Confronting Your Greatest Fear

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of the ocean. Just say the word “ocean” and this is where my imagination goes:

It’s pretty easy to live a functional life with a fear of the ocean. Things could be worse. Some people have to live with disabling phobias that limit their ability to drive, ride in elevators, or fly in planes.

And just imagine suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia—fear of long words. Clearly the jerk who came up with that name wasn’t very understanding, which gives insight into what it’s like to be taken seriously as an H-phobic. (Word shortened for compassionate reasons. You’re welcome.)

But living with a fear of the ocean isn’t much of a burden. Unless, of course, you fall in love with a man who’s planning to sail the world.

Evidently, Cupid is a bit of a dick because I fell for that guy!

Cupid, seriously—you’re kidding me, right?

Long story short, I was cajoled into facing my greatest fear by sailing 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean as his first mate, though “First Mate” is a generous title for a shipmate whose responsibilities are limited to shivering, vomiting, and hourly cries of: “We’re going to die!”

Anyway, now I get asked this question a lot …

“Did you overcome your fear of the ocean?”

I want to say: “Yes, I did!” because, schmuck that I am, that makes me sound like a heroine, a role model, an inspiration. Or perhaps it makes me sound sane, for what kind of sick person would sail for two years with a fear of the ocean? (Answer: a lovesick one.)

The truth is, I faced my fear but I didn’t overcome it. I still can’t swim in neck-deep water without being heckled by my own imagination: SHARK! DEATH! BLOOD! SHARK! TEETH! DIE! RAZORS! DEATH! PAIN! HORROR! GAHHHHhhhhhh!

Instead, I just avoid swimming in deep water. Which is easy enough, right?

So why face up to my fears?

It’s not that hard to live life with a fear like mine, but more times than I care to count, it has sucked the joy from my experiences. It has dictated my choices and held me back from something I’ve wanted to do. Fear shrinks my world and sometimes it causes regret.

That’s why I want to overcome it.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. Anaïs Nin.

I started seeing a psychologist earlier this to see it’s possible to (a) to overcome a fear like this, and, (b) undo some damage from my DIY psychotherapy on the Pacific that lead to—oops!—a bit of post traumatic stress disorder.

So I found a guy in Melbourne—a sailor, incidentally—who deals specifically with fear and anxiety. At the cost of my dignity, I’ve condensed the lengthy treatment into a brief recap episode for you.

Me: I’m scared of the ocean.

Therapist: Why are you scared of the ocean?

Me: It’s horrible. It’s cold and dark.

Therapist: And what is frightening about dark places?

Me: That’s where the creeps live.

Therapist: Creeps?

Me: I watched a lot of horror movies as a kid. Like—a lot of them. That’s what happens when your dad writes horror films for a living. My Barbie dolls would play out exorcisms, splashing tiny vials of pretend holy water on each other. “The power of Christ compels you!” My Cabbage Patch Kid spoke to her pinky finger. “Redrum. Redrum. Redrum.” [Laughs]

Therapist: [Not laughing] So then you’re afraid of the boogeyman?

Me: No! That’s absurd! [Laughs uncontrollably]

Therapist: Torre, you’re in a safe space. Remember it’s just you and me here. And your blog readers. (He didn’t really say that, but he should’ve warned me.)

Me: Alright. Yes, I’m afraid of the boogeyman.

Therapist: You know who the boogeyman is, don’t you?

Me: Linda Blair?

Therapist: Well, yes, but—

Me: Jack Nicholson?

Therapist: He was excellent in that role, wasn’t he? Who else, Torre? Think! Who is really frightening you?

Me: Peter Benchley.

Therapist: What about your imagination?

Me: Oh, right.

Therapist: What scares you is your own imagination. You’re scared of what it’s capable of.

Me: The boogeyman is in my imagination!

A light bulb went on inside and all the imaginary creeps scuttled off. For the first time in my life, I realized I have the power. I have the power, motherfucka! Because you’re not real! Bah-ha-ha-ha-ha. Bwuah-ha-ha-ha! (Okay, stop with the evil laugh, already. You’re frightening me.)

