The water is so murky I can’t see beyond my hands. ‘Now duck down to the bottom,’ says the open-water swimming instructor as the group of us tread water in the chilly reservoir, ‘and pick up a handful of dirt.’ I share reluctant glances with the other wetsuit-clad newbies, take a deep breath and dive. I don’t quite make it to the bottom, but around me fists are held triumphantly aloft, silty earth dripping into the water.
‘That’s all that’s at the bottom,’ says the teacher, revealing the point of the task. ‘Nothing scary, just mud.’
In open-water swimming, fear can be the biggest obstacle, he tells us. If you start panicking you are at risk of going under. As I float in the grey water I realise that the instructor could be talking about my life.
From a young age, fear of being out of my depth has stopped me trying new things. My class was one attempt at conquering my anxieties, a mission I started a few years ago to try and take control of my life.
‘I started with swimming. It seemed the right place to begin: all the metaphors were there. I decided to quite literally dive right in at the deep end,’ writes Libby
At school I was a typical overachiever. But as time went on and my eagerness translated into near perfect grades, the sense of terror at not getting something right started to set in. When I got the chance to drop subjects that didn’t come naturally to me, I did it gladly, happy instead to focus on those I found easier. I liked being told I had done well (who doesn’t?) and felt overwhelmed by stress and panic when presented with difficult sums or chemistry equations.
Looking back, I wish I had been encouraged to stick at those things that I struggled with a little more. But our education system is not set up for that. The further you progress through it the more specialised you become, leaving behind the things you find hard. In some ways it makes sense – however hard I tried, my brain isn’t wired for science – but it means that as young people we can become unused to failing. It’s an unknown – something to fear.
As a teenager, I put things I ‘couldn’t do’ into a box, locked it and threw away the key. I couldn’t do maths without flailing or swim without becoming terrified of drowning. I couldn’t sew. I couldn’t drive. And after skidding and falling off a bike as a nine-year-old and never getting back on again, I couldn’t cycle either.
In my early 20s, my fears grew and became less rational and more all-consuming. Not long after moving to London, I started to get panic attacks. They happened particularly at train stations, brought on by a fear of crowds, but over time they became more generalised. It started to feel as though I was afraid of life itself. Of not getting it right, of not doing a good job. It got to the point where I realised something had to change. I started by writing a list of things I thought I couldn’t do, as well as things I had wanted to try but had never attempted due to lack of confidence. It was an eclectic list.
I started with swimming. It seemed the right place to begin: all the metaphors were there. I decided to quite literally dive right in at the deep end. I could stay afloat and paddle along more or less, but I was very unconfident in the water and being out of my depth or anywhere wilder than an indoor swimming pool made me scared.
Luckily, my sister is a strong swimmer. She gave me several lessons, first showing me how to improve my weak breaststroke and then teaching me front crawl. I hated putting my face in the water, but she was patient with me and I tried to be patient with myself. I didn’t take to the water like a natural, but I was determined so I kept going back. When I had built up my confidence in the pool I decided to tackle my fear of the deep by moving on to open-water swimming. I signed up to an introductory session at my local swimming reservoir, and then agreed to a weekend away with my sister, swimming in lakes and tarns in the Lake District. Once I had got over the innate terror at what might be lurking in the depths, I found something surprising: I loved it. I got a thrill from being in cold water surrounded by nature and found a sense of calm that I had never expected.
‘My experience conquering my fear of water inspired me to try other things I’d been holding back from,’ writes Libby
Learning to swim has changed my life. It is now something I do several times a week in order to relax and unwind. It also provided inspiration for my first novel, in part about a young woman learning to swim and to love her local lido. Writing the book has enabled me to quit a job in marketing I was less than passionate about to pursue my lifelong dream of being an author. But by far the best thing to have come from learning to swim has been my relationship with my sister. We have always loved each other but growing up we simply didn’t have much in common. Now our shared love of swimming is something that binds us. We have been on several swimming holidays, have skinny dipped in freezing water (I would never have considered it a few years ago) and have leapt together from rocks into a mountain pool. Because of swimming, I have found a best friend as well as a sister. I now realise that she was there all along, but my fear of jumping in to life held me back from finding my way to her sooner.
My experience conquering my fear of water inspired me to try other things I’d been holding back from. I recently attended a workshop on how to use a sewing machine and have practised my skills with friends who are keen makers, in evening sewing sessions at our flats. Pushing myself outside my comfort zone and into theirs has given me more opportunities to spend time with them. I learned how to cycle and bought myself a mint-green Dutch bike that I adore. And for the past year I have been taking driving lessons. I look forward to holidays with my boyfriend that aren’t limited to where there is a train station; trips to Ikea that don’t involve carrying flat-pack furniture on the bus, and an all-round greater sense of freedom. I am still finding it hard, but I have started to make real progress – partly because of my brilliant instructor and partly because I have now proven to myself that I am capable of learning new things. I am determined not to give up.
Libby’s guide to facing your fears
■ Write them down. Seeing them on paper helped me to take a step back and admit the things I was scared of, however silly they seemed.
■ Break them up into those you can tackle quickly, by taking a class, for example, and those that are more long term.
■ Be realistic about how many long-term fears you can face in one go. If you take on too much at once you might not stick to anything and end up feeling disappointed.
■ Find company. Do you have any friends who share the same fear and might like to tackle it with you?
■ Find experts. You might know people who can share their skills with you. If not, look up classes and courses – I didn’t know that my borough offered free cycling classes for adults until I did some research.
■ Embrace the power of positive thinking. Approaching new experiences with a can-do attitude really helps. I find that positive thoughts make me try not to become too frustrated if I struggle.
■ Remember you’re not alone. Even seemingly confident people have things they are afraid of and hold back from. But keep in mind that your fears are not who you are.
Trying something for the first time can be frightening and has inevitably come with setbacks. In a free cycling proficiency class being offered in my local area I spent two wobbly lessons trying to master arm signals as children whizzed past me. When I bought my bike I was too scared to actually take it on the road so I wheeled it home instead. I’m still not confident enough to ride on very busy roads, but I do cycle most days – even if it’s just to go to the local pool. I feel a sense of pride every time. And it’s fun. When I pedal fast, the wind tickling my face, I feel like a child again, back when I was very little and before the fears set in.
Cycling, like swimming, brings me joy. It makes me sad to think that for so long I was missing out on joyful experiences because of anxiety. Learning to do things that I have found difficult has come with a huge sense of achievement. Becoming just OK at something that was extremely challenging to learn can often feel even better than doing really well at something that comes more naturally.
There are still things I am afraid of. But starting to tackle them has made me more confident and improved my life in so many ways. It is not always easy, but I am determined to keep working on it, one fear at a time.
Libby’s debut novel The Lido is published by Orion, price £12.99. Until 22 JULY , visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15