Hard River to Cross: Two Lessons in Facing My Fear of Water

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


I'm afraid of open water, & I always have been. I remember being a little kid, 9 or 10 years old, & being terrified to go into Crystal Lake, the perfectly nice, members-only body of water that I went to with my best friend Christina what seemed like every day of the summer. I'd yelp whenever my toes touched something that wasn't just sand, & I finally stopped jumping off the diving board because I couldn't bear to feel the slimy stuff that grew on the ladder back out.

Before you ask: Yes, I can swim! I'm not afraid of, like, drowning. I'm just afraid of... I don't know, of stuff. Of creatures. When I'm in a lake, I'm scared of fish, of feeling something brush up against my foot or my thigh that I can't see through murky waters. And when I'm in the ocean, I'm scared of the same thing, but on a larger scale - of God-knows-what lies beneath the surface wriggling up against me or worse. My fear isn't even of sharks, specifically, like it is for most people. I mean, sharks are scary, yeah. But I'm also afraid of crabs & eels & jellyfish whatever the hell else lurks in there.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I recently went on a week-long vacation. To an ocean. To the Atlantic Ocean, specifically. I spent seven days relaxing on Hilton Head Island with my mom, Christina, & three other beloved friends in celebration of a few milestone birthdays, including my own. Because we were on an island, it follows that we spent some time at the beach, which was... hard for me. I waded about hip-deep into the water a few times, but I ran flailing out of it whenever sea creatures revealed themselves to be in close proximity. I yelped when I stepped on a sand dollar, I called it a day when my mom got stung by a jellyfish, & I nearly cried when I saw a guy catch a stingray.

Still, I wanted to force myself to keep facing my fear - so I bought a Groupon for a two-hour stand-up paddleboarding class on the May River. Early one morning, four of us drove out to Bluffton, SC, where we were greeted by our instructor, a toned & tanned 50-something yogi-slash-photographer named Roddy. After a brief how-to during which I nearly keeled over with anxiety, we got out on the water. 

And it was... so, so pleasant. Not scary at all, despite the fact that I was scared as hell. Maybe I was compelled by the fact that I'd spent $100 on it, or maybe I just didn't want to ruin the experience for everyone else, but I wasn't nearly as panicky as I thought I'd be. It was a surprisingly calming experience, out there in the sun, in the peace & quiet, trying something new & foreign & borderline terrifying. Ever vigilant about water-dwelling critters, I committed to not falling into the river, & no one was more surprised than me that I was able to stay on my board the whole time. But as it turns out, I was so proud of myself that at one point, as we hung out on our boards on calm waters, I decided to celebrate my accomplishment... by jumping in! 

(That part was short-lived, but... hey, I did it.)


I had a great time stand-up paddleboarding, but it didn't cure me of my fear of what lies beneath. Still, I decided to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone by going sailing on the Potomac River last weekend with my friend Emily, who kindly invited me to join her on her father's boat.

Yes, I'm scared of boats, too. Obviously. Because boats could collapse, you see? And then I'd be in the water with all the creatures. Shudder. (And yes, this was quite an ironic & amusing fear for me to have while I was dating a member of the U.S. Coast Guard - & even for both of these recent water excursions, when I was joined by a friend who's a Navy vet. Sailors, man.)

Early Sunday morning, four of us made our way to an adorable marina in Alexandria, VA. With the new Capital Wheel visible across the water, we boarded a little boat & set off... which is when my anxiety kicked in. Thankfully, I only succumbed to about three minutes of serious panic before finally evening out & enjoying the morning, albeit nervously. If I thought too hard about where I was or what I was doing, I started to freak out again, but for the most part, it was a perfectly lovely two hours on the water - & it helped that the shore was visible on both sides. I mean, how perfect are these blues?

Am I still afraid of water? YEP. But I'm proud of myself for pushing past my absurd fear of fish & sharks & other slimy things & making some memories I can hang onto for awhile. 

Because while I've moved around a lot, I've always lived along major rivers - the Cuyahoga, the Ohio, the Potomac, the Piscataqua, the Navesink. I'm not much of a nature gal, but if there's one thing I find comforting, it's the sight of open water, no matter how much I don't want to go in it. Blue sky over blue water? From Ohio to D.C. & everywhere in between, that's what feels the most like home to me - & it feels good to make some peace with it.

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