Fear of drowning. And snorkeling.

2 Dec 14

Today, I jumped out of a boat in open ocean and snorkeled for over an hour in deep deep water. Without a life jacket. Most people will say, “Great, hope you saw lots of cool fish,” and not think anything of it. But for someone as afraid of the water as I am, it was a big deal.

My first memory of water and swimming was getting thrown into the pool at the YMCA on the Southwest side of Chicago. I was about 4 years old. All her life, my mom swore that the instructor didn’t throw me in; he jumped in with me. My vivid recollection, however, is that I was thrown in. And it was frightening. And I never wanted to go to swimming lessons again. My mom would try to bribe me, saying we could go for ice cream afterward. And I would say, “I don’t care about ice cream; I’m not going,” and then I would cry. She forced me to go for a while but finally gave up as my crying got all the other kids crying and who could learn to swim like that?

Convinced I needed to learn to swim, she registered me again for lessons when I was maybe 8. This time, two fo my cousins went also. I don’t remember too much about those lessons either — just putting my face in the water, blowing bubbles, kicking with a kickboard. And I didn’t learn to swim then either. How I got through high school PE swim class is a mystery. Mostly, I think I claimed I had my period and got to sit it out.

I didn’t escape college without learning to swim though. I don’t know if it is still the case, but in the 1980s, at the University of Chicago, there was a swim test. If you couldn’t pass, you had to take a pass/fail, no-credit swim class. The story around it was that, a century earlier, some student had drowned in the lake. And ever-after, students must learn to swim.

Me and the six other dorky kids who couldn’t swim reported for class each week. Maybe twice a week. Face in the water, blow bubbles, the usual stuff. And I actually learned to swim. I swam laps. I dove off the side of the pool (not the diving board, God forbid). When I needed another PE class, I actually took swimming again. I could swim. Of course, I had no occasion to swim, living in a city with a polluted lake and no country-club membership. And then I had the car wreck where my neck was injured, leavng me with limited range of motion and no way to turn my head to get a breath in the crawl stroke.

Did I mention the near drowning episode when I was in my 30s? Paddling an inflatible kayak, topless (no life jacket) on a rafting trip. It was only Class I water but the little craft was so light it flipped in a wave and I bounced along under water, banging into rocks, unable to get to the surface for what seemed like a very long time. I was never without my PFD again and lost any remaining confidence in my abilities to survive in the water.

Fast forward to 2011 when we planned an autumn trip to the Galapagos Islands. On the itinerary: hiking, kayaking…and snorkeling. I sucked it up, bought a snorkel, and started practicing in the pool. Lo and behold, when I didn’t have to turn my neck to try to breathe, I could actually swim. My fear of the water was (and still is) strong, but mentally, I knew then that I can actually swim. I can keep myself going, on the top, and breating Panic ensues if I get water in the snorkel tube or pop out of the water to talk to someone and feel like I am going under without my snorkel, or a wave hits me too hard. Pretty much anything causes the panic. The first snorkel in the Galapagos, I jumped in, wearing a wetsuit and life jacket. My husband grabbed my hand we swam through the channel at Kicker Rock (Lion Dormido). Hundreds of sharks swam below us, occasionally a huge sea turtle or eagle ray. I survived. I was so afraid of drowning that I had no mental space for fear of sharks.

I snorkeled many more times on that trip, and have also snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and in Belize. I realized that I like floating along the top of the water, feeling weighless and moving my limbs around. And I LOVE looking at the sea life — the corals, sponges, colorful fish. Spotting a turtle, moray eel, shark or ray is a thrill. Overcoming, or more accurately, living with the fear is so worth it.

Today, when I jumped in, the water was very deep — 40, 50 feet or more. I felt the panic, not sure I could do it. I focused on my breathing, in, out, in out. I reminded myself I was floating, I could float, and just keep breathing. And that my husband wouldn’t let me drown. And I kicked my flipper feet and followed him toward a coral reef to see what we could see.IMG_0658.JPG

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