Completely at Sea

I am not excited to go on a cruise. I am not a “cruise person.” I don’t boat. I’ve read my Geoff Dyer and my David Foster Wallace. I’ve watched “The Perfect Storm” a weird number of times. And as much as I love Conrad and Melville, it is not lost on me that stories that take place at sea often end in disaster. Remember, the last word in Wallace’s seminal essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is “fear.”

There it is: I’m scared of my cruise.

For David Foster Wallace, the fear was doing Absolutely Nothing on a cruise, whereas my fear is doing absolutely anything on a cruise. His concerns were sociological and existential in nature: Who are these American cruise-goers and who am I and why are we here? My fear is on more of a baby level: What if I want to get off?

This was to be a literary cruise, and a month before it was to depart, I ran into a future shipmate at a party. She was a fellow author, likewise booked to participate in a series of onboard lectures and panels.

“I’m scared of the cruise,” I confessed.

“Ah, yes, because of storms?” she responded with a nod. “The seas can apparently be quite rough this time of year.”

I hadn’t thought to fear the rough seas. I’d been too busy worrying about the calm seas — the endless expanse of nothing but water — to consider that there might be waves in December in the North Atlantic. Lurching away from the conversation, I tapped “storms,” “transatlantic crossings” and “winter” into my phone and then quickly x’ed out the window out of self-preservation.

A couple of weeks later, not having learned that this wasn’t happy party conversation, I brought up the cruise again. Once more, I confessed my fear.

“Oh, because of seasickness?” a partygoer responded. I hadn’t thought to fear the seasickness. I also hadn’t thought about coronavirus or norovirus outbreaks or other threats grounded in the world of probability or rationality. This led to a discussion of Dramamine and psi bands, of anti-anxiety medication and the intriguing off-label use of antihistamines to treat panic attacks.

It could turn out I have a phobia. Thalassophobia is a fear of large bodies of water, and naviphobia is a fear of boats and cruise ships. But my likeliest phobia onboard boiled down to one of two possibilities. Above deck: agoraphobia, the fear of wide-open spaces and of situations where escape may be difficult. Or below deck: claustrophobia, the fear of small, enclosed spaces.

These aren’t especially popular fears. According to YouGov, open spaces, confinement and the ocean are not among Americans’ top three fears, which are, in descending order, snakes, heights and spiders. More people are scared of public speaking than are afraid of large bodies of water. (The survey didn’t ask about cruises.)

Fears come in various forms, according to Mohammed Milad, a professor of psychiatry at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine. There is innate fear, which we and other animals are born with to ensure that we do our job here and procreate. It’s what causes a rat to freeze upon seeing a cat in a lab, even if it has never seen one before. Then there are acquired fears, which we learn from an early age. These kinds of fears are irrational and often associative. We don’t know why we fear something, but we often come up with a story. Say, a doctor smiles beatifically before stabbing your finger with a needle; you learn to jump out of a window when faced with a medical professional or sharp object. Milad says, “We create narratives to help explain and justify negative emotions like fear.”

The child’s view of fears is that as you get older, you naturally outgrow them, like you might with an allergy. It’s not until adulthood that you realize that even as you shed some fears — of the dark and monsters under the bed — you acquire an entire new repertoire. For many, this comes with parenthood. You didn’t previously know you were afraid of dropping a newborn on its soft spot or of cars flattening strollers on West 86th Street, but here you are. As we get older and more vulnerable, even ancient fears can bear new meaning.

And for some people (hey), new fears develop of their own accord, when you’re least expecting them. Back in my single days, when bad karma tended to pair me with boyfriends whose dream it was to sail the world, making a mutual future seem wobbly, I wound up with one boyfriend who not only liked to cross water, but also liked to go underneath it. To trick him into thinking me intrepid, I got my scuba diving license and dove in.

But once I was submerged beneath 70 feet of ocean, despite the fish and the canyons and the generalized magic of the experience, a thread would unspool in my mind along the lines of “Imagine if I got a little bit of seawater under my contact lens right now.” I’d visualize myself swimming off in a fog of nitrogen narcosis to join the sharks, never to be seen again. I’d imagined a mental red alert propelling me to the surface, though rising too quickly can result in the bends, which I pictured as me, a drunk Gumby, bobbing and weaving along a boardwalk, never to recover full mental capacity.

I didn’t know I was afraid of being trapped underwater until I was, in fact, underwater. What if, on my cruise, “I want to get out of the water” becomes “I want to get off the water”? But unlike David Foster Wallace, I haven’t always associated the ocean “with dread and death.” I like the ocean fine, from the shore. The truth is, I don’t know whether I will be afraid of the open sea. I’ve never been there.

So I’m not actually afraid of my cruise. I’m afraid I will be afraid of the cruise.

This means it’s not precisely a fear, which is an acute and specific response to a stimulus — there’s a bear! — but rather a form of anxiety, Milad tells me. This should be comforting. I don’t have a fear, just a pre-emptive fear of a fear, what is, at its fanciest, an anxiety, and at its dullest, plain old worry. It is true that mild hypochondria, wild imagination, the conviction that the moment I let down my guard the worst will happen and a fine-tuned sense that the ridiculous is always lurking round the corner are all essential functions of my operating system.

For all I know, I will get out on the open ocean and find myself awash in peace and equilibrium. Maybe I will find my sea legs. Maybe I will stare at the vast expanse of water and achieve a meditative state heretofore unavailable to me on land. Maybe I will actually love going on a cruise. And that scares me.

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