Miss Mercer’s Legacy   Leave a comment

My major brush with something that turned into a phobia occurred when I was 9-years-old and a 4th grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Akron, Ohio.  Lincoln Elementary School was a grand old building, constructed and opened in 1910.  An addition was built onto it in 1919, which provided more classrooms, a gymnasium, and a regulation-size swimming pool, a feature that grade schools at that time just didn’t have.  It made it unique among grade schools in my era.

I was a grade schooler during the Kennedy Administration, and President Kennedy was huge on physical fitness.  There was something called the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.  Part of this was to mandate that school children had to be able to perform at a certain level of physical fitness, and physical fitness was defined by how many push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups and jumping jacks you could do and if you could run a mile in a specified length of time.  We were required to do this stuff and were made to do it again and again during gym sessions until the activity could be marked off in the book after your name.
I couldn’t do these things to the level that would satisfy the requirement.  I was not a physically fit kid.  I was a wimpy kid.  I was small for my age.  I didn’t have the endurance to perform these activities.  I threw up several times in gym class after struggling to complete the required run.  Gym class was a humiliating and miserable part of my life.  The gym teacher (Miss Mercer) just kept pushing me to perform and showed no mercy.

In 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, physical education was divided up into gym activities and swimming.  I entered 4th grade not knowing how to swim.  My family was never big into water sports and it was a skill that I hadn’t acquired.  I was actually looking forward to learning to swim and enjoyed the classes in 4th grade that taught me to do so.

Then came the endurance part of it again.  Once I was able to swim, I graduated to jumping into the deep end of the pool and had to be able to successfully swim so many lengths of the pool.  Just like with running, I couldn’t do it to meet the requirement.  I tried.  The day came when I went down in 8 feet of water because I was exhausted and Miss Mercer fished me out.  I embarrassed myself my throwing up again.

Something broke in me that day.  I had had it.  It’s one thing to become totally exhausted while in the gymnasium and sink to the floor after running laps.  It’s quite another to have the same thing happen while in 8 feet of water.  That can kill a person!  A few days later when I was back in swimming class and it was my turn to jump into water over my head and start swimming my lengths of the pool, I looked at Miss Mercer and I told her no.  I didn’t scream or throw a tantrum.  I didn’t cry.  I just said, “No, I can’t do it.”  I had to repeat it several times but she didn’t not force me into the pool.

I left Lincoln Elementary at the end of 4th grade and started at St. Mary’s in 5th grade.  That was the end of my swimming career.  I haven’t been in water over my head (voluntarily) since that time I threw up poolside at Lincoln Elementary.  The thought of being in water over my head developed into a full-fledged phobia, and I really haven’t tried to swim since then.

Of course, all of this was unfortunate and avoidable.  Kids should not ever be forced to perform physical activities until they throw up.  It was wrong on that level. But later as a teen or adult, I was able to understand that I could take a swimming class at my own pace and not have that kind of thing happen again.  I thought about it on a number of occasions but never did it.  Then I just quit thinking about it.

I hate that this happened to me.  Swimming is an excellent, enjoyable sport and a great form of exercise, especially for people with musculoskeletal problems.  I wish that I had gained the upper hand on this phobia before it started dictating to me what I would and wouldn’t do.  That is the sad part of phobias.

I also went through what developed into a driving phobia for a couple of years, beginning soon after Driver’s Ed when I was a junior in high school.  Nothing particularly bad happened in Driver’s Ed, aside from the fact that driving a 1972 Gran Torino sitting on a pillow and my English Lit book so that I could see over the steering wheel was not my idea of an enjoyable time.  I made it through.  Basically, it was a time of severe depression and anxiety over a lot of other stuff, and the driving became one more stress I just didn’t want, so I gave up doing it.  It took being pushed and prodded by both my fiance/husband and my father — and ultimately deciding that I wanted the freedom to go some places by myself — that got me to take control of that fear, get my driver’s license and start driving.  I’m glad that I didn’t end up like some of these people who are afraid to drive and spend their entire adult lives without a driver’s license.

I’m aware that I can develop phobias and I don’t want them in my life.  It’s bad enough that I can’t swim!  If I decide not to do something, I want it to be for a logical reason.  I want to have control over my life.

So that’s the story of the phobia that I carry — although it doesn’t keep me from going on docks and boats and wading up to my boobs in a pool.  Just don’t throw me overboard or I’ll be an unhappy camper!

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Posted July 27, 2010 by StPaulieGrrl in Mental Health

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