So, I fell in a river.
Let me back-track a little bit to put this all in perspective.
While in school and/or work, I categorize all my time in weeks, and the overall feeling of that week determines its label: good, bad, fine, uneventful, et cetera. This is the norm. A week is usually determined as good if some large positive thing happens during it, and vice versa. Sometimes, a week is just normal; nothing hugely good or bad happens, and it all evens out to a week with a label like ‘content’ or ‘simple’.
Then there are the weeks that are impossible to categorize, the ones that have so many good and bad things happen that I can’t even balance them into one specific thing. As you can probably guess by now, this was one of those weeks.
Good things: I turned in my senior project, attended my last day of classes as an undergrad, watched good movies, ate good food, turned twenty-two.
Bad things: Was the recipient of unnecessarily cruel words, lost my computer and had to shell out $200 to get a new one, closed myself off, had a panic attack.
That last one was probably the worst of it all. I had gone months without a panic attack, despite many bad things that had happened, and to have one now felt like such a setback. A friend of mine told me it was okay, because I was still making progress. I had gone from having panic attacks almost every other day to having only one in the spans of a few months. She was right, of course—she always is—but that didn’t stop the ache that settled in my chest for the next two days after. The aftermath of a panic attack is always the hardest part.
(n.) a dull ache of the soul, a sick
pining, a spiritual anguish.
It wasn’t until the end of the second day that I started to feel better. I splurged on some of my favorite food from Taco Bell, and then I watched old episodes of Supernatural while stuffing my face. Afterwards, I started reading a new book I’d gotten, and I realized I felt better. Not okay, but better. Progress.
Today was another step toward okay. The ache in my soul was no longer a constant; I would feel a dull pang every once in a while when something reminded me of the reason behind my aforementioned panic attack, but overall, I was fine. I spent the whole day, from nine to five, in Belhaven’s ESL lab, helping non-English speaking students when they asked for it and doodling in my journal when the coast was clear. I discovered some new music on Spotify, watched dumb YouTube videos, and celebrated May the Fourth by reading some Star Wars fanfic. All in all, a pretty okay day.
When I got home, a tempting text from Domino’s—
“Search your feelings; you know you want (pizza emoji).”
—persuaded me to order my favorite pineapple pizza, and then I settled down to watch a movie I’d wanted to see for a long time called Arrival. What it’s about isn’t really pertinent to this story, so I’ll skip over that bit. All you need to know is this movie awoke something in me.
An hour and half later, after pausing the movie for a bathroom break, I had the urge to step outside. It was a strangely cool day; temperatures had settled in the mid-fifties that morning, a stark change from the temperatures cresting in the high-eighties for the majority of the week, and I felt my soul lift. Perhaps it was the cold, the feeling of restless I got from the movie, the fact that I had been cooped up inside all day, or a combination of those things, but I suddenly felt the pull, the need, to be in the forest.
I ran back inside and quickly changed into some old jeans and a hoodie, pulling on my shoes and stuffing my phone in my back pocket as I called to my roommate upstairs and told her I was going on a walk. Then I was outside and down the street, under the nearby overpass, and walking into the woods, mud already caked on the bottom of my shoes. Cool wind coursed through my hair, turned my cheeks rosy pink. I shoved my hands in the pocket of my hoodie and maneuvered around puddles and swamps of mud.
The area of woods behind my apartment I usually went to in times like this was, sadly, no longer an option. A crew had come in a month or so before and all but demolished the forest surrounding a rise of old train tracks, filling the area with the smell of sewage and muddy, grayish soil. Last time I went there, I was filled with a sadness so deep that I knew I could never go back. I needed to find somewhere new.
I followed a different path, away from the train tracks, that ran next to the highway. A line of trees was the only thing that separated me from the cars speeding along the interstate. I wondered if they could see glimpses of me, a twenty-two year old in a bright red hoodie, traipsing through the forest like a kid. I grinned and continued on, wading through waist-high grass while carefully looking for snakes.
As I walked, I spotted something up ahead—it looked like a pile of white sand. I wasn’t sure if it was that or not as I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and as I drew nearer, I heard the sound of bubbling water. The pull in my chest grew, and I began to run.
