Life with Phobia: Into the Water
“As soon as you were able to, we got you swim lessons because of how badly you wanted to be in water"
“We could never get you out of the pool”
I grew up with a pool in the backyard. A privileged life for a middle class Southern California suburban kid. I’m so grateful for that pool and my imagination taking me down river bends and into oceanic caverns. Being in water is my natural habitat, or so I’d love to believe. Ichthyophobia makes this almost impossible. Lakes, rivers, ponds, ocean all places I yearn to discover but in my ignorant attempts at pushing back terror, I would often find myself trapped.
I remember once, my dad’s work had a company party and we went somewhere in Malibu. All the kids were playing in the water, some even swam out to this dock and were jumping off. I don’t know what my thought process was but I wanted to be on the dock, I suppose, otherwise why would I have gone out there? I don’t remember leaving the shore, I just remember being on the dock and then being stuck on the dock. At Malibu beaches (specifically Point Dume/‘free zuma’), I never once recall seeing a fish in the water. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, I just don’t recall. So maybe I felt safe swimming out to this dock only to look down into the water and seeing fish all around. I remember they were white or pale colored fish. I feel like maybe my sister sensed my panic and swam back to shore to tell mom and dad I was trapped. There was no rescue boat, I’d have to rescue myself by swimming back to shore. I think in those moments I let terror become a suit of armor: I jumped in and frantically swam back. This might also be called flight and/or dissociation.
I have so many stories like this—I thought I was ‘safe’ from fish, took a risk by entering the water and then found out quickly how many fish there were. I think part of me wants to believe I can do it, that I can enjoy swimming in water other than a chlorinated pool and not be caught up in hypervigilance / panic / terror.
I have always wanted to be in the water. Maybe I’ve always wanted to be water.
My parents are white people who love Hawai’i. Even after my phobia developed they still insisted on this as a family vacation spot. Maybe I never resisted because I wanted the water or maybe I never resisted because I wanted them to see how much pain I was in without me having to say or maybe I did resist, I don’t remember. I think about this attitude of ‘if I don’t see it, it can’t hurt me’ and running into water on the shores of Kaua’i. Having fun with my sister and dad in the water until I saw a fish, harmless, just swimming in its home. I remember once screaming under the water and getting out as fast as possible.
Sometimes I push myself, how far can I go with fish before it becomes unbearable. Now I only do that when I’m in an incredibly safe environment, totally consenting to triggering myself to do some deeper work.
Today I swam laps at Reservoir Leisure Centre and as soon as I got into the water I felt into my 7, 8, 9 year old selves. I used to be on Daland Swim Team in Thousand Oaks and would be the fat child competing in breast stroke and coming in second place. I love to swim laps, it felt so fucking good. When I finished, I came up from the water and said ‘that was fucking amazing.’
I can’t wait to be able to swim in the ocean, actually swim without it being me testing my limits or being hyper vigilant. It’s not rivers or lakes that I’m excited about, it’s the ocean. Clear, crystal blue ocean rocking me back and forth.