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Fear Diary

Updated Saturday 1st July 2006

Some people will do anything for the OU - even coming face to face with their worst fear. Mike Leahy and Zeron Gibson report on their snakey encounter.

Zeron Gibson and Mike Leahy Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

The Roots of Fear

Zeron: Aged about seven or eight my mum tucked me into bed under a new bed sheet. It was green, with swirling patterns of vines and leaves. A kiss to my forehead and her usual "Goodnight, sweet dreams my darling." I fell asleep, only to be awoken in the night by a thunderstorm. At that age I was scared and would have preferred to run into my parents' room, but I was held fast by the tightness of the tucked-in bed sheet and so I couldn't move. Then, I guess, my childhood imagination took over, because I imagined that it wasn't the sheet I was under, but a swirling writhing blanket of snakes. Obviously the flashing lightning didn't help with the imagery, and booming thunder just added to my fear. Now, even if I could wriggle free to get to my mum's room, it was no longer a wise thing to do for the snakes would know I was there and would swarm over my head - the only part of my body that was free. I don't know how long I lay there awake in a state of frozen terror; I guess the storm finally subsided and I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

In the morning, the whole ordeal had been forgotten. I didn't remember a single thing of that night; I was a child and children's minds are very flexible. It wasn't until that night, when I had to climb back into bed, that I began to feel uneasy. The blanket was still there, my mum tucked me in and kissed me goodnight as usual. I then remember waking up during the night and through half sleepy eye seeing the sea of snakes covering me, trapping me. I remember crying my heart out and hoping my mum would rush in and save me, but even in my trauma I made sure that the snakes didn't sense that I was there. Eventually, I fell asleep once again.

This time, in the morning, I remembered everything including the night before. I dived out of bed and fled my room. I ran and told my mother what had happened. She laughed and hugged me, and told me I was being silly. I believed her until I had to go back into my bedroom later that morning. As I entered the door, I was immediately struck by terror on seeing the blanket. I shook and couldn't enter the room. I eventually persuaded my mum to remove the offending sheet. Mum even had to lock it away in a cupboard for years. I couldn't even bear to see it on her bed.

And so, this event triggered my phobia of snakes. A fear that was started with imagery, which then led to the live creature. In my mind, worms and snakes swarmed over me; twisting and writhing they held my body fast, leaving only my head free. Any sight of a wriggling creature (whether in print, on the TV or in reality) and my first reaction is to flee before it can cover my head.

From the second I knew we were going to be making a show tackling fear and phobia, I was uneasy. I had toyed with the idea of seeking help before the shoot, but knew I could never fake the results. So I blanked the whole issue. Anyway, I figured it was about time I got to grips with my fear, and hopefully overcome it. It wasn't debilitating; it was just embarrassing as I would jump at the sight of a snake. I've even been chased round the garden by my daughter holding a large worm aloft.

 
Slightly apprehensive Mike Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 1: Mike Meets the Snakes
Zeron: I was the last one to arrive in the dining room for a very early breakfast. Everybody was eating and chatting. I had an enormous day ahead of me and already was feeling the pressure. I couldn't even focus to order breakfast. I was trying to get the crew to tell me what they had planned. Producer Steve ordered my breakfast and told me to relax.

The crew upped and left as they had to get to West Midland Safari Park to meet with Dr Peter Naish, the OU psychologist, and Mark O'Shea, our snake expert. I have a lot of respect for Mark and what he does - I've seen many of his programmes, but often only through my fingers. Back in my room, I paced up and down whilst listening to music. The pressure was mounting.

Mike: I knew very well that Zeron was profoundly afraid of snakes. One afternoon while we were staying together in a cottage, Zeron had gone to make tea. The crew arrived, and we were chatting so I hadn't noticed what was on the TV, but as soon as Zeron emerged from the kitchen something caught his eye. He must have jumped about six feet while uttering a number of expletives. Unbeknown to us, the natural history programme that was showing on the TV in the background had just shown the image of a snake. Zeron had only seen it out of the corner of his eye, but it was enough to set off a violent recoiling action.

From that day on, I was often tempted to wind him up, but apart from a postcard which I sent him with a snake on it, I resisted temptation because the very mention of the 'S' word was so upsetting to him. So, I was worried about trying to introduce him to the real thing.

