My Personal Survival

Posted: July 23, 2014 in survival
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If I am going to be talking about survival (even in apocalyptic proportions), I should start by discussing my own small brush with Death. I have been relatively lucky in life and have not (yet) needed to physically survive much catastrophe.

The closest I came to surviving a natural disaster was enduring a 9-day blackout. A nearby tornado sent a devastating storm cell through our neighborhood, which tore down many of the large, established trees. The trees took out power lines, pulled down the poles, blocked all the roads. My daughter was a newborn, and I was on the end of my maternity leave. We still had access to food and water and could easily drive to electricity (once the roads were carved open). It was just a long series of inconvenient days.

I also went to an active war zone for a couple months. However, by the time I put boots in Iraq, contractors were no longer allowed outside the wire, so I had no direct contact with the country or the conflict. And insurgents were less than effective with missiles over large walls and concrete T-walls.

The first time I heard the sirens in the dining facility (DFAC), all of the third country nationals (TCNs) came flooding out from the kitchen to hide under the tables. My heart started to pound in my ears. I did not know what to do or if a rocket was going to  come blazing through the ceiling. My coworkers calmly kept eating and told me if a rocket hit the building, a table was not going to save me. And that was it.

My closest flirtation with Death, instead, happened when I was 22 on the Arkansas River. I was graduating from college that summer, and a large contingent of family was in town for the ceremony and my younger sister’s graduation from high school. We decided to go whitewater rafting a couple days before the festivities.

I squeezed my (at the time) fat ass into a wet suit, and we took to the rafts. They divided our group into two, and I ended up in the second raft. It was a Colorado drought that year, and the water level was extremely low. As the raft drifted down the river, I often felt the river rocks bumping against me through the bottom of the raft. Over and over, we got stuck on a rock and had to shimmy, shake, pull, and paddle our way off. It was not rapids we encountered; it was exposed rocks.

At one particular point, the raft got deeply wedged up on a rock. The water then poured down from the rock in a small slip but not at enough volume to keep us afloat or moving. The raft clung to the rock, and all our jostling and shifting were for not. As the first raft disappeared around the bend, our guide eventually dismounted the raft and instructed us all to do the same.

As my uncle and I stood, a wave of water pushed the raft up and onto its side, spilling us out. I felt my feet slip from the raft; I felt myself falling. And I felt my leg slide behind the chicken line (the rope that lines the top of the raft). I plunged into the cold water, and the force of the water held me down, yet I was not moving downstream. I was stuck, immobile, caught.

I kicked my legs confused, but my right leg was hooked on that chicken line, caught behind the knee. I was tethered to the raft. My hands shot out only to grope cold, shapeless, moving water. I struggled to sit up, but the weight of the current moving over me held me down. Panic spread through my skin as I realized I could not get out, could not get up, and could not get free.

At this point, my body and my brain divorced. It happened so quickly and so completely. I felt the panic in my flesh; I was aware that my body continued to flail and grope, that I was thrashing around in the water like I was drowning. However, my mind ascended somewhere more detached and placid.

I remember the thought moving slowly over my mind, Holy shit, this is how I am going to die. I’m not even going to graduate college. This is how I’m going to die. This is bullshit.

Even with this bitter acceptance laying across my brain, my body continued to fight. I tried again and again, repeatedly, to catch a breath of air. My lungs and my muscles were desperate. The sunlight danced on the surface of the water, which appeared to be just above my face. It looked so close, like I was right there. Surely, I could just lean up and take a breath. I struggled and stretched, yet every gasp only filled my mouth with more water.

My arms continued to claw out into the shifting nothing around me. They were relentless until my nails raked across something. All my attention diverted to that something. I had no idea what I was touching. I did not care. I focused all my efforts there; I dug in and clawed my way, heaved myself out of the water.

I broke the unimpressive rapids that were drowning me in a desperate gasp and firmly pressed my head against another rock, pinning myself above the force of the current. My family and our guide were surprised to see me. They had assumed I had been washed downstream. My uncle clung to the chicken wire beside me; it had been his arm that I groped up, leaving nail marks deep through his wet suit.

When I did finally emerge from the water, they thought the raft was on top of me, pinning me, and attempted to tug it free. I felt the pull on the back of my knee and the pain. I jerked with their efforts. Feeling myself drag down against my savior rock, I threatened to tumble back into the water. Panic flared up in me again, and I screamed in an incoherent slew of cussing. My father finally climbed forward and heaved me into the raft.

I crouched trembling at the bottom of the raft as we finally flowed down the river again. It was all a blur of fading panic and adrenaline. I was disoriented and at a loss to process what just happened. Our guide had me pick up a paddle and keep rowing.

When we beached the raft, my father came over and held me for a moment without a word. When I later peeled off my wet suit, I had a small rope burn across the hinge of my knee. Yet that tiny abrasion would blossom into a deep and black bruise.


The force of the water that kept me underwater so effectively also tore a long line in my thigh muscle. The physical therapist I eventually saw a year later said he was surprised it did not pull my hip from its joint. The entire back of my thigh turned black; then the blood began to pool on the back of my calf as well. The rope burn was deep enough, even through the wet suit, to scab heavily.

It took months for the blood to reabsorb and dissipate from my leg. I could not even wear pants for the first week or two; it was so sensitive. Even after the color had faded, the tenderness persisted. I was driving with a pillow to prop my leg off the edge of the seat by the time I relented to see that physical therapist.

I was probably under the water for less than a minute. However, in that detached, accepting, panicked state, it felt like much longer. I would have believed I struggled against the crushing, formless water and eerily calm thoughts for closer to 20 minutes. If my uncle had not been dangling from the chicken line for me to climb up, I do not know that they would have realized where I was before I did drown.

I did not see a light, beside the mocking sunlight playing on the surface I could not reach. My life did not flash before my eyes, only the damning realization that this was it for me. No angels, devils, or anything in between. It was the mental detachment, the calm acceptance that unnerved me. Though I have to admit, that would not be the worst state to exit this life in. No pain, separated from the panic, just quietly thinking it was bullshit.

Have you had a near-death or survival situation? Was your glimpse different than my own?

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