When I was three and a half, my mother asked a friend to watch over me when she went to the washroom at our local swimming pool. I promptly fell into the deep end and almost drowned.
Given my age at the time, I have only hazy memories of panic and being overwhelmed by water, and then of the eyes of the lifeguard on duty. I don’t remember what he looked like, but I do recall that his name was Bram.
My mother did the sensible thing given the circumstances: she put me into swimming lessons immediately. I learned how to do breast stroke and butterfly, and though I consistently crashed into the lane dividers during backstroke, I could stay afloat on my own. My family breathed a sigh of relief; I might not be an Olympic athlete, but at least I could swim.
Fear programmed at such a young age tends to linger, and in my case it made me deeply afraid of drowning. By extension, of water-based catastrophes. I forced myself to take boat trips occasionally — my rocky last-minute Galapagos trip in 2008, and more recently the long repositioning cruise from Vancouver to Tokyo, among others. The repositioning trip was a fifteen day extravaganza with 9 other friends on a huge ship. As that post suggests, it was filled with friends and business masterminds and great food. But for most of our time in the Bering Sea, I was lying on the floor in my room, waiting for the boat to sink and the sharks to eat us.
This sounds amusing in retrospect, but during our Bering crossing I was breathless and weary, tired of the tightness in my chest and the infinite loops of ‘what ifs’ in my mind.
From fear to phobia: is it human to be afraid?
Fear is a strange and crazy thing, especially when your system learns to trace its contours with such graceless familiarity.
In a Pacific Standard magazine piece from 2012, Tom Jacobs talks about the neurobiology of fear, noting that like fire, it is our friend when it isn’t raging out of control. That is, awareness of a threat activates the fight or flight impulse we require to respond, often in ways that could save our lives.
For most people, as soon as they realize that there is no actual threat, their bodies relax and their pulse slows down. For those with deeper phobias, the reaction can remain, causing ongoing anxiety issues. In a 2017 paper on the neurobiology of fear, René Garcia, notes that
“[s]pecific phobias are extreme and persistent fears of certain objects, situations, or activities, or persons. Additionally, people who suffer from specific phobias work hard to avoid their phobia stimuli even though they know there is no threat or danger, but they feel powerless to stop their irrational fear.”
Garcia notes that an experiential fear becomes a phobia in two stages. First, pairing of a neutral stimulus (in my case water, which is not de facto scary) and an aversive event (almost drowning) leads to a conditioned fear response to that neutral stimulus. Then, learning that fear responses to the now-conditioned-to-be-scary stimulus can be reduced by avoiding this stimulus.
Recently, NPR’s Invisibilia podcast discussed fear in the modern world, and how we often shape our lives in ways that throw our instincts into hyperdrive. Interestingly they also profiled a woman with no fear at all, which might sound like relief to some but actually exposes you to life-threatening dangers — you do not realize you need to avoid them.
Of course, we ought to be scared of scary things. Being afraid is our evolutionary saviour. But when fear gets out of control – either in a phobic sense, or a central nervous system that runs on a hair trigger – it can wreak havoc on our health.
Indeed, a study about fear and the “defense cascade”, warns that while animals can generally restore to “normal” quickly once danger has passed, humans often are not. Thus, “they may find themselves locked into the same, recurring pattern of response tied in with the original danger or trauma.” That patterned response of traumatic arousal is not great for our bodies.
My fear of drowning did not manifest as a disorder or a worry that interfered with my day-to-day life. As the years went on, however, it swelled into something more ungainly than simple dread. It stopped being purely about drowning. I started to worry about anchors coming undone at night when the boat was still. About sharks. Falling off the side of the boat. How to prepare for the inevitable disaster that would befall me.
Knowing that it was acceptable to be afraid of unruly seas did not help me. Why? Because that fear bled into so many other compartments of my life. I became increasingly frustrated as I watched the fear broaden and grow, and begin to interfere with aspects of my life that I wanted to enjoy.
When friends suggested water-based activities, I made excuses as to why it was not possible to join. When I travelled to countries with beautiful islands, I rarely went near them. Yes, I preferred mountains generally (and the smell of pine trees), but I also remained terrified of what could befall me if I strayed too close to the sea. I began to feel panicked when I thought of being forced to swim, my breath quickening and heart beating, breaking out into a sweaty mess.
