How To Drown
by Dan Walsh
I almost drowned when I was 8.
I was a fearless kid – as far as I can recall. Of course, I had a healthy respect for adults and injury, the two not being related, but I approached cows, dark corners, and impossibly tall trees with the same reckless curiosity. I’m sure I account for more than my fair share of my mother’s grey hairs. I was a fearless kid.
I also hated being left out, as I’m sure do most younger brothers. I hated staying home sick from school for the thought that my friends were all doing fun stuff without me. I hated that my older, more capable brother could swim to the raft in the middle of the lake and I could not. I felt left out, but I didn’t know how to join in. I didn’t know how to physically get there. I lacked the knowledge and the skill. It was too deep to walk there, and the handful of child swim lessons I had taken at that point had only taught me how to float on my back. Useless. I was a fearless kid in search of a solution.
That solution, it turned out, was a kick board. All I had to do was hang on and kick, and I could go anywhere. What freedom! I motored all around the shallow end until I realized that the previously inaccessible and mysterious “deep end” was now my playground as well. I took great pleasure and great pride from my ability to paddle to the very end of the pier, reach, reach, reach out for the ladder, and catch myself just as the kick board capsized and spilled me into the lake. It was a ballsy move, I knew that, but it was going to get me to the raft. I was a fearless kid who just needed to practice a few more times.
So, practice I did. Paddle out. Reach, reach, reeeach… Capsize! Catch the ladder! Climb up onto the pier. Perfect dismount! Scamper down the pier back to the beach. Back in the water. Back on my board. Paddle out. Reach, reach, reeeach… Capsize! Catch the ladder! No problem. Back up and onto the pier. Puff out my chest. Scamper down the pier back to the beach. One more time. Back in the water. Back on my board. Kick. Kick. Kick. Reach, reach, reeeach… Capsize!
Miss the ladder.
I fell like Icarus, into the black. Too much, too soon. I didn’t know what to do, but I was sure I would drown. I was a fearless kid drowning.
I sank to the sandy floor and instinct made me push off, up toward the surface. I screamed for help as soon as my mouth was above the water, but my plea was choked off as I sank back down, to soon. Oh no, they didn’t hear me. I touched the bottom and pushed off again, harder this time, hoping for more time to yell. I broke the surface and screamed for help, but was again choked off. Again! I pushed off with the hysterical strength granted to animals near death.
“HEEEEEELP!” I screamed. The full plea had thankfully escaped my depleted lungs. I rejoiced internally until the water cleared from my eyes and I saw that no one had noticed. None of the parents on the beach had stirred, and the lifeguard had her back to me. I had sounded the alarm, but no one was coming.
I despaired as the water swallowed me again, and as I sank back to the floor I realized I was out of air. This thought sobered me somewhat and the fog of panic cleared enough for me to formulate a plan. I knew no one had heard me, but I couldn’t yell anymore. I needed air. I kicked at the sand, broke the surface, and silently took a breath. It was sweet, but not enough. I kicked again and took another breath. I bobbed like this, in calm silence, at least three of four times before I had my fill. I kicked off, ready to yell again. I was about to break the surface when a strong hand yanked my out of the water. It was my mom. She had heard me.
I don’t remember much after that. I don’t know if she pulled me onto the pier, or if she ran into the water fully clothed and carried me out. All of us kids almost drowned at some point, my mom saved every one of us, and I’m sure I’ve conflated the memories to some extent. I do, however, remember the look on the lifeguard’s face. She seemed like an adult at the time, but I’m sure she was only 16 or so, and I’m sure she was terrified.
I never developed a phobia of water, but I always avoided the deep end and swimming activities. Water over my head caused me anxiety. I had never learned to swim, and my near-drowning was proof enough of my lack of natural skill. I had already tried my luck, there was no need to try it again.
I was no longer a fearless kid. I learned fear that day when I almost drowned, but more corrosively I learned self-doubt. There was no way for me to realize this as an 8-year-old, but that was the day I began defining what I could and could not do. That was the day I began limiting myself. “I climb trees, but I don’t swim. I skydive, but I don’t surf.”
In the aftermath, I realized that my panic had blinded me from certain salvations. The biggest oversight was my proximity to the ladder. I was within arms reach, bu I never thought to pull myself up. I probably also could have bobbed my way toward shallower water. It really wasn’t that far. As an 8-year-old, I learned that panic had almost killed me.
I have never panicked since that day, and for that I am grateful. The calm, collected nature that resulted from that day has served me well in the intervening 20 years, so it’s hard to look back at that day with scorn. But I wonder at the other missed opportunities. Snorkeling for lobster in Costa Rica was a bust. I wanted to, but didn’t go scuba diving in Panama. I never made it to that awesome little island, not far from my hut in Thailand.
Every missed opportunity pushed me a little further. I taught myself some basics, slowly, incrementally over time. When my friends went off to that island in Thailand, I stayed behind and learned how to tread water in the Andaman Sea. This was a breakthrough for me at the time, and it was entirely due to about two minutes of instruction I had received from a friend more than three years earlier.
I finally learned how to swim this year. After 20 years of believing I never would, of thinking this lack was an intrinsic part of who I am, I proved myself wrong – proved that I could – and shook the foundations of my identity.