Monday, November 30, 2015

Of water phobias and crying poolside

TRIGGER WARNING: this post mentions child sexual assault and may be distressing to some readers.

Tricks has long been afraid of the water. In particular, having water on his face and head. I'm talking full blown phobia. Aquaphobia, to be precise. Not hydrophobia, that's a rabies thing.

Swimming was never on the cards, though occasionally he would paddle ankle deep, at the beach or pool as long as there was no splashing. The first time he got completely in a pool was January this year. It was a momentous occasion and I took about one hundred photographs. If he was splashed in the face, or water got on his hair it would be the end of the world, but THE KID WAS IN A POOL!

Even hair washing was highly traumatic (for both of us) until a few months ago. We tried every contraption, every technique, every "failproof-no-more-tears-this-worked-for-my-water-phobic-child" suggestion we heard. Nothing worked and I was always afraid that the police would be called when we washed his hair, such were the screams echoing down the street from our house.

Lights and sirens, a hard knock on the door and "Excuse me, ma'am, there's been a complaint made against you of child abuse" until Tricky walks out with only half the shampoo out of his hair and they go "Ahh, never mind, I had one of those kids, too".

We never knew the cause of his phobia. Sometimes I would think it was because of his craniosynostosis surgeries because it seemed head related: he would also panic at the hairdressers and very infrequent home haircuts with massive amounts of bribery were the only way forward for quite some time. But at other times I'd think it was just his personality. This introverted, slightly anxious, sweet and sensitive little boy just did not like the sensation.

When a note came around at school that swimming lessons were to start soon, I didn't quite know what to do. Excuse him from the lessons, or pay the money and hope that the combination of someone other than me telling him what to do and a little bit of peer pressure would work wonders? I consulted lots of other mums and they were all very helpful, ensuring me that the swim teachers are very gentle with the "dry heads".

The day before lessons started we headed to my bestie's house to have a swim in her pool with her boys. Tricks got in for a while, but began to panic when it got a little bit splashy. The fear was obvious as tears rolled down his face. He spent the rest of the time on the side, not even wanting to put his feet in.

With the previous day's tears fresh in my mind, I headed to the pool to watch his first lesson. My head was cloudy with an emotional hangover thanks to a horribly timed medication change. A few other mums were there and while we waited for the kids to arrive we talked about how mums cry at things like this.

I told them I've never been one to cry over my kids' milestones. I'm the type to fist pump, high five and happy dance (complete with spirit fingers, of course) but not shed a tear. Which is weird because I cry over bloody everything else. I'm the one smiling and cheering in a sea of wailing mums who appear to be the reason waterproof mascara was invented. They're just so damn happy and proud. It's beautiful.

"You know what?" I said to one of the mums, "If this goes well, I think I will cry".

In hindsight it probably wasn't great for me to head out to the pools when I was feeling low, but there was no way I was missing this lesson.

The bus load of eager little bodies arrived, draped in too-big towels, with goggles covering half their faces so you had to piece together gap-toothed smiles and hair colour to figure out who was who.

As they were led in to the pool in small groups, Tricks was standing bolt upright, making him easy to spot amongst the others who were relaxed and happily bobbing up and down to wet their whole bodies. The teacher, Danni*, knew he was scared and asked him to squat down so his shoulders were under water. He half followed her instructions and made it to chest height. As she spoke to the other kids she took his hand and started trickling water over his shoulders. She was paying him just the right amount of attention - the focus wasn't on him, but she was fully aware of his phobia the whole time, and never stopped easing him in to the water.

Slowly she moved to trickling the water over his head, and her own, laughing as she did it, making it a game. He was still standing stiff as a board, and I could see from the way he held his jaw he was holding back tears.

It came to blowing bubbles... simple enough, but a task that has previously been met with straight out refusal.

He touched his lips gingerly to the water, and stood up. He touched again and blew the tiniest bubble. And again, this time a few more.

