I arrived at Lesson Two, eager to learn. I was checking in with Beth beside the pool when a man arrived with his toddler for the child’s lesson. There had been a scheduling mix-up, so I quickly said, “Please take him.” I was delighted for the chance to practice in the pool. At first I felt silly floating and blowing bubbles but then I just let myself enjoy feeling silly and playing.
My fun was interrupted by the terrified screams of the toddler at other end of the pool. My teacher and mom antennae went up, but I could see he wasn’t even in the water. He refused to get in, not with Beth or his dad. Beth was gently assuring. I wondered why he was so afraid. Beth took them to the outside pool and I resumed my floating and bubbles.
I thought about how some kids are more sensitive than others. This can be a good thing, as well as a challenge (I count myself among the “too sensitive”). Things that happen to siblings might deeply affect one and the others don’t even remember it. When I was four, my three-year-old brother and I were playing on our farm. He decided to walk along the top of the cow tank and slid down the metal roof into the water. He was thrashing in the deep tank while I shouted desperately, “Swim over here, swim over here!” Then he floated lifelessly in the cow-tank – suddenly my mother and sister were there, screaming at me about drowning my brother as they pulled him out, blue and limp. They hit his back repeatedly to force the water out of him and maybe breathed into his nose (though I don’t remember this). My brother survived. As an adult he swims with ease, loves water, and runs his own fishing guide company. Yet I am afraid of deep water and never learned to swim.
Is that tension Beth sees in my shoulders, my neck, my head all the history, fear, and sadness trapped in my body? While practicing, I let the water cradle me.
When I returned for my lesson the next day I felt more comfortable in the pool from all the time I spent in the water between lessons. Beth pointed out again how tightly I hold myself – is this how I protect myself from the fear, from memories? Relaxing because someone says “relax” is not easy, but Beth finds ways to help me. I build on that. I clench and let go, practice relaxing. It makes a huge difference. When I used to run hill repeats I would mentally chant, “hills are my friends.” Now I internally chant, “the water is my friend, it will hold me.”
We talked about the child from yesterday. Beth wanted to be sure that I wasn’t upset. She said that he’d had a trauma, not involving water, and now every new situation triggered terror. This might be true for many non-swimmers. The other night I was watching the TV show, “Treme,” set in post-Katrina New Orleans. In it a thunderstorm booms loudly during an elementary school band class. The kids freeze with fear. The teacher says, “It’s just a storm. It’s not a hurricane. It’s not Katrina.”
I want to remember this in my body: this is now, not then when that scary thing happened. It’s just a rainstorm, not a hurricane.
Dear Shoney: Trauma works in mysterious ways – a person may scream, cry, faint, lock up physically, or freeze mentally. What you experienced is not uncommon and is frequently overlooked and misinterpreted by instructors. If the instructor wants to free the student from a fear of water, his or her role is to listen closely and watch carefully for the clues coming from the student’s body. The way through lies within them. ~Beth