The Sound of Drowning

I read a fascinating article, today, on drowning. I highly recommend it both for the fascination of it, and for the fact that, if you are ever near the water, it is decidedly useful information to know (which, in a story about bad things that can happen to your kids, is a rarity, being far more often drowned out by 'you should be frightened' and 'we are heroic for telling you so'. Sorry, don't mean to snark my bias).

But what was interesting to me was the concept (which I had learned before, but never so vividly) - that drowning, a kind of death that (at least for many people) is inescapably connected with panic, is, more or less, silent. The silence is, in fact, one of the best signs that something is wrong. Which of course, made me consider, the deeper implications of that, the metaphorical parallels. People who are going to commit suicide withdraw sometimes, people who are being abused can become uncommunicative, people who have been traumatised can do the same (this is not a professional statement, I know that people react in very different ways, and may do just the opposite, so forgive me the generalization). But silence, generally, is a sign that something is wrong.

That's interesting to me, because what we, as humans, do (or at least *I* as a human do) is to begin to be afraid of that silence. In a joking way you hear this from parents all the time - 'Those kids are too quiet, they must be up to something.' But in a more serious way, someone who is silent makes other people uncomfortable, makes them want to fix things, to make them not silent. This is good, on the one hand, of course, because it's an instinct that, when our children suddenly stop talking, makes us probe to see what's wrong, to try to offer help. On the other hand, we sometimes confuse things, and become afraid of the silence, in and of itself, instead of the lurking horror of the silence.

The drowning article illustrates this, to me, perfectly: the silence is a sign of distress, but it is also a natural reaction, and one that developed because it is the best way for an individual to try not to drown - they stick the arms out and push themselves up, instead of flailing wildly, they take deep gulping breaths instead of wasting their oxygen screaming, etc. The silence is a coping mechanism, a response where the body takes over because it knows the brain has gone (quite literally in this case) beyond it's depth.

Silence, in a psychological situation, then seems to serve the same purpose, for me. If I am miserable, I grow more and more silent. I've seen this same silence in others, and I know it can be unnerving, threatening even. It makes you uncomfortable. It leaves you in a difficult place. But the problem, for those of us who are the 'lifeguards' (because we all need to be each others lifeguards), is to know how draw the person into shore, without panicking them, or having them pull us down with them - by the time silence comes, reason has been compromised, after all. It has to be, because the silence is a deeper, more bodily response than the very human, reasonable search for daily validation and help that accompanies frustration and problems, normally. Silence comes, instead, when we approach a profundity so deep that we know that to move, to twitch, even to speak is to risk teetering into it. There is a slow work of moving the self, quietly, quietly, back toward a firmer ground, to seek a better crossing than the one that's almost swallowed us. And sometimes, that moving is beyond us, sometimes we are truly drowning, we are, in fact, beyond our depth and struggling to bob up just long enough for a lifeguard to snatch us from the water.

But, in that case, there is two things to remember. First of all, the silence itself is not the true source of our horror. The silence is the sign of a human response, of a living self trying to cling on until reason can be refound. Treating the silence, itself, gets the sort of strained, vague responses that probably everyone has gotten from someone when they know something is wrong: "Oh no, I'm fine, just tired," "Don't worry about it, just a headache," "I'm sure it'll pass." This isn't evasiveness on the part of the drowning person, it's the confused, teetering effort to do nothing too drastic or severe, for fear of losing balance. After all, they don't know if you are looking to find the source of the silence, or looking to just end the silence.

The second thing to remember is that the profundity is real, even if invisible, and terribly, terribly deep, and that with two people, one of them drowning, there is only one person who has the chance of a full access to their faculties. Just as a drowning victim can pull a lifeguard down with them in their panic, and kill them both, a silence disturbed can hurt both parties. On the one hand, this is why it's good to pull in professional lifeguards sometimes (psychologists, psychiatrists, a suicide help line, a teacher at school, a social worker, etc). On the other, it is also a little reminder of the awesome, humbling power that some of us DO have, to draw people up from the depths. The ability to draw someone in from that brink, or at least to give them a life ring long enough to find a lifeguard is an awesome one, one that we forget.

Finally, and perhaps a bit more troublingly, the thing this story made me realize was the great, and terrible beauty of nature itself - not just the sea, though the crushing, silent force of the sea is certainly great and terrilby, but of us, of our human frames, so great, silent, and terrible, able to save us in ways we cannot expect, and destroy us with the same innate force. When Emily Dickinson said her life was like a loaded gun, this is what it means to me - we are each of us a coiled spring of great, terrible force, force that can save and destroy, ourselves or others. A force like that should be nurtured, trained, applauded, kept sacred - and treated with a healthy dose of sober respect.

As a final note, please do not think I mean this as a subtle commentary on anyone who has dropped me a line or said hello over the last little while when I haven't been very talky. Rest assured, I'm not feeling totally silent, just kind of agoraphobic, and the big, big room of the internet is just a bit intimidating right now. Thank you very much for everyone who DID drop me a line. If I were Emily Dickinson, I would have sent you each a cake or a flower, and a poem. I can't bake very well, and I have a black thumb, and my poems are grouchy and far between, so I virtual hug will have to do.


Amanda said...

Okay that picture is so creepy and plays on my worst fears, so much that I can't even read the post! Like those people who were scared of your moth post.

Emily said...

Good to see you poke your head back out into the internet world, Jason - not that taking a break from it is wrong or hard to understand. :-)

This is a fascinating subject. I feel what you mean about recognizing the withdrawal & psychological silence that mean something is wrong, or that precede a drastic action. On the other hand, as an introvert I also worry that we as a society are becoming very uncomfortable with ANY kind of silence, interpreting all silences as something wrong, even if it's just a moment of stillness & meditation in the midst of the bustle. Josipovici has some beautiful things to say about the different qualities of silence that wash over you after reading various authors, & how people who fear silence deprive themselves of the experience of relaxing into that, instead filling it up with chitchat.

