Real or Imagined?

A Sydney swimmer watches the waves increase in size and frequency, a portent of the unseen storm thundering in the distance.
A Sydney swimmer watches the waves increase in size and frequency, a portent of the unseen storm thundering in the distance.

I have spent four years writing my debut memoir. One of the themes in the book is real versus imagined fear.

We live in a world—well actually this could be said of any time period in history—of potential threats. Threats like a wild animal attacking your tribe, a rival gang coming for retribution, that guy in the white utility punching the air with his fist and cursing you for cutting in on him, will he get out of the car at the next set of traffic lights, are you in danger? What of cancer, the ‘Big C,’ just our existence is like playing Russian roulette every day. Will I get through today without a symptom appearing? What’s that lump in my armpit? Will my blood test results show there is inflammation in my body? What would the kids do without me?

So many fears are real and so many are imagined. Well, that’s how we like to word it, but I don’t think that’s correct. All fear is real. It is real to the person who is frightened. It’s what’s causing the fear that is either real or imagined. But how do we know if we are imagining it, when we are surrounded by actual threats on a daily basis? This is a massive issue I do not hear anyone talking about. But that’s me; I’m always discussing issues that are off the radar. I like to get my hands dirty with topics that are often avoided. Fear of the unknown, based on the ‘known,’ is one of these topics.

A lifeguard paddles out and ensures people swim within the narrow confines of the red and yellow flags.
A lifeguard paddles out and ensures people swim within the narrow confines of the red and yellow flags.

I was at Manly Beach last weekend. I spent three hours on the sand watching my child with eagle eyes as she frolicked near the shore, trying out her new boogie board. The seas began to rage and for the first time in my life, I saw lifeguards who looked uneasy as they blew whistles, made announcements over the loud speaker and paddled out watching people swim, as the waves increased in size. Dark clouds bellowed over the horizon as lightning flashes chased them from behind. Even from a distance, the storm looked formidable so we started to pack up, but I just wanted to photograph one particular spot where the waves crashed in an unusual manner. I left my daughter with my husband and wandered off, climbing over rocks as waves crashed just meters from me. A lifeguard paddled past me with powerful intent, both arms synchronized in the same motion, pushing into the waves as he cut through the water with determination. A jet ski followed, flying by. It had a tow float on the rear where another lifeguard hung on for dear life as he became airborne from the speed and surging water. I looked in the direction they were headed, Cabbage Tree Bay, my favorite freediving spot; I was diving in those waters just the week before. The water was clear and welcoming then, but the ocean’s temperament had turned to angry gloom, waves were flicking and spitting in a foul, blackened temper. I felt fear when I had previously felt safe.

The surf at Manly Beach, moments before it was closed to swimmers.
The surf at Manly Beach, moments before it was closed to swimmers.

A group gathered on the distant sand of Shelly Beach, I took a photo and zoomed in on the resulting image, squinting at the screen on the back of my camera to try to work out what was going on. A scuba diver was lying on the shore, surrounded by people who look like they were performing CPR. My heart crashed and my stomach rose with a nauseating motion. Was I watching someone die? I felt powerless and overwhelmed with sorrow. An ambulance raced along the Manly Beach foreshore, and up Bower Street, sirens screaming and lights blazing. Moments later, another ambulance, followed by yet another. A helicopter appeared in the distance, it came closer and closer, appearing larger and larger before the mottled grey clouds. It started circling above the water, and above me. It must me a search and rescue chopper. Oh my goodness, was someone lost in the sea? Was there a person at the bottom of the bay, lost, alone, drowned, in the darkness, unable to know they were lost, unable to be found? I scoured the water; the surface looked like an angry black monster, gripping upward to take anyone into its watery lair. Another helicopter appeared, circulating higher as the other spiraled lower. My heart was in a panic, a real person was lying on the sand as the ambulance crew took over and carried him to the van. A real person was lost in the ocean, with no support, they were not being carried or cared for, they were alone and at what point would they die? Did they drown an hour ago, or a minute ago, could anyone have foreseen this? What could we do?

A rock beneath the surface caused waves to crash in a unique manner. I was perched on a rock near the raging sea to capture this image.
A rock beneath the surface caused waves to crash in a unique manner. I was perched on a rock near the raging sea to capture this image.
Mental alarm bells went off as I saw this jet-ski fly past toward Cabbage Tree Bay
Mental alarm bells went off as I saw this jet-ski fly past toward Cabbage Tree Bay

My bottom lip trembled; I bit it steadily and swallowed the lump in my throat that was trying to make me cry. The ambulance left, the helicopters too. No one was retrieved from the ocean. All was lost. Fear was real.
I checked the news when I returned home. A scuba diver had been in trouble at Cabbage Tree Bay, possibly a heart attack. It was initially thought there was another diver lost in the ocean, but that’s since been corrected. There was no second person lost in the bay.

The ambulance on the ground as a helicopter circles overhead.
The ambulance on the ground as a helicopter circles overhead.

I was torn, grieving for the scuba diver, hoping he’d be OK, and relieved that there was no second person in the water. But I saw him there, alone, not breathing, slowly swaying from side to side as the waves raged above. I had grieved him, but he was not real.

I was choking back tears for the lost stranger as the helicopter searched overheard and search and rescue members leaned out the open door, searching for the lost diver.
I was choking back tears for the lost stranger as the helicopter searched overheard and search and rescue members leaned out the open door, searching for the lost diver.

It really rattled me, to have fear, to have real reason for fear. To have real danger and risk on one hand, and none at all on the other, except fear based on the risk we already know.

Fear. Is it real or imagined? Is it right or wrong? Should it grip us or should we fight it off? Do we even have any control over it?

It is an entity of its own accord; fear will live and breathe itself in and out of existence. It’s a friend and an enemy. It can protect and harm us. Fear, has been part of my

life for so long, I almost don’t know how to live without it.

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