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Fear and freedom

My Fear

by Darrin Roles

“But man is not only made by history — history is made by man” Eric Fromme

Considering the sometimes-unbelievable realizations, that our emotions don’t resemble the truth, objective truth, or reality. This can be a difficult pill to swallow. Especially when it comes to fear! However, there are a growing number of people who argue that there is no such thing as objective reality, everything is subjective. Too far for me to go, beyond this post.

Fear is real, I know; trust me. But is it? My guts don’t lie…. The gut feeling is real, right?

Yes, the gut response might be real, you may perceive danger. (A protective historical stress response for safety.) Please remember your emotional feelings feed into your immune response and the physiology is inseparable. Thus fear, elicits a stress response, creating hormonal changes in the body, the nervous system engages, a host of electrical and chemical changes prepare the body for the event, real or perceived. Fight or flight. This may be from a previous event, and unrelated to the present moment.

“When the soul suffers too much, it can develop a taste for misfortune”. Albert Camus

The words ‘I shit myself’ may be just one of those bodily changes that can happen, maybe?

Early on Sunday morning in April a group of complete novice open water swimmers prepare themselves for a cold-water mass start into a lake. “This will resemble what the triathlon swim start is like,” announces the instructor. The instructions are: After 3-2-1 go, run as fast as you can and get in the water and swim out to that buoy and back. About 50 meters. Short distance, for beginners.

3-2-1 Go….. running towards the lake, nervous, yes!

Hit the water, cold shock smashes into my face. I didn’t expect this to have such a strong impact on me mentally. Gasp reflex, as cold water, 12c washes over my face and body. I did have a wet suit on. Trying to prepare yourself for the unprepared is tricky. I managed to get out to the buoy and back with arms whirling. Now once again on dry land. Home, safe.

“Ok let’s try again, those at the back now go to the front, you need to know what it’s like when swimmers swim over the top of you.”

I heard the words, yep. Not sure I liked the sound of them though.

3-2-1 GO…… run. Hitting the water with the anxiety knowing all the group is behind you, and will come crashing over you any second now. Makes you swim faster for sure. Avoidance of danger. Or you panic and get caught in the melee, rumpus, commotion.

After several episodes it does become manageable, knowing you can find some inner something, that keeps you from panic, usually it comes down to CALM DOWN. Relax. Breath……. The lack, or over breathing in itself causes panic, anxiety and fear.

The weekly sessions on Sunday mornings are aimed at preparing you for an open water swim in a triathlon scenario, combined with an introduction to open-water swimming.

Week 1 the start… done. Phew.

Week 2 the swim.

“Sadly, the temperature has dropped”, reports the instructor. “We thought of cancelling but what do you think , as a group”?

Murmurs, mumbles, groans, and grunts… “well we might as well, as we are all hear” anonymous.

“Ok, right let’s go”.

Single file into the lake 10c the new lower temperature. Only 2degrees different, what can that do?

Swimmers set of off on the 400m and 750-meter swim loops, out to the buoys, turn and follow the course. Clear Sunday morning skies. Cold air temperature. It all seemed so pleasant in the car on the way over.

Anxiety building as my turn approached for lake entry, the other swimmers have set off towards the first buoy, just in sight not far. Some were already making their way to the far buoys 200m out in the lake. Splash and in, “off you go”…. The water Temp of 10c was unbelievably cold, harsh. So much colder than 12c. The 2-degree’s difference is indescribable.

Approaching the first buoy, the closest one, was a struggle . My head was numb really cold and my face felt like stinging from needles or something that causes pain. The hands suffer my fingertips being to complain. This is not fun at all!!! The added impact of all the other swimmers have passed me, leaving me last in the group with a long swim in front , long for me at the time.

Anxiety building and fear showing its ugly head. I can’t do this, I will never make it. Thrashing around in cold water in a lake unable to breath properly caused me to say, “that’s it, I have to go back to shore”. “No, no, you’re alright”, replied the swim safety. I am dizzy, feeling sick, can’t breathe, it’s too cold, I have got to get out now!!! I am going back.

After much gggg gooott to geeeettt out now, frrreeeezzz, - in, dizzy, sick. Can’t.

The open water swim safety was so great, he listens to me , let me panic, screech, squeal, wriggle and moan. I am to embarrassed to say how long this routine when on….

Eventually I was persuaded to swim just a little further and assured I would feel fine, hang on for a moment more, swim towards that buoy, instructions came. Just a little more?

I couldn’t help thinking, this safety swimmer was obviously not listening to me, for he couldn’t see how scared I was and panic stations were at hand, in the water, not a place to panic.

Somehow this made me think, he is no use to me, I will have to calm down, just keep calm, for two breaths… just two breaths. I can honestly say when people say to you, just calm down, it definitely does not help. Did not help me!!!

