Every once in a while I experience something that triggers powerful, unexpected emotions. It could be a smell, or a sound, or a skin sensation, or the way light filters through the window shades. The feelings seem to flow up seemingly from nowhere: profound sadness, or fear, or happiness, or security, but without conscious understanding of where the feelings come from. I've heard people talk about "body memories," almost as if we retain certain memories not in our brains but at the cellular level in our muscles and guts and skin. Our bodies remember how we felt when we experienced a certain sensation; and the same sensation triggers those old feelings.
Today I was swimming at the YMCA, doing my laps. There were other guys swimming in the pool as well. I was using a stroke I don't usually use, and wanted to try to swim two-thirds of a mile in less than 25 minutes. As I pushed myself to swim harder, I was starting to feel a bit fatigued. And then suddenly I felt vulnerable and frightened and insecure and depressed.
I was trying to figure out where those feelings came from, and then I remembered swimming lessons as a little kid. I was maybe about ten when my dad used to take me and my brother to the local high school for Saturday afternoon swimming lessons.
I was nervous about having to get undressed in a public locker room in front of other kids. And our swimming lessons took place just as the high school football team was finishing its practice, so there were always older, high-school-age guys in the locker room as well. I remember sometimes, just as my brother and I were changing into our swim suits, they would be heading toward the showers, the coach in the lead, marching them all in single file as though it were some kind of military procession, except that they were completely naked. I would see their mature, muscular bodies, hair growing in places it wasn't growing on my body yet, and I would get an instant, full erection every time. I was completely mortified, and completely helpless to stop it. I was worried what my dad would think, though he never seem to pay any attention. One time I think a couple of the guys noticed, and one snarled at me: "What are you staring at?" It terrified me.
Then there were the swim lessons themselves. I never felt particularly physically adept in comparison to others. I had asthma, which was triggered by physical exertion, and then, if that wasn't bad enough, swimming face down invoked fear of drowning. One of the body memories I had this afternoon as I was feeling fatigued and pushing myself to swim faster, was memories, as a kid, of feeling like I was at the end of my rope, like I just wasn't going to make it to the end of the lap, my muscles aching, and feeling like I was suffocating and going to sink, and feeling desperate and afraid.
And then I realized what I hadn't realized as a kid: how demoralizing it had been for me, how defeated I had always felt after those swimming lessons. In the locker room I had been confronted with powerful, out-of-control longings and anxieties I felt powerless to manage; I was betrayed by my own body. And then again in the pool, being overwhelmed by physical demands that seemed beyond me; I was failed by my body.
The feelings were like a bad dream. Realizing where the feelings came from was like waking up. It dawned on me that I am an adult now, competent in every way I had once felt completely incompetent as a kid; having come to terms with my sexual feelings and found ways to manage them and channel them and find joy in them in appropriate contexts; having developed physically, and having become a strong swimmer in spite of my asthma. (I managed to surpass my goal and swam three-quarters of a mile in 25 minutes!) Those feelings of vulnerability and sadness had been dislodged by the physical sensation of swimming, and the sight of other men in the pool, and for a moment they engulfed me. And then when I remembered and understood, they were replaced by a growing, profound sense of happiness.
I'm not that frightened little boy any more.