Preparing for my shark class, I started feeling anxious. Will I strike the right balance between fun and conservation? Will I inspire any one of my students to actually do something about the oceans?Regretting my unfortunate choice of textbooks, I felt on the verge of falling into a major shame spiral about my skill as a teacher, which inspired a kind of greatest hits medley of degradation.
For example, the familiar domino effect of paranoia and self-loathing I’ve often felt in the course of romantic love:
I fear you will notice my hopelessness at chess, sex, sports, trivia, cooking, dancing, and abandon me. Exposure of my inadequacy will then lead to exile from the larger community, which sensing my lack of fitness, will leave me to perish alone like a deformed animal.
Or something like that.
Sharks evoke a curiously liberating kind of fear—the ring of teeth, the lurid jaw and cavernous throat are primal, immediate. The horror of being consumed by a large fish doesn’t ignite the tedious chain of psychological causes and effects that the proximity of an intimate relationship does.
My first therapist Joyce, was not only a beautiful ex-model who collected Jasper Johns drawings, but an astute Jungian. I’d always had a rich dream life. Lucid dreams. Even premonitions. I told Joyce that I’d dreamed of sharks since childhood, hoping she might seamlessly link my dysfunctional family confessions with some deep-sea mythos of the subconscious.
Instead she stared at my ragged fingernails.
“Well, you’re very oral.”
I took exhaustive notes during our sessions. The pens I wrapped my ragged fingers around were invariably dotted with teeth indentations, the caps deformed and squashed by my clumsy molars. As a child I obsessively chewed free library bookmarks, cupcake papers and lollipop sticks to awkward mush balls, a habit that evoked both pleasure and shame.
At the time, I felt disappointed at Joyce’s spare, more Freudian than Jungian response, but over 23 years later I feel grateful to her. Instead of spinning a narrative about submerged anxieties stalking me until I faced them, Joyce aligned me with the powerful creatures I feared.
In some strange way, she made me one of them.