds may or may not be visible.’ check
‘Pain and swelling, may be accompanied by blisters.’ check
‘Racing heart rate or nausea.’ Well, now I had that, thanks to the picture of the recluse bite that popped up in the search results. What is seen can never be unseen, you all.
Just as I was on the verge of full blown panic, my finger stopped burning, as suddenly as it had begun. The next morning, I had a small crater where the blister had been, tiny in the big scheme of things but in my mind, the beginning stages of full blown finger dissolution.
I watched my hand obsessively over the next day, mentally keeping track of the small ulcer and convinced I would wake up the next morning with nothing left but a finger bone, my wedding band twirling uselessly around the sad, bare phalanx. THIS IS WHAT GOOGLE IMAGES DOES TO YOUR BRAIN, PEOPLE.
Needless to say, when I woke up the next day my finger was still there, along with the lesion and a deep and utter conviction that a spider was to blame. That is how I, the person who came back from Africa with a dead palm sized spider stuck to the bottom of my shoe and none the worse psychologically for it, ended up shaking out my sheets at eleven at night *just in case* because now- NOW the arachnobellum was activated, and there was no going back. Every tickle, every twitch, was a spider crawling on me, about to bite. I debated keeping a flamethrower nearby, just in case.
My relatives, friends, and probably all of you are laughing at the crazy person and rolling your eyes, convinced this mysterious malady was not a spider bite. Well, in the case of poor Chewy, he at least had a trained medical professional to give his owners a plausible alternate explanation for his condition.
I have no such explanation.
IT WAS A SPIDER BITE, CASE CLOSED. The arachnobellum is a powerful thing. And I promise never to laugh at anyone who says “I think it’s a spider bite,” ever again.