Since I was young I was always sensitive to any kind of sensory input. My relationship with water has always been difficult — until I started lessons. I was unable to get my face wet in the shower. I could not blow bubbles or submerge my head. The sound in my ears was like gunshots. The sensation of water on my face was like getting slapped. I have similar issues with light and sound. The effect on me is that I get very confused, dizzy, disoriented. I see stars and start to pass out.
In my early thirties I traveled to Japan by myself. I took a boat cruise up a river through a canyon. The boat was right down on the water, so I could look over the water and the more I looked at it, I really didn’t want to be on the boat — I wanted to be in the water! I felt inspired on that trip. When you are traveling it kind of shakes things up, you think about things you might not think about at home. In Japan, I felt I needed to do something, it had been too long, and I wanted to learn how to swim. It was a culmination of attraction to water and good timing.
As soon I got back to Colorado, I looked online for swim instructors. I knew that I needed a lot of extra personal attention from someone who had some background in working with adults who had some trauma in the water. I didn’t know exactly what I needed but when I ran across Beth’s website I thought this sounds like the person for me. I was very relieved when she agreed to take me on and it turned out to be the best decision I’ve made in probably my whole life.
During my first lesson with Beth, she just had me stand in the shallow end and walk towards the deep end. The deep end was probably only five feet. I was like, “Oh, great, I can do this.” I felt relieved that Beth was starting slow with something I could definitely do.
Well, I was wrong – I got halfway across the pool. Beth said I turned as white as a ghost. A vein started throbbing on my neck. I had this look of sheer terror and had broken out in a sweat. By the time I got to the deep end she said I was shaking. I don’t remember any of that. My sensation was like I was starting to pass out. I saw stars. Everything faded. I had tunnel vision. Everything went further away from me and I started to daydream. Beth had me get out of the water. We backtracked from there.
Later that night, I reflected on and wrote about my experience as I had walked the length of the pool. The longer I walked, the more distracted I became. I was trying to concentrate on and enjoy the feeling of water swirling around my limbs as I moved, but my breath was becoming shallow. So I tried to deepen it, but it wasn’t smooth, it was like partway towards gasping. That made me a little bit frustrated, because I didn’t want to have to think about that. Also, I couldn’t stop reaching out with my hand to touch the side of the pool. I needed some comfort, even though I was being careful enough without tipping over. My eyes were darting around a bit, too, even though I didn’t want them to do that. What the hell? I am trying to enjoy myself here and this stuff is getting in the way. Beth had told me I was having a trauma response.
She sent me home with an assignment to blow bubbles in a bowl of water and to practice standing in shallow water. She also gave me the task of wearing my goggles in the shower, of putting my face under the water, calming myself as the water hit my face and remembering to exhale and not hold my breath (which I usually did). I was able to push myself to get my face wet, but blowing bubbles in the water was very uncomfortable for me. Surprisingly, the most uncomfortable thing was the standing with blowing bubbles. Because standing was so difficult, she had me stand in a different way than I was used to with my knees slightly bent: a power stance while regulating my breathing. It seemed like something anyone could do — but I was overcome with panic.
At first, I didn’t know if learning to swim was going to work out, but the more I got a sense of Beth’s teaching style that doubt evaporated. Her style is if she sees that an exercise is not working, she changes it and breaks it down into even smaller parts. She thinks about what would it take — mentally or physically — to get someone to a point where they are comfortable with the next step. Sometimes it’s like fooling your body into doing what she is trying to achieve with you. She never made me do that first drill again, walking from one end of the pool to the other. We approached it from a different angle entirely.
When I was eleven my mom enrolled me in a day camp. There was a swim outing. I fell into the pool. I remember being under the water and then I remember being out of the pool on my back with people all around me. I believe I passed out in the water. I asked my mom about this a couple of weeks ago and she said she was told that there had been an accident and that I was fine and to come get me. I already was uncomfortable around water, having not learned to swim, but that sealed the deal — I was not going to be swimming.
