This is a more personal post, but an important one. I find being human to be exhausting. I always have. It’s a complicated weave of existence to have this frontal lobe and neocortex messing about with reality all the time. I say this as a human and as a person with complex developmental trauma and generalized anxiety. It has never been easy to regulate my nervous system or make sense out of my life experiences.
With all that said, I have always gone back to suicidal ideation as a way to cope. Sometimes this has meant actually planning or wanting to physically die. Sometimes this has meant just the thought of death as a relief and release from the many pains or thoughts I cannot escape from. It’s also become a habit. Bad day, wish I was dead. Get triggered, wish I was dead. Over the years I have worked hard on this habit to shift it and soothe it. For the most part I have. But when life gets super rough it’s always there. The pressure valve to an exploding nervous system.
How does this relate to sailing? Well, the story goes like this. In June I had a surgery. As I was coming out of it I had a code blue when my heart rate dropped to 20. They thought I was having a heart attack. I was awake enough to be cognizant if it all as they got the crash cart out and paddled me up. I was oddly calm. I knew I might be dying. I chanted as my Buddhist teachings and years of practice have trained me to. I let go.
I didn’t die. It was a vasovagal response. My heart was physically fine, but was shaken up. It reminded me of the pieces inside that still feel broken. In the week after recovery I was not only in physical pain but psychically I went into a deep existential crisis. What is the fucking point to any of it? Why do we suffer? Why is life hard and people are assholes? All those questions bubbled and churned within me. In response, my good old habit of wanting to die kicked in full force.
So I went sailing. I thought it would be peaceful self care. I thought I would relax and heal. It was a hard trip with broken boat parts and relational tensions. Physically it was straining. I spiraled more. Then one day we hit some shit. Motoring through cattle pass between San Juan and Lopez islands, early in the morning, my cooling system died again.
Cattle pass is a unique place. You have to time the tides just right as you have millions of cubic tons of water running in and out of a narrow channel that is some 400 feet deep at its center. It rips through so hard that the water seems to boil and the current can pull your boat off course in seconds.
As we had come through this days before we had discussed the “what ifs” of this pass. What if the engine died right now? What would we do? As Murphy’s law would have it, coming home this exact scenario happened. Luckily I had timed the tide perfectly and it was pulling is out of the channel with an ebb of 2-3 knots. With little wind, we scrambled to put up the sail to get enough rudder to have control.
At this point my heart rate is up but I am okay. Things were happening fast but we had run through the scenario in our minds so I was calm-ish. Then I saw something. Rapidly coming up on us was this very very dark water line. Then I noticed white caps. Then I said “Eric! Eric! What the fuck is that?!”
We were headed straight into a giant wall of 4-6 foot standing waves. Holy fuck. So I did what any sailor would do, I steered those bitches like a badass. Into the wave at a good angle, pull on the tiller is intense, muscles flexing, up we go then down, BOOM, SPLASH!! Poopsie slices through waves nicely but there was no way we weren’t getting wet. Spray in your face, salt in your eyes, thank god for expensive foul weather gear. Did I mention this was all happening at 6am and we had been underway since 4?
I punched through my first 6 foot wave. The boat just went straight into it. The bow was in water for a moment. I learned why they say batten down the hatches because in our hurry I had forgotten to do that and my entire cabin below was now wet as gallons of water flushed into it from the wave.
Exhilaration and terror. The wind picked up, I was a water cowboy on a bucking bronco in the sea. We made it through and had an epic sail across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We laughed, we talked, we ate snacks and hot coffee. I was alive. I was super fucking alive. And that’s when it dawned on me. Punching through those waves put me into a state of survival that was cellular. Every fiber of my being wanted to live. No part of me wanted out, all hands on deck in my being were fighting: live live live.
It was the best therapy I have ever done on death. I came out of this knowing deep deep down that I do not want to die. I don’t always want to feel, I don’t always like to be human, I don’t always want to be having the experience that I am having. But god damn it I want to fucking breathe!! My body craves the air, wants it slapping my face and running through my hair. I want to be alive, experiencing the world. My senses taking it in and being. What a gift to realize, even if it took 43 years. Now I just have to figure out how to make peace with that frontal lobe. But that’s another post.
Ps. The standing waves are created by a giant back eddy at the south end of cattle pass. Apparently this is a thing. And now we know.
2 thoughts on “That Time I Thought I was Going to Die”
Thank you so much for being so open on this post. In addition to it being intensely relatable, I found it to be well articulated. It has been a long time since I have encountered a description of high functioning mental illness that I have related to so closely.
I began to think, “OMG! I have found my soulmate! Someone so relatable and similar to me that it is scary!” Then I read the rest of your blogs and retreated a bit. There are some significant differences. (nothing bad – we would be friends most likely).
So, good news – neither of us have to ditch our significant others, pull up roots, change jobs and otherwise make bad choices that ruin other people’s lives. 🙂
Haha! Glad it didn’t work out with us Allen, that is some high drama! 😅 Poor Eric! I am glad the piece was helpful though. I am going to write more on anxiety and trauma in sailing in the future. Stay tuned! The other stuff: we can agree to disagree and be friends! 🙂