• Rhyena Halpern

How I Almost Lost My Life Kayaking Moving from Shame to Gratitude

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash



I almost drowned once. I did not speak of the experience for decades, nor did I get angry about it for years afterward. I just pushed it aside to a cobwebby corner of my mind. Why did I feel like it was my fault?

I was a newly enrolled, 18-year-old college student at an amazing college on the glorious Puget Sound in Washington state, having grown up 3,000 miles away in New York and New Jersey. On my first day of campus, I ran into a friend from my very progressive but equally funky and tiny high school, whose claim to fame was that Buckminster Fuller sat on its board. We decided he would take me on my first kayaking trip ever.

We each got into our kayaks, life jackets firmly strapped, and entered the glistening water on a sunny and warm afternoon. I remember thinking that the air felt like a blanket on my skin and I was sweetly excited to take this amazing boat on the beautiful, luscious Sound in my new home in the great Pacific Northwest.

My momentary reverie was sharply broken by his instructions. He said something about how to paddle and before I knew it he was about 20 feet ahead of me on the water. I wondered how lame I looked, completely unskilled in this boating activity. I wondered why he didn’t look back or wait for me, but my focus was on getting the hang of my paddle so that I could actually approximate gliding through the water.

About fifteen minutes in, I noticed that I was a good distance from the shore by now and that my friend was so far ahead of me, that he was a small dot in an elliptical shape I could barely see. He was probably closing in on reaching the other shore while I was feebly moving ahead, like a turtle with nothing to prove.

Suddenly, what I later learned was called a squall- or flash storm- came up. The wind started blowing fiercely and before I knew it the bright, cheery sun was replaced with dark ominous clouds that began emitting huge raindrops diagonally lancing the air, hitting me and my little boat like mini-daggers.

My supposed friend clearly had unceremoniously deserted me. I wondered what I should do, besides not panicking. Should I still attempt to follow him or retreat back to the shore? It was raining so hard by now that I could barely see the shore. I knew that the promise of land under my feet was less than a half-hour away but seemed like miles. I needed a plan, fast.

So I tried to point my kayak towards the shore. That was a problem. Pointing. It implied an ability to steer. I felt doomed as I saw I was making no progress; instead, I was going around in circles. I noticed out of the corner of my eye another kayaker passing me swiftly, heading straight for the shore. I didn’t dare make eye contact; I knew I looked ridiculous and was embarrassed and scared and had a stomach ache all the way up to my throat.

I struggled for several minutes when I heard a male’s voice barking at me. It was the kayaker who had passed me. He had come back for me! He was going to save me! He started screaming that he would help me but I had to listen to him and if I did not, I would capsize and drown. Did I understand? he demanded. Yes, I gulped, nodding.

He screamed at me to paddle hard and when I could not paddle anymore, he screamed some more. His voice cut through the squall like a sadistic drill sergeant. It seemed to go on for hours as I leaned into that paddle, fingers frozen, sight obliterated, arms and shoulders aching, stomach in knots, and fear coursing through my veins.

Somehow, he got us back to shore. I remember awkwardly getting out of the boat, stiff with cold and adrenaline. He told me to remove my soaked life jacket but I could not unzip it because my fingers would not move. He ended up doing it for me, unhappy about this further task of the rescue operation. Before I knew it he muttered something about being late and disappeared into the woods leading back to campus.

I sat on my heels and let out some kind of tortured, primeval sound of relief and exhaustion. Then I followed the same trail, amazed by each step I took on solid land, and shaking off the rain, hurried towards a hot shower and dry clothes.

That was my first day of college. I never told anyone about that day for more than two decades. I put the experience away in some cavity of my mind labeled ‘things I will never think about again’.

I couldn’t think about it because my shame and humiliation were too great. I remember running into the man who saved my life a few times on campus over the next year or so until he graduated. I always looking away in extreme embarrassment.

As for my high school friend, I also ran into him on a few occasions and we awkwardly made small talk. We never spoke of the incident. Again, I was utterly ashamed, assuming 110% fault as if my own inadequacy at kayaking for my first time meant that there was something irreparably wrong and defective about me.

