When I was about four years old, I got lost. The year was 1960 and the place was Disneyland. I was filled with so much fear I thought it would choke me.
Forty years later it happened again. This time I was in the salty waters of the Gulf Coast near Tampa, Florida. I had taken what felt like a leisurely swim out to a bobbing, metal buoy. For a little while I just hung on, rising and falling with the relaxed, timeless rhythm of the sea.
As I surveyed the scene, the blue bowl of sky cupped over me as if freshly painted; flecks of puffy, white clouds stood motionless like amorphous angels while the sounds of laughing children drifted out to me in the moist, humid air.
As I caught my breath and my heart slowed, I drank in the sleepy serenity of the salubrious moment like a postcard prayer: all gratitude and peace.
When I finally pushed off for the beckoning shore, I had no idea I was about to die. As John Irving might say, “The under toad was strong that day.”
After several minutes of strong, steady and what I thought were muscular strokes, I was surprised to find the beach strangely and stubbornly distant while a germ of anxiety wormed its way into my brain.
“You might not make it,” it observed coldly. I refused the warning as I swam harder, keeping my head and upwelling worries down and under control. “You CAN make it,” I thought over and over as my chest began to burn and cruel spikes of fear stabbed at me like tiny knives.
Panic is never welcome. Like a fire alarm, its purpose is to warn, but when it screams out of control, the alarm becomes the fire.
Electric nerves in every limb blast with heat, crying helplessly for rescue that isn’t near.
As time rapidly accelerated, it felt like I was slowly going backward; my breath became more labored as I desperately clutched and then lost all clarity and calm. I could feel death’s breath on my neck as I thrashed and clawed at the sea.
There are few moments in my life that exceed the immensity of relief I felt that day as my toes finally touched sand and I struggled and stumbled through the surf and onto dry land.
When I collapsed onto my beach towel, I lay there gasping for air as my wife and kids barely noticed my return.
When I was 4 in the Magic Kingdom and suddenly realized that not one single face in the surrounding sea of humanity was familiar, I burst out crying. I turned in circles several times, whirling around to scan the crowd for an individual my brain registered as family or friend.
Being alone in the world feels like drowning. Love becomes oxygen and family is like solid earth. We aren’t meant to be alone.
I began running and yelling for my mother, certain that I would die if I did not immediately find her and feel her warm embrace.
At that precise moment, a miracle occurred: my sister and brother ran by with some friends and I focused on Diana’s back, sprinting and then literally leaping onto her like she was a raft in a raging sea. At twice my age and weight, my sister reacted with impulsive annoyance and shed me like a jacket on a hot day and kept running. No one cared that I had been lost and was now found, that I’d been drowning and was now saved.
Still, I was filled with sweet relief as I ran to keep up.
When I was about 10 years old and bored, I found myself alone in our unfinished basement in Vienna, Virginia, staring at an old map of Disneyland someone had tacked to the wall.
My scientific brain tells me that what happened next was a PTSD flashback, a neuronal explosion that released all that memorized emotion from 6 years earlier.
All I know is that I felt as if a large rock, like a tombstone, had dropped from the sky and flattened me to the floor while searing, emotional pain poured into me like an endless river of desperate, crushing sorrow. I helplessly howled and sobbed; tears gushed from my eyes like water from a hose.
What made no sense at that moment was a thought – a message really – that I could feel in my brain explaining itself like a clear light in a dark night. This pain that felt like drowning was not mine, the voice explained. This is just a taste of the suffering that people struggle with all over the world. Attention must be paid it explained – not in words – but in pure thought.
Something wanted me to know and be aware. And just like that, the pain was gone. I lay there spent and panting like I had been turned to dry land.
To this day I cannot explain this event and cannot deny that my experience was anything more than a brief psychotic break of a 10-year old brain, a temporary hallucination, a mad delusion that stormed its way in and out of my tender mind.
Its effect, however, was profound. It carved a place in me that to this day aches with memory and meaning. The thing is the message was true. Many of us are in pain. All of us suffer. And all of us need one another. Give what you hope to receive and never stop. Let your own pain be a reminder of your connection to the world of people, all of whom are thrashing against some fear, seeking the dry land of someone’s loving arms.
And know this: You are never alone.
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.