‘I know that if I made myself sit with the panic and look at spiders again – you know, like, faced my fear – eventually I’d feel fine. But that process, well. . . It’s just so horrible. I really don’t want to. And it’s fine most of the time anyway. I mean, it’s an issue in September, when they come into the house. And I know I could never visit Australia because there are spiders everywhere. But apart from that it’s bearable. I can live with it.
‘You need a decent motivation to stick with fighting a phobia,’ says Mandi. ‘I just don’t have it. Do you?’
Most of my friends know that I have a huge, irrational, overwhelming phobia of butterflies. Chat with me long enough and it will eventually come up. The very thought of them fills me with revulsion and horror. Their bodies, their wings, the flapping, the erratic movements – ugh. I just can’t with them. It’s a fear that dates back to a bad experience one summer when I was about Peanut’s age; I’ve hated them ever since. At this point, I’ve accepted that this is a thing about me and it’s never going to change, and I’ve decided that I’m pretty much good with it. I’ve gotten much better about managing it; these days, I don’t even yelp and run anymore when I spot a butterfly on a hike. (I do walk a little faster, and sometimes I shout “GO AWAY, UGLY BUG.”)
A less well-known fact: I also have a moderate thing about fish and other marine life. Specifically, I cannot abide the idea of them touching me. I know what you might be thinking: But don’t you visit aquariums on the regular, when it’s not a pandemic? And watch “Blue Planet” religiously? Didn’t you spend five days sea kayaking just last summer? Yes, yes to all of these things. But I don’t touch the critters.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been thinking that this thing I have about fish – which I don’t think extends to marine mammals or sea turtles – I’d like to get over it. I’ve basically accepted that I am always going to be repulsed by butterflies and I’m fine with that. But I love the ocean, and I want to experience it more fully and with less fear. Specifically, I’ve been toying with the idea of becoming scuba-certified.
English author Georgie Codd had the same idea. She too struggled with a fear of fish; hers, far more intense than my moderate squidginess, was full-on ichthyophobia. In Georgie’s mind, the shadows in her dining room were sharks. The London buildings she walked past on her way to work were entwined by the tentacles of colossal squid. Georgie had lived with her intense fear since childhood, and she did not want it to dominate her life. So she decided to do just the very thing that I’ve been considering doing: she decided to cure herself of her fear by learning to scuba dive. But Georgie wanted to take it one step further: not content to just dive with any fish, she set her sights on the biggest fish of all – the massive, mighty, elusive whale shark.
The truth I need to face up to is that fish do not exist to scare land mammals like myself. For millions of years, before humans even existed, before even the existence of trees, they have sat at the top of the ocean food chain, weeding out unhealthy marine life and sustaining the overall balance of eco-systems. Without sharks, smaller herbivore-eaters flourish, the herbivores themselves decline in number and algae growth is left unchecked, meaning less space and fewer resources for life-giving reefs. The effect of shark intimidation in grassy areas also stops ocean herbivores overgrazing. In turn, this prevents the collapse of habitats. And helps the sea do what it has done for aeons: regulate the carbon dioxide released into our atmosphere.
Georgie’s journey to learn diving and to track down her leviathan takes her from the fishy metropolis of Thailand’s Richelieu Rock, to underwater caves in Mexico, to chilly Scottish waters, an island off of western Africa, and beyond. Along the way, she meets and talks to diving experts and psychologists, learning simultaneously about diving history and culture, and the science of overcoming fears. Many of the divers she interviews encourage her to learn as much as possible, pounding home variations on the same refrain: knowledge dispels fear. Through her journey, Georgie discovers that this is precisely what she needs to do in order to manage her ichthyophobia and stop it from taking over her life. Preparing for a dive on which she hopes to finally meet a whale shark, Georgie travels to Scotland to attempt to swim with the second-biggest shark, the basking shark, and has the following epiphany:
When the lecture is over I feel like I know basking sharks better than ever. I feel like this knowledge will get me through. Help me stay calm in the water. I also feel horribly culpable. The violations Luke described seem to form compelling evidence of what can happen when something living (a human, a fish, a shark) is reduced to no more than a concept (a source of income, a pest). And isn’t that what I’ve been doing? For years now I’ve been turning fish into something abstract and other: fear, danger, death, the unknown. What I still haven’t done is accepted what they are. Accepted that they are different. Accepted that their difference is not intrinsically negative.
