I’m not sure exactly how old I was when this memory was imprinted on my brain. I know I was young – maybe three or four years old. I was wading knee-deep in the water, parallel to the beach where people were sunbathing on blankets. My two older brothers were walking with me. A rope cut across my path just under the surface. It came from somewhere on the shore, reaching out into the water, a buoy every few feet marking the safe swimming area. Distracted by children playing in the surf nearby, I didn’t notice the rope. Next thing I knew, I was face down under water.
I remember the sounds of the children and the waves, all muffled and bubbly. I remember the water burning the inside of my nose and the taste of salt in my mouth.
I remember the fear.
I was probably only under the water for a few seconds before my brothers helped me up, but to me it seemed a lot longer.
I have always been wary of water. My sense of curiosity and enjoyment has always been tempered with the awareness of danger. My mom, perhaps recognizing in me her own fear of water, enrolled me in swim lessons at the local indoor pool.
The beginner lessons weren’t so bad – they were actually kind of fun. We kicked and splashed while holding onto the side of the pool. We held our noses and dunked our heads. We practiced paddling and breathing techniques. By the end of that first session I was feeling more confident in the water.
The beginner lessons had taken place in the shallow end of the pool where my feet always touched the bottom. With that sense of security, water didn’t seem all that scary. But the intermediate lessons, those were another story.
Intermediate lessons started out OK. In the shallow end, we learned the basics of treading water: Move your arms in slow circles. Gently frog kick your legs. These motions and the buoyancy of your body help keep you afloat.
When the instructor felt we were ready, she asked us to head for the deep end of the pool. Some kids got out of the pool and walked around to the deep end, jumping in without fear. The rest of us moved more cautiously into deeper waters, holding the side of the pool with one hand.
At first I bounced my way from 3 feet to 4 feet. I loved that slow-motion sensation, like I was an astronaut on the surface of the moon. As I moved down the slope of the pool into deeper water, however, my confidence began to wane. Soon, only the very tips of my toes could touch the bottom. I was clutching the side of the pool, my head tilted all the way back so just my face was above the surface. Sputtering and kicking franticly, I began to panic.
“Jenny! Move your arms in slow circles! Kick like a frog!” the instructor called. “Just relax and your body will float!”
Nope. Nope. Nope.
I turned and headed back to the shallow end, flat out refusing to go to the deep end of the pool. My instructor wasn’t taking no for an answer, though. She scooped me up and bobbed down the ramp to a spot where the water was over my head. My body was shaking, my arms wrapped tightly around her neck. It felt awkward to be so fiercely attached to this person who was not my mom or dad, but terror over-road my embarrassment.
All the other kids were already in the deep end, treading water. Some were close to the edge, while others had moved away from the side and seemed to be having fun. FUN! Even when water splashed in their faces, they didn’t freak out or get upset!
Eventually I summoned the courage to let go of my instructor. The bottom pulled for me, and I flutter-kicked to stay afloat, my hands grabbing at the water on the surface as if looking for something to hold onto. Chlorinated water splashed in my face and down my throat, causing me to gag and cough.
I can’t breathe! I’m going to drown!
“Slow down! Relax! Let your body float!” the instructor pulled me by my arms, guiding me to the side of the pool where I gasped, trying to catch my breath, my heart pounding in my chest. I was exhausted.
It took some practice, but I did learn to tread water without panicking. But even to this day I avoid treading water in deep ponds, lakes, and oceans. The water is cold and dark and creepy. Oh, that monstrous cold, that gaping maw of darkness! My mind can’t help but imagine all the terrible, toothy creatures that are very likely swimming around in the pitch black just below my frog-kicking legs.
Anxiety is not a new thing brought on by events here in my alternate universe. At every stage of my life it has manifested itself in one form or another. From obsessive hand washing when I was young, to rituals and counting as a teen, to compulsive checking and constant worry as an adult. I even went through a spell of not wanting to leave my house for fear of throwing up in public. I’ve worked through these episodes – sometimes on my own with physical exercise and meditative activities, sometimes with therapy, and sometimes with medication.
It is a part of my nature brought with me from my old universe. The difference is that here I have been stripped of my defenses. What’s more, I’ve learned that the control I once thought I had was an illusion. Without it, I feel powerless against my anxiety, with no protection, no means of escape, no relief.
And let me tell you, when you’re treading water in the expansive, sometimes tumultuous ocean of life, it’s not so easy to just relax and float.
There are times in my life when I watch everyone treading water around me with wonder…and maybe a little envy. Most of them look pretty relaxed. Some are even having fun. Their bodies rise and fall gracefully with the waves. If water splashes into their faces, it just rolls off or they wipe it away – no big deal. They seem blissfully unaware of the dangers that might be swimming below. I guess they figure there’s nothing they can really do about something they can’t see which may or may not even be there in the first place. Or maybe it just never occurs to them to consider it in the first place.
They relax and float and ride the waves.
Not me. I feel small and vulnerable and overwhelmed. I’m buffeted by waves and pulled by currents. When water splashes in my face, I sputter and cough, consumed with panic, afraid I might not catch my breath. I have no trust in my body’s own buoyancy, no faith that I can stay afloat without great effort as the gravity of the darkness draws me downward.
So I stay constantly aware and on guard, always prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. My vigilance is the last shred of control I possess. I think it keeps me safe, so I decide to be vigilant for everyone else as well.
I make circles with my arms and kick gently, but I cannot relax. I worry for myself. I worry for others.
In this universe, the waves keep coming. There’s barely time to recover from one when another hits. Recently, a particularly threatening wave crashed over me when my son began having anxiety and behavior issues of his own. My stress took on a new and sinister form. Like some strange empathic connection with my son, I began having my own self-injurious thoughts. These are not the same as suicidal thoughts, mind you. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live without the stress, the rage, the sadness, and the pain that consumed me.
I suddenly understood why my son felt the need to pull his hair, hit himself, and bang his head on the floor. He didn’t WANT to hurt himself – he wanted to rid himself of his overwhelming feelings. Like a discharge of lightening, that dangerous energy had to be released somehow.
Admitting you’ve reached that point when you can no longer stay afloat on your own is incredibly difficult. But there is something to be said about the courage it takes to live each day with an anxiety disorder. Or depression. Or autism.
So I mustered up some of that courage and asked for help.
Because you know what? I’d love to be able to relax, to rise and fall with the waves. I want to shrug and let it roll off when I’m splashed with water. I want to have fun!
I have buoyancy. It has been here all along. I just need to trust in it again and allow myself to float.
Buoyancy: n ability to float or rise; cheerfulness; resilience
Resources: Webster’s Universal Dictionary and Thesaurus, Tormont Publications Inc., Canada, 1993.