As a child I was fearless. I was introverted, but lived a very vivid inner life in my imagination. I told myself stories, had a number of imaginary friends, and built entire worlds and kingdoms within. I also had a complete disregard for physical danger, and I loved challenging myself. I was curious, always questioning facts, and even though I was told that jumping off the garage roof was dangerous, I didn’t believe it until I tried it for myself. In fact, I loved to jump off things in general. I would climb the tallest tree I could find and plunge myself to the ground, just to see what would happen. The thrill was unreal in the first few seconds after the leap, the feeling of flying, savoring that blissful moment, until I crashed mercilessly into the dirt below with bleeding scrapes and gigantic bruises as a result. But that didn’t stop me from doing it all over again, because now I knew that next time I could make a few adjustments to perfect the landing, diminishing the level of injury. Small wonder I made it through childhood in one piece…
I was a tomboy, but the sort of hybrid who also loved dressing up as a princess. Not the kind of princess who sat idly by waiting for the prince to make an appearance, but the kind of princess who took matters into her own hands and went to slay the dragon herself. Riding out to meet the beast, paper maché lance raised high, I got my makeshift train - my mother’s beautiful hand-woven shawl - caught in the bike spokes, and that was the end of that tale. After that I decided to become a cowboy.
I didn’t become a cowboy, and that little fearless girl is all grown up now. Somewhere on the path to adulthood I lost the fearlessness, and developed an impressive collection of phobias. I’m not talking about the normal grown-up worries and concerns that we all have; will I make rent, will I end up alone, will I fail at my career and therefore at life-type stuff, I’m talking about the irrational terror that can suddenly possess you from out of nowhere and without warning, when encountering something unexpected.
The oceanside is a sanctuary for me, a place I seek often. It offers an sense of peace and serenity that I can’t find in any other place. I love the sound of the waves, the furious winds, the wide-stretched solitude on a winter’s day. I dream of one day owning a cabin on a rough cliff somewhere - on the Faroe Islands or Newfoundland or somewhere along those latitudes, so that I can sit on the porch, feel the sea mist on my skin while I stare at the endless horizon, and fall asleep to the roar of the waves crashing below. That will probably remain a dream, but at least I’m fortunate enough to live only a subway ride away from miles of Atlantic coastline.
However, as much as I enjoy being in the vicinity of water, I can’t for the life of me go into it. The mere thought of entering that deep, eerie, black nothingness makes my throat tighten and I feel like a cold hand is squeezing my gut. I imagine what monstrosities dwell under the surface, just waiting to grab me and drag me under - or take a big bite of me. I picture what it must feel like to drown, the blinding fear when you realize that this is how it ends, and how your’ll end up being picked apart by slimy things, cold and all alone.
I recently discovered that there’s a word for it: Thalassophobia. Only I seem to have the special gold-package deluxe version, because it’s not only the ocean that terrifies me. You know those black markings on the bottom of a pool that define the lanes? Hammerheads. People will stare at me in disbelief - slowly reaching for the big butterfly net - when I explain how sometimes when I close my eyes in the shower, my mind goes haywire imagining tentacles coming out of the drain. Or I relive that movie - that I totally shouldn’t have watched - about a kid who drowned in a lake and its ghost is subsequently emerging from the faucets. Yup, it’s real, folks.
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what could possibly have brought this on, since it hasn’t always been like this. Due to my fair skin and discomfort when the temperatures rise above 70 degrees, I’m not much of a beach-goer per se, but I used to enjoy taking a dip to cool off. That’s not an option anymore. I think it can be traced back to two different incidents that occurred in the past, but that I - up until now - have successfully managed to suppress. When I was about 10 years old some of my classmate’s parents had boats, and sometimes they would invite the kids to go sailing. I recall vividly standing by the railing at the front of the boat, building up the courage to jump into the water and swim to the stern where the ladder was located. I was so scared, but hence my aptitude for self-challenge I finally went in, instantly regretting this awful stunt. There I was, bobbing in the vast and really deep waters like a lost little buoy. Suddenly seeing the boat from below it was enormous, towering over me like a house - not to mention the scaled creatures that were surely lurking under it! - and the swim to the ladder seemed endless. Being the bad swimmer that I am I frantically dog-paddled myself to safely, realizing for the first time that I’m not invincible.
About six or seven years ago I was visiting my brother and his family on the beautiful isle of Fanø, Denmark. It’s located in the waters of Vesterhavet (The North Sea), a wild and treacherous body of water that’s not to be taken lightly. It’s a popular vacation destination and perfectly safe if you know what you’re doing and respect the fickle temperaments of the waves and currents, but one does best to stay alert. One day at the beach, not feeling too confident about the whole swimming situation, I stayed in the shallows. Wading along, minding my own business, suddenly a giant turbot came propelling out of the ocean floor like an oddly shaped, flat-faced missile, not three feet away from me. Sheer panic gripped me, not because I’m scared of a fish, but because its presence tapped perfectly into my lizard brain fear of the flash attack from the unknown. The water, the sky, the noises of joyful beach-goers, everything closed in on me and warped into this black hole with me in the middle. Not wanting to transplant my irrational panic onto my niece, installing in her unnecessary trauma, I kept myself composed until safely back on dry land (15 feet tops)! However, following that experience, I decided once and for all that that was the last time I would ever dip so much as a pinky into that great, beautiful, but completely unpredictable abyss.
Weren’t we supposed to get wiser with age? Aren’t we, as adults, supposed to know better? Regardless, I guess it’s safe to say that, even though summer is approaching, going to the beach will not be in my playbook.