I looked at the waterslide from afar with excitement.
I liked the idea of it but not so much going on it. It was the summer I turned thirteen. Every year, as a big family, we went to the aqua park together. My parents, relatives, siblings, and me. I was scared of the height of the slide and how it spiralled down into an adult-deep pool. At the same time, everyone in my family was queuing for their turns, and I didn’t want to be left out.
Noticing my hesitation, my aunt offered to accompany me. She said she would be right there if anything was to happen, and I would be safe. After contemplation, I agreed to join her.
We shared an inflatable float with double seats. My aunt was at the front, and I was right behind her. As the float was pushed down the slide, my heart started beating fast. I was consumed by the fear that the float would flip over, and I would fall. I didn’t know how to swim, and I was terrified of being thrown into the water and unable to breathe. Yet, it was exactly what was waiting for me.
As soon as we arrived at the end of the slide, my aunt let go of the float, ready for an exhilarating plunge, while I was left on my own, losing balance and falling straight into the water.
It didn’t take long for someone to notice and save me, but that one struggling moment when I was closer to death than to life was long enough to signal to my brain, “Stay the hell away from the water.”
I ended up never learning to swim throughout my teenage years, even though my hometown was a coastal city and my family took me to the beach often. After other negative experiences, I developed anxiety around water, and, unknowingly, this anxiety bled into the other areas of my life. I could never trust that I was safe unless I was holding onto something.
That something, later in life, was a romantic relationship.
Looking for something to hold onto
My father was absent for most of my childhood. When I turned seventeen, I left home to pursue an education in another country, so the chance of connecting with him became non-existent. My mother was around, but she wasn’t one to have deep emotional conversations with.
As a result, I never picked up a habit of coming to my parents for support. I always felt like I was alone.
For the first two years in London, I used my academic achievements as the lifeboat. I identified myself as hardworking and smart and held onto these labels to carry myself forward.
However, when I failed to get into the same university as my successful sister and our paths diverged, I became demotivated and lost my grip on life.
Academic achievements were no longer important and enough to give me the security I needed. I felt like I was on a waterslide again, but I wasn’t ready for any plunge. I was already drowning in fear.
The thing with having no guidance and a lot of freedom is that you go about meeting your needs all wrong. You don’t know what your needs are — you just do whatever is easy and convenient to make yourself feel better.
And, for a while, it’s all good. Your life is fun and exciting, and you think you’ve served yourself well. But, deep down, you’re hollow. You don’t understand what you’re doing. You bandaid the symptoms of your problems while the actual cause is killing you from the inside like cancer.
I was aware of this cancer, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t even pause for a second to think about my true needs because I was too busy silencing my anxiety — the anxiety stemming from missing an attachment, without which I wouldn’t know how to regulate myself.
So I spent my early twenties jumping from one dating situation to another, distracting myself from my problems with alcohol and mindless nights out. I chose the people who either resembled my father or had the qualities I wanted for myself. I used those relationships to fill myself up. I needed to be with those people to feel safe and okay.
They were the shiny inflatable floats that I grabbed out of hardwired habits and hoped would save me, even though every damn time, they would flip over and make me drown pathetically.
Well, I should’ve known those relationships would fall apart as fast as they happened.
The breaking point was when I got involved with someone who called himself a psychopath. Luckily, I was never with him long enough to confirm that statement, but knowing him — for however brief it might have been — was the most depressing episode of my life.
He was a selfish person who had serious deficits of empathy and emotional depth. My prolonged situation with him, as a result, forced me to treat myself terribly and amplified every insecurity and fear I had. In the end, it left me little choice but to face my demons and ask millions of “why.”
In short, accepting him was denying myself. Interacting with him was abusing myself. And detaching from him was freeing myself and reclaiming my life.
It took me many lifestyle changes and several months of therapy to learn to recognise my true needs and meet them differently, including my need for emotional safety.
Learning to trust myself
Shortly before my 25th birthday, I signed up for a swimming course.
I had pinned a picture of a woman swimmer on my vision board a month earlier when I decided that I would turn my life around. No more ‘bandaids,’ no more ‘emotional floats’. My relationship with the ‘psychopath’ might have pushed me off the Great Trango into a deep sea, and it might have scared the life out of me, but I refused to sink — figuratively or literally.
Learning to swim made me realise that I had never trusted myself.
Looking back, when a relationship ended, I always struggled to let go, no matter how unhappy I had been with the ex-partner.
When holding on was too painful and I had to cut off contact, I was paralysed by anxiety and panic attacks. I felt like my existence was being dismantled, and something horrific — no less than death — would happen to me. On my own, everything became a blur. And, suddenly, my future vanished.
So, when I let go of the real floats at my weekly swimming class and submerged my body comfortably in water, I learned to trust that I would be okay, and I didn’t need anyone to actively save me — or save me at all for that matter.
With therapy and other positive changes, I learned to calm myself down and rely on myself for support. I learned to sit with uncomfortable feelings, release control, and get attached to my own life.
The transformation was profound to me. You could even say it was magical.
Learning to be okay on my own was the only way I could walk away from toxic relationships for good. I didn’t need those people to meet my needs anymore — I knew what my needs were, and I could meet them in a way that didn’t leave me feeling disrespected and traumatised all the time.
As I became self-reliant and securely attached, I was able to be a better friend and family member whom my beloved could rely on and show their vulnerability to, without having to worry that it would burden me.
Most amazingly, I would never have to settle ever again because the alternative of having a relationship is being with me, and it sounds absolutely fantastic.
The best gift of life
A few months ago, I went swimming in an indoor pool with my current partner. Even though I took the swimming course, I didn’t manage to finish it all the way through, so my swimming ability was extremely limited. To manage my partner’s expectations, I told him I was rubbish.
When he found out that I could float easily and move around in the water without struggling, he was impressed. He noted that I wasn’t scared of water anymore — it made me feel proud. I trusted myself, and I trusted him when he held my body horizontally, trying to teach me the correct movements.
Learning to swim didn’t just gain me a valuable life skill; it formed part of the foundation that enabled me to provide emotional safety for myself and find an empathetic partner who could do the same for me — and so much more.
I’m in a healthy and happy committed relationship now. I have love and support all around me from my friends and family. I can jump in the water with a smile on my face. I’m free to enjoy life as a secure and stable person.
To me, it’s the best gift of life, and it makes me think, maybe, life’s not so unfair after all.