I should have sent a postcard from where I’ve been, but no single image could capture that long, strange trip. Besides, I may have sent you postcards from the first time I was there, in person.
I’ve been (re)treading in some pretty dangerous waters lately while on the final homestretch of my manuscript about an American swimmer who became a serious drinker overseas. How did she get from Point A to Point almost-not-to-Be? I had to go back down memory lane (as in pool lane) to discover what exactly had propelled me in so many directions.
First there was ribbons for winning races. Then medals. Then trophies. All that swimming and winning captured the attention of a lot of people, most especially men. Then they were my trophies. When my swimming career came to an abrupt conclusion, I still needed adrenaline and attention. I discovered that racing across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans felt like winning, too. And the reward for going the distance was a bottle in my hands and an intriguing man by my side. Another sort of liquid courage, as it were.
Except that I wasn’t winning on land, I was losing myself.
With every sip of Tusker beer in Kenya, soju in Seoul, or vodka in Abu Dhabi, a piece of the mermaid in me drifted further out to sea. But the last locale — a Bedouin country on the banks of the Arabian Gulf — also turned out to be the location of my last drink.
I went dry in the desert on March 28, 2015. Surely the greatest victory of my life, and one that came from applying my competitive spirit to conquering my demons. And there’s even a trophy, of sorts, for doing so. The story I’d lived, and then told, was purchased in August by Grand Harbor Press. Since then, I’ve been working my mermaid’s tail off to get every word in order with the help of an extraordinary development editor who took me to task on every idea. It was like having a coach inside my head, forcing me to get better with every stroke on the keyboard. I got up at the crack of dawn every morning, as if going to early morning swim practice, to re-examine everything about myself and the memoir.
Staring the past in the face, over and over again, was almost as hard as living it in the first place. Maybe even worse, since writing has given me an all-access pass to the sorrows I’d worked so hard to drown. Throughout the intense editing process, I felt lonely, alienated and abandoned even though I was sitting on the couch in my own living room. I felt like a zombie at my day job, actually more like a time traveler who’s exhausted to the core from stepping in and out of history.
And then came the period in which the editors and I went back and forth on what the title should be for the book. I’d been calling it TANKED, since that what I was: girl in a swim tank who got tanked up — often in places where war tanks lined the streets. But that moniker, as we all decided, emphasized the past instead of the present. We needed to name the book for the destination. Abu Dhabi? The Middle East? The Arabian Gulf? Soberville?
The answer came as I was driving David to swim practice one afternoon. He mentioned that he didn’t like the dryland workouts that the coach had them doing. I told him how I’d hated dryland, too, when I was swimmer. All those sit-ups and push-ups on the pool deck. I’m a water athlete! It’s kind of a swimmer thing to hate dryland training. But it’s good for you. Like fish oil.
“Wait a second!” I said to David.”That’s it!”
“What?” he answered. “I don’t have to do it?”
“Dryland is the title of the book,” I said. “That’s the location I was trying to reach. Dry Land. And I did it in the desert of all places. It was hard work, just like dryland training.”
The editors and I vetted the idea in another slew of emails, also testing subhead after subhead. I am delighted to report that we’ve reached a conclusion. And the story of my life, in and out of the water, “Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety,” debuts in bookstores around the world in April 2017.