Anxiety is a bitch. I’ve had it constantly in one form or another. I’ve gone through peaks and valleys ranging from panic attacks and nightmares to mildly intrusive worry. It depends on what is going on in my life, in my mind and my body.
I sometimes use visualization and deep breathing to cope. I was doing such an exercise a few days ago when a strong, visceral image floated to the surface: the pool.
I had the great privilege and fortune of growing up in Southern California in a house with a pool. I was an anxious, shy kid. So much about the world scared me. I didn’t like talking to new people, I hated going to new places, I felt unmoored and small everywhere I went.
Except when I was in the pool.
In the pool I felt courageous, strong and capable. I was able to scream as loud as I wanted, unshackled by the oppressive “inside voice” rule. I could kick and flail my awkward, long body until my lungs ached. I could laugh and play and twirl until my teeth chattered and I had exhausted myself so thoroughly that I would have a blissful, dreamless sleep.
There was nothing better than swimming. Nothing more calming and soothing to my nerve jangled brain than to pull on my sunburst swimsuit and jump straight in.
We’ve already covered that I’m no athlete, but you don’t need to be to enjoy a backyard pool. The pool was the source of some of my greatest joy, happiest memories, shiniest moments in my childhood.
Learning to swim was a great accomplishment in and of itself. Then learning to dive was like my family’s right of passage. Watching my older sisters do swan dives and jack-knives (gymnasts who did get the athletic genes) inspired me more and more until finally my little sister did it before I had and I decided if a six-year-old could do it, it was about time I got my shit together.
My sisters and I often fought and bickered and annoyed each other on dry land, but swimming together was always a blast. It was the great neutralizer. We raced, and played mermaids, had underwater tea parties, and laughed and taught each other how to do back flips and cannonballs and handstands underwater. We had pool parties, backyard barbecues, lap races, diving contests, sun-soaked and magical summer days and nights.
When we were really little, my dad would carry us on his back and play a game we called “Zombies of the Deep” where we would slowly make our way to the deep end (where the zombies were, duh), with only our dad to protect us. My mom, a swimmer always and lifeguard in her youth, taught me the right form for swimming laps and that reading by the pool is the next best thing to swimming in one.
My pool, our pool, was home.
This sounds like overly sentimental nostalgia, except that I felt that way even then. I remember once when I was about ten and lazily drifting on a floaty, staring up at the puffy clouded sky and thinking, “I hope every kid feels this happy”.
Because I had excellent taste as a pre-teen, I would blast music like Savage Garden or Ace of Base while I swam at night. I obviously choreographed routines to the music because, again, I was undeniably cool.
The pool was bliss. It was freedom. Freedom from my own brain, my own worries, my own fears. The pool has no time for your anxiety; there’s too much to do!
We don’t have that house anymore. Life happens. But, to this day, if my sisters and I are together at a pool, we will be the first ones in and the last ones out. We still play the same games. We are now teaching our kids those games. The magic lives on.
As an adult, I have anxiety everywhere and always. Sometimes even in the pool. But there was once a time that I didn’t, and that helps me on the harder days.
It will forever be my happy place.