17 Oct Drowning
On a Saturday afternoon in late September, I almost drowned. On this warm fall afternoon, my friend Caroline and I had impulsively decided to swim across a lake. It’s a big enough body of water that we had to frantically wave at several speedboats to make sure that we didn’t get run over as we crossed. It’s one of those lakes where the area near the shore is soft and gooey, and Caroline didn’t want anything to do with the muck, so once she dove in she didn’t look back. I hadn’t even felt the water when I jokingly suggested that we swim across, but once she was on her way I had to follow.
My parents were not athletic, but they signed us up for sports. When I was around 10, I was very competitive at race-walking. I think that my double-jointed knees gave me an advantage and that slight advantage gave me the confidence to push myself despite the visual ridiculousness of the sport. I trained extremely hard and even got driven to Raleigh once or twice a week to train with a bigger team. At one unofficial meet, I clocked an 8:11 mile, which would have been a national record at the time if it were an official race. I also ran cross-country, but I didn’t excel at it. While I pushed myself in practice, I had a habit of always stopping a little bit short of my goal when racing. It bothered me when I did this, but habits of mind and body are hard to break. Races were much more fraught for me than practice. I usually found myself gasping for air within a few hundred yards of the start. It wasn’t that I started too fast, but instead, the anxiety that racing produced was stronger than my legs or my lungs. Even though I was a terrible racer, I liked the feeling of being in shape and the sense of belonging that came from being part of a team, so I continued to run all through high school.
It’s been a long while since I really pushed myself at exercise. When I swim, I do it more as mediation than in a goal-oriented way. Still, swimming makes me feel better, so I bike to the pool a few days a week and swim for about 20 minutes. I wouldn’t say that I’m in good shape, but I’m not out of shape either. A few weeks before I set out to swim across the lake, I had started to read a book about mindfulness and meditation. Doing the meditation practice had been helping me to be more centered and calm, and I saw the swim as an opportunity to exercise in a mindful way.
From the shore, I put the distance across as somewhere between a half mile and mile. It was a long swim in front of us but the water was surprisingly warm, and we lazily moved across the lake talking as our kids played on the shore. Once we were in the water it was very hard to gauge distances, but about a quarter of the way across Caroline noticed a speedboat headed in our direction. As we moved slowly forward with one eye on the boat I talked about swimming underneath it. She was not impressed by that idea. So we furiously waved our arms until we saw it slow down and tack left.
After we’d dodged that first speedboat it kind of felt like we were perpetually stuck in the middle of the lake. I started to get a little tired but I didn’t really think about turning back. Without my glasses, I can’t see much, but Caroline spotted a second boat that was moving toward us. As it got closer we worked a little harder to get its attention. The effort wore me out, and by the time it passed, I was starting to feel the distance as a heaviness in my arms. I considered suggesting that we turn back, but I didn’t bring it up because it felt too much like my habit of stopping short of my goals. In a kind of catch-22, I also have a tendency to push myself beyond my capacity, but this tends to be more in emotional contexts than physical ones. This makes things a bit confusing for me, and the conversations in my head become somewhat comedic. I was also looking forward to resting for a few minutes on the other side. This kind of swim is pretty different from doing laps in a pool. In the middle of the lake, there’s no place to rest. The tiredness creeps up a little bit at first and then faster.
At a certain point, we crossed a threshold and the far shore started to reel in more quickly. It was nice to be able to put my feet down on the bottom, even if it was soft and mucky. The sun had begun its descent as we staggered to the shore, and the cooling air chilled my tired bones. Pretty quickly I began to shiver, and the idea of resting became increasingly unappealing, so we both got right back in to head back to the other side. The wind had picked up and we realized that the slight current that had aided the first leg of our journey was going to be a problem on the way back.
I wasn’t worried, and I wasn’t doubtful. In fact, I kind of relished the challenge. I didn’t see it as pushing myself as much as working towards a goal. As I mentioned earlier, when I was a runner I would often stop a little short of the goal I’d set in my head. This is something that I still do with work and other goals. However, there was no way to stop short of this goal. We had to get across the lake, so I concentrated on being calm. I started to dive under the water to swim because the small waves were pushing right into our faces when we did the breaststroke. Caroline is a strong swimmer, but she had run 10 miles that morning, a new record for her, so she was also feeling tired. Even with my bad eyesight, I could see that our kids and friends were no longer on the shore. Caroline’s husband had a little boat that he was going to blow up and we talked about wishing that he would come get us. She even whistled for him but he was a long way off and there was no way he could hear us. We saw a big motorboat coming so we paddled in place until we were sure it had seen us. I noticed that the wind and the waves had died down and felt a sense of relief.