“I walk to the borders on my own,
Fall in the water just like a stone.
Chilled to the marrow in them bones;
Why do I go here alone?”
—Agnes Obel, “Riverside”
Or, a creek? Maybe a cross between a river and a creek. It was wide and quite shallow, but also deeper in some places. I decided to categorize it as a river in my head for simplicity’s sake and moved closer, realizing then that the white sand I thought I saw was actually a large outcropping of pure white rocks surrounding the river’s edge. Some big, some small, and just sturdy enough for me to balance on as I crossed the river’s most shallow area.
Originally, I was planning on just crossing the river and going on ahead, then I glanced to my left and froze. The river stretched into the coolness of the forest, deeper and wider and so incredibly beautiful that I knew my heart needed to be there. I carefully made my way downstream, still balancing on the sturdy white rocks as I walked until they ran out and I was standing in ankle-deep water. Ah, no problem. I knew the moment I saw the water that I would get at least a little bit wet; I’d dressed for this. So I continued forward, watching as the water rose to my shins. It didn’t get much higher from there, and I even ran across a few small rises of dirt that allowed me more stable ground to walk across. (Like sandbars, but with mud. Mudbars?)
As I continued on, however, it did begin to get deeper. It was still cold outside, and I really didn’t feel like getting wet past my knees, so I moved to the river’s edge instead. The ground there was just flat enough for me to balance on, and when it got steeper, I simply swung myself across the trunks of the trees rock-climbing style. This worked pretty well, until I ran out of trees. And suddenly, I was on steep footing, just one wrong step from falling into the river below. Wanting to test, I picked up a stick and threw it into the water. It splashed and hit the bottom rather quickly, so I relaxed. Not too deep.
I took a step forward. Recent rains had made the ground slipperier than I expected, however, and before I knew it, I was falling.
The water was a cold shock, and I quickly realized my mistake. Not only had recent rains made the ground muddy, but they had also risen the water level until it was submerged up past my neck. Gasping from the cold, I swam across to the river’s other side and scrambled up a mudbar. My first thought was I’m such an idiot. My second was ah, shit, my phone is in my back pocket. My third was now I have to walk the mile or so back to my apartment soaking wet.
Thankfully, my phone was water-resistant, so I just turned it off and planned to stick it in a bag of rice when I got home. My hoodie hung off me, heavy and water-logged. I tried to wring some of it out while I decided which way to go. I could attempt to follow the river down toward Laurel Park, I could go back the way I came, or I could cut a swath through the thick brush in front of me and cut the time it took me to get home in half. Normally, I would have taken a safer route, but seeing as my phone had gotten wet and it was nearly dark, I took the shortcut.
Five minutes later, I was crashing through the forest’s thick foliage, catching thorns in my pants and nearly tripping over large sticks hidden beneath underbrush. This wasn’t the best situation to be in—dripping wet and stumbling through a darkening wood—but I was grinning madly, my eyes alight, my cheeks flushed with life.
(n.) the moment you realize that you’re currently
happy—consciously trying to savor the feeling—which
prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart and
put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve
until it’s little more than an aftertaste.
By the time I made it out of the woods (no pun intended), evening had fallen, and I sloshed my way back alongside the highway, underneath the overpass, and around to the road that led to my apartment. My hair hung in clumps around my face, I was streaked with mud and still sopping wet, and I felt great for the first time since my panic attack a few days previous. The ache in my chest was gone; I was alive.
I read a book the other day called Everything, Everything. In it, the main character asks a friend of hers if she regretted parts of her life, and the friend replied that she did. “You’re not living if you’re not regretting,” she said. That was how I felt in this moment, drenched in muddy river water, stomping home on a cold evening, laughing to myself when I came in view of the main road. People who saw me probably thought I looked insane. I could imagine them peeking out their windows, wondering what kind of crazy person got soaking wet in these kinds of temperatures. I didn’t have a good answer for them.
My apartment brought with it a warm shower and relief from my soaking clothes, which I quickly threw in the washer. Afterwards, I sat down to finish my movie, still shaking with adrenaline. Even now, a day later, I still feel the thrill encompassing me.
Okay is a whole lot closer than before.