My brother won so many blue ribbons from swimming that my folks had to keep buying new bulletin boards for him to pin them on. I, meanwhile, despite eight years of mandatory swim classes in school, managed exactly one feat: not drowning.
If I ever commit treason and get set to Gitmo, you can tell them not to waste time and money waterboarding me; they could break me by recruiting my old swim teacher to bark, “Get your face down! 30 more seconds!” while I tread water.
It all boiled down to this: I hated putting my face underwater.
I wasn’t the only kid with this hang-up, but I think I’m the only one who equated it to torture. And I felt so silly! I couldn’t explain, even to myself, what my problem was. I remember one boy asking, “You get your face wet when you shower, right?” Of course it had nothing to do with the water itself. And I wasn’t scared of swimming. In fact, as soon as structured classes were over, I loved swimming underwater! But as soon as they made me hold my breath to learn the crawl or the dead man’s float, I’d freak out.
I’m almost 30 years removed from swim classes and I love the water again. An afternoon at the pool is one of my favorite summer activities. Recently, I decided to start swimming laps at the gym to get in shape and … you’ll never believe it … the old horror of putting my face down came back. Of course, as an adult, I can conquer the feeling and do the motions anyway, but I wanted to know why. What is the rationalization?
If I hadn’t spent the last decade around special needs kids, I’d have never put it together, but it is nothing more than a sensory processing issue. Having my face and hands in a different sensory environment than my ears and back of my head creates a sensory overload that is so off-putting my mind revolts against it.
My son has a similar issue about the feel of the ground. He will never stand with one foot on the carpet and another on linoleum, even if it means walking the long way around the house to avoid it.
And I know a number of people who feel this way about foods. Try to hand out Christmas Cookies with both hard and gooey candies in it, and at least one person in every crowd will recoil at the thought of having to eat something that’s crispy, crunchy, and chewy at the same time.
What I’ve learned from all this is that, while I can choose to power through … why? Why not avoid the things in life that give us the heebie-jeebies? Whether your sensory issues are caused by wearing rough fabrics, being around low-pitched noises, or licking a chalkboard, I say: just walk away. There are plenty of things in life that we have to endure, we should all be allowed to opt out of a few.
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