The Source of the Fear
Anyone who knows me knows that I have always had a love hate relationship with the great outdoors. It is my go-to place when I want to just be. Hell, I love nature, but there are a number of creatures that have destroyed my pleasure to be out in it. Danger seems to always be lurking just outside any door I’ve ever exited to get out there, and if there’s anything that can scare the shit out me, it’s the wildlife. Entering into the kingdom of bloodsucking or bug biting insects, specifically gnats, mosquitoes, and ants has always begun with trepidation. It takes a lot of mental steps to prepare oneself for human sacrifice. I know that despite anything I have tried in the past to mask my own blood and sweat scent, I always seem to more resemble that flashing blue light, the one calling attention to the special in the bargain or sale isle, a blatant advertisement for a real deal or an all-you-can-eat buffet of my type A+ blood. I’m never sure if they come back for seconds or that there’s just an extreme number of bloodsucking bugs outside now, perhaps another domino effect of climate change?
If I’ve failed at masking my own human scent before entering the danger zone, I stand little chance of not returning inside like one big, red, itchy mound I refer to as validation welts. Proof I’m not kidding when I say I’m allergic to most bug bites, no matter what intervention I insert into the equation, and most all my creature encounters have evolved into the nightmarish triggers that also kick starts the panic attack process as if on cue. Like a twofer (the panic attack/nightmare combo). That chain of events leads to the reckless amount of histamines rapidly circulating my body in response, making it easy to recall how those events shaped me into the ball of nerves I am today when stepping outside into what feels like a sauna trap for the blood-thirsty pests. There are those who don’t believe these events to be PTSD triggering. Some people are just nonbelievers until it happens to them. Some call that a fact. I call that karma.
It has been my belief all along that it wasn’t me that was acting like a big old outdoor sissy, but rather that the creatures in the world are changing, big and small, tame and wild. I sometimes wonder why I am the only one continuously asking that question when strange things start to happen, like seeing locusts from Africa show up in my flowerbeds in Florida (that began years ago) and devouring my garden edibles overnight. I was also the only person in my circle of family and friends, who frets over this stuff, but I can’t help but to retain my curiosity for how that happens (and how it mostly happens to me). How do different insects or evolving species of insects suddenly appear one day? One day they aren’t there and the next day they are. You can tell by the destruction they leave behind that something has changed. With climate change becoming scarier than my fear of biting creatures, I’d imagine we’ll be seeing more of the opposite of that; that a lot of living things we’re used to seeing outside will cease to exist as a result of changing temperatures or natural disasters. I am innately curious about that which both fascinates me and that which can also take me straight down the fear hole.
Do the flying insects travel here on their own, arrive on a cargo ship, or plane, along with the imported goods or people, or in the suitcase of a world traveler, or can they hitch a ride during the strong winds during Hurricane season? These are the answers I believe I need so that I can plan my outdoor excursions accordingly. Growing up I remember the same birds, bugs, snakes, and other animals making their usual appearances at the usual places at their usual seasons of every year. The bloodsuckers used to come out at dusk, one of the reasons I was always home on time as a kid. I knew as soon as the sun went down I was human bait. And the darker it got outside, the harder it was to see what was biting me until it did. Then it seemed that as our world became a global melting pot, so did everything that used to be region specific. Global trade, shipping (legal or otherwise), supply and demand, and everything else tied to the economy of a single planet (and beyond?), blurred the lines of that which used to be the expected norm. I am sure that most times, things are either transmitted or transported by animals, humans, or any form of transportation, and by doing so, we’ve introduced Newton’s Law of Relativity to the mix, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There are consequences to everything, even the disturbance of nature as seen with consequential climate change. Good, bad, or indifferent, that’s just the circle of life.
