inspiration · mental health

Treading Water

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I grew up in the middle of downtown Atlanta. As a result, I had very little experience with pools, or swimming in general. Occasionally, a neighbor would take me with their kids to a neighborhood pool they knew about, and we’d splash around in the shallow end, and play underwater a little, thinking we were really doing something. We were. We were having fun.

When I got a little older, I went to spend the summer with an older cousin. She was a teacher, and needed a couple of days to finish up before summer vacation began, so she asked me if I could swim. Naturally, I said yes…what kid doesn’t love the thought of spending the day at the pool, even if it’s by yourself? (In those days, there was no ‘stranger danger’. We went all over the place by ourselves.) Once there, however, the shallow end quickly lost its appeal when I saw all the ‘big’ kids going to the other end and jumping off the diving board.

I should inject here that I had zero experience with diving boards. I had never been in a pool that had one. Ever.

What fun, I thought, never stopping to think that they were jumping into very deep water. And when I followed after them, I almost drowned. The lifeguard, bless him, jumped in with his glasses on to save me. I never mentioned it to anyone for fear I’d never be allowed to go swimming again.

My life changed pretty drastically as I transitioned into my teen years. I lost my mother. My dad remarried. We moved to the ‘burbs. I gained a whole new family. And I began to be exposed to many things I’d only heard or read about…one of which was how the ‘other’ half lived. One of my new Aunts and Uncles lived within walking distance from our house, and they built a pool in their back yard. Not just a blow-up, either…a full Olympic-sized in-ground pool.

With a diving board.

Previous experience taught me to stay in the shallow, and because by this time I was freely admitting that I could NOT swim, no one pushed me to venture out. One day, I was goofing around, pushing my new mom around in an inner tube, and accidentally strayed too close to the deep end. My foot slipped on the slope, and I went down. Panic ensued, and although it was a very tense few minutes, my mom was able to save me from my own foolishness. I spent a very long time after that wearing the Ski Belt of Shame. It mortified me that nobody trusted me to be in the pool without it, but that ski belt helped me learn something incredibly valuable…how to tread water.

Treading water is a learned skill, just like swimming. It helps you hold your place, to hold your head above the water. You don’t go anywhere, you are not traveling, you just…survive. All life forms innately know how to die, but we must be taught how to survive the events that seek to deprive us of our existence, either by experience or example. Even more importantly, we must also be taught how to thrive. Any fool can drown, but you must be taught to hold your own when life is trying to pull you under. And if you really want to get somewhere in life…to thrive…then you’ve got to learn how to swim.

Too often in my life, I’ve come close to drowning, literally and metaphorically, but somehow I’ve managed to keep my head above water. There is no shame in that…it’s why I’m still here. I’m very proud of that skill, even more in some ways than I am of being able to swim. Swimming is great, no doubt (and yes, I did finally learn how), but there are days when it’s all you can do just to tread water. It’s in those days…those moments, when you feel like the undertow is doing its best to suck you under, that you know that treading water may be absolutely the most valuable skill you will ever learn.

Life has provided me many teachers in many forms…nasty divorces, custody battles, financial difficulties, deaths, incarcerations…you name it. Through it all, the skill of treading water enabled me to get through it when others may have drowned. The older I get, the more I have realized how valuable it is to be able to do that, and how very much I have taken that skill for granted in the past. Not everyone has that skill…but I do.

More recently, I have finally really begun to learn the skill of thriving. Not only can I hold my head above water, I can also actively swim toward shore to get out of the water entirely. I can be safe. I can be secure. And I can effect my own rescue, without waiting for someone to come and save me.

Learning this skill is still very much a work in progress. I am continuously practicing that skill to improve it on a daily basis. It takes a lot of hard work to pull yourself out of the water, especially if you’ve been treading for a long time. Treading is exhausting work. Swimming is both more tiring and more freeing at the same time. Two years ago, I began the work of learning how to thrive in earnest. I was making huge progress, and had the shore in sight.

Last year, the undertow caught me, and tried very hard to suck me back out to sea. Someone less skilled in treading water may have drowned. But Michael Phelps has nothing on me. I am a Champion Water Treader, and I am very proud of that fact.

Now that I’ve caught my breath, I am beginning the process of once again swimming toward shore. I’ve got my eye on a nice little lighthouse in the distance, so I am striking out toward that. It may take me a while to get there, but that’s ok. I’ve got nothing but time, and with every stroke I take, my skill is getting stronger.

Dory…I’m coming for you.

Check out Jill’s blog- Chasing the Phoenix

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4 thoughts on “Treading Water

    1. Thanks so much! Sometimes it just takes more to get my thoughts across. And sometimes I just get lost in the purging aspect of writing. I appreciate you taking the time to read it through.

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