By Larry Habegger
Change can be glacial, but glaciers are made of water.
I’d never seen anything like it. The surface of Puget Sound boiled with turbulence, then was calm as a pond. One minute waves rocked the kayak and I had to brace with the paddle, the next minute the surface seemed pocked with rain. Ahead, the waves ripping the sea looked like a river dropping into rapids, to the left and right, upwellings belched like the breath of serpents.
I’d never been so low to the water on a body so large and animated, but at that moment on the Sound I understood for the first time that the sea is alive. Its personalities were popping up all around me. I watched the surface with every paddle-stroke, reading the currents, anticipating the waves, riding up one side of a swell and down the other, concentrating, always concentrating. The black clouds overhead threatened rain or worse, but the sea was still friendly and I was cautious but not afraid. We had just another mile to the safe harbor of Turn Island, and I was optimistic we’d get there in time.
My mind shifted to a small lake in Minnesota, in the warm sun of summertime. Blue dragonflies glinted like jewels as they alighted on the edge of the boat. Lily pads sparkled. The lake shimmered. Everything was glassy and brilliant and fresh. I loved the dragonflies but was anxious that they’d bite, and my five-year-old mind couldn’t formulate the questions or understand the anxiety as my father silently fished. There were air bubbles in the paint on the rowboat’s planks, and when I poked one with my finger my father warned, “Be careful, if you break that the boat will leak.” How numerous the air bubbles seemed, how fragile the boat, how far away the shore. I hardly dared to move.
When I was growing up it seemed every winter we’d hear on the radio or read in the paper a story about another accident on a frozen lake. The ice should have been thick enough to support a car, but one went down anyway taking a family to their deaths. My child’s mind couldn’t express the fear I felt when we went ice-fishing and my parents drove the car out onto the frozen surface. They were always cautious, and I knew they’d never do anything to put us at risk. But every winter I heard the stories.
I never really thought about my fear of water. It was something that existed, had mass and weight and reality like a mountain or a meadow. Others somehow weren’t afraid, and it just seemed to me that their reality and mine were different and unchangeable in the way that you couldn’t change your height, your freckles, or the color of your eyes.
I wasn’t eager to take my first swimming lesson, but I think it had as much to do with my older brothers’ lack of enthusiasm as my own. Mornings in Minnesota in early June can be cool, and the few lessons I did take were awful. We spent so much time shivering on the pool deck in the morning breeze that when we were told to get into the water it was something I could hardly bear. I learned only that swimming lessons were painful and my parents mercifully allowed us to stop after two or three. As it turned out this might have been a mistake, but it’s impossible to say because without better conditions we may never have learned the value and joy of swimming anyway.
Like me, my brothers Bruce and Gene couldn’t swim. We never talked about it as we grew older, but I think they felt more or less the same as I. We were filling our lives with other things, dreaming other dreams. Water played little role in our plans.
When I was sixteen, I was the youngest player on a baseball team. We were playing our way toward the state championship but facing a strong team in a divisional championship game, and I was called on to pitch. I pitched well on that hot August day, but not well enough and we lost a close game. The loss ended our season and I was soaking in the bathtub at home, feeling despondent, when I heard my father on the phone in the kitchen and from the tone of his voice I knew there had been a far greater loss that day.
I never got the whole story. I always imagined Gene reaching too far out with the paddle, maybe pointing at something, maybe reaching for a stronger stroke. I don’t know why I always saw it this way, but I also always wondered if he’d ever been in a canoe before. I don’t think he had been, don’t think he understood how unstable they can be. I also never completely understood how it affected me, but in my sleep I could feel his fear, his panic, the terror of knowing he couldn’t escape; I could feel his suddenly slow slide into unconsciousness and death. It terrified me, and I don’t remember when I first got in the water again after Gene drowned.
To graduate from Dartmouth I had to pass a swim test or take a year of swim classes. That requirement is probably long gone now but it was good for me. It got me into a class that wasn’t completely awful, the first such experience I’d had. I learned that I could do an elementary backstroke and continue to breathe, and I could jump into just about any depth of water if I planned my escape and knew how to get there. But I didn’t come out of the class comfortable with water.
Some years later I was planning an extended trip around the world and something told me that I would face death before I returned. Somehow I knew that death would come to me in the form of water. Was it a warning from Gene? A vision of another destiny I shared with the brother who shared my childhood? I didn’t know, but I hired a private instructor in San Francisco to teach me to swim. She worked with me for several sessions, helped me a little, but, like others before her, couldn’t get at the root of my fear. Nor could I. My only model for overcoming problems was to push through them. I’d been a successful athlete since I was a boy and all the coaching I’d received stressed fighting through obstacles. I didn’t understand the subtleties of finesse. So I left for Southeast Asia with death by water lurking in the back of my mind.
