Lessons in Lifeguarding

June 25, 2017

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a lifeguard. Since my best friend and I both had been competitive swimmers for years and swam on our high school team, it seemed a natural fit to work as lifeguards once we were old enough.

The spring of our sophomore year, we enrolled in a lifeguarding course and attended the weekly classes, eager to sport those classic red swimsuits and mirrored sunglasses and twirl those whistles by summer. My friend was a better swimmer than I was, but I was a better student. Much like in school, the written content of the course came easily to me. I studied the lifeguarding terms, memorized the pictures, and sailed through the written test. My friend, however, barely passed it. You may wonder why I mention this, but trust me, there's a reason. In any event, we both advanced into the final portion of the certification process: the pool test.

This is the part of my story that has, in the past, left me, let's just say a bit disgruntled. But today is different, because today, I have recognized the incalculable value of what happened next.

Before I continue with my story, here's a little Lifeguarding 101. When someone is drowning, the victim is either "passive" or "active" based on their condition as the lifeguard approaches. A passive victim would be one who is face down in the water, unconscious. Obviously, the immediate concern is that their breathing is compromised. A lifeguard is taught to approach this victim promptly, turn them over to their back so they have air, and swim them to safety. Then, of course, resuscitation would be next, but typically there is at least one other person to help you with that. On the other hand, an active victim, although alert and awake, is actually (in my experience) more challenging to save because, well, because they are "active." They see you and want your help, but they may panic and resist your assistance despite the fact that they need you to save their life.

When saving an active drowning victim, you have to take extra care of your own safety in order to adequately save them. You may have to approach them and then back up again, gather yourself, and then reapproach cautiously, trying a slightly different method. You have to remember, that in trying to survive, the active drowning victim may, in fact, react in a way that pulls you down, drowning you both.

So our pool test involved one of the instructors portraying the victim and the other one wielding the clipboard and pencil, assessing the student lifeguard's actions during the "save". The five of us in the class lined up at the shallow end. The "victim" jumped into the deep end. I was last in line feeling a little bit nervous.

You've got this. You know this. You learned this. You have prepared in every possible way. 

As I watched each of my classmates approach their test victim, I checked off in my head the steps required according to the handbook that I'd memorized. Each student ahead of me, including my best friend, was successful in saving their test victim. Then finally, it was my turn. The victim assumed passive status, as he had every single other time, only this time, as I swam into the deep end to retrieve him, he flipped him over and began thrashing wildly.

Active victim. Here we go. You know what to do.

I backed away from him, treading water all the while, and considered what to do next. I spoke to him as I'd learned to do, assuring him that I was there to help. I reapproached but he thrashed even more. Again and again, he flailed and fought me as I tried to save him. With all the force of his 6'2" frame, he resisted my every advance. I exhausted every method I knew from the handbook. I attempted everything I had learned to do. I don't remember how many times I tried to save that active drowning victim. Maybe five. Maybe ten. I don't know. I just know that I never could do it.

So I failed.

I was the only one in the class who got an active victim and the only one who failed. I felt humiliated, angry, and resentful, especially of my friend, who hadn't studied that handbook like I had. She didn't know what I knew. I was the one who knew how to be a lifeguard. I'd done everything right.

And yet, she would be a lifeguard that summer without me.

It took years before I finally became a certified lifeguard. Determined to prove (to myself) that I was worthy of the job title, I took the course again in college and that time I passed it. I even went on to receive the Water Safety Instructor certificate, qualifying me to teach the Lifeguarding course, though I never did.

I only worked as a lifeguard for one summer. I got a great tan, had a lot of fun and even saved one child from drowning. It was a valuable experience, but I never yearned to do it again. Not until recently anyway.

After 25 years as a classroom teacher, I am lifeguarding again. Sort of.

Today I work for a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting, educating and advocating for people living with serious mental health conditions and for their loved ones. So, in a way, I am a lifeguard again. Luckily, there is a team of us. I'm not out there in the water alone.

Always the eager student, I am researching and memorizing all the content I can get my hands on to help me learn my new role. Sometimes our "saves" are easier than others. And although I'm new to the work and have so much to learn, it feels like I am doing what I am meant to do.

But, so far, I've been unable to save the one person I want to save the most, my own son.

If you've been reading this blog a while, you know that over the last several years, in lots of different ways, I've been trying to save my son. There are times when he has allowed me to approach him, hold his hand and float with him for a while, guiding him closer to safety. But he's never let me help him all the way there. He's resisted and I've had to back up, gather myself, and consider another way to reach him. And there have been times that I've feared I may drown, too.

But don't worry. I'm not giving up. (You should know that about me by now.) If it takes me the rest of my life, I will never stop trying to save my son and swim him to safety.

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