After the Storm

Preface: This post will be a difficult one and is mainly meant for myself. I you keep on reading, be prepared for a challenging and heavy topic; and also read the addendum.

I think people think drowning isn’t nice. And I agree: it’s not; at least in the beginning.

(Nearly) Every year, for 10 years, a group of friends and I have been on vacation to the same coast section of the North Sea in Denmark. And every year, we enjoyed swimming in the troubled sea, with high waves breaking onto the shore. Why? Because it is a lot of fun: getting lifted by the waves, struggling to keep your balance, hearing the roaring sounds of wind and water. We also thought we know about the dangers and can judge them. But actually, we, or at least I, could not.

And in 2018, I had to experience it myself: As always, we went for a swim during a stormy day, with high waves continuously crashing around us, sometimes far out on the ocean, sometimes only at the last moment when rolling onto the rocky beach. As always, we were staying really close to the land: I was able to feel the ground between most of the waves. And as always, we were watching out for each other; quite a large group this time, some in the ocean, some on land, all of us with the sharp wind in our faces and salt on our lips.

But this time is also different: The waves are irregular and hard to predict, water and wind are cold and unrelenting, and I think I am in control — although I am not. After several minutes of childlike pleasure of dancing in the waves, I slowly realize that I am feeling rather cold. It’s not an abnormal feeling for me: I am rather skinny and my body always cools down quickly in the water. I decide that it’s time to get out and I start to paddle towards the land. It seems only a few metres away and the warmth of the towel already feels in reach. I take some steps and some strokes, always between two breaching waves. Ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps; ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps.

30 seconds later it feels like I should have reached the coast; but I realize I have not gained a single inch. The feeling of cold has already turned into an intense feeling of freezing; my limbs feel numb, my teeth start to chatter. I take stronger strokes, but only get more exhausted. And the waves don’t care. Ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps; ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps. And then: I don’t ride the next wave, it rides me. After I am back on the surface, I try to pull myself together and look around: I did not notice before that we have drifted off from the people on the coast who are already further away than I thought. But next to me is a good friend, still dancing in the waves and enjoying the elements. But it doesn’t feel right to call for help: The coast seems still close, I am a physically fit guy, not a great swimmer, but I have been in this ocean many times before. I can also still sometimes feel the ground below my feet, between the never stopping waves rolling in. And: What should I even tell him? How should he help me?

Another 30 seconds later, I feel as uncomfortable as I have never felt in life before. I still have not made any progress; the harder I try, the less progress happens. I feel a glimpse of fear creeping into my heart and it’s enough that I try to reach out to him, just a few metres away in the water. I tell him I am feeling uncomfortable and that I do feel like I am not able to reach the coast. But the wind carries away every single word from my lips into the far distance. I try it a second time. I try it a third time. And now, the fear isn’t creeping anymore, I am not dancing in the waves anymore. I am an immobile object that gets thrown around in the ocean as easily as a little pebble of sand in the wind. In only one minute I have lost any bit of control I thought I had. And suddenly, there is no weighing up of my manliness against some unknown fear of showing weakness, there is no more time to loose. Suddenly, I realize how serious it is: I need help. And I need it now. I scream, and finally I get noticed. It still takes a few more screams before the seriousness of my situation is clear to him. The next wave crashes above me and my body is slammed into masses of water. There is no sense of up and down, there is only water everywhere. I loose all sense of orientation. I still have air left, but the attempt to find back to the top depletes most of it. Suddenly, I am above the water again, take a deep breath in a hopeless try to fill my lungs again. But the next wave already slams into my body. And it repeats: wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave, second after second, every breath shorter than the one before.

I feel that my body slowly disconnects from my thoughts. I cannot feel my limbs let alone control them in any serious attempt. At some point in time, the air gets too scarce. And these few seconds, which feel like eternities, are also the ones where I experience panic and fear as I never done have before. It occupies the mind, every bit of it, fills your bones and muscles, and drowns you a second time, emotionally. There is no deciding any more. The body does what it needs to do: Fights the waves, fights the cold, fights towards land. And the mind does what it needs to do: It does not accept the unthinkable but also doesn’t see a solution. There is only fear. And, like the cold, it paralyzes my body a second time. And the waves keep coming, endlessly rolling above me. And my lungs keep filling, but not with air anymore, but with salty water instead. And slowly everything around fades away. I cannot see anymore, I cannot hear anymore, I am trapped within my brain unable to do anything about my fate.

