The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima once wrote that he was scared of crabs. He said he could even faint just by looking at the Japanese character for crab: ‘蟹’ . The character’s form reminded him of the horrible appearance of crabs, so he could only read it in the Kana version: ‘カニ’. However, Mr. Mishima did enjoy having crab served as a delicious dish. It reminded me that I had almost exactly the same phobia, however, mine was for fish!
Whenever I tell friends for the first time that I’m scared of fish, besides the funny expression on their faces, the most frequent reaction I get is a big question mark: ‘Do you eat fish?’. For sure, I eat fish and I enjoy sashimi and sushi, I eat them raw, no kidding! I would also not go mad if I saw a dead fish floating above water, or tuna cut into pieces and frozen in the freezer. My favourite photographer Araki has a beautiful picture of a salmon head with a bunch of flowers in its mouth and I still like it. I like small goldfish, and those tiny little colourful creature like betta fish and guppies don't bother me much, in fact, I always kept them at home since I was little. Fancy male fighting fish, which are sold in separate cups, never constitute a risk to me.
Fish have cold eyes, and are covered with mirror-like silver scales which reflect fluorescent light, and they squeeze together in limited closed water spaces. They are too quiet, wandering inside the over decorated fish tanks, spinning around and around, killing their time.
There is ambivalence and ambiguity in my phobia because I am not against the whole concept of ‘fish’, I would describe it specifically as the fear of deep sea scenery and large-scale fish. The last time I had a panic attack was when I was browsing the websites of vintage hand-made botanical pictures, and I accidentally clicked on the category of ‘sea life’, each image had three fish drawn from different perspectives. Even though they were drawings for the study of ancient fish, I found it unbearable.
In Chinese supermarkets, live fish are kept in tanks to guarantee ultimate freshness. Just imagine the humming sounds from the filters and the ultraviolet lamps, the unusual blueness in the background that creates an unordinary spooky atmosphere.
Almost every supermarket has these fish tanks in the seafood aisle. And it's especially the city I spent my whole life in, Shenzhen, along the southern coast of China where seafood is a well-known specialty, that never ceases to bring me endless inspiration for my nightmare.
As I got older, my symptoms kept getting worse. After trying to analyse my phobia, I realised that instead of having an aversion to fish, I was afraid of aquatic scenes. At seventeen, I was still bothered by why I always dreamt of aquariums, so I read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, which said that the source of dreams lies in recent experiences and childhood memories.
Tracing this back to my childhood, I remembered I spent a whole summer vacation in which my little cousin and I were both obsessed with watching the sea life screensaver on my uncle’s computer. It was an odd situation in which we spent hours imitating the fish swimming up and down. At a certain point, while staring at the screensaver, I was suddenly overcome by a feeling of fear and isolation.
The worst of my dreams was of drowning in a closed tank filled with water, with my head stuck in the bottom of the narrow container. There were huge fish with their typical expressionless faces swimming up and down and surrounding me. They didn't even attack me, but the clock seemed to have stopped at that moment, and it felt like an eternity of desperation. When I woke up, the images overwhelmed my mind and the fear I felt lingered for the whole day!
I’ve looked my condition up on the Internet, and I was glad to find that I am not the only weirdo. There is term that is used to describe these specific symptoms, which is officially called ‘ichthyophobia’, usually caused by a traumatic past experience.
However, I never figured out what triggered my fear initially. I’ve tried to recall any severe tragedy concerning with aquatic situations, but I failed to dig up any origins. Last summer I was disappointed to find that I couldn't even take a look at a gold fish store in the distance, while two years ago I could stay inside one of these shops for ten minutes. I’ve tried to train myself to look at fish tanks when I pass the grocery store, and I keep on telling myself not to be afraid, but every time I see one I just close my eyes at once, take a long breath to slow down my racing heart and walk away to let the fear flow away.