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I Want To Breathe
By Elida Vinesett

 “Leda, do you want to drown?” Mom yelled.  “Come here, now!”

I was terrified whenever the water rose above my waist, her screams warning us to stay near the water’s edge.   It happened every time we went to Lynnhaven Beach in Virginia.

Mom, herself, had never learned to swim, although she grew up in a small town near the Atlantic Ocean in Puerto Rico.  Born in 1923, she experienced natural tragedies, like the hurricane in which the family lost all their possessions.   Decades afterwards, apprehension of the ocean passed on to her offspring.

But I was the one she monitored the most.  Was it because navy doctors considered abortion during Mom’s eighth month of pregnancy?  The desired outcome could not be guaranteed for a required appendectomy and they asked my dad, a navy cook, “Who do you want to be saved – your wife or your daughter?”

“I want them both!” he exclaimed with an urgent plea for their help.  The successful operation made naval medical history in 1942.  That was the beginning of the challenges my parents would face on my behalf.

The problem with my bronchial tubes started when I was an infant; inability to breathe required frequent trips for treatment.  One day, in the back seat of the taxi as it raced to the emergency room, Dad held me while I began to turn blue.  On instinct, he sucked out the excess mucous from my nose and I began to breathe again.

Once, the sickness was serious enough to receive the Last Rites while in the hospital. This religious ceremony, administered by a Catholic priest, indicated my imminent death.  However, God spared my life.

Mom said many years later that she prayed that God would want me back as a baby. Why should He let me grow up and then take me away?  My mind could not comprehend her reasoning.  I did understand why her nerves could not handle the upheavals in her young life.  Married at 15, with 5 children before the age of 23, had jolted her emotional and physical well-being.  Cleaning was all she knew and Mom took pride from a tidy house.  As a navy wife, away from family, she relied on neighbors to teach her how to raise her family.

Burdened with one sickly child, Mom did her best to juggle time with her other children.  Asthma plagued me through my teen years and often, I would rest on the sofa near the window and marvel at my siblings’ ability to run and skip.

The few times I did get better I played softball, forced to use an atomizer from base to base.   This medicinal aerosol provided temporary relief but became an addiction, evidenced by rough calluses on both my palms.  Each wheeze brought fears that one day it would be my last.  Ashamed of the gasping sounds, I tried to hold every other breath in to lessen the noise, which didn’t work except to intensify my inner stress.

Due to the chronic bouts, doctors recommended several strategies which included numerous injections to unmask the guilty allergens.  Each skinny arm received 15 shots daily for a week.  Another method consisted of 48 blocks drawn on my back, each block to contain a needle with a different allergen.  The results?  Abnormal reactions flared from household dust, plants, animals, cleansers and everything on my plate.   Although simple improvements eased my life, Mom ignored the doctors’ advice to eliminate certain foods.

“Why, there’s not much you can eat and I’m not about to let you starve to death,” she explained.

To increase my weight, another physician suggested a liquid which looked like milk-of-magnesium, but tasted worse.  I refused to drink it after the first sip.  So what if my bones stuck out?

It was not easy to chew or drink, since I breathed out of my mouth.  That inability caused my emaciated body to become the basis of ridicule, even by teachers.  One in middle school asked with concern, “Doesn’t your mother ever feed you?”

The hurtful jokes and snickers added to the low-self esteem I felt.   I was shy and avoided interaction with others.  At times, the anger and resentment of my physical limitations created emotional asthma attacks.

Spring and fall were the worst seasons; however, I was able to make up any school work while recuperating at home.  On a positive note, I did well in school and my grades excelled those of my brothers and sisters, who complained that my load of chores was added to theirs.

Afflictions lessoned the last two years in high school and I graduated with a scholarship to major in secondary education, enrolling in the local university.  After the first semester, I decided to marry my teenaged sweetheart James, who showered me with patience and encouragement.  I continued to attend classes and chose swimming as one elective.   Maybe it would not be as terrorizing as Mom made us believe; besides, she wouldn’t be around to get hysterical.

This decision turned out to be a fiasco; childhood memories created unreasonable anxiety and I dropped out of college.  A few years later, the babies started to come, both within 14 months and then we moved to San Diego, California, in 1967.  When our daughter was six years old, and her brother a year younger, thoughts of swim lessons to shield them from any water phobia came to mind.

Yet, a precondition existed.  All parents had to first participate in a six-week course.  The goal to recruit swim instructors, within the Red Cross backyard swim program for youngsters, would benefit everyone.

I could feel the pangs of inner conflict rise, although failure would not impact any child’s eligibility.  That gave me the incentive to try.

I realized that fear dominated my life.  I refused to remain a victim.  No matter what it took, a vow of victory called for combat.  I did not want my mental roadblocks to transfer to my kids, the way it had happened to me.  I would learn to swim, even if it killed me.

Determination set in as I read the instruction book over and over and tried to memorize the necessary coordination of all body parts for the front crawl.  The only way for me to achieve the impossible called for drastic strategies.  I needed to perform dry swim exercises at home.  With caution, I lay across a sturdy kitchen chair and practiced leg kicks, then added arm movements.

Afterwards, with feet planted on the bedroom floor in front of the dresser mirror, I bent over and moved arms and head to simulate the correct technique to inhale and exhale.  No witnesses allowed.  In bed each night, I shut my eyes and imagined myself swimming with confidence.  My subconscious mind would one day make this a reality.

I returned to the same YWCA pool twice a week for many months and continued to practice at home.  Still afraid of the water, I fought against the futility of my dream.   Did I dare take the course once more?   What if I failed again?

No matter how long, no matter how many botched attempts, my mind refused to budge.   My jaws tightened during registration and I muttered, “No more excuses,” determined to pass all mandatory tests one glorious day.

The testing commenced.  We listened for barked instructions in each category.  Perform the front crawl with correct breathing.  Demonstrate the butterfly.  Do side strokes on each side.

We were later told to pick a partner and execute saving maneuvers on each other for the required distance.  Someone had mentioned that the choice of an obese person would become a guaranteed benefit because of the buoyancy factor.  Without any hesitation, I found my subject.

The final trial was a dive into the deep end to retrieve a brick from the depth of the pool.  I took several slow breaths to relax my jitters.  My heart thumped loudly.   I spied the lifeless weight and on the second try, I grabbed it.

I reasoned that even if I hyperventilated under water, that stupid dead rock would be in my hands when I reached the surface.  Remembrances of all the crippling emotions had brought me to this moment of truth.  Fear still tried to rip open psychological scars in one last effort to stop me.  Just keep it together and get out of the pool.

And the battle within me had finally ended.  I could now teach others to swim.

Elida S. Vinesett Bio:

Elida S. Vinesett earned her M. B. A. and became a software developer.  Her interest in writing began with Toastmasters.  Married for 51 years, she and James are both retired in North Carolina.   Elida enjoys family, travel, and T’ai Chi.  She believes the joy of the Lord gives her strength to meet daily challenges.  You may email her at :

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COMMENT (1) | anxiety, empowerment, healing, parenting, self growth


One Response to “I Want To Breathe”

  1. Basia
    December 16th, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    what an inspiring story Elinda!…it must have been sooo hard for U to overcome the fear.., i don’t know if i would have succeeded if that was my situation…, congratulations! & thank U for sharing this with us, i’m sure it will help some people to achieve their goals..

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