On Compassion, Ichthyophobia & Judgement

I can’t remember exactly when I started referring to my phobia as a phobia. I remember for years I’d simply say that I had a fear or I was scared, or that I felt uncomfortable, I was grossed out. I don’t remember when I realised that phobias weren’t just this cultural phenomena of being scared of spiders but that to have a phobia, to experience a phobia is a part of post traumatic stress.

I have Ichthyophobia — ichthyic, from the Greek ikhtus meaning fish, phobia of fish. It’s considered a specific phobia and I’ve learned in my life that most people think it’s silly, weird, or “what, did fish attack you or something?” Developing a phobia does usually happen after being attacked or bearing witness to an attack, but in my case, fear displacement feels more accurate. 

 The After Tarot

The After Tarot

The long and short of the story is that right now, after 22 years (and possibly more) of experiencing a terror response to fish —alive or dead, big or small— I am starting to reframe my relationship to fish. This is probably one of the hardest, if not the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, it is also one of the most breathtaking and extraordinary things I’ve ever done. 

For such a long time I’ve identified deeply with having a phobia —my phobia— I’ve claimed it as my own as if naming it and owning it has kept me safe from it. The terror and panic is a post traumatic stress response; when I see fish my cortisol levels go haywire and I experience the flight or freeze part of fight/flight/freeze/fawn. I have had panic attacks about other things in life, but when it comes to fish, it’s a full on life or death response. I’ve panicked and escaped at restaurants, Costco, in the car, at the supermarket, on a kayak(yeah that’s a whole other story), at friend’s houses, in parking lots (you wouldn’t think that while walking across a parking lot you’d stumbled upon a rotting fish). 

For a really long time I had a huge dis-connection from fish and a huge identification with phobia, I kept the fear close but pushed away from the tangible part. Fish is and was a symbol of fear to me, a symbol that came from childhood trauma. Fear displacement is often times the root of a phobia, we are so terrified in a given moment that during disassociation we cannot hold the amount of fear we have so we give it to something else, an object, a person, a symbol, a taxidermy trout on the wall. 

This phobia has different levels depending on my general stress and anxiety. When Finding Nemo came out, I saw it in theatres, but I’ve since tried watching it again and had to turn it off. While scrolling Instagram I’ll immediately unfollow and refresh if someone posts a picture of a fish or I’ll have my partner block a photo if it’s on my explore tab. I don’t walk past fish markets and I don’t actively seek out fish in any capacity. Add-ons like Tumblr Saviour really changed the game for me, I was able to set a boundary with something with no questions asked. I was able to take back a sense of power, a sense of power that had been stolen from me during the initial trauma. 

 Collective Tarot

Collective Tarot

That’s the thing about setting boundaries around fish, hardly anyone just takes it as it is. Usually, there’s a response or inquiry or challenge around it. Sometimes even a joke, meant to only poke a little fun but let’s be real, it’s never about intentions, it’s about impact. In high school, friends who knew about the phobia took a taxidermy piranha and strategically placed it on a bookshelf in a friends room, I was mid conversation when I spotted it. That one ended with me in complete freeze, unable to escape, my so-called friends laughing. 

Sometimes when we share our trauma with others, the responses we’re met with can create it’s own sense of trauma. I’ve often wondered if my mother hadn’t taunted me with fish and then told me to stop being so serious when I cried, would I still be so tethered to this fear? I’ve wondered if I would have enjoyed family holidays if my parents had curated a safer environment for me instead of taking me to places like Hawai’i and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

I’ve held anger, I’ve held hurt, I’ve done trauma work around fish and around the childhood abuse that took place in a room with taxidermy trout. I’ve brought it into my conscious mind that trout and salmon often trigger me more intensely than other types of fish. It’s clear to me that greys and silver scales cause more panic than smooth looking colour. 

The disassociation with fish led me to be very anti-fish for a long time. They should all be wiped off the earth, I’d think to myself. I want to swim in the ocean, why can’t they go away. I never understood lox and bagel, sushi, or fillets of salmon, maybe I still don’t. But the thing is, after all these years of not only fearing fish but hating fish too, I’ve started to find a new sensation within me. I’ve started to feel compassion for fish. 