But such thinking was insane? How could it have been my fault? How did my mind come up with this distorted and twisted belief? Why would I take the trauma of the experience and internalize it into a seething ball of shame?

Within a week or two of my fateful date with the squall, I learned that each

September some poor schlub at my school drowned in the Puget Sound. They were typically new to kayaking and got caught in a storm and could not maneuver their boat back to shore safely. Those storms were fierce and required tremendous amounts of upper body strength to fight the wind and rain and build momentum. That took training, and practice, and time.

I cringed at this data. I was a secret member of a club of people who almost drowned in the water, due to their novice knowledge and the frigid waters of the Puget Sound. Every fall, I cringed deep inside my soul when another drowning occurred. Still, I did not divulge my experience.

Rationally I knew that some terrible shame inside me was not the reason why I could not paddle better the first time I went kayaking. But it was shame that made me feel so insanely responsible for my own inadequacies. Why? Why was I so ashamed? What was so wrong with me? Why did I view the experience as something to hide rather than celebrate? Why did it take me years to whisper the story to anyone?

I have searched and searched and can only come up with having absorbed shame into every cell in my being during my childhood. My constant refrain as an unhappy kid was shame. I internalized everything against myself.

During those truly growth-filled years at college, I wrestled with body shame, familial shame, existence shame, identity shame and personality shame. Shame was the lens I experienced my days through. Shame was like a master cell in my body’s composition, through which everything was filtered.

Slowly, very slowly, and with many twists and turns and defeats over the years, and after copious therapy, I might add, I have learned to extract myself from my automatic tendency to blame and shame myself when something goes wrong as if my presence caused the problem. It is awfully egotistical way to react, don't you agree?

At some much later point, I was able to move off and let go of the denial, personal shame, and humiliation of that near-drowning incident. It dawned on me that I could re-imagine the event with appropriate emotional responses. I suddenly grasped that the appropriate response would have been, absolutely should have been, red, hot anger. What was my pal thinking? How could he have left me? Why didn’t he hustle back when the storm came up? Did he realize I could have died? I mean WTF!!!

I remember writing and telling him of my anger. He had graduated by then but I found his new address in Boston from another high school friend. He sent a short postcard back that he did not think it was a big deal and I was overexaggerating. Nice!

Thankfully, it never occurred to me to avoid kayaking. I never thought about my near-death experience when I went out kayaking, probably because my denial was so deep that it had ever happened. I remember taking a class at the pool at our college, and learning how to roll the kayak. I was completely safe when I was underwater with the boat on top of me.

I kept at it, learning how to get the boat to go where I wanted it. I loved the smooth silky gliding on calm waters mixed with upper body exertion through rough choppy waters. I loved the quietness of sitting literally on the water. Friends and I went on a few overnight trips where the stillness quieted us profoundly. Kayaking was full of majesty and magic, and mindfulness.

If I could do it over again, I would have yelled at my friend to not leave me. I would have had a whistle on me and blew that thing for help. I would have turned back at the first sign of the squall. I would have profusely thanked the dude who saved me and gone out of my way to find him and keep thanking him.

I would have all but strangled my pal while throttling him with vituperative, reverberating screams that he risked my very own, precious life. How dare he be so cavalier? How dare he dismiss and deny me? Was he crazy in his miserable chauvinistic arrogant denying head that his life would have been unaffected had I drowned? Such audacity! Then I would smush his face into a cement wall, his torso into barbed wire, kick him in the butt, and stomp away.

Now, several decades later and after a lot of sorting out in my head, I am so profoundly grateful that I did not drown that day! I am not ashamed anymore that my first kayaking experience in the cold waters of the Puget Sound during a squall was nearly my last experience on this earth. I am so happy and thankful that someone saved me!

It was not my fault. I am not mad at my high school friend anymore. What did he know? He was as stupid as I was.

But, I want to say solemnly and sacredly, that I would give a lot to thank the guy who saved me in person. I don’t even know his name but I remember what his younger self looked like. I send him total gratitude and thanks, and hope he continued to help others in need over these four decades. I pray that when he was in need that others helped him. I hope he had a good life.


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