Zeron: On the 10 minute drive to the Safari Park, Mike was excellent; he seemed almost like a caring brother. We arrived outside the reptile house where we met Mark O'Shea.

My stomach was in knots and I was getting really agitated! Someone asked me to go into the reptile house. That was the stupidest thing that anyone had ever asked me to do! I couldn't do it. My head was spinning and my legs didn't want to react. My whole being was screaming 'this is lunacy'.

Suddenly I was alone and, for a second, I thought they had deserted me. But then I realised that everyone had gone inside the reptile house. Producer Steve found Dr Naish who came out to me and spoke in such a soft tone that put me slightly at ease. And so I entered the reptile house.

It was like a dream sequence. I just followed Peter by watching his feet. I didn't look around; my eyes were fixed firmly on the back of Peter's shoes. Eventually we stopped walking and Peter said, "Relax and look up." And there I saw a small crocodile in an enclosure with running water, a makeshift pool and rocks. And there, inside, was Mark O'Shea stroking its snout. He made it look so easy and comfortable that I wanted to go in and have a stroke myself. I'd rather be in a room with a croc than have anything to do with snakes.

Then the fools wanted to show me some of the snakes - I wasn't having any of it! I wanted out. Mike said or did something to me that shook me up. I don't know how I got out of the reptile house, but I did, and when Steve found me I actually burst into tears. He took his time to calm me down and console me. I was turning into a wreck. My insides were twisted into the tightest knot you can imagine - I had been near snakes. I hadn't even looked at them - just knowing that I was near them was enough for me to be traumatised. After a time Steve had to go and direct and do some stuff with Mike, leaving me outside with our researcher, Alison. I was still scared stiff.

Mike: I soon found out that Mark O'Shea and Peter Naish had a few surprises for us. As we needed a 'control' for the experiment we were about to undertake, I was "volunteered" to be subjected to a number of tests to see how I reacted to various stimuli: the snakes. Unlike Zeron, I have no phobia of snakes, so the tests were planned to test a 'normal' response to the stimuli. An ECG (electrocardiogram) told me my heart beat, my blood pressure was checked and my galvanic conductivity was measured - this revealed whether I was sweating or not (a 'cold sweat' often occurs when we are scared or stressed).

As I sat in a chair, various sensors were stuck to me and I had my wrists strapped to a table. I was then subjected to a number of 'stimuli' that Mark had prepared. He reckoned these would increasingly worry me (and particularly Zeron). He took me step-by-step through worms, toy snakes and snake skins until we got to the real thing. Once we reached the live snakes, I was first given small snakes to handle before any really large ones. Not surprisingly, I did show a mild reaction to the live snakes, but the biggest reaction resulted from Mark throwing a rubber snake at me.

Throughout the test my heart beat remained pretty stable in the sixties and generally only went up as I spoke (which is pretty normal). In addition, my galvanic skin response (the sweat test) remained pretty uniform, and when it did increase it was usually because I had been surprised. I have to admit that I was nervous with the snakes at first - few people wouldn't be. Even though I am a biologist I have never really thought much about snakes, let alone handled them, so I guess I reacted in the same way as most people would.

 
Zeron conquering his fear Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 1 (continued): Zeron's Turn
Zeron: By the time it was my turn I had managed to calm down a bit but still felt dizzy. To be honest they could have asked me anything and I would have agreed, my mind and body were numb. Producer Steve came out to collect me and said something about strapping my arm to a table, something about the sensitive equipment that couldn't be moved or jerked suddenly. All I could think of asking him was, "No snakes yet, right?" He promised me there wasn't. He knew at this stage he had no choice but to lie, otherwise I would never have made it into the reptile house again.

Everything at this point is vague. My mind seems to jump from one event to another. People are talking to me; I know because I can see their mouths moving, but I can't hear any sounds. I'm dizzy and feeling faint. My belly is like a block of cement. I can feel stress and tension welling up inside me. I think I'm trying to smile. I think I might even be cracking a joke or two. I don't know; my conscious mind seems to have left me.

Mike is doing something to my wrists... strapping them down? I don't want them tight because I must be able to run! I am now completely unaware of what is going on. Peter is talking to me, his words are so soothing. I wish my mother was there to hold me.