So that is what I learned from therapy. I’m afraid of the amorphous, oppressivenon-existent boogeyman. Perhaps regular grown-up people learn this when they’re six years old, but I was too busy watching sequels that year: Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Poltergeist II, Psycho III, Friday the 13th Part VI, Demons II.

With this realization, the ocean went from being The Darkest and Scariest Place in the World to … well … the ocean.

Water. Salt. Waves. Fish. Wilderness. And sharks, sure, but I have the power shut out the boogeyman sharks and remember that real-life sharks attack less often than vending machines.

So, to test myself, I signed up for a Open Water Diver course in Thailand. My partner just became a diving instructor and I figure he’ll be a perfect teacher because he’ll understand me when I let out a bubbly underwater scream: “We’re going to die! Blub-blub-blub.

More on that soon.

Do you have unreasonable fears? What are they? Would you face up to them?

 

Leave a Comment

  • Kim July 31, 2012 at 4:00 am edit

    Good for you Torre! I understand, too, as I just spent the summer backpacking through grizzly country although I have a debilitating fear of grizzly bears. I survived, I didn’t even SEE a bear, but the fear did suck some of the joy out of the otherwise amazing experience.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche July 31, 2012 at 9:40 am edit

      Those grizzly bears really know how to suck the joy out of a walk in the woods, don’t they? I must admit that every time I looked at your photos, I was thinking GRIZZLY BEARS! DEATH! PAIN! TEETH! BLOOD!

      Reply
  • Deb July 31, 2012 at 4:25 am edit

    Torre

    I’m terrified of sharks. I don’t ‘mind’ the ocean as long as it’s shallow. I can’t even look at pictures of them. When I was a kid all someone had to do was hum the da-dum music from the movie Jaws and I was out of the pool quick smart!!!

    I also feel like that about snakes!

    Deb

    Reply
  • Carmel July 31, 2012 at 4:49 am edit

    Many. The most unreasonable being vampires….and bobble heads. Yes, those stupid little dolls with obscenely large heads. I have a weird neck thing…hence the vampires. I credit it to seeing too many crappy murder mysteries as a child.

    I have to say, if my mind thought of the ocean as depicted in your very detailed art, I would be deathly afraid as well.

    Reply
  • Kaytie @ GardenKitchenHome July 31, 2012 at 5:10 am edit

    My unreasonable fear is heights–as in I’m going to go hiking and fall off a mountain. Keep in mind that I’m a rock climber, which doesn’t scare me. (You’re strapped to the rock face. No falls happening like that!) But hiking over mountains makes me hyperventilate. I forgot I had this fear until I found myself with my brand new husband on our honeymoon in Peru–where we hiked up for four days to Machu Picchu. In fact I didn’t even realize I was afraid for the first two days, because you just climb straight up. But the last two days are down. And they’re down around crazy Incan stone stairs. I made it through the hike, and was rewarded with some incredible views from the Sun Gate. But my god, that fear was palpable and crippling. Fortunately I had my hot hubby’s hand to grab mid panic attack.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche July 31, 2012 at 9:47 am edit

      I’m scared of heights too. Your Machu Picchu experience sounds horrible, especially because you didn’t realise until it was time to come down! That must happen to people a lot.

      Reply
  • Cath July 31, 2012 at 6:51 am edit

    I have a fear of being average. But we have to conquer the winds and adjust our sails.

    Reply
  • looloolooweez July 31, 2012 at 1:50 pm edit

    Oh my gosh! I really admire you for facing your fear and doing that diving course. And in Thailand, which is *awesome*.

    My unreasonable fear is fire. Like, I triple-check everything in the house before leaving to make sure it is all unplugged. And it took me 6 years of living independently before I got up the courage to buy a toaster oven! How sad is that?

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm edit

      That is sad, but also extremely cute that you had to work up the courage to buy a toaster oven. We’re all nursing our own little neurosis, aren’t we? :)

      Do you know where your fear comes from?

