Sunday, August 30, 2015

9/1/15—Saving Yourself from Drowning

Recently, a friend told me a story about her life and it's just filled with so much of the kind of stuff this blog holds dear that I HAD to share it with you. For her own privacy, let's call my friend Hortense (or Hortie, as I would call her if that were actually her name.)

Hortie comes from a large family, like myself. And, also like myself, she grew up sensitive, both emotionally and psychically. When she was 8, an event took place that would punctuate the rest of her life. 

Hortie had taken some swimming lessons that summer and there was a water safety component in the lessons. In that, she learned how to save a drowning person. If you're not aware, drowning doesn't look like it does in the movies. People are less loud and flailing than you'd think. And they're also in a panic mode. Because of that, you're not supposed to just dive in and save them. If you do, chances are they'll pull you under and both of you will die. Rather than go through water safety rules here, view the video at 

So at the young age of 8, Hortie knew all of this. And one day when she was at a hotel pool with her family, she saw her younger brother showing the classic signs of drowning...quiet distress in the water. She knew she shouldn't just jump in and swim to him, but her instinct took over and that's what she did. Her brother pulled her under, as drowning people do. But she somehow managed to regain control and drag him to safety. 

If any of you are from a big family—especially if you're one of the younger members of said family—you know how even the good families can be cruel. Nobody, not even her parents, lauded her for her behavior. They brushed it off like business as usual and even mocked her for "believing she saved her brother from drowning." Meanwhile, she was terrified. Traumatized. She'd almost died, yet nobody in her family would affirm that. So the only thing left to do with her trauma was internalize it. As a result, she grew up believing she was small, unimportant and powerless. 

Flash forward 46 years to this past summer. Hortie, along with many other people, was invited to a client's country home for a weekend-long party. The home sat on hundreds of acres and the property included two lakes. After much debate, she felt called to go out to the party on Friday, even though most people would be arriving on Saturday. And before she left, she noticed a post on her Facebook wall about what to do if you see someone drowning. She glanced at it and thought, "thank God I won't ever have to go through that again!"

Also arriving early to the party was a 21-year-old named Pedro. Pedro's mom told him to stay away from the water. Mothers worry. But Pedro couldn't wait to get in. He and Hortie and another guy (who couldn't swim) went to the lake. Hortie waded in, getting her toes wet. And Pedro took a running leap and dive into the water—as young men do—while the other guy watched from a safe perch on shore. 

Within seconds, Pedro was in way over his head and in distress. In a flash, it crossed Hortie's mind to stay safe, but she knew that would not only result in killing the boy, but it would also kill her inside to stay safe, knowing she could have done something. She realized she was the only hope this young man had. So she swam out to him. He immediately pulled her under, using her body as a floatation device, too panicked to realize he was drowning her. She hit the lake's bottom and thought to herself, "this is not how I'm going to die." 

She somehow got off the lake bottom and back up and grabbed Pedro's hand with one of her hands. With her other hand, she tried to swim to shore, but Pedro's flailing was working against her. Exhausted and concerned for her own life, she called out to God, "please help me." A voice came back immediately, "put your foot down". She put her foot down and realized she had gotten close enough to shore to drag Pedro the rest of the way out. 

In the aftermath, all the repressed trauma she'd held back for decades came screaming to the surface. It took weeks of tears and conscious effort for her to process it all. Was God punishing her for something? Why did this keep happening to her? And why did she keep doing this the wrong way when she knew better? At the time, though she didn't know it, there were noodles on shore. Why didn't she see the noodles?

Here are just a few of the realizations she had in the weeks afterward:

  • Signs are all around us. Some call them "coincidences", but there are no coincidences. The Facebook post was just the tip of the iceberg. Fate had her careening to this moment her entire life. She's someone who has always had a passion for public speaking and two days before this incident she agreed to give a speech at a networking group, having no idea what she would talk about. Then this happened. Her speech was just this past week and it drew a record crowd and ended in a standing ovation, something nobody had seen before in this group. Also, in an odd twist, her nephew...the son of the brother whose life she saved...saved someone's life also. In the aftermath of that, she intervened with his parents and stressed the importance of honoring his heroism. He won't have to grow up unaffirmed in that regard himself, now. 
  • Compassion is a great equalizer. When Pedro pulled her under, she didn't judge him. She saw her own terror in his. And she recognized that there were times in her life that she had been "drowning" and someone had come to her rescue. This compassion helped keep her from fighting him and may have saved her life. 
  • Perfectionism can be deadly. My friend struggles with perfectionism, as many of us do. So she kicked herself for not knowing the noodles were there...for not rescuing Pedro "right". But upon further reflection, she realized she didn't have time to run to shore, get a noodle and swim out. Had she done it "perfectly" a mother would desolate right now, lamenting the fact that, had her son just listened to her, he'd still be alive. 
  • We need to own our own light. Like many of us, Hortie had walked through life feeling small and powerless. But after she processed her second act of heroism, she realized just how powerful she is. When she called to God, he answered. And it turns out she wasn't cursed, she was called. Events conspired to put her in that place at that time to save Pedro's life—and save her own life from a future of silencing her own power. 

And I'll add another observation...when you don't learn your lesson the first time, it will come back again and again. If you consider that "owning your own light" is the key lesson, it came to her when she was eight, but circumstances conspired to keep her from learning it then. She got the lesson the second time around, and it's important she learn it now because spirit has work for her to do. To reiterate something said above, she wasn't being punished, she was being called. 

Now, the lesson may not always come around as literally as this. It may look quite different from the first time around. But the lesson comes. And I'm willing to bet we all have something unresolved from our own childhoods that we need to attend to. If we keep putting it off, we may end up learning our lesson dramatically, too. 

When we hear stories like this, we often think of the person who was drowning. But the rescuers—and even that guy who sat on the shore and witnessed all of this—also go through trauma. The same is true for any tragedy you survive. It's important to acknowledge and honor your own trauma, even if someone had it worse or even if you were just sitting on the sidelines. But keep in mind, too, that every trauma has a silver lining. Find that and you'll find the wisdom in the harder parts of life. 

P. S. I want to thank Hortie for letting me share this story and for being brave enough to trust me with it. :) I'd also like to acknowledge that many of the words here are her words, both from her speech and as she told the story to me.