It is why I’ve always enjoyed living in Hawaii, where there are no snakes (except in the zoo), where strict laws govern that which can be brought to or removed from any of the Hawaiian Islands to preserve its eco system, making hiking in the thick, lush terrain a real pleasure absent the fear of a venomous bite from a ground slithering threat. I suspect one day this will no longer be the case. Exotic pet owners can often be a whole other breed of animals of their own. When irresponsible animal owners, once the creature has outgrown their domesticated habitat inside with family, let the species out into a delicate balance of nature unprepared for that introduction, nothing good ever comes of it, that much I know. This is becoming more and more common and is the source of the unexpected, the “what if’s,” that freaks me out, like finding creatures in a place they never existed before, which I refer to as the surprise attack. It is the reason I’ve had to check the toilet bowl before I sit down (I previously wrote about that in the chapter about frogs).
Migration, natural or otherwise, and unmonitored breeding practices, has changed the way I view what my threats are once outside, and more than a few times, inside too. Today, anything can happen. The degree of those threatening encounters determines the level of horror that sticks with me afterwards. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to include anything in the wild. It can also be something as unexpected as a visit from an unleashed, aggressive, neighborhood dog (specifically a pit-bull with an idiot for an owner) confronting me on my own property where one would think increased safety from that sort of thing would not be in short supply. Pet owners with a sense of entitlement against lease laws annoy me more than most blood sucking bugs or surprise attack creature encounters do, despite the fact there’s better odds training an animal than trying to train a flying insect.
Stupid Human Tricks
In my younger years, I thought I was the funny woman of stupid tricks, and loved playing them on those I loved and a few I didn’t. When I was a teenager, by girlfriend accompanied me to my grandmother’s beach house in New Jersey. On one of our many trips to the boardwalk, we happened upon a specialty chocolate shop where there were chocolate covered insects. We bought the milk chocolate covered ants and bees to try out on a third friend upon our return from our beach getaway. We couldn’t wait to take our boardwalk candy over to her house once we arrived home. Despite the fact this friend knew something was up, we somehow managed to talk her out of her suspicions and try the gift we brought back just for her. It was all either of could do to not laugh and blow our childish prank. We told her the chocolate had nuts in it as we anticipated her biting into the crunchy roasted bees hidden within. Unable to contain our laughter until we were sure she swallowed the chocolate treat, we gave ourselves away, and she spit out the candy. There for all of us to see, was a good-sized roasted bee.
She never spoke to us again. It ended a neighborhood and school friend relationship but it remains one of the more comedic stories about bugs involving chocolate and attempted humor. Another favorite was when the same friend and I set out the chocolate covered ants we’d purchased at the same time we bought the bees, at the same boardwalk candy store, for the very same intent. We set the trap atop a dresser in the room we’d stayed in and hid in the closet in an attempt to find out who in the house was stealing our candy stash while we were at the beach. Again, our laughing gave us away, and we burst out of the slightly cracked open closet door startling my little sister who was the culprit caught in the act, candy in her mouth. She looked terrified, unsure of what we would do to her or if I’d tell our mother. When we told her what she had indeed eaten, she began to cry so loud and her mouth opened so wide while she wailed that the dead little black ants she had eaten with the chocolate were stuck to all her front teeth as the chocolate melted first. We nearly peed ourselves over that visual alone. That was her punishment for stealing our candy. That’s about as insensitive and mean as we got as mischievous youngsters, and by today’s standards, it’d be considered a free meal and dessert all in one (bugs are the protein we all might have to develop a newfound taste for in the near future, a form of nutritious, organic pest control), as nowadays, kids are shooting one another; with real bullets, for much less, or worst yet, for no reason at all. It seems there are negative, animalistic, behavioral changes in the two-legged species as well. I find them to still be more predictable than the creatures that walk among us with a much smaller brain.