I looked to the mums, "Yeah, gonna cry now" I squeaked out.

With the biggest smile on my face the tears started to fall. I was so proud you'd have thought my kid was winning Olympic gold for the 50m freestyle not blowing a few bubbles.

I was handed a tissue and for a moment there, I enjoyed those tears. Everyone knew how momentous this was for him, there was no judgement for crying, the other mums were happy for him, too.

I continued to watch and to my utter amazement, he dipped his whole head under water as they crawled around the shallows pretending to swim. A moment ago he'd never had water on his lips and now his entire face was submerged! He rose up and Danni gave him a little affectionate squeeze on the shoulder.

That was all it took. Watching her (completely innocent) physical contact with him while she smiled.

With my already emotional state, I was transported back to my own horrific swimming lessons where my teacher, Garry*, started off encouraging me with those same little affectionate squeezes, and ended up sexually assaulting me under the water while other children swam laps right next to us.

Garry taught the top class, level twelve, and it was the aim of every kid in the swim club to get to his lane. The furthest from the parents; from the admin; from eyes that could see what he was doing.

He would teach from the deep end where we couldn't stand and would "help us stay afloat" as he gave us instructions for our next lap. Though his idea of help and mine are quite different, with his fingers exploring where they shouldn't have, week after week, month after month.

I would kick away as soon as I could, embarrassed, ashamed, unsure.

I was 10.

When the term ended, I didn't go back. I never got my Bronze and everyone was really surprised that I'd just given up on something I had enjoyed so much and was doing pretty well at.

I look up and I'm watching Tricks again, only a few moments have passed and it is his turn to duck under the water again. He does it, and she squeezes his arm, this time it elicits the smallest of smiles from him.

I feel bile rise up in my throat, and the chlorine, which was fine until now, starts burning my nostrils. My thoughts are all over the place, racing wildly from motherly pride to thinking that I've put my child in harms way.

I excuse myself from the other mums, lying that I want a better view, and I exit the rear of the centre. I suck in fresh air like my life depends on it and flip my sunglasses down so that the others don't notice my happy tears have turned to acrid, trauma tears.

I move to the doors and keep my eyes on him. Trying desperately to focus on how well he's doing and the fact that the teacher is not stealing his innocence. My ears are buzzing and I'm light headed, but I keep staring; counting his kicks, the number of times he readjusts his goggles, anything to pull myself out of my own head, to stop this panic from turning in to a full blown anxiety attack.

Toward the end of the lesson, I regain my composure and rejoin the other mums. I text MG and tell him how well the Trickster is doing, that he has blown us all away with how hard he is trying. My bestie walks in to watch the next session, and I hurriedly tell her that OMG Tricky blew bubbles in the water, and knowing that it's a HUGE thing especially compared to just yesterday in her pool, she tears up, too.

The kids exit the pool and Tricky beams a mega watt smile at me. We high five. We knuckle bump. I tell him how proud I am of him, and I can see he is proud of himself, too. Within a minute they're back on the bus and on the way back to school, and I'm heading to the car.

I don't hold it together long. I drive away crying, amazed at how a shoulder squeeze combined with a bit of an unstable mood could set this off. I've been to pools before since it happened without much of a thought, but it dawns on me I've never sent my kid to swimming lessons before. Put him in the exact same situation that did so much damage to me. Triggers are a bitch and you don't always know where they'll be.

By the end of the week, my new meds had started to kick in and the withdrawal of the last lot has gone (halle-fuckin-lujah), so my mental state is returning to "normal" and I can visit the pool again feeling completely different. I can look at it for what it is for him, not what it was for me.

I watch my little guy float on his front, on his back, swim under four kick boards, duck dive down to retrieve a toy and ENJOY every bit of it. I marvel at how far he has come in five lessons and a tiny little happy tear forms in the corner of my eye.

I smile, the tear slides down my cheek, and I don't wipe it away. Now it's my turn to be so damn happy and proud, and beautiful.

*not their real names

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