Do you know the moment in your life that you’ve been the most afraid? A moment that you felt so powerless and overwhelmed that it could only be described as an out of body experience? The moment I have in mind is so deeply imprinted that it still brings me to tears when I think back to it on that September day in 2013. This was the day I almost lost my daughter to the ocean and the moment that would send me down a journey to deal with trauma in way I’d never experienced.
What I felt that day can only be described as anguish. In Brené Brown’s new book, Atlas Of The Heart, she describes it like this: “Anguish not only takes away our ability to breathe, feel, and think- it comes for our bones. Anguish often causes us to physically crumple in on ourselves, literally bringing us to our knees or forcing us all the way to the ground. The element of powerlessness is what makes anguish traumatic. We are unable to change, reverse, or negotiate what has happened.
We were in the Outer Banks for our Fall family trip. It was our last day and some of the extended family had already headed back to Maryland. My friend Angela was with us and Greg’s sister Pam, along with me, Greg, and the kids. We were on the beach enjoying the sun but staying out of the water because there was a storm surge that day, the waves were big and the under tow was strong, and this means riptides. This time of year, in the Outer Banks there are no lifeguards on duty, but they do put up the red flags to indicate danger, so we were staying out. The kids were playing on the shoreline collecting shells with Greg’s sister down watching them. Angela, Greg, and I were up closer to the house because with Greg’s leg issues, due to MS, it made it hard to navigate getting all the way down to the water. We were just having some lunch, there were very few people around, it was normal relaxing beach day.
Something caught my eye as I was sitting there talking and when I looked down to the shoreline, which was probably 150 feet from where we were sitting, I saw Pam now standing. She was looking out towards the water, like she was searching for something, her hand covering her eyes from the sun. I scanned the beach and quickly caught sight of my two boys but couldn’t find Madison. And then I saw it, her head bobbing in the water, she had been hit on shore by a wave and was already pulled out. I ran. I ran as fast as I could, but it felt like a lifetime to reach the edge of the shore, and then I stopped, just briefly, everything was blacked out, all but her small head drifting further away. I was in absolute anguish. Madison was getting swallowed up by waves, maybe 100 feet out now. I was frozen for a moment and then I screamed louder than I’d ever heard my own voice, “heeeeelp!”, and then again. Looking around I couldn’t see anyone close enough to me and no lifeguard. It was then that I realized, I WAS the help, there was no one coming. I sprinted into the water, running as fast I could, keeping my eyes on her head but she would disappear as the wave crashed over her, as I got closer, they would swallow her up, and then I’d get hit by that same wave moments later. As I came up for air, I’d struggle to fix my eyes back to her, trying to recover from the water in my eyes, in my mouth, my nose. As I tried to get past the break the waves would hit me and send me to my knees, but somehow my legs wouldn’t stop moving with my sights completely focused on her little head. I don’t know how much time passed, but it felt like an eternity. I remember as I closed in on her that I could now see the terror in her eyes, I could also hear her crying and screaming, I had finally got close enough but seeing her and hearing her only made me feel more terrified. I remember locking eyes with her and willing her to keep treading water. I was yelling, “I’m coming, just hold on!” And she did, again and again she was pummeled with waves, and she would bounce back up with her head above water, she was unbelievable in that moment.
Finally, I got to her. That moment I reached out and grabbed her hand, that was stretching so desperately to connect to me was the single most important touch I’ve had in my life. That feeling when I could pull her tired, small, 9-year-old body into mine and wrap myself around her was comfort and trauma all wrapped up in one embrace. Once I had her I realized it wasn’t over, I still had to get us back, and the waves were crushing us and the under tow was a force beneath us. Trying to swim with one arm as I held her with the other felt impossible, I was not trained for this. There were moments I could find the bottom and pivot us back towards the beach. Even when I had both arms completely wrapped around her, it felt like the ocean was trying to rip her away from me, but I wasn’t letting go. I tried to use my legs to move us back to shore, but it was defeating. The sound that haunted me for months to come was when I heard her scream into my ear, “Mommy, wave!”, because she could see behind me. I on the other hand was so focused on the beach that I was determined to return to, I had no idea what was coming for us, and bam! It hit us with a force that felt like it could break our bones and then pulled us under, this happened time and time again. It felt like we were in a washing machine being spun about with rocks, shells, and sand all round. I honestly don’t know how we made it, but, in some way, it was as if the ocean spit us back out and towards safety. What I do know is that something was different in me, another level of strength and determination that I didn’t know I had. I’m certain all parents possess this, and I now realize the impact of adrenaline when you combine it with love.