Intellectually, I knew that the mathematical likelihood of my fears being realized was astoundingly low. But panic doesn’t care about intellectual logic. I was ashamed at my steadfast aversion to activities that seemed to please so many of my friends. I desperately wished that I could find liberation in the sea, instead of dread.
And this all came to a head in New Zealand, a country surrounded by water. The night before it was set to begin, a water-loving Kiwi named Doug asked me to join him on a multi-day learn to sail course. With only a half an hour to make my decision, I agreed to this last-minute version of exposure therapy.
My friends told me I was crazy, but I hoped that the lessons would teach me to fear water less.
I stayed awake all night, overcome with nausea.
Conquering my fear of drowning by taking a sailing course in New Zealand: smart, or stupid?
The howling started in earnest at 2am, with our 25ft sailboat rocking to and fro and the wind coming off the peninsula and into my panicked ears. We chose what was recommended as a sheltered anchorage for North and Easterly winds, but at some point during the night the winds shifted. We were thrown about with the new winds.
It was the first night on our own and day three of the course. Unbeknownst to me — probably a good thing — this sailing course comprised two days of instruction and then a swift expulsion from the nest in the form of solo days of adventure. Had I realized what that meant when I signed up, I would have likely bolted.
I really wanted to be brave on this course. Part of me realized that I was setting myself up for failure to expect years and years of deeply buried fear to come loose and float away the minute I learned how a sailboat worked. Uncharacteristically I suspended logic and thought, “I will just be like all the normal people when I get on that boat, since the course will teach me how sails work and then I can just use them.”
Predictably, this wasn’t remotely what happened.
I spent most of the first day white-faced and clinging to the rails of the boat, seasick and miserable. While trying to pay attention to my patient instructor, Johnny, my mind kept taunting me. “You’re not going to make it. You were so stupid to think you would be fine. You’re not fine. You can’t even look up at the sails without falling over.”
That first night, I did not sleep at all — again. I paced from window to window while Doug slept, trying to calm my breath and just feel the fear and sensations and accept them. “Release the fear, Jodi,” I told myself again and again.
But I could not.
I went to bed in many layers I was so cold, but as the panic sweated through my clothes, I peeled off my fleece and down vest and finally sat in a t-shirt and sweatpants, jumping at every new noise the boat made.
By day two at dawn I was exhausted and defeated. Battling seasickness in addition to panic took a quick toll. Darren, the owner of our sailing school took one look at me in the morning and suggested I head to Paihia to pick up the Paihia Bomb, a cocktail of medicine from the pharmacy that staves off even the most aggressive of seasickness.
While I never got a full explanation of what was in the medicine, following the instructions – taking a blue pill and then a half an hour later a white one – worked.
I did this every subsequent morning and did not get seasick again.
As time dragged on during day two, all I could think about was that we were going to be off on our own as of that night.
Doug grew up comfortable on water, but never took sailing lessons before. He was not seasick, nor was he panicked. Previously, he sailed with friends across the Cook Straight in far worse conditions than we were facing in the Bay of Islands.
To the instructors, this – and his performance during the two days of instruction – was sufficient to entrust us with the boat despite the fact that I was a mess.
As we were about to set off alone on day three, the boat loaded with non-perishable groceries and snacks, Darren kneeled down beside me to give me a much-needed pep talk.
“You’re going to be fine. I’ve been doing this for years and nothing has ever gone horribly wrong on these solo days. You have good weather coming your way, you have a partner who knows how to live on water, and you just need time to get over your fears. Do the best you can, and try not to beat yourself up for being afraid.”
This was, of course, my biggest problem. I braided pure white anger into the physical manifestation of my panic, mostly at my inability to chill out and learn what I could. Every time the boat heeled, I cried. When other sailboats edged toward us, I was unable to logically gauge distance, certain that we were going to crash into them.
We did not, of course. Nor did we fall off the boat, or lose our anchor, or forget to attach the halyard at night and then wake up to the realization that we couldn’t hoist the main sail. None of that occurred, but its lack of occurring didn’t appease my worries whatsoever.
At night, I went to bed with my stomach in tangles, waiting to be awoken by the foreign sounds of a boat in repose. The rudder smashing into its casing came first, then the creaking as the boat spun on its anchor, then the howling wind as it came over the ridge of trees that surrounded our nighttime cove. I got in a few restless hours of light sleep before waking up and realizing where I was, immediately awash in dread at the coming day.