I tested it in many places: body surfing at Kuta Beach in Bali, swimming in Lake Toba in Sumatra, snorkeling at Koh Samui in Thailand. Never was I quite comfortable, and my next attempt at snorkeling in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, was different.
I was traveling with a Canadian and a New Zealander, new friends discovered on the world travelers’ circuit who were heading my direction for a time. Together we made our way to Trincomalee on the eastern side of the island, and in time we found snorkeling gear to rent and a place to wade into the sea. We scouted it from the rocks above and I didn’t like what I saw. Waves rolled in and broke over successive reefs of coral, creating rows of shallows and depths and lots of froth. I couldn’t see any easy way in or out, and my anxieties began to build.
Nick and Tracey were ready to go but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see my way out once in, and the tightness in my chest made breathing difficult.
“I’ll wait and watch from here. Go ahead without me.” It was the best I could do.
They made their way down to the beach, entered the surf, and gradually swam farther out, timing the waves and moving gingerly over the rocks and coral. The waves pushed them around, but in time they got to calm water and explored the depths, diving, coming up to the surface, blowing streams of water out their snorkels, enjoying themselves. I watched and waited, but the tightness in my chest remained. Sometime later they came out, again moving cautiously over the rocks and coral as the surf shoved them around, then walked up the beach toward me.
We decided to try another spot, some distance away, and when we got there it was more to my liking. The sea was calm, settled blue and deep and tranquil in a wide, protected bay. The rocks dropped down to the water and I could see an easy way in and out, at the backside of a rocky arm that protruded into the sea and acted as a natural breakwater. It would take little to climb down, ease my way in, and pull myself out when ready.
Tracey and Nick went first, swam out from the rocks, and soon all I could see were the humps of their backs, snorkels bobbing on the surface.
The first plunge is always the most difficult, and my chest constricted as I got in and felt the cool water against my skin. A short breath, then another, and another: the snorkel was working; I could breathe. I pushed myself away from the rocks, breathed nervously, paddled my feet to keep myself afloat and the snorkel above the surface. The sound echoed in my head, and the sound of air coursing through that plastic pipe was the sound of life, the sound of my survival.
I saw many things, but only with a fragment of my awareness. Most of my attention was on my snorkel, on the sound of my breathing, on the need to keep the snorkel above the surface.
My mask had a poor seal and began to fill with water. Many times I’d seen friends empty their masks while treading water, blow out their snorkels, and continue. I couldn’t do this. My life depended on being able to breathe, and I didn’t have the courage to tilt my head back willfully, empty my mask, and risk dropping my snorkel below the surface and losing my lifeline while I tried to tread water. I simply could not do it. But I was prepared, having planned my exit from the sea. I moved to the rocks, grabbed hold with one hand, emptied my mask with the other, then pushed away again and resumed breathing through the snorkel.
Sunlight shimmered through the sea, lighting up neon-colored fish. I paddled around on the surface, careful to remain near the rocks because my mask began to fill again. The salt water burned my eyes, and I had to repeat the procedure for emptying my mask: grab the rocks, empty the mask, replace it, head down, push away, breathe.
The third time I did this I noticed that Tracey and Nick were far away, out in the middle of the bay. I felt a momentary embarrassment that I wasn’t out there with them, but that wasn’t where my reality lay. Near the rocks I could fix my equipment, and I could continue to breathe.
When I went back out that time I noticed a new motion in the water. I sensed a gradual rising and falling, and I began to get splashes of water in my snorkel, surprising drafts of seawater inhaled with my precious air that sent jolts of adrenaline through my body. The next time I went to the rocks to empty my mask, a swell carried me up a couple of feet along the rocks and settled me back down again. This was new.
The sea continued to move, gradually up, then down. My mask continued to fill, faster than before. Now when I went to the rocks the swells carried me higher, then dropped me lower. I had to push myself firmly away from the rocks to avoid being scraped down them like soft cheese on a grater. Back in the water I sensed I had to get out, but I had drifted a short distance from my exit point. My mask was filling fast and I needed to empty it. This time the swell took me high up the rocks and dropped me hard along their sharp surface, scraping off bits of flesh, sending dull pains through my hip. My breathing was quick now. Coming in frantic bursts. My mask was still full of water. My eyes were burning, my vision blurred. I had to empty my mask, find my way to the safe exit point.
Back to the rocks again, rising with the swells, being scraped down the rocks like driftwood. At the trough of the wave I was able to clear the mask, then pushed away from the rocks. Breathing again, swimming now, toward the exit. But suddenly a force threw me backward and water rushed into my lungs. Gone. No air now, no breath, no lifeline, only one way out. The snorkel had come apart at the seams, leaving the mouthpiece wedged between my teeth in a bite forged by fear. But it was useless with the pipe disconnected, tangled now in the straps of my mask. I tried not to breathe, to keep the water out, but the panic forced me to inhale. Water, no air, just water burning my lungs, my eyes, my consciousness.
