While surfing with two friends on a cloudy day, the water started to become too rough.
My friends did not have the same desire to head back, so I started to paddle back on my own. We had paddled out further than normal and the weather got worse quicker than normal. A dense fog came in, and I could no longer see the shore, but I could hear heavy persistent crashing along the shoreline.
Fear set in as I approached the breakers, and my board and I seemed to get sucked down suddenly by a powerful wave. Going from being up high on the top of the wave to suddenly hitting the ocean floor with a tremendous force on top of me threw me for a loop.
Having been used to wiping out and being in extremely good shape, especially with lung capacity, I did not panic at first. Letting go of fear and allowing myself to float back up was the usual course of action. This time, however, I was being pinned to the ocean floor and violently tumbled in a grip that was unrelenting. This was unusual. Having never experienced this type of current, my mind began to race; usually I am not held down for too long and I rise back up.
Trying to free myself seemed futile and I became tired - it just kept rolling me and I couldn't tell which direction I was headed, but it seemed like the water above me was getting deeper. I felt the sand and I was in excruciating, burning pain trying to hold my breath, and I had to fight a constant urge to gasp for air, knowing I would only take in water. Being a strong swimmer, I rarely felt fear in the water, but I was overcome with a sinking feeling of sadness, loss and desperation. It was very dark, with a greenish tint, and the water was thicker than I had ever experienced; I was in deep water (literally), being dragged out to sea. The pain became unbearable.
Suddenly the pain went away and I felt the release that normally is felt when freed from a current, and I began to float upwards. As I did, I could see below me in the darkness an absolutely terrifying sight - a woman on the ocean floor, lying lifeless - it was just a moment’s glimpse and within that moment I felt helpless to help her. She looked dead already so I stopped myself from trying to save her, but a tremendous wave of emotion I had never experienced in my entire life washed over me and the word “mercy” was felt and it seemed to fill all the ocean. The power in that feeling! To this day I cannot think about it without sensing it again.
But as soon as the feeling overwhelmed me, the realization was made known to me that I was looking at myself. I no longer sensed I was a part of the body I was looking at, and I felt calm, like I was breathing but still aware I was underwater. It did not strike me as odd at the time, but without the sensation of turning, I was then facing looking up. I could see that I was still at a depth of about 12 feet under (similar to being in the deep end of a swimming pool and looking up at the surface, but much darker around me), but just at the surface I saw a bright light. (It was stormy weather before I went in, and it was still stormy when I got out.) The light looked natural but not like the sun. It was streaming down into the water a few feet above me. Stationary, without effort, I just sort of lingered there for a moment, not floating towards the light that appeared to be coming through the water’s surface, but not sinking back either. Very peaceful.
Out of nowhere the thought came to me that I needed to start swimming hard toward that light - that I was still under water! The need for air was starting to re-emerge in my chest and I was becoming so tired. Furiously swimming upwards, I realized how deep I was, possibly deeper than what looked so close, and I began to feel a heaviness. It seemed like reaching the surface might not happen. Being a way off still, again I felt air was filling my lungs. I would swear to you I was breathing underwater. (I never felt water inside my mouth or in my lungs, even when I finally reached shore.)
The next thing I knew, my head broke free at the surface and I sucked in half a breath, when another wave crashed over me. Again, I was pushed and tossed in a huge wall of white wash. Sadness washed over me again, being fully aware my life was in terrible danger. The pain and burn for air returned and then I fought to get my head above water again. As soon as my head was out, I gasped for breath, only to be facing what looked like an avalanche of snow hitting me head on, without a moment to dunk under. Again, I was tossed. This time, while being tossed about in the breaker, a calm strong but quiet voice clearly instructed me, “Next time you surface, do the back stroke.” I had not done the back stroke since being on the high school swim team, but that was my strong suit then. It was such a clear directive, so calm - I never heard myself speak to myself this way, and then it was a man's voice. (I was alone out there - my friends made it back safely, finding out afterwards. They were looking for me for what seemed to them forever. They found my board, but not me - I had been washed down all the way to the next beach.)
With this idea that I would say was given to me, I actually questioned it asking, “which direction should I face?” Expecting an answer, I then heard the voice clearly yell in a do or die tone, “PADDLE!” Before breaking the surface of the gushing water, I lifted my arm out and started to paddle. Not knowing if I was heading out to sea or towards shore, I could not turn to look, with every ounce of strength left, my arms flew around and around and within a moment or two I recognized the difference between being at the mercy of the water and having control over it, being on top and using its energy to propel me toward shore - and thank you, God, I was heading the right way. When I finally was on the beach, my body was so weak I could barely walk.
The ordeal was absolutely terrifying and amazing at the same time. When I look back on it, it is almost with disbelief, but having lived it and having friends who witnessed my being missing for a considerable amount of time, I know it happened.
There is a sense of awe and gratitude that comes over me from the experience and a reverent fear that humbles me - that there is something greater and more powerful than the ocean. To have felt mercy to the extent that I did still gives me pause and I still get a glimpse of that wretched woman on the ocean floor, feeling so separate from her, yet a feeling of mercy still connects me. Something in me sort of abhors her at the same time, too, which I haven’t really processed.
Taking the IANDS survey, I found it hard to answer the questions that ask about changes in self /perceptions since the occurrence. I never noticed anything specifically after that, but being an NYPD Officer and First Responder to 9/11 and feeling near death that day has changed me tremendously. A lot of the questions I answered 'yes' to only because it is the way I feel now, but not from the surfing accident but rather from responding to the scene of 9/11. Not sure if that makes sense to do, but there is a definite split in how each affected me, and it’s truly only in writing this out now that I see the drowning incident may have prepared me, in some hard-to-connect way, for 9/11.