Fear No More
I recently finally conquered a lifelong “fear,” kind-of by accident, and very much out of convenience.
During the summer of 1999, I lived on a lake in New Hampshire and co-habitated with 24 other delightful, free-spirited, and generous people my own age. We were all there because the Student Conservation Association or AmeriCorps had placed us together for trail crew. I still refer to it as the best summer of my life.
Maybe it was the people who inspired me every day to live deeply into my own self, but only to the point of not taking myself too seriously. Maybe being near a body of water was just the opportunity I’d never had before. For whatever reason, I resolved early in the summer to conquer my fear of swimming and therefore earnestly set a goal to swim across the lake and back by the end of the summer.
Swimming had always produced more of a profound anxiety than a fear. Which was unexplainable because I’d had swimming classes since infancy. Grandpa was a country club member, which meant to me that I got to spend all day at the pool when he went golfing. Childhood summers were peppered with way too many sunburns. Despite my frequent exposure and lack of any trauma or freak accidents, sustaining my own body in water had been pretty terrifying all my life. I like to call it anxiety instead of fear because the feeling itself didn’t prevent me from swimming, but it made every moment very, very tense and nearly breathless.
At the start of this summer in New Hampshire, I quickly realized that my life-long anxiety in the water was made worse by not being able to see the bottom of the lake. What had always been an 8.5 on the terror scale was now a 10. But somehow, with some newfound dedication and a desire to prove my tenacity to people I admired so much, I managed to teach my body to relax and to focus on each breath at a time. To redirect my thoughts to breath when I worried about what was underneath me that I could not see, or fixate on how far away the shore seemed. It worked.
Far before the end of that summer, I did manage to cross the lake and back. It was a triumph I still relish to this day. I still catch myself saying, “I used to be afraid of swimming.” And I love using past tense when talking about it.
But in winters past in Minnesota, my primary form of exercise had been snowshoeing, preferably in state parks. People would occasionally recommend swimming instead – “it’s so nice to be warm and in the water…” or “it’s like having summer for a few minutes.” It was a frequent recommendation when I was pregnant in the winter – “you’ll feel weightless, and it’s so nice.” But I never did it. The reality is that that swimming anxiety had been reduced but not eliminated entirely and was newly masked as an “I don’t really get into swimming” excuse, and I branded myself as a terrestrial creature more than a nautical one. I am an earth sign, I figured, finding all sorts of little excuses like that to just say it wasn’t for me, even if I wasn’t scared any more.
This year, though, it’s been too damn cold most of the time to do anything for very long outside. And then once I committed to staying near my house for the year, the state park detail was a problem. I don’t live by a state park. I was getting squirrelly. We have an olympic sized pool in the neighborhood at the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus Gym. For some reason, the convergence of these factors made swimming seem, well, appealing. Actually attractive. Like everyone had been saying.
First, I got a swim suit. This was sweet, because I got it in January and it was WAY on sale!
Then, one day, I just went swimming. It was moderately awkward at first. I was not graceful, and a few times I breathed in a little water and had to pretend like I wasn’t choking. And I quickly realized that I was, in all honesty, still a little nervous of swimming. So you know what I did? I got a membership, goggles, a swim cap, and made myself a promise. I would go swimming at least once a week, hopefully twice, and would kiss myself if I made it any more often than that.
Amazingly, I can truly say that in just a few weeks time, I have really acclimated. I am really, truly, 100% unafraid. I am stronger, of course, and have more endurance, of course, and have found my rhythm, of course. I even found myself swimming faster than the person in the lane next to me once, something that I never imagined I would ever be able to do.
I’m known for doing things 90% and then being satisfied enough to stop. I’m content with a B+ or A- grades. I scale a mountain and almost get to the top and think, “The view’s pretty great from here! I’m tired, let’s just go home and have dinner. It can’t be that much better up there.” A sewing project can sit for weeks with just a few minutes left to go to completion, just because I got bored and moved on. In essence, I’m not an overachiever, and reaching enough is relatively easy for me. Maybe too easy.
So when I realized that 15 years ago I got 90% over my anxiety of swimming, well, it just seemed like now was the time to finish up that job. Push came to shove: how else was I going to exercise regularly for longer than 5 minutes at a time? Conquering this fear, truly and completely, seemed better than letting a bad winter make me a little crazy.
And that’s how it happened.
Now I look at my schedule all the time for chances to go to the pool.