When I was 18 months old, I caught polio. I wasn’t alone. It was the worst outbreak ever experienced in the United States, with some 60,000 victims, coincidentally in the same year that Jonas Salk first tested his vaccine against the disease. It was always assumed that I caught it at a public swimming pool, but that’s not why I developed a lifelong fear of water; or, to be more precise, moving water.
Before I went into the hospital, apparently I loved my baths; and when I came out, I hated them. I had been put into whirlpools, which was the treatment at the time, believing the water jets would stimulate my muscles and nerves. The jets may have done that, but I was an infant, in a scary strange place, with two paralyzed legs (from which I thankfully fully recovered). Obviously I was terrified, and in some primal place in my brain, that terror became linked to whirling water. Or at least, that was my mother’s best pop psychology for explaining the source of my outsized fear, and it seems logical to me.
I stress ‘moving’ water because I have never been afraid of swimming pools, though my first swimming lesson certainly had the potential to ruin them for me as well. When I was five years old, my family moved to the desert, and my parents heeded the advice of friends that we kids needed to learn how to swim, in case we fell into a pool. Off our mother took us to the Racquet Club, where the swimming instructor said something like, “I can get him swimming fast”—and marched me to the end of the diving board, picked me up by my arms, and dropped me into the water.
To this day, I remember the bubbles that surrounded me as I sank to the bottom.
Needless to say, I never had another lesson at the Racquet Club. Fortunately, the incident didn’t put me off swimming altogether. In fact, it ultimately became my preferred exercise, but always in a pool, never the open sea.
I am not an envious man, but thousands of times I have envied people swimming in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and the azure blue Mediterranean. Two years ago, I decided to take one more shot at making that happen for me.
It’s not that I hadn’t tried before, but my efforts were always doomed. A scuba diving class. Snorkeling. Riding tame ocean waves. Whitewater rafting. I made myself do these things, but whenever the slightest thing went wrong, I panicked. It’s like a black curtain gets drawn across my brain because I can no longer think. I am simply gripped with fear: flailing, gasping, heart pounding fear.
I forced myself into the water. I poked along wearing a mask, not yet swimming but only pulling myself from pebble to pebble. I graduated to swimming in the same shallow water, learning that if I swam breathing in the direction of the shore, I could avoid looking into deep water. Then I swam in both directions. Then in water I could barely stand in. Then deeper.
So far, no black curtains, and I am in way over my head.
I swam a mile today.
Photograph by Michael Honegger @ www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com