Aquaphobia in the Aftermath

The British and Americans have been drowning women for centuries. Officially, the method for this punishment was the ducking stool, and one of its first documented uses was in 1597. The ducking stool was a medieval apparatus derived from the older cucking stool, a means akin to stocks, used to publicly humiliate women who defied social norms or men who engaged in petty crimes, such as swindling a customer.

The ducking stool, however, not only put the offender on public display but was designed specifically to plunge her (it was almost exclusively used on women) into a river or lake. It consisted of a wooden chair, which the woman was fastened into with rope or iron. The chair hung from one end of a wooden beam, which would then be swung—by a man—out over a river. The judge—also a man—determined how many times the woman bolted into the chair would be plunged down into the frigid water. If the sentence was more than one ducking, it was not so much a punishment as a death sentence. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “repeated duckings routinely proved fatal, the victim dying of shock or drowning.”

All you had to do to end up in the ducking stool was to speak too loudly, to share your opinions too freely, or to criticize a man. You had to be a “scold,” a poorly defined term that—throughout Europe and America—had simply come to mean a woman who annoyed men. For American women, being a scold was still a crime as recently as 1972 until a judge in New Jersey finally struck it down.

The punishment of ducking, however, fell out of favor in the 1800s. Yet it continues as a form of combat survival training—where it still results in rare drownings. According to Wikipedia, the U.S. Department of State now considers “submersion of the head in water” a form of torture, blacklisting countries that persist in ducking as corporal punishment.

This is why it pays to know history. This stuff seeps into our subconscious. It’s the groundwater to our social roots. We can’t extract the poison if we don’t know that it’s there.

*             *             *

I hadn’t thought there was an aftermath to the assault in the swimming pool. I had swum at a beach in Pattaya and in a resort pool in Phuket, Thailand. Across the U.S., I swam in hotel pools, four or five feet deep. Vegas. Atlantic City. Tucson. But I always made sure my toes touched the bottom. And I never put my head in the water. I didn’t think about these things. I didn’t decide to do them. I just did them, the way we breathe. The way the heart pumps blood.

There hadn’t been any consequences for Top or Allan. So I didn’t think there were any for me.

*             *             *

Then, the summer I was 32 years old, I jumped off the end of a dock into Lake Chelan.

It’s a funny thing, discovering you were traumatized when you thought you weren’t. It’s funny because the brain is good at tricking itself. It’s true that human beings can survive almost anything. And if your brain is good at hiding triggers from you, you can tiptoe around the landmines. You may blunder through entire minefields not even knowing they are there. And then. One day.

BOOM.

I jumped off the dock and looked down into the water—at least eight or nine feet deep—and started screaming. I was still screaming when I went under.

My friend Kelsey and I had jumped off the dock as high and far as we could, leaping into the sky like the athletes we were. This meant when gravity pulled me in, I went deeper. Further than I wanted.

When I hit the water, I squeezed my eyes shut. I thrashed and fought, but water had never felt so heavy. The lake swallowed me and pulled me down. I was terrified, for absolutely no logical reason, of my feet hitting the sandy bottom. I was certain I would die if that happened. I had dove down in pools just as deep—deeper even. But suddenly, I was sure I wasn’t going to make it back to the surface. I was going to drown here, next to the dock piling. I was going to die.

My feet didn’t hit the bottom. And finally, I did surface, gasping. I was hyperventilating. It felt like a steel band had looped around my chest and now was squeezing tighter. I’ve had asthma attacks. This felt worse. I couldn’t stand the pressure of water on my rib cage.

I thrashed around, trying to pull myself up onto the dock. But even my fingertips couldn’t touch it. It was too high above me. And the shore seemed too far. So I looked around in desperation. A small yacht was moored at the dock. Terrified of the water below me, feeling like it would pull me back down, unable to breathe freely, I splashed toward the boat.

Its ladder wasn’t down, but a steel grab rail was within reach. My arm shot out of the water and latched onto it. With only the one rail, I couldn’t climb onto the boat—I did try—so I just clung there, pulling my legs out of the water and tucking my feet against the hull, hanging almost upside down. But no part of me was touching the water now, and I could finally breathe again.

The moment I caught my breath, I screamed, “Get it off me!”

Kelsey had surfaced by this point and noticed my frenzied splashing. She was treading water a couple yards off, from a safe distance, watching me with absolute bewilderment.

I locked eyes with her. “What’s happening to me?” I asked, my frontal lobes kicking in again.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Neither do I.” I started to laugh a little. This was stupid. It was ridiculous. It was only water.

But then she began to swim over to me, and I shouted, “Don’t touch me!”

She looked stunned. So was I.

To her everlasting credit, she said in a calming voice, “I won’t. I won’t.”

It took us both a long time to coax my body back into the water. I immediately began hyperventilating again. She tried to calm me and help me tread water. But all the skills I’d had as a child were gone. Exactly as if someone had sliced those neurons out of my brain. “I just need to get out,” I said.

She stayed with me, guiding me to the shore, talking me through it, reassuring me I was almost there—all the while staying an arm’s length off like I had asked. She was the first person in my life to handle my PTSD with compassion and respect. We both knew what I was feeling was absurd. We also knew it was real.

I crawled onto the beach and collapsed, panting. Having no idea what had just happened to me.

