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What It Feels Like To Drown

February 8th, 2012

I drowned once.

There wasn’t a white light, and there wasn’t a tunnel. In fact, it was all purple. Purple, purple, purple… dark and light shades of purple as if I was swimming in a sea of Kool-Aid. Chest ready to explode, I still couldn’t breathe. My stomach rocked up and down, twisting and turning, like I was strapped into a rollercoaster, and all I wanted to do was scream. I kept stretching my mouth wide open over and over again, but I couldn’t make a noise. Everything was silent.

I’ve never felt so helpless.

I was young-ish, at that amazing mid-pubescent phase in the 7th grade where the girls get taller and the boys look increasingly more awkward. I was chubby, had a bowl haircut and a nice set of buck teeth to complement my overbite that was yet to be fixed by the modern marvels of orthodontics. At the time, I wore these killer dragon T-shirts every day with sometimes ornately matching cargo pants with the extra large velcro pockets.

My mom had wisely enrolled me in a local “swim team” at the athletic club (the kind that sort of competes but not really) to get me some much needed exercise and lay the foundation for a solid beach bod that is still yet to materialize. So every Tuesday and Thursday, I’d slip on my jet black speedo just under my slight pudge, tighten my blue Tyr swim goggles and flop around in the pool for an hour and a half with a host of other kids.

We sometimes did what we called “under-waters.” You’d swim as far as you could without coming up for air and inevitably the unofficial goal (especially for the slightly older kids) would be to make it to the end of that 25m indoor pool. I’d done it before, and I knew how it felt for me. By the 3/4 mark, you start struggling. At that point, my chest would start to kind of pump up and down desperately looking for air, but I’d just concentrate, stare forward at that marble plus sign at the end of the pool and push straight to it. You hit the end and explode out of the water gasping for air.

One day after practice, this kid named Cliff dared me to swim a full length of the pool plus a quarter of the way back without breathing (for twenty bucks). I was a couple years older, felt like I had something to prove and quickly agreed without a second thought.

I stretched out at one end of pool and started with a series of deep breaths. I’d basically hyperventilate, take a big gulp of air to fill out my lungs, drop quickly into the water, and push off the back wall as hard as I could. Stroke after stroke, I remember reaching that 3/4 point. It hurt, and I even took in a tiny bit of water, but I was determined. My moves quickened until I slapped the cold cement of the back wall, flipped my body, and launched right back in opposite direction.

The water was especially murky that day. I can recall turning my head around to try and spot the flags that marked my quarter finish line but couldn’t see a thing. There was no way I was going to come up for air a couple feet short of the goal. So, I clenched my teeth, pumped my legs, and pulled with my arms. But then… it stopped.

You know that feeling when you’re being chased by a monster in a dream and all you want to do is wake up? You try to pinch yourself, and you try to yell, but it just doesn’t work.

Everything was purple and I was jerking my body grabbing for air. My stomach jolted left and right, disorienting me. I wanted to scream but nothing would come out.

A line of swim team kids had been watching from the deck. I had swam the full length of the pool plus half the way back when I stopped moving. Cliff eventually dived in to pull me up but wasn’t strong enough to lift me out of the water. The swim coach and my mother nearby quickly walked over to see what the ruckus was, and they would soon fish me out onto the concrete poolside.

My mouth was still tightly clenched shut as if I was gritting my teeth mid-swim. But my mom, who’d been a registered nurse for twenty years, pried my jaw open with two hands thanks to the grip provided by my overbite. She inhaled deeply and gave me two breaths of life.

I started coughing up the chlorine water.

When I began waking up, I would slip back and forth between the cold cement pool side and that purple hell hole. I woke up screaming and thrashing with a giant burst of adrenaline trying to escape.

An ambulance rushed me to the hospital, and I spent a night being pricked and prodded (still in my wet black speedo) as they drew blood each hour to check my oxygen count. I eventually discovered that I’d lost control of my bodily functions while unconscious, so before that lovely revelation I had spent hours in the hospital bed sitting in my own stew. Talk about adding insult to injury. There was a little bit of worry about brain damage but I was fine, just weak, asthmatic, and a little more cautious in the pool a few weeks later post-recovery.

I think I was too young (and preoccupied with raging hormones) to reflect a lot on what had happened at the time. Things would likely be different now, and I’m sure my family has their own account, but that’s just the way it is. I didn’t exactly emerge with some sky-parting, reinvigorating thirst for life. I didn’t drop everything after getting better (albeit I was in middle school) to go all Ryan Gosling and  confess my undying love to the girl of my dreams. In the rain.

But thinking back, what might be most interesting to me is how it was all my fault, how I managed to keep myself underwater. There wasn’t an accident or a giant rip tide. I just kept swimming until I couldn’t anymore.

You don’t think about that all the time. You don’t think about how going your hardest  in the right direction can sometimes lead you into a hole. And that’s been something to chew on lately.

But don’t worry about me. I’m not afraid of the water. I still wear the color purple. And my mom is still just as badass.


Note: I was interviewed about this experience in the July 2014 issue of Men’s Journal for an article entitled “In Over Our Heads.”

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