Wednesday, May 08, 2013


There's just no other word to describe what's happened to me in the past six or so months. 

First, I (stupidly) beat my body to extremes by insisting on running at the same time we're moving into this house, and hauling and lifting and doing way too much. I injure myself - or really aggravate an existing problem - to the point that walking is almost unbearable, and sitting, running or biking are impossible. Then I get angry (at God, at myself, and at anyone handy). Really angry. 

Then I see a doctor, because Mr. Wonderful makes me, and then another doctor, and then a physical therapist. And they all say one thing - no more running. No biking. And they all agree on one other thing: you need to swim. But I don't swim. I hate swimming. I hate water. So I water jog during rehab time, and I take water aerobics classes. No impact at first, just like the doctor ordered. But I don't love the classes - they're fun for a while, but I want something else. I want something I can push harder at. Something I can do on my own. Something like...swimming. But I don't swim. And I hate the pool.

The pool. I had a bad experience in the YMCA pool when I was about 5. I don't remember everything. I do remember guards hauling me out, violently coughing a lot of water all over the place, and my mother freaking out, and then not being made to go back any more. I hated it anyway, and by that point I was being bribed weekly with a trip to Brown's Toy Store just for showing up. I am sure it was getting expensive. By letting me quit my parents probably saved a fortune. 

I am - I WAS - terrified of water. Like gasping, clutching, throwing-up, “we’re all gonna die” afraid. The irony is that I love to kayak, and even enjoyed being in the water as long as some criteria were met. First, the water should not be deeper than my shoulders, and should be nowhere near my mouth or nose. Second, it should not move a lot - no waves or wakes or bounces of any kind. And third, there must be absolutely NO splashing, and NO people near me and definitely no people touching me. If all of those criteria were met, I could relax, float, play a LITTLE bit, and pretend to be confident... until I inhaled water and panicked and freaked out. When I was pregnant with my son I did some little breast stroke thing at the local swimming hole in the afternoons because having a baby in August in the full heat of summer will make you do things you're scared of just in sheer desperation. There's even a great family story about my sister Laurie tossing me up in the air at about six months old in our local lake, and failing to catch me when I came back down. Between that story and my experience at the local Y at 5, I decided I was just not a water bug. Looks fun. Feels nice when it sits still and no one makes you swim in it. But just not my thing; not now, not ever.

I come from a swimmy sort of a family on my mother's side. As a child my siblings and cousins all swam. It was just what you did. My cousin Shari even swam competitively. Everyone assumed I would swim, too. Everyone tried to teach me - sort of like my experience with knitting really, only with more water, more crying, and much more terror. Shari was particularly patient, but in the background there were chiding voices – my other cousin, my mother, my aunt.

My Aunt Pat would say "Oh, just leave her alone!" when my mother fussed and reminded everyone that I could not swim, always loudly. One year my mother convinced me - well, ordered me, really - to climb onto her back for a trip across Laurel Lake. She would swim us both over and back, she said, and it would be wonderful, and from this I would learn that the water would hold me up. All the way over she kept saying reassuring things, like: "Melissa Dawn. If you don't RELAX you'll drown us BOTH. See. Isn't this nice? See how fun this is? Melissa Dawn. You HAVE GOT TO relax. You will drown us BOTH!"

Yeah. Fun. Right. 

I am not particularly athletic, but I do enjoy being active. But not in the water. Just give me land. Give me solid ground I can kick and trust, give me pavement that rips the skin off my knees when I fall, but doesn't suffocate me. Give me toe clips that stick to my shoes so I tumble to the ground in a heap of humanity and bike frame. Just give me air - PLEASE give me AIR - and not the suffocating feeling of a chest full of water - not ever, ever again.

But things change. 

Thing is, odd thing it is, too; but when a family member dies, I tend to inherit something from them. I don't know why this happens, and I remember being very shocked the first time it did. Something I hate becomes something I love. The first time it happened was when my Grandma L. died. I hated spicy food before, but suddenly, I loved it. And the hotter the better. When my Aunt B. and Grandma W. died, it was knitting. It was like a world I'd always looked at from the outside opened up before me, and I was suddenly filled with this need to knit all the things. ALL of them. And eventually engage in a strong bid for world 2-at-a-Time Sock domination, just for kicks.

