For two years when I was too young to go a full week of summer camp, I went to weekend summer camp. It was somewhere around third grade or so, and I think it was more about getting me used to being away from home than anything else.
I was young enough that I hadn’t really had any experience around a collection of water bigger than a bathtub, so swimming looked like a cool thing to me. I wasn’t foolish enough to just go out and try it, of course – I could tell that it was something you needed to know how to do – but the little waterslide right on the edge of the beach looked fun, so I decided to give that a try. And, hey, it was fun. I went down it again, and it was still fun. The third time, though… not as much fun. After I landed in the water, I turned around to yell to my friend who was in line after me. I was a bit unsteady on my feet and I might have tripped over something, but the next thing I knew, I had fallen backwards into and under the water.
I’m sure everyone’s had that feeling at some point, that panic of not being able to find footing, the feeling of water going up your nose, swallowing water in an attempt to breathe, flailing for any sort of surface to grab to help pull your head above water. Complete helplessness, utter panic, and intense fear.
I don’t know how I got out or how long I was under. It felt like minutes, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. I was crying and afraid and the most amazing thing to me was that no one had noticed. The lifeguards and other campers were all still going on about their lives as though I hadn’t just almost died. I felt… betrayed. Hurt. Alone. I mean, it’s a lifeguard’s JOB to watch out for drowning kids, for crying out loud!
I left the beach and didn’t go back.
A couple of years later, I had moved up to week-long summer camp. Our counselor pushed us all to sign up for the whitewater rafting trip later in the week. He assured me that everyone wore lifejackets, so I would not drown. Somehow in the course of the trip, I fell out of the raft and, even with a lifejacket on, ended up underwater. All the same feelings came back instantly.
There’s no more-enclosed space than being underwater. I don’t know if I was claustrophobic before these experiences, or if these almost-drownings made me claustrophobic, I just know that being underwater and being n an enclosed space (or a large crowds) give me the same feelings.
Six years ago I took some swimming lessons to try to get past fear. I’d been able to dodge swimming activities for a long time, but I decided to try to conquer it and get on with my life. The first half of my daily lessons were an exercise in reliving all those fears over and over. Ultimately the lessons did help, but if you don’t use it, you lose it, and I didn’t get back in a pool until last summer, by which point any confidences I had were gone.
That experience, though, taught me the beauty and peacefulness of floating. I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed it so much that I many times since wished I could find a quiet pool and just float. Not having that opportunity, I think I sorta lost that drive, too. Now when I think about swimming pools, I fondly remember floating, but I also vividly remember what it feels like to start drowning.
Longing for something that scares me is a contradiction I can’t quite wrap my ahead around.