Stories of Resilience: Breathe, arm; bubble, arm
Trigger Warning: mentions suicide
"Feel your way through the water. Don't fight it."
- Mark Young, Coach & Author, The Complete Guide to Simple Swimming
Asthma and I have been decent companions from the age of 18 months. In the UAE (where I was born), that meant monthly trips to get nebulized – but after moving back to Sri Lanka in 1995, it was the paediatrician who said, “Put her in the water”
So, into the pool I went – the pool at school, that is – and I can guarantee that if awkward was a criterion for swimming, I was the best at it.
Others sailed on ahead of me, while I bobbed along, flailing my arms. The focus back then was the “championship swimmers’ who invariably were also seeking coaching outside of the school premises…. They were swimming towards a medal or two, while I was struggling to breathe.
All things considered; I was content that I could swim to save my life.
Fast forward to 2019, when, on an Easter morning in April, we witnessed mindless, senseless suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka.
Sadness, grief, and a heavy cloud of pain enveloped the nation as 253 were counted among the dead – and at least 500 among the injured - at churches and top-end hotels across the island.
Along with the rest of the HR team, I threw myself into ensuring our teams in Sri Lanka were safe and sound, while keeping our teams outside of Sri Lanka, and our customers, aware of the situation. I told myself that I would deal with the grief later.
However, for our family, the grief hit a different chord when we received a phone call seven days later that the body of my 26-year-old cousin, Paul, had been found, at a beach on the outskirts of Colombo. Initial investigations pointed to suicide.
April and May brought what can be described only as a blur of emotions.
The most difficult part of the week of the funeral was seeing my uncle and aunt. The word ‘devastation’ didn’t even begin to capture their emotions. I had so many questions in my head but not the nerve to pose them.
And although the sadness was massive, for the entire family, for me, the tears were stubborn and just would not come.
I knew this was a problem. It had to be.
It took me 2.5 months before I finally allowed myself not to fight the grief, but to face it. With professional help, I realized that I had been “so great” at putting on my best face, that I had not even come close to actually accepting the sorrow – just brushing it off, or postponing it for another day.
There was also the irony that I had actually developed training content based on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s timeless paper on how human beings approach grief – or change – I had just failed miserably to look inward and apply it to myself.
In November of 2021, Netflix released ‘Tick, Tick, Boom’, a biopic based on the autobiographical musical by playwright Jonathan Larson. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and starring Andrew Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens, it's the story of an aspiring composer in New York City who is worried he made the wrong career choice, whilst navigating the pressures of love and friendship. The song ‘Swimming’ (composed by Larson and featured in the movie) is pivoted on the rhythm of a freestyle swim, as Larson ponders and works through some of the pressing issues on his mind:
One, two, three—oh, bite the air—seven
Cloudy vision, test the water
Contemplate the dive
The shock to the skin
The movie, and this song in particular, reminded me of my not-so-great swimming capacity, as well as my not-so-great capacity to manage my grief.
So, fast forward to January of 2022 and - New Year’s Resolutions aside - I enrolled in the adults “Learn to Swim” class.
Being in your thirties and learning (unlearning?) something new takes a lot. While trying my best not to swallow any water, I did have to swallow my pride as I systematically overcame the awareness of incorrect techniques, re-learned the entire process, and just allowed myself to let the water carry me.
One of the greatest lessons of 2022 was the freestyle fundamental my coach taught me: Breathe, arm; Bubble, arm.
You cannot get from point A to point B without employing a combination of techniques, but the first thing to remember is to breathe. Breathing in, is your energy source.
Step 1 in coming to terms with change, or grief, is also to breathe. Breathing is the invisible but necessary distinction between life, and death. It is also a reminder that you are here. Present. Now.
This needs to work in tandem with your breathing. And it’s not just about your arm going over your head and into the water. It also needs to align with the tilt of the head as you breathe in, just at the edge of the water. Different swimming styles employ different strokes to ensure that you can breathe and use your arms in tandem. Kicking is the bonus to propel you forward. But it’s almost like you’re embracing the water.
Step 2. Just like the arms in swimming change with each stroke type, so does your approach to change in life.
The water is your friend. Life is on your side. Embrace it.
And this one is the test of lung capacity. Here is where you exhale in the water – but cleverly enough to also propel yourself forward to some extent. A nifty trick. But remember, you are breathing out.
Step 3. Breathe out. Sigh if you must. Use your breath to scream, or wail. But allow yourself to feel, and allow your emotions, to show. Yes of course, not with everyone. But unpack. Wallow if you must. Just don’t over-compartmentalise (like I was great at) and then forget how to emote at all.
Here come the arms again. This time you’re looking down into the water and often at the bottom of the pool. This can be nerve-wracking. Perhaps you’re running out of energy. Perhaps you’re thinking about that meeting that didn’t go well at all, earlier in the day. Perhaps you need some sign that the project you’ve been working on is going to pull through. Here comes your arm, semi-embracing the water again.
Step 4. Get ready to breathe.
It’s going to be ok.
And when you do breathe, and if you’re lucky enough to be taking a morning swim in an outdoor pool, you’ll also see the beams of sunlight trickling in.
Feel your way through the water. Life is on your side.
Head of Global Talent Development, Fortude