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SocietyNovember 27, 2022

Essay on Sunday: Surrendering to the sea


When something is terrifying and out of your control, sometimes it’s best to immerse yourself even if you can’t tell what’s under the surface.

Illustrations: Naomii Seah

When I was a teen, I almost drowned. 

It happened in the calm seas of Auckland’s North Shore: the favourite haunt of my high-school days. My friends and I were on the edge of the wharf at Mairangi Bay, where people often jumped. It was the sort of Kiwi summer experience I longed for, sipping Coronas and baking in the hot sun as ecstatic friends made cannonballs and slipped between pier struts like pink eels. 

But at the time my life was far from the yellow-tinted exuberance of Coca-Cola ads which, looking back, were probably the basis for this ill-fated fantasy. And perhaps I should’ve known what might happen: there was a prophecy in the sort of grey summer day that made the sea look like wet concrete. The wind was up, and it was cold. But I was determined to jump the wharf and enjoy it. 

I had dragged my friends out with this goal in mind. The three of us stood on the edge, looking over our toes to the opaque surface below. The struts of the pier seemed to plunge into nothing, and none of us felt like jumping. 

“I’ll just check how deep it is,” said the most sensible of us. I watched her wade in from the top of the pier, which might as well have been the edge of a cliff.

“Jump!” She called, giving the thumbs up, treading water. Beside me, my other friend braced herself. I watched as the ocean swallowed her with a loud splash before she bobbed back up, shivering. The two of them encouraged me from the water.

“C’mon, you’ve got this!” I stood on the edge, trying to work up the courage. I pumped my arms, did mini-jumps, closed my eyes. My friends struck back to shore. A moment later I decided: it was now or never. I flung myself into the sea. 

As soon as the water closed over my head, I panicked. I opened my mouth to scream. The brine hit the back of my throat. I swallowed, choking, wondering if I could drink the ocean dry. I kicked toward the surface. There was water in my nose; a pressure in my sinuses. The wind was picking up, and it was getting choppy. I began to rethink my decision. I gasped for a mouthful of air and was slapped by an oncoming wave. I closed my eyes and sunk deeper beneath the surface. In the darkness I imagined a cavernous abyss beneath me, though the most rational part of me knew we weren’t far from shore. I thrashed wildly, struggling against nothing. In the next moment, I felt my friend’s arms circle me. 

I often think of that moment when my anxiety flares up. All the same systems kick into gear. Turns out anxiety and drowning have the same symptoms: pounding heart, restlessness, a need for air. 

The accepted wisdom is that the best way to overcome fear is to confront it. But most things I’m scared of are harder to confront than my fear of deep water. How do you confront the lingering suspicion that you’re a bad person, destined for failure? How do you confront the fear that you’ll always be alone, that no one will ever really know who you are? How do you confront self-doubt? Of course, there’s the little things: I throw myself into new hobbies; I spend time alone; I do yoga; I practise affirmations; I seek counselling; I pursue friendships; I have new experiences.

But there are times when these fears become all consuming because there are no fundamental answers. Definitions of success shift and move, relationships change and grow, self-esteem and mental health fluctuate. 

But the sea is constant.   

Although I’m afraid of deep water, I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. I think it’s because when I’m near the sea, the illusion of control becomes a little more translucent, a little more apparent in a way it usually isn’t. When I stand on the edge of the world and look out over its expanse I know that the ocean is vast and indifferent and mysterious and powerful. It knows things I could never dream of.

And maybe that fear and love go hand in hand. One of my favourite sensations is to stand in the shallows of the hot West coast and feel the sand pull out from under me, threatening to sweep me away. I know then, that I am small. Everything shrinks in comparison. I recognise that there’s only so much I can control: when and where I go into the water; when to swim and when to float; my breathing — my emotions. 

As for many others, the pandemic years were hard for me. The first lockdown was particularly isolating. I had made the snap decision to lock down with a new partner, who was away for most of the day as an essential worker. The future seemed unstable, and the unknown was overwhelming. In the absence of certainty, I decided to start swimming. 

We were locked down beside Lake Dunstan, a man-made lake in the deep south of Te Waipounamu. It was shallow where we were; you could see right to the bottom, where long strands of kelp waved and danced. A slow-flowing tributary led out to the churning waters of the Clutha. So it wasn’t the ocean, but it was a start. 

I started small. There was a stretch between two piers, barely 50 metres long. I sat on the edge for a while, swinging my feet in the pale blue. The water robbed my skin of its usual depth; my feet looked alien, detached from the rest of me. I did the first lap in a doggy paddle. I tried my best not to think about what might be hiding in the long seaweed. Half-way, my courage failed me and my breathing quickened. But I made it to the pier, exhausted and shaking. I turned to examine the water behind me. It was still, and devoid of life except for the dark kelp fronds waving lazily. 

I did the next lap in backstroke. High above, the sun watched me from a cloudless sky like a singular eye. I focused on the sensation of the water on my skin, which swirled around me as I kicked my feet, pushing myself onward. As I reached my arms overhead, droplets of water fell on my forehead and cheeks, which were growing red from the sun above. I began to feel more confident. But again, my courage failed me near the end. It unnerved me that I couldn’t see where I was going.

A few days later, we spied eels in the water: big ones. Although I knew they’d be unlikely to hurt me, I didn’t swim there again. 

Like the sea, my anxiety ebbs and flows. But whenever I feel particularly brave, I’ll go for a swim in the ocean. 

I never go very far out, and I never swim for very long. For me, it’s an exercise in confronting fear more than it is a physical one. First, there is the fear of the cold water on my skin as I wade in. Sometimes small victories are important. Then, there is the fear of kicking off the bottom and surrendering myself to the unknown — especially when the water is murky. Then, there is the thump, thump, thump of my heart, which becomes louder and more insistent as I move through the water. Every stroke, every wave, every breath is thrown into vivid relief. Life feels larger than life. 

Finally, when it gets too much, I remember how to float. I slip onto my back, breathing deep into my belly. Inhale: watch as my abdomen inflates above the water-line. Listen to the seagulls overhead. Feel the wind and sun on my face and the water’s full-body embrace. Exhale into a slow surrender. 

Keep going!