I grew up by the water. Just a few blocks away from one of the great inland seas. It won’t surprise you that I spent a lot of time in that lake. The tiny push-pull of the current on my skin felt as natural as air. Shells and stones burrowed in the cool sand pocked the softness of my heels. I had the instinct — I still have it — to check my mood against the humours of the white-tipped waves.
But the thing is, as a kid at the beach, you’re playing in the water — jumping, leaping, playing mermaid, and altogether clowning around. You’re not actually swimming much. My parents thought we should learn, and so I spent a few childhood summers taking lessons in the chlorinated pool at the local high school with my siblings and cousins.
We giggled in the minivan to and from the 1pm lessons. I also got my first peek inside the high school, which to me seemed vast and luxurious (I mean, it had its own pool).
But beyond that, it didn’t go so well. The swimming strokes I could understand. The sheer pleasure of your body in water? Got it … at least after the first chill.
But breathing? Impossible.
The one thing I knew how to do from the second I was born somehow became unlearned in the pool.
I didn’t realize what my problem was until years later, but it was this: Each time I’d tilt my head out of the water, I inhaled just so. Face back in the water for a quick, still moment — and then I’d turn it out again to inhale once more. But with my lungs full of unreleased oxygen, I’d find myself choking.
Take a moment and try to inhale on top of an inhale. You see? It feels tight, hot, suffocating. I can’t breathe. That’s how it translated in me, there in the deep end, in a wash of cold panic. My swimming became more like flailing.
What was up with my inability to exhale? Not just a few times, but all the time. Even now, after it’s dawned on me, it takes real concentration for me to make sure I’m breathing both in and out when I swim. If my mind wanders, there’s that panicked choking once more.
No wonder I like the sidestroke best.
I remembered this a few months ago when my therapist noticed that while talking about something difficult, I was only inhaling every few sentences or so. Even then, it was a shallow breath.
Held breath, he said, is a way that we keep ourselves from feeling. It’s how we numb ourselves.
That’s stayed with me. I began to pay more attention, as I move through my ordinary life, and take notice when I realize I’m not inhaling and exhaling. It makes me wonder: What is it, right now, that I’m trying not to feel? What am I protecting myself, or others, from? Maybe it’s something as simple (“simple?”) as stress with too many deadlines in a 24-hour-period. Maybe it’s something deeper. What am I holding inside me, and why?
These aren’t idle questions. Not if I want to stay afloat.
I wonder if this connection between held breath and self-numbing is the origin of the old superstition about passing a cemetery. Back then, when people lived out their lives in one place, the graveyards were filled with your own community. Your family. Your friends. Your boss. People you maybe didn’t know well, but whose passing brought devastation to those you loved. Unjust deaths from illness or murder were buried here; their stories were told again and again, or they were kept under a veil of silence, but either way, you knew. There were those who died after only a few hours on this earth, and those who outlived everyone who ever loved them. There might be someone whose death you felt implicated in. And you, too: you would be here someday too. The open patch of grass under the leafing oak tree, near your dead parents, and grandparents, and the brother who died too young who you can’t really remember: that patch of grass was yours.
What a deep stir of emotion there must have been when walking past the great green lawns where the bones of all these people rested. You knew them. You knew their names.
You held your breath when you passed the cemetery.
Don’t let the spirits in. Let nothing out. Endure, get past it, and then move on with the business of the day.
Back in the swimming pool, I think it was plain old fear that I didn’t want to feel. It felt vulnerable out there in the middle of a pool with chemicals that irritated my eyes, in a place I didn’t know, where my feet couldn’t touch the ground and, without my glasses, I couldn’t see well. I felt clumsy and uncertain in my movement. I didn’t trust that my own breath and my own body would be enough to survive. When I inhaled, I wanted to hold onto that air, to save it for later the way a tightfisted billionaire might grasp a quarter. The act of exhaling felt dangerous.
But of course, held breath or otherwise, our feelings are there. They find a place to sit in our minds and bodies, whether or not we pay attention to them. And, in fact, by refusing to exhale — that is, to let go — we only exacerbate the brutal tension. We generate cold panic, not peace. We flail, rather than swim.
If, on the other hand, we do let ourselves breathe in and breathe out, in turn, as we were made to, it might be just the thing we need to navigate the strange waters.
One last thought.
In reflecting on all this, I remembered a short story I wrote years ago called “Animals.” The gist of the story is that there are two teenage friends, Katie and Matt, who grow up together in a poor Northern Michigan town. They pull pranks, they act out, and they generally create dramas that distract them from what’s going in their families, their town, and between the two of them. One late summer night, the time of year when the alewives die on the Great Lakes beaches, they go on a very strange and senseless adventure where their messing around takes a brutal and unsettling turn. It involves fire. After it all plays out, in the early hours of the morning, Matt drops off Katie. Things are — not quite resolved. And she feels it. The story ends like this:
…She hurried into her own room, tore off her clothes, and balled them tightly. She tossed them in her closet, and the clipped padlock too, which dropped with a muted thud, and she got into bed, reeking of fuel and sweat. It was light outside. Katie tore at her bug bites until they bled. She tapped drumbeats on her window. Her bare skin under the sheets still felt the heat of fire. She smelled the smoke in her hair and, still, the fish lying dead on the pretty beach a block away.
When she was a kid, she and Matt played in the lake with other kids, how-long-can-you-stay-underwater games, lips pursed and cheeks puffed in overdone suffering. Eyes wide open to watch the others weaken and surrender, one by one. She fought hard to win those contests and she often did, last one to crack through the water’s surface with a flutish gasp, lake water running from her lips, her eyes shot with blood. That’s what those sleepless nights were like for Katie. Underwater. Head shocked and heavy with no oxygen. Waiting and surrounded. A taste for potential glory.
A version of “Animals” was in my MFA thesis back in 2007. It’s fiction. And I sure wasn’t thinking about my personal psychology of held breath back then, I can tell you. But looking at that last paragraph, I wonder if my imagination wasn’t attuned to something the rest of me wasn’t yet clear on — way ahead of the game.
It tells me, first of all, why I need fiction and not just fact in my life. And also, it is a gentle nudge: Let down you guard, Anna. There’s no contest to beat. No threat to dodge. Nothing you need to save for later. You can breathe.