Cold Water: Original Freakout

I feel like I’ve been holding out on you, dear readers. A weekend in March, just before I began this blog, something happened that I haven’t shared with you—the incident, in fact, that renewed my determination to get better and convinced me to start this blog.

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When whitewater paddling instructor training weekend came along in March, things weren’t going too well for me, mental health-wise. I was working on an essay about my mom’s death for my MFA program so I’d spend hours every day in front of my computer crying. The writing itself was going poorly, so I the rest of the day I’d beat up on myself about being a crappy writer.

I was turning into a cliché—having trouble dragging myself out of bed in the morning. My anxiety seemed completely intractable. I was thinking I’d probably never be able to drive again, at least not on a highway and I’d never be able to enjoy anything remotely scary—and everything was scaring me. But with this training weekend coming up, I had the idea that if I could just prove to myself (and to my new boss and the other instructors) that I had what it takes to be a whitewater canoe instructor (as I had years before for another company), I had the chance of being okay. No pressure, there!

***

Under my dry suit, a bright yellow layer made of the same fabric as a raincoat and sealed at the neck and wrists with rubber gaskets, I layered neoprene pants, wool socks, long underwear shirt and a long-sleeved neoprene top. I crammed my feet into un-insulated booties, knowing from experience that socks under the dry suit would keep my feet dry-ish, but not warm. I reminded myself of a phrase I’ve come up with in therapy: being uncomfortable is not deadly. I told myself, my toes will be cold for a few hours; so what? For a moment, I believed it.

I cinched up my life jacket, which also provides a little warmth and under my helmet, I pulled on a neoprene cap. Then I worked my fingers into my neoprene gloves. I wouldn’t be able to feel my paddle, but the air temperature was hovering around 35 degrees and the water possibly a degree or two colder, so it’s not like I’d be able to manipulate the paddle with bare hands, either.

This was my warmest gear combination and with the neoprene—wetsuit material—as a base layer, if I managed to warm up enough to sweat, it would still provide good insulation. If I plunged into the river (unlikely in this section, I kept telling myself, but one always needs to be prepared) the dry suit sealing out the frigid water with the insulation underneath should keep me warm enough to make it to shore alive. I was worried, though. Just standing outside in the wind I was cold already. Could I make my body power the boat? And what if I swam? Would I make it?

I knew I was being melodramatic. My fellow instructional staff members were complaining about the cold, but they weren’t worried it would kill them.

***

We trudged through a patch of snow a foot deep next to the river at the put-in. This reminded me of Facebook photos of my friends Lisa and Denise who had been paddling all winter long. I don’t aspire towards winter paddling. For one thing, there’s skiing. For another, if it’s not already perfectly clear, I don’t like the cold. I paddled the previous weekend on an easy class I river, in the sunshine, and warmer weather. No wind. Before that I hadn’t been in the water since last August. W and I somehow ended up skipping the whole fall paddling season so I felt extra rusty and extra unprepared for cold water.

I took a couple deep breaths and reassured myself that once I got in my boat I would feel the old confidence and competence returning. Plus, what safer situation could I be in? Paddling with a whole group of trained instructors. I adjusted my thigh straps, twisted my torso a couple of times to loosen up, and launched my boat into the river.

But my self-assurance didn’t come surging back. Instead I paddled tentatively. I asked one of the other instructors to stick close by, admitting feeling unsure. When it was my turn to teach the group, my demonstration was sloppy and rigid and my explanation wordy and imprecise. I imagined Janet, my boss, wondering to herself what in heck she could have been thinking in hiring me. But she gave me feedback in the same manner as she did for everyone else, betraying no disappointment. She reminded me to smile when I paddle. It’s possible my demonstration wasn’t worse than anyone else’s, but it certainly was not my best work.

I had already decided not to paddle “the Gap,” the last rapid of the otherwise class I-II run, a pushy class III rapid with the capacity to frighten braver paddlers than I. Janet said I could paddle it some other time when it’s warmer out to complete that part of the training. Whitewater instructors at my level of certification need to show their skills paddling class III. At that moment I was wondering if there would ever be such a moment for me again. I’d paddled the rapid a number of times before, but I couldn’t even imagine it now.

The wind picked up and started to shove my boat around at irregular intervals. My canoe is lightweight and the sides are mostly out of the water, so it turns into a sail in windy conditions, affected more by the gusts than the river features. The rest of the group, in low profile plastic kayaks, was not much affected by the gusts.

At the second to last rapid before the Gap, one instructor asked us all to try a reverse move into some big waves in fast current. In warmer weather this would have been a fun drill, but I wasn’t going to risk swimming. I didn’t even try the move backwards, and felt ever more like a timid, hopeless student and less like an instructor.

