Into the Deep End

Keyukemi Ubi
8 min readJul 20, 2023

It’s a Thursday evening, and I am practically hop-dancing down the street on my way home. You are wondering why I am this overjoyed! Well, I am going to tell you. I conquered my fear. I can finally swim again.

Ok, you don’t have context, so let’s rewind (cue in the rewinding sequence they do in movies)

A picture of Keyukemi swimming
A picture of me swimming

I signed up for swimming classes in May. Yeah Yeah, I was an adult who didn’t know how to swim, but you don’t get to judge me. Better late than never, right? I was super excited because I have always admired people who can swim.

My first two classes were terrific; my instructor said I was a natural, and at the pace, I was going, I would learn all I needed to learn in 6 classes instead of 12. Yeah, I was that good.

Then tragedy struck! One morning I went to the pool and met a different instructor. Throughout the class, he constantly berated me for something I wasn’t doing right. Everything I had learned until that point felt wrong, and I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. I began to feel pressure, and my stress and anxiety levels spiked.

Some people claim to work best under pressure. I am not one of those. In fact, I do terribly when I feel an ounce of internal or external pressure. My reactions to external pressure are the worst; I lose my composure, level-headedness, and rhythm. My anxiety spikes, and because I simply want to meet the expectations of whatever/whoever is pressuring me, I devolve to the bare minimum and produce mediocrity.

A little segue…

To be Mediocre or Extraordinary

Some people think being mediocre is doing something poorly or subpar. But it's not; being mediocre is being average. Doing just enough; not bad, but not great either. Sometimes that is okay. It is okay to be mediocre. Only some people can or even want to be great. Some folks want the bare minimum, the simple things. To have a job, pay their bills, meet a nice person, have a small family, grow old, and die. And I think it's okay.

What isn’t right is being subpar, not trying, or being bad at doing everything. Not everyone can be Jeff Bezos, but a lot can be Ms. Brown, who does her best to impact the kids in her classroom, retires, and enjoys her pension while she and her husband spend a few weeks a year with their grandkids. You might see mediocrity, but I see a beautiful, peaceful life well lived as long as that is what she wanted. Also, what some people term mediocre are pretty extraordinary things to others. It's all about perspective, No?

…The story continues

Ok, back to the original story, the instructor kept pushing and chiding. So during one of the laps, I lost my balance, pulled my arm wrongly, and hurt my shoulder. I came out of the water screaming in pain. The pain I felt that day is deeply etched in my memory. I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. That was the beginning of my struggles.

It took about three weeks for my shoulder to heal, so I stayed away from the pool. I returned for the fourth class and found my heart racing at the thought of being in the pool. I had become afraid. I had developed a phobia. I was back to ground zero; no, this was worse. At least I wasn’t afraid when I started. Now I am.

I have always wondered about fear. Is it learned behavior or reaction? Are we born with it? How does fear come to exist and grow? I used to think we were born fearless, and whatever form of fear we grow up to exhibit is a product of daily experience and knowledge.

I was at Bab’s Dock in Cotonou sometime last year, sipping my cocktail and watching. Yes, people-watching on one of the things I do on weird days when I happen to find myself outside the confines of my home. It’s a hobby — Sitting in a corner and watching humanity BE and DO. You say it’s creepy; I say it's relaxing, fascinating, and a great learning opportunity. Again, perspective, my dear, it's all about perspective.

Some families were having a fun weekend at the docks. However, one of the kids (about four years old) didn’t seem to be having much fun. The closer his parent got to the lake, the harder this child screamed. I swear his screams could have healed a deaf person. At that moment, I started to wonder about the source of his fear.

The water was shallow, somewhat clear, and other kids were playing in the water. So I wondered what scared him and why he wanted nothing to do with the water. I wonder where and how he learned to fear it. Did the water seem menacing, or was it death he feared?

Did he almost drown at some point in his short life? Has he seen it happen to someone else? Did his parent's continuous stern warnings somehow develop into a phobia? Or was he born with this fear?

Then I thought about babies and toddlers and their fearlessness. Have you ever tried taking care of a toddler? They are always trying to get into everything, touch another thing, swallow something, with no fear or regard for what it might be, harmful or not (My parents have told me so many stories of how I tried to kill myself as a baby, I guess I have been suicidal for a while- too dark a joke???). But really, those guys have no care in the world; I almost admire it.

I like to think I was born fearless; to be fair, very few things scared me as a child. But the older I get, the more afraid I become.

I know a bit about the science of fear. You know, our fight or flight response and how it ensures our survival. When we are afraid, the physical symptoms are similar for all humans (and some animals) a faster heartbeat, throat drying up, rapid breathing, and increased blood pressure. During that time, blood pumps to muscle groups to prepare the body for actions such as running or fighting. It's intriguing to see it play out in movies, especially when the camera pans and focuses on the minute details. It's not fun experiencing it, though. And I wonder if it's possible to live utterly fearless like kids.

Screenshot of Paranoia Purple by Yebba Smith

Kick-boards, Instructors, and staying afloat

I think two of the most important things when trying to venture into strange waters are your instructor and your insurance policy. With swimming, your insurance is your Kickboard or floater.

I can’t say I am naturally curious, but occasionally, I get bored and try to pick up a new interest. Truthfully, many things come easy to me, but two of the most challenging things I have had to learn in my life are coding and swimming.

I think the reason is that I have felt like the stakes are high in both cases. If I don’t learn to swim correctly, I will drown and die. If I don’t learn to code, people will laugh at me for choosing this path and point fingers with a lot of I told you so. I guess, again, it comes down to pressure.

Mahn, I have been frustrated.

One of the weirdest instructions I constantly heard during swim classes was, “Don’t fight the water; flow with it.” Bruh! What do you mean don’t fight? I am sinking; my head is going down. I am going down. Ummmm, unless I have suddenly developed gills, I can’t breathe underwater !!! So what the hell do you mean by don’t fight it?

To be honest, I didn’t get it. I still don’t, but I have learned to do it somehow, even though the instruction was not very helpful. I have learned to ‘flow with it (yes, I am air-quoting it).

I guess right now you are wondering, “So, how did she get over this fear?”. Let's finish the story I started earlier. After struggling badly for three classes, I decided to seek out my first instructor. The one that made me feel most at ease. After a few laps in the shallow end. He told me to go to the deep end of the pool. I was scared shitless. I kept telling him I couldn’t do it. And the more I said it, the more he reassured me that I wouldn’t drown as long as he was there.

The next thing he did was give me instructions on getting to the bottom of the pool and coming back up. He gently reminded me of all I had learned in the first few classes and how to apply that knowledge to get myself to float back up. The more I dropped to the bottom of the deep end and floated up, the slower my heart rate. After a few dips, I calmed down. I was no longer afraid. I had gotten the fear I had learned from my traumatic experience. Hence, my victory dance earlier.

I know you were expecting a big eureka moment, but it was as simple as that. I think the minute my brain understood and accepted that firstly, my instructor had my back, and two, I could apply what I had learned to save myself if it ever came to that, my fear dissipated.

What I am trying to say is that we often get lost in our learning phase until someone guides us into the deep end. For others, you may not have the luxury of kind guidance, and you are thrown into the deep end to figure it out. Recently, I have had both happen to me, being guided in (swimming) and thrown in (at work). And in both cases, all I have learned has managed to help me keep my head above the water.

Can I swim now?

Well, It depends. First, Mama didn’t raise a quitter. So I finished all twelve classes despite how much it frustrated me. But I still struggle in the deep end and haven’t learned breath control perfectly. However, I am going to keep trying. If there is one thing I know, practice makes better; not perfect, but better. If you keep at it, you will get better at it. This is a formula I apply with anything challenging. If you are struggling with something, as long as it is important to you, keep practicing and keep trying. And if you ever get to a point when you think you have tried enough, it is okay to quit too. Quitting doesn’t make you a loser.