One in an Ocean

2015

When Isabel was 9 years old, her father drowned while trying to navigate his fishing boat safely home through a storm.

Over night, Isabel developed a crippling phobia, what the doctors called “thalassophobia”, an intense fear of the sea. Her mother, who never liked doctors, interpreted her daughter’s condition as a momentary and quite natural sign of grief and as a result, Isabel’s phobia was never treated but grew into a chronic state of mind.

To begin with Isabel would start shaking when near an ocean, but over the years her condition worsened, soon just the sound of waves would send her into a frenzy, soon she couldn’t go outside on rainy days out of fear that the streets would flood. At some point she stopped showering, filling her bathroom with dry shampoo and no rinse body wash. Recently, she stopped going outside at all. All she has left is a strict daily routine in which the process of getting out of bed and dressing herself lasts all day. For most people, that kind of routine is just something we go through with other things on our minds. For Isabel, it’s her whole existence.

I asked her, if she would let me photograph her while she went through her routine. She agreed on one condition: that I didn’t come by on a rainy day. “Water sticks to your clothes,” she said, “It smells like something I want to forget.”

So I waited for a sunny day and when it finally came, Isabel welcomed me inside, although she asked me to leave my shoes outside, just in case.

During my stay with her, I asked her how she herself would describe her condition.

“It’s not so much that I fear large bodies of water,” she said, “It’s the idea of the vast emptiness of the sea that leaves me sleepless. So I try to avoid anything that sparks that idea. But especially on rainy days, I have no defence, the idea of the ocean consumes me, eats me whole. And I can literally feel the greedy waves hitting my skin, pulling me down, and I’m so scared that once I’m down there, I’ll see him, my father, stuck at the bottom of the ocean, wearing a great, big smile on his dead face.”

“Would that not be a sign that he died in peace?”, I asked.

“Yes. Which is the worst thing I could ever imagine.”

“Why?”

“Because that would mean that in that final moment, he didn’t miss me as much as I miss him.”

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