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Under the Surface

by Brooke Richter 6 months ago in recovery
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The story of my renaissance in Lake Titicaca.

View from boat in Lake Titicaca

I couldn’t breathe.

I looked up at the fading sunlight in shock, a feeling that quickly turned to terror when I realized that I was sinking further and further down into the icy depths of Lake Titicaca.

Somehow, my lips had come unglued against my will and let out all remaining life sustaining air in my lungs. I watched the bubbles float toward the surface. They were perfectly formed; each their own unique size, yet flawlessly circular. I briefly thought that they might be likened to crystals, but discarded that idea because crystals weren’t smooth, right? Instead, the bubbles would have been better described as pearls. Maybe like the balloons of the ocean. They were free to effortlessly dance their way to the surface, back to light and oxygen. They moved so quickly and intently toward their own doom.

It didn’t seem fair that I had to sink to my death, while they had to float to their own. What was that saying, the one about eating your cake? If you keep your cake, it goes bad. Why would anyone do that? Just eat the cake.

There was nothing that I could do as the darkness pulled me down and swallowed me whole. Eventually, I stopped moving. I was left in the pitch dark with nothing but my thoughts.

Usually, I was a very strong swimmer. I spent my summers growing up river rafting down the Canyon and competing in club swim sports. I had been body surfing in central California beaches since I could walk. Nothing about water scared me. Until now, water never betrayed me.

I loved being in water because it meant I could slip under the surface and find a new world, all to myself. My parents were too grown up to enjoy the water, my sister was too afraid, and my brother was MIA most of the time, so my swim time was solitary time.

Under the surface, I could imagine that I was a mermaid swimming in Atlantis. Or, a tropical islander spear fishing for dinner. Or, a scuba diver looking for treasure in a shipwreck.

Or, and this was my favorite, I could slip beneath the surface and think about absolutely nothing. That’s still hard for me to do. I enjoyed closing off my sense of sound and sight. It gave me a break from my sensory overload issues that worked me into a state of constant anxiety.

However, at the moment of sinking down, down, down into the highest navigable lake in the world, I was not enjoying the break from my senses. As darkness enveloped me, I felt my heart squeeze and gut clench. It felt like someone had made a fist, pulled back their arm, and sucker punched me right in the stomach. My body keeled in on itself, but I forced my arms to reach up toward the surface. My fingers were spread out, like claws. In my panic, I didn’t realize that claws don’t make very good fins. I kept sliding down, down, down.

Eventually, it felt like time stopped and I was suspended in eternity. From way Down Here, did anything even matter from way Up There? Up There, my travel companions waited for me to surface so we could move on with our trip. They didn’t really understand yet that most of the time, what they were waiting for wasn’t even what they actually wanted. What a waste…so many people just sitting around waiting for an intangible feeling of contentment to arise from the acquisition of very tangible material items.

Although, if they didn’t sit around, what else would they do?

I was sitting around, at the bottom of the impenetrable lake.

I was Down Here, where nothing could hurt me, but nobody could love me either.

It felt strange to realize that the people who wanted to pull me back to the surface were actually 5,000 miles away, and didn’t even know that I was sinking.

Could anyone really pull me out of this dark pit? I felt like I was miles and miles below the surface. I could go walking, running, jumping around in this vast eternity and never find the light of day again. Not even a rope, a flashlight, or a GPS could help me out.

I was trapped. Stuck. Immobile. There was nowhere to turn and nobody who cared. You know those dreams where you’re being chased by a monster, and you try to run, but your feet won’t move? And the monster gets closer and closer, so you open your mouth to scream, but then nothing comes out? And you’re completely aware of what’s about to happen, but you’re completely trapped, and the knowledge of what’s about to happen is worse than when it actually happens.

Anticipation is a double edged sword.

All of a sudden, my lungs started to burn. The pain was so uncomfortable and sudden that I didn’t even have time to think; I pushed off from the bottom and clawed my way up, up, up. I was still too panicked to properly close my fingers, but I knew one thing very clearly: I could not deal with the fire in my lungs and the punch in my gut for much longer. I had to get out.

When I broke the surface, I still couldn’t breathe. The waves lazily rolled into my face, gently kissing my red cheeks and welcoming me back to Up There. The sun glared into my eyes, and yet, I was so happy to see it that I embraced the discomfort.

My breath came back when the sound returned. All at once, I could hear the giggles and shouts from my friends on the roof of the boat, excited that I was just one of many people who had polar plunged into Lake Titicaca that day. Even the locals didn’t swim in the lake; it was too cold, and there was no purpose.

This jump held a massive purpose for me. My bleak suspension highlighted my inner turmoil, which shone like a beacon to my friends, who so kindly offered me their hands from the boat. When they pulled me back into the vessel that kept so many of them from going Down There, I felt a new anchor pulling me out of my desolate pit and bringing me into my own personal renaissance.


About the author

Brooke Richter

Writer | Traveler | Educator

MSc History- University of Edinburgh, 2019

BS Anthropology + Geography- Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 2018

Find me on Instagram: @_brookerichter

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