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Cicada terror: The fear is real, people (if irrational) | COMMENTARY

A cicada emerges from its exoskeleton on a tree Thursday in Green Lane Park. Periodical cicadas, which emerge every 13 or 17 years, grow underground, tapping into tree roots to eat, and waiting for the soil to be just warm enough to emerge. Then they scream, mate, lay eggs and die, doing their part to continue the cycle.
A cicada emerges from its exoskeleton on a tree Thursday in Green Lane Park. Periodical cicadas, which emerge every 13 or 17 years, grow underground, tapping into tree roots to eat, and waiting for the soil to be just warm enough to emerge. Then they scream, mate, lay eggs and die, doing their part to continue the cycle. (Ash Bailot / The Morning Call)

As the emergence of Brood X approached, I built my armor. Yes, figuratively, but mental chain mail encumbers just the same.

Let’s be clear, construction began 17 years ago when I nearly abandoned my running car because “ONE OF THEM IS IN HERE!” When a cicada landed on my cardigan during a company fire drill, I shed the sweater and ran down the street screaming. In front of EVERYONE.

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I decided then: “When 2021 comes, I am OUT OF HERE.”

Well, that didn’t happen. As spring arrived this year, so did the inevitable collective obsession that precedes any major natural event. By the end of April, cicadas were a standing agenda item at work. During each discussion, my pulse would quicken. When compelled to contribute, I sullenly shared my terror.

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I amped up my mental preparations.

Working from home requires that I get outside: for exercise, to connect with friends or escape into a podcast or audiobook; to fill my role as unofficial documentarian of neighborhood beauty.

Hiding inside for six weeks wouldn’t be easy, but I had no other options.

The days warmed and newscasters reminded us of the 64° Fahrenheit ground temperature requirement for the emergence to commence.

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I changed and canceled plans. I prepared friends for my absence. And in late April, I withdrew for most of the week after a misreported cicada sighting — physically isolated from places I loved, mentally isolated because I was sick of talking about my stupid fear.

Depression, always delighted to fill a vacuum, quietly seeped in.

If someone asked me how to replicate what happened next, I couldn’t answer.

I approached a cicada.

I am SO done with this fear.

I studied the cicada.

OK, I’m doing this.

I extended my hand and gently stroked his back.

He made a little sound.

“He PURRED!!”

I probably anthropomorphized what was really a scream (“GET AWAY!”), but that tiny emanation broke the spell. My armor disintegrated, instantly obsolete. A great grin of joy replaced my grimace.

Freedom. After weeks of imprisonment. AMAZING!

My first instinct was to chide myself for having been dumb. How could I have been so terrorized by frickin’ bugs?! But I refuse to forget how I felt just days ago. I have family and friends who are terrified of cicadas. I respect that terror, and I feel for those experiencing it. Phobias are inherently irrational.

What made me lean down and touch that cicada? I don’t know.

What I remember is:

A friend shared a workbook created to inure children to cicadas.

I tired of my fear, disgusted at how it intervened in life.

An Instagram friend said she’d miss me.

My fear of depression eclipsed my phobia.

My patient husband accompanied me on lunchtime walks, with both our dogs, for safety. I wore long sleeves and a hat, lest ONE land on me. Seeing my tension, a neighbor suggested: “Just try touching one.”

We walked on. Turning one corner. Then another. Then another. And there he was. My Prince Charming.

(Well, my real Prince Charming was getting the dogs a safe distance away in case I freaked out.)

But I didn’t freak out. Because of the purr.

Nor when I petted another cicada a few hours later. Or in the now dozens of times since then that I’ve petted them, picked them up, or had them land on me.

What a gift, cicadas! You’ve reminded me that while it can be OK to respect fear, that respect can get out of hand. Fear obstructs our view, restricts our access. It encumbers, distorts, isolates. And beyond it lays a vast, Technicolor, oxygen-rich world.

That said, am I going to try to replicate this with spiders? Nope. As I said to a friend yesterday, “Spiders can f*** off forever.”

Cy Governs (cygoverns@gmail.com) is a health communications specialist for the Bureau of Primary Health Care and dog-mom who lives in Baltimore City.

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