June 29, 2010

Yessssss!  I just went for a refreshing dip at the deep end of a pool.  That was me, overcoming my water fear and swimming. Me, bobbing happily at the  6’9″ water mark.

No panicky thrashing. No gasping for air. At last, I’ve experienced the liquid joy of weightlessness. Floating makes me feel like a fish. Or maybe, a fetus. My body memory has just been re-coded. It has reclaimed a missing piece of itself. A missing peace.

Even though I still can’t tread water, the adult me has already figured out how to embrace my inner terrified child. I am learning to swim in water — and in life. This is a big deal because I’ve always been afraid of drowning.

Water fear, since childhood

My troubles began the day I zoomed down a baby water slide at some beach and my parents failed to catch me. A good metaphor for my relationship with them. I went under, screaming and choking. But my real problem was my mom. Of course, who else? Oh, Betty. Be nice. After all, your mother’s dead. She always had a terror of water.

“Don’t be like me,” she’d say.

Sure, Mom.

On the upside, my water fear didn’t matter while I was growing up in Chinatown. Since most urban youth lack easy access to pools, many  of us never learn to swim. So it wasn’t like I was a misfit. Once, Mom signed up my sister and I for kids’ swimming lessons at a midtown Y. It was pointless because I kept sinking.

In February, Mom died at 92 of old age. But I heard her voice and her water fear the minute we landed for this little vacation on Sanibel Island, Fl. “The ocean is so big and I am so small,” she’d say whenever we were near a beach.

My private pool

Just steps from our oceanfront condo unit is a pretty pool. It’s surrounded by palm trees and looks out to a gorgeous view of the gulf’s rolling waves. I’ve been hitting that pool every day at  8 a.m., right when it opens. At that hour, the families-with-children aren’t out yet. No one’s watching as I struggle back and forth across the width of the pool. At first, I couldn’t make it from one side to the other without sputtering for air. Now, I’m practically gliding around on the deep end. Once in a while, I glance past the palm trees to the ocean’s horizon — and smile from my heart at Mom.

How to overcome water fear

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Be patient. It’s taken a lifetime to become afraid. Getting un-afraid will take even more time.

2) Get good advice. My dear friend Angela is a top-level aquatics instructor. A few summers ago, I took her adult swim class. She’s such a fantastic teacher that when I got into the pool this week, I suddenly remembered stuff she said about breathing and moving.

3) Find support. Angela’s class included a trial lawyer and the head of a major arts organization. Their eyes were bulging and they were shaking. Just like me. I’ve never forgotten that I’m not alone.

4) Create an inspiring set-up. This is the first time I’ve ever had a chance to swim in a pool all alone. That’s when I realized I needed privacy to feel un-selfconscious. No splashing kids to dodge. No watchful, friendly people offering me encouragement. I am also enjoying the pool’s resort-y glamour.

5) Practice a lot, consistently. Being here and swimming every morning has been a gift. The constant repetition moved me forward very quickly. I could see what was working, what wasn’t and then adjust by trying out new moves. Yesterday, I went back to the pool a second time. I’m going back again after I hit “send” on this post.

6) Relax. Life is short. As much as possible, try to make growing up fun.


I had no idea swimming was so great

P.S. — If you want to see photos and read about the most gorgeous pool I’ve ever swam in, click HERE.  :)