I was eleven the first time I laid eyes on it. An Olympic-regulation diving platform towering ten whole meters above its pool. I’d never seen anything like it, and you bet I scurried all the way up the whole thing before anyone noticed the skinny little girl out of place among the big teens and young twenties.
My bravado game was on. point. I defied my nerves all the way to the top, my will-power only waning slightly as I stepped out on the platform and dragged unwilling feet right up to the point of no return, the line where real divers start the jogs and skips that take them out over the edge and spinning through circles and arcs and straight lines in midair.
It was the line between me and death by fear and adrenaline spiked for crossing it, or death by humiliation for turning back. I am my mother’s daughter. I chose fear and adrenaline. Only, my feet kept saying no.
One of the older teens, maybe a young twenty-something said, “Go already. And get the hell out of my way when you hit the water. I don’t wanna hurt myself landing on you.”
The guy behind him said something like, “Aww, does the little baby girl need to climb back down? Does she –”
I didn’t hear the rest; I was off and running past that line like a shot – call me little girl? And I leapt.
I hit the water in a straight line, feet first, pointed and sharp. Bobbing back to the surface, I unfurled my limbs in different directions, twisting my body for the first stroke across the surface, naturally, like turning to face a friend, and moved myself out of the way of the next diver with appropriate speed.
It was all very anticlimactic. I had taken the plunge and nothing amazing happened. No one cared.
Fifty yards away, at the shallow end of the pool, my friends didn’t even notice. They were somewhere in among the packs of pre-teens and herds of families splashing and socializing and sunning themselves. The dozen or so divers and I at this end were so far removed, it felt like watching the world from a different dimension.
I was left to my own devices, and the next device was all about early-onset OCD tendencies. I had developed a rule for myself, a must-do for every pool: the deepest part must be touched.
With both hands.
And I do mean, no options. When OCD talks, there is no try; there is only do. My mother had me diving for pennies at three, so it’s pretty safe to say I’ve been following this rule all my life. My mother also taught me from day one that water is our friend, that the water wants us to float.
Trust the water.
Engaging with the water to sink, to stay submerged, to somersault, or to race across its waves was a game, has always been a game. We have always played like friends, diving and splashing and greeting each other with such joy.
I do not remember a single time I left a pool without indulging in this ritual, this need to touch the bottom. The thought of getting out and walking away without having made this connection makes me anxious; I would never let it go; it would haunt me forever.
I knew this about myself at eleven. When the idea popped into my head to jump from all three Olympic-regulation diving platforms in one day, on the very day I met them, I knew I would.
The five meter.
The seven-point-five meter.
The ten meter.
The deal was, the deal I made with myself because my friends were not having it, the deal was that I would jump off the five meter first, three times to get used to it and get over myself. Then I would do the same on the seven-point-five meter. Rinse, repeat for the ten.
Ten meters is thirty-three feet, and somehow that platform felt exponentially higher than the other two. I think part of me jumped into the water from way up there so I’d be in the water, and not on the board, when my bladder let go.
I had two more jumps left. But first I had to touch the bottom of the deep end. Had to. I could feel the physical need, the compulsion, creeping into my palms even as I watched from the water as the very next diver hurtled through space, arms and legs akimbo.
As an adult I look back and it makes sense. Having shoved fear aside in order to obey the need to make seven nerve-wracking jumps from new heights – the last one having filled my body with the wild bumble bees of fear and adrenaline – anxiety needed control. Control needed pattern. Pattern needed habit. Habit needed rule.
Rule 1: Always touch the deepest part of the pool.
I knew this pool would be deeper than any other; ten meters above means more than three meters below so no one cracks themselves open on the bottom. However, sixteen feet under water is not just eight feet twice.
I had taken a swimmer’s breath before going under, where you take in air and tuck it into the back corners of your lungs, then take in more to fill the rest of your lungs, and take it in again as a top-up in the back of your throat and nasal passages. But from treading water on the surface to swimming down at an angle through all those feet of resistance—that took work. And air. Bubbles escaped my nose to help with my descent, but I was already chanting to myself relax; wait to breathe way before I was within arm’s reach of the bottom.
There was a moment down there at the edge of alarm, my lungs straining and complaining, where I almost let myself get away with touching the bottom with just the tips of the fingers on one hand. That would never do, so I dug deep and pulled myself through one more length to place my palms on the target.
My reward was instant. Intense satisfaction. Victory. Task complete. And for one precious heartbeat I was in my own world and all was right within it. No sound, no color, no texture but cool liquid and rough cement. No interruption.
An infinite moment of privacy.
I swung my knees in and, tucking my tail down, planted both feet squarely on solid ground and launched myself toward the surface. I shot off the bottom of that pool like a rocket! But I was out of fuel.
I dolphin kicked four times, six times—powerful kicks with the strong muscles of a swimmer, a dancer, a cross-country runner. But the power wouldn’t come. Without air, all my strength wilted and drained away like ink trailing behind me.
Gut instinct said, “breaking surface any moment now …”
“any moment …”
Where was the surface?
Looking up, it seemed miles away. It could have been two feet, two inches, or two-hundred feet; whatever it was, it was solid. Like a block of cement. Like a cargo ship had moved in over my head, it’s steel hull blocking out the sun and the sky and the oxygen—no way through, no way around, not an ounce of movement left in any part of me.
Strange things were happening at the edge of my vision and a fight broke out inside my head where voices screamed “Panic!” and “Don’t panic!” and then …
… Another voice. An echo. Something about a “little girl” that made me kick.
… And then something from back further, some kind of a deep knowing that I could trust the water. That it would lift me up if I just let it.
And I did. And it did.
And suddenly, I was free and clear and gasping for breath and blinking in the sun, strength rushing back into my limbs with the air rushing back into my lungs.
It was such a dramatic ordeal, I was genuinely surprised by the lack of cheering and applause when I broke the surface. No one had noticed. Everyone was still going about their own business and I was still there in my own little world, my OCD, the water, and me.