When I was younger, nothing scared me. Nothing. I was a fearless floater who didn’t feel any stings.
Now I’ve gotten to a point where a lot of things scare me. Too many things.
Once, on a family vacation, I jumped into a lake when my parents were bringing the boat around. I was five years old at the time and didn’t know how to swim yet, so naturally I started to drown. After a few moments of floundering in the water and screaming for help, my mom jumped in to save me. I remember her body leaping from the boat as if it were an episode of Baywatch and immediately feeling embarrassed for all the upset I just caused. Once she got me on to dry land, she started shaking me, asking why I would ever do such a thing. I didn’t have an answer for her so I kept quiet. I kept quiet the whole boat ride back, nestled in her arms, and relieved that I was with my family and not out there dead in the water. Today I try to think of a reason why I jumped into the lake and all I can come up with is this: when you’re five years old, you always expect someone to catch you when you fall. You could jump into a volcano and still expect to land on a pile of pillows and 1,000 thread count sheets. You were invincible to harm, a person with limitless amounts of luck. And then, slowly, that starts to change. You start to change.
I’m reminded of the lake incident because, as it happens, I’ve spent the week surrounded by water. I’m staying in Provincetown at a beachfront house that I’ve actually stayed in before for Memorial Day weekend. Ordinarily, I don’t care too much about nice views. I don’t “ooh” and “ahh” over beautiful scenery like everyone else seems to do but even I must admit that the view from this house is breathtaking. Just a perfect expanse of water staring back at you. All day long you see people going by in their boats, their kayaks, or going for a swim. I sit on the deck and watch these people pass me by and I never think once to actually go in the water myself. The past few years, I’ve grown to fear the ocean and actually abhor it. I used to risk my life for a damn swim and now I won’t even let the water touch my toes.
Where does the fear come from? How does it grow? More importantly, how does it die?
Unfortunately, the day I jumped in the lake wasn’t the first or last time my life was put at risk. In fact, I almost died the day I was born. Seconds away from being toast, a real blue baby. I’ve been told that it was a miracle I survived. One second longer and I could’ve been a goner. One second longer, I could’ve never had the opportunity to see what the water felt like between my toes (and then ultimately decide that I hated it). These are the things they tell you to make you feel better, to make you feel like a survivor, and maybe for some people it does. But for me I think it just instilled this permanent feeling of dread.
In her essay, “On Keeping A Notebook,” Joan Didion described writers as being “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” That’s me. I am that. And it’s not just because I’m a writer, although I’m sure that doesn’t help matters. It’s because I have been on the verge of losing my life more than once. And now I worry that almost dying a bunch of times has made me afraid to actually live.
When I was 18, I almost died again. This time it wasn’t because of birth trauma or an insatiable desire to swim in a lake. It was something that was ripped straight out of the movie, Stand By Me. Yes, that’s right: I almost got hit by a train. How embarrassing, right? It’s almost like dying from polio or scarlet fever. Who accidentally gets hit by a train these days? If you don’t want to get hit, don’t play on the train tracks. There. Simple as that!
But when you’re 18 and a senior in high school, you have a habit of not following the simplest of instructions. So, despite my better judgment, my friend and I crossed a bridge of train tracks to go to a secluded beach. Getting there wasn’t an issue. It was getting back that proved to be terrifying. You see, after spending some time at the beach it had gotten dark and my friend was starting to get scared. He wanted to leave that second, but I insisted that we wait. The last train had come an hour ago which meant that one would be coming soon. He wasn’t having any of my logic though. He was leaving now and I had to go with him.
So we’re walking across the bridge and I can’t see a thing. I know this isn’t good. I know we’ll be punished for our poor decision making and, lo and behold, a quarter way across the bridge, I start to hear that dreaded sound.
I look back and see the specs of light in the distance. Surprise, surprise. It’s a train coming right towards us! I guess we better start running.
I didn’t realize how fast trains move. One moment it was far away, the only visible part being the outline of the front, and then seconds later it was right behind me, the smoke practically licking my feet.
We got off the bridge just in time. The train whizzed past my body the second I stepped off and then I vomited. I vomited everywhere and my body didn’t stop shaking until hours afterward.
Two years later, I did something even stupider than almost getting hit by a train: I ran into incoming traffic in San Francisco and got hit by a car going nearly 45MPH. Oops, I did it again! Don’t ask me why. The official reason was that I was trying to catch a bus across the street to take me back to school but, like, who the hell really knows? I’m an idiot. Who almost gets hit by a train? Who jumps into a lake when they don’t know how to swim? Who runs into incoming traffic? Me. Only me.
I feel like my brain betrays me sometimes. It turns its back on me for a second and then, poof, I almost die. “Almost” being the key word there. Despite all odds, I’m still here.
So here are some of the positives of almost dying. You start to really believe that there’s a reason why you’re still here. I don’t believe in God (at least not in the traditional sense) but I do believe in a higher power and the fact that we’re all just energy and our body is merely a vessel. I believe in everything happening for a reason because my life has been too strange so far not to.
And here are some of the negatives of almost dying. You start to become the boy in the bubble. You stop pushing your luck. You don’t go into the ocean. You don’t go on that four mile walk that involves walking on a bunch of treacherous rocks because if anyone was going to fall and crack their neck, it would be you. You become frightened of things that used to excite you. You become someone who’s obsessed with routine and keeping within their comfort zone. You stop taking risks. You become locked inside of yourself, unwilling to come out for anyone.
I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten for me until recently and now I’m not sure what to do about it. I feel like I’ve survived too much just to be scared of something like the damn ocean. I mean, what was the point of making it through all of these past accidents if I’m actually not going to take advantage of life? I have to ask myself these questions because if I don’t, I’ll always ignore the answer.
Life almost got taken away from me forever and then I grabbed it at the last moment. You grab it because you want it, because you need it. You grab it because you’re not done swimming, you’re not done crossing the street, you’re not done with any of it. I know this, I really do, but over the years, my grip has loosened and now I have to work on rebuilding my strength.
I have to work on getting it all back.