Right when we started back up Caroline got a cramp in her leg but she was able to shake it off quickly. She was a lifeguard when she was younger so she knew how to straighten her leg to ward it off. I was immediately aware of a distant sense of worry in the back of my mind. I have dealt with some very bad cramps in the pool. However, in a pool I can grab on to the side, which gives me the opportunity to grab my leg to help work it out. I wasn’t fully conscious of my worry, but I was conscious of being worried about being worried. That is, I understand how powerful the mind-body connection can be, and how subject we are to the power of suggestions. It was probably a foolish move, but in order to show my mind that I was ok, I dug in to swim a strong crawl. I wanted to cover some distance and I wanted to remind that weak part of my mind that I was strong and I didn’t need it to…. Wham, my foot, calf, and hip seized up with tremendous force.
Two years earlier, while I was under increasingly intense pressure in my work, my calf and foot had tightened and cramped steadily over a period of weeks. I was almost unable to walk and sitting was difficult. A friend’s mother, who was an orthopedist, came over and took one look at me and screamed, “You have to have surgery or you’re going to get a gimpy leg.” She clumped around the room miming what it would be like for me. Panic seized me and I asked her to leave, nicely. I made it upstairs to my office and I began to type a letter. I had gotten into the habit of sitting on the foot of my bad leg because it was the only way it wouldn’t cramp up on me. This time even that trick didn’t work and the muscles seized up in an intense explosion of pain. I was thrown to the floor screaming in agony, trapping me on the office floor for ten days. The pain was so intense that I was unable to move. Strong painkillers and meditation tapes had been the only thing that had kept me from losing my mind.
I wasn’t afraid that this cramp was going to be that bad, but since that time I have struggled with minor foot pain, tightness, and the occasional spasm like this. The strain of the long swim, coupled with my strong swimming, and my fear of getting a cramp had triggered it. I called out to Caroline and she swam over to help me calm it by stretching out my leg. I slowly moved my arms to stay afloat and I concentrated on staying calm. In fact, I felt oddly relaxed. However, the reality of the situation started to scratch at the edges of my consciousness. I wasn’t all right. We were in the middle of the lake, and if it happened again, I knew that I would not be able to get to shore. Caroline asked if she should try to get the attention of some kayakers who were nearby. I demurred. I tend to minimize my own needs, sometimes quite foolishly. I gingerly paddled along and then it struck again with tremendous force. I held my own leg back to stop it but I started to sink. I paddled to the surface and said that maybe she should call out to them. She whistled and yelled, and assured me they had seen her. I was surprisingly calm and relaxed as I began to sink, but I was aware that if the kayakers did not come soon I would have a hard time staying afloat. As Caroline gripped my foot to try to pull out the cramp I paddled gently to keep my upper body afloat, but in my effort to be calm, the paddling wasn’t enough to keep me above the water. I have a strong aversion to asking others for help. One part of my brain knew that I was in danger of drowning and the other part hated to inconvenience my friend Caroline. I knew that the more relaxed I was the more chance I would have of getting the iron grip of my calf to loosen up, so I concentrated on my breathing in order to stay relaxed.
I didn’t believe that I was going to drown, but I began to realize that it was an actual possibility. Without the kayakers nearby I am not sure how the situation would have been resolved. Although I remained calm, it seemed to take ages for the kayakers to get to us. When they did arrive, and I gripped the front of the boat and took hold of my own leg, trying to get it to loosen up. In order to stay afloat while holding my leg, Caroline had been swimming in a circle. I had mostly kept my eyes closed as we spun so I was pretty disoriented. I noticed that I was shivering quite actively. The fact that I was out of danger, and knew that I wasn’t going to drown, made me more aware of the pain in my leg and the cold in my bones. I also felt a whisper of shame at my situation. I didn’t feel that I had failed, but I hate to make others responsible for me. However, I meditated on being present and thankful that I hadn’t almost died. I got colder as we slowly moved toward shore, and my leg slowly un-cramped. I tried to swim a little, and while the leg was still tight, I was able to do the breaststroke and slowly moved away from the boat. They kayakers followed along for a few minutes, but the more I swam the more confident I became.
After a few minutes, we sent them on their way and continued slowly to shore. The soft sand and algae didn’t bother me at all when I got close enough to stand. I limped up to the beach and thanked Caroline. She went to our campsite to make dinner and I walked off the bathroom to take a long hot shower. It took a long time for me to get feeling back in my hands. As I got dressed, I thought about anxiety, and how powerfully it affects our body. On the lake, as soon as I considered the possibility that I might get a cramp, one struck me like a truck. The problem for me is that even with awareness of this fact, I often find myself powerless to combat the process. However, the meditation seems to be helping, and when I look back over the past two years I can see that my health and my sense of well being has improved considerably. It’s not an easy process to change the patterns of thought that shape our lives, but as we work on our film “Story of Pain” it becomes increasingly clear that the connection between our health and the way we THINK, and think about ourselves, is as powerful as any other factor in our well being.