Having endured the, “just throw her off the dock and she will learn to swim,” philosophy of child rearing, my fear of water became deeply ingrained after being forced to “walk the plank” on a family camping trip.
The lake into which I was tossed, inaccurately named Clear Lake, was in fact a shallow, crappie filled lake which, in summer heat, resulted in a fair number of dead fish floating on the surface. That fateful day when forced off the dock and into the tepid water, upon surfacing I noticed a young boy picking up the chant of the children on shore. “Look at all the dead fish….look at all the dead fish.”
He turned toward me in the brightly colored inner tube and continued his chant. It was not until he was fully turned that I noticed the milky, unfocused, eyes. He was blind.
From that moment on, panic settled in my veins when around water.
It exploded at odd times. Once on Lake Chelan, seeing the clear water and telling myself nothing bad was in the water, I attempted water skiing. When I fell and had to wait for the boat, screams engulfed every fiber of my being, and when I was finally pulled in, I was swallowed in paroxysms of uncontrollable sobbing. When fear finally settled down, embarrassment rushed in to take its place.
That memory made it difficult to consider a family trip to Hawaii, but the family seemed excited, so I reasoned the clear water would make it okay. The first day, as the rest of the family dove in. I stood on shore, bile rising in my throat with shame as a chaser.
Left to my own devices on shore, I put my toes in the water and practiced deep breathing until my heart rate settled down. Then another inch deep and breathing. Then another and another. Gradually, I was up to my knees…still breathing and still fearful.
But I was in.
Each trip to the islands, I repeated the ritual, but made it a little further until I was able to snorkel. Always tethered to a body board “just in case”, Tim had to swim next to me holding my hand. The next trip it became okay to just hold his shirt as we swam side by side. Then perhaps just a foot or so away.
One summer at Waimea Bay during calm waters, I started out next to Tim, as was my ritual, so I could feel safe. But a flicker of movement caught my eye as a sea turtle swam below me near the bottom of the sandy sea. Transfixed, I began to slowly follow, noting how the flippers cut through the current and how the sun shafts slipping through the water made plaid patterns of light on the shell.
Feeling tired, I came up to clear my mask, and when I turned towards shore, an awful realization hit me. Tim was nowhere to be found, and I could see the shore a considerable distance away. Old familiar feelings began to creep up my throat, stalking me with crippling memories and promises of dangers in the deep.
Breathe deep…breathe deep.
Somewhere in the middle of my breathing, my whole body relaxed. I let my legs hang loose in the deep waters as I soaked in the view of families in the distance on shore. Tim’s form could be seen far ahead snorkeling around a rock, set free from the tyranny of my fear. And a new emotion enveloped me.
I was free.
Free of the paralysis of old memories.
Free of the fear of the unknown.
Free of my inability to find a clear path to joy.
There is an old saying in spiritual circles that you keep moving through doors until God closes one. But my fear of water taught me a different lesson. Sometimes the door that starts to close has a large name plate that reads, FEAR, and sometimes we need to stick our foot in that closing door and walk through anyway.
Monsters were not waiting to devour me in the sea.
Beauty was waiting to engulf my spirit and expand my soul.
And, as I have been discovering, the rest of my fears have contained the same promise.