Learning to Swim#
This post should have photos of the things I fear. It does not because I’m terrified to look at them. I do have photos of me in swimming gear and my pool, but by learning to swim, I have not conquered my fear. I merely face it.
If you want the TLDR; of this post, you might want to check out my progress table.
I am terrified of water tanks, stepped wells, regular wells, temple tanks, over head water tanks, monolithic statues partially or fully submerged. I’m not fully scared of oceans, rivers, ponds or lakes. What I have is termed submechanophobia, but oddly enough I’m not too scared of watching documentaries of the Titanic Wreck. I’m absolutely terrified of looking at even photos or videos of the former stuff though.
I’m beyond terrified of these things because in my ancestral home in Hampi, we have a well in the bathroom. This is par for the course for the older homes in South India - especially older homes of Brahmins (that’s a topic for later). We also had a water tank, one built out of brick and concrete in the bathroom. It was massive to my childhood self, and it was about 6ft x 6ft x 3ft (length, breadth, and height) in size.
I used to bathe in the open, in a makeshift washroom which was used to wash utensils, in fact, for almost my entire life, because my grandmother promised me that I could and no one could ever question my right to do so. The house now has two other bathrooms, so even though the water tank is long gone, broken apart at the behest of my grandmother and maternal aunt, I still do not enter because the well is still there, and I can see the tank in my imagination quite well.
One of my paternal aunt claims that when I was a child, she had once scared me by attempting to dunk me into that tank. She says this proudly (More on that in another post). I do not remember. All I remember whenever I think about tanks is death. Deeply terrifying death. Which is weird because I’ve assumed I do not fear death. I guess I am human after all.
Another thing I fear the most has something to do with the monolithic statues at Hampi. There is a Shiva Lingam in Hampi that I am absolutely terrified off. I visit it every time I go to Hampi. It is known as the Badava Lingam, and it is located next to the Narasimha statue near the entrance to the ruins. This phallic symbol absolutely terrifies me. I cannot look at photos of it, I sometimes have nightmares about it, and I randomly have a sinking feeling that wherever I am in the world, if I turn my head, I will see it. The reason I am so terrified of it is because of a Paternal Uncle who decided it was a great idea to make a 9 year old boy who was already terrified of wells to approach a barely-lit temple, which housed a 20 foot black monolith, surrounded by pitch-black water in the dusk. The temple does not have lights to this day, and this happened in 1998. I remember having to kneel down and being forced to touch the water so that I can put some on my head. I remember crying and telling him that I didn’t want to do this, but when have Indians known how to bring up a child?
From that day on, I had been terrified of the wells of Hampi, and of dimly-lit water bodies in general. I had never been near a stepped well, and I avoided that temple in particular for over 20 years. I visited it again, years later, when I read the Mahabharata by the Tungabhadra River, and I have visited the temple multiple times since. I don’t go close, I stay about 10ft away, but the last time I went there, in 2022, I asked the priest to pour some of the water on me. I stood closer, but I had my sister and mother with me. But I was still scared. One day I will write more about this particular feat, because it will probably be too incoherent with seemingly religious ramblings that I usually have when I speak about reading the epics by the Tungabhadra and about Hampi in general.
This entire section exists to help people that I have a very strong, and very particular phobia. I am not “scared of water” in the general sense of it. However, I have a very strong imagination and when I’m in the water, I remember these events extremely well.
Deciding to Learn to Swim#
I was not really scared of swimming pools, as long as they’re well lit. But I never ever sat next to a pool and put my feet into the water. I’m only aware of putting my feet into the Tungabhadra river, because she is home.
In February 2023, I began wondering if I should learn to swim. It’s an unvoiced dream, something I’d harboured all my life and I’d never ever imagined that I’d ever do. I didn’t tell anyone because the idea that I would want to swim would usually be followed by “first, learn to go to the main bathroom at Hampi.”
My family never really went about addressing this fear well. They were dismissive of it, and, like I described above, my Paternal family was horrendous about this fear. I was a stubborn child. I only recently learnt how to process my fear.
Why did I decide to learn to swim in February 2023? It was an odd thing. I was looking at Coorg for my next workation trip, and chose a resort which happened to have a pool. I told myself, isn’t it odd that I selected such a resort and didn’t know how to swim or had ever so much as sat by a pool? I began wondering if it would be even possible to learn to swim. I had made new friends in 2022, Mehul and Susrita, who were both accomplished swimmers. I was wondering how feasible it was to learn to swim. I was 35, almost 36 when these thoughts went on in my head.
I told myself that I’d tell none of my family. And I didn’t tell anyone, except for my mother. My closest friends knew, and some of them knew just how important this was. Truth be told, I didn’t think I’d return to more than one class.