      Reply
  • Wandergirl July 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm edit

    This is inspiring. I am SO terrified of the ocean, and whales and submarines as an extension. I tried going canoeing on a LAKE a couple weekends ago. A lake you could see clean across. And I FREAKED OUT because I could see those creepy underwater plants but I couldn’t see the bottom because it was too cloudy and I just was convinced those plants were going to reach up and drag me down and drown me where all manner of creepy lake creatures would eat my bloated, rotting body. Is this helping?

    But boogeyman = imagination is an interesting and plausable theory. It’s like being afraid of fear itself, which makes me feel noble like FDR or Harry Potter.

    My biggest fear – bigger than the ocean or whales – is butterflies. *shudder* My parents are really sadistic and have taken me both whale watching and to butterfly conservatories. I know, I had a rough childhood.

    Anyway, the point is: good for you!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 2, 2012 at 12:46 pm edit

      I can relate to your lake freak-out session. I used to be like that (and my imagination also goes towards bloated bodies). But butterflies? No, no, no, no, no. They’re so cute and pretty and delicate! You must hate going to tropical places. Those suckers are everywhere.

      Reply
  • Jenna July 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm edit

    I am really scared of roller coasters. I tried to get over it by forcing myself to go on some of the super big, super fast ones. It made things worse. I feel like I am missing out because other people seem to enjoy them so much, but maybe I just don’t enjoy them/they’re not for me? Not sure if this is something I need to get over or not?

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 2, 2012 at 12:50 pm edit

      I wouldn’t worry too much about it unless it’s holding you back in life. I’ve been on a lot of roller coasters and none of them have been life altering. A quick thrill for idiots. You’re missing nothing. :)

      Reply
  • Allison July 31, 2012 at 6:24 pm edit

    My unreasonable fear is time travel. I’m panic-attack-afraid of the thought of backwards time travel. And because I appreciate that I’m deathly afraid of something that isn’t real, I don’t feel any need or any desire to face up to my fear. Really, all it would entail is reading books or watching time travel movies, when instead I could read other books or watch other movies that wouldn’t give me a panic attack :)

    Good luck diving! I’m sure you’ll either love it, hate it or fall somewhere in between … but that’s not really the point is it?

    xo

    Reply
  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures August 1, 2012 at 12:35 am edit

    I LOVE that you are kicking your fear in the ass! You go girl!!!

    Reply
  • Malcolm August 1, 2012 at 2:05 am edit

    It really is difficult to overcome a fear. I too am afraid of the ocean because my imagination is just unreachable. I think it is better to face that fear every now and then which may lead to overcoming it.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm edit

      My therapist gave me some good techniques. My favourite one is doing something scary and then rewarding yourself at the end with a treat. This positive reinforcement can actually change your brain stems and essentially reprogram your brain. You say “unreachable,” I say feed it treats!

      Reply
  • Meg | One Love Meg August 2, 2012 at 8:53 am edit

    Yay for you Torre! You can do it. I think learning to dive is the perfect way to master your fear of the ocean. I have a lot of friends that are afraid of dark water. You are not alone. Thanks to Hollywood…and of course the imagination you are all in the same boat. I am deathly afraid of spiders, and sometimes I can’t help how close they get. I think I would rather have your fear. :)

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm edit

      Spiders are not so easily avoided. We have a big spider (roughly the diameter of a tennis ball) living in our bungalow. It shows up at night and hangs out in our bathroom. I don’t have a spider phobia, but I don’t love sharing my toilet space with him. He makes me tense, which interferes with my bowel movements.

      Reply
      • DEK August 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm edit

        I once rented a largish house in Mexico and found in the downstairs bath a spider the size of a Japanese automobile. I decided the downstairs bath could be his.