And then it changes. I do not feel the raging ocean or the sharp winds, I do not feel the freezing cold or the rocks on the bottom of the ocean in my face. More importantly, the fear goes away and the panic is silenced. It’s gone. Completely. No more thoughts about what I might miss out on in live. No more thoughts about the persons I am leaving behind. Family. Friends. Hobbies. Work. It’s meaningless. The feeling that replaces these thoughts is much much stronger, it is more powerful. It is Happiness. It is tranquility. Absolutely impossible to put into words, but there it is: absolute salvation. Life can be strenuous, life can be exhausting, life can be difficult, and life can be disappointing. This right here is the opposite. No more distress, no more struggles, no more obligations, no more fear; no more life. If this is what the ending feels like, I am not afraid anymore. I am ready. I am free.

By now, my friend in the water has reached me and tries to push my body towards the shore line. Also, the people on land have noticed. And as you might guess, I got rescued by my friends early enough, but from my point of view it was as close as it could be. What I remember from the last minutes is not much and it’s mostly about my internal feelings. My body cooled down so quickly that I was not able to comprehend most of my surroundings any more. When I got pulled ashore I could not breath, nor see, only barely stand, or talk.

I had to learn that being back on land does not mean that it’s over either. First, it took several hours until my body could navigate this foreign world again. Then, it took some weeks to get my thoughts back in order. The following months after the incident, there were several occasions where I woke up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. For a few seconds I would not realize where I am or what was going on, but only experience the unrestrained panic I experienced in the cold water. And then, it took years to comprehend what this experience means for me, and this process is still ongoing. The year after, not a single one of us went swimming.

When I am writing about it, as I do here for the first time publicly, my hands still shake and my breathing is fast. I have been swimming two times since: The first time in an indoor pool where I could not finish 25 metres without the edge right next to me. As soon as I felt exhaustion in my muscles, I got panic attacks. The second time was in a lake close by and it was already far better. But I still hesitate when to go for the next try.

For me, the scary thing is not that I nearly drowned. I already nearly drowned once before as a little child but cannot remember much. Later in life, I got almost run over on my bike by a really fast car. And I have probably had other close incidents that I am not even aware of, as probably all of us have. For me the scary thing is to remember the feeling of the real happiness I could experience in these last brief moments. It was the most pure feeling I have ever experienced. And I struggle to comprehend it; even more to communicate it properly. I think it’s simply impossible to even remotely describe it, how it was, or what it was; and there is nothing I have found so far that resembles it. Remembering this can make life feel dull from time to time. But the more time passes the harder I can grasp how it felt.

So why am I still here? Because why not. I can be rather certain that there will come the day where I will get to experience that same feeling again; this inexpressible emotion, this other-worldly perfection and completeness I am craving for sometimes. But I learned that there is no hurry. And every moment I have on this world is one moment more that I can cherish for what it is. And thus, every moment here can also feel special no matter how difficult it might be. And it also reminds me: It doesn’t really matter what I am doing here; I have to create purpose myself. Only then I can find some sense.

I think drowning is nice. But it’s not; at least in the beginning.

Addendum: I struggled a lot with these experiences. Not only in the beginning, but also later on. Back then, I also searched intensively for reports from other people on the internet because I wanted to know how they felt, and how they dealt with an equal experience. But such reports seemed to be quite rare; this is also why I decided to share my own report here, even though it is difficult. By now I am fine; but I also got (some) professional help and advise anyone who is unsure, to seek out for help as well. I also have only talked rarely, or not at all, about this with friends and family. Because when speaking it’s even harder to find the right words. So to everybody who is reading this and has not heard about it before: I want to apologize that I can only pass on my thoughts in this form for now instead of telling you personally. And if you wondered: all photos are from the exact same stretch of coast, but from other years.

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