Am I reaching a point of fear liberation regarding this phobia? Maybe. Regardless, something is shifting in a massive way. 

In the Collective Tarot, card 20, Judgement, has been re-framed as Liberation. When I think of the word, I think of collective liberation from systemic oppression; I think of my fellow white people doing the deep shadow work to deconstruct white supremacy, I think of my fellow trans people feeling free to be and exist and thrive without the perils of violence looming around the corner. With liberation, I think of decolonisation and transformative justice practices that provide rehabilitation. I think of white boys confronting their ties to toxic white masculinity. I think of children having radical education that supports myriad ways of learning. I think of a lot of things. For myself, I see myself stepping into the ocean, the water collecting me. I see myself doing this without hypervigilance, without managing my situation, without total panic. 

This year has been a Judgement year for me. Of course, we’re only six-ish months in, but I feel this sense of liberation within myself. When Judgement calls upon us, it’s asking that we come to terms with our life thus far, too feel into and hold space for what we’ve been through and then make the changes we need to make in order to thrive. 

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Judgement is like a life review urging us to consider the ways we’ve treated others, to hold ourselves accountable, to make amends where it’s safe to do so and move into a rebirth, whether stumbling or with grace. In the Smith-Waite deck, we see Archangel Gabriel singing people from up from coffins, these people are literally rising from the dead, transformed and ready for a new life. 

What parts of your life seriously do not work? What parts of your life need to be examined, trimmed, and released? Can you create a ritual to honour the old and then send it on its way? In what ways do you walk through metaphorical hell fire? Trauma work isn't easy and Judgement knows this to be so. Re-traumatization is possible and extremely uncomfortable feelings are inevitable.

Judgement is ruled by Pluto, the overseer of the death and rebirth cycle. In our society, we need a collective Judgement moment where we actually look at ourselves and re-evaluate harm and trauma that we possess and project. Judgement is also said to be ruled by Mars, our planet denoting assertion, tension, and war. Interestingly enough, one of Mars' moons is aptly named Phobos, Greek god of fear. His twin brother, also a moon of Mars, is Deimos, god of terror. 

There’s a handful of things in my life that I have a death grip on that would benefit me physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to release, and a massive one is this phobia.

What if I’m so hyper identified with my phobia that I’ve just psychologically conditioned myself to have a certain response to fish? What if that never goes away? I asked myself those questions in 2016 when I became conscious of how I really wanted to work on releasing my fear. It’s two years later and I still have such panic, but I have something new: the recognition that I have two similarities with fish. I can identify with fish. That’s fucking wild. That’s what compassion is. 

Here’s what I know:

  1. Fish travel together in a school. They belong with one another, they have their crew that they move with. ‘School’ Middle English ‘scolu’ a troop. Fish have a sense of belonging. To be alone in the water can be too vulnerable, an invitation for predators. We as humans also hold a craving to belong, whether it be in our families of origin, in our communities, in our workplaces or other parts of our lives. To feel a sense of belonging is a gift and I suppose fish have that. 

  2. Depending on where they live, fish might experience a sense of invasion from sharp things like fish hooks or spears. This is a larger story on trauma I experienced while in the womb regarding an amniocentesis needle. It was only a few weeks ago when I did a regression to the womb that I realised that I didn’t just have three physical scars from this needle, but emotional wounding from it too. I connect with fish in the way of being in the water and having something sharp prodding at me, hurting me. Fish experience that through humans casting their rods or spears. It’s part of the human life cycle of food for survival, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t painful. 

Having compassion for fish is having compassion for my shadow self, the parts of me that I have split off from so long ago. The parts of me that so deeply want to belong and to feel connected. One of our core needs as humans in order to survive is to feel like we belong. I’ve always felt like I didn’t belong. I can learn from fish, the way they belong in the water, the way they band together in a group, the way they flow and find ways back home over and over again. I have creeping anxiety as I write this which affirms that I’m only at the beginning of my liberation from the phobia, but I will keep working, keeping opening and embracing the ways I am not so different from the thing I fear. 

*cover photo by @steve_huntington via Unsplash

Nic Alea