On Drowning

This piece was originally posted as a Facebook note in March of 2014

Did you know that I almost drowned once?

I may have mentioned it to some of you. Perhaps I needed to explain a certain awkwardness I had around water. Perhaps I was simply grasping for something to talk about in a group setting; tapping a traumatic memory to relay a personal touch to the current topic of conversation, thus proving I have something to contribute.

What did you think about just now when I said I almost drowned? Perhaps you concocted some narrative in which I swim too far out during a day at the ocean: I misjudge my abilities and my mortality, forcing a local lifeguard to make a dramatic rescue. Or perhaps I fell out of a raft on white water, scrambling to keep afloat whilst dodging rocks. How very dramatic that would be.

The truth may sound unremarkable: it was a portable swimming pool in someone's backyard, filled with neighbourhood kids. The pool couldn't have been more than four feet deep and fifteen feet wide. Consider for a moment and you'll realize that you already know: it doesn't take an entire ocean's worth of water to drown a person, nor even a river's worth. Ray Charles' younger brother would tell you all it takes is a washtub and an awkward fall. A CIA agent might tell you all it takes is a bucket and a slightly flexible sense of ethics.

Before sitting down to write this, I had a bit of an epiphany. I had for much of my life, rather considered myself too self-cognizant to have any repressed memories. You hear about the phenomenon often enough: memories which are so painful or traumatic that the person who experienced them isn't actually capable of recalling them. I realized today that the drowning incident, which probably occurred when I was six or seven, went completely unrecalled until I was in my late teens, when my mother happened to mention it in conversation. In a single moment, it all came flooding back. And the most horrifying part was not the recollection of the experience, now perfectly vivid in my mind, but rather the fact that I hadn't thought about it at all since the incident occurred. The fact that something so huge and shadowy could be hiding in one's subconscious is… sobering, to say the least. You start to wonder what else could potentially be lurking under the surface. You wonder if you want to know.

You know, drowning teaches you a lot about people.

The first thing that it teaches you is that people can be selfish, oblivious morons; Especially kids. When you jump into a swimming pool with a dozen, shrieking, splashing (and perhaps most importantly), bigger, older kids, well, you might as well be jumping into white water with sharp rocks. That crowd of people is like a random force of nature. In retrospect, the water was a little too deep for me. Within moments I was being sucked under, my efforts to tread water or cling to something being stymied by a forest of joyously flailing limbs.

It's difficult to remember how long I was fighting, choking; I'd prefer not to speculate. When you need air and can't have it, every moment is an eternity. Regardless, at some point my mother had half-heard her child's shriek from across the lawn and hence come sprinting forth to pull me out of the water. The thing I remember most of that first moment back in the air is not the coughing up of poolwater, nor how soon I was able to start bawling (though I'm pretty certain it was immediately after I'd managed to expel the water and suck in my first breath), but rather the dumb stillness of the pool denizens. All those other kids, silent and static: in stark realization that they had been blissfully ignorant of my drowning. I have little doubt that my mom shouted them down with bloody murder as she fished me out.

As an adult, I'm pretty damn-near certain that my intense dislike of large groups of people is directly linked to this experience. My observations of humans thus far have done little to assuage my fears of crowds. You hear about this sort of thing in the news from time to time: people getting trampled at public gatherings. People, even lots and lots of people in the same big space, each exist in their own very separate universes, focused on their own particular activities; be it dancing, running away, or dashing into a Wal-Mart to obtain the latest, hottest, hardest-to-get toy for their screaming offspring. People generally (and I use the word "generally" quite liberally here) aren't trying to hurt you, or kill you. They're just so engrossed in their own activity that they'll gleefully stomp you to death while dancing to that latest, hottest, most amazingest band playing on stage. Whoops, sorry. No hard feelings, eh?

As an older child, I took swimming lessons. I paddled, treaded, even stroked my way into becoming a competent swimmer. Certainly not a good swimmer, but someone who can hold their own and get around in a body of water without suffering a crippling panic attack. As a teen and young twenty-something, I regularly visited the community pool with my friends in the suburbs. I would dive headfirst into the deep-end. I would touch the bottom, perilously far from the surface, experiencing only the slightest bit of emotional discomfort as I swam back up towards the air that I needed to live. Aquaphobia? Me? Nah. Peoplephobia? Oh, most definitely.

