We are the Phobic Four: adventures in facing fear
‘I imagine myself at the edge of the water, about to jump’
Emma Somers takes the plunge – at the second time of asking – at the Half Moon diving club on South Wall, Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller
It’s summer 1990-something: before buying my first album (Parklife, 1994), but some time after dancing my first slow set (to Boyz II Men’s 1992 classic, End of the Road). In my mind’s eye, we’re at the edge of the pool at Athlone Leisure Centre, but apparently no such place exists. Maybe it was Salthill. Anyway, we’re poised along the deck, my best friend and I, contemplating jumping in. At the deep end.
Filled with the derring-do of adolescents in matching swimsuits (and with the assurance that it wasn’t deep from a grown man who should have known better), we jump. The rest, as they say, is scarleh for ya.
The flailing. The chlorine. The rescue hook looped around my waist hauling me to the safety rail, a metre away.
In the 20 years from then to now, I’ve jumped into water on one other occasion, to go diving in Thailand. The clue was in the title, but I love the sea. Stand on the edge of the boat, the instructor said. Look straight ahead at the horizon, he said. And then just take a step off, he said.
The flailing. The saltwater. The swim back to the boat with an oxygen tank on my back, because I can’t do the backstroke.
Add to this the gallons of pool water consumed over various summers trying to keep up with older cousins at the swimming pool, multiply it by my mother’s general dread of having her head under water and divide it by fact I learned to swim properly (sort of) just two years ago, and you’ve got yourself a phobia.
If there’s one thing I’m more afraid of than jumping into water, it’s hypnotherapy. When I signed up for this, I saw myself spending hours in a pool with an endlessly patient swimming coach. What I got was the voicemail of Ailish McGrath, clinical hypnotherapist.
After talking through the process on the phone and assurances I wouldn’t leave walking like a chicken, I make my way to Dundrum to McGrath’s practice. We discuss the potential genesis of the fear and do a practice run on the hypnosis. I’m in control at all times, she assures me.
To my relief, the “hypnosis” is all positive reinforcement and no “look into my eyes”. I learn a new word: catastrophising. That paralysing habit I have of imagining, in detail, the worst possible outcome for a given situation. It’s reassuring to know it has a name. “That’s great,” says McGrath. “It means you have a good imagination.”
We move on to the real thing. I imagine myself at the edge of the water, about to jump. McGrath has me look at myself, tense and barely breathing at the thought. We discuss the difference between fear and excitement: essentially, the ability to breathe. The three main tricks I learn are to imagine things in reverse (coming out of the water rather than jumping into it), associating laughter and fun with otherwise scary thoughts, and spinning negative feelings in the opposite direction (no, really).
I leave feeling on top of the world, like I’ve just watched my own Rocky montage.
The evening of the jump finally arrives. I leave work to meet my moral support – on McGrath’s advice, a positive and generally life-affirming friend – and the photographer at the Half Moon diving club on South Wall. We reach the wall on time – but it turns out there’s this thing called the tide, and it goes out as well as in. The photographer does not look pleased.
The challenge: part II
The next day I meet a different photographer and we high-tail it to South Wall, chasing the lunchtime high tide. I get a good head start, while he gets his gear from the car. On the way along the pier, with driving rain coming in from the southeast, black clouds above and menacing-looking water below, I practise what McGrath has taught me.
To bemused looks from joggers-by, I laugh to myself and focus on the positive feeling. I take my niggling doubts and close my eyes and spin them faster and faster in the opposite direction. I open my eyes and look at the choppy water and laugh out loud again, this time at the absurdity of it all.
At the Half Moon, some boys are fishing. They clear the way for the lunatic who’s going to jump into the water for the photographer, on whose count I take my first run, and falter.
The second time I go for it, and as soon as I leave the ground, my fear disappears. After a wonderful Wile E Coyote moment of air beneath feet, it’s straight into the surprisingly tepid water and back to the surface. It’s all over too soon, and if it weren’t for the rain and the rush back to the office, I’d have leapt straight back in again.
Emma Somers was treated by Ailish McGrath of dublinmindtraining.com