There’s a story I’ve told before, that I’ve been thinking of a lot lately.
The summer after fifth grade, I went to sleepover camp for the first and only time, and I did not know how to swim. The counselors tried everything to get me to put my whole face in the water without holding onto the wall. Nothing worked. And the less it worked and the more punitive it became, the less I was on board with the whole thing. I remember, very clearly, two grown men — or what seemed grown to me, they were probably twenty which isn’t really grown at all — grabbing my arms and trying to force me under the water in the shallow part of the lake as other campers and counselors watched from the dock.
I was ten and wearing a one-piece navy blue bathing suit with metallic puffy hearts on it, but I danced, and I was strong. I locked my legs, and they could not push me under. Which was good, as I was in fear for my life. Not from the water at that point. But from them. One remarked to the other how strong I was, how embarrassing this had become for them, and they let me go. I knelt in the horrible silt and crayfish bottom and then, with something like spite, swam away. On the dock, people applauded, and I hauled myself out of the water in a vengeful fury at their pity.
In retrospect, I suspect that was the summer my best friend and I began to grow apart, although neither of us would notice until years later. But I was feral and embarrassing and the swimming incident which has so stuck with me was one of many indignities of that season.
I’ve been thinking of it because of skating, obviously. But also because of politics. Christine Blasey Ford has just come forward as the woman accusing Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape, and various corners of the Internet apparently don’t get how such an incident could have stayed with her and be the subject of trauma for so long, such that she mentioned it in counseling in 2012.
But trauma and resultant PTSD, of course, is funny. You don’t necessarily get it from the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. You don’t even necessarily get it from the worst thing that ever happened to you. It just comes sometimes to some people from some things. (And because on the Internet it needs saying: I absolutely believe Blasey Ford about both her accusation and her personal history and choices around dealing with and sharing the event.)
I have more horrifying stories than the swimming incident, but I don’t really have any closer to my core, that come up as a sort of language that threads through my life, my abilities, my worth, and my sense of self. My contempt for external brutality; my reliance on internal brutality. It is not a traumatic story to recount despite its murky nature. I mean, I did learn to swim because of it, which makes it hard to know what to do with the tale. But if you ask me what I am — about my nature and my wrath — maybe I’ll tell you about that summer and the crayfish if I tell you anything at all.
Today I went to skating — after trying and mostly failing to practice falling in my own bedroom last night before bed — quite afraid that we’d spend the whole lesson on the falling situation. And that I’d have to tell my kind and clever instructor about the cray fish, about how him trying to help me to fall probably wouldn’t work because I have this thing where I hold on for dear life.
But the path was different today.Instead, I practiced marching (and at the end of the lesson got across the ice by myself) and rocking horses and kneeling on the ice so that I could then learn, at least, how to get back up. Some of that I used the wall to practice getting down. Some, I braced on my instructors arms. And it was fine. I didn’t have to explain anything other than my tenacity as I got closer to being able to do this frustratingly impossible for me thing.
One day I’ll swim away. And this time, I won’t even have to be mad about it.