I wasn’t the only one who appreciated that kind of humor (my father was a big jokester). I was lucky enough to work for a couple who traveled the world extensively for both business and pleasure. Their furniture stores (and home) always had such exotic artifacts and things displayed in them, like walking into the magazines House and Garden or Architectural Digest featuring those fabulous homes of the rich and famous. I was always in another world when inside their private, secluded paradise. Africa was their favorite place and many treasures came from that country. One day I entered their home to find a rather large animal sitting at the dining room table. I let out a scream so loud that my bosses thought I had gotten hurt somewhere in the house while working. When they entered the dining room and saw that I had encountered the lifelike, life-sized gorilla they sat at the table that greeted me, they claimed comedic victory. I deemed the ploy unfair because I was nearsighted. Had I been wearing my glasses, I’d have started laughing instead of screaming. To me, everything blurry looks scary. Little did they know I planned my payback carefully, later purchasing a box of hundreds of realistic looking large black ants I’d bought at a nature store in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One day after they both left the house heading for their furniture store for the day, I carefully pulled back the comforter and top sheet on their master bed and placed each one of those ants carefully between the two. I so wanted to be a fly on the wall when they turned home and later in the evening would pull back those same covers. When I returned the next day, I found all the ants packed up in a box for me along with a very funny note thanking me for the humor. I had not scared them one bit but rather provided them with a nice healthy laugh before bedtime. I imagine they both slept better that night due to the abdominal workout.
Another time, again with the ants, my two young teenage daughters were spending the weekend away with their dad and I decided to play a little trick on them with those very same ants when they returned. I was hoping to at least get my money’s worth out of that gag gift to myself. I methodically devised a scenario where, when they came home, they’d find me on the floor, covered with the big insects, and me lifeless while still holding a can of Raid Ant Spray in my right hand. I even had ketchup coming out of the corner of my mouth. I put a lot of effort into this one. While some might think this to be a cruel thing to do to one’s own children, you would have had to grown up in the house I did to fully comprehend the dark comedic humor of a prankster for a father. Like the time he drove the old standard transmission family station wagon up and down the streets of San Francisco with all seven family members packed liked sardines inside. He’d occasionally allow the car to roll backwards, while at the top of the unbelievably steep uphill and downhill streets just enough to hear the entire bunch of us scream, including my mother (for freaking out all five children). The younger kids always cried which made the oldest ones laugh long past the rolling streets of San Francisco while on our way home thirty-five miles away. My dad would always give an Oscar-worthy performance of a man loosing control of his vehicle. It was terrifying. That PTSD returned when my then young (17 years old) husband was teaching me how to drive a stick shift. I would drive miles out of my way to avoid anything with an incline or decline. I was terrified of the preciseness required when popping the clutch and shifting into gear or risk rolling backwards and crashing his beloved car, a 1967 Pontiac GTO convertible, blue with a pristine white ragtop. Turns out I crashed it a few years later on a flat straight-away. It had nothing to do with a standard transmission, though I had mastered that skill. Not everyone understood the depth of that fear and I believe it was due to the fact they’d never been to San Francisco, California, or in a vehicle with my dad.
In any case, when my two children of the corn returned home late and I ended up lying on the living room floor, covered in fake ants, for over an hour as a result. When they could be heard coming into the house, I could hardly contain my laughter while they went room-to-room talking to one another about where in the world I could possibly be because my car was outside in its usual parking spot right in front of the house steps away from the only entrance/exit door in the large two story house apartment. Containing my laughter was the one thing that always blew my cover. By the time the girls reached my seemingly motionless body, I had already laughed all the ants off the side of my mouth and face, and the ketchup had all but dried and cracked, making me laugh even harder. I must have looked like a Halloween idea gone terribly wrong or a low budget horror movie that ran out of money as soon as the opening credits flashed on the screen, because all my girls could say was that I was nuts, stupid even, which made me laugh even harder and that much longer. I was already planning something far more lifelike for next time. That joke would involve a basement, a fresh whole frying chicken, a cleaver, two dishtowels, and… yep, ketchup. And I’m not telling that story but it was the last terrible joke I ever played on my girls.
I thought the ant joke backfired on me some years later when I myself came in contact with my first bad ant biting ordeal. I have never joked or laughed about ants since as there is absolutely nothing funny about those little bastards and consider this to be my own form of ant karma. That humbling lesson occurred in Florida, right after my relocation there for better career opportunities during what should have been a gleeful moment of career celebration, with a brand new pair of trendy rollerblades and an awesome miles-long, newly finished, macadam trail to roll on. I was there to enjoy the sun and the fun when I wasn’t working as a nurse (which was all the time). I was in my element outside on a trail perfect for rollerblading. I sat my much younger and flexible body down on the curb. I was dressed in a trendy crop top and short-shorts and was both excited and energized to start rolling. I began securing my skate boots when all of a sudden I was distracted by a number of sharp, needle-like sticks to my thighs and backside. Apparently, while I was busy getting strapped into my skates, the notorious Florida red ants had migrated from the grass to the concrete sidewalk, to its curb, and onto my ass. I was shocked at the number of bites I received all at once, which I would later learn is the science behind the ant army’s little terrorist plot. It was all I could do to keep my hands from scratching and spreading the venom injected beneath the skin’s surface. There was no way I was going to let those tiny demons ruin my day outside with wheels for shoes, so off I went, painful mounds of ant venom and all.
