Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

Angie Mazakis


  • A drowning person will not splash and wave, will not shout or call out for help. Contrary to the ways in which it is dramatically performed on television and in film, drowning is nearly always physically unexpressed, measurably silent.

The drowning person can sink deeper, really anywhere, right in front of you, standing in line at the grocery store, even, where she finally admits to herself that her parents will die without the grandchildren they always wanted: the ones they joked about not having for ten years and then didn’t joke about not having for another ten years. The drowning person’s Palestinian lineage was dispelled from Haifa with her dad during Nakba (The Catastrophe) in 1948 and will end with the drowning person, who couldn’t do the very least she could do for her dispossessed and dying people, which is to keep them existing. In the last session the drowning person had with her psychiatrist in March, she said she had nothing to look forward to. The only thing I know will happen sometime soon—the next few years or months—is that my parents will both die. They both have end stage now. There’s nothing else. The drowning person is failing two classes in her PhD program because she is drowning, but sometimes she doesn’t look like she’s drowning, so others wonder if she just doesn’t want to do this. She has spent every moment that she isn’t in class in Ohio, back in Chicago to take care of her parents. The drowning person is withdrawing for the semester and doesn’t know if she can return; her Graduate Program Director told her to withdraw for the sake of her mental health, was so supportive. Then two weeks later, after she withdrew, the director said that the program may replace her with someone else.  “You do have things to look forward to,” said the psychiatrist, as she wrote a prescription for the highest legal dosage of one antidepressant and then added a prescription for another one—the fifth medication change or dosage increase in 6 months. “You have…your best friend Greg who you’ll spend time with, and you have…your dear ancient cat who follows you everywhere.” She seemed to really be grasping to come up with two things. The next week, Greg tells the drowning person that he is moving to another state, transferring to a different PhD program. The following Thursday the cat’s kidneys are failing, just like the drowning person’s parents. Four days later, the drowning person must euthanize the cat. She has had the cat for almost 19 years. The cat stopped eating; she’d been dehydrated but kept returning to her water bowl again and again. Putting her mouth down to the water. Standing there like she’d forgotten how to drink, wandering away without drinking each time.

  • Of the children who will drown, an adult will watch 10 percent of them as they are drowning, not knowing they are drowning.

To prevent immediate oxygen deprivation, the drowning person calls her dad while he is in his dialysis appointment. He has always been the one she calls to alleviate her anxiety, and he has always comforted her. He doesn’t remember where he is or why he is there; he doesn’t remember where she lives. But she needs to hear his voice. Despite his memory loss, he doesn’t forget who she is. He answers the phone and she asks him to tell her about the place where he arrived in Beirut from Haifa when he was a child, fleeing with his family. This is partly to ensure that his essential memories are still intact, but she also wants to hear him describe it again, before it’s gone forever. It doesn’t matter if the question has no context; dementia erases all context. “What’s wrong?” he asks, when he can tell she is crying. “Can I do anything to help?” He is hooked up to a machine, eight hours away in Chicago, that removes his blood, cleans it, and returns it in a four-hour process. No, just a bad day, says the drowning person from Ohio, guilty that she is burdening someone who is beyond burden; he won’t even remember this. But it will still sadden him right now in the moment, won’t it? She knows it pains him to hear her crying, though she was determined not to cry. And even in the absence of memory, do those sadnesses still compound in the heart?

The dad calls the drowning person back five minutes later. “I forgot why I called you. Did you just call me?”

  • A drowning person instinctively extends their arms laterally to press down on the surface of the water in order to gain leverage, which prevents them from waving for help. They are physiologically incapable of yelling for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

Greg texts from Indiana, “You have to make an appointment.” The drowning person cannot. What’s the point? asks the drowning person. I think these meds have stopped working, and I’m not going through the hell of changing them again. Every change in medication or dosage, has temporarily deepened the depression, while she wades through, waiting to see if this combination or dosage will ameliorate. But often the interim is unbearable. The drowning person has to teach a class, so she puts on makeup and tries to look as undrowning as possible. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs. She manages a lesson on levels of abstraction. She’s lost count of how many times she’s done this lesson. Forty, she thinks. She could do it with her eyes closed. To communicate the highest level of abstraction, she tells the class that if she asked them to close their eyes and imagine the word “life,” it is probable that they’d imagine vastly different images among themselves—some would imagine a baby human or animal, some would imagine plant life, some might imagine a passionate impulse, an attempt at survival, anything beyond waking, the presence of a pulse. The heterogeneity of definition illustrates abstraction. The drowning person thinks the word “life” and imagines just signifier, just sound. Greg says he will call and make an appointment for the drowning person.

