“Are you sure you want to do this, Sis? We can wait until a better time.”
“There’s never going to be a better time, Cody. You heard what my counselor said. Sooner or later I’ve got to face this. I can’t be afraid of the water all my life.”
“Okay, Darya. You’re in charge. Remember, I’m going to be with you all of the time so if you get in trouble…”
“I know, I know. Look. I’m nervous enough. Let’s just do this.”
Darya waited until Mom and Dad went out for the evening (they loved the Opera but their children didn’t share this particular passion) before asking her brother Cody for a favor. It’s one he should have seen coming. After all, she invited him to several of her counseling sessions so her shrink Elsie (she was really a licensed Family Therapist, not a Psychiatrist) could coach him in the type of therapy she recommended for his sister’s aquaphobia. It was a fancy word for “irrational fear of water.”
She remembered loving the water, especially the ocean but those memories are vague now. What does surface with relentless vivid reality was the time when she was six years old and almost drowned. She must have been wading out away from the shore when a wave knocked her over. Darya tumbled end over end, disoriented and lost in blues and greens, terrified. She couldn’t breathe.
Cody was her hero. He was ten and somehow he found her and pulled her back onto the beach. Darya always remembered that moment as the one where she really knew she loved her brother with all her heart.
But she could never go near the ocean or even a swimming pool again without panicking. Even thinking about going underwater terrified her. Their family lived in Orange County just seven miles from the Pacific Ocean. Everybody had a swimming pool and going to the beach was the thing during summer when you’re sixteen years old. Darya was tired of always being left out because of her crazy phobia so Mom and Dad found a therapist who specialized in them and she’d been seeing Elsie for the past three months.
Now it was time to do more than talk about being afraid.
“Okay, here we go. I’ve got a hold of your t-shirt so you’re not going to fall.”
“If I tell you to let go, you will, right?” She wasn’t sure she’d ever tell him that now that she was hanging over the water, but she tried to sound brave.
“I told you Darya, you’re the boss. If you want me to let go, I will, but I’ll jump in and pull you out the second you look like you’re in trouble.”
“Do I look like I’m in trouble?” She was trembling so bad her teeth were chattering in spite of the 86 degree temperature. It was peaceful and nightmarish at the same time. A warm breeze made the tree branches rustle. She could hear some birds. She loved the deep greens and blues around her. But then there was the water, waiting for her like some monster that wanted to engulf her, surround her, climb into her mouth and down her throat to choke her and fill up her lungs.
She glared at the monster straight on. “You’re not so tough.” She remembered being inside the monster, tumbling helplessly. This close to shore, she’d become disoriented. She wasn’t used to the surf and the sunlight.
“Closer, Cody.” She was yelling with a combination of terror and excitement. “This close to the shore? Not used to sunlight?” What was she thinking?
“Just a little more, Cody.”
“You’re going to run out of t-shirt, Sis.”
“Come on. Do it.”
“Okay, Dar. This is as far as you go without going in.”
She relaxed her arms which she’d been holding stiffly at her sides and reached forward. It felt uncomfortable under her armpits where her shirt pulled tight. Darya reached out further with both hands and let her fingers touch the water.
She remembered swimming in the dark. She could hear sounds of other swimming but they were only fish, a Mako was out there but too far away to be a danger. Her name wasn’t Darya and somehow she had gotten lost. Where were the others? She was too young to fight the current.
“Drop me in, Cody!”
“Are you really sure?”
“Do it, fraidy cat. I want to swim.”
“Okay.” She heard hesitation in his voice. He’d been her protector for the last ten years of her life but now it was time for the both of them to let go.
Then she fell. It was just a few feet but it was an eternity. She was underwater and she wasn’t afraid. Darya turned and looked back up at her brother. She was smiling and giving him the “okay” sign with her fingers. She couldn’t stay under long since she didn’t dare open her gill slits in a chlorinated swimming pool.
By the time she surfaced, she started to remember but only a little. Ten years ago, Cody had found a naked little girl he thought was drowning in the surf, but she was really having a hard time using her lungs to breathe air. With no parents and no identity, Dad named her Darya and the Shah family became first her foster parents and then they adopted her. Over time, she forgot all of that and imagined she had been born a Shah.
Darya pushed herself up out of the pool and stood in front of the young man who had always been a brother to her. Today, she started learning about herself but there was a long river of discovery ahead. What was her real name and who were her people? Was she the last or were they still out there waiting for her? She had another favor to ask of Cody. It was a lot bigger than the one he’d done for her today.
At first, I was going to write an “ordinary” story about trust. Ten years ago, Cody pushed Darya down in the surf and she almost drowned before he pulled her out. Now was his act of redemption in helping his sister overcome her phobia and her distrust of him.
But then again, where’s the fun in that? So I decided to add repressed memories and an undersea mystery to phobias and psychotherapy.
I have a Master’s Degree in Counseling and I used to live in Orange County, California about seven miles from the Pacific. When I was in graduate school, I learned about two basic techniques in treating phobias. In the first one, you gradually introduce the person to whatever they are afraid of using relaxation and visualization. It’s a slow process but it’s had a lot of success. The second treatment is totally immersing the person in whatever environment they’re terrified of and when they stop screaming (because nothing bad like death has actually happened to them), they’re cured.
I decided to use a hybrid here with what I hope are interesting results.
As an aside and bit of trivia, in 1977-78, there was a television series called Man From Atlantis starring Patrick Duffy (of Dallas fame) about an amphibious man with amnesia who may have been the last of an undersea race. The show lasted only one season and it was never revealed who “Mark Harris” really was, but I thought I’d recreate the mystery in this wee tale.
Oh, I found out here that “Darya” means “sea” in Persian, which is why I made her adoptive family of Iranian descent.
To find out more about Darya, read Immersion.