        Reply
  • Sally August 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm edit

    I also have a deathly fear of deep water — partly because I’m a crap swimmer and partly because I grew up on a farm with a pond that was full of snapping turtles and water snakes and all kinds of other things that were just waiting for me to fall in and EAT ME ALIVE. Or at least that’s what I imagined. After all, they’d eaten most of our ducks. So they were probably ready to graduate from poultry to little girls.
    I don’t think I could ever do diving lessons, but I have thought about taking swimming lessons so that I can be more confident in the water. I’ve been toying with this idea for years and finally told a friend this week (I blame the huge margarita I was drinking at the time) and now she wants to take them with me. Which means I’ll actually have to do it. Rather than just think about it for ages. Uggh.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 3, 2012 at 6:29 am edit

      The only reason I’ve achieved anything in life is because of margarita promises.

      Do the swimming lessons! The only thing scary in a pool is floating bronchial infections. Which, come to think of it, is pretty probably more scary than snakes and snapping turtles. Sorry. I’m not helping at all.

      Reply
  • karina August 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm edit

    I have a fear of raccoons while taking walks with my dog. I usually go before the sunrise and I am always on the lookout for strange movements in the dumpster or bushes. I just think they will just pounce out when i least expect it and have a go at both me and my pup (my pup is a scaredy cat). Dont know why i keep walking that early but i do and i tell myself no such thing could happen. But then again it can. I try not to let the fear get in the way.

    Reply
  • Rease August 4, 2012 at 2:03 am edit

    I have issues with the ocean, I wouldn’t quite call it a fear so much as apprehension. I grew up in St. Louis, MO, far away from oceans, so when seaweed touches my leg I tend to think things like STINGRAY! ELECTRIC EEL! SOMETHING THAT CAN STAB YOU! But I’ve done well with it.

    I’m also not cool with horses, and I have faced the fear many a time and just decided it’s not for me. The last time I tried was in Argentina. I was in the Andes mountains and if I didnt get on a horse, I wouldn’t get to see part of the mountain. I sucked it up and got on. Then my horse went apeshit and went off the trail and also tried to buck me off. Horses and I are not friends.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm edit

      The horse must’ve sensed your fear?

      I grew up near a beach that was always covered in seaweed. I’d come out of the water with my bathing suit stuffed with papery seaweed. It’d wrap itself around my skin and work its way up into places it shouldn’t go. Even if it doesn’t stab/sting/bite you, it’s still horrible.

      Reply
      • Rease August 6, 2012 at 7:18 pm edit

        Yeah, I have never been able to get horses to trust me ever since that horse went crazy on me when I was little. I grew up with a friend who was a competing equestrian. She took me to the stable all the time (which was terrifying) and she even said her horses started acted oddly around me. A couple of them kicked at me!

        And yes, seaweed is horrible and scary! haha

        Reply
  • Antonia Murphy August 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm edit

    I’m particularly fond of that first graphic. Can I get that on a T-shirt?

    Reply
  • DEK August 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm edit

    Unfortunately, all of my fears are reasonable and the problem is just getting on with what I want to do despite them. Whether in a little boat in the middle of a lot of water or in a flash food in a mountain gully or making my first solo landing or realizing that I was lost in the jungle, I just accepted that being somewhere safer was not at the moment an option and that I simply had a problem on my hands that many others had handled and I was as smart as they were, so I could probably do it, too.

    Self-deception, perhaps, but it works for me.

    I’ve discovered that in dire situations fear gives way to problem-solving and it is only later, looking back on what could have happened, that the knees go rubbery.

    And anyway, I’d rather be remembered as the fellow who perished on some romantic enterprise than someone who lived a long, safe life and died in a retirement home choking on an asparagus.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm edit

      I agree that when worst-case scenarios pop up, fear disappears while problem-solving takes over. For me the problem is heading into the potentially scary situations to begin with and resisting the urge to retreat to a couch and a Slanket.

      Asparagus. Ha. Nothing romantic about asparagus.

      Reply
  • DEK August 6, 2012 at 9:23 pm edit

    If I had a minder they would probably keep me from posting this, but I think your “H” word translates as “fear of foot-and-a-half-long river-horse monsters”.

    I would like to help you with that, but I am afraid it is above my pay-grade.

    Reply
  • Zoe August 7, 2012 at 3:41 am edit

    This is a great post. I’m showing it to my mum. She absolutely hates deep water and is also trying to get over it. Congratulations!!

