Did you know that there are five stages of drowning and that it is mostly silent? The dramatic scenes from Hollywood of distressed swimmers shrieking for a lifeguard then going under are products of creative license. Billy Hargrove isn’t going to extricate you, give you a few puffs of mouth-to-mouth and then you wake up in his tanned arms.
Worse: anyone can drown, including competitive swimmers. Trained swimmers are only primed to move through water efficiently. They are as susceptible to drowning as lay swimmers.
Surprise, involuntary breath-holding, unconsciousness, hypoxia, and clinical death: these are the five stages of drowning. Lifeguards are trained to recognize and respond to stage one and render aid no later than stage two. These stages are brief and sometimes happen concurrently.
Although unconsciousness is the longest stage, it’s the most damaging. Every second someone is unresponsive and submerged, the closer they are to depleting oxygen stores in their body. When that happens, brain damage can occur. If a distressed swimmer reaches stage three, they are in serious trouble.
In my life, I am currently drowning. I’m in over my head, taking on water, and running out of energy to continue treading.
The surprise stage for me hit when I was laid off from my main job at the start of tax season. Of course, this would happen right after I had started planning a vacation for next year. Then after years of doing the will-we-or-won’t-we dance with an enigmatic but intoxicating figure in my life I found out through pure luck that he was married. It’s all tough and painful, but manageable.
The involuntary breath-holding stage hit when the job market dried up, my savings shriveled, and I realized that it was going to take more than a few sad weeks to get over what happened with James. Every time I turned one way or another, more feelings unfurled. I wrote essay after essay. While singularly they are accurate, none scratch the surface of my whole experience. I am not in a position to ever resolve most of them—most questions will remain a mystery and things left unsaid.
More waves wash over my face. Exploring unresolved traumas, reinforcing old beliefs, and struggling to keep a roof over my head. I feel as though I am submerged in oil, not water. Floating above the tension barrier between them, inches away from something pure where the real me is. But instead I am afloat in something viscous that is slick on my skin. Everything is slippery to the touch.
Whether I am in the third stage or not, the lights are dimming and there’s no lifeguard on duty. Reaching out and speaking up to friends only results in platitudes, unsolicited advice, and disenfranchisement.
“You’re so determined,” they coo, patting my head and high-fiving me as I thrash and slip below the surface.
“You’re so strong,” they say as my teeth crack and my hair falls out and I can barely string a sentence together.
“You’re so resourceful,” they fawn as I chase after delayed Metro trains and punch out an email thanking someone for choosing another candidate.
It’s all underlined my deepest belief: that I am only an object to people. That even when I show myself, I am not seen as I am—good or bad. I am only wanted or tolerated so long as I provide something for others. Soothing their loneliness, calming their fears, generating profit for them, sounding advice. My weakness and vulnerability do not serve them and there is no room for it between us. So it ricochets inside and the well deepens.
I can count on two or three fingers those who have understood it. Those who said the truth out loud: that this is too much for one person to bear and it’s not fair that it’s all on my shoulders. That every time I get close to something good, the rug is pulled out again. That I have every reason to feel discouraged and demoralized.
And that’s where I am right now. There’s no breezy swim to shore. I am too far out. No one is coming. Moving carefully, staying calm, and luck is the only way to safety.
As a writer, it pains me to have so much to say with no resolution. It’s my main tool for processing myself and connecting with others. But there are only so many self-serving sob stories people will tolerate before they realize they are getting nothing out of it because I have nothing to give to anyone in any way at present.
There are some glimmers on the horizon. Because my trauma response is to freeze, I can only stare at them until I somehow determine it’s safe enough to move forward.
See y’all when I get back to shore.