Mark O'Shea is now talking to me. I don't hear a word of what he is saying. I really feel as though I am floating. I don't know what is going on. Then he shows me a book of snakes!! I don't know how I've reacted to this physically because my conscious mind has shut down. All I know is I am shaking. I am so cold my teeth are rattling! Steve told me no snakes - he's broken his promise.

Mike: I felt really guilty about helping to strap his wrists down, because he was really worried. The first big test was a few worms and he freaked at even touching the tip of their tails.

Zeron: From somewhere I see a worm coming to touch my hand. That's it - I go completely to pieces. I want out! Get me out of here; I need air before I pass out. I am so dizzy I really don't have any idea of what is going on. They release me and I feel so thankful to be free of the table and my torment.

I am shaking like a leaf. I even notice for the first time I am crying. Everybody around me is saying I've done well but I don't get it. I'm shaking and crying like a child. Peter comes across to me and helps me to relax. Somehow he brings my conscious mind back to where I am. I still don't fully recollect what's taken place. I'm asked if I can manage to go back to the table. My conscious mind now kicks in and tells me that I can't spend the rest of my life living in fear of snakes. These people here can help me. Stop being a coward and get yourself cured.

I agree to go back to the table but this time unrestrained so I have control of my limbs. I am still terrified but Dr Naish is talking away my anxieties. I don't know if I am hypnotised but I feel able to have another go.

Back in the dreaded chair I shakily allow Mike O'Shea to place a live worm in my palm. This is the first time in my life I have ever touched a worm. I am numb. Should I feel pleased at my achievement or will I be back to my phobia the second this ordeal is over? I am now confused.

Mike: Bit by bit, with help from Peter and encouragement from me and Mark, he worked his way through a cuddly toy snake, a snake's skin, a rubber snake and then onto the wriggling creatures themselves.

Zeron: Mark brought out a corn snake. He holds it for a long time. I watch it wriggle in his grasp. Then he offers it for me to touch. I know snakes are not slimy (I've been told that often enough). It's not the slime I fear - I've touched slugs. It's the wriggling and writhing! Mark asks me not to move suddenly so I don't frighten the snake. He holds it close for me to touch it and I have to muster every ounce of strength I have in me to reach out a finger and touch my first live snake. As I touch it I notice its body reacting to my touch. I can feel my fear subsiding.

Mark is telling me how beautiful the corn snake is and I started to agree with him. My shaking slowly stopped. I'm not instantly cured but I do feel that I have nothing to fear. It's just a creature. Mark allows me to hold it. At this point I can feel myself getting dizzy again and I worry that if the snake wraps itself around me I might faint. But then I start to feel concern that I'm not holding it right, in fact I might hurt it. It really is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.

Mike: Cool stuff! Respect to the guy. As I watched him trembling and summoning up all his emotional strength and then overcoming his very real phobia to the point that he could appreciate the beauty of the different snakes, my eyes began to well up. It was a genuinely moving experience.

Zeron: Finally Mark brings out a python. By now I'm feeling in control of my body. I'm not shaking. My stomach has let go of the knot. My head isn't spinning. I can hear and see every thing around me. For the first time I even notice the interior of the reptile house. Mark places the python gently on me. And at last my fear is conquered. I can hold the python. I feel almost stupid knowing that a few moments ago I would have passed out or fled the scene.

My fear is gone. In its place I just feel a void where I expect to feel fear and terror. I still feel anxious and keep thinking maybe the fear is still in that cavern waiting to rush out and engulf me again.

My friend Mike is silent as I hold the python. I can see in his eyes that he is genuinely impressed that I have confronted, and overcome, such a profound fear. Dr Naish tells me that my reading had actually gone off the scale earlier on but now: they are normal.

I want to hug everybody - Mike, Mark O'Shea, Dr Naish, Producer Steve, anyone passing! I am so comfortable that Mark takes me for a look around his beloved reptile house. Then they give me the ultimate challenge; spend a night in the python enclosure! You'd have thought I'd gone through enough - but I'm so elated that I agree... reluctantly!

Mike: The day had gone well and had been a success, but even I wouldn't have wanted to take up the challenge given to Zeron - to spend a night in a snake tank with two reticulated pythons. After all, they definitely have the ability to kill a man.

Zeron: Over a well-earned beer I decided it was time to taunt Mike about his fear of heights. I handed him a scale model of the tower crane he was going to have to climb. He didn't look too pleased. But by then he was too drunk to care.

 
Zeron inspects Mike Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 2: Looking Inside Zeron's Head
[NB None of day two's filming is shown in the finished programme due to a lack of time]

Zeron: After yesterday's events Producer Steve thought it would be interesting to see what goes on in your brain when you get scared. Hey, after a day with snakes going for a brain scan sounded like a piece of piss. Mike had been explaining to me that some scientists think fear is learnt, whilst others believe that it's a mental process we are born with. Either way, it shows up in a certain area of the brain under some kind of magnetic scan.

Mike: It's weird looking into your mate's brain but that's exactly what we did today. After struggling through the London traffic, and enduring the miserable English weather, we managed to get to the Institute of Psychology at Denmark Hill where they use an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imager) to see what goes on in people's heads. Watching the MRI monitor I was greeted by a picture that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Saatchi Gallery in London - y'know, the place that exhibits those cows cut into sections. I guess what really freaked me out was that Zeron was only a couple of metres away and was still alive and well.

Our task for the day was to work out what part of his brain reacted to fear. In the past, scientists have done this by showing a group of people images that are likely to scare them and taking scans to reveal brain activity. Using such evidence scientists have suggested that the amygdala (a part of the brain within the limbic system) is active when you get scared. The scientists showed Zeron photos of people who were angry, neutral or disgusted. As he watched them a number of scans were taken.

Zeron: I was told to remove all metal from my person as the magnets used are extremely powerful. Mike was advised that he couldn't have the scan because he used to work as a mechanic and the throughout his years working on cars it is highly likely that we would have collected minute slivers of iron filings in his eye which would be pulled out by the magnet. And while unlikely to cause any real damage it's not a risk worth taking.

Inside the fMRI I had to keep very still. I was also worried if the scan would pick up any naughty thoughts I might have, so I fought to keep my mind focused on the job.

I was given four tasks. I had to select a friendly face, a terrifying face, a male face and and a female face as they flashed before my eyes. I must say I didn't feel anything much as the machine circled around my head but it did make a lot of clicking noises.

When I came out Mike jibed at me because I had labelled a few of the men as women!

To be honest I didn't find many of the faces scary, more ugly. If you want scary take pictures of London motorist on a road-rage bender! Those are terrifying faces.

Mike: After the visit to the MRI machine we met up with Professor Jeffrey Gray, a famous neuroscientist. He had a look at Zeron's scan and couldn't make anything out other than that he was using his eyes throughout the test. This was hardly a surprise, as he was meant to be looking at the photos - he wasn't going to do it with his ears! We chatted about what the scans might mean, and the kindest (and probably most honest) answer seemed to be that Zeron is naturally a cool character, and wasn't scared by the images. Sadly, none of this made it into the finished programme due to a lack of time. Bummer!

 
Zeron's chemical induced fear Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 3: Chemical Fear
Zeron: In the morning we had breakfast and then walk to the Clifton Suspension Bridge to do some filming. This was interesting because it was exposing Mike to heights - his real fear. Mike admitted that he felt uncomfortable but not too scared because it wasn't an open drop - he felt protected by rails.

Later that morning we went to the Bristol Royal infirmary. We're told that both Mike and I will breathe air with a high concentration of Carbon Dioxide and apparently this will induce fear-like symptoms. Weird! Sounds like a typical Lab Rats experiment! We meet Dr Jayne Bailey who takes us straight to the experiment room where everything was set up.

In the room Mike and I sat back to back (so we couldn't react visually off one another). We were wired up to monitors then had a gas mask placed over our face. We then had to breathe the Carbon Dioxide mixture for about half an hour. I was so determined not to get caught out that I tried to maintain control of my body at all time.

About 15 minutes into breathing the mix I began to feel a little funny. I didn't want to say anything to anyone but my heart rate was going up and I was beginning to feel cold. This was inducing me to shake! My stomach wasn't in knots but I was feeling really uneasy. My breathing was becoming increasingly rapid. I was finding it hard to talk and my head was giddy. I was feeling all the symptoms of fear but there was nothing to be scared about!

