June 17, 2012

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The Day I Almost Died (Part 1)

It’s hard to remember what you were like when you were a little kid. You can recall odd moments or snapshots in time, but not much, really. I believe I was a perceptive, sensitive and sometimes fearful little kid. I think I was always afraid of water. Perhaps that is why, at five years old, I hadn’t yet learned to swim. It didn’t stop me from getting into the shallow end of the pool, however. What else are you going to do at a pool party as a kid? Water feels good on a hot day. This was a day that I would remember. And it was not a good memory.

I remember being happy right before it happened. Walking in the shallow end. Moving along the edge of the pool, one hand always clinging to my safety net—the pool’s edge. God only knows why I felt the need to go towards the middle. Then I took the next step. No footing. I fell. I frantically tried to grab onto something—anything. But there was nothing. I gulped in massive amounts of water. Instantly, panic set in. Which meant gulping in more water. I tried to scream. It didn’t help. No one could hear me. I could see the sky above me, warped by the moving water and completely out of reach. I was completely terrified. I was completely helpless.

I don’t remember anything after that. Apparently my cousin saw me lying at the bottom of the pool. Who knows how long I was down there. He dove in and pulled me out. I wasn’t breathing. My mom, thankfully knew and administered cpr. She must have revived me before the paramedics got there. That can be the only explanation for my living through that day. Not only did she bring me into this world, she saved me while I was in it. I owe my mom in ways I can never repay. I have a few memories of the hospital, including one particularly funny moment(in retrospect) of needing four nurses to hold me down in order to administer a shot. I was a feisty little fuck sometimes.

In the years after, I was always afraid of deep water. I’d avoid the pool. I’d avoid any situation that involved being in a boat. I tried to take some lessons. Friends and family would offer to teach me, thinking it was just something I could learn through them. I hated them for that. Partly, because of the shame I felt for my inability to do something that everyone seemed to do so easily, but also for their ignorance of that shame and their ignorance of the root cause of my inability to swim: fear. I didn’t not know how to swim for a lack of understanding of swimming, but of the massive irrational, crippling fear of drowning. Showing that fear in front of others was doubly shameful.

Fast forward 20 years. I’m working out at the YMCA. I didn’t need to choose that gym. But, it had a pool. I never went near it, mind you, but I put myself in its proximity. A funny thing then happened. I met a girl. A beautiful woman, with a nurturing spirit, who offered to help me overcome my fear. She had been trained in teaching adults to swim—adults who have built up a mental barrier for years. I accepted. I was still terrified. It probably helped that she looked fantastic in a swimsuit.

The very first day we did a one-on-one session, she didn’t try to teach me technique. She didn’t ask me to do a lap in the shallow end. She didn’t do any of that. We played games. We practiced holding our breath. We went into the deep end, pushed out all our breath, sank to the bottom and back up to the top. We did that over and over and over. We spent our time working on the fear, before we ever got to the actual swimming. I came back to that pool for years, gradually working on my fear. I’d sit in the locker room, feeling dread before I’d walk out to the pool. It took months to work through it.

I remember the point where I knew things would work out. One night, after a particularly draining session, I had an incredibly vivid dream. In the dream I looked down at my leg and saw a massive scab—diseased flesh covered my entire leg, ankle to thigh. It was enormous. As I pulled the dead skin off of my leg, I didn’t feel pain so much as discomfort. It didn’t come off easily. It took nearly all of my strength to rip it clear. When I finished, I saw an emaciated leg underneath, pink, raw and underdeveloped, but otherwise healthy.

As I looked at the scab I pulled off, I realized that it was twice as big as my actual leg! The metaphor was so strong and obvious that I was actually aware of it inside the dream. The disease of my fear was greater than my reality. And not only was my fear for this obstacle overblown, I was using this fear as a crutch for all my fears. It was my grand excuse. Now that I had conquered it, there was nothing I couldn’t conquer. I was reborn that day.

On my 30th birthday, I came full circle. I completed a half mile swim in Town Lake, followed by a bike and run portion of the Capital of Texas Triathalon. Fear still reared it’s ugly head as I had a panic attack in the middle of the swim. I briefly considered quitting and swimming to shore. Instead, I brushed it off and did the whole thing breaststroke. It took twice as long and I made it twice as hard on myself, but even my lizard brain realized that I can’t go backwards anymore. I finished the race. More races to come.

Like I said, I’m a feisty little fuck sometimes.

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Drowning is preventable, with the right training and awareness. You can learn more about water safety preparedness at colinshope.org.

Adult swim classes at the YMCA can be found here.

Part 2 next week. (Yep, I’ve given a second middle finger to the grim reaper.)

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  • http://www.CosmicCandidCamera.com john langford

    wow matt! this is one of your best pieces so far! such a vivid description of the terrifying incident from your childhood and the amazing metaphor of the dream. my big fear…to this day…is dancing in public. ridiculous i know, since there’s no actual danger, except the possibility of drowning in my own embarrassment. but the fear is there just the same. thanks for another inspiring and beautifully written post.

    • http://www.fangmandesign.com mattfangman

      Thanks, John. I empathize with your fear of dancing. I’m not particularly good at it. Except the Lawn Mower. I can do that move.

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