There were two significant events in my young life that lead to my fear of swimming. Oddly, I only have specific memories of one, though I know the other to be true as well.
When I was in the neighborhood of three years old, my father and his wife took the three of us, my brother, sister and me, on a trip to the Northeast. I can’t honestly say for certain now, whether we were in New York City or Atlantic City. I feel as though we went to both places on this trip. No matter. I remember, surprisingly vividly, walking along the beach one evening. It was dark, or nearly so. We all had our shoes off and we walked in the surf, feeling the cold Atlantic waters pressing against our legs as they washed over our feet and rolled back out again. I was small, as we tend to be at that age. The waters came a little bit higher on me than on everyone else, and I remember feeling in equal amounts fear from the pounding pressure that knocked against me, pushing me out of my steps, and joy at the experience of being at the beach, near the ocean, wet feet squishing into the sand as we walked. Given that I was smaller than everyone else, it was no surprise when the unexpectedly large wave came along and knocked me right to the ground. Nor was it a surprise when the wave washed fully over me and began to drag me back out as it made its hasty retreat. It seemed like an eternity passed to my young, scared, oxygen deprived mind. But before I knew it, I felt a strong hand on my back followed by the force against my body as the waves continued to pull and the drenched t-shirt I was wearing became the handle by which my father pulled me back to shore, out of the water, and to safety. Immediately, I was in tears and I was coughing and sputtering as I sobbed the words, “The ocean tried to kill me.” (Yes, I’ve been prone to over-dramatization since I was a wee young lad.) Of course there was some truth that claim. As we all know, tides are unpredictable, and if my father hadn’t pulled me out of the waves when he did, I could easily have been dragged out to sea and might never have been seen alive again.
At some point probably not long after that experience, I was at my father’s apartment complex during one of our week-end visits. Apparently, we were out by the pool in his complex (when I say “we” I’m not certain what that really means. I do not know if my siblings were around. I do not know if my father’s wife was around. I do not even know why we were near the pool.), and somehow I fell into the water. I could not have been more than four or five years old. Once again, my father was right there, and immediately pulled me to safety.
By then the damage was done. For many years, I was afraid of water. Period. I was even afraid of the water in the bathtub. After some time, and some forced bathing requirements, my fears began to subside somewhat. I stopped fearing the water entirely. I came into possession of a life support vest and I spent some time in swimming pools. Always with he life vest on. Always staying on the shallow end. I learned to like the water, the sensation of the liquid surrounding the body, offering some support, cooling the skin on a hot day. But still, I always felt I was missing out on something. Everyone else felt free to roam the pool. They swam to the deep end. They played games and ducked under the water. They enjoyed themselves. And all I could do was hang out in the shallow end, with my life vest giving me a wasted sense of security, and watch as everyone else had fun.
Over the years in my adult life, I’ve had conversations with people which have eventually lead to a revelation that I did not know how to swim. People were always surprised and astounded that at my ripe old age of (whatever age it was at the time) I did not know how to swim. Repeatedly, I’ve been told that I “need” to learn how to swim. Yes, I live in California, and yes the beach is only a few miles away, but I don’t live there. I live on dry ground. Why did I need to learn to swim? But they were right.
Last summer, I spent the Fourth of July at the house of a friend who lives in the central valley of Northern California. The average temperature in the summer where he lives is about one meelleeon degrees (should be read in Doctor Evil’s voice with a pinky at the corner of your lips). Pools are common back yard fixtures and welcomed!
It was while we were all hanging out in the pool, most of us sitting on the expansive steps, but a few lounging on floats, that I had a turning point. I won’t bore you with too many unnecessary details (first time for everything) but at one point I made my way from the steps to one of the people on a float. Just as I was reaching her location, I felt my right foot slide over the edge where the pool floor began its downward slant to the “deep end”, which I have since learned is only six feet.
I contained my anxiety and acted like everything was normal, but the truth is, as my foot slid over that edge, I felt my heart rate speed up and my chest tightened to the point of restricting my breath. I was over come with fear at the prospect of getting into a section of the water in which I could not control my circumstances. I finished my business and casually made my way back to the step where I stayed seated until we were ready to leave the pool and go inside. I decided that weekend, it was time to do something about my weakness.
I couldn’t do it on my own though. I needed help. I needed a guiding hand. I needed someone who already knew how to swim, to help me learn to swim as well. I perused the local community college course catalog and I found a beginning swimming class for adults. Somewhat unexpectedly, I even recruited a friend to take the class with me. It was nerve-wracking to be sure, but I learned to swim. Of course the pool was only 4’6″ in the “deep end”, so it was comforting to know that anytime I was in trouble all I had to do was put my feet down and stand up… Until the last week of the class when our instructor informed us that the pool we had been using for months was closed and we would be having class in what we all referred to as “the big pool”. The big pool is where all the experienced swimmers swam. The big pool is split into twelve lanes, not three. The big pool is 6’9″ ON THE SHALLOW END. It wasn’t easy climbing into that pool the first time, but I did it. On the last night of class, our “final exam” was to jump from the diving board (roughly three feet from the surface of the water) into the pool, and swim to the side. Once I was in and able to tread water and swim the length of the lane, it was not so bad. I even jumped from the diving board… once. But getting into that water felt like I might as well be hurling myself off of a cliff. For the first time in my life, I was in water I could not stand up in… And I lived to tell the tale.
As children we have innumerable experiences that shape our lives. We learn many lessons, both spoken and unspoken, deliberate and incidental. In general, I feel that people do not give enough consideration to that fact, and because they don’t, children learn and internalize many things they would be better off never learning.
A while back, I wrote a post in which I admitted to a significant fear. The fear was, in large part, due to lessons I learned as a young boy and on through my teenage years. It’s the kind of fear that just compounds the longer it’s allowed to go unaddressed. It’s the kind of thing which, if discussed with other people, would result in exclamations of “You’re 38 years old and you’ve never…” “You need to…” And I did need to. But I lacked the skills and the resources to resolve the situation and over come the fear. There were no courses in the community college course catalog for that particular skill. I needed to be a bit more creative. More recently, I wrote another, very cryptic post in which I alluded to seeking guidance and assistance in over-coming my fear. And then I’ve been virtually silent since as I pondered my actions and deliberated the likely responses I would get in sharing those actions. It was all I could think about, really. What should I share? How much should I share? How specific should I be? And as all those thoughts went round and round in my head over and over again, my fingers fell silent. The blog was quiet.
For various reasons, I’ve decided not to share the details of my experience, at least not at this time. Somethings might slip in here and there along the way. I may come completely clean at some point in the future. I may keep it all to myself for the rest of time. But for now, all you need to know is that I found an instructor. I went to class. I over-came my fear of the water, and swam the length of the lanes. I even jumped off the diving board and swam in the big pool… And I lived to tell the tale.