Mike seemed perfectly normal breathing in the gas mixture. At the end of the 30 minutes our masks were removed and we breathed normal air yet for a few minutes after I was still shaking and my breathing was fast as if ready to run or confront what was troubling me. I must confess I felt both embarrassed and confused, especially as Mike had coped with it so easily.

Mike: I seemed to cope with this test quite easily, which surprised me as I sometimes suffer with asthma and I'd thought this test might cause me real problems. But it might be that because of this I'm used to keeping calm when my breathing feels difficult or strange. Or it might just be that I'm the best! Suck it up Zeron!

 
Mike confronts his fear of heights on a crane Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Day 4: Mike's Head for Heights?
Mike: It's Friday 13th. Lucky for some - I was born on the 13th, so I have no worries. I'm not scared of dates - I'm scared of heights. With the prospect of climbing up a dirty great tower crane I didn't sleep too well, but a workout helped me to get rid of some anxiety before bed, and the bed was pretty comfy. It felt even more comfy at five in the morning when my alarm went off.

There's a lot to do today, so we need an early start. The stuff that we have to do isn't only difficult to organise, but could also be a little dangerous. The crew plan to film using a number of mini-cameras in the cab of the crane, on the jib and on a load that will be lifted. In addition, we will use a 'cherry picker' to lift Steve the cameraman (everyone seems to be called Steve on this shoot!) up to film me, while other shots will be covered by researcher Alison, who will use a small camera at ground level. There are also plans to secure another mini-cam to my safety hat.

Zeron: I drive Mike to HTC tower crane hire. Mike is chatty as usual. He is sporting a huge (cover all) grin. I know he is excited about the prospect of climbing the crane but very cautious about the task. He's pretty good at hiding his emotions.

Mike: We arrive at the headquarters of the crane hire company early in the morning, just as the sun would be rising - but it's too cloudy for us to see it. Although the weather is grey it's still. That's fine with me; the last thing I would have wanted is wind. I feel sick, maybe from the early start, but probably from anticipation. We talk to Alex Lowe, the managing director of the crane company. He tells us stories about cranes in Barcelona, which at 180 metres in height actually reach above the clouds at times. His company owns over two hundred tower cranes, so he knows what he is talking about.

As we wait for the crew to rig up all of the cameras, Zeron's phone goes off. He has another crisis to deal with. Apparently his washing machine is flooding at home, and his daughter isn't sure what to do about it.

Zeron: When Mike is scared or concerned about himself he tends to look around for any distraction that will deflect him, and others, from the way he is really feeling.

Mike: Just the thought of climbing the crane is making me dizzy. The anticipation I feel is like the feeling I used to get before a Taekwondo tournament, a dirt bike race or an exam. As usual I become quiet before doing something I'm not sure about. I become quite calm and my brain sort of empties itself, but at the same time I'm charged with energy as if I'm about to explode. It doesn't make good TV - me being so quiet.

I've worked as a plant fitter before, and have driven loads of different machines, but never a tower crane. I try to convince myself that this is going to be fun. Even after I had got my PhD, I'd often look out of the windows of my lab in Oxford at the surrounding building sites and wished that I could sit in the cab of one of the cranes. At the time I thought that I would never get into one - even if someone had let me, I would have been too scared to get up the damn thing. Although Alex told me some great survival stories, you can't generally fall hundreds of feet without dying horribly. Only a year or two ago an Oxford undergraduate had been found dead in someone's garden after falling off one during a "fun" night on the town.

When I did get to climb up the tower I took my time, pausing at each level, suffering from dizziness and an urge to jump off. Peter took my blood pressure a few times, and partly as a result of his calming influence it didn't seem to change all that much. This didn't reflect how nervous I was feeling. By the time I had reached the slew gear (the point at which the crane pivots) I could never have stood up unaided and was trembling like a leaf, and once above the jib I really began to doubt my decision to work on the Lab Rats project. Although I knew that Alex, Eamon, Mark and Dave would look after me (the latter two being on the jib with me) I couldn't help getting very nervous.

