Soundtrack in my head: Ursula 1000, “The Shake”
When I was between the ages of five and ten, I had a fear of swimming in deep water. I don’t know exactly what caused it. I do remember testing the adult swimming pool after years in the “kiddie pool,” jumping in and being shocked to discover that the water went up to my chin, and that kind of freaked me out.
My parents enrolled me in swimming lessons. There were four or five different classes for different levels of skill, and I ended up having to repeat a couple of the levels. I remember at the end of one class, we were told to hold onto a rim at the edge of the swimming pool and move, hand over hand into the deeper parts of the pool. We went all the way to where the diving boards were, and I was absolutely shocked to discover that we were now in twelve feet of water. To me, twelve feet might as well have been a hundred feet deep, with unknown forces ready to pull me to the bottom. While other kids gleefully jumped off the diving board, I got out of the pool as quickly as I could, feeling anger and dismay that the parks and recreation people would subject us kids to such mortal danger.
Over the next few years, I responded to this fear of deep water in an interesting way: I decided to make paper swimming pools. It was a form of play for me—I was able to act out jumping off a diving board in the same way that the toy castle my parents got me allowed me to act out scenes from medieval times.
I took several sheets of typing paper and laid them out on the floor like tile so that I would have a large area covering much of the floor of my bedroom. Then I would draw lines marking the edge of the swimming pool. I would carefully mark the depths of water on the side of the pool just as they did at the public pool—3 feet, 3 feet 9 inches, 4 feet 6 inches, etc. Then we’d get to the treacherous depths of nine feet, twelve feet, or sixteen feet, and I’d draw a diving board, and perhaps even a high dive. Then I’d borrow the little Playskool people from my sister’s Playskool house and have them toddle away in this pool. Step by step, I’d get them to make their way into deeper and deeper water until finally I had the Playskool people jumping off the diving boards.
My mother would tell me years later that she found this exercise fascinating. At the time, she was starting to go back to school to get her master’s degree in social work. To me, this was only play, and I didn’t think or rationalize beyond that, but she realized that through my play I was figuring a way to deal this fear.
During the summer I turned ten years old, I finally decided to take the plunge. One day, I walked to the edge of the diving board sticking out over sixteen feet deep water. And then I stepped off to the side. The guard blew his whistle because he didn’t want me to jump to the side of the pool, but it did not in any way sully my triumph. I jumped off the diving board again and again, letting myself bounce higher and higher, do cannonballs, and yes, even dive into the depths of the pool. A couple weeks later I got the courage to go off the high dives, and by summer’s end, I’d even mustered up the courage to jump off the five- and ten-meter platforms. A fascinating example of a child unknowingly creating his own therapy through play, indeed!
I guess I thought that I would stop having fears once I grew up…