I had a recurring dream as a kid: I was at the Holiday Inn outdoor pool my family would go to regularly on weekends. It was a regular destination for us, and we’d have apples from the brown cooler sliced with the little orange paring knife between dips in the water. On this day, however, there was a hammerhead shark in the pool. As was the case with all hammerhead sharks, it could only eat people if they were in the water, so it kept climbing out and throwing people in, jumping in, and feasting (obviously). I was the only one who saw this happening, but no one would believe me.
If you don’t already know, my childhood was trauma free (hear more in Episode 001 of The Everyday Fray Podcast), so this was clearly a case of seeing scenes from Jaws at an age that was probably a little too young, a strong imagination, and an encouraged, familial paranoia.
This dream is as clear to me today as it was 30 years ago. At that time, it didn’t really affect me beyond causing me to wake up scared, which wasn’t all that uncommon. I still happily got in the water and swam like a chubby white fish.
My parents have amusing anecdotes they’ve shared with my wife the first time they met her, and any other audience that’s legally bound to listening to them, of me removing water wings, swimming under child safety gates during lessons, and generally being an adventurous and confident indoor swimmer. Sometime in the ensuing 20 years since the nightmare started, swimming began to terrify me.
There’s two parts to this that I’ve identified: the fear that I’m going to be eaten by a shark, and the feeling of not having control of my surroundings. The first is relatively unlikely, seeing as how I’m always sure to lift my feet off the floor when Ben Gardner’s head pops out from the hole in the boat in Jaws and during the entirety of the annual Shark Week television event. The second, however, started to make sense after a while.
My advanced research (I Googled it) suggests this is either a form of claustrophobia, cleithrophobia, or agoraphobia. I don’t know which it is, because I’m not trained in identifying those, and Dr. Google is as trustworthy as Dr. Nick. When I’m standing in a room I feel confident that I can get out – even if it’s a bit busy. But when I’m in the water, I suddenly feel like I’m very exposed and don’t have that level of control.
In the last year, I’ve gotten back into my parents’ pool for the first time in a few years, largely encouraged by two of my dogs. JJ, who is generally unhappy with the world, absolutely loves being in the water. She pushes off and does laps – seriously, she isn’t interested in chasing toys or getting to the other side; she does circular laps for several minutes before getting out of the pool.
Pigeon, who is a little Boston Terrier (likely) mix of some kind, is one of the bravest souls I’ve ever known. Even though he was clearly apprehensive with water at first, he chased his big brothers into Lake Ontario, loves playing fetch for a floating ball, and will even jump into a small pool when he has his life jacket on. I figured if these two pups could do it, so could I. Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. But I did get back into the water with them, both in the pool (full on swimming), and in the lake (only thigh deep).
On our honeymoon, my wife and I were gifted a beautiful week at a cabin in Northern Ontario, right on a semi-private beach. I got into the water every day, about waist deep, to play with the dogs and take pictures. Twice I tried going knee-deep and kneeling down so my shoulders were under water, and twice I immediately started feeling panicked and stood up.
As the weather warms, I intend on going back into my parents’ pool, and pushing myself to get into the lake again. And, though I frequently joke about sharks in Lake Ontario (and my brother-in-law gleefully shouts out that he saw a bull shark fin when I ventured several metres from shore to take pictures), I am acutely aware that my irrational fear of being confronted by/injured by/eaten by a shark is just that: irrational.
(As an aside, I’m also aware that irrational fear (in addition to greed) leads to the senseless slaughter of millions of sharks annually, a practice that is both cruel and ecologically devastating.)
I’m really hoping that the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy group program I’m attending and my ongoing medication, mindfulness, and other treatments will help me finally conquer this, both irrational fear and situational worry, in the coming months. Because even though I have vivid memories of the nightmares of a man-eating, pool-based hammerhead shark from my childhood, I also have memories of the freedom I felt from being in crystal clear water on a hot summer day. And that’s worth working for.