Embracing Fear

The swimming pool was once the scene of a harrowing experience, as a child, for the author.

I think I was around nine years old when I slipped into the deep end of a swimming pool. I didn’t know how to swim at the time and I quickly sank to the bottom. My frantic struggle for air ceased and was replaced by a still sense of calm. Above me the sun was a bright orb shining down through the water. Ripples of water and light danced on the surface. I looked up at it and thought to myself, “that’s beautiful,” and everything went dark.

Honestly, if I had died that day, it would not have been a bad way to go. It didn’t hurt. My last vision was one of beauty and so was my last thought. It would have been a peaceful death. On the other hand it would have been a total buzzkill for all the other kids in the pool. Children crying out, “Mommy, she’s dead!” is not the sort of thing you want to hear at a company picnic.

I don’t think I actually died that day. I asked my brothers if they remembered it, and they did vaguely, but they don’t think I was out for very long. Also, I don’t remember my entire life flashing before my eyes, but I was just a kid so it wouldn’t have taken very long. Though, I do believe I would have remembered seeing Disneyworld in those final moments, if my life had, indeed, flashed by. No, I don’t think I died that day, but I probably came close.

Not long, after that, my brothers and I were enrolled in swimming lessons at the YMCA. I learned to swim though I would not put my face in the water when I did so. Years went by, I grew up, and I forgot.

Over a decade later I went on a spring break trip to the Florida Keys. I found myself floating in the crystal clear sea and I submerged to get a closer look at some fish that were swimming beneath the boat. I looked up and saw the sun shining down through the water. I saw ripples of water and light dancing on the surface. I thought to myself, “that’s beautiful,” and then I freaked out.

Once safely back in the boat, I huddled on the floor shaking and crying. I was terrified. Even now as I write this I can feel my heart race and my chin quiver. So why on earth would I decide to do a triathlon?

The answer is simple. I am afraid, and I don’t want to be.

A couple of years ago I signed up for swim lessons, again, and learned to put my face in the water. I try to swim three days a week. The pool at my fitness center is 25 yards long and the deep end is not too terribly deep. I’ve gotten used to it so it doesn’t scare me as much. Though, a couple of weeks ago, when I was attempting to learn flip turns, seeing those beautiful, dancing ripples on the surface nearly triggered a panic attack and I came up spluttering. I forced myself to do several more but I still can’t do flip turns.

Occasionally I have gone to the big pool in town. It is 50 meters long and has a really deep end with an abrupt drop-off, much like the one that tried to take me in my youth, but far worse. The first time I tried to swim it, I got to the middle of the pool just before the deep end and stopped. I just stood there and cried. Then I got out of the pool, walked to the deep end and jumped in. I clung to the wall for a long time before I worked up the courage to let go and swim back to the shallow end. I didn’t have much endurance, at the time, so I knew, at least, that if I got too tired to swim, all the way back, I could just walk in the shallow end.

The author with the Southeast Missouri (SEMO) Triathlon team.

Recently I attended a swim session with a local triathlon team at the big pool. I hadn’t been there since the last time when the deep end had made me cry. We started out with drills in the shallow end, and I was fine with that. Then came the time to swim the whole length. I had become accustomed to swimming 25 yards, at a time, knowing that I could rest at each end if I chose. By this time I knew that I could swim 300 yards almost continuously, albeit, slowly. That day it felt like I had been swimming forever but, when I looked around, I wasn’t even halfway. I put my head down and kept swimming… reminding myself to relax.

The blue stripe I had been following on the floor of the pool began to fall away until it finally plunged to almost 20 feet. Glancing to either side under water revealed the full width and depth of the pool. My feet did not touch the bottom when I stopped. My head popped out of the water and I looked to the end of the lane. Everyone else had finished and they were waiting for me. I still had another 20 yards to go. Taking a deep breath, I lowered my face to the water and continued to the end. My body shook as I grasped the edge and prepared to swim back.

I’m not going to lie. It was not a pleasant experience. I was so scared, but I also was so sure that I needed to go back and keep doing this. The thing is… I know how to swim. I know that if I get too tired to do the crawl stroke I can flip onto my side or back. I know this, but when fear wraps its tentacles around me I forget.

The physical manifestations of fear are extremely uncomfortable and can shut down rational thought. I have been trying to learn how to maintain mental clarity and control over my body. When I swim I am not so concerned with speed or distance, as I am, with comfort and endurance. I just want to finish. Alive.

While other swimmers might be thinking about form, and stroke, and kick, I am thinking about relaxing and breathing. I am working to convince my mind that I can actually swim now. My swim sessions are just as much, if not moreso, mental exercise than physical. In essence I am practicing fear desensitization. My fear of drowning is deep and visceral. I have learned to recognize the triggers. Though I am not always successful at staying calm, when they occur, I think I’m getting better.

This fear of the deep end is easy to see, and understand, but it has caused me to examine fear in general. Where else do I encounter it in my life? How do I manage it? Can I use this in the water?

As a mother, one of my biggest fears is some harm befalling my children. Because of this fear, which I am sure many parents share, I do whatever I can to keep them safe and well. As a registered nurse, I learned about the risks associated with obesity-related illnesses. This motivated me to adopt a healthier lifestyle and make exercise a part of my routine. In these instances my physical body is not in immediate danger. Without the fight or flight response, I am able to think my way through many of the little fears I encounter on a daily basis so easily, that I don’t always recognize them as fears.

Fear often has negative connotations but it is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it motivates you to take positive action. When fear jumps out at you, instead of running away, sometimes you need to turn and embrace it. Sometimes it’s not as scary as you thought. Sometimes, beneath the hideous mask, it has something to tell you and teach you. When I show up at the pool to swim, some may think that it is because I am training my body for a triathlon. What I learned, from my fear of the deep end, is that, in reality, I am training my mind for life. ★