Five years ago I died when I drowned in the sea. This is what it feels like
‘There was no bliss for me – the crushing, piercing inevitability of my death was so grave there was no room for sanity’
I died in 2011. I was so dead that the university booked a coffin flight back to my home country, before my life support was even turned off.
It was February. The Russian Society was celebrating 23rd of February, Defender of the Fatherland Day, a sort of post-Soviet hiccup for the ‘culturally associated’. I was so thoroughly drunk that going into the sea in the middle of the winter seemed like the only thing that would stop the nauseating spinning and my inevitable descent into a blackout.
I ran into the ocean, I sobered up a little, and when it was time to get out I could not. The sea wouldn’t let me. It would pull me back, grab me, and stuff me under water. The worst part was, I could feel the pebbles on the ground with my toes – the shore was so close – but the sea would pull me back every time I’d ground myself.
I screamed and my drunk friends replied with cheerful cries and whistles. They thought I was having a great time. I lost the breath to shout. The sea hit me, turned me, ripped off my clothes. And then it hit me – I was dying.
I have told this story so many times that it just rolls off the tongue. It’s like reciting a poem by heart. This happened, then this, da-da-da, The End.
But recently I was telling the story to my new housemate and this cold feeling started to creep up a little, my palms started sweating, my heart picked up the pace, and that cold feeling finally materialised into anxiety. It was the early morning, we had stayed up all night talking, and the drinks and tiredness had penetrated my usual detachment from the story. I remember my drowning vividly, I always have. But I usually see it as though I watched a film of it. But that early morning I could taste the salt, and I could feel the hard, impossibly heavy waves, and the terror. I could feel the echo of that terror.
The thing that’s curious to me is that I didn’t realise I was dying much earlier. I was terrified out of my mind, I didn’t have any air to breathe, I had absolutely no thought in me apart from ‘get out of the water, get out of the water, get out of the water’. But I still didn’t get it. I was afraid for my life, but I didn’t think that I would die. Not even that, I didn’t think anything at all. I just tried to get out over and over and over again.
And when the feeling of knowing that I was going to die, the certainly that came over me, it was so severe that I honestly don’t know how my body survived the shock. The crushing, piercing inevitability of my death was so grave there was no room for sanity. I really lack words to describe just how much fear I felt in that moment. At the same time, I did have quite a clear feeling of ‘God, this is what it must feel like for everyone’.
I want to say it was curiosity, but it wasn’t really that, and it wasn’t quite a revelation. I want to say that it felt that I was almost privileged to feel my own death, that it somehow connected me with others whose lives had ended in a violent struggle. I guess I lack words to correctly describe this, too. After this inhuman panic has passed, I very clearly felt ‘I’m dying young, which has its benefits. I’ve seen all my friends and had a good time. I’m OK with this.’
I have since read that this feeling of bliss before death is commonly described by those who’ve had a near death experience. But I wouldn’t say it was bliss for me, it was a very clear acceptance. I want to make it clear, it wasn’t a surrender. I had accepted my own death, I was losing my consciousness intermittently, but I kept swimming. I don’t think I was able to give up even if I tried.
And then I felt a body next to me. Someone got hold of me, and I remember thinking that I need to grab their shoulder so I don’t pull them under water. I tried kicking with my legs. And then everything went black.
I woke up the next morning. I couldn’t see anything or say anything (I had a breathing tube in my throat, but I couldn’t feel it).
Then I heard the hospital staff around me. I could barely feel that something was pulled out of me, allowing me to speak. One of them asked me, ‘Do you remember what happened?’. I said ‘Yes, I was swimming. Is Alex OK?’. I thought Alex could be the one who got me out. They told me everyone was OK and I went back into the blackness. Only this time it felt like sleep.
The interesting thing is, I was the only person involved not really affected by my drowning. I wasn’t the one who knowingly risked their life that night. That was Edgar, who had almost drowned himself trying to pull me out. The sea was trying to claim him too, but he dug his feet into the pebbles, ripping his toenails off, and only then his girlfriend Anastasia could help to get us both out.
Edgar doesn’t like me telling people he saved me. He told my best friend Karina he wanted to let me go when he started to drown himself. Maybe that’s why. Anastasia said the first time she got hit by the wave and pulled into the sea, she started crawling back out on instinct.
So it wasn’t me who had to actively choose to risk their life, it wasn’t me who had to see my naked lifeless body on the shore, it wasn’t me who had to be told their best friend is dead and thought about how to inform my mother. I was happily oblivious to all of that being quite a bit dead.
I guess the moral of this story is ‘don’t do stupid shit, guys’. No matter how much I want to end the story on a light note, the reality is that I was impossibly lucky to have survived. We live in a town where hordes of pissed students have access to water and plenty of us think nothing of skinny dipping at night. Please be careful.