From the side of the pool I watched with anticipation. The closer my six year old got to the edge of the diving board, the more slowly he inched forward. He’d talked about jumping off the diving board all morning. He desperately wanted to take the plunge. And yet, now he was facing fear head on. The entire board began to move up and down as his knobby knees shook.
Facing Fear as a Six Year Old
This wasn’t his first attempt at jumping off the diving board. But it was the first time in almost two years since he swam at this pool. The summer before COVID hit, he climbed the ladder and walked to the edge of the diving board almost every single day we went swimming. Each time started with “I WANT to go off the diving board,” and ended with him anxiously crying for me to help him off the board. He was four at the time. With envy he watched as his brothers and peers easily jumped off the diving board.
After spending 14 months adhering to the CDC’s recommendations for wearing masks and social distancing, returning to the pool was our first sense of “normalcy” in a long time. The morning buzzed with excitement as we packed the pool bag, lathered on sunscreen, and piled into the car. My six year old chattered nonstop about finally jumping off the diving board. Yet, here he was, on the end of the board, all eyes on him.
Frozen in fear he said, “I don’t want to do it.”
I wanted to reassure him; I knew he was safe and would experience pure delight once he took the plunge. “You can do it, just jump!” I yelled from the side. In the water, looking up at him with a smile, my husband took a different approach. “It’s OK if you’re not ready,” he reassured him. The lifeguard and several kids in line silently watched. “I am not ready,” he said in a shaky voice. We gently nudged him to get off the diving board, but he was frozen. Unable to move, he began shaking more violently. The entire board bounced up and down until I stepped on it. Walking to the edge of the diving board, I took his trembling hand and helped him back to the ladder.
Climbing down, disappointment spread over his face. But it was only momentary. Determined to face his fear, he began “practicing” by jumping off the side of the pool. Over and over again he did this, gaining more confidence with each plunge. And to my surprise, less than 30 minutes later he walked up to me and proclaimed,
I am ready to try again.
My husband’s brows raised slightly as he met my gaze. We’d been through this before and neither wanted to repeat the cycle from previous summers. At the same time, we wanted him to go at his own pace, and face his fears when he was ready.
So once again, from the side of the pool I watched with anticipation. And once again he slowly inched towards the edge of the diving board. Thirty seconds felt like an hour. I realized I was holding my breath. My little boy reached the edge, looked to me for reassurance for a split second, and then jumped in feet first.
As his head popped up from the water an enormous smiled spread across his face. “That was so fun! I want to do it again!”
For the next hour I watched him stand in line, climb up the ladder, walk to the end of the diving board, and jump off. Every time his pace picked up a little speed, his legs shook a little less, and his smile grew wider. It was like watching the progression of facing your fears in fast forward. Within 90 minutes my six year old overcame his fear. He spent the next three hours jumping off the diving board with glee.
Facing Fear as a Mom
My six year old was not the only one facing fear at the pool that day. I was also staring my own terror in the face. It had been almost two years since we’d been to our neighborhood pool. And my body was larger than ever before. The thought of wearing a bathing suit plagued me with fear for weeks. Although more than five years into my own recovery journey from an eating disorder, I still faced body image struggles almost every single day.
Wearing a bathing suit in public has terrified me since I was a teenager. Now in my late forties, my body has stretched and changed as it has grown three children and carried me through decades. Letting go of trying to control my food and body and trusting it has afforded me so much more freedom in my life. Along with this freedom comes a body that is larger than ever before. And the act of stuffing this body into a bathing suit and potentially seeing friends and neighbors created a wave of anxiety I’d been carrying for weeks. My knees shook practically as much as my six year old’s did just thinking about taking off my cover up.
Missing Out on the Fun
My children teach me lessons every single day. As I watched my son plunge off the diving board again and again it dawned on me.
Until he faced his fear, my son was frozen.
He was missing out on the fun of the other kids jumping and laughing as they splashed off the board and into the pool. At the same time, I learned from my son that he had to go at his own pace, and move forward when he was ready. On his own timeline, he pushed himself to overcome his fear.
Facing Fear in Recovery
Recovery from an eating disorder is filled with one terrifying challenge after another. (But if you’re reading this, you likely already know that). Simply sitting down to a plate of food three times a day can suck the air out of your lungs when you’re petrified of food. Biting into a slice of cake, sitting with the discomfort of a very full belly, and even allowing yourself to skip the workout can feel debilitating. When paralyzed by fear, we spend years (even decades) watching others jump into life while we watch from the sidelines.
But I learned from my six year old to put myself out there, check in with myself, and take the risk.
And if I’m on the edge of the diving board realizing I’m not ready yet, that is OK too. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever try again. It doesn’t mean I’m worthless or I’ll never jump into the diving board. No, it means I can climb off, recenter myself, and determine what steps will help me be more ready the next time.
For me, one of those steps included buying a new bathing suit that fits the body I have right now. I chose a one-piece suit with bright colors and ruffles and waited for its arrival with anticipation. But the moment I tried on the suit and met my reflection in the mirror, I froze in panic. I couldn’t wear this suit in public. Not with this body. With this belly. I wasn’t ready. Facing my fear felt paralyzing.
Sure, my first instinct was to never go to the pool again. Or maybe I could go in my clothes. But I didn’t want to spend the entire summer watching the fun from the side of the pool. Like my son, I wanted to jump in feet first. So, my next step was to wear the suit to the pool, with a cute new cover-up. I told myself I could wear the cover up the entire time if I wanted. Or I could take it off when I was ready. And just like my son, by the end of the day I was splashing and having fun in the pool.
So warrior- wherever you are on your journey to recovery, remember this.
Recovery is made of a million terrifying moments. Each one gives us the opportunity to either take the plunge or gather ourselves until we are ready to try again.
Maybe your fear is eating that food you’ve kept off limits for years. Perhaps it is ordering off a menu with out knowing all of the ingredients, or going an entire day with out stepping on scale. It could be using your voice to share your feelings, showing up as your authentic self despite what others expect of you, or speaking your truth when you are going against the majority around you. Go for it. Try it. And if you find yourself standing on the edge of the board, your knees shaking, and frozen in fear- remind yourself it is okay. Step off, gather yourself, take smaller steps as you build some confidence. And when you are ready- get back on the diving board.