 
Mike and Peter Naish fight Mike's fear Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 4 (continued): High Above the M6
Zeron: Cameraman Steve and I watched Mike's progress climbing up the crane via the cherry picker. I was asked if I would like to go up the crane but I was happy to leave it to Mike - it was his test and I didn't want to take anything away from him. Besides the cherry picker would go higher than the crane Mike was climbing and was more manoeuvrable, cool!

It is so hard to judge Mike's emotions because he stifles them, but I'm sure he is scared despite him wearing that coverall grin of his. From my vantage point shadowing Mike's ascent I couldn't hear what he said - it's far too windy at this height. Mike tried to wave but seemed to decide that was a bad idea as he had to let go. But he is doing extremely well.

Mike: As I set off along the jib the walking platform near the cab was two metres wide, but it soon narrowed to 30cm (1 foot). More to the point, I could see straight through it to the ground a hundred feet below. I shuffled along at snail's pace, feeling very unsteady on my pins and infinitely more scared than during the climb. In fact I was nearly sick with fear. After what seemed like hours I reached the end of the jib, which was sixty metres out from the cab, but there were still things to do.

My next challenge was to let go of the handrails with one hand in order to pick up a model crane, which Alex had given me as an 'incentive' to get to the end. This proved far more difficult than merely walking along the jib and it took all my will power to let go. The final task involved climbing onto the very end of the jib before sitting down on a rail and experiencing the machine revolving at full tilt.

The experience was serene as we spun across a railway line, the M1 and the Pennine Way, safely harnessed to a mammoth piece of heavy plant. By now I was beginning to find my feet and I took a photo. Walking back along the jib I could feel the stress coursing through my veins and thought that I had the challenge licked, but I still had to get the model back, and have a go at operating the controls.

The first bit was easy - I gingerly walked until I got back to the wide walkway. The second part was more of a challenge. Once I sat down in the cab, my dizziness almost disappeared, and I felt comfortable sat in a good seat, even one this high and exposed. The controls were broadly similar to excavators that I have operated when carrying out repairs on them, but I never got used to the way in which the crane flexed and twisted. It really was quite freaky. With no accidents to blame me for, it was soon time to climb down.

Zeron: I watched Mike climb the crane and walk along the jib from the cramped cherry picker with cameraman Steve, the cherry picker operator and myself all squeezed into its little cradle. We zoomed up and down and in and out to get the best shots of Mike doing his challenge. I often wonder what Mike would have made of the cherry picker. I also wonder what Mike would have done if he had to climb the crane with a minimum of safety equipment and only himself to navigate to the end of the jib. Driving the crane was the easy, boy's toy part.

Mike: Back on the ground I checked out my 'vital statistics'. My normal heart rate is 58 - 62 beats per minute (bpm) when I'm stood up (a little less when I'm truly relaxed) and this remained more or less constant during the climb up the tower, showing that the physical challenges were not raising my pulse significantly. Even at the top it was barely beating above 70 bpm. However, at the end of the slow and gentle walk to the end of the jib my pulse had gone up to over 80bpm, and that was with no real physical exertion. This is evidence for one of the 'fight or flight' responses.

Likewise, my blood pressure went up from my resting rate of 120/80 or 110/70 to 160/90 at the top of the steps but then soared to 180/110 at the end of the jib. Again there was an increase linked to the effort (and anxiety) of climbing the steps, but the other leap, which happened when walking slowly along the jib, could only have occurred because of the fear that I was feeling.

By the end of the day I was knackered, and even when going to bed my head was still spinning. I guess my fear of heights is largely due to me simply being scared of heights, but I reckon a good deal of it is caused by vertigo. This makes me dizzy because my vestibular system (my eyes, and the skeletal muscles that help me balance) are sending mixed messages to the brain. My brain can't fully work out these messages and so I can't balance at height.

Not being able to stand up when a big fall could result would scare anyone I reckon and I still haven't 'cured' myself. This was evident when I was still mildly dizzy two days after the climb. I live in hope. On the other hand, Zeron's severe fear seemed to have been completely cured. Maybe it was because he is unlikely to be attacked by a reticulated python when wandering around town and his brain now believes this, but I guess a lot is down to the simple fact that everyone's fears are different. Still, we'll find out tomorrow how deep that 'cure' really is - it was amazing, but I find it hard to believe that he'll really be able to sleep with snakes.

