It's never worth my time
Bleeds into my eyes
Everyone has a breaking point.
Or, to say it another way, everyone has a plan with regards of how their life is about to play out. People write out grocery lists; balance checkbooks; run analysis on penny stocks, wheat futures, and flex position running backs for Fantasy Football leagues. People enjoy having control, not so much of the long term - but rather of the immediate future. People enjoy making plans for the short term future because, when you get down to it, having that plan allows you to extrapolate and say "Yes, see here -- I did my laundry this morning, I'm buying supplies for tomorrow's dinner today, and then the next ten years are just bound to fall into place after that." People enjoy this short term control because it is the antithesis of not being in control; it is the state of being proactive rather than reactive, and for some the uncertainty of being out of control of a situation can elicit the well-documented "fight or flight" response. The point at which the stress of being out of control pushes an individual from having a calm, rational, calculated response to the "fight or flight" question into making a sudden, irrational response: that point is that individual's breaking point.
This here is a true story of a time I hit that point.
Sleep on the right side
Of the white noise
Can't leave the scene behind
Could I be anything you want me to be
It's always meant to be seen
I visited the Outer Banks for the first time in my life during Labor Day weekend 2011. The island, and more specifically the North Carolinian local businesses of the Outer Banks and Roanoke, had been hit particularly hard by Hurricane Irene, which passed through just the week prior. Flood damage was evident everywhere. A resturant was missing its door. Small sailboats were dragged ashore by the storm, waiting patiently to be rescued from front yards, parking lots, and highway shoulders. Another resturant was standing minus its roof - or perhaps it was standing plus a large tree, now fashionably adorning the interior of the resturant. Nobody was inside to clarify for us.
After settling into the quaint inn we'd reserved through the long weekend, the beach called for inspection. Other than a more-seaweed-tumbleweed-packed than usual high tide fence across the sand, the beach appeared to be undamaged by the recent storm. The sun was high and behind us already, the time being late afternoon. Staking a sun umbrella into the sand, we hopped across the hot sand and ran into the ocean, deep enough to jump into the first line of breakers. The soothing seafoam was the perfect antidote for the five hour drive endured to get there. Sun baked skin drank in the cool salt water, beading up on our aloe vera sun-screened arms. We walked deeper - she jumping over waves, me diving under and lazily kicking (only to rise to the surface and kick in earnest; loudly and wetly). We continued the game for a few minutes more, and then she appeared to bore and return to shore as I kicked under another wave, and then another.
What was unknown, at this time, was that another tropical storm had been following Irene, only to veer east of her track deeper into the Atlantic Ocean. While none of the rain or winds would reach shore from that storm, its effects would still be felt. Specifically, its effects upon the eastern shore tides. What was unknown, at this time, was that the tides would have a greater pull than usual. Also that, unlike the sweat and hairspray infused shore of New Jersey where I grew up, there was no sandbar along the edge of the Outer Banks to dampen the ocean's pull. Also that, about ten miles north, the sole "Outer Banks Beach Patrol" member was packing his four-wheeler with a set of "Dangerous Current" flags, to warn people out of the water. Knowing any of this may have chased me out of the water sooner. Instead, I was floating on my back watching my girlfriend walk back to our seats, diving under a wave, floating to watch a cloud pass, diving under another wave.
And so I continued playing in the ocean, diving just a foot or so underwater and relishing at the deep, muffled rumble of a wave cresting above my ears. Surfacing and relishing at the bright, warming caress of the late summer sun. Breathing in and relishing at the bouyancy a person can enjoy in salt water. Diving just a foot or so... and being weightless. Opening my eyes... and seeing a flood of air bubbles and the ocean floor.
Somehow I had lost my timing, I must have kicked much too hard, and I had dove under nearly two waves, getting tumbled by the second wave of the series in the process. I surfaced, and gulped air as a third wave was already cresting just above me. I ducked back underwater, let the wave pass, and surfaced. I was able to take in a full carriage of air, but was disconcerted by the fact that a fourth wave was building, much too close and approaching too quickly to allow for any floating or cloud gazing. I ducked under the wave and repositioned myself to be facing shore - the waters were getting a bit too rough for my liking and I thought I would go sun off for a bit, pick up where I had stopped reading The Hunger Games a few hours earlier. The wave cleared while I turned and I bobbed to the surface, where the gravity of the past twenty seconds was revealed.
In a third of a minute, while I playfully ducked and dove under a series of four - or perhaps five - waves, I had drifted another 200 meters farther from shore. The water between us blocked my view of everything except for the staircase leading to the top of the dune, and the inn, at the top of the beach.