On this side of the river the tree roots and branches hovering just above the water line kept getting splashed and were covered in sleeves of ice. It was pretty and I thought it sure would make a great photo to put on Facebook—look at me paddling in the hard-core cold! I took out my water-proof camera from my life jacket and snap a shot. This was a terrible idea, because now I was thinking about how cold the water really was—just barely above freezing.

Meanwhile all the other paddlers ferried back over to the other side of the river and started to head downstream. This made me slightly nervous at being separated from the group, but all I needed to do was peel out of the eddy into the current to catch up. Just as I set myself up for the move, a blast of wind thrust me back into shore. I tried two more times but I seemed to be pinned against the bank. The other boaters were drifting downstream in the slow current as a colorful flotilla. Soon, I thought, I will be all alone.

Bad thoughts followed so quickly I can’t even tell you exactly what they were. One thing is sure: in the race between fear of cold water and shame about my fear, terror finally took the upper hand. The freezing water temperature and the sudden wind made this easy section seem like a terrible menace. I became unsure I could catch up with the others, steer my boat, even stay upright. I imagined myself flipping over into the frigid water and unable to swim to safety. My body went into panic mode, usually reserved for driving. I could barely breathe, my heart pounded impossibly fast, and I was overcome with the feeling that I was about to die here. I wanted to get off the river immediately.

In reality, I was perfectly okay. I was on a class I lull on a familiar river, between two class II sections. The reason no one was paying any attention to me is that I was not in any danger. Since they were in kayaks which are largely unaffected by wind, they didn’t know I was being heaved against the riverbank by the gusts. Even if they were aware, they must have assumed at my skill level—as an instructor—I could take care of myself. Which, I could, if I weren’t panicking. At some level I knew all this, but the fear was stronger than my rational arguments.

I called out to the group downstream. I don’t even know what I said, but they turned towards me immediately. I was surprised at how fast they made it upstream, though maybe they weren’t nearly as far away as they seemed to my frightened mind. Janet and another instructor, a college student I didn’t know named Cameron zoomed towards me, their kayaks suddenly rescue vehicles. My panic instantly dropped down a level. I am not going to die if they are here.

This is probably the end of my career as instructor, I thought. How could a person who panics on class II—no, class I right here—be trusted to instruct others? But right then all I cared about is getting off the river.

My words surprised me as they come out of my mouth—I said I’m having a panic attack—a secret I never planned to admit to my paddling colleagues or my new boss. How could they accept me now? I realized at that moment, I was facing my worst fear, which wasn’t that I’d die there, but acknowledging that I have panic attacks, and even right on a river when I’m supposed to be acting like an instructor.

They went into instructor-with-student-in-trouble mode. I recognized it from my own years of teaching canoeing a long time ago. “What do we need to do to help you?” They asked.

Their response surprised me, somehow. What did I expect them to say to me at this moment? “Get a hold of yourself!” or “What the f*** is wrong with you?” Janet isn’t like that at all. The person who wanted to say these things to me, of course, was me.

Cameron paddled with me to the take out above the Gap, talking steadily, surprisingly sympathetic. He assured me that if anything should happen he could get me and my boat to shore all by himself. I laughed a little at his bravado, but realized later that this was probably literally true. He’s quite strong and from talking to him the next day I learned he is used to paddling class IV and V water. Rescuing me on this section would be nothing. This water wasn’t even that cold to him. It occurred to me later that my experience of panic was probably utterly unfamiliar territory to him, which made his kindness all the more touching.

 

My canoe at the take-out above the Gap

***

The next day instructor training continued in a pool—a heated indoor pool. Instead of embracing the chance to have an un-stressful afternoon, I volunteered myself as practice student for the others to teach kayak rolling. The truth is I knew how to roll a kayak at one time, but being upside down in a boat with a spray skirt freaks me out. Why putting myself purposely in another scary situation seemed like a good idea, I’m not sure. Certainly I knew this was not going to prove to anyone else that I was brave. Maybe I hoped to prove something to myself.

And I suppose I did prove something to myself underneath a kayak in that pool. I didn’t crawl into a little hole of shame, resigned to let anxiety rule my life. I crawled into the cockpit of an unfamiliar boat and it was scary but I felt the barely remembered stirrings of that determined person who once (many years ago) paddled class IV just because she wanted her instructor certification that badly.

There is something terrifically liberating in facing one’s own worst-case scenario and realizing it is just not as bad as you thought. Janet and the other instructors were so kind to me, as if panic were something forgivable like a dislocating shoulder rather than an unredeemable personality flaw. That moment made me realize that I could decide to stop treating my anxiety as a shameful secret. I could put it out there—blog about it, even—and face it head on.

That panic attack on the river at staff training felt like hitting bottom, which was kind of an opportunity. It left me with a choice—give up on being an instructor, a paddler, and a driver, or fight back against the anxiety. The next day, for the first time in months I drove. Next, W helped me create this blog. Weeks later I even successfully taught a canoe clinic.

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