Suddenly I had a gasp of air. I’d surfaced. I kicked with all my strength toward the exit, toward the rocks where I’d entered, riding the rising swell toward land, toward air, toward the breath of life. I reached out with both hands and grabbed hold to pull myself out. But I was blasted head-on by a force almost too strong to resist. Water ripped my head back, poured into my mouth, tore one hand off the rocks and tugged at my body like a demon trying to drag me into darkness. All my strength, every electron of my awareness went into that one hand holding that rock, one finger now, just the fingertip clawing onto the rock against the force of that torrent. My whole being knew that I would be lost if that fingertip lost its grip, that I’d be swept into a vortex with no hope of escape.
It went on for an eternity, but finally the pressure abated, the water withdrew, the fingertip held. I scrambled out onto the rocks on rubber legs, gasping hysterically, stumbling this way and that, my motor functions stripped by the hormones of panic. Higher. I had to get higher. Away from the water. Higher, still higher. I could hardly walk, could hardly breathe. I fell, and fell again, scraping myself on sharp stones, climbing blindly away from the sea and certain death, knowing that I had to get far away from the water where it couldn’t follow.
Finally I collapsed, exhausted, frightened beyond description, only raising my head once to see my two friends still paddling around in the sea, marveling at the sights beneath the surface. My breath came in gasps and all the images of Gene’s death flooded back, images now hopelessly mixed with my own. But I was still here. I was still alive.
It’s impossible to describe such panic to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. Every synapse, every cell in the body gets infected by it, and I don’t know how long it takes to work it out.
I have experienced nothing so debilitating as this raw terror. And whenever it happened after that afternoon I would descend into the depths of despair. Every ounce of confidence would drain from my body and my sense of self-worth would evaporate. My usual optimism would sometimes take only a few hours to return, but sometimes days, or weeks.
I didn’t know how to change my reality. Much of my life was ruled by this tension between my grounded, confident self, and the paralyzed, helpless being I became when confronted with water. I refused to be daunted, refused to miss out on experiences I wanted to have, but equally was incapable of building my own skills to make having these experiences a safe and pleasant pursuit. I tried to fight through it, again and again.
Before I went off to raft the Zambezi River I visited a psychic healer hoping to find a key to unlock the fear I carried with me every day. She spoke to me and read the responses in my body as I lay on her table, going back over some of the key experiences in my history. She said she saw me with a close friend, on a river in Africa, two 19th-century missionaries crossing in a small boat. The friend was my brother in this life, and he’d come back to help me out. I died on that river, not by drowning, but by crocodiles when the boat capsized. My friend lived. And became my brother, Gene, who died a hundred years later.
The Zambezi River is crawling with crocodiles, and the guides gave us a talk before we set out that chilled me to the bone. They were sober, clear and direct about the dangers. The river was huge and completely wild. Many of the rapids were Class V; some were unrunnable. Rafts would flip. We’d have only ourselves to rely on. “This is not about being macho,” one said. “We’ll be out of contact with the outside world for three days. We’re not trying to freak you out. But if you have any doubts about this trip, back out now. This is your last chance, and no one will think you’re a coward.”
I had grave doubts. Could I last a week on one of the world’s wildest rivers, running rapid after rapid in crocodile-infested waters? My gut told me no, but my rational mind said yes. When I saw the river up close I had to sit down and compose myself. The power of that water plunging from Victoria Falls, then racing down the narrow channel and ripping through a canyon of basalt was greater than anything I’d ever seen. When the first raft set out and snapped an oar at the first rapid, I should have left. But I didn’t, and for once, my way of dealing with things head-on worked. We made our way downriver for a week, riding wild rapids but never capsizing or losing anyone overboard.
Two years later I wasn’t so lucky. On a tributary of the Tembeling River in the heart of the Malaysian jungle, we were swimming beneath a small waterfall. There were numerous deep pools out of the current where I could leap in and get out without worry. But many of the group were swimming across the narrow river to a pool on the other side, and friends convinced me it would take only two or three good strokes to get there. I had my doubts, knowing that if I didn’t make it before the current took me downstream I’d lose my safe exit and then I’d enter unknown territory. But three of them said they’d swim alongside me and help if I had trouble.
My strokes weren’t strong enough, probably because of my fear. I got only halfway across before the current took me past the landing point and panic struck. I was immobilized, helpless, with three friends shoving me up to keep my head above water. Somewhere downstream they pushed me toward shore and I was able to grab the branches of an overhanging tree and get my footing, but I was devastated again. Confidence shattered, I sat in the sand trying to get my breath, and to understand the fear that steals my strength. My friends, too, were quiet, startled by this transformation. We were equally lost in this mystery of my psyche.