I've read adventure survival books for pleasure, and try to learn from all of them. Partially to be that lifelong Boyscout and "be prepared" for any situation, but mainly to live vicarious through the survivors and "re-live" the thrill of making all the right decisions when death was on the line. I'd like to say that I had a flash of a memory from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, where my dad told me that a pier would break a rip tide in half and let you get safely back to shore. I'd like to say that I remembered when we read The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook that there was a full chapter on swimming parallel to shore in strong ocean currents. I'd like to say that I recalled confusion, panic, and fatigue as being the true killers of someone caught in a rip tide. But saying any of those things would make a liar of me. I surfaced - already facing the shore - saw how distant it was, and that it was slipping farther still away, and can imagine now that my pupils dilated even as my stomach leapt into my throat. In that first instant that I recognized how far adrift I was, I didn't think of any of this accumulated knowledge I had rattling around my brain.
In that first instant I saw how far adrift I was, I turned my head towards shore and swam.
When you see yourself in a crowded room
Do your fingers itch, are you pistol-whipped?
Will you step in line or release the glitch?
Can you fall asleep with a panic switch?
And when you see yourself in a crowded room
Do your fingers itch, are you pistol-whipped?
Will you step in line or release the glitch?
Do you think she'll sleep with the panic...
"You're an idiot."
That was my first thought. It was full of self-loathing; it was full of anger. "How could you get yourself into this situation?" was a close second, but the disdain and self-loathing were definitely the two most visceral emotions I felt while I tried to assess the situation. I've always been more of a runner than a swimmer, although an old injury has reduced me to yoga and jogging instead of truly competitive athletics. As the waves crested and crashed around me, I alternated swimming or gauging the distance to shore. For a stretch of several waves I only swam, ducking under the waves as to not get turned about again. I surfaced after one wave and noted, half optimistically, that I was no further from shore than I first was. Of course, I was also no closer, but by that point of my afternoon I was in the business of silver linings.
I allowed myself one more set of that: swimming towards the shoreline, ducking under waves, not allowing myself to check my progress. After eight or ten waves (just over a minute) I allowed myself to cheat and check the distance again. I was absolutely, without a doubt, not getting any closer to shore. I could feel the suck of the next wave lap at my sides, and I ducked under the crest of water.
For the first time, I felt a twinge of fear.
By this point of the story, I had been swimming in earnest for about two minutes. The last time I had been in continuous motion in water for over two minutes, I was rehabilitating a pulled hamstring by running through an indoor pool with pretty blue and aquamarine tiles lining the bottom. This story does not take place in such a controlled environment as that had been. I decided to yell for help. I set myself to a routine: Surface and inhale deeply, duck under the next wave with my hand above water, kick to the surface and yell while waving that hand with a straight arm and not making any shape even remotely close to an "OK" sign, pinch my nose shut for the next wave, surface and inhale and swim until the next wave, come up from that wave to reset the cycle.
My world was very suddenly reduced to the time it took for three Atlantic waves to crash over my head.
After about four cycles of that routine I got my first mouthful of water instead of air at the surface. I had started to tire. The next time I scream for help, my voice cracked into a higher octave. While swimming and ducking and remembering to breathe after my face is above the surface I found myself wondering if a higher pitch travels further, if screaming in a higher pitch will give me better odds of being heard on the beach. The next time I screamed I clenched my vocal chords to raise my voice an octave or five. I was still aware and alert enough, even as the next wave slipped over my head, to note that such a high scream had an inquisitive quality to it, which disturbed me enough to grant me a second mouthful of saltwater during a hesitant ascent.
I had been swimming against a current for approximately five minutes.
By my estimation, I had been yelling for help for three minutes. I didn't believe anybody was coming.
I was afraid.
The combination of fear, decision that nobody could hear me (or that nobody could get to where I was safely), and the heaviness I was feeling form in my legs made me more willing to take more risks. I only yelled half, or less, as frequently - taking the risk that I would be able to self-rescue before becoming exhausted. I stopped diving beneath waves - risking an ill-timed wave would turn me over and disorient me; risking a forceful noseful of water when least expecting it - to try to use the momentum to push me to shore. I continually pinched my nose shut, went into a dead-man's float, and tried to visualize myself skimming over the surface of the breaking wave. Minutes passed and I am sure I had yelled less and less frequently, as my thoughts (land) were losing track of any pattern or routine (land land land), and began reducing to one (land land land land land) elemental focal point (land land land land land land land land land land): get back to solid ground.
