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Drowning Fish

When I was growing up, I loved swimming.

For whatever reason, I loved to swim completely underwater. I would inhale a large lungful of air, launch myself under the water and linger as long as my lungs would let me.

My parents referred to me as a fish.

I had had tubes in my ears as an infant. I had a series of ear infections which lead to my needing to have my eustachian tubes opened up. This left me dealing with great pressure underwater. Bad in freshwater, worse in salt.

When we went to the city pool, I would play “find the penny” with the other kids. Someone would drop pennies, and we would rush to get as many as we could. I couldn’t swim to the bottom of the pool because the pressure in my ears was too painful. So, I would locate pennies and then lower myself in the water, feet-first, and pick up the pennies with my toes.

When I was in third grade, I met a kid who lived down the street. I’ll call him Matt. The summer between third and fourth grade, we played together with other kids in the neighborhood. One humid summer afternoon, we found ourselves laying in the leaves behind the fence of my backyard. He kissed me.

Matt was known as a bully at school. Most likely, he had been picked on, didn’t fit in, and decided to be the instigator of the assaults rather than the recipient. Whatever the reason for his aggression at school, it didn’t seem present when his lips touched mine.

I don’t know how I felt about it then, and I still don’t know how I feel about it now.

Matt had an above-ground pool in his backyard. My brother and I would occasionally go over to swim with Matt and his little brother.

One such afternoon, Matt grabbed my swimsuit. And yanked.

I don’t know if he was trying to pull it off. Pull it down. Or just pull me down.

Regardless of intent, I had no warning. No time to fill my lungs with air.

He dragged me toward the bottom of the pool.

I was terrified.

I thrashed around as much as I could, trying to shake myself loose from his grip on my bathing suit, but it wasn’t working.

Thankfully, my brother was in the pool. The next thing I knew, he had grabbed Matt and dragged him off of me. I rose to the surface and gasped for air.

My days of being a fish were over.

For the next several years, I avoided bodies of water as much as possible, especially if there would be lots of people I didn’t know around.

My family might go canoeing down the Illinois River. That was okay. I would be wearing a life jacket, and no one in my family would hold me under water.

Even with that knowledge, I didn’t want to capsize and end up in the water.

I avoided pool parties like the plague. When large groups of people gather around backyard swimming pools, inevitably someone thinks it’s funny to grab people and throw them into the pool.

I do not find this funny. I find it terrifying.

When I was nineteen, I performed in a musical at the local community theatre. One of the kids in the show had a huge house with a pool. His parents invited everyone over for a celebratory end of the run.

Initially, I wasn’t going to go. Twenty-plus people gathered in celebration around a pool. No, thank you.

My friends from the show convinced me to go. They told me not to wear a bathing suit and make sure everyone knew I wasn’t going to swim.

I decided to go and followed their advice.

After an hour or so, I started feeling more comfortable. Everyone seemed fine with the fact that I wasn’t getting in the water. There were also other people who didn’t plan to plunge in.

Several of my friends, including this guy I’ll call Carl who had been somewhat flirty, were in the water, so I decided to sit on the edge of the pool, near them, to socialize. Sure, I got splashed with some water, but it was fine.

Then, without warning, Carl grabbed my legs. And yanked!

It all felt like slow motion. His hands around my ankles. My body suspended above the pool. My fingers behind me, gripping the side of the pool for dear life. I am screaming bloody murder for him to let go of me.

I heard a voice, almost a battle cry, coming from behind me. I turned to look over my shoulder and saw the kid whose house we were at running at me full-speed.

He shoved my shoulders forward, causing me to lose my grip on the side of the pool.

I plunged into the water. While it felt like slow-motion, it all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to grab some air.

I crashed into the water and was immediately engulfed, water filling my mouth that was still open from screaming.

I inhaled so much water.

The next thing I knew, I was above the water again. I was coughing and gasping for air. It seemed Carl had grabbed under my arms and lifted me to safety.

Except that in the next moment, lungs still full of more water than air, Carl dunked me back under the water.

Mouth open from coughing and gasping for air, I took in even more water.

My body was in full panic mode. I was terrified and felt like I was going to die.

This happened one or two more times before I somehow got to the side of the pool. Maybe Carl decided I’d had enough. Maybe someone else intervened. I have no idea.

I coughed and cried. And raged inside.

How dare he do that to me?!

After I got out of the water, dried off, and calmed down, Carl had the audacity to ask if I wanted to go to the pool house and make out.

This incident, combined with my pool experience with Matt, sealed the deal that water was not for me.

Then, in 2004, I married Judah. He’d been a lifeguard. Loves the water. Can swim like a fish, above or below the water.

On our honeymoon, Judah and I stayed at a beachfront property in Florida. While enjoying the water together, Judah swam down and through my legs. Joining in the spirit of fun, I did the same. And freaked out! As I went to swim through his legs, I had to lower myself deep enough in the water that my ears freaked out. In an effort to get back to the surface as quickly as possible to alleviate my ear pain, I got myself tangled in Judah’s legs, which triggered my fear of being held under water and drowning.

Why was it that every time I tried to give water another chance, it let me down?

Over the years, I still enjoyed canoeing and kayaking. I have a deep gratitude for life vests.

But, I miss out on a lot, too. Judah can swim way far out in the ocean. He gets to see lots of cool fish and plant life. On a cruise, he went snorkeling. I bobbed along in the water, clinging to my flotation device for dear life.

In October of 2014, I decided to take swimming lessons. I had loved swimming so much as a child, but the careless actions of others had stolen that from me. I needed to make peace with the water.

A neighborhood church had a gym and swimming pool and offered adult swimming classes. I signed up.

We spent the first several classes in the shallow end. Smart move.

Bonus: our teacher’s name was Michael Jackson. No joke. But he went by Mike.

