I’m not sure exactly how old I was when this memory was imprinted on my brain. I know I was young – maybe three or four years old. I was wading knee-deep in the water, parallel to the beach where people were sunbathing on blankets. My two older brothers were walking with me. A rope cut across my path just under the surface. It came from somewhere on the shore, reaching out into the water, a buoy every few feet marking the safe swimming area. Distracted by children playing in the surf nearby, I didn’t notice the rope. Next thing I knew, I was face down under water.
I remember the sounds of the children and the waves, all muffled and bubbly. I remember the water burning the inside of my nose and the taste of salt in my mouth.
I remember the fear.
I was probably only under the water for a few seconds before my brothers helped me up, but to me it seemed a lot longer.
I have always been wary of water. My sense of curiosity and enjoyment has always been tempered with the awareness of danger. My mom, perhaps recognizing in me her own fear of water, enrolled me in swim lessons at the local indoor pool.
The beginner lessons weren’t so bad – they were actually kind of fun. We kicked and splashed while holding onto the side of the pool. We held our noses and dunked our heads. We practiced paddling and breathing techniques. By the end of that first session I was feeling more confident in the water.
The beginner lessons had taken place in the shallow end of the pool where my feet always touched the bottom. With that sense of security, water didn’t seem all that scary. But the intermediate lessons, those were another story.
Intermediate lessons started out OK. In the shallow end, we learned the basics of treading water: Move your arms in slow circles. Gently frog kick your legs. These motions and the buoyancy of your body help keep you afloat.
When the instructor felt we were ready, she asked us to head for the deep end of the pool. Some kids got out of the pool and walked around to the deep end, jumping in without fear. The rest of us moved more cautiously into deeper waters, holding the side of the pool with one hand.
At first I bounced my way from 3 feet to 4 feet. I loved that slow-motion sensation, like I was an astronaut on the surface of the moon. As I moved down the slope of the pool into deeper water, however, my confidence began to wane. Soon, only the very tips of my toes could touch the bottom. I was clutching the side of the pool, my head tilted all the way back so just my face was above the surface. Sputtering and kicking franticly, I began to panic.
“Jenny! Move your arms in slow circles! Kick like a frog!” the instructor called. “Just relax and your body will float!”
Nope. Nope. Nope.
I turned and headed back to the shallow end, flat out refusing to go to the deep end of the pool. My instructor wasn’t taking no for an answer, though. She scooped me up and bobbed down the ramp to a spot where the water was over my head. My body was shaking, my arms wrapped tightly around her neck. It felt awkward to be so fiercely attached to this person who was not my mom or dad, but terror over-road my embarrassment.
All the other kids were already in the deep end, treading water. Some were close to the edge, while others had moved away from the side and seemed to be having fun. FUN! Even when water splashed in their faces, they didn’t freak out or get upset!
Eventually I summoned the courage to let go of my instructor. The bottom pulled for me, and I flutter-kicked to stay afloat, my hands grabbing at the water on the surface as if looking for something to hold onto. Chlorinated water splashed in my face and down my throat, causing me to gag and cough.
I can’t breathe! I’m going to drown!
“Slow down! Relax! Let your body float!” the instructor pulled me by my arms, guiding me to the side of the pool where I gasped, trying to catch my breath, my heart pounding in my chest. I was exhausted.
It took some practice, but I did learn to tread water without panicking. But even to this day I avoid treading water in deep ponds, lakes, and oceans. The water is cold and dark and creepy. Oh, that monstrous cold, that gaping maw of darkness! My mind can’t help but imagine all the terrible, toothy creatures that are very likely swimming around in the pitch black just below my frog-kicking legs.
Anxiety is not a new thing brought on by events here in my alternate universe. At every stage of my life it has manifested itself in one form or another. From obsessive hand washing when I was young, to rituals and counting as a teen, to compulsive checking and constant worry as an adult. I even went through a spell of not wanting to leave my house for fear of throwing up in public. I’ve worked through these episodes – sometimes on my own with physical exercise and meditative activities, sometimes with therapy, and sometimes with medication.
