Right about now most of you are thinking of vacation—one you already took or one that’s coming up. After having to deal with all the complications and challenges involved in practicing our chosen profession, a well-earned vacation gives us a chance to relax, do something different, or just go somewhere else to achieve a state of refreshing calm.
Vacation, however, means different things to different people. For some, it can simply involve not going into the office or the OR. For others, it might be a two-week trek through a national park or days spent lying on a beach. While most of us will do each of those things at some point, we have preferences for where we can best recharge, and where we feel the most relaxed and comfortable.
In my head, I break it down to either a cultural vacation—think visiting the great cities of Europe—or a relaxing vacation, either at home or some other calming spot. For the latter, my compulsive need to categorize requires me to decide on either the beach or mountains. You may think that this is an obvious duality. One has sand, the other trees. But it’s much more Freudian than that—for me, anyway.
I decided on the locale that best suited me more than 30 years ago, when I wanted to find a weekend retreat from my urban professional life in the Northeast. Not being a city boy by upbringing or temperament, I needed somewhere to get away from people, noise and distractions. So: mountains or beach. And no, Jersey Shore, I’m not talking about you: Too many people, too much noise and distractions. Aside from the local lack of quiet beach options, there’s another reason I wasn’t interested in being by the ocean: It’s disturbing, unsettling. Yes, I’m one of those rare people with thalassophobia (your word for the day): “Fear of large bodies of water.” In researching for this piece, I couldn’t find any specific cause for this phobia, unlike my arachnophobia, which was a result of putting my 5-year-old foot into a slipper with a spider in it. (I only recently stopped shaking out my shoes before putting them on.)
It’s not like I’m scared to be on a beach; I just don’t find it comforting. Yes, the sound of the waves can be pleasant. The air can be refreshing. The water can be a pretty shade of blue. But … all that water, stretching out to the horizon, and the thought of not knowing how deep it is or what might be in it (shiver). The feeling of staring at infinity. I’ve read that perhaps my problem is the lack of anything to organize, the unknowable state of the ocean and, most important, my inability to exert control over it—all derivatives of my somewhat OCD/ADHD personality. But I think it’s deeper than that. If I really sit down and think about it, the feeling I get in my gut when I’m near the sea is more primal, more ‘end of the earth,’ and, therefore, more disturbing.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still go to the beach. Being somewhere different is fun. I can appreciate the beauty of Bora Bora. And I’m not afraid of water; I love lakes, even big ones. OK, maybe standing on a Chicago pier and looking out over the immensity of Lake Michigan is creepy. The other piece of my phobia is that beaches are flat and, not infrequently, the land beside them is flat, also. Now I’m talking about you, New Jersey. All that flat sand feels exposed, vulnerable. So, perhaps there’s a touch of agoraphobia in me, too.
Having said all this, you can likely guess where I’ve spent my weekends. Forests are the ultimate cocoon for me. Quiet, protective and able to breathe life back into me. Though I don’t live in a forest, the more trees around me the better. Now, I AM looking at you, New Jersey—specifically the hills, valleys and streams of northwest New Jersey. Yes, though it may be surprising to some, New Jersey can be bucolic, quiet and very, very green. It can also be comforting, even if hiking through a forest is way more work than simply lying on the sand.
I hope all of you will have the opportunity to get some time to disengage—if not completely unplug—this summer, and come back to tackle the world refreshed. Ironically, after penning this paean to sylvan spaces, I’m going to get ready for my annual pilgrimage to Cape Cod.
I’m just not going to go to the beach.
Dr. Blecher is an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital.