The stories we tell ourselves: overcoming my fear of drowning

Image by Tony Hisgett

“Don’t you smile that smile you’re smiling at me,” said my swimming instructor with a cheeky grin.

I was smiling on the outside, but on the inside, I was crumbling with terror.

I had told myself I couldn’t do it. And made the mistake a few moments earlier by saying the words out aloud.

“Don’t you ever, ever… ever say that you ‘can’t,’ was his response, followed by a lecture that sounded so perfect it could have been rehearsed.

Though I’m sure it wasn’t. He would know. Before my classes, I saw him instructing 4 year olds in the same swimming pool, as they skillfully threaded the water with ease, and no sign of the anxiety that bubbled inside me, like a volcano waiting to erupt.

I had signed up for swimming classes just three weeks before, having never learnt. At one time, I was so afraid of drowning, I’d never get into the beautiful beaches on the little island I grew up. I gradually made my way into the water but only ever waist high. Now, three weeks into my class, the instructor was telling me to do what I had learnt without the float.

‘Oh oh’

On my first class, I had had a massive anxiety attack, which triggered an enormous migrane. It was enough having to walk from the changing rooms to the swimming pool in a swim suit, past the gallery of onlookers (mostly parents keeping an eye on their children learning in the nearby lanes). I felt silly and self-conscious, an adult who didn’t know how to swim, struggling in the water every week, with shame on my sleeves. The self-critical- BPD side of me I didn’t like flaunted herself every Saturday at swim time. But I wasn’t alone. There were four other adults in my class, all men, older than me.

One in particular, I admired – a man who struggled more than me in the water but was always enthusiastic to press ahead. He had the courage that I didn’t own.

“People always forget how they start,” said my instructor. “Remember on your first day I couldn’t even get you to put your face in the water? Look at you now,” he said, before giving me my marching/swimming orders.

With great reluctance, I positioned myself to swim without the float, fearful that I would sink –  I was still struggling with staying horizontal and keeping my body afloat. I pushed my body ahead and kicked vigorously, trying not to think of my instructor’s advice to ‘imagine a shark is right behind you.’ When I stopped, I was surprised and it took a few moments to register. In the meantime, behind me my instructor was calling out.

“You see, and you said you couldn’t do it. I saw your legs, kicking, kicking, and you didn’t sink. You were so fast I need to get brakes for you.”

In the weeks after that I thought I’d regressed – but my manager rightly reminded me of the learning curve – we usually get worse at something before we get better. And I did get better.

Impossible is nothing

I have one more class to go and I’m not where I’d hoped to be but I certainly didn’t imagine I would have gotten here. I’d almost thrown in the towel and week after week I had to persuade myself to go out to swim in the cold weather (thinking of the money I’d spend was the motivator in the end). But I’m glad I did. I can now swim without the float, and every week I swim a little bit farther than the week before. My anxiety has gotten a bit better too.

I hope that in time, I will learn to master the fear that had once mastered me, so that I can swim regularly to improve the fibromyalgia and keep fit.

I wanted to share this with you because I realised, quite late, that it was a story I had told myself. I had told myself that I couldn’t do it. I was convinced too. But it was only a story, nothing more. I was exhausted yes, and in pain, yes, and that made it hard. I had great anxiety. And perhaps to top it all off, I was afraid (though logically I knew I wouldn’t drown). But each week I went (when I didn’t want to) I unravelled a bit of that false story, until the whole thing came apart.

Whatever it is that you want to do, don’t let the stories you tell yourself hold you back. Fear can be a big demotivator, but it can also be a catalyst. I was equally afraid that this fear would continue to rule me, giving more power to my anxiety. It’s time we start telling ourselves the truth. That ‘we can.’ Even when our bodies and minds don’t seem able, we can. If we tell ourselves long enough, and try hard enough, we can start believing the truth too, as it unfolds. That we are the authors of our own narratives. Impossible is nothing.

4 Replies to “The stories we tell ourselves: overcoming my fear of drowning”

  1. I love this post! Good for you for pushing through and learning to swim in spite of the anxiety and fear! I’ve been struggling with more anxiety lately, even about small things, and just have to tell myself that there’s nothing to fear, I can do this, everything will be okay.

    1. Thanks so much Deb! I’m so sorry to hear– cuz I know what you mean – my anxiety has been very bad lately too. Logic doesn’t necessarily help our anxiety but just keep plodding on, everything will be ok. Big hugs xx

  2. I am trying now to learn how to swim as an adult. I almost drowned because my sisters thought I was waving at them-until another woman dove in to get me! On top of that my older sister’s boyfriend threw water in the faces of myself and my third sister at the beach. Add in an LD and Aspergers also. My other ‘project’ is learning to bike ride as a 53 year old.

    1. Wow Alyson! that’s amazing! Feel proud! I have to do more swimming classes and I know how scary it can be. I can only imagine how much more it is for you having almost drowned on top of your other challenges. I a proud of you! I also dont know how to bike but I’d like to! keep me posted on your progress and celebrate every victory 🙂

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