    Reply
  • Michael August 7, 2012 at 6:27 am edit

    Thanks for sharing. You know, Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” Have a great week! :)

    Reply
  • Sarah Somewhere August 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm edit

    I share a similar fear of the ocean, though not sharks but waves. Can’t stand them, they scare the living shit out of me. Recently in Bali my friend took me out into the waves and I was screaming at her like a baby when it came time to duck under the wave, “hold my hand! Hold my hand!!!” as if that was going to save me!!!! But you know what, it helped, and though I’m not going to become a big wave surfer or anything, I reckon the next time I have to face waves, I’ll feel a bit better. I think it’s great Ivan is teaching you, and I’m excited for you to overcome your fear!!!! Though once you have overcome all these fears, will you change your blog name? The Fearless Adventurer just doesn’t have the same ring. Kidding.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche August 16, 2012 at 12:53 am edit

      “…though I’m not going to become a big wave surfer or anything…” I said the same thing about sailing, then diving. You never know!

      I will never be a fearless adventurer. For every fear I overcome, a new one develops. Right now, I’m beginning to generate an unreasonable fear of geckos.

      Reply
  • Ellen August 12, 2012 at 11:19 pm edit

    My friends think I’m crazy. I’m the only person I know who has this fear, and whenever it’s mentioned, I get the most puzzled expressions.

    I have an unexplained fear of shrimp. Dead or alive. The little things creep me out. One time when being served a sampler meal, the waitress put a shrimp on my plate. I had to make my friend take it off because I there was no way I was using my own utensils to move the thing.

    I don’t know where it comes from, but for as long as I can remember, shimp have been little demons to me. I also refuse to touch crab and lobster, but they don’t bother me if they are alive.

    Reply
  • Hannah August 15, 2012 at 11:48 pm edit

    I’m terrified of sharks. Terrified. I’m even scared of swimming pools because I imagine secret trapdoors that release sharks into the pool, James Bond style. Maybe I should see a therapist too…!

    Reply
  • Katherine | Kapcha The World August 28, 2012 at 12:49 am edit

    Oh my god – well done on signing up for the dive course. I love the water but even I can let my imagination run away with me in deep water so can only imagine what you feel. I have to say though that I always feel safe when diving. It’s something about having the power to see what’s around me but also the safety of all the gear too just in case anything is lurking out there. Have never had any issues though diving anywhere in the world and it’s one of my favourite things to do. I love it. Hope you do too. Can’t wait to read all about it.

    Reply
  • Dee January 3, 2013 at 3:37 am edit

    I have just spent the last 1.5 hours reading your blog instead of paying my bills. Maybe that would be more of a compliment if I was reading it instead of shopping or eating cake, but it means the same thing – you have me hooked!! I want to keep reading but Joe needs dinner or he’ll pass out. I guess I didn’t start at the beginning, because I didn’t realize you moved to Thailand – good for you! A perfect move for a Fearful Adventurer – of which I am one, too. So thanks for reminding me to set aside the fearful part to get to the adventure & passion part.

    Reply
  • Vee January 28, 2013 at 4:38 am edit

    I also have an irrational fear of the Ocean… the most ridiculous thing I did was to move to Hawaii even though I can’t swim and still am fearful of the Ocean… just like you living in the middle of the ocean didn’t help… no therapy yet though…

    Reply
  • Kel May 15, 2013 at 5:33 am edit

    Sadly, my fear is pretty much the same as yours Torre and plan to sail the world with my man in the next few years too. Not knowing what’s beneath me scared the bajeezus out of me, but not only because of the sharks, but of those infamous giant squid as well. We’ve all seen the old pictures of giant squid consuming ships whole! And did you know that male giant squid essentially shoot their penis into the female’s skin? Great, now not only am I going to be eaten by a shark when I fall overboard, but I’m going to be shot with a giant squid penis too!

    So it’s a relief seeing that you can manage to enjoy it and stop thinking about the sharks. I haven’t read your book yet, but it’s on it’s way and I can’t wait! Thanks for the great blog posts!

    Reply