To celebrate the upcoming release of my rom com Driving in Neutral —a love story about claustrophobia— I am running the 75 Days of Phobia series, where we’ve been talking phobias for 66 days. The mere thought of climbing into an elevator scares the hell out of Driving in Neutral’s Emerson Maxwell, and results in some references to wet rodents and rabbits, but for Chris Hemsworth-shoulder-rubbing, bestselling, RUBY award-winning Romance author Melanie Milburne, the mere thought of anything to do with a rodent might just make her climb up on a stool or table and scream.
I grew up on a hobby farm north west of Sydney. We had chickens and ducks, cows and pigs and horses and every other type of animal you can think of including goannas and snakes. Not as pets, although I did have a water dragon called Macbeth.
My parents bred fox terriers, and given that we had a constant supply of rats and mice about the place it was a wise choice of breed!
We also had lots of cats. I mean LOTS of cats. Most of them were strays and half wild and hung like feline gargoyles off the farm sheds.
We lived on an isolated road and were a sort of catchment area for dumped dogs and cats. We got used to watching out for strays before the onset of school holidays or late January or February when the cute puppy someone had bought their kid for Christmas turned into a not so cute hair and poop machine. We rescued a lot of those and some of them were the best dogs ever – loyal and devoted. One kelpie cross we called Tippy Toes (because she had cute white toes) alerted me to a snake she had just wounded near her water dish. I might well have been bitten if she hadn’t warned me by growling and shepherding me away.
I was a sensitive child. Some members of my family would say too sensitive. I freaked out at the sound of the pigs squealing before they were butchered. I fretted over the cows when their calves were taken away from them and fed from a bucket so the cows could be milked. I wept over being served Gertrude (the duck I’d reared since a duckling) for Sunday lunch.
But the thing that made my childhood particularly memorable was my aversion to rats and mice. I remember being about three years old when my father came in with a handful of baby mice he’d found in the barn. Their tiny pink naked bodies were squirming inside the cup of his hand. I’m not sure what upset me about that. Maybe it was when he proceeded to feed them to the nearest cat. Whatever it was, from that moment on I had a phobia that gripped me with paralyzing fear every time I saw a rodent.
My no-nonsense mother thought the best way to handle this sensitivity was exposure. I’m not talking gradual exposure like they do in a desensitization program. I’m talking immersion. Needless to say it didn’t work. I got worse. Much worse. So Mum got my three siblings in on the mission to desensitize me. That didn’t work either. I just learned to run faster and scream louder.
I remember panicking about a science lesson in Year Ten. I’d heard we were going to dissect white lab rats. I decided the only way I could handle the lesson would be to use another animal. We bred rabbits on the farm so I put forth a proposal to my science teacher who agreed to use rabbits instead. Phew! I was so relieved. So I dutifully turned up at school with a crate of rabbits and he proceeded to euthanize them. Well, I wasn’t at the top of my science class or anything but even I could see a rabbit was a lot bigger than a rat, although some of the rats down near the pigsties at home were pretty big, but more on that later.
So, there was Mr Tanner with his bottle of ether and cloths and the rabbits swaying as if there were drunk or stoned. None of them gave up the ghost. Not one. I took them all home again at the end of the day and they hopped out of the crate and began munching and twitching as if nothing unusual had happened.
My dad had a novel way of getting rid of rats out of the pigsties. He would pour petrol down the hole and throw a lighted match in and boom! Out would blow the rats. I’m not joking. It really happened. Regularly. On one particularly memorable occasion he had just cleaned out the sties and spread fresh straw out for the sows. He caught sight of a beady-eyed rat and did the petrol and match thing. The rat and its large family came out on fire and proceeded to set the sties alight. It was a circus. Luckily Dad had a hose nearby!
All these years on and I still can’t bear to even look at a picture of a rat let alone see one in the flesh. I don’t even like guinea pigs or hamsters. To me they are just posh tailless rats. I’m on the one up on the table screaming if the cat brings a mouse in. I have to call in neighbours or a friend to remove it if my husband isn’t around.
Thing is, I have this uncanny ability to predict when a mouse or rat is going to appear in a movie. I say to my husband: ‘I can feel a rat coming on.’ And hey, presto –there it is.
I have no fear of snakes or spiders. I can handle heights and public speaking and live television interviews. For most of my adult life I’ve felt the fear and done it anyway… except when it comes to rodents.
I read somewhere recently that at any one time we are only a metre away from a rat. A metre! Eeek! Now that is scary!
Melanie Milburne is an award winning, best selling, USA TODAY author of over sixty romance novels with Harlequin Mills and Boon. She is an official ambassador (along with Chris Hemsworth and Eric Bana) for The Australian Childhood Foundation and is as passionate about the needs and protection of children at risk as she is about writing romance. In 2011 she won the prestigious Romance Writers of Australia R*BY (Romantic Book of the Year).
Melanie lives in Hobart, Tasmania with her surgeon husband and three miniature black poodles.
Melanie’s next series, The Argentinian Playboys Duet Book One: The Valquez Bride is out October 2014. Book Two: The Valquez Seduction arrives November 2014