*             *             *

I had never forgotten the assault in the pool. But I didn’t think it had impacted me. It would be years more before I connected my near-drowning in a public pool with my panic attack at Lake Chelan.

Later that day, I went out on her family’s motorboat. I was okay on boats. Not great. But okay. I loved kayaking on Lake Union, even though it frightened me, too.

Kelsey, her mom, and some new friends of ours were going water skiing. I had been eager to try it. But now…

When it was my turn, I tightened the straps on my life jacket and set my sunglasses in the glove compartment, and I walked back to the ladder. I lowered myself to the last rung, water lapping at my feet. And I stayed there.

I was still there when someone said, “Go ahead and let go. We’ll help out after you’re in the water.”

But I couldn’t.

I tried and tried. I shouted at my brain, LET THE FUCK GO!

But my hands had clamped down on the ladder rails, and I couldn’t move. I’m a trained dancer. I’ve always been athletic, and controlling my body is the one thing I’ve always been able to count on. But I couldn’t. I stared at my hands in disbelief.

Finally, one of the men on the boat—a kind, middle-aged man who had worked as a lifeguard and probably had seen this before—said, “It’s okay. You don’t have to.”

I climbed back aboard and sat down and reached for my sunglasses. My hands were shaking so violently, I couldn’t put them on. After poking myself in the eye a couple times, I finally folded them up and tucked them between my thighs.

*             *             *

I watched Kelsey and her mom and our new friends water ski all afternoon. The young woman who had joined us was also a novice and kept splashing down, face first. She always came up laughing.

See? I told my brain. See? No one’s getting hurt. And it looks fun. 

But of course, that’s what I had believed before.

One of the primary tasks of any brain—from chickadee to Indian elephant—is to detect danger. After trauma, the brain has learned that it didn’t do a very good job of that, so it ratchets up the sensitivity meter. This is why anything that even remotely reminds survivors of the original trauma can send us into paroxysms of panic. The brain is saying, Yup. I didn’t do so good last time. My bad. But watch me now. I got this. You’re not going anywhere near that water.

So I wondered how far my brain would take this. Would I have to give up kayaking? Would I even be able to take a bath? I had recently read Taylor Clark’s excellent book Nerve: Poise under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, so I knew that if I didn’t tackle it immediately after such a disastrous experience, the fear was only going to get worse. The longer I waited to get back in the water, the harder it would be.

So, after everyone else had taken a turn, I spoke up. “I’d like to try again,” I said.

Everyone looked at me.

They helped me check and double-check my life jacket. And then I went back to the ladder and climbed down.

“You’ll float with the life jacket,” Kelsey assured me.

Float was a nice word. I liked that word. My brain trusted it. And I let go.

I fell back into the water, clutching my knees to my chest and landing like a cork, bobbing there. I shivered with terror, but I told my brain it was just the cold. I grinned wide with the triumph of getting this far. Because this wasn’t water skiing anymore. This was a chess match between me and my own brain. So far, I was winning.

They tossed the skis to me, and one submerged a few feet below the surface. I looked down. Big mistake.

Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the United States. Which I unfortunately knew because I am a research freak before I travel. Some things, it turns out, really are better left unknown.

I started hyperventilating again. Sunlight filtered through the water, which got colder and darker far, far below me until I couldn’t see any further. The iron band clamped again around my ribs. If I kept looking down, I was going to pass out.

EYES UP! I shouted at my brain. I homed in on the back of the motorboat, my friends watching me anxiously. I looked past them to the shoreline and slowly my heart rate dropped out of the danger zone. I fumbled around in the water for the ski, fixing my gaze on the pine-edged shore, and found it. I looked down just long enough to lock my foot in.

And so with the other leg.

My team in the boat coached me on the low squat to adopt in the water before they hit the gas and how to stand once they started. And we were off to the races.

So I did water ski that day. Which means I proudly did about half a dozen face plants into Lake Chelan. Each time I plunged hard into the lake, I screamed at my brain: NOT DEAD YET, MOTHERFUCKER!

After the real skiers decided to call it a day, the women stripped off their life jackets and jumped off to swim. I watched them splashing and laughing. It looked fun. I tugged my life jacket straps tighter and walked onto the bow and jumped as high as I could, screaming the whole time. I hit the water and went under but only briefly before I surfaced in my life jacket, giggling with a terrified thrill as I did a few strokes and looked down, trying to teach my brain the water wouldn’t kill me.

Back at the shore, Kelsey and her mom got me a swim ring. So before the sun set, I paddled all around the dock and much further out, the two of them leisurely swimming around me. Kelsey generously went out with me for an extra day of swimming on the lake. But I just couldn’t put my face in the water again no matter how hard I tried.

I’ve taken swim lessons now, and I still practice when I can. But when people see me, they all use the same word: thrash.

Okay then.

I don’t swim anymore. I can’t. I thrash.

It’s still an improvement from where I was, after Allan and Top’s assault.

I want to do a triathlon someday. I don’t know if I ever will be able to. The crush of bodies at the gun. The open water frothing white, sight lines blocked by so many swimmers. The dark lake beneath me, my face turned down to it the entire 750 meters. I just don’t know.

But I do know I’ll keep trying.

Top and Allan may have taken swimming from me. But I don’t want that to be the end of the story.

I want it to be this—me, thrashing around, trying to find the fun in something I once loved.

Me.

Never giving up without a fight.

But also, let it be this—

No one should have taken it from me in the first place.

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