I suppose the difficulty in caring for other people is recognizing which type of silence is which...

Jeanne said...

I've never understood that Emily Dickinson line until now.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - Sorry. I seem to unsettle people with my choice of photography. There was another one of mine you didn't like, too, as I recall.

Ms Emily - I TOTALLY agree. I think also, like you say, there are different qualities of silence, and that they look different on different people, and there is no litmus test to be sure that silence X is a good thing, or a survival mechanism. That's why human love is so hard, I guess. Silence and solitude, like all blessings, are curses as well, depending on how they're used. Power is neutral, intent and adeptness produce positive and negative.

MS Jeanne - Well, to butcher Ms Dickinson again, If I can clarify one line, I shall not live in vain :). Thank you, I'm honored.

Trapunto said...

In relationships too. When people are arguing, things are still okay. When they no longer care enough or have the energy to argue, not so okay.

Isn't the internet the alternative to the agora?

I worry for silent bloggers. That is a tendency I feel I ought to discourage, so I imagine positive explanations: end of term busy-ness, summer child-minding, gardening, house-painting, that they are in the grip of a creative furor and making their masterpiece. Then I tell myself they have just moved on to other things, as I expect I will too someday. But I don't say "Hey, what happened to you?" because I figure the silence is them not wanting to say.

I knew a fellow in college who went around with wax earplugs for a couple of days as an experiment in silence. He had to explain what he was doing to everyone he met, and make them write things down.

Chris said...

Good to hear your "voice" again Jason :)

Nymeth said...

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a Jason post, hooray!

Emily took the words right out of my mouth. And sadly I've often wondered if the fact that I'm so concerned about swimming against the cultural tide of refusing to accept that silence CAN indeed be natural and healthy and necessary doesn't makes me *more* prone to dismissing it when it's an actual sign of alarm. This is something that really, really worries me and that largely affects my personal relationships. I'm always struggling to balance my aversion to being meddling or intrusive and my fear of abandoning a loved one in need.

Jason Gignac said...

MS Trapunto - In regards to silence in relationships, that's an interesting observation. I think Ms Emily's point, here, still stands - relationships need periods of silence, too, where the individuals need some solitude from each other, linguistically, I guess. But yes, you're right, the silent relationship is often drowning.

In regards to the agora - NO! The internet is one, huge agora, as far as I'm concerned - the biggest agora on earth, in many ways. Agoraphobia, also, is the wrong word, but I don't know the right one. Sort of fear of being noticed, but that's not really it, either.

I have heard of several of the forced silence experiments - ones where people refuse to speak for a period, or where the put earplugs in. I'm not sure it's the same thing as silence, you know? Just like a mime isn't really 'silent' - to force silence is, in effect, a 'noisy' thing in and of itself. Not that it's bad, just not the same, I wouldn't think. Unless you're quite literally trying to learn about hte absence of noise, which the sort of silence I'm talking about here, I suppose can really make a lot of noise - God knows in some of my most silent periods, I can talk your head off and appear to be very social, even. But that gets into a whole different conversation.

Mr Chris - Thank you :).

Ms Nymeth - I think that the problem is not that society notices silence, but that it is threatened by it, does that make sense? Like, it's good to notice someone isn't talking, but at the same time our (admittedly impossible) duty to try to know each other well enough to recognize the response we get to asking - or to know if we should ask, or if asking should be something less intrusive than actual words, you know? When someone is not talking at a party, for instance, you can get a lot more information from sharing a look than by having a conversation, some times. I don't know, I probably have no idea what I'm talking about.

Sara said...

When I was in labor, my ex husband kept asking me why I wasn't screaming, etc. He was; I couldn't. The more terrified I got, the more my body attempted to work towards rending itself, the deeper I withdrew into myself. I literally couldn't speak, couldn't utter a word. And in the worst parts of my marriage, I almost disappeared; the world thought I was okay, I wasn't complaining, I wasn't saying anything was wrong. And then, in the terrible, raucous aftermath when all I could do was sob, sob--even then, even when I felt like I couldn't hurt anymore, I also knew it was better: I wasn't just silent. I was drowning.

Yes: drowning is the exactly right word. After a while, you don't realize you're dying, everything goes quiet, everything seems faraway and doesn't hurt. What protects us also snuffs us out, after a while. Let's hope there are always those around who can throw us a line, pull us from the deep. Thanks, Jason, for this.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Sara - " What protects us also snuffs us out, after a while."

That's exactly right! I'm glad I could write something you connect with :). I think it's like it about in the drowning article, at least for me - right before I'm drowning, there's that panic moment, and then I'm noisy, I struggle and flail and call out for help - but then it's followed by the silence part, the difference between distress response and drowning response, between knowing you might drown and knowing you are drowning. Sometimes, I've thought that response, if nothing else, is meant to make it so that if you are going to drown all the way, if you're going to die, at least you won't be panicking while you do, you can experience it, you know? I am glad you're not silent, now - it's good to hear you speak, to know you aren't drowning :).

claire said...


Rebecca Reid said...

It's good to see a post from you! And I'm with Amanda on that picture being a bit creepy. I am a voracious swimmer but these thoughts about drowning somehow unnerve me...

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Sara - I hope you're still following the comments here! Was just going to let oyu konw, I was going to leave you a comment on your blog, letting you know I'd LOVE to follow you to the new address. But I can't. Because it directs me to the new blog and says I don't have permission. I do hope I can follow you over, drop me an email if you like, at jasonpgignac at gmail dot com