science of us

I Tried a Phobia Treatment That Erased My Memories

Photo: Mark Kostich/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I’m standing under a gray sky in Zwanenburg, a town about 20 minutes from Amsterdam, with clinical psychologist Dr. Merel Kindt. We’re outside a squat white building with a word stenciled in black letters on one of the windows: reptielenopvang. Reptile house.

“When we go inside,” Kindt says, “Bianca will be holding a snake. Are you ready?”

No. No, I’m not. I can feel the tears forming at the thought of what’s about to happen.

“Sorry.” I wipe my eyes. “I don’t think I can do it.”

“You’re brave or you wouldn’t be here,” she says, and before I can argue, she pulls the door open. “Let’s go.”

My view is blocked by bookshelves at first, but as we turn the corner I see a young woman, Kindt’s assistant, with one of the creatures draped across her shoulders and down both arms.

“He’s too big,” I say, freezing in place. “He’s really, really, really big.”

Kindt strides confidently toward them. “Please.” She gestures with her hand. “Come.”

The snake is the color of dark ash. His head is pointed away from me, but I picture him whipping around, fangs bared, ready to swallow me whole.

“Come,” Kindt repeats. I take a zombie-like step, my body tilted back as if I’m leaning away from the edge of a cliff. I take another step, and another, until I’m in front of … it. My entire body vibrates with fear.

For non-sufferers, it’s probably hard to understand the all-encompassing terror of ophidiophobia, otherwise known as the fear of snakes. Well-meaning people often ask me if it even matters: How often do you see snakes anyway, living in New York City?

To which I respond: All. The. Time. I’ve encountered people flaunting them in restaurants, in city parks, even once at a friend’s book party (I fled immediately). Recently, I came across photos online that featured a fat boa constrictor coiled around a subway pole on the very train I ride each day.

Plus, when you have a phobia, you often see the object of it, even when it’s not there. It’s called expectancy bias. That discarded belt at the back of a closet? A snake. A tangle of electrical cords in my peripheral vision? Snake. I’ve even misinterpreted the strap on someone’s backpack and bolted.

“What do you think about touching him?” Kindt says now.

At first I think she’s joking, but of course she’s not. And I’m desperate for this to work. Twice I’ve been cured of my almost-lifelong ophidiophobia, and both times it’s returned. Those attempts were with exposure therapy, where new, neutral memories are created to sit alongside the fearful ones, hopefully outweighing them. Kindt’s treatment is different. It’s not about forming new memories. It’s about evoking an existing memory and, with the help of a drug, altering it.

“Jessie?” she says.

“Okay.” One, two, three. I put one hand on the snake, while the other remains over my heart, to make sure it doesn’t stop.

“You’re doing very well,” Kindt says, smiling. “That’s enough.”

Outside, as soon as we get into a waiting taxi, Kindt hands me a white pill. It’s the beta blocker propranolol, and for the treatment to be successful it must be taken during a specific window: after the phobia memory has been triggered, but before it’s been stored back in your brain (a process called reconsolidation). The propranolol blocks the flood of adrenaline responsible for the fear response. When the memory is re-stored, it’s stripped of the fear.

By the time we arrive at the University of Amsterdam, where Kindt is a professor, I’m utterly exhausted. She brings me to an office and instructs me to rest for one hour — no phone, no laptop.

On the way back to my hotel, I spot an abandoned black bicycle fender. It’s curved like a snake. Normally this kind of thing would startle me, if not send me skittering across the street. This time, I think: That looks like a snake — with none of the usual panic.

I wonder if this means I’m cured, but I’d been warned not to overthink it tonight. Tomorrow is the test portion of the treatment. That’s when I’ll have the answer.

The next day, outside the reptile house, Kindt asks me to rate distress level on a scale of 1–100.

“Maybe 40?” I say, baffled. Yesterday it was 100.

“Good,” she says. “Ready?”