In the first class, Mike had us hold onto the side of the pool and kick our legs behind us. Easy enough.

Next, we dipped our mouths into the water and blew bubbles while still holding the side and kicking.

Finally, he told us to put our face in the water …

My body went into an absolute panic.

You put YOUR face underwater!

What am I doing here? I don’t need this. I’ve gone this long without water in my life. I should just leave now. Cut my losses.


Thankfully, I stayed. I told Mike that I was having trouble. Told him I had been almost drowned and had a fear of putting my head under the water.

Mike was patient and gentle with me, and, in time, I was swimming with my head underwater. I even jumped off the edge of the deep end of the pool. Never without fear though.

Over the next several months, I went to the pool regularly to swim laps. I preferred to swim in a lane that ran along the edge of the pool. Just in case I needed to grab on. I had a heightened awareness of my lifelines and how deep the water was.

I never got great at the normal kind of swimming. The kind where you keep your face in the water and then tilt it to the side to breathe in air. It doesn’t make sense to me. My head has been under water. If I tip it to the side, water will be running down it. If I open my mouth to get air, how can I not also take in water? It stresses me out.

Eight months later, Judah and I went to Europe for an epic adventure to celebrate ten years of marriage. In an effort to join Judah in things that bring him joy, I agreed to go white water rafting. We were in Austria. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful.

We would be rafting with other people who were part of a tour group we were traveling with. Everything had been arranged ahead of time. Wet suits, shoes, and life jackets were provided along with the rafts and a guide.

Before we even got near the water, the guide taught us how to sit in the raft, what to grab onto if the rapids got intense, and what to do if we got thrown off the raft.

Breathe. That sounded terrible.

He told us the rapids would be moving quickly, and there would be no use fighting them. The recommendation was to stay on your back and ride the rapids until things calmed down. The raft would eventually catch up to you, and your team would pull you back into the raft.

When in the water, not in the raft, do not try to swim toward shore or against the flow of water. Even if you are in shallow water, the current will be too strong. Don’t try to stand. Don’t fight it. Just relax, and let it take you.

After all the instructions had been given, we carried our raft to the water. The guides had told us to get in the water to acclimate to the temperature.

While waiting for the big event, I was standing in the water and looking around at the beautiful mountains around us and noticed that some of the girls were dipping their bodies deeper into the water. Getting themselves more fully immersed.

That’s probably a good idea.

I wandered a bit off from Judah and our raft team so I could also get more of myself in the water.

I didn’t want to go too far into deep waters, so I squatted some to allow the water higher up toward my shoulders.

The next thing I knew, I was moving.

The current was stronger than I had realized. My feet slipped out from under me, and the rocks didn’t provide good footing.

My breath caught, and I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do. I started scrambling and trying to stand up. The current kept knocking me back down.

I could see Judah. He was laughing and talking with the other members of our team. Not one person in our group was looking my way.

I know the guide said not to stand, but this was ridiculous. We hadn’t even gotten in the raft yet! Once in the raft, if I got thrown out, then I could follow the instructions and wait for the raft to catch up with me. Not now.

My eyes met with this couple who was sitting on the shore. They started yelling to get people’s attention.

I don’t know where my voice was. Likely stuck in my throat.

Miracle of miracles, I was able to scoot myself close enough toward the shore to get my footing and stand up. By this time, Judah had realized what was going on. He made his way to me, definitely startled.

My heart was racing. That was enough excitement for me. I didn’t even want to get in the raft after that.

But, I did.

I’m sad to say, I didn’t enjoy it.

I wasn’t off to a great start after having been almost swept away before stepping foot in the raft. I had no desire to get catapulted out of the raft, so I spent the entire time holding on for dear life.

There were some decently intense rapids, by my calculation. Some people did get ejected from their rafts.

On a stretch of less intense water movement, our guide told us we needed to practice pulling one another back into the boat. He turned the raft one way and had everyone on the upstream side jump out. Then the person seated across from them had to grab them by the life vest and pull them back into the boat. Then he would turn the raft and give the other side a chance.

I was on the upstream team to go first. He told us to exit the raft, so I did. I flung my body to the side and sort of flopped into the water. The raft remained downstream of me the whole time, so I didn’t feel scared or adrift. And I had chosen (sort of) to jump out. I hadn’t been thrown out unexpectedly.

I made it safely to the end of the route without ever being thrown from the raft.

Judah was elated. He had an amazing time. So fun. He was proud of me for jumping out. He didn’t think I would do it.

I hadn’t realized it was an option.

After all this time, all these attempts to make peace with water, I think I am okay with not having a tight relationship. Judah and water get along swimmingly. And it’s okay that I don’t.

I have given it my all. Or close to my all. I guess it actually taking “my all” is what I’m afraid of.

I don’t want to be afraid of drowning.

I am thankful that I took swimming lessons as an adult. It was amazing how much my body remembered, and could just do, from childhood.

I now feel confident that I can duck my head in and swim underwater for a bit. I can doggy-paddle for a decent amount of time which helps alleviate some fear. Even if I swallow some water and choke, I can doggy-paddle while coughing.

I’m resigned that I’ll never be a fish again. I’m sad, and even mad, that the stupid, careless actions of others took this joy from me.

But, I have peace knowing I don’t fully trust the water, but I’m not deathly afraid of it either.

I’ll take it.

22 views2 comments


I can relate to that fear. I almost drowned when I was 5. I too took swimming lessons as an adult to try to get over the fear. That's why I put Judah in swimming lessons when he was very young. I think he was 5. I didn't want him to be like me.

Jill Anthony
Jill Anthony
Jun 23, 2021
Replying to

It's such a hard fear to fully overcome. I hate that you know that "almost drowning" experience. It's the worst.

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