My Sober Life, Chapter 1

In which I decide drowning is better than admitting I don’t know how to do something.

In 1980, my parents, John and Carol Vega, bought a house in the little city of Littleton, Colo. (now Centennial), moving for the final time. Our next-door neighbors had a pool in their backyard. My parents made quick friends with these neighbors, the Goldbergs, and over the years, we would go over often to swim. 

Among the family of our new neighbors was a teenage daughter named Samantha (Sam) who took a special interest in me. I thought she was the raddest person I had ever met outside of my siblings. She had a boa constrictor and tattoos and rode a motorcycle. She was the epitome of cool.  

One beautiful summer day in my second or third year of life, my mom took me over to the Goldberg’s. While she was talking with Mrs. Goldberg near the sliding glass door, Sam was kneeling in front of me next to the pool. It was roughly 20 feet long and had a diving board stretching over the eight foot deep end. I remember the feel of the AstroTurf under my toes, the water expansive to my left. Sam asked me, “Do you know how to swim?” I nodded, “Yes, I do.” And I jumped into the deep end. 

I did not know how to swim.

According to my mom’s retelling, she screamed, “She can’t swim!” Sam reacted instantly, diving in as I sunk to the bottom of the pool. I remember the blue flushing with white bubbles as she entered the water; the pressure of her arm against my chest as she wrapped it around me; the force as she pushed off the bottom of the pool, pulling me to the surface.

I remember the adults fluttering around me, my mom grabbing my shoulders, yelling, “NEVER do that again!”, and I was just looking blankly around like, What’s the big deal?  

As we journey through my past, this will emerge as a common theme. Self-aggrandizing and lying started from a very young age. The near-compulsive need I had to be liked and included, I would do or say almost anything to avoid exclusion: Say I can do something I can’t, say I have done something I haven’t, believe something is true when it isn’t. I had to know everything about something and something about everything. And so help you if you disagreed with me.

Did I have the self-awareness to realize it’s what I was doing as a toddler? Probably not. I have this sense I thought swimming was just something everyone knew how to do, so I must know, too. I also remember thinking, She asked me if I can swim which must mean she wants me to show her how I can swim. I don’t recall fear or understanding that, Hey, you can’t breathe in there and you can die. The only feeling I remember is, You need to be as cool as this cool girl. This piece of my personality has come in handy a few times, but more often, it has put me in harm’s way. A lot.

Within the next year or so, my mom put me in swim lessons, and thankfully, I never feared the water. Conversely, I went on to be a competitive, state-qualifying swimmer (in one event…don’t get too excited…).

And that is the truth.


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