I was a swollen ball by the time I got home that day. It did, however, cause me to add a first-aid kit to my outdoor excursion backpack after discovering the huge puss-like lesions that had erupted overnight. I couldn’t believe something so tiny could wreak such havoc and pain onto a 5’8,” 140 pound, and otherwise healthy woman. I would later learn that people have died from extreme red ant biting incidents, one of which occurred in a nursing home to a bedbound patient, during my years as a legal nurse. Having also been a healthcare risk manager in healthcare facilities, I know those cases are easy to prevent and difficult to defend. Those events are often caused by inattentiveness on the side of the facility in which compromised people reside and depend upon others for their safety, wellbeing, and care. Prior to that widely reported event, nobody believed that could ever happen... until it did. That a nursing home resident could live an entire lifetime without going into anaphylactic shock but dies from the negligent oversight of the facility’s own pest control practices or services (or lack thereof) causing just that, is so tragic.
Another scary ant biting event occurred while I was wave running on the Gulf Coast of Florida, something I’d gotten very good at, with the exception of timing my bathroom needs while in full wetsuit gear. Because you’re out on the water, subject to the hot sun, drinking water is a must so as not to get dehydrated, or heatstroke, but it posed problems of a different sort when it came to bladder capacity. That morning, I pulled my watercraft onto a private island where I saw only one boat directly across the other side, thinking it the perfect spot to inconspicuously tinkle which would also require partially disrobing. There was a couple and their two small children that seemed preoccupied with their own beautiful boating day on the opposite of the small private island, so I anchored my craft and sought out a short bushy tree to hide behind so I could pull the one-piece neoprene suit down far enough so as to not pee on it (or myself) and get right back to the water. Peeing in my wetsuit was never an option as the combination of sweat and salty green Gulf ocean water smelled bad enough when I got home. I tried that only once and smelled like the washed up, days old, seaweed I kicked along the shoreline as a kid, learning very quickly that popping those round things attached to the mangled, slimy, green mass of translucent sea plants didn’t make the beach smell anything like I thought a beach should smell. It should smell like suntan lotion and clean, crisp swim towels, beneath a backdrop of colorful beach umbrellas, perfect blue skies, and billowing white clouds. Not like day old urine.
I was so busy squatting down trying to watch for the family members I shared the other side of the island with, whilst also keeping an eye out for all the passing watercraft that I failed to notice what was going on beneath my feet, which were bare to assure I wouldn’t pee on my water shoes either. All of a sudden, like I had felt one time before, something about the skin on my feet changed. It felt like my skin was actually crawling. I looked down at my feet to see what I thought looked like a pair of big red fuzzy slippers only the fuzz was moving. I had stepped into the bush barefoot without first clearing it for insect safety. I saw the moving mound of ants the exact same time I released my bladder and peed all over the them while they were apparently busy taking their combat positions over both feet. With the precision of a piercing arrow, and in unison, the hundreds of ants now moving over my feet bit me all at the same time. I remembered what the doctor told me about the next time I’d get bitten by red ants, that it would determine whether the second reaction would be worse (or better) than the first one. That sounded like a crapshoot notion with terrible odds to me.
