I was drowning.
I was just chest high in the water when my feet slipped off the rock and sent me sinking down into the deep end of a swimming hole. I don’t know if I was 7 or 8. Nor do I recall which state park this body of water was located. What I do remember is the abject sense of terror I felt that was only assuaged when my older brother quickly swam to my aid and lifted me out of the water.
Until last week, that was the last time I was ever in the deep end of any body of water. The last time my feet could not touch the bottom of the many pools, lakes, or oceans that I’ve been in since.
In the decades that followed, childhood games of Marco Polo were reasons for dread. Trips to the shore in high school cause for embarrassment. As a young adult, I had taught myself to swim with the occasional assistance of an understanding friend. I could swim from point A to point B fairly well. But I could not stop and tread water in between. And as such I never dared to swim in the deep end.
When I had children, we made sure they knew how to swim and I was more than game to go in the pool or ocean and swim and play with them. After all, for many years, I could stand where they could not. Eventually though, they outgrew my own limitations and now two of them could go where I could not.
The fear and embarrassment of being unable to go into the deep end as an adult, has now become a legitimate safety concern. If my child was in danger in the water, I would no doubt try to save her, but chances are one or both of us could drown.
So with great humility, I called upon my brother-in-law for assistance. Over the course of a few lessons in his pool last week, I took the leap and returned to the deep end. To have nothing but water beneath my feet temporarily brought back those childhood memories of terror. They eventually abated knowing that my instructor was a triathlete and he would not let me drown. I was tense and horribly inefficient but I after a short while I was staying afloat on my own – becoming more comfortable although not yet fully confident in my ability to tread.
There is still more I need to do, more time in the deep end, to feel safe on my own and to provide a safety net for my children. But last week was an important first step and a big leap for me personally.
While this story is true and it is literally about the deep end of a pool. It is also an apt metaphor for so many other things in my life – and perhaps yours.
An early bad experience lays a foundation of fear. Embarrassment or shame accumulate over time. For a while, you may be able to fake competence or create some superficial accommodation that masks the fact that you’re out of your depth. But eventually, while you may be fooling others, you can’t fool yourself.
This leaves you with two choices. Stay shallow (avoid your vulnerabilities and feign strength) or go into the deep end (face your vulnerabilities and ask for help).
In the short term, the first may seem like the safe choice, but as my experience has shown me – in the long run, it’s actually the more dangerous one.