The Silence of Drowning

Eesha Rao '22
A personal flotation device is equipment designed to assist us to keep afloat in  water. Despite their primary use being only to help us, many times, we cast them aside saying that they are too restrictive and uncomfortable. We think that we couldn’t possibly need them because we already know how to swim. We believe that there isn’t any way we could drown because we know everything there is to know about staying afloat. However, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide. Accounting for seven percent of all injury-related deaths, there are an estimated 32,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide.
 There are five stages of drowning, much like but also nothing like how there are five stages of grief. It starts with surprise, then involuntary breath holding, hypoxic convulsion, unconsciousness, and finally, death. One of the first things we learn as children, forced to take swimming lessons by our parents, is that we cannot breathe underwater. No matter how much we wish to be, we are not mermaids, nor are we fish. We do not have gills, and we cannot breathe underwater. This is so ingrained in us, that the instinct not to breathe underwater becomes so strong that it overpowers the torture that comes with running out of air. No matter how desperate for air we become, we know that we cannot breathe underwater, so we don’t. Not until we’re on the verge of unconsciousness, anyways. But, by that point, it’s too late. There’s so much carbon dioxide in our bloodstream, and so little oxygen that we reach our “break point.” Chemical sensors in our brain force our bodies to take a breath regardless of whether we’re still under the water or not. We, in our heads, know that holding our breath will kill us, so we might as well take a breath. There’s nothing left to do past the “break point”; it might as well be the point of no return. Essentially, it is just that. When this involuntary breath occurs, most of us are already unconscious, however, a select unlucky few are still conscious. As we go from voluntarily holding our breath to involuntarily breathing in water, the drowning begins in earnest. As your involuntary breathing drags water down your windpipe, one of two things can occur. For ten percent of us, when the water touches our vocal cords, the muscles around our larynx immediately contract. Our bodies judge the water in our voice box as a bigger threat than the low oxygen levels in our blood. This is called a laryngospasm: essentially, our breathing reflex is so overpowered that we suffocate ourselves. We end up drowning without any water in our lungs. But, in the other ninety percent of us, water enters our lungs and terminates any leftover transfer of oxygen to our bloodstream. We are now semiconscious and weakened by the lack of oxygen. As we struggle, it becomes harder not to drown. We are in no position to fight our way back to the surface of the water.  
Drowning isn’t loud, it’s silent. When we drown, we don’t make a sound. We can’t make a sound, even if we wanted to. Drowning is deceptively quick and silent. It’s not like how we see it on television. There is no waving and splashing our arms and there is no yelling. There is only silence. 
We drown in the silence. We suffocate in the silence. We cannot manage the silence. We cannot stay silent. We drown in the words we cannot say, but want to say. We suffocate in the words we cannot say, but want to say. Sometimes we have so much we want to say, but we cannot find the words and because we stay silent, we are robbed. Our silence is not golden. We do not have to stay silent. Martin Luther King Jr, once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Sometimes our thoughts don’t come together fluently enough to form words or we don’t feel like we have the power to get them out. Once we say something, it’s out in the world forever. Once we say something, we can never take it back. Our words have power, and that power is suffocating. We feel safer bottling our power and hiding it from everyone else. We feel better suffocating in silence. We feel better choking on our words than we do finding the courage to emerge on the other side with our minds spoken, but alone. We do not want to waste our breath saying the wrong thing. We fear conflict. We fear disapproval. We fear rejection. Sometimes when we speak, it’s like we’re speaking to an empty room. Yes, there are people with us, but are they really listening? Do they really want to hear what we have to say? In the grand scheme of things, does our opinion really matter? We don’t think so. So we pretend we have nothing to say to avoid the judgement of our peers, even if the words are burning in our throats, yearning to be let out. Instead, we stay silent. We stay silent, drowning in our words, miserable, and completely alone.

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