Enrolling for Classes#
In February 2023, I decided to enroll for swimming lessons, and I began looking for schools around my house. I had other problems I somehow overcame thanks to a good friend. I have been anxious about my appearance since childhood. I was made fun of for being a fat child, and I’ve been left out of sports, games, and it eventually became such that I just hated being around other kids my age because of how alone they made me feel. To add to this, I especially hated wearing shorts. They would emphasize how fat my thighs were, and I didn’t want to relive this. I used to be the person who would wear jeans even in the hottest summers. In January 2023, I went to Auroville and had the toughest time walking around in jeans. While I switched to kurta trousers, I didn’t really have a great time with them either. My friend Shrayas joined me at Auroville for the first two days and while he was completely unaware of my feelings of self-esteem, he was strutting around in shorts and was rather nonchallant about it. It somehow struck me that I was being silly - although good luck to anyone who would have told me this to my face before my realization. I came back to Bangalore and began buying shorts. It is funny how I almost always wear only shorts now. I feel super comfortable wearing them, and if not for that one trip to Auroville and Shrayas telling me he’d join me on a mere whim, I would not have had that epiphany.
So in February, I was completely over my feelings for wearing shorts in public. I wore my shorts everywhere. I’m halfway certain that some of the shorts I wear now are mostly boxers, but shame be damned, I’m going to wear shorts.
So when my swimming lessons were to begin, I had the following concerns.
What gear to do I need?
Will the pool be sufficiently lit?
Will the coach throw me into the water for me to get over the fear?
Will I even go the second day?
Will I get powered swimming goggles? (I have myopia, and I am blind without my glasses.)
These were some of the questions I had, and I got answers for the glasses on Twitter. I was able to find powered swimming goggles and all the gear I needed at the Decathlon nearby.
For those shopping at Decathlon for powered lenses, the online shop lists the “power” as size, so I had to buy L:-5, because -5 is the nearest to the power I have. Buy something just a little lesser than what you have. I have -5.5 and -5.25 vision, so I picked -5.
I picked Zee Swim Academy just because it said it had a 50m long pool, and that it trained folks for competitions. The place has a great set of coaches for para-swimming competitions, and for state and national level children’s competitions. I enquired about the fees and signed up on February 9th, 2023.
My very first day, I was taught a bunch of warmup exercises, and I was asked to get into the pool using the ladder at the shallow end. I didn’t know what to expect. The water was cold, but fortunately, I’d shifted to cold water baths in October 2022. I was asked to wade around the water, to walk around the wall, until the 15m mark. At 15m, my shoulders were inside the water. I’m 5’7”, so the water was about 4” at that point. Then, I was asked to “bubble out”, which is to say, I put my head in the water, look around and exhale slowly. I was a little anxious, but managed to do this much. I did just this a couple of times that day, and after 30 to 40 minutes, was asked to get out of the pool and go home. As I took my first steps outside the pool, I realized that my body felt so much heavier. After 30 minutes in the water, I felt like I’d somehow forgotten my body weight.
You must understand, I’d never really exercised until then. I’d been to the gym for 3 months in 2014, and I’d done 3 months of Yoga in 2019, but I’d never managed to stay interested in any of these things. I was completely out of shape, but I wasn’t really getting into swimming to get fit or anything.
I returned the second day, and my anxiety was reduced. I was taught how to float, and I must admit that I capsized like a poorly built cruise ship multiple times. I felt afraid kicking myself forward from the centre of my lane, away from the wall, and I felt panic dawning on me as I put my head under the water and lifted my legs up.
The first week, I couldn’t even float very well. Sure, I went a bit forward, and I managed to float a little, but not in a straight line. I was going diagonally, and when the coach asked me to kick my legs, I could manage only one or two kicks and I fumbled, standing up out of fear.
The second week, some stuff changed, but most of it managed to stay the same. I could float, but kicking and going ahead were super difficult. The coach asked me to use the kickboard to practice floating and kicking as I moved forward, but I’d stop thrice before reaching the 15m mark. Some of my other batch mates were at 25m already.
I learnt somethings about myself, and about teaching in general from this experience. The coach was super appreciative about any and all progress, and managed to cheer me on for showing up and staying the entire hour. And I began catching myself every time I reacted negatively towards failure. It is weird, because I have constantly told myself I do not fear failure. I thought I did not. It’s how I switched my career multiple times, how I managed to learn things without giving up, especially when it came to my career. And for physical activities, I just didn’t have that same attitude. It might have something to do with the fact that I was ridiculed for not performing the morning assembly exercises at school - we had a PE teacher who should have never been allowed near children - then again, my school in Bangalore didn’t have more than a handful of faculty who should have been near children. I saw the children at ZSA perform and take their coach’s loud admonitions sportively. They cheered one another on, even in a sport that was not a team activity like football or cricket. It was very different from the atmosphere I was used to.
