There’s a beach near Portuguese Bend in Palos Verdes where you can feel like you’re swimming off Baja California’s miles and miles of unoccupied coast. If you overlook the few clifftop houses, you can feel completely alone there, especially when you’re bobbing around in the blue surf.
I hiked to this beach Sunday. It is covered with weathered stones, some as big as melons, and the rocks continue almost to the surfline, except at low tide, which exposes a stretch of coarse, brown sand. When I was thinking about my swim, I could see the sand, but by the time I got there, the tide had come up, erasing the swimmable section of the beach.
Now the surf was sucking against the rocks, meaning if I wanted to swim, I’d have to deal with the possibility of stubbing my feet against them. But the water looked so inviting! The whole weekend had been a hot and sticky one, running around on various family obligations, wiping sweat out of my eyes, toweling sweat out of my hair. To spend a few minutes in that surf would be such an antidote.
So I went in. I kept my sandals on, and went in. It was everything I wanted it to be: the water a soothing temperature; the setting sun turning the cliffs into golden monuments . I was alone, and it was quiet except for the sounds of water.
Then I thought about Jeremy Blake, the artist who apparently killed himself in despair over his longtime girlfriend Theresa Duncan’s suicide; the sad, baffling story that has generated so much writing across the blogosphere and in the mainstream press during the past week. So much writing about it, but as Bob Dylan would say, “Nothing is revealed.”
Blake killed himself, apparently, by walking into the ocean at New York’s Rockaway Beach. Just took off all his clothes and walked out into the surf, at night. To die.
How does somebody do that? How does someone swim to their own death?
I begrudge no one their suicide, if that is the release they seek from pain. But how does someone take this elemental act, this ancient test of childhood bravery, this romantic return to life’s watery beginnings; how does one pass through the pleasure of a swim on a hot night, a respite from even the worst despair, as the path to obliterating oneself, ending all hope of pleasure?
I’m a very mindful swimmer. I love it, but I never forget where I am. I never stop feeling the currents for a riptide, or searching the inky depths for rays, jellyfish, even sharks. When I swim below the surface, I keep my eyes open.
Ocean swimming is ecstatic abandon, but it’s also survival in an unforgiving environment. My first foray into the ocean, at a beach in Florida when I was four, resulted in me being knocked over, spun around, so sure I was going to drown I literally shit in my bathing suit. I never stopped coming back, and will not. I aspire to be the oldest bodysurfer in California. But I’ll never put my own survival at risk — because my instincts won’t let me.
How does somebody override that survival instinct? Once Blake started to feel like he was drowning, how did he not swim back to safety? By a supreme act of will? Did he just keep swimming past a point of no return, past that point where he knew he could not rescue himself? Can you reach that point, really?
Drowning is a continual fight between the body’s instinctive responses. To keep water out of the lungs vs. to inhale. The most memorable description of it is in Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm.” I particularly remember the accounts by near-drowing victims of the feelings of embarassment and shame as they slipped out of consciousness. I wish that passage was online somewhere. But Wikipedia’s drowning description will suffice:
Submerging the face in water triggers the mammalian diving reflex. This is found in all mammals, and especially in marine mammals such as whales and seals. This reflex is designed to protect the body by putting it into energy saving mode to maximize the time it can stay under water. The effect of this reflex is greater in cold water than in warm water and has three principal effects:
- Bradycardia, a slowing of the heart rate of up to 50% in humans.
- Peripheral Vasoconstriction, the restriction of the blood flow to the extremities to increase the blood and oxygen supply to the vital organs, especially the brain.
- Blood Shift, the shifting of blood to the thoracic cavity, the region of the chest between the diaphragm and the neck, to avoid the collapse of the lungs under higher pressure during deeper dives.
The reflex action is automatic and allows both a conscious and an unconscious person to survive longer without oxygen under water than in a comparable situation on dry land….
A conscious victim will hold his or her breath (see Apnea) and will try to access air, often resulting in panic, including rapid body movement. This uses up more oxygen in the blood stream and reduces the time to unconsciousness. The victim can voluntarily hold his or her breath for some time, but the breathing reflex will increase until the victim will try to breathe, even when submerged.
The breathing reflex in the human body is weakly related to the amount of oxygen in the blood but strongly related to the amount of carbon dioxide. During apnea, the oxygen in the body is used by the cells, and excreted as carbon dioxide. Thus, the level of oxygen in the blood decreases, and the level of carbon dioxide increases. Increasing carbon dioxide levels lead to a stronger and stronger breathing reflex, up to the breath-hold breakpoint, at which the victim can no longer voluntarily hold his or her breath….
If water enters the airways of a conscious victim the victim will try to cough up the water or swallow it thus inhaling more water involuntarily. Upon water entering the airways, both conscious and unconscious victims experience laryngospasm, that is the larynx or the vocal cords in the throat constrict and seal the air tube. This prevents water from entering the lungs. Because of this laryngospasm, water enters the stomach in the initial phase of drowning and very little water enters the lungs. Unfortunately, this can interfere with air entering the lungs, too. In most victims, the laryngospasm relaxes some time after unconsciousness and water can enter the lungs causing a “wet drowning”. However, about 10-15% of victims maintain this seal until cardiac arrest, this is called “dry drowning” as no water enters the lungs…. A continued lack of oxygen in the brain, hypoxia, will quickly render a victim unconscious usually around a blood partial pressure of oxygen of 25-30mmHg…. In most victims the laryngospasm relaxes some time after unconsciousness and water fills the lungs resulting in a wet drowning….
The brain cannot survive long without oxygen and the continued lack of oxygen in the blood combined with the cardiac arrest will lead to the deterioration of brain cells causing first brain damage and eventually brain death from which recovery is generally considered impossible. A lack of oxygen or chemical changes in the lungs may cause the heart to stop beating; this cardiac arrest stops the flow of blood and thus stops the transport of oxygen to the brain.
Drowning accidentally is a terrifying prospect. It is not the way I would want to go. So I don’t understand how a person could force themselves to die that way. A sustained act of will, a steely battle against the body’s reflexive infrastructure of self-defense, combined with that sense of shame that will never be expunged. It’s unfathomable; and it is surely another part of the Duncan/Blake mystery.