It is a part of my nature brought with me from my old universe. The difference is that here I have been stripped of my defenses. What’s more, I’ve learned that the control I once thought I had was an illusion. Without it, I feel powerless against my anxiety, with no protection, no means of escape, no relief.
And let me tell you, when you’re treading water in the expansive, sometimes tumultuous ocean of life, it’s not so easy to just relax and float.
There are times in my life when I watch everyone treading water around me with wonder…and maybe a little envy. Most of them look pretty relaxed. Some are even having fun. Their bodies rise and fall gracefully with the waves. If water splashes into their faces, it just rolls off or they wipe it away – no big deal. They seem blissfully unaware of the dangers that might be swimming below. I guess they figure there’s nothing they can really do about something they can’t see which may or may not even be there in the first place. Or maybe it just never occurs to them to consider it in the first place.
They relax and float and ride the waves.
Not me. I feel small and vulnerable and overwhelmed. I’m buffeted by waves and pulled by currents. When water splashes in my face, I sputter and cough, consumed with panic, afraid I might not catch my breath. I have no trust in my body’s own buoyancy, no faith that I can stay afloat without great effort as the gravity of the darkness draws me downward.
So I stay constantly aware and on guard, always prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. My vigilance is the last shred of control I possess. I think it keeps me safe, so I decide to be vigilant for everyone else as well.
I make circles with my arms and kick gently, but I cannot relax. I worry for myself. I worry for others.
In this universe, the waves keep coming. There’s barely time to recover from one when another hits. Recently, a particularly threatening wave crashed over me when my son began having anxiety and behavior issues of his own. My stress took on a new and sinister form. Like some strange empathic connection with my son, I began having my own self-injurious thoughts. These are not the same as suicidal thoughts, mind you. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live without the stress, the rage, the sadness, and the pain that consumed me.
I suddenly understood why my son felt the need to pull his hair, hit himself, and bang his head on the floor. He didn’t WANT to hurt himself – he wanted to rid himself of his overwhelming feelings. Like a discharge of lightening, that dangerous energy had to be released somehow.
Admitting you’ve reached that point when you can no longer stay afloat on your own is incredibly difficult. But there is something to be said about the courage it takes to live each day with an anxiety disorder. Or depression. Or autism.
So I mustered up some of that courage and asked for help.
Because you know what? I’d love to be able to relax, to rise and fall with the waves. I want to shrug and let it roll off when I’m splashed with water. I want to have fun!
I have buoyancy. It has been here all along. I just need to trust in it again and allow myself to float.
Buoyancy: n ability to float or rise; cheerfulness; resilience
Resources: Webster’s Universal Dictionary and Thesaurus, Tormont Publications Inc., Canada, 1993.
15 thoughts on “Buoyancy – Treading Water in the Dark and Monstrous Deep”
Whenever I read one of your blog posts, I wish we were together to discuss all of my thoughts and feelings!
When I was little, my mom made me & my older brother take swimming lessons at the beach one summer. There was a checklist of skills-at the end of the summer, my brother had nearly every skill checked off in his little booklet. (I can still see it.) I had zero-ZERO skills checked off, and a lone comment on the back of the booklet, “Has just started to put her face in the water.”
You know I totally relate to staying “on guard.” To protect ourselves! It’s working out so well for us! 😦
You describe anxiety so well!
What else? I’m glad you asked for the medication-that’s what it’s for and I want you to be super-buoyant! 🙂
Good word, by the way.
Thanks Angarchy!!! Isn’t that a great word, Buoyancy? When I looked up the definition in the dictionary (because I’m very much a nerd and wanted to be sure I was using it properly), I couldn’t believe how well it fit the story. I’m hoping to be super-buoyant as well. I wish the same for you!! 🙂 Some day I hope we’ll both be swimming, having a wonderful time, completely NOT thinking about the horrible things lurking out there. Oh! And all your skills will be checked off in your swim booklet, too. 😉
Wow Jen. I was so with you on the swimming – the fear has aleays been greater than the fun factor, and an early episode with an impatient teacher didn’t make it any easier.
