‘Fear makes idiots of us all, at some time or another’. Patricia Briggs
Every body is afraid of something ( though some won’t admit it!). There are fears that are recognized across all cultures and are given a ‘phobia’ suffix to make everyone feel like they are not alone in their irrational fear: arachnophobia ( spiders) and agoraphobia ( open spaces) are common but did you know that anablephobia is a fear of ‘looking up’ or that melanophobia is the fear of ‘the colour black! Go and Google ‘phobias’ and see the enormous list of all the strange things we can be afraid of. Does this mean we are all living in fear? How do we handle our fears on a day to day basis? Well! I managed to avoid my big one for many years- you must understand I’m not naturally a scared person- I’ve handled snakes and tarantulas with no problem; I’ve been to areas in inner city Johannesburg that people said I was crazy to go to and I married an Australian! So I know how to be fearless. My own big fear is Aquaphobia, the fear of water, or to be more specific in my case, the fear of putting my face in the water. I nearly drowned when I was eleven and this started the fear ; I mastered the skill of swimming breast stroke with my head out of the water; I could swim with a full face of makeup and not get it wet! As time went on I just avoided getting in the water, if you are afraid there is always a way to present an excuse for not allowing yourself to confront the fear. On family holidays, I would sit by the side of the pool reading a book, whilst my husband and girls had fun in the water- well someone had to look after our belongings, didn’t they?
‘Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.’ Dan Brown , The Da Vinci Code.
Last year I went to support a friend who entered the Westchester Sprint Triathlon and witnessed children with prosthetic limbs swim, cycle and run despite their challenges. It made me feel so humbled and I declared that “next year I will take part.” A few weeks ago the time for registration rolled round and my husband reminded me of my declaration. I hesitated, the 6 mile bike ride would not be a problem ( I cycled further regularly), the 1 mile run I could manage ( I run 3 miles when the urge takes me); it was the thought of the 300 yard swim ( in Long Island Sound I might add not a clean swimming pool!) that filled my heart with dread- I couldn’t do it. I felt a failure; frustrated and angry with myself. Some how , I’m still not quite sure how it happened, my husband got me to agree to register, on the condition he gave me swimming lessons.
‘Fear cuts deeper than swords,’ George R R Martin, A Game of Thrones.
The first 10 minutes in the pool I wanted to cry and go home. The visceral effect of being in the water and just putting the swim goggles on was debilitating. The intensity of my fear when Paul asked me to put my face in the water shocked me. I knew I would find it difficult but I hadn’t dreamed I would feel so paralyzed by my emotions. I was shaking and hyper ventilating, the effort to swim just one length made my chest heave as I gulped for air. I ,also, felt incredibly foolish and embarrassed as I watched the other swimmers fearlessly gliding up and down the lanes. I would have to swim the equivalent of 12 lengths for my triathlon, it seemed an impossible task. Throughout it all Paul remained calm and encouraging, I think I only continued with the session to please him. I swam 16 lengths in total that first day- stopping every 2 to catch my breath and try to build up my courage. The last 2 or 3 lengths seemed a little easier but I hated every stroke.
5 days later I cycled to the pool on my own, I chose a time when it was quiet, just a few elderly ladies gently swimming laps. I noticed that the overwhelming fear I had felt a few days earlier was less pronounced. I was still panting after every 2 lengths but felt I could push myself a little further. I swam 32 lengths that time- I was so proud of myself. The next time was a week later and, after a couple of lengths gasping for air, I got in to a smoother breathing pattern and things began to click in to place- I swam 40 lengths and boy did I feel good. An elderly lady spoke to me and as I explained my fear, she told me that she had swum several times a week for decades and gave me an insight in to the joy swimming gives to many people: “It’s the nearest thing I can get to feeling like I’m flying.” I cycled home feeling elated and sure that I had taken a huge step towards conquering my fear.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela