How to stop yourself from drowning

Madeira is a tall island draped in lush green landscapes worthy of Shaolin monks and hobbits. As my husband drives up and down roads with vertigo-inducing drops, my belly flops. I look at my hands—balled up, white-knuckled. My foot presses an imaginary brake. Sometimes I close my eyes. Though my husband is a careful driver, my imagination steers me on a less pleasant journey. In this shrivelled state, it occurs to me that I write to remind myself of the room we all carry inside of us. The room of quiet and still and all is well.

I lived for forty years without knowing such a place existed. It was a surprise when I found myself there on the Colchester to London train one summer. My head emptied; a sense of fullness filled me. Thoughts were elusive. I needed for nothing. The world finally made sense. There was hope. And new possibilities. Utter peace. I realised I wasn’t broken; didn’t need fixing, despite all the fixes I’d tried in pursuit of a better me. How could I be broken when, inside, buried under my weighty mind, was this bliss, this wholeness? Since birth, it had been there. It will always be there.

This room inside is a constant in life. Though I rarely visit, knowing it exists changes everything. I think I’m a relaxed person, but I’m not. I am quick to fear, intimate with dread and worry. Maybe wild dark thoughts visit me more often than others. Maybe they don’t. But always, I make something of them.

Back at my mum’s, I leave the poolside. Step up to the grey painted concrete seat with the yellow-and-blue tiled surround. I try to relax, but I’m failing. This holiday is fraught with fresh hazards. There are balconies and gaps in stairs the perfect size for inquisitive toddlers to tumble through. There’s barking Bella, a pup who wants to nip these strangers in her home. There’s the swimming pool, with slippery tiles and no cover.

My youngest, Larry, has a new game of throwing plastic stacking cups into the water. He waits as we fish them back out with the long-handled net. Once retrieved, he throws them in again. This game can last for a quarter of an hour or more.

I can’t relax when he’s playing it. I imagine him over-reaching and toppling into the water, with no-one to catch him. Our home is set up to maximise independent exploration. Here is different. I am always on-duty! I can never rest! An inner rant gathers momentum. My softness hardens. Until a new idea filters through. Perhaps I’ll get my costume and dunk in the water.

I prefer my water in a bath; hot, steamy and scented with geranium oil. It’s rare that I wear a swimsuit. Still, I know this is the perfect solution. I go to our bedroom, change into my costume. Wow, who’s that lady? my daughter cries, as I walk along the verandah. I loosen a little, sit on the edge, dangle my feet in the cold. You get used to it, my daughter says. And she’s right. After a few minutes, my feet warm up. I sink down to the first step. The water chills my belly. The children come to splash me, but I warn them away. I’m not ready yet. A short while later, I stand in the shallow end, catch plastic stacking cups. I grow used to this new reality.

The children leave the pool, all blue-tinged lips and shivering. I walk towards the rubber rings, not realising the pool floor slopes downwards. In an instant, I am fully immersed, unable to touch the bottom. Instinctively, I flip onto my back, float over and grab a ring. With a little guidance, I am soon sprawled inside it. Eyes closed. Head back. Arms trailing in the water. I drift this way for ten minutes or so, letting the wind move me wherever it wishes. I think about our natural buoyancy, both of body and of mind.

My thinking had weighed heavy, like bricks, dragging me down. Drowning in a pool of thought with no lifeguard to pull me out. I am on my own.

Yet, when I pay attention, the room inside is already guarding my life. It allowed a fresh idea to float to mind. I grabbed hold of it, allowed it to buoy me up to the surface where I can breathe again.

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