A Transformative Near-Death Experience: How I Survived Driving Off of a Pier
People often ask me why I am so dead set on enlightenment, on finding out the truth of who and what I truly am, and I realize now it is because of the water.
I have heard that drowning is one of the easier ways to die. As a child, I used to imagine over and over that I could breathe in the bottom of the swimming pool. I would practice with a variety of different swimming masks to convince me of the fact. I would camp out on the floor of the pool for as long as I could, curled up in the corner, pretending to breathe, in the silence and the distant echoes of life above. I have these memories, like faded phantom photos, that I was able to siphon off small bits of oxygen trapped in the mask, at the bottom of the pool. In the water, time slowed and I was not myself, not a young girl of 8, but just pure being that was dissolving in the water. It was like what a death could be- peaceful, quiet and still.
It doesn’t surprise me that it was the water that called me, that almost swallowed me forever into her loving arms on that fateful day in 1995.
Van Morrison was playing on the cassette deck in Lena’s mazda 323 and Lena, Jill and I were arguing about which way to turn onto the 101 on the Olympic peninsula in Washington State. The three of us were traveling cross-country, after a year at an Ivy League college that had left us disillusioned. I thought an adventure out west could help me connect with something bigger, but I didn’t know what it was. I was seeking an unknown shape on the horizon, like a plane whose sound you hear before its image. We hovered near the turning, Jill gripping the wheel anxiously.
“I have a really bad feeling about going north,” I said.
A dread was creeping into my bones and blood like nothing I had ever felt before. My body felt like I was being administered a slow anesthetic, my limbs were like lead, and my mind was growing foggy like the weather outside. The skies were bleak with low laying clouds and the rain’s constant singing in step with the windshield wipers were driving me deeper into the mists. We had just crossed over on a ferry from Seattle and it appeared as though we had been led across the veil into another world, a bleak world where the dark goddess rules and will swallow you up if you tempt her with your foolishness.
“No!” Lena demanded. “ I want to see the Olympic Peninsula! If we go south, we’ll miss it completely!”
Jill nodded her head in agreement and I groaned. I was outnumbered, and so we headed north.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
It was nearing 10pm and after 2 hours on the road we saw a hotel. To reach this hotel, you had to drive down a road that was flanked by water on both sides, and the road felt like it hadn’t been paved in years, with big dips the entire way. The rain still hammered down and I wondered if we would have to sleep in the car, as the motel was shut. Jill had driven us as far north as humanly possible and we were in Port Townsend, a town that was surrounded by water on all sides. We had made it to the tip of the continental united states and it felt like we were literally on the edge of the world.
Jill turned around, Van Morrison still playing on the radio, as we headed back out the way we came.
“Oh the water, oh the water, oh the water, I hope it doesn’t rain all day. And it stoned me to my soul. Stoned me just like coming home.”
Jill turned left and I wondered, wasn’t this a bit too soon- and before this thought could even form completely- the car was plunging downwards, my stomach lurching up into my mouth.
“GET OUT!” Lena screamed.
With a resounding deep and penetrating boom we crashed, the windshield instantly cracking into the form of a spider web. Through my mental haze, I had the sense that we had landed in a deep ditch.
The hood of the car was rebounding upwards and through the hammering rain, I saw that dark water surrounded us on all sides. We were not in a ditch at all, but had driven off of a pier into the Puget Sound. OH, the water. After the initial impact, the front of the car had risen back up slightly out of the water and my window hovered above it. We were slowly sinking.
The groggy state I was in had infinitely increased. I was certain that I could not move my hand to undo the seatbelt. Time had slowed to a snail’s pace and each breath felt like an hour. With every ounce of strength, just like in a dream where you try to run away but you simply cannot, I managed to undo the seatbelt and direct my hand to the handle of the roll down window. As if churning butter, or thick molasses, I managed to wrestle the lever around a few times in order to open the window partway. No one can prepare you for the way that the mind suddenly stops and action takes over, as I have no idea how I managed to swim out of the car towards the bottom of the pier.