I pushed myself so far into a cycle of panic that I finally gave up on trying to control it. I had to help work the boat for the coming day, and I would just have to do so within the maelstrom of my self-defeat. And so I got up and hoisted the sails, tears pouring down my face, adjusting for wind and trying to ignore the screaming voice in my head.
On our last day, we emerged from the shelter of Opunga Cove to rocky seas, the waves crashing into the side of the boat as rain began to fall in earnest. I clawed my way up to the front of the boat to fix the jib, hugging the boom of the mainsail upon my return in an attempt to stay upright. We decided to use only the jib for our last leg of the journey, opting to turn on the motor and keep it on a low throttle, helping us move toward Opua once again.
As we approached Tapeka Point, visibility was extremely poor from the haze of rain and wind that blinded our view. We also realized that the waves were so high that they swamped our dinghy, filling it with water. And that its oars were gone. It was at this moment, when the wind was raging furiously and the boat thrown around in high waves, that a pair of dolphins came up to the left of our sailboat, playfully following us as we bobbed awkwardly toward Tapeka Point.
I whipped my head back at Doug, in awe with my eyes wide, and smiled. It was the first time I felt relief since we left Opua two days earlier.
Though the dolphins marked both a metaphorical and literal turning point, there were other wonderful moments that tucked themselves into the nooks and crannies of my fear.
Making my morning coffee and staring into the mist as the sun rose over the water. Waving at all the other boat owners, and rowing over to them to let them know it was our first time ‘in the wild’ and could they just tell us if they thought we had anchored too close? Trying to read the topography of the maps onboard while not falling off the boat. Watching motoring fleets of ducks whizz by at dusk. Shaking my head at the seagulls hitching a ride on our dinghy, cawing into the air as we hit wave after wave.
Cooking chicken laksa with mien noodles, a comfort food that brought me back to Asia while I was completely outside my comfort zone.
And the sunsets. The absolutely glorious New Zealand sunsets.
“If we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears, and how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives.”
– Karen Thompson’s TED talk on what fear can teach us.
All in all we made it back to Opua in one piece.
I owe Doug an immense debt of gratitude for not only keeping calm in the midst of my unrelenting panic, but for also trying to calm me with words while trying to steer a boat. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that my expectations for this course that were set too high. I wanted to be brave, to not cry, to emerge out of a chrysalis of fear as a more functional, water-loving human.
Instead, I shed tears and a disturbing amount of hair as I powered through the three solo days, frantically trying to keep some of the worry at bay.
The net result is positive, despite all this pain.
I realize that fear is often an issue of imagination conditioned to run rampant, where the most vivid and catastrophic worries are the ones that blot out the rest. There are plenty of metaphors here about actual control versus an illusion, and of life itself being something we cannot always predict or direct.
When asked about solo female travel I often reply that I can only travel in the body I’ve been given. I chose to lead an unconventional life, despite my size and the fact that many tell me it is dangerous. Why is this an easier choice than going on water? Ultimately this sailing course was about showing me that I can only regain some semblance of balance by forging ahead despite my fears.
I’ve learned this in other aspects of my life, but the visceral nature of this phobia meant that I pushed aside my usual strategies to overcome it.
And I’m not alone.
According to a study about exposure therapy, neuroscience demonstrates that extinction, or disappearance of phobias, is not due to an unlearning of the fear, or a complete “conquering” of the phobia. Instead, it is because of new neural pathways, ones that compete with the learned fear to overwrite it. And avoiding that fear too much can also prevent us from re-wiring our brains to sufficiently overwrite it.
René Garcia’s paper concludes with a warning note that “strong avoidance causes resistance to extinction of classical fear conditioning.” That is, it’s easier for a deep fear to become pathological if we stringently avoid it. My years of declining water-based activities and sailing trips worked to deepen the phobia I had of drowning.
I doubt I will ever be a carefree soul on water, but by scraping past the outposts of what I deemed sane, I took some of the power away from my fear. People have been asking if I would do it again. Yes, I would absolutely get on a sailboat again. In doing so, however, I realize that I will possibly shed many tears.
Perhaps in time my panic will dissipate fully, but at least I now know that I took one small step toward being a person I want to be, one that doesn’t turn away from what’s difficult even when her stomach is in knots and the wind is on her face.