My family has a cottage on a lake in rural Ontario, Canada. In lieu of travel and family vacations to exotic locations we spent most of our time off at this magical place.
When I was little, my extended family used to enjoy spending time up there together. I had four older cousins and I idolized them; I thought they were beautiful, animated and godlike. Unfortunately for me, with a significant age gap, they thought I was annoying, clingy and lame. I remember being very excited and nervous on those rare occasions when they chose to include me.
The lake is small and shallow. As an adult, I have to walk out at least a hundred feet for the water to reach over my head. As kids, we had access to a homemade raft made from solid wood which weighed a ton, nothing like the lightweight foam contraptions I see around the lake today. We would push it out to the middle with great effort so we could compete in jumping and diving off, something that wasn’t safely available closer to shore.
Even at that age I remember being scared of deep water. I used to imagine monsters and animated plant life with tentacle like appendages ready to pull me to the bottom. Of course I wouldn’t admit that to my cousins and did my best to hide my fear hoping that would somehow convince them that I was mature and cool enough to be around them.
It was the 80’s and plastic shoes were all the rage, most cottage seasons started with a trip to Zellers to grab a pair. They would be promptly christened as lake shoes on arrival.
Walking out from shore, as the water got deeper, the bottom would get murkier and your feet would sink into the clay and sand. It wasn’t unusual for someone to lose one or both shoes yielding shrieks from the victim and laughter from the rest. They would then have to press their bare feet into the muck to help push the raft back to shore; one of my first experiences with the concept of “chicken”.
In hindsight, my cousins were also scared of deep water and the bottom of the lake. The jelly shoes were a sort of armour we all shared but didn’t discuss; an illusion of safety against imagined demons. At the time I was too absorbed in my own fear and trying to be cool and accepted that it didn’t occur to me that admitting my feelings probably would have brought us closer together and helped me work through it.
As an adult, I’m still not crazy about deep water. I feel momentary panic when seaweed wraps around my ankles or I realize I can’t see the bottom. But I also recognize this fear is mostly in my head and rationalize that I am fortunate enough to swim in lakes that are free of most monsters. I accept that I have these irrational feelings, I can’t change them, but I can choose my reaction. I can choose to acknowledge my fear and move forward bravely with awareness and without a crutch. I may even choose to share that fear with a trusted friend.
Sometimes, when I am lonely and feel disconnected and I desperately seek comfort in others, I remind myself that there are lessons in fear and am grateful they can help me stay safe. For example, if I ever go swimming in the Amazon I will be grateful for my apprehensive and fearful mammalian brain reminding me of dangers in the deep. But in the relatively safe lake of my youth my fear is irrational, outdated, and holds me back.
I calmly remind myself that I am strong, smart, and independent. I am grateful for jelly shoes for getting me in the water as a kid but I’m happy I’ve grown enough as an adult that I can swim without them.