When my mother died... I waited. I hoped it wouldn't be some sick craving for McDonald's Frappes or - God forbid - their creepy burgers. I hoped it would not be the tendency to spill at least one mouthful of food onto my chest at every single meal, or the desire to kill myself. I hoped it would not be a lot of things. I forgot about water.

My mother loved the water. She loved to swim, loved to float, loved to dive. She adored it. She was a polar bear, and loved to talk about those days. She swam at the lake every summer, and in any pool you put her near. She took my kids to the Y for swimming lessons. I said I'd pay the bill, but I was not going to stay there and "watch those people drown my babies". My mother would go on at length about her swimming days, and when she was prescribed rehab after her first heart attack she headed for the pool like a shot. She could swim now - it was required by her doctor, so money was no longer standing between her and the YMCA pool. I dropped her off or picked her up at the Y very often, right to the end of her independence when pushing her walker, barely able to keep herself upright, crazy weird seizures making her space out, she dragged herself up the steps in front of the Y to the door, and made her way to the special needs locker room and then into the pool. It amazed me that they let her even get in. 

The day we found her unresponsive in her room, and her living status forever changed from "assisted living" to "skilled nursing care" I found her swimsuit and YMCA card in a canvas bag with a lighthouse on it dropped in a corner; moldy and forgotten in her decline. I threw it out.

So there I was, in a pool, taking aquatics classes and "jogging" during rehab. I wore a nifty belt, just like my baby bubble from kiddie swim class. No one knew the truth. One day while soaking in the hot tub after class, I came out to my instructor, so to speak, and told her I could not swim. She said we needed to fix that. At the same time, in another class, another woman - younger than I - was also coming out to another instructor. She didn't know how to swim either. We both played a good game, and no one guessed.

So adult learn to swim began. I signed up without a lot of thinking. When I showed up for the first class, I found Girl in the lobby, registering herself for learn to swim classes. Just for moral support, she said. It's a good thing she signed up. I would have run for my car and never gone back if she hadn't been there. One does not back down from a challenge in front of one's daughter. It's bad form. She learns, like we all do, by observing. Whether 2 or 5 or 25, she needed to see me do this thing. So in we went. Thank God for Girl.

I was medicated for the first few visits, and occasionally I'd need to take something after that, but less often as time went on. Now, probably mixing anxiety meds and water isn't a good idea, but it was what I needed to do to get myself in the door some weeks.

Gradually the panic subsided, and I began to feel ... not "in control", because I never am, but more comfortable. We started with the front crawl, or freestyle. I could not go more than a few strokes without feeling like I was going to inhale the whole pool, or like someone was pushing my head down and I was going to drown. That feeling was overwhelming. I learned that I could roll onto my back at any time, and find air. I learned that I could just float until I relaxed and was ready to try again. The front crawl eluded me, but I learned elementary backstroke, and the back crawl. I liked that. Then we learned breast stroke. I liked that, too. And side stroke - that one's ok too. But not the front crawl. 

I learned to trust the water. Not completely - water is a liar at times and will come at you from directions you don't expect, but I learned to trust in what I know of water. The vast majority of the time, it will support you. The times that it won't, you probably should not be in the water anyway.

Eventually I got confident enough to "swim" - and I use that word VERY loosely - during adult lap time. At first it was 5 laps, then 7, then one day I did a quarter mile, 11 laps! Sometimes I had to stop and just float on my back in my lane and breathe and tell myself that I was ok, that I was not going under unless I chose to, that the water would support me. Sometimes there were so many people in the pool that I just couldn't handle it and needed to get out.

