I want to tell you all a little story about what happened to me only yesterday. It’s important because it taught me something deep about myself that might also be relevant to the people here.
I went camping in Lowland Cove, Nova Scotia for a few days. It’s an isolated, beautiful spot on the rugged west coast of Cape Breton Island. It was a beautiful day and I figured I’d go for a swim. The coast is all rocks and cliffs, no real beaches, but I picked my way down to where I’d launched myself two years ago to swim out to a nearby rock that cormorants roost on.
Waves were coming in diagonally to the coast from the southwest (the coast points north-ish). The big rock out in the ocean made a kind of wave shadow - even though the water was swirling and pounding the shore in all other spots, the way to the rock seemed clear.
The rock I started from was like the edge of a pool - jump in and you’re immediately over your head. This was no big problem; I’d done the swim before and knew what kind of energy it would take. I flipped onto my back to begin my swim out and my friends filmed it. My best friend Lawrence, 29, was there and his older brother Archie, 39.
I was making good progress toward the rock. But after a while I began to notice I wasn’t getting much closer. Waves made me stop to spit and clear my face of water, which was tiring. I wasn’t confident that I had enough strength to risk keeping on going out, so, disappointed because I’d hyped my own swim, I made the decision to turn back.
I was nearing the place that I’d started from. I was within 20 feet or so. And I could not reach it.
It’s not that I’d ran out of steam (though I was getting low). A current running along shore was sweeping me upshore, and away from shore. This was bad news. If swimming to shore wasn’t going to get me back, what was!!!? I swallowed my pride and called out for help. My friends can not swim and there was nothing they could find to throw out to me. They couldn’t come out after me or they’d be in the same mess. Archie thought of a rope back at our camp, which would mean like a 5 or 10 minute round trip - and I didn’t think I had that much time left. As I watched shore become more distant, I was suddenly very afraid. I turned into the current to compensate for it and swim in toward shore for a while, growing ever more tired. It didn’t work. I was carried into a place where the waves were madness, a chaos that was completely beyond what I could cope with. They sucked me outward even as the next rolled in over my head. I had to fight with everything I had in me just to stay afloat, and that was beginning to fail. I was dropping under the water when I badly needed more breaths. I was soooo tired. I had not planned on doing any swimming at this part of the beach. I saw what was going to happen, and felt panic.
Barely able to hear myself in the noise of the sea, I shouted "no" as I went under, absolutely hating the idea of my family being informed of such a stupid, meaningless death. But this meant that I was, deep within me, rejecting the idea of death. Lawrence was praying, though I place no stock in that. He was yelling for me to fight, to swim like I never had before because this was the only thing that I could do. The waves rolled me under the water, an undertow of blindness, breathlessness, wild currents, and a sense of severe urgency. I was desperate. I was sure that I was about to smack my head on some underwater rock that I couldn’t see and that that would be the end of my ability to keep up the fight. I didn’t want the decision taken out of my hands like this.
I was swallowing brine as my attempts to get to the surface and breathe were always crushed by the next wave. I know that’s not good for you but it was the least of my worries. I tried to swim in again, barely able to move my limbs in a storm of sea that only grew stronger.
By sheer luck, the waves propelled me into a little cove. I felt a rock under my toes and felt a little hope. I was soon carried past the rock and hated that I’d lost it, but soon there were more. They were round as eggs, covered with snot-slick seaweed that you could never hope to stand on or hold. I wrapped my arms around one; grabbed handfuls of seaweed. The next roaring white wave carried me completely off the rock, but further into the cove. I grabbed at rocks until I sort of came to rest upon some near the shore. Shore was about a meter away and the waves were still coming and I could not even summon the strength to get that last meter. After some time, I did.
I lay on the slanting dry sandstone of shore, completely drained. My head pounded from the hangover of drinking salt water. I was cut all over from barnacles but didn’t even notice until I opened my eyes later and saw them. I felt utterly wretched. But I also knew that I had just really, actually fought for my life, and I had won it back.
My buddies brought me some water and I tried to answer them as they talked about it. It was amazing to me that this had just happened. None of us had expected major trouble.
The lesson I took from this, besides a newfound respect for the ocean, was that no matter what my intellectual and emotional sides think or feel, matters of life and death remain the territory of instinct. And my instincts came into play for sure. The adrenaline surge was probably what made the difference between my living and dying.
So, in short, if your emotions or your thoughts don’t care about life and think about/feel like choosing death, I want you to note that your instincts will rebel at this notion. Your instincts are not an inferior kind of thought; only more primal. In some circumstances they know best. Listen to them when you hesitate to harm yourself and you’ll know that deep, deep within yourself you don’t actually want to die. What you want is a better life. And if things are at their worst, well, maybe there’s nowhere to go but up. Hold on.
Except to say that I’m basically cured of the kind of thought that led me here. I am in NO WAY advocating cheating death to get to this point!! Do not try it!! But I know I’ve left it behind. I’m not going to toss away something so hard-won. Good luck to all out there.