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!
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.
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.
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, oppressive, non-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?
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.