I'm Deathly Afraid of Drowning But I'm Trying to Learn to Swim

Despite growing up in the Caribbean, I'm terrified of the water.
Publish date:
June 11, 2013
summer, jamaica, swim

I have a paralyzing fear of drowning. Just submerging my head under the shower makes me hyperventilate.

Even after countless lessons and futile attempts to learn how to swim, as soon as my feet are no longer planted on the ground or my hand firmly gripping to a pool’s edge, my arms start flailing and I begin gasping for air. I’m convinced I’ve subconsciously blocked out some childhood memory of a near-death experience.

Growing up on an island surrounded by water and beaches with sand that cling to your feet like clay, one would think the ocean would be my second home. I can still remember a fearless 6 or 7-year-old me wading far out into the Caribbean Sea, a family member, perhaps an uncle or cousin, on either side of me. I was too young to fully grasp (or irrationally fabricate) the threat water posed on my short life.

I recently spent five glorious days in Jamaica for a destination wedding and long overdue vacay. I left Jamaica feeling rested and rejuvenated. My sun-kissed skin still radiates that island glow. I also left Jamaica feeling inspired.

From the resort pool to the local beach, there were beautiful black and brown bodies fluttering across the water everywhere. I watched in awe as tourists and natives alike catapulted off water slides, backstroked, and aimlessly floated.

My eager-to-help family was insistent on debunking the stereotype that black people can’t swim. I was going to learn. They tried everything.

My sister placed her hands under my back, urging me to just relax. Ever notice when someone tells you to “just relax” your body instantly does the opposite?

My girlfriend and my cousin encouraged me to hold my nose and stay under water as long as possible. I tightly squeezed my eyes shut so my contacts wouldn’t escape and forced my body weight against the properties naturally pushing me back to the pool’s surface.

After what felt like an eternity, I let myself slowly rise, careful to not further tangle the bundle of hair rolled up into a not-so-secure ponytail. My spectators looked on approvingly. I nodded with a smile -- surprised at the length of time I was able to remain underwater. They commended my success, and then I was quickly moved on to the next step.

It was time to try floating again.

Except it wasn’t.

Of course, I was thankful for their efforts, but I'd had enough for that day -- or maybe that week or month. What I wanted to do was go back to the “lazy river,” a shallow pool with a slow current that made a short lap around the hotel. Earlier that day, my 8-year-old cousin accompanied me along the artificial stream while I parked myself securely on a bright blue inner tube. It was the first time I had been able to hoist myself up on one of the contraptions.

That was my proud moment. That was progress. For me.

I was able to enjoy the flow of the water without panicking and frantically feeling for a wall to clasp onto or sand to dig my feet in. It was freeing. It was the baby step I needed at that moment.

But I never made it back to the “lazy river” because I was too embarrassed to return to what my mother mistakenly kept calling the “kiddie pool.”

Now I’m back in the States and I’ve returned to the irregular routine of my life. Registration for swimming classes at my local pool open on Monday. That excites me. But I know I’m not ready.

What I am prepared to do is simply visit the facility at least once a week (and hope there aren’t too many children under the age of five putting me to shame). Some days I plan to just sit there and splash around a bit. Other days I might try holding my breath underwater again. Who knows? I might even try floating. All I know is I’m going to do it at my own pace. And I am going to try.