I prayed a lot. I prayed on my way down to the Y, that I'd have the guts to get out of the car. I prayed on the way in, that I wouldn't run back. I prayed while I got changed, that I wouldn't put my street clothes back on. I prayed often for no one in the pool, and sometimes that prayer was granted. More often I'd find myself sitting in the hot tub waiting for people to leave, terrified at the idea of swimming in a pool made for 4 people, but actually containing 12. When the number of swimmers exceeds the number of lanes, we "swim circles" - up to six people on each side of the four-lane pool, swimming up the wall and down the lane line. Circles are mentally challenging because there are so many factors in play - lots of other people make the water choppy and rough. Everyone swims at a different pace, so you have to slow down or speed up, or stop and let people go by, or force them to pass you by swimming down the middle, between the two lanes. That's been the hardest thing.

I bought extra small training fins in an attempt to make my legs stronger, and to make me faster. I have stubby little legs and short little feet and a round body not exactly made for swimming. I have the hydrodynamics of an anvil, really. I kept trying. I keep trying. I work on body position and strokes, I watch videos of good swimmers over and over. I study Total Immersion videos endlessly - I would love to spend a week at their studio in New York learning how to do this right. Around my birthday I swam myself into a shoulder strain. Never anything by halves around here.

Last month our Y offered a "Love Your Laps" program, where lap swimmers recorded their laps publicly on a large chart by the pool. At first I wasn't sure I wanted to do it - I was slated to be away for a whole week teaching in Virginia. And I have issues with competitiveness. The youngest of my father's four girls and the only child of my mother, I am the baby/only poster child - spoiled, competitive, and demanding. Demanding of myself most of all. 

I did it anyway; I began posting numbers on the chart. Mr. W reminded me that I only needed to do my best, my personal best, on any given day. No comparisons, no competition - especially since most of the women who swim and post regularly are ten or more years my junior. Yesterday was the final day of Love Your Laps. I didn't swim yesterday, but today I wrote down all of my daily totals and I added them all up. In three weeks (I deducted the week I was in Virginia) I swam 12.2 miles. In November I could not swim a length of the pool without a panic attack. Amazing. God is good. 

So, thank you God for all of this. For letting me break myself last fall, for physical therapy and Dr. F, for Mr. W paying for the Y membership even though he must have thought I'd quit after a week in utter panic, for Girl in the lobby that first day of swim class, for cheap Tyr suits on Sierra Trading when the Lands' End one dissolved, for silicone swim caps with adorable eggs on them, for Pam and Marsha and Kelsey. And please let my mother know I swim. I swam, I swim, and I will swim some more. She may be a little peeved at first because she always thought I was holding out on her, but I think she'll be happy about it in the end. I know I am. 

Anyone wondering what happened to the other girl who couldn't swim? The one back up there who came out to her instructor at the same time I did, prompting the Y to offer adult learn to swim classes again? Well, she just became a lifeguard a few weeks ago. (YAY, KELSEY!!!) From not knowing how to swim a stroke to being a lifeguard between November and April. I'd say we were both ready for a change! 

Oh, and about my nemesis, the front crawl? Did nearly 3/4 of a mile of it this morning. It's rapidly becoming my favorite stroke. 


Kristi C. said...


Cathy said...

Celebrate! Sing praises!! How is Girl doing with her swimming??

Sharripie said...

Well done! As a lifelong swimmer and former lifeguard, I'm so glad you have learned to swim! It's a big accomplishment. I find it's a great way to get good, quality alone time - the pool seems to be the one place I can be alone with my thoughts.

And congratulations on all that mileage!

Sharon Krauss said...

Congratulations on the accomplishment, MMO! I'm very proud of you. I, too, am a lifelong swimmer and former lifeguard. I learned to swim before I could walk, actually. I taught my children to do the same. I find it calming and peaceful. Plus, it's great exercise. The one thing I did that I am no longer able to do is diving. I was on the diving team in college. Unfortunately, I have ear issues that keep me from going near the bottom of the pool. I've learned to adjust. As long as I can be in the water, swimming or doing water aerobics, I'm good. Keep up the good work!

RubyC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RubyC said...

Previous comment deleted because of a typo.

Conquering your fear of water - congratulations. And I love your recent blogs, love that you are getting back to your creativity in many ways. It is great to see you are healing.

Bonnie said...

I just sent a this blog post's link to a friend with the message, "This post is fantastic. It made my morning." I'm so happy for you!