  • Indicators of Actual Drowning:

-Attempting to swim in a specific path but unable to advance

The drowning person throws a birthday party for her depression’s 21st birthday. When she gives the toast at the party, she says, Even though you just turned 21, you’ve been buying my alcohol since my very first drink!

It gets a medium amount of laughter.

One person laughs too long.

Without her knowledge, the drowning person’s depression applied to all the same grad school programs to which she applied, and of course it got in—her depression’s educational investment is biblical—knowledge increases sorrow. It follows her everywhere. The drowning person wishes it would find somewhere else to go. Maybe a private university. Her depression is old enough to be in grad school and apply on its own, though. The drowning person never imagined that she’d see the day that her depression would reach adulthood. Her depression is moving along steadily in life, though she is not really. Though the drowning person is single, her depression has a long-term partner and is intransigently loyal.

-Seems to be ascending an invisible ladder

In their first meeting, the drowning person asked her psychiatrist, I feel like I move through the world presenting myself as calm and unflustered, and I’ve even convinced myself that I’m not anxious. Is that possible? She stares at the psychiatrist’s mug, which says, There is no I in team, but there are six Is in Dissociative Identity Disorder. When she finishes all her questions, the drowning person’s psychiatrist says, "You’re anxious as hell."

The drowning person finally has something to look forward to when she hears news of her book of poetry winning a contest and being published. The drowning person gets to surprise her dad about the news of the book many times, but when the book comes out, he can’t read it. He begins, and then forgets, though it sits right next to him on the table next to the chair where he sits, sleeps and eats. When she feels like surprising him again, she picks up the book, and shows him, and he’s so proud, “Oh, look! I’ve been reading it!” he says, picking up the bookmark that has remained in the page of the first poem.

-Not using legs

Before she withdrew for the semester, the drowning person didn’t leave the apartment all week. She watched the clock as her classes began and then ended. She lay in bed and tried to imagine that she was lying in a summer house the year she lived in Micronesia, in Palau. She tried to imagine she stayed on the island forever and never returned. She tried to remember lying under the breadfruit trees, feeling like she knew almost no one between the shores, a feeling you can take anywhere. She imagines she is an island, surrounded by water. The water pulling sand into it, the island’s shores receding. It seems like there is enough sand to last forever, but the drowning person knows it is finite, knows there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on earth.

Even when the drowning person makes some headway, she’s still treading water and sometimes just one wave will wash her back where she began.

A year and a half go by. The drowning person’s dad dies in October. Her mom dies three months later.

-Eyes that are vacant, unfocused or closed

After her parents die, whenever she closes her eyes to sleep, the drowning person has dreams about them. For months, in every dream, they are dying and she has to save them—she has to get her bleeding dad across the ocean while swimming, she has to keep her mom above water. Eventually, in the dreams, she knows her parents are dead but they’re right there talking to her, and she wonders how she’ll tell everyone that they’re still alive, since they’ve already had obituaries, funerals. How will I explain that they’re alive, she worries in the dream, when I’ve told everyone that they died? She knows in her dream mind’s subconscious that their sudden resurrection is tentative, but she doesn’t know how to fit it into the world.

  • Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning.

The drowning person dissociates. Her mind goes ahead of her body to find the edge of the flood, if only by chance. Sometimes the mind keeps looking while the body remains a vessel on autopilot. The mind scans the landscape, the water lifting and falling while the drowning person stands, up to her neck. The drowning person wonders if she can empty her dreams into the water. Her figurative dreams seem to continue to dissipate, and her literal dreams just lap and swell in her mind. Her mind, in slow, luminous eddies, washes its own hands of all of this. She thinks of the end of the water. Drowning has become a life here on earth.

Someone come. Close down the sea.  

Facts on Instinctive Drowning Response adapted from “It Doesn’t Look Like They’re Drowning” by Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D in The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue, Fall 2006 and “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” by Mario Vittone in Slate, June 4, 2013.