As usual, I was out by myself on the water, miles from the dock and my truck and tow trailer (where I accidentally left that first-aid kit). My first thought was to get back into the salt water, hopefully to take the sting out of the ant bites. I couldn’t pee on them, as I had already released that natural antidote; it was all I could think of but soon realized it wouldn’t be enough. I could feel the ant poison traveling through my system. I had no choice but to approach the small family and inquire as to their own boat’s first aid-kit. They had Benadryl, offered it, and I accepted. I was feeling weakened by the ant bite reaction and rolled out a towel to lie down to let the antihistamine take hold. I wasn’t sure jumping back onto my watercraft while awaiting an allergic reaction was a smart thing to do. My body’s reaction was heightened and I was unsure as to its limits. I laid down on my towel and told the family that if I wasn’t up and moving in a few minutes, to go ahead and call the Coast Guard for assistance; I learned the red ants were nothing to laugh at the first go round. My father was also highly allergic to the Florida ant bites, so maybe my reaction to them was yet another genetic gift from my dad, just like his humor. Unfortunately, that is what is so sad about avoidance to the point of total exclusion. That one’s adverse experience or response to an actual threat can profoundly change
how one lives life. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, or in other words, shit happens, constantly.
The ant encounter happened to me again in Hawaii, on Oahu, where I was unfamiliar with the fact that the same vicious ants that threatened and ultimately devoured me while in Florida also existed on the Pacific Island I now resided on. I was standing in a winding admission line at an outside music venue, for the annual May Day Lei Day celebrations, when the line suddenly stopped under a very large tree with long hanging pods, brought to the islands long ago from Africa, many of which were scattered on the ground below. I was talking with friends and hadn’t noticed we were standing amidst mounds of large ants scurrying below our slippers (aka flip-flops) until seemingly, at the same time a few of us jumped back saying we’d been bitten. The welts were quick to rise and the following day I again witnessed the same pustules I’d seen after previous red ant bites. An overwhelming feeling of anger washed over me thinking that the nasty little buggers had now invaded my paradise! I could give up Florida, but now Hawaii? Being allergic to that which seemingly exists in your innermost circle is all a bit much for me. I would have to find a way to coexist with that which seemed hell bent on destroying my joy. I figured the best way to cope was to look down when standing (or sitting) and to never be still long enough for anything to creep up you’re your body and attack you. Little did I know that it would become a lifetime practice that would also ring true about life in general (being hyper vigilant). Maybe the ants were trying to teach me something else, who knows, but they remain the rulers of my outside world. They dictate where I am allowed to enjoy the outdoors or whether or not I must consider relocation, which is generally the case; so much power in such little beings. As I get older, it becomes more and more about whether or not any hill is the hill I chose to die on. Even if it is literally… an ant hill, perhaps that really is the lesson. I used to say my choices in turbulent times appeared similar to those of trees… that in strong winds, I could either bend like a willow or snap like an oak. Those were my two choices. I also learned that it’s never a good idea to be standing next to any tree in a strong wind anyway. There was no doubt in my mind I was now experiencing full-blown ant karma.
Once Bitten Twice Shy
Hawaii is where I also learned everything I needed to know about brown recluse spiders, despite finding them in other states; I managed not to get bitten by one until I was 56. I knew they often lurked in areas that are dark and undisturbed, that they have distinctive markings, are pretty scary looking as spiders go, and that a bite means necrotizing venom has been injected beneath the skin’s surface, which is when the real terror begins. As a nurse, I’d learned all about necrotizing wounds, the rapid destruction of skin tissue surrounding the affected body part bitten, and that the deadly poison can travel through to the bloodstream if left untreated. It can cause loss of surrounding tissue and muscle, a limb(s) and even death via systemic toxicity and/or anaphylactic shock. To think that these small creatures can do such great harm is nothing short of astounding. To be bitten by any venomous spider is extremely painful and comes complete with the gripping fear that accompanies that unimaginable pain; it makes my skin crawl just to write that.
