Breathe In, Blow Out

I love the feel of the water, cool and smooth against my skin. The clear, blue ripples are enticing, waiting for me to dive into them leaving the smallest splash, and floating on top of nothingness. I learned to swim when I was six, in an indoor pool that was warm and filled with old people doing water aerobics. I don’t remember much besides having to jump from the hard concrete into a stranger’s arms that I was supposed to trust with my life to not let me drown. I wasn’t afraid of drowning per se, it was more the feeling of water clogging my nostrils and filling up inside my body as I frantically tried to reach out for some bubble of air to free myself from the never ending liquid filling up inside me.

It was the reason I started to hold my nose whenever I dipped beneath the chlorinated water. It became a habit that was hard to break. When I jumped into the pool, I would have to bring my fingers up to my nose, pinching it closed before I could leap off the side and join my friends in the water below. Each time I dipped my head under the water, whether we were playing as mermaids or some other underwater game, I’d have to hold onto my nose. It felt like there was something dragging me down, and I couldn’t swim nearly as quickly as my friends. After awhile I was tired of falling behind and I became tired of holding my nose.

I resorted to nose plugs. I had a bright orange pair that could hang around my neck when I wasn’t using them by an elastic band. Trying to dive into the pool one armed disrupted my balance. And at camp, diving and swimming were the only things that made sense. I felt out of place with my bright orange nose plugs that hurt as they pressed my nose together. If I jumped into the pool with them on at the wrong angle, they would pop off, water rushing into my nose and me panicking because I was taken unawares. Friends would point and whisper behind hands when we were waiting on the edge of the pool for our swim instructors to tell us what to do. Whether or not they were pointing and snickering at me, with the hard, plastic plugs across my nose, or someone else standing nearby, I didn’t know. I didn’t need to know. My cheeks turned red from embarrassment anyway, and I just wished we could get swimming, so that the water could cover up the fact that I needed to plug my nose to swim.

After awhile, my counselors became fed up with my near-drownings and took me aside. They were going to teach me how to breathe out of my nose when I went swimming. When they told me, I thought that I had to be dreaming. Having some sort of nightmare that was bound to end the second I hit the water, and got scared. But, it turned out as the minutes ticked on and they did their best to convince me to learn and get rid of my nose plug, that I was going to wake up anytime soon. I was really at camp, this was really happening and they were really going to make me do it whether I liked it or not. I wasn’t really sure why they had even asked in the first place.

This only made me feel more out of place than having to wear the orange pain across on my face like some kind of branding. I felt embarrassed that I had to be taught how to do something that most of my other bunkmates already knew how to do. It made me a bit more determined to learn, but scared as well. I was terrified of the thought of the water flowing in and never coming out. I had heard and seen movies of people that had drowned and it scared me, even though I loved the water. I loved to swim and feel light and swift in the water, but as long as I felt safe, I felt fine. With the orange plugs I felt safe. Without them, I felt vulnerable.

Even though my counselors took me to the shallow end of the pool, where I could easily stand and lift my head out of the water if I was too nervous, I was still terrified. My stomach began to ache and I desperately wanted to just go home and never come back again. At twelve, it seemed like the end of the world to me. I was told at first just to practice slowly breathing in and out. If anything, the slow breathing helped to calm my panic. I wasn’t sure how it was going to help me; the last thing I wanted to do was breathe in the water when my head hit it, choke and die. I think they must have known how nervous I was and were trying to prevent me from having a real panic attack before my head even hit the water. They asked me to place my hands on the wet concrete and to hold on as I kept taking slow breaths. I held on so tightly that my hands started to numb and I was worried that I would never be able to feel the tips of my fingers again. My heart was thumping, regardless of the breathing. I couldn’t get what I was about to do out of my head and I hoped and prayed that they wouldn’t say the words I knew they were going to say. I hoped they weren’t going to tell me it was time.

“Now hold your breath and just stick your head into the water up to your nose, breathe out, and come back up and do it again.”

I looked down at the water warily; it was sloshing around from the other kids splashing around me. I held tight onto the concrete wall, wishing I could somehow dig my nails into the hard ground for more support. The only thought running through my mind came from that movie, “The Neverending Story”, well one of them at least, where the kid gets up on the diving board and the water below becomes a rushing waterfall of doom. I was convinced the same thing was going to happen to me, and I would fall into an abyss, without protection for my nose. I tried to close my eyes and do what they said, not wanting to feel even more out of place and create some kind of hysterical scene. Dipping my head down slightly, I reluctantly followed the advice of the counselor, breathing out as hard as I could as soon as my nose submerged. Bubbles popped up all around my face and as soon as I was out of air, my head popped back up.

“That wasn’t so bad was it?”

You have to be kidding me. Those were the only words that seemed to be flowing through my mind. I couldn’t even keep my head down for longer than I had air left in my body. I probably even peeked up before all the air was gone. I want to go home.

They made me keep doing it, except once that I got the hang of it, I was supposed to tilt my head to the side, breathe in and dip my head back down and breathe out. I did it for what seemed like hours, but had in fact been less than one. After I felt comfortable enough to take my hands off the wall and wade out a bit into the water, I tried swimming around with my newly learned trick. The first time I got water up my nose and even swallowed some of it, making a face as I did so and coughing, trying to get the water dislodged and open my airways. I think it was the whole prospect of actually doing more than one thing at once that made for my mishap. When breathing in and out is all you’ve been doing for an hour, it’s hard to add something else to the mix.

© Alexis Leno 2006

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