At a glacial pace I swim towards the very distant buoy; every face plant in the cold -water was painful, disorienting and something I have never faced before. A new experience, no prior history, unable to evaluate or compare with any similar exposures.

As the blue skies gave the lustre of promise and the morning light lest not lose the purity of innocence. My arms came over me one by one, turning to breath and catching sight of the splendid open skies and sunbeams gave me a sight to hold me like never before. For as my skyward eyes search for hope to push away the fear, I caught sight of two spiralling buzzards hovering over-head.

The majestic dance, with outstretched wing tips, feathered touch so soft and light.

As soon as I witnessed this above me , here in the cold, cold lake, I instantly felt reassured and completely safe, with no fear for what lay ahead. It was like a miraculous sign from a symbolic place.

Without a single concern I swam all the way round the swim loop, and safely back to shore. Transformed by my experience.

Making my way to the swim safety,” Please can I say. Thank you for your support”.

His smiling face, greeted me warmly. “No problem. What happened to you out there? You looked as if you saw something, and then completely changed and swam off.”

I responded, by saying I met two friends in the sky.

My Fear: Cold Water

By Fiona Undrill

The thought of swimming in water below 15 degrees used to scare me. Much as I loved swimming in open water, I stopped in September every year. Fear is a closed door. Then one autumn, the door was nudged open for me; I was invited cold-water swimming.

It was a bleak and windy late October day when I first I went along; just to watch, this time, although I took my wetsuit in case my spirits grew more courageous. And my spirits, riding a flow of conversation and laughter, tricked me into tugging on the neoprene. Now committed, the mischievous spirits abandoned me and every cell in my body rattled with fear.

I anxiously followed the others down to the cold grey water and lowered myself in, inch by shocking inch, knowing that I would be out within a minute. But encouraged to push through my gasping breaths and to defeat the searing pain in my hands, I found that my heart was no longer heavy with dread and fear; it was light, like a child’s. I was alert and alive, swimming in cold water. The following week, I went back to try it again.

Two years on, the group has grown and we’ve celebrated two winter solstices in the river (the second in skins and Santa hats). This week, after a week of cold nights and heavy rains, four of us got into the river upstream and floated down on the strong current – then we climbed out, trotted back up along the bank, and jumped in to ride the current again. The door that was my fear is flung wide open and I am loving what I found when I dared to step through it: new friends, new joys and new directions.

I’ve still not quite swum below 5 degrees – an ice swim. I will do, though. But I’ll never swim an ice mile. Never – far too terrifying…

My Fear: Sharks

By Kath Fotheringham

The landscape of my youth was not land but water, a blue suburban pool exploring the coral reefs of my imaginings – an endless summer where I swam before breakfast, then after, then the neighbours kids would come over, back in the pool endless diving-exploring-games till our hands were crinkly and we were starving.  

Then my brother saw Jaws. I was too young to see it, but I got the gist of it from his description, he did not have to say too much. 

Thereafter when I was alone in that small suburban pool, I was alone in a vast ocean with a Great White poised to enter via the filtration system. Late afternoon sun on the water, long shadows morphing on the pool floor, and a wild swim of terror from the jaws of the shark to the steps of safety.

Sharks were all too prevalent in our consciousness. People talked of the Tiger Shark roaming the Natal coastline, also the Bull or Zambezi Shark that moves up rivers too, don’t wade or swim in lagoons – you were mad to go too far out, madder with no shark nets, mad surfers, mad, mad edgy shark-infested ocean world.

Later I moved to Cape Town, and a fellow aquarian friend took me snorkelling in the kelp forest near where the wild Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. I loved his sea adventures - spear fishing, diving for lobster, exploring wrecks and close encounters with sharks! But his spirit of fearlessness did not infect me. Under the swaying surface he handed me a small shark that had curved itself into a defensive circle – it was extraordinary to hold a baby shark – but what kind? Are there more, bigger ones? My anxiety in that environment hit chronic heights, what lurked in the swaying kelp forest and could a mother of a Great White roam here? I did not return to snorkelling, or even the ocean, even though Great Whites are thought not to hang around kelp forest, they have their pathways, their channels, their preference for seals.

When swimming in beautiful English rivers and lakes, the deeper waters of my unconscious did first recall – with great clarity – the terror of being trailed by a fin of the imagination. The first time in Queensford lake was a surprisingly fragile experience, gripped by panic the whole way, but I made it round, survived and felt very alive! Like all first experiences in the water, the fear is primal but the exhilaration pulls you back, the love of the sheer otherness yet deep down familiar, always different and the same, slowly taming and calming the mind.

The shadow of the shark is no longer following me here…. but it follows me in the sea, so that is where I must go and back into the swaying water, under and over the kelp to find it.


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