The encounter with the brown recluse spider that bit me twice (over a two week period) came at such an unsuspecting moment during a second move off the island of Oahu. My condo sold and I was ticking down closing time there while sleeping on a cot my realtor set up for me in my otherwise emptied out (staged) abode as the transpacific movers had already picked up my condo’s contents. I opted to stay but needed something to sleep on until it was time for me to get to the airport and fly back to the mainland. My realtor offered me the use of a cot that looked like the old original (military) camping kind, made of canvas wrapped around an aluminum frame. It smelled like mold. I could not have known that the cot really was an ancient one and had been in an offsite storage facility, unused for about seven years. When the old cracked rubber leg tips (that sealed the hollow tubing) had dry-rotted and crumbled to the floor on night one of what would be two week delay in the condo closing should have been the first clue for impending trouble. All four opened up like a lotus flower that opened but never closed again. My initial concern was how I hated the sound of the cot’s now bare metal legs scraping up the travertine marble flooring despite the fact that technically the condo now had new owners. Little did I know that the marble flooring would be the least of my worries during an otherwise boring string of nights in my otherwise barren condominium.
I was initially uncertain one morning as to what had bitten me on the lower portion of my leg overnight as I slept and then a week later on back of my heel on the other. It later became clear as to not only how I got bit, but why. As I tossed and turned on the narrow rickety old canvas cot, the brown recluse (later found inside the tubing after the second bite) must have been just as annoyed by my presence as I was from its presence. The second bite was the validating bite, the more venomous one because of what had already been circulating in my system from the first bite. It was right on the Achilles tendon and neurologically it messed with my ability to walk for months afterwards due to inflammation, pain, and numbness. It was the monitoring for infection, the continuous assessment assuring everyone the infamous, telltale, “red streaking” wasn’t present, and the hoping my immune system was going to do its job was ongoing, concerning, and more exhausting then the bite itself. Because some prescription drugs cause adverse reactions, I am administered them when all other interventions fail (that’s when it comes in handy to be an RN). Out of all the insect bites, spider bites have terrified me the most, because like snakes, one must determine whether or not the threat is a poisonous or deadly one. There’s never enough time for that when coming face-to-face with anything that can strike at you and put you down all in one fell swoop. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all so unpredictable, and again, another crapshoot with disturbing odds.
I might be the only person who kept a photo journal of themselves in various stages of insect bite reactions (because some are downright scary and almost unbelievable), but do so in the event I must ever validate allergic reactions to any healthcare provider. I mostly did so as a reminder of the battle I have always somehow lost and to never get complacent when around anything threatening. I often wonder what I should do differently but realize I have always lost the battle against outdoor creatures so total avoidance at all costs seems to work best. I have come to love screened enclosures for that very reason. Rain and wind events also change what lurks beyond the safety of one’s own home. No matter where I’ve lived, what I was doing, or whether or not I was paying attention, I was doomed. I look at those photos of huge mounds of inflamed skin and notice the look in my eyes, one of sheer determination that I will not bow down to tiny creatures. I honestly don’t know where that brazen woman went in my older years, when there is no desire to stand my ground against that which lives outside. Sometimes I think every creature outside can sense (and smell) the fear that oozes out of me when I feel threatened by creatures. Allergies to bug bites have changed everything about my life outdoors. As a naturalist, I refuse to use chemical pest deterrents on my skin, on my plants, or on the lawn. I’ve tried all sorts of natural deterrents, with the goal of smelling like something they dislike (like a non-living thing), but it seems the bugs could care less when it’s feeding time. I’m always shocked at how clothing isn’t a natural deterrent, and how it is bloodsucking insects can pierce nearly any fabric I’ve worn, including multiple layers of it. So when you explain (to others) you’re allergic, that leaves an open invitation for speculation and naysayers, but I also learned you have to be very specific about the exact allergic reaction when advising others, or the person with you had better be a paramedic.
We must also remember that when outside, we are no longer in our house, but rather in theirs, the creatures of the wild, and we must be respectful or pay the price. That applies to creatures both big and small, as the smallest have taught me the biggest lessons. Like the time I was enjoying the privacy of my six foot privacy fence while mowing my Florida lawn wearing a thong bikini. I accidentally ran the lawnmower into one of the two hollow metal poles that held up my clothesline. Immediately, a massive number of yellow jackets flew out of the top of that hollow pole, I immediately started running, and still got stung on the ass. Those winged flying stingers were behaving like dive bombers during wartime. The moral to that story is never mow the grass in a thong, especially if you work a desk job.
© 2021 Janet Vincenti