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March 30, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 12:22 am

I did something hard this week. I got into a swimming pool alone for the first time in over a year.

In early 2012, I had a major panic attack while swimming at the North Boulder Rec Center. Halfway into the deep-end, I started imagining the entire pool filled with millions upon millions of iridescent black-green beetles crawling all over each other and me. Unsurprisingly, I freaked. Fled the pool, fighting back screams, and stood dripping and shaking and wide-eyed, clawing at the lobby walls until my roommate was able to come pick me up. I had called her for help. I was in no state to drive. I was still seeing bugs everywhere and struggling to breathe.

Up until that point, swimming a few times a week had been a core element of both my physical and mental health practice. It was regular exercise that I enjoyed. I felt excited about it even when dragging myself out of bed in the cold Colorado mornings. There had always been a some fear in the back of my mind that I might panic in the pool some day. Ever since I was a child, scaring myself with visions of sharks and sea monsters lurking in the deep end, water — even the shower — has always stirred up something uncomfortable in my subconscious. It’s also where I tend to do my best and most fluid thinking and one of my favorite places to have a body. But every time I jumped into the pool, the moment I took my first deep breath and dunked my head under, I also steeled myself for the possibility that I would surface into some kind of nightmarish hallucination instead of Morning Lap Swim flanked by Aqua Tai Chi. One day, I did. It was one of the worst and most vivid I’ve ever had. After that, I was scared for a long time.

And I missed swimming like you wouldn’t believe.

Once, the following summer, we were visiting a friend in California and I tried getting in her pool. My partner came with me and held my hand as I walked gingerly from the shallow end towards the other side, taking conscious, steady, deep breaths. I made it about halfway before I started hyperventilating, dove for the side and scrambled out. Curled up in a ball on the pool deck. Cried while my lover held me. Felt frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and angry at myself. Returned sheepishly to the hot tub which, for some reason, was fine.

Over the past year, I’ve worked my way back into the water slowly, starting with showers, hot baths, then hot tubs and hot springs. I suspect, in part, that having my head underwater is the biggest trigger, as well as being fully immersed and suspended — none of which are things that happen in my bathtub. I also think that warm water is better because relaxing my muscles reduces my anxiety. But I miss swimming so much.

One thing that happened after the panic attack in the pool is that I had a major breakthrough in understanding the shape of what I’ve been struggling with. I woke up the next morning and spent several hours on the floor with a big sheet of butcher paper and a fistful of colored pencils, mapping the three major mental health issues that block me from being okay, connecting them to specific aspects of trauma from my relationship with my mom, locating each one within the epistemic cultural context of my privileged and marginalized positions, attaching them to the types of intervention that had historically been most effective for each one, and tying those healing practices together into an overall plan. Then I spent the rest of the day sitting under a tree in the sun and just sort of…staring. Not long after that, I quit my job.

Over the past year or so, I’ve also been on what the Boulder hippie in me can only describe as an “intense healing journey.” I’ve undertaken several kinds of talk therapy — psychoanalysis plus a kind of music-based guided visualization akin to hypnosis, relationship therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and EMDR — each focused on addressing a different aspect of the whole puzzle. I’ve gotten a lot of massage and received several months of Five Elements style acupuncture from a friend that, although I don’t really understand why, seemed to have a dramatic impact on eliminating my panic attacks. I changed the way I was eating, the ways I was exercising, and started meditating and journaling daily. I went “into seclusion” in the desert for a while and eventually decided to stay. I ended a number of long-term relationships, including my relationship with my mom. I took some drugs. I started a more serious study of whatever passes for “spirituality” in my life. (That basically just means messing around with tarot cards, reading the Tao Te Ching, and indulging myself in a lot of esoteric magical thinking about digital technology.) I wrote more prolifically than I have in years. I fell in love. Twice. And that’s just the stuff that happened on the surface. I don’t have words for what the actual healing process involved.

In short, I spent more time, money, and energy than a lot of people in the world will ever even have just learning how to nourish myself. I still feel like I’m only at the very tip of an iceberg. I feel incredibly grateful for the privileges that allowed me to even get to that tip. I hope, of course, that the recovery work I’ve done will help me be more present and supportive of and fully in community with people who lack privileges that I have. But I’ll be honest: First and foremost, I did this for me.

So, on Monday morning, I got in the pool. I hadn’t even owned a swimsuit for months. I bought one at Goodwill the previous day; very full-coverage, a kind of Easter egg pastel blue. It’s an outdoor pool at my friends’ apartment complex in Austin. Austin in March is warm but not THAT warm. The water was icy. I was scared. I put one foot in and thought about getting out. I put the other foot in and thought about giving up. It was so cold that every slow inch of submersion was accompanied by gasps. “Just jump in and get it over with” wasn’t an option; I wasn’t ready to risk my head going underwater. By the time I got to my knees, I was crying and by mid-thigh I was screaming into my hands. Thank god.

The way trauma works — at least, according to the TL;DR reference my head — is that we survive a life-threatening or sanity-threatening event but the mechanism by which we survived doesn’t allow us to fully process the experience. For example, when threatened with physical violence, we receive a massive adrenaline dump meant to fuel a fight-or-flight response. But in an abusive situation where neither flight nor fight are possible, those powerful survival impulses and their ricocheting after-effects just stay locked up in our muscles — including the muscle that is our brain. We can’t think or talk our way out of trauma because trauma actually requires a physical release.

In my case, I think my panic attacks themselves — with their symbolism of infestation, contamination, consumption, alien intelligence, sudden total helplessness, mindless and bottomless destruction — were attempts to process trauma from childhood, albeit at the worst possible times. (Like while I was DRIVING! Seriously, brain?) But the panic attack in the pool was, itself, an experience of unresolved trauma. Because I didn’t actually go through with it. I started to panic because I literally believed I was on the edge of going insane. But I was alone in a public place surrounded by strangers and children, so I didn’t scream or cry or meltdown in terror or try to run away. Instead, I used every ounce of willpower I had to fight myself into submission, get out of the pool, walk to the lobby, and call my roommate for help. The panic attack got far enough to shake a lot of subconscious things loose, but it never actually completed. And this fear that water will make me go crazy has been locked up inside me ever since.

Water symbolizes the unconscious where all the scary, nasty, monstrous stuff I’m afraid of lives. My fear of being immersed in water and my fear of my own unconscious are the same thing. I needed to get back into the water somewhere it was safe to scream and cry and convulse and just let myself be afraid and live through that fear. The physical pain helped me reach that point of catharsis — but it wasn’t THAT cold. I just really needed to scream. I’d been needing to scream for a year.

Things feel a little less fractured now.

I’m looking forward to checking out the Las Cruces Rec Center pool when I get home.


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