Despite practically growing up on the ocean, I never learned how to swim until my teens. I was an anxious child, I am an anxious adult, and drowning terrifies me.
Some people say drowning feels peaceful, calmly returning to where you came from. Your vision slowly goes black and you feel at peace. As I sit on the muddy shore and watch the water serenely lap by my feet, I have to imagine that you could only peacefully drown in a lake. Pools are full of chlorine to choke you out, plastic toys that prevent you from surfacing and other kids kicking at you to keep you down. Oceans are forces of nature designed to batter you black and blue before pulling you down, dragging you into depths that no lifeguard can save you from. The wetlands around my home, you could peacefully drown there. The water is still, full of silt to line your throat and conceal you. In my weaker moments, 16 and in hell, I stare at it and wonder what it feels like to be lulled to sleep by the soft trickle of a stream. I stand up and walk away when the cold ground begins to bite into me, the mud seeping into my jeans causing an itch.
Some people say drowning feels like getting stabbed, like hot lava in your lungs, a brutal painful death. As I doggy-paddle in a family friend’s pool, barely a pre-teen, her teenage son dunks me. My eyes fly open and I inhale sharply and all I feel is burning, my nose stinging as if I’ve had something spicy to eat. I’ve never been good with spice. I don’t open my mouth but I don’t know how to kick up either and my lungs start to ache as I flounder. My eyes hurt, my ears hurt, and finally my body forces me to breathe in and my throat hurts too. When I am pulled to safety and I cough the water out, I am told I was only under the water for a few seconds, just long enough for my brother to panic and say I can’t swim. To me, it feels like eternity.
I don’t swim for the rest of the summer.
Behind my elementary school, there’s a stream that trickles along past the broken fence, decorated in sour-smelling leaves and tall grass. In the winter, it freezes over entirely, the ice slick and we all skate across it. The plants around it shrivel up and get buried in the snow. That form of death scares me less than the melted form, I crawl willingly into the caves my friends carve into the snow banks and embrace the chilling promise of asphyxiation. It’s more welcoming when it doesn’t come with the sharp stabbing pain of water. I've been familiar with the feeling of asthma pushing weight onto my chest and stealing my air since I was young. We aren’t supposed to cross the river when it’s frozen, aren’t supposed to be behind the fence at all, but we skate across its surface like an ice rink. It’s February, the freezing air pricks against my skin like needles, and two girls in my grade fall through the ice like all our teachers warn us about. Hailey and Isis are fine, only drenched up to their knees and shivering as they’re taken to the nurse’s office, but all I can think about is the harsh pain of water closing over my head. I never step on ice again without thinking about them, laughing their heads off as if death couldn’t touch them. I wish I was as courageous as a third-grader.
When you inhale water, even after you’re dragged to safety, your body can still react and close up your airways to try and protect you. This is called dry-drowning and it feels like being a fish pulled out of water. You cough and you cough and you cough, every part of your body twitching as your body tries to expel water that isn’t there anymore. I don’t think this happens a lot, but it reminds me of drinking water and it goes down your airway. I start coughing and it burns, bile rising in my throat and mixing with the water that won’t get out. I take shaky breaths of air and people tell me to sip water, as if water wasn’t the enemy in the first place. My eyes sting with salty tears and I shake my head, shuddering, and finally my chest calms down. A mini asthma attack, something that has me scrambling for my inhaler that never feels like it does enough. As sharp Epinephrine slides down my throat like mint, I can almost convince myself I can breathe.
I sit on the rocks of the beach and convince myself I can breathe. I can’t, my chest feels tight and every breath I take isn’t deep enough. I inhale harder, enough for passersby to look at me with concern, but the air doesn’t reach the bottom of my lungs. I stare at the crashing waves as if I’m okay, telling myself my chest will clear itself soon, because I don’t have my inhaler on me and I know I will breathe again in a moment. My body likes to play tricks on me, false asthma attacks that compress my chest, like a sibling who chokes you out as a joke and only lets go when you start flailing. I stare at the waves and wonder if this is what it is to drown. My hands start shaking, I breathe in again, and as if I unlocked a door, my lungs fill fully. I cross my hands in my lap to hold them still and take long breaths, the air loosening my body until I feel safe again. The waves slam against the rocks by my feet and I pull them away, brushing my fingers against a damp sole.
I struggle to swim. My body teaches me to drown.