As an adult, I actually learned to be in the water very quickly. Even though I was encountering difficulties, I really wanted to learn to swim. I told myself, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Beth’s not going to let anything bad happen.” At some point I would breathe the wrong way and take in some water and that would stymie me for five minutes, but Beth said, “When that happens you may need to stand up and reset.” I felt like no one is going to force me to stay in the water — just having that patience and empathy made me feel more comfortable. She didn’t have that “tough love” approach. She tries very hard to be aware of what might be upsetting or disruptive to your learning. Her intention is not to trigger any kind of response.
In the process of learning how to swim, you will have stuff come up, issues that you didn’t know you had. There were other examples, mostly related to how I can get easily overwhelmed by the sensations of swimming – water splashing around my face, the feeling of buoyancy, the way my body moves around. Not every adult she teaches is the same, we all have our own issues.
After I got more comfortable in the water Beth started having me do breaststroke – I’m really glad she did. It is my comfort stroke, the easiest thing for me to do. I always go back to it. I start with it and I end with it. For whatever reason it is easier than freestyle or backstroke. Once I knew how to do breaststroke. I would go to the pool, between my weekly lessons and just see how long I could go. It was pretty long, like 40 minutes. I found that counting helps; how many strokes, how many times did I put my face into the water, pull my face out of the water on each length? Did I do it the same each time? Just counting those. How many laps?
The increased activity helped my fitness. I’m still sensitive to the temperature of the water. In the warmer months the recreation centers turned the water temp way down — or at least it felt that way to me. It was probably only a degree or two, but that was enough to throw me. The water temp is part of feeling comfortable. For a long time I was using a Neoprene vest that I got at a dive shop – and a neoprene beanie. Eventually I lost the vest but I kept using the beanie. That was all I needed. If you keep your head warm you don’t need to keep your body quite as warm. I realized that if you are not comfortable there is something you can do about it — that had a profound impact on my life. I learned also that you may have to ask for help. It would not have occurred to me to go to a dive shop. It didn’t occur to me you could use something made of neoprene – it didn’t occur to me I could have a vest. Beth told me about that. Asking for help and realizing there are ways — no matter what your challenges are – there’s a way to do it. Beth is the number one resource in that regard.
Swimming forced me to become more aware of my body, and my mind’s relationship to my body. What is my hand doing? What position is it in? What do I feel? What verification do I have that my hand is in that position without looking at it? Same thing with my arms, my legs, my feet? Where is the water on the back of my head? I go through these mental processes that are very different from my normal mode in my life as a computer guy. I found early on that after I got out of the water I couldn’t sit in front of the computer for very long – 20 minutes tops. I could no longer dive into what I call Analysis Mode — doing the kind of mental juggling, problem solving, organizing that I was used to doing. I could not work after I swam. I found I liked this other mode of thinking and interacting with the world when my head is no longer down studying something. Now my head is up and I’m looking out into the world. Now I incorporate more things in my life that don’t involve being in that analysis mode, relaxing and enjoying the world that doesn’t involve being up in my head constantly. To use the cliché — I’m stopping to smell the roses. In fact, I even changed careers in order to accommodate my new state of mind.
Now at age 41, I’ve got hours and hours of swimming under my belt and can do freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke. Maybe someday I will learn how to do a flip. After having swim lessons with Beth, my girlfriend and I went San Diego to see her family. We went to the beach – I was like, “I’m going out in that water!” It’s not quite as easy to swim in ocean water as it is in a nice calm pool but the extra buoyancy provided by the salt water is interesting. I just played. There was no anxiety over the deepness of the water. I didn’t want to go too far out – I was glad there were lifeguards nearby and my girlfriend knew where I was, I needed that reassurance – but I wasn’t afraid that I was going to drown. I knew that I could stay afloat. I felt good enough that I could play, splash around. I swam and enjoyed the view.
Dear Mike: You are someone who showed me just how little I know about trauma. Fortunately, I knew enough to get you on the right track. During the time we’ve been working together, I’ve learned a great deal more about sensory sensitivity and mind/body disconnect. Your progress is astounding! ~ Beth