In the spring of 2011, I went on my very first trip to Europe. The first stop was Holland, my proclaimed "mother-country" (most of my ancestry is from there). My guide was my cousin Rick, who happens to be an accomplished white water rafter. It's worth noting that to be an accomplished white water rafter in the incredibly flat Netherlands is not an easy thing. Fortunately for all aspiring Dutch rafters, an artificial white-water course exists, formed with enormous mountains of concrete and powered by immense pumps used to move the requisite amount of water. I went a few trips through the course with Rick and his team. Each time, our raft was ferried back up to the top of the mountain by a great conveyor belt. The third time through the course, we erred on a turn, and the raft toppled.

I'd thought that I wasn't afraid of water anymore, but the panic was real, powerful, and instantaneous. Artificial white water was still white water, and it was bloody powerful. I was a rag doll in a tempest. Thought fled. I grasped the upturned raft with all my might. Somehow, I was still being dragged under water. This was counterintuitive, so I grasped more tightly, yet my situation did not improve. Someone was shouting at me in Dutch, at the top of his lungs. He quickly switched to English: "LET GO."

Of course: it had been very clearly explained to me not to cling to the raft if we fell out, and I had even made a mental note as such. All those good instructions sucked away in a moment of blind animal panic. I acquiesced and let go. My lifejacket easily and rather lazily floated me upright. It was almost comedic how safe I was compared with the peril I'd presumed, the peril I'd created in part by clinging to the raft. I swam towards the artificial shore. When I reached for an outstretched hand so to be pulled out of the water, I realized that I still needed to let go of the paddle which I had encased in an oblivious death-grip. The team sat on the concrete, panting. I coughed up some disgusting Dutch canal water. My cousin Rick regarded me concernedly: "You okay?" I was among a team of men, worried that my embarrassing mis-assessment of my own phobia was totally exposed. So I settled into a macho persona: "Yeah, I'm good."

This leads me to the second thing drowning has taught me about people: flailing.

It's taken me a long time to really get accustomed to the subtleties of dealing with people, and frankly, I still fuck up a lot. I suppose that everyone does to a degree, but coming from the perspective of a young awkward nerd who was at the bottom of the food chain in high school, it sometimes feels like average people are all talk show hosts compared to you. Fortunately, there comes a time in a young male geek's life where he starts to feel socially self-assured. It's the point where you're just good enough to be found "incredibly charming" or "confident" by someone you've just met. You're in a good mood and you're on your game. So, unfortunately, you start to think that the world is your social oyster, and that you can talk your way out of things, or get your way through charm.

The hard truth, Young Me From The Past, is that you still have much to learn. That hubris is going to get you embarrassed. You figure that if you've talked to much, gotten into trouble, maybe more talking can get you out of it? You assume that if you were too honest, maybe more honesty in the answer? If someone's slipping away, grab on. And so you flail, and flail.

Some people, it seems, never learn how not to flail. They know no social subtlety, refusing their conversational partners any privacy or personal boundaries. Perhaps they play the victim, guilting affection out of people, tolerating nothing less than unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of the validity their own actions. And the more you flail, the more you cling to the raft, the more you push people away.

The greatest challenge of my adult social life has been to not push people away through excess effort. I'm genuinely not sure if I've been very successful. I think back over the years and I feel hot embarrassment. I want to apologize to some of you, but I'm taking a more laissez-faire approach these days.

I want to tell you one more thing about swimming. When they teach you to swim, one of the first things they want you to try is to just lay back and float there. For years, I was never able to do this. I got accustomed to holding my breath underwater, learned to tread water, and began to swim with a certain degree of efficiency. But it was only years later that I realized how to just lie back and let the water support me without needing to constantly swat at it. I really wish I'd figured it out sooner.

After all, humans are mostly water.

Jesse Schooffwriting