Freedom & Fear – two sides of the same coin

Calm, Lake Ontario

The most important kind of freedom is to be who you really are. Expose yourself to your deepest fear. After that, fear has no power.
But does it ever go away?


I didn’t take to swimming easily. At five, I spent school trips to the pool – a busy, noisy expanse of choppy water where shrieks and shouts bounced like bullets off the walls – white-knuckled and helpless, grimly gripping the fat metal bar on the inside rim, edging my way along hand-to-hand with the tunnel-visioned determination of the truly terrified. Every once in a while I’d meet someone similarly suffering going the other way.

Even in agony there’s hierarchical structure. A showdown of wills was the precursor to some undignified scrabbling and stretching as the first to buckle accepted the riskier manoeuvre, reaching around the hunched shoulders of the victor while they hugged the wall, feeling blindly for the rigid metal lifeline. Somewhere during the forced intimacy of crossover we ceased to be adversaries, united by a shared predicament not of our making, neither daring to breathe until we were on safely divergent trajectories, the bar stretching away ahead free of obstacles until another completed circuit forced us to go head-to-head.

I don’t remember learning to swim, but I must have cracked it by the time I was eight because I chipped my tooth on the bottom of the pool teaching myself to dive. I went on to earn my Life-Saving and Diving awards, and my greatest wish every summer was for a pool in the back garden.

So it’s a mystery why, to this day, my pulse quickens, toes and fingers grow cold, palms sweat and bowels contract whenever I decide to enter the water. The prospect of swimming fills me with a kind of dreadful excitement, even though once in I feel pure joy and freedom surrendering to that gravity-defying fluid embrace.

Maybe it was watching Jaws when I was nine. For weeks afterwards Saturday morning swims at the local leisure centre took on a tinge of panic due to an inability to tear my goggled eyes from the suddenly sinister grill in the deep end. Turning my back on it seemed to invite an awful surprise attack (of a nature unclear beyond its ability to unleash horror heretofore unimagined on our sleepy market town) that was somehow stayed by my vigilant gaze. Of course, the community-at-large never knew the nameless horror my watchfulness spared them. No one ever knew, the childish fear was my guilty secret.

Maybe it was the conditioning of years spent jumping into the freezing waters of the under-heated, ill-lit pool at my convent school – an ordeal borne on a twice or thrice weekly basis.

Maybe it’s my fear of failure, the Doubting Thomas that languishes at the back of my mind telling me I’ll never be any better than this.

One thing is certain – for a while at least, fear took an unexpected holiday. With the boldness of assumed immortality, I passed my teenage years in streams, rivers, pools, and seas – oblivious to Weil’s Disease, razor-toothed pike and whatever else lurked beneath.

It wasn’t until my thirties when I came to Canada and waded out into Lake Ontario for the first time, that the nebulous, nameless anxiety didn’t dissolve as I gave myself over to the buoyant brawn of the water. My mind was preoccupied by the world below the surface, where I couldn’t see yet was visible to all. I was suddenly aware of my absolute vulnerability.

Perhaps it was being in a new country with unknown, not fully understood dangers, perhaps it was the passing of years spent lovingly caring for children whose birth brought the burden of protection and a heightened awareness of danger. Perhaps it was my fascination for mysterious creatures; consuming and being consumed by books about the Loch Ness monster, Champ, Ogpogo, or reading about Marilyn Bell, the first person to swim across Lake Ontario, who endured attacks by Lamprey eels on her arms and legs.

Who knows? In the end it doesn’t matter.

To experience freedom you must first pass through fear, facing it instead of running. It means accepting yourself as you are – fears, faults, flakiness. Conquering it is a hope, an improvement, an ideal, but it doesn’t make life unliveable if it isn’t reached- I continue to swim, in Great Lakes, seas and pools, because doing nothing just feeds the fear (and because feeling fear and doing things anyway is part of living with BPD).  All I know is that moment when you reach down into the darkness with your toes to see if you can still touch the bottom and feel nothingness, is the most heart-stopping few seconds. Not because I can’t feel the bottom, but because I’m secretly tensing in case I feel something that isn’t.

Right then you have no opportunity to think about the future, or the past. You’re fully there in the moment.

It’s then that I feel completely and truly alive.


By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. I went through exactly the same kind of misery when I was younger! And that swimming pool grill always scared me, too! Isn’t is strange. When our son was little, I made sure that he quickly learned to swim and he has always loved the water – like a little fish at the age of three or four! I didn’t want him to endure the hell that I did. It’s that razor-edge feeling, that tingle, that does make you feel alive though. I always have to challenge myself. Although my fear of heights seems unconquerable at this stage… (and I am always having swimming or water dreams. Constantly. I am told the water represents Life. Sometimes it has crocodiles and sharks in it!) Thanks for this beautiful piece…

  2. I was one of those ‘water babies’ shrieking around and splashing, trawling up and down at great speed (before the joints gave up on me!) and swimming out a little further into the lake to see if I could reach the other side. Now, with children, and the purchase of a wetsuit (it SO gets over those wincing ‘ohhhhhhhh’ moments as you enter British waters) I still enjoy getting out there. However, ask me to drive across a not even very high bridge or look out of the window in a tall building and the fear sets in. On the bridges, I’m the chicken that has to get to the other side, at the windows I finally look out and think “wow”. As for the open air and drops over the side of cliffs – I’ll be the one 10 yards back, thank you very much. x

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