Later, when I had the opportunity to learn to scuba dive I faced the same old fears. I’d done a one-day walk-in scuba course in the Virgin Islands and had no fear of being submerged as long as I could breathe, and scuba gear didn’t frighten me, but to go through the training, to sink beneath the surface, this was another matter.
The intensive scuba certification course we took in the Philippines gave me a whole new level of confidence in the water, and in fact, the only part that scared me was when I had to take off my tank and pass it up to the boat at the end of the dive. Again, my guarantee of air was essential to my comfort, and without it fear crept into every crevice. I managed to get through that and soon found myself enthralled by the depths.
But certified or not, I still couldn’t leap into water that was over my head unless I had a sure way out. I couldn’t tread water, and couldn’t keep myself afloat except in the most benign of circumstances.
It was almost by chance that I saw an ad for a seminar at an outdoors fair in San Francisco: Swimming for Adults Afraid in Water. Was I afraid in water? Could I say no and look myself in the eye? It took me a while to take the step, but eventually I decided to drop in and see what the woman teaching the seminar had to say.
I was surprised at the number of people who came to hear Melon Dash speak. There were at least twenty. Were all of these people afraid in water? Melon spoke with calm, reassuring tones, and asked us to do a few exercises with her, to go back into our pasts and try to recall the very first time we were afraid in water, back to an experience when someone or something brought fear or anxiety into our lives, or when we brought it into ourselves unknowingly. I’ve never been very good at this sort of memory mining, and I never really got to any first experience, but after a while she asked people to talk about what they remembered. The stories were fascinating.
Few were similar except for the final result, that something in the experience had been connected to a paralyzing fear of being in water. The longer I sat there and the more stories I listened to the more I was convinced that she was on to something. I signed up.
Melon’s teaching is simple at its core. She works with small groups, provides exercises to explore the source of our fears in water, encourages us to share these experiences with others, and emphasizes having fun. Never, at any time, should you do anything in the water that isn’t fun. As soon as it’s no longer fun, you stop, and go back to whatever you were doing that was fun.
Sitting beneath the surface in shallow water holding our breath until we want to come up. Lying on the pool bottom. Playing with each other. Through fun we begin to understand the dynamics of water and the human body, not through an intellectual or logical approach, but through fun. It was amazing how quickly fun translated into comfort, how quickly comfort translated into confidence, and confidence into learning.
Through incremental challenges accompanied by the mantra of “fun,” I learned that the water would support me, that breathing was not difficult, that the water and I were of the same elements, that I could be comfortable and unafraid in water.
In six short weeks under Melon’s tutelage I undid forty years of battles. There’s no secret to it, no overwhelming challenge, no great epiphany—well, there were several small epiphanies, to be sure—I just needed to be guided by someone who knew how to help.
Near the end of my course I was at a convention in Puerto Vallarta, and a friend and I needed to escape the stifling conference rooms so we ran out to the sea. We swam out past the breakers and talked about our lives and careers, friends and families, plans for the short and long term, all the while treading water in the swells. It was almost an afterthought for me, the realization that I was doing this, having a conversation in the sea in water over my head without a moment’s worry. My passage had been so effortless, so gentle and so complete, that I hardly even noticed it. Melon would have understood entirely: I was just having fun. And it was only then that I realized how truly bound to my brother I was. I had resolved my fear of water as a way to resolve his death. I had learned to swim for me, but also for him.
On Puget Sound that day the sea’s moods changed by the second. We paddled our kayaks through rough waters, across calm seas, over boils and swells and whirlpools. The rain came down but felt warm as it slid off us. And soon we broke into the lee of the island, and I thought of my long-lost brother, of my brushes with death and the deep-rooted fears that took so long to exorcise, that couldn’t be exorcised by fighting through them, by attacking them head-on, by any technique I knew, but simply with the help of an extraordinary teacher and by finding joy in the water.
The beach was only a few strokes away. We’d camp here for the night. I stopped paddling and let the kayak glide toward the sand.
I couldn’t have done it without Gene’s help, without Melon’s help, and wherever I go they’re with me, and I know we’ll be paddling in together safely to harbor.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger is a writer and editor who has been covering the world since his international travels began in the 1970s. As a freelance writer for more than three decades, his work has appeared in many major newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel & Leisure, and Outside. His newspaper column “World Travel Watch” was syndicated for 31 years and during that time ran in major papers in five countries. In 1993 he cofounded the award-winning Travelers’ Tales Books with James and Tim O’Reilly, where he serves as executive editor and helps oversee the company’s publishing program and has worked on all of its 130-plus books. Larry teaches the craft of memoir and the personal essay and runs several writers groups. He is also a founder of The Prose Doctors, an editors consortium; editor of the annual magazine The Travel Guide to California; and editor in chief of Triporati.com, a destination discovery site. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.