Heed the Klaxon, Watch for Waves
The first time I can remember nearly dying I was eight. Each summer of my youth was marked by a company picnic to Geauga Lake Amusement Park. In the massive wave pool, I’d floated on an inner tube near the furthest wall of the concrete box. I remember dragging my fingers through the chlorinated water and enjoying the haze that came with the removal of my glasses. When a klaxon sounded I didn’t move and didn’t open my eyes. I didn’t notice the drawing back of the water or the dip of my tube in the shallower depths. I wasn’t aware I was no longer a part of the crowd. I was the lone body near that far wall. And then the wave crashed over me with all its fury.
I remember the slip of my body through the tube’s hole, the arc of my legs the only sign of surprise I could muster. The concrete was textured to stop swimmers from slipping, but it tore the skin from my arms and legs as I fought to the surface. But the waves didn’t stop coming. Each time the surface of the water was close enough to puncture with a scream, the downward tumble would begin again. In the jumble of bodies, it was easy to lose sight of one small girl, blind and nearly out of air.
When the klaxon sounded the wave’s retreat, I bobbed to the surface sputtering, certain everyone would be laughing. No one noticed. I spent the rest of the afternoon clinging to my mother. She assumed it was my shyness. It was instead the specter of death.
When I was older, I married a man who told me there was a light in me that needed to be protected and vowed to do just that. He didn’t keep his promise. And the light died by inches until it was finally extinguished. He took each and every one of my flaws, fears, and insecurities and laid them bare to the world. He broke me and for the longest time I refused to pick up the pieces. Instead, I chose to die.
I stopped believing in all the things I’d ever done. I wiped myself clean of accomplishment and pride. The problem was I never filled in the blank spaces with anything. And when the tidal wave of my life finally came crashing down, I let the brackish water of emotional abuse and suicidal ideation fill me to brim. I wallowed in it and put down roots.
The first time I sunk beneath the surface, I drove my tiny sports car full speed towards the rear end of a semi-truck. On my way home from work I pressed the gas pedal to the floor and locked my arms against the steering wheel. I saw the staccato of the truck’s brake lights ahead of me, but I ignored it and kept pace. My thought was my car would barely make a dent and outside of my death no one would be injured. But even in the pursuit of death I am unselfish. I stopped only because I wanted my parents to have a presentable body for the funeral.
The second tide saw me sitting on the edge of my bed for hours clutching a bottle of sleeping pills while trying to convince myself to down all fifty-six of them. To combat the night terrors which kept me from sleeping, I’d purchased bottle after bottle of over the counter pills in an attempt to fool my brain. The drugs produced the dreamless, blackout sleep I needed to function at a bare minimum level. I thought at least I’d drift off into darkness, cease breathing, and my parents could have an open casket. I was too afraid to go through with it.
Finally, I decided to die slowly. I decided to fraction the shattered bits of me until I was spilt into microscopic specks too small to ever reconstruct.
I found an apartment a few blocks from my parents’ home and smiled my way through the walk-through. I learned to wear masks to get what I wanted. I moved in with a bed, my clothes, and a few dishes. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I stopped taking my medication.
My hair started to fall out. My body started to wear a coat of bruises. My night terrors doubled and I woke up screaming. I took every available sick day and personal day I’d accumulated at work. I borrowed leave as well. I locked myself into my empty apartment for weeks on end. I spent days at a time in bed. I screamed. I cried. I pulled at my hair until my scalp was tender and tingling.
Then my body revolted until I could barely walk, until clumps of hair came out into my palms. Until one day my father called to check on me and I broke into sobbing at the sound of his voice. Minutes later, he was at my door and I cried into his shirt in an echoing room. He took me home and shortly thereafter I started therapy. Despite this, I stopped writing, stopped reading. I tried to stop existing.
It took time to understand my life mattered to someone. It may not have been me, but somewhere inside I knew my family and friends would be devastated if my plan to die succeeded.
I concentrated on making it day by day and sometimes minute by minute until before I knew it those minutes and days added up to years. That isn’t to say the years were kind. The bottom fell out of my smile on more than one occasion, but fighting to the surface became easier each time I slipped into the hole.
I’ve learned to recognize the dips in the water, the pulling back of happiness, before it is too late to get out of the way of the dark wave. Sometimes, when wave still clips me and I feel it tugging at my ankles, I have to kick a little more furiously. But I fight, and more often than not, I win. I am no longer a small, blind girl fighting for air. No longer unnoticed by the crowd both above and below the surface. I can now enjoy the pull of my fingers through the water, the lull of the waves beneath my body rocketing me to happiness.
Athena Dixon is founder and editor-in-chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various publications both online and in print. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Athena has presented at both AWP and HippoCamp. She writes, edits, and resides in Philadelphia.