Life at the Bottom of the Pool

6 12 2008

Nine years is a long time to suffer from chronic depression.  One might see how, after all of those years, I might have come to see it as a more or less permanent state of existence.  In fact, the most depressing aspect about being depressed was the apparent endlessness of it.  Frankly, I’m not sure how I survived.  I had come to believe that not only I, but the entire world, was gripped with the iron hand of the foul mood, and that all happy people were complete frauds.  Fantasies of suicide were a nearly daily occurrence.  There was a certain irony to it, though, that with the depression came a pessimism about all things self-related, and I had no hope for suicide any more than for anything else.  I figured I’d go to Hell and be even worse off, or I’d botch it and maim myself for life, making things much worse, or I’d get caught in the attempt, and people would regard me as a mentally sick individual for a lifetime.  Now that would be a reason to get depressed.  As bad as I felt, I was sure it could get much worse.  As I recall, the most dangerous time of my life was at the very end of this season, when things were finally starting to improve.  The clouds were beginning to part, and I had a sense that maybe life was taking a turn for the better.  It was in that critical time that I had enough optimism to think that I could go through with it if I tried, that I might not be worse off for it.  True, I had less reason to kill myself.  In fact, I had virtually no reason to do so, but the experiences of a decade gave me no precedent to stand on and no reason to believe that true happiness was a thing of permanence.  Perhaps, it was because of this mindset that I found myself on the bottom of the pool, moments away from death.

 

I had made a practice of holding my breath.  It was this contest I made with myself.  It’s not as though I had anyone to swim with, or anything else interesting to do while swimming in the pool.  Exhaling all my breath, I would crawl along the bottom of this large pool until I had traversed it, lengthwise.  With effort, I got quite good at it.  One day, I decided to just sit at the bottom of the deep end and see just how long I could hold my breath.  I held it until I felt like I was going to burst, and then some.  The carbon dioxide buildup in my blood made me hiccup, but underwater it feels different, so I didn’t really know what it was.  I actually tried to voluntarily inhale the water, but I knew that the diving reflex would prevent me from doing it.  No matter how strong the urge to breathe, I could not inhale the water.  This was not an attempt to kill myself.  Eventually, though, the urge to breathe completely subsided, and I knew exactly what was happening.  I was experiencing rapture of the deep.  I was in an underwater paradise, where air was no longer a need, or so it seemed.  When the body detects a low oxygen level, it produces the intense urge to get air, but only to a certain point.  If the oxygen level drops to an extreme, that urgency reverses, and the person feels no need to breathe.  The same is true in reverse.  Over-oxygenated blood causes a person to slow breathing, but when taken to an extreme, the person will gasp for air uncontrollably.  I knew this at the time.  I knew I was moments away from death.  I sat there and thought about how wonderful it was that I was about to die.  I thought about a number of things while I was down there, getting relaxed.  I thought about the woman I had fallen in love with, who actually loved me back.  I thought about my promising future.  I also thought about my past, and I knew that if I merely followed the pattern, then I had nothing to hope for…but that all seemed okay, because I was about to die.

 

Then I thought a step further.  In probably less than two minutes, I would be seeing my maker face-to-face.  This was no fantasy, now.  This would be reality.  Whatever was on the other side of death would be everything to me.  I was pleasantly happy.  It was then that I had a little bit of a flashback to a certain incident at the age of about fourteen, when I was with a scouting group in the middle of the desert.  The adult leaders, who were two brothers, had brought iodine tablets to purify some rather nasty water that we came to and camped by.  Having run out of water in our bottles, this is what we were expected to use.  They seemed proud of themselves for their survival skills, but I didn’t trust them.  In the dead of night, I left with a fellow youth and hiked all the way back to the trailhead to retrieve water from a tap.  On the way back, we strayed from the trail, encountered a coyote and got startled by some gasses escaping the cooling earth with a loud hiss.  We kept our cool, though, and found our way back to camp, somehow.  The next morning, the two leaders took us to task for our behavior.  One of them was angry and red-faced.  The other was ashamed of us and didn’t say a word.  It was the second of the two that impacted me the most.  They had made me a role model for the group, and I had betrayed them.  I did my own thing in my mistrust of their plan.

 

While sitting on the bottom of the pool, I saw in my imagination God in two persons, in the form of these two leaders.  I knew at that moment that he had plans for me, and that I was daring to throw it all away in my mistrust of him and my future.  I knew that, should I die then, I would be facing a God who was ashamed of me.  I had not walked into this with the direct intent to kill myself, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I really had walked into this with the intent to kill myself.  It was an intentional accident.  Ashamed, God said to me that I had people in my life, now and in the future, on whom I would have a lasting and important effect.  It was his plan for me, and he was determined to have it happen.  He had made me a role model to others, impossible as it seemed.  To choose death would be a betrayal against him, and this was not the way I wanted to greet him on the other side.  I don’t know that I would have gone to Hell.  I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have that stated inflexible belief that all who commit suicide go to Hell.  However, I couldn’t see myself crawling past God to get into Heaven.  I looked up at the air above me, thinking that I had better go up and get some air.  I still didn’t feel like it, and I felt quite comfortable down there, like a man who grows comfortable in his sin, headed for death and feeling good.  The problem was that I was almost too relaxed.  I moved like a sloth.  Here I was, stuck in slow motion, and gravity was working at full speed.  I didn’t have the strength to swim.  I stood there, looking up and thinking that I’m glad the pool was only eight feet deep, which was only a little higher than my reach.  Man, I was feeling sleepy.  I gave a little hop, grabbed the coping and slowly pulled myself up.  I looked at the stopwatch, and I had been underwater for over three minutes after exhaling.  The problem was, I still didn’t feel like breathing.  I actually watched the clock for a half minute longer.  I looked around, feeling fine, and then I took a very deliberate breath.  The transition back into the land of the breathing was completely uneventful.  I never once actually felt like I was about to die.  I only knew, logically, that I was close.

 

Was this the closest I had been to death?  Years earlier, I was almost run-over by a speeding truck that ran the school guard crosswalk stop signs.  An older kid from just up the street grabbed me by my coat and pulled me back just in time.  Sometimes I think about how awful that would have been.

 

I am a fatalist at heart.  I didn’t choose how, when or if I was to be born, and I’ll go out in the same way.  I get a little unnerved, thinking that one day God will kill me.  It happens to us all.  Will I die in my sleep?  Will my head be on a platter, with people dancing in the streets, giving each other presents in celebration?  Everyone dies eventually.  Because of this inevitability, it is actually life that has the most uncertainty, not death.  We simply must trust God, and that he has a plan for us.  We must be willing to live that plan, humbly, and not fight to wrest control of our lives from him.

 

Incidentally, the years following this story have been the happiest years of my life.

 

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