I commend you for seeking help and medication. Anxiety and depression rob us of so much ‘living’. I keep reminding myself there are continuosly new meds and if one doesn’t work, be willing to try another. Easier said than done when you are feeling so lousy and out of control, but do take care as best you can.
I read something I’m trying. Statistically nothing horrible or catastrophic will happen to us in the next hour. If we can train our mind to focus on asking about our next hour – and usually it’s non-threatening – then we get through that hour without trauma and move on to the next hour. If practiced over time, you can help re-train your brain to not look so far into the future what-if’s and uncontrollables.
What a great idea, Sammy! Given that I’m someone prone to being overwhelmed, focusing on one hour at a time sounds totally do-able. Certainly worth a shot to retrain an anxious brain! In the meantime, meds are the right way to go and, like you said, I’ll just keep trying different ones until I find the right one.
I wanted to tell you, Sammy – I thought of you the moment I looked up the word “buoyancy”. Remember when you picked your “word of the year” and it seemed like you kept bumping into it everywhere, like the universe was telling you something? I had that moment when I read the definition of “buoyancy” – so cool!! I guess I found my word, lol!
That is an awesome word to have for your very own!! Not just staying afloat but doing it with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi! I love thinking about you bobbing along up above the fray 💖💥
I just wrote you a really long post in response to your post, and I think it totally got deleted. So I’m sending you an email instead and just wanted tell you that I think you are so courageous and I totally support you 100%. Medication is there to help people when they need it and I think you are taking good care of yourself. Anxiety is so debilitating but know that you are not alone and you are very much supported and cared for! Thank you for sharing your incredibly inspiring and insightful post!
Sent from my iPhone
Thank you so much for your support and encouragement, Cindy!! 🙂 I’m hoping medication will help get me to a happier place where I can take better care of myself and family. Of course, writing has also been a wonderful form of therapy for me as well – I feel more buoyant just writing and sharing this post. I’m glad your email made it through and didn’t get deleted! It’s always awesome to hear from you!!
This is such a powerful piece – thanks to Sammy for linking me here! And kudos to you for going out and searching and finding what you need to allow you to not merely exist but move forward.
Thank you so much, Dale!! Nice to meet you! I’m so glad Sammy sent you my way. I enjoyed checking out your blog, and I’m looking forward to reading more! 🙂
Thank YOU Jen! Glad you’re enjoying! I’ll be reading more of yours shortly!
I loved your post, Jen. It was another example of not only your fine writing skills and your ability to story tell, but also a lovely illustration of how you’re able to weave your thoughts and experiences through multiple metaphors and tie them up with a bow at the end.
It’s funny how everyone has their kryptonite, but most of us don’t realize it takes different forms. It often feels like what pulls us under should pull everyone under and that when we look around, no one else is floundering but us and us alone. It’s really not that way.
You have some marvelous strengths, Jen. You are an amazing and talented woman and mom. I’m so rooting for you. Keep the stories coming.
Thank you, Shelley!! I always appreciate and look forward to your visits to my blog!! 🙂
You are so right about everyone having their own kryptonite – the issues and baggage that drags you down – even if it’s not anxiety. This became obvious to me when my son was first diagnosed and we were in the thick of it. I felt alone and abandoned, until I realized (with some shame) that 2 of my friends were getting divorces…and I didn’t even know!! I understood right away that they hadn’t forgotten me at all, they were just dealing with their own troubles. It was a good lesson to learn, and it really helped put my feelings into perspective. It’s easy to assume others have it easy, but it’s often not the case at all.
Hope the beautiful weather has found you in the mountains and you’re drinking in the long-awaited sunshine!!
I have buoyancy. It has been here all along. I just need to trust in it again and allow myself to float: Such courage in those words. You are an inspiration.
Thank you so much, Damyanti! Nice to meet you! I’ve checked out your blog – what a cool idea, to post something meaningful every day. I’m looking forward to reading more of your writing! 🙂
I write something everyday, but post once or twice a week now– I find that too much time spent online takes away from my writing. 🙂 Thankyou for checking out my blog.