I’m not going to spoil the book by telling you whether Georgie succeeds in swimming with a whale shark. And this isn’t a book review, either (although if it was, I’d be raving about it; as it is I suspect I am going to be buying multiple copies to give as gifts this holiday season). What I want to talk about is the way that sometimes the exact book you need to read finds you, at the exact right time.
Like I said, I’ve been thinking for awhile now that this thing I have with fish, I want to get over it. I’m not afraid of them. I know the little ones can’t hurt me even if they wanted to, and most of the big ones won’t. I know the statistical likelihood of an unprovoked attack by a marine animal – any marine animal – is extremely low. So I am really not afraid. What I am is intensely creeped out by the idea of a fish touching my bare skin. But what if… I had no bare skin to touch?
My BFF is in the process of getting scuba-certified. She’s completed the coursework, but was prevented from doing her final open water dive by hurricane season descending on Florida. She plans to finish her certification this year, and she and her husband have a big trip booked for next year – to Australia, to dive the Great Barrier Reef in celebration of her fortieth birthday and their ten-year relationship. My brother and sister-in-law also dive, and I have not even tried to swallow my jealousy while watching my sister-in-law’s serene videos of diving in a kelp forest off the Channel Islands. I’m not a follower; I won’t do something just because someone else is doing it. But these are people I know and love who have strapped on air tanks and jumped into the water, and I want to do it too.
I had already been thinking that scuba was something I wanted to try. I worked out that my issue with fish is related to the idea of them brushing against my skin (shudder). But if I was encased in a long-sleeved, long-legged wetsuit, with every possible inch of my body covered and protected against fishy affection, I think… I could be okay?
Enter COVID. I had already been turning the idea of diving over in my mind when the pandemic hit. As we all adjusted to, ugh, the “new normal,” I mostly stopped thinking about it. There were too many other things to focus on – figuring out a new schedule for working from home and educating my kids, staying safe at the grocery store, you know. But it’s stretched on for more than seven months now, and while I am still not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, I’ve started to think about what I want post-COVID life to look like.
I’ve never been a big one for sitting on the couch at home. I like to be out, having experiences, making memories. The pandemic has forced me to slow down and wait, and I’ve mostly avoided thinking about what we’re all missing out on right now. But as I consider what will happen when we all emerge from our shells, the life I want is taking shape before me. I want to travel more, be more open to new experiences. (As the kids are getting older, I believe this is possible.) I don’t want to be controlled by fear.
I noticed We Swim to the Shark while scrolling through a list of recommendations from a book blogger I follow, and it immediately grabbed my attention – I focused first on the absolutely stunning book jacket, before being stopped in my tracks by the subtitle: Overcoming Fear One Fish at a Time. I clicked over to Amazon to read the description and knew immediately that I had to read it. And right away. It was odd; here was this idea I’d been turning over in my head for some time – overcoming my moderate fear-ish-thing about fish by learning scuba – sharpened and made urgent by pandemic-induced life musings, and here was a book about THAT EXACT THING. Does that ever happen to you? The exact book that I needed to read, showing up on my computer screen at the exact time that I needed to read it. It felt like a message: do the thing. Go live.
This time in the water, I reassure myself that the present moment is all that matters. That and the gauge. The breaths. The line. I accept that I am going into darkness. Shining a light towards the unknown. And while the thought of this unknown may be appalling, at least it’s a direction I can aim for.
Have you ever gotten an unmistakeable message from a book showing up, unexpectedly, just when you needed it most?