 
Zeron asleep in the snake house Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 5: Sleeping with snakes
Zeron: I have been worried all day. I seemed to be cured of my phobia but I have lived with this for a long time. I'm still not sure that my fear has gone for good and now I have to spend a night in a python's cage with two of the things! This is not going to be easy for me, since it had been when I was asleep that my phobia had taken root. All I would need now is a thunderstorm to kick off while I'm in with the snakes and I could end up a real mess.

I was worried that I was going to get bored in the snakes' cage. A whole night was going to be a long time. So I packed a book in case I woke up during the night. I kept myself busy during the day and kept a low profile - I didn't want my nerves to show, and at breakfast Mike had been going on about how a reticulated python (my bed companions) can eat a man. So I wanted to stay away from scare stories.

Mike: We leave the hotel at about four in the afternoon and Zeron seems pretty calm. When we arrive at the safari park he isn't quite so chilled out, but after a few words with Peter Naish he soon calms down and seems remarkably laid back. I get my first chance to talk properly to the guys in the reptile house - one of them has suffered a venomous bite. Can't say that I'd want their job.

Zeron: I impress myself because I can now actually walk into the reptile house on my own while looking at the snakes. I feel cured, but I can still feel signs of the old fear rattling around. I confide in Peter and he takes me outside for a hypnosis session.

He appears to put me under quite deep - all I can remember is relaxing by a stream with fluffy bunnies bouncing around. Whatever he did it has worked. I feel ready for the challenge.

Back in the reptile house we are treated to the skills of Mark O'Shea as he toys with a bad tempered Egyptian Cobra called Harsh. "Right - get ready for bed," says producer Steve. Mark opens the door of the cage and gestures me in. It was very warm in the cage. I was thankful for that because if my body temperature was going to be colder than their surroundings they wouldn't want to come and curl up next to me (or, even worse, on top me). Mark closed the door and I was on my own!

There were two ideal sleeping places in the cage: one was covered in a lot of snake shit; the other was currently held by the female python. Stupidly I decided that I wanted the place the python had. So I had to move and shoo her away. Taking all my courage I did just that - I physically pushed a reticulated python off her sleeping rock and claimed it for my own.

Mike: I can't believe my eyes when I see him walk through the door of the cage and push the female python off her resting place. It surprises me even more when Zeron lies down and seems to doze off!

Zeron: Encouraged by my bravery I laid myself down on my freshly won rock and stretched out to sleep. Mind you, I kept one eye on the female snake now curled up reluctantly in the corner of the cage and the other eye on the snake 8 feet above my head on a ledge.

The time was ticking away. Amazingly I didn't feel scared. Dr Peter Naish and Mark O'Shea had done a great job curing me. The heat of the cage and the adrenaline rush I was having really took it out of me. I closed my eyes and promptly fell asleep. The next thing I remember was a presence hovering above my head. I opened my eyes to see the female python looking at me. For a second my whole body was filled with panic. I had fallen asleep and forgotten where I was. It took a second for my faculties to come together. When they did I realised she was trying to get her rock back. Tough! I had it now. I turned away from her and went back to sleep.

Mike: I watched him as he went to sleep in the cage, only to be woken by an inquisitive python after half an hour or so. I thought that he may freak because he would have had no time to work out where he was or what he was doing, but he just jumped a bit, moved the snake and went to sleep again. I don't think I would have been so cool.

After a few hours we got bored watching Zeron sleep and decided that he had done enough. He had entered the cage thinking that he would be spending the night, and had happily gone to sleep with two snakes of a species that has been known to kill and eat humans. Anyway, we were too tired to stay up watching him to make sure that he wasn't eaten. Mark gave us each a bottle of banana beer; we said our goodbyes on camera and hightailed it to the pub to catch last orders - where I bought Zeron a snakebite. Cool!

Zeron: I have confronted my fear but I'm not sure if I've overcome it fully though. Since the making of the show I haven't handled a snake. I haven't even touched a worm. I must try both of these again to prove to myself that I really am cured. But I no longer flee the room if a snake appears on the TV and I can handle and read books with pictures of snakes - this has been an amazing and emotional programme to make. Wow!

 

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