I went to classes each week, and my growth was slow, but it was visible. After two months of classes, I managed to reach the 25m mark by swimming with the kickboard, although doing so with the freestyle strokes was hard. I would stop multiple times to reach the point, and even then, at each stop I’d pause for minutes to catch my breath.
Months Two to Three - Fear is the Mind Killer#
One day, after 2 months of classes, my coach called me to the deep end of the pool. I had not crossed the 25m mark, where I had to bounce up and down to keep my head out of the water. I was terrified, but my batch mates were also with me, and just recently, I’d been reminded of the one thing that would make a world of difference in my journey.
The Litany Against FearI must not fear.Fear is the mind-killer.Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.I will face my fear.I will permit it to pass over me and through me.And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.Only I will remain.Frank Herbert - Dune.
When I stood over the deep end, trying to get into it so I could swim to safety, all I told myself was this. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I repeated this under my breath several times, and then jumped into the water. The first time my toes touched the bottom of the deep end, I felt… nothing. I didn’t feel like I’d die, I didn’t feel like I’d erupt from fear. I really felt nothing. Only I remained. My choices mattered. I began kicking my feet, and my body began to remember that it could swim. I rose upwards, and I began moving forward, toward the safety of the wall.
Doing it again a second and third time that day was still terrifying, and I hoped I would not have to do it again for a while. But I felt good. I did it. I was in the deep end. I still didn’t know how to swim well, or honestly at all, but I did this.
Setting Goals and Feeling Good#
I returned to swimming classes in July, after wrapping up a bunch of things I needed to in my private life, and I was doing worse than before. My batch mates had reached the deep end. I didn’t feel left behind, since everyone was cheering me on, and telling me that I’d do it in no time.
I was still stopping thrice to reach 25m, and for the rest of July, I spent my efforts on building my endurance. I tried to show up four times a week, and I pushed myself to swim till 25m every time. Things managed to improve, but I was still faltering and having trouble with swimming freestyle. But things improved.
You could say I spent about 3 months’ worth of classes before I managed to swim to the 35m mark with the kickboard. I was still uncomfortable there, and I stuck close to the wall, but surely yet steadily, I managed to push myself further and further.
And one day, I decided to return to the deep end. Fear is the mind-killer, I told myself, and I jumped back into the deep end and swam freestyle. To my surprise, I swam 35m without stopping. I must have made 18 stroke repetitions in all, and I managed to go without stopping.
From that day on, I have returned to the pool, urging myself to swim to the deep end. It took me almost 4 months, but I did it. I manage to swim 300m without stopping when using the kickboard, and without the kickboard, I manage to get to the deep end (50m) only stopping once or twice at most. I completed 700m on August 28, 2023, and I’m managing to jump into the deep end, and I’m able to dunk myself until the bottom and rise upwards again, confident that I will not fear.
I will not fear.
Something changes in you, when you face your fear. It dawns on you that somehow, doing the thing that you are terrified of, gives you willpower and energy. It doesn’t make you powerful, or a different person. Fear, quite simply, is the mind-killer. I am still not going to go near wells, stepped wells, overhead water tanks, reservoirs, or even near overly large water drums, but I will push myself to swim as much as I can.
Learn to swim. You will love every minute of it.
Distance Per Session
First month of lessons, unable to cross the 15m mark out of fear. Still having trouble with freestyle swimming, can do 2 strokes before having to stand because I can’t breathe.
I managed to get till the 20 m marker, but I was still unable to freestyle swim. I was flailing all over the place, and I was capsizing.
100m (not sure)
I skipped about 2 weeks in April, mostly because I was out of town, but I returned mid-April I think. I was still struggling to complete laps of 25m.
I am still at the 25m mark, but my coach helped me dive into the deep end 2-3 times on my last day before my break.
Didn’t go to the classes; attempted to swim in my neighborhood pool, but didn’t enjoy it as such.
300m – 500m
I returned to classes after a 45day break, was able to go till the 25m mark, but for the entire of July, I stuck to 25m. Managed to do about 10 laps in all by the end of July.
I began focussing on my leg skills, using the kickboard to go till 25, and then 35m without stopping. Once I managed to do a week of 35m laps, my friends helped motivate me to go to the deep end once more. I dove into the deep end a couple of times, but I’m still unable to thread water. I want to build up the endurance to do multiple laps of this pool.
August 21, 2023
I’m managing to do 150m using the kickboard, and I’m feeling the burn on my legs. It is a great feeling, being in the water again. And the best part is that I’m making tangible progress now!
August 24 2023
300m freestyle; 250m kickboard; 50m backstroke.
August 28, 2023
300m freestyle (2-3 stops per 50m, but I’m working on taking in 2 sets of strokes before I take a breath); 300m with the kickboard (I do the entire 300m without stopping now) 100m backstroke (with kickboard) - I did 25m x 2 sets (so that’s 50m x 2).
That’s 700m in all!