Once we were knee deep and almost to safety, two men were by our side. As I carried her to shore, one of them put his arm around me to help me out of the water. At that moment I put Madison down and released her, I didn’t take my eyes off her as my friend Angela was there to take her hand. Once I saw her walking on shore my body went completely limp. The man next to me held me up and said, “you just saved your daughter’s life.” And then I collapsed on the beach in tears.
People were all around us, trying to care for us. There was a doctor checking Madison out, they were concerned about how much sea water she’d swallowed. People were talking and trying to provide comfort and make sense of exactly what had happened. My sister in-law was so upset that she left the beach, packed up immediately, and left without saying goodbye. It was traumatic for everyone, we were all in shock. Madison and I, for the first time, between the two of us, had no words.
Once it all settled down Madison and I walked up to the house and got in the pool. We were floating, just our upper bodies on the raft with our legs dangling in the water, just starring at each other on opposite sides. Greg and Angela were amazing as they cleaned up and started to pack the car and bring all the stuff up from the beach since it was the last day. Madison and I just floated there, not knowing what to say. Our hair was full of rocks and sand. I had lost my sunglasses to the ocean, my feet were torn up and I was bleeding on my knees, but I didn’t care, I wasn’t letting her out of my sight. I’m not sure what came over me, but I suddenly said, “do you want to go shopping?” and she nodded. We put cover ups on and left. She wanted to buy something for her BFF Ella, so it seemed like a nice distraction. We saw one of those old-time photo places and without words, we looked at each other with a big grin, both thinking, why not? So, we went in and dressed up as flapper girls, sat on a bar, held guns and whiskey bottles, and smiled for the camera. It cracks me up to this day, how weird that was and strangely therapeutic. She had just almost drowned, I almost lost my baby girl, and now we were in full dress up together as if the world hadn’t almost shifted. I loved that moment; we laughed a little and we felt our feet on the ground again, together.
After our shopping spree we returned and I finally took a shower, being alone was excruciating. I couldn’t stop seeing her in the ocean and I couldn’t stop hearing her scream. I cried hysterically in that moment which was a release I needed. We went to dinner that night and I started to hear everyone’s recollection of the event. Angela had tried to follow me with a flotation device but couldn’t get past the break. Greg felt helpless as his legs wouldn’t allow him to help us in that moment. There were two men that tried to get to us, unsuccessfully, and that is who held me up on the beach. It was all so overwhelming and at the same time it was so, well, over. I talked to my friend Aubrey that night and she urged me to look up at the trees, breathe and feel my feet beneath me, maybe the best advice I’ve ever received. Angela was so supportive and loving but also reminded me that I needed to pull it together and be in the moment with the kids. I was so grateful to have my friends with me that day. I cried myself to sleep that night and I was in a daze all the way back to Maryland. All I could think was that I almost lost her, our life almost completely changed.
It took some time and some help, but I eventually got back to being present. A month after we got back from the beach, I called my friend Angela from my car at work. I was sitting there, frozen, sobbing, and couldn’t go inside. I was stuck in a loop of the event, she suggested I reach out to my therapist, and that’s the nudge I needed. It took over 6 months to stop having visions of the event and to stop getting paralyzed from those visions. I never understood trauma or PTSD until this happened, and it’s very hard to explain that feeling if you’ve never been through something that shakes you to your core and holds you hostage. After I read Brene’s book I realize the feeling I had when I stood on that shore yelling for help all those years ago was anguish. She says, “it comes for our bones.” Yes, that’s exactly it. I’m grateful this is not an emotion that I’ve felt often, if ever since that moment. This was a mental health issue that I never expected to face or struggle to overcome. I’m grateful that the ending is a happy one and I’m also grateful for the people that supported me to get the help I needed.
Madison loves the ocean now, it took us a couple years to get back to normal. My kids were the ones wearing floatation devices for a while but we settled back into the balance of respect for the water and the freedom to experience the joy of it. We made it through together that day and I know for certain it brought us even closer to one another for a lifetime.
For you Madi-I love you and I’ll always come when you need me.
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You’re one tough Mama! Love You!
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