That continued for at least another four minutes before I finally had a line of sight to the beach. The relief I felt, seeing five strangers running into the ocean, was beyond words. I cried tearlessly and specifically remember having thought "you don't need to get any closer, just don't get pulled farther out, you can relax now". I tried to reach down with my toes and found that I was nearly at the sharp drop off of the ocean floor. I swam another few strokes, and tried to stand just as the five men reached me. I tried to answer "I think I'm okay, I don't think I drank too much water", but the next wave took my legs from me and sent me sprawling with barely a word escaped. Two of the men helped walk me to shore, where a crying girlfriend was just ending her call to emergency services. At the water's edge I sat down, dug my heels into the sand, and laid back on the ground, coughing and gasping for breath.
Mm, I'll try
To hold on tight tonight
Inviting me inside
Wanna burn skin
And brand what once was mine
But the red views
Keep ripping the divide
After laying at the ocean's edge for a short time, I was finally talked into returning to the beach chairs, under a very watchful set of eyes. I think I was quiet for a long time, but in all honestly my time reckoning was off the rest of the day. I was sitting on the beach, under a tiny unbrella the inn had lent us, with my feet buried in hot North Carolinian sand. All I could hear was the rhythmic pulse of the ocean, the cymbal and the tympani, the crash and the roar. The sound was stuck in my ears like that annoying pop song from last decade which you hear the end of when you walk into a coffeeshop. The most worrisome part of my immediate recovery was that my respiration and heart rate did not subside (for another day and half, it turned out) while sitting on the beach, which led me to want to try taking a nap back at the room. A block away from the inn my nose began to drip water, and the drip quickly became an evacuation which felt like a Neti pot rinse. I leaned over the fence not a moment too soon as my stomach followed suit, emptying itself of the "one or two mouthfuls" of water I thought I had accidentally taken in.
I didn't sleep that afternoon, and slept fitfully that night - eyes closed, trying to regulate my breath and heartbeat. I was able to relax the next afternoon, going for a quick and defiant dip in the ocean. I was careful not to walk out farther than waist deep water, though, and I slept soundly that second night.
If I go everywhere you want me to go
How will I know you'll still follow?
Two days later we were back in the car, driving north along Route 95. An hour or so into the ride we had caught up to a torrential downpour. I had found myself fighting the wind already, the weekend car being lighter than the beast I was more familiar driving. The sudden addition of water to the crowded and sun-baked throughway was creating perfect conditions for hydroplaning (for the uninitiated, this is when water mixes with various "road oils" leaked from vehicles. The mixture, like oil and vinegar dressing, is not soluble, so the road oils rise atop the water. Hydroplaning is when the tires of your car stop driving on the pavement, and start driving on this layer of oil shifting around on top of the pavement). Generally, a little bit of hydroplanning doesn't bother me. I drove a car for the first time in two feet of snow, and perfected the power slide on the dispopulated roads of rural New Jersey. On this night, I wasn't reacting very well. The windshield wipers were ratcheted up to their maximum velocity, and before long I noticed (swish/shiz shiwsh/shiz) I was white-knuckling the steering wheel as if I was riding my first roller coaster all over again. A sixteen-wheeler sporting a wall of mounted lights swerved around me and sped past, laying on their air horn the entire time. The sound broke my focus off the obscured white dashes ahead of me, and I leaned forward (swish/shiz swish/shiz swish/shiz) to make sure the reckless driver wasn't going to clip me or someone just ahead. My shirt had stuck to the driver's seat as I leaned forward, drenched with sweat (swish/shiz swish/shiz swish/shiz swish/shiz), as if I had been running through the heat of the day for two hours rather than driving in the early evening.
The rain was falling in sheets. As I tried to adjust the windshield wipers (swish/shiz swish/shiz swish/shiz) to go faster, despite their being set to the maximum speed already, I realized what was causing the nervous grip on the steering wheel, what was causing the unbending focus straight ahead, what was causing the cold sweats: it was the rhythmic sounds of the wipers combined with the drumming of the rain on the roof of the car.
The cymbal and the tympani; the crash and the roar.
I'm waiting and fading and floating away
I'm waiting and fading and floating away
I'm waiting and fading and floating away
Waiting and fading and floating
Experiencing the sound of a summer rainstorm setting off my own panic switch made me realize I needed some help. My resting heart rate had been elevated to the mid 90s (from a baseline in the 60s for years) for days, so I contacted a close friend who had been a lifeguard in years past. He advised to get myself submerged immediately. Getting back underwater would pit a pysiological response against a psychological response. I took the advice and drew a bath. I took a deep breath, and slipped under the surface with my eyes open.
The white noise of the room instantly muted as the water slipped around my skull like a hood.
I pushed myself down near the bottom of the tub, inches off of the porcelain.
I floated at the bottom of the tub, waiting for my heart rate to regulate itself, wishing for the residual stress to fade away.