I swam through the freezing water to rest on the poles which held up the pier, about 12 feet above, and was shocked to see that Jill swam towards me with seeming calm. It was she who had made the mistake to drive off the pier and didn’t seem to register that it was a significant error. As she arrived beside me under the pier, I watched as the roof of the car surrendered herself to the waters below and disappeared, carrying my life with it. All I had now was my self and the clothes on my back, but I didn’t know for how long. There is a strange emptiness that arises when everything you have is suddenly lost from view and you are left naked, without any mooring.
The frigid waters had woken me out of my stupor. There was a bit of wood that I could rest on so that I did not have to tread water and I took everything in. I looked around and saw Lena was nowhere to be seen, but I could hear her distant screams from above.
“Help us! Please somebody help us!” Lena yelled. I wondered how she had managed to get out. I later found out that in a moment of action hero wonder, she had literally jumped out of the window as the car was diving, caught the dock by her fingers and pulled herself up.
A motorboat was docked beside us. Filled with hope that perhaps I could climb into the boat, I swam over and clawed at the side of it, trying to reach the top. The boat’s smooth white fiberglass was too slippery to grab a hold of and the top of the boat was too far out of reach. After a few attempts to try and hoist myself up, I gave up on that option of escape. My resolve quickly fading, I swam back to rest beneath the pier, the waves quietly lapping beside me. We had survived the car crashing into the water, but I had very little hope that I would survive much longer. My limbs were starting to go numb in the black November waters and I thought that death had come to find me at the ripe old age of 19. This time, I knew that I would not be able to breathe if I let go into the water’s embrace.
How would my parents find out what had happened to me? What would drowning in these icy waters feel like as I dissolved finally into them? And what would death be like? Although the numbness was growing, I didn’t feel it. I was entering a state like a hyper real dream, everything vivid and alive and unforgiving- the cold, the night, the water. I had to let go. It was a place beyond panic, because I couldn’t argue with the reality of it, like a skydiver couldn’t argue with the air after he has jumped out of a plane. I was in freefall and didn’t know where I would land.
What seemed like eons- but must have been ten minutes-had passed, I could hear the sounds of footsteps approaching. Suddenly, there was a thud into the boat hovering next to and above us. I saw an older man, cackling, ”How’d you end up down there?” He was practically crying from laughing so hard. A late-forty something man, he was wearing a white t shirt only with faded blue jeans, looked like he drove a pick up truck with enormous wheels and had just stepped out of a local watering hole, but assumed that we were the drunk ones. He reached his hand down to mine, as I swam over to hover next to the side of the large motor boat docked beside the pier. I remember the smell of alcohol on his breath, and the clammy, yet firm grasp of his hand as he brusquely pulled Jill and I out of the water and then pushed us up onto the pier above. I tentatively caught my balance as I brought myself completely up to standing on the top of the pier.
There is a moment in time when one’s entire life seems to converge. It is an instant that leaps out of the typical passage of time, and all past and future melt away. For me, that was the instant that my feet hit the dry pavement. I took in the black, steady asphalt, interspersed with dashes of yellow, and I felt the pure exhilaration of survival.
I had fallen into an abyss in which I thought there was no way out, and then managed to escape. This released something vast and powerful not only into my body, but into a new perception of reality. It was like being hooked up to a full voltage power outlet that filled me a sense of immense freedom, bliss and connection to all of life. As I stared out at the starry night sky, I had the sense that I had survived for a reason, and I had to reclaim the life that I had nearly lost. Listening to the lapping waters beneath the pier, I realized that every breath up until that moment had been like a death, and that I now needed to embrace some magnificent, yet mysterious beauty. I suddenly knew that I, as well as everyone else on the planet, was completely and irrevocably one. I just needed to face my own death to realize it.
As I looked around, the passage of time resumed, as the three of us stood there, alone on the desolate pier. I wondered what had become of the man who had rescued us, but he was already disappearing into the mists of the road that led away from the pier. Where had Lena found him anyway? I wondered. I never found out.
The hours that followed blur together in my memory. Snippets of images- ambulences, vital signs, blankets, the weight of my freezing wet clothes. Yet the moment of landing my feet on solid ground is etched across my mind and body. It felt as if the universe and life itself had come to deliver me with a shocking wake up call. One I would never nor could ever forget.
Are you willing to do whatever it takes, to get to the very bottom of this? Asked life.
Well, I was determined to see what all this fuss was about. Taking off all the masks I had ever worn, I decided to go karmakaze.