“Yes.” This time, when I spot Bianca holding the snake, my first thought is, He’s interesting looking. I’m not leaning my body away. To be clear, I’m also not running toward him for a loving embrace. But my chest hasn’t seized up. I’m not terrified.

I put my hand on his body. “He’s warm.”

“Do you think you could hold him?” Kindt asks.

I nod and Bianca sets him across my open palms. He’s heavier than I expected. “What’s his name?”

“Big Boy,” Bianca says.

He stays in my hands, moving slowly. He seems gentle. I feel a rush of gratitude toward him and can’t stop smiling at this snake, who’s as long as I am.

“Wow,” Kindt says. “This is fantastic! How do you feel?”

“I feel calm. I’m waiting for the terror to hit me — but it’s not. It’s bizarre.”

“Can you see more snakes? They’re just there, in that room.” She points toward a white door. “That way we will know your cure is generalized, and not just for this one.”

I give Big Boy back to Bianca. But I hesitate in the room’s doorway: the walls are lined with tanks, some over six feet long. I know what’s in them. Still, I walk inside, closing the door behind me.

The first one I see is cocoa-colored, as wide as a one-liter bottle of soda. He lies completely still in his tank, his head perched on top of his coils, like someone resting their chin on a pillow. Interesting, I think.

Bianca pulls a medium-sized snake out of a tank. He’s deep amber, with copper lines like hieroglyphics.

“Who’s this guy?” I ask, reaching out to touch him.

“King python,” Bianca says.

“Can you hold him, Jessie?” Kindt asks, and when I nod yes, Bianca places him in my hands.

His tongue flickers over my skin, and he glides gracefully up my arm. “He’s cute,” I say.

Bianca says something in Dutch that makes Kindt laugh. She turns to me and says, “Bianca can’t believe you’re the same person as yesterday.”

“I kind of can’t, either,” I say.

And actually, I’m not.

Something Kindt says later gives me hope that this will be a permanent change. “When people think about memory, they think about conscious recollections,” she says, “but most of our memory we are not aware of. After you learn to ride a bicycle, you have a memory for biking. If you see a bike, your memory helps you to know how to ride it — it’s a spontaneous automatic response.”

I did have specific fearful memories involving snakes, but more important, I had a general memory. Just like seeing a bicycle and knowing how to ride it, I would see — or think I saw — a snake, and experience a spontaneous automatic response: terror. It’s that general memory that’s altered by taking the propranolol at exactly the right time.

“Some people feel a sadness after they’re cured,” Kindt warns me. “A part of you is gone — even though the phobia was unpleasant, it was part of who you were.”

In the coming days, after I return to my normal life in New York, I don’t feel sad. But I definitely feel different: I’m no longer on high alert, scanning for them everywhere, and as a result, my brain seems to have more space. Space for thinking, for noticing details, for simply relaxing. And my solar plexus feels more open, my shoulders more relaxed. I feel able to take deeper breaths.

A few weeks after the treatment, I’m walking near Washington Square Park, on the first warm day. I could run into one now, I think, out of habit, then catch myself and smile. Now, it doesn’t matter. I can let go of that dreadful springtime ritual of ramping up my vigilance, as well as its winter equivalent: at least I don’t have to worry about running into a snake.

Only I wouldn’t have thought snake. I’d have thought one of them. Because until the treatment in Amsterdam, I had a hard time thinking, saying, typing, or even reading the word — just seeing those five letters was enough to scare me.

Now I can read the word, type it, even say it out loud. I can walk through city parks without scanning every shoulder, I can ride the subway without inspecting the poles, I can even hold a snake myself, marveling at the intricate patterns I’d been too panicked to notice before.

Sometimes I think about the decades I spent being afraid, all that wasted energy. But that’s even more wasted energy. Instead, I choose to focus on my good fortune — on how lucky I am, that I got to participate in something that feels a little like science, and a lot like magic.

I Tried a Phobia Treatment That Erased My Memories