I almost drowned when I was 17.
I was in a canoe floating down a river towards an indigenous village located in a Panamanian jungle. These things happen when you’re a teenager who thinks he can save the world. The water had been calm when we pushed off hours earlier. Not a cloud in the sky and fair weather in the forecast. We didn’t have enough life jackets for everyone, but none of us were worried.
Hours later rain was coming down cold and heavy. Storms have a sense of irony, I think. We had no umbrellas or coats. We were not prepared. The rain agitated the river and the water was running wildly, dragging us with it. Someone in my canoe shouted and pointed ahead. Further down the river, a small whirlpool had formed. There was nothing we could do. Within moments our canoe was tossed upside down, hurling us into the water.
Do you know what it feels like to drown? You make plans, you prepare. The forecast is fair; the sky is clear. Maybe even beautiful. Then the clouds roll in and the rain begins to pour. It’s out of your control. There’s nothing you can do but watch in disbelief as the wind tears your dreams out of your hands, the sky that once comforted you now a source of fear and chaos. You look up and wonder, how did this happen? Is this real? And that’s only the beginning. Decisions you’ve made or decisions made by others or decisions that seemingly fall from the sky swirl around you and flip the world you thought you knew upside down. You are blinded by waves of rage and confusion and deep sadness. Loss is heavy and it digs lead fingers into your skin as it drags you down. You fight and scream and deny but nothing stops the water from flooding your lungs. Your soul begins to give under the weight. Exhaustion sets in. You begin to taste temptation: the temptation to let go and simply drift away.
The water kicked my body along the riverbed and sent me twisting and tumbling over rocks. The river screamed all around me but I could not catch enough breath to make a sound. I tried to breathe but inhaled only water. My lungs began to ache. I wrestled with the river but every ounce of energy I wasted only left me more desperate for air. Panic set in. There was no fight or flight, only flailing. My vision began to fade. And then…my body began to float towards the surface. I wondered if I was being saved by an angel or if I had already died and was simply a departing spirit. Suddenly, air filled my lungs.
Long story short: I did not die. After surfacing I grabbed a hold of the canoe and hung on like my life depended on it (it did). From there I was able to reach out and lift a friend struggling beneath the surface. She latched on to the canoe and lifted another person out of the water, and this continued until all of us were pulled to safety.
The angel that lifted me to the surface? That was my life jacket.
I was the only person in our canoe who had one. Later, as I sat on the riverbank retching up all the water I had swallowed, I dealt with my own form of survivors’ guilt. Everyone was okay, but I still wondered, why? Why did I have the only life jacket? What if I hadn’t been able to lift anyone up? If I hadn’t been strong enough? Why? As I sat shaking from shock and shivering from the cold, I heard something I’ve not heard since and may never hear again. Maybe I hit my head too hard on the rocks, or maybe flirting with death had brought me closer to the other side. Whatever the reason, as I sat crying out why, I unexpectedly received an answer. A still, small, stupefying voice spoke to me and said:
“I need you to pull people out of the water”.
Do you know what it feels like to survive? To sit in the middle of the aftermath of a storm and wonder why you’re still breathing? To know you can never go back to the way things used to be? Surviving is hard. It is painful. It usually doesn’t make much sense. But if you are still breathing, you are surviving. You are not destined to be a victim. You are not helpless. Whether you were dealt pain you never saw coming and did nothing to deserve, or you are the one who has hurt others time and time again, you can survive. You may lose your way, you may forget who you are, but you are not hopeless. The storm may be raging, the water might be all you can see, but if you are breathing, you are a survivor. If you are breathing, the storm did not defeat you. It will not define you. Whatever else it may have taken, your breath belongs to you. Your decisions belong to you. The power is in your hands. It may take days, months, years, but if you don’t give up you will survive. You will breathe freely again.
If you are drowning, don’t stop fighting. Don’t let go. You are not alone. It might still be too dark to see any sign of light, but I swear to you there are hands ready to pull you out of the darkness. Find them. Refuse to give up until you do. Don’t be too afraid to ask for help. Don’t be too proud to scream for it. And to all who are surviving or have survived, remember; I need you to pull people out of the water. We need each other desperately. Be brave enough to reach into the water. Be brave enough to reach out.