Paul McAleer

Going underwater

Paul McAleer

Around 1990, something big happened that changed me forever.

I was at a friend's house one hot summer day. My friend and I were in his pool along with his brother, and we were doing the usual stuff kids do in pools: act like fools. (Happens!) We were in the middle of something or other, and I remember being in the very center of the pool, feeling the summer sun beat down on me, laughing, playing. And just a second later I was fully underwater.

I panicked. I never learned to swim, so I didn't know what to do. I couldn't breathe. My open eyes filled with water. It got into my nose. It was in my mouth. My ears filled with water. Water was everywhere. The amount of terror that was in me was incredible. I didn't know what to do, where to move, anything. I got my head out of the water and was soon done, but it felt like I was down there forever. I turned around to find that my friend's brother had knocked me into the water, mostly unintentionally - it was horseplay, you know.

But I was so very scared and helpless in that moment that it instilled a fear of the water that I still feel to this day.

There has been some small progress. A couple of years ago I took a swimming class designed for adults who were afraid of the water. It was a one-time class, just a starter. By the end of that class I still couldn't let go of the side of the pool, but I did actually go underwater. Fully underwater.

The feeling of being underwater and having a sense of control was unlike anything I had ever experienced! Opening my eyes and seeing the world down there was, simply, thrilling for me.

Now, I'm not wholly uncomfortable with water. I go in pools, and go to kiddie water parks with my son, but any situation where I could be underwater is absolutely terrifying for me.

However, I now have to confront this. It's something I must change, and the reason why is: my son.

He's taking swimming classes. He's doing an incredible job. I watched him swim this morning (with the help of floating noodles and other great things) into 11' deep water, and I envy him: it's no big deal for him. He has nothing attached to it. He loves being in the water.

But I don't want him to have a dad who can't be in the water. Part of it is parental responsibility: in the event that anything should happen to him in the water, I need to be able to help as much as I can, and not being able to swim is a pretty terrible excuse.

This is core stuff for me. This fear is something I've had in me for 23 years (and, wow, 23 years) and it's not going to be simple to fully understand and confront. But I will, and it will benefit more than just me.