Emerge, Meagan Dwyer
[Trigger Warning: Graphic discussion of suicidal ideation and self harm]
When I was seventeen, I wanted to die. There was something terrifying about it, more
terrifying than the depression or the self-harm, something about wanting to end everything and
realizing I actually could was frightening. And yet soothing. I was in control for once.
I decided to stay.
Just a few months ago I was living through the fallout of leaving an emotionally abusive
friendship. The guilt and pain was almost too much. I promised my pregnant sister that I would
wake up every morning until her child was born. The feeling abated when my niece came, but it
will be back.
My Mom’s family gathers for a weeklong camping trip at Nick’s Lake, just outside Old
Forge in the Adirondacks, every summer. We take over E Loop: uncles, aunts, grandparents,
grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, cousins, in-laws. Nearly
thirty in all. There’s food and laughter, music and storytelling, sticky marshmallows and bright
flashlights. There’s lip sync battles and midnight canoe paddles on the lake to watch the stars.
This year my aunt had the idea to go white water rafting. She found a company that
would take us on the Indian and Hudson Rivers. I’d never done anything like it before. I don’t
take risks. I don’t do crazy things. If I need to sign a waiver, I don’t want in. But this was
different. This was going to be with the whole family. It would be fun. It would be memorable.
We pull on red life jackets and blue and red helmets, grab bright yellow oars and pile into
an old school bus. There are other groups around us, but none of them understand why it is quite
so funny that Uncle Frank has the only yellow helmet and looks a bit too much like Bob the
Builder. There are strangers everywhere but I only notice my family. I’m excited. Nervous.
Ready for exhilaration.
One of the river guides stands up. Name’s Dingo. He has an Australian accent I’m pretty
sure is fake. Dingo, with his accent, tells us about the trip we are about to take. Safety
precautions. I think about my father, sitting in the seat across from me. Today’s his 59 th birthday.
I need to make sure nothing happens to my brother so Dad doesn’t have a heart attack on his
birthday. Brother. Right. I look at my eight year old brother in the seat next to me. He looks
terrified. I listen to Dingo run through the safety rules, but my focus is on Finn. After each rule, I
poke him in the leg.
“What did he say?”
“Hold the paddle by the T”
Dingo starts getting into the scary stuff I really need Finn to know. He’s eight. He doesn’t
listen to directions. This isn’t making cookies; this is life or death. I need him to know. I keep
asking Finn questions.
“What do you do if you fall out?”
“Grab the rope around the raft and pull while someone inside pulls your jacket.”
“Good. What if you’re far away?”
“They’ll hand you the end of their paddle.”
“And what if you’re still too far away?”
“They’ll blow a whistle so the other rafts know.”
“And what do you do?”
“Keep your feet out of the water.”
Our family fits in two rafts. Half go with Dingo, the rest of us go with another guide.
Devin. Devin is a quiet man. Dingo is a constant stream of words. Devin is silence.
We launch into the water and do some practice rowing.
“Take a break!”
We get ready as the dam lets out, creating the Bubble of water we’ll ride. We have to get in the
Bubble. Not ahead and not behind.
The first rapid is pure joy. It’s cold water stinging the face. It’s shrieks and laughter. It’s
As we approach the second rapid, class III, we hit a rock. We hit a lot of rocks that day. It
happens. But sometimes when a raft hits a rock hard enough, it causes the person sitting directly
above the rock to be shot into the water.
I am that person.
One minute I am rowing along with the group, trying to hit the rapid just right for the biggest
The next minute I am in the water.
Get your feet out of the water.
Toes point to the sky.
Lean back, the lifejacket has a section behind your head.
It will keep your head above water.
That only works in calm water.
But I don’t know that yet.
I still have my paddle. What do I do?
The paddles float. Let go. We will pick it up downstream.
Left hand releases.
The raft is too far away.
Devin stands up.
I hear a faint whistle.
Everything stops and starts all at once.
Water is a powerful thing. It won’t be reckoned with.
I try to stay above water. I try so hard. I use my arms, my legs. I flail. I fight. The water is too
Water. White. Black. Water.
Toes. Toes to the sky.
Don’t panic. Panic makes things worse. Just stay above water until someone gets you.
The voice stops being Dingo and becomes my own. I’ve run out of instructions. I can only rely
It’s not working. Oh God. Oh God.
The water pushes me up and parts from my face. I gasp air and scream out a shrieking prayer:
No one can hear me. I know the water is too loud.
It’s pure instinct.
Water pulls back down.
Water between me and the sky.
Up. Screaming. Down. Burning. Up. Down. Up. Down. Eternity.
The burning is too much. I’ve been down too long. The water is too powerful.
Air. I need air. I am dying. I am drowning. I don’t want to die. I need air. How do I get air?
Put your feet down.
Now two voices argue in my head.
You have to.
They said not to. It was important.
It burns too much. I can’t remember. Just don’t.
If I don’t put my feet down, I’m going to die.
Why can’t I put my feet down?
They said the legs can get caught on the rocks.
What if they break?
Then they break. I can’t do this. It’s too much.
I need air. I’m dying. I need air.
I will break my legs in half if I can get some air.
There is no time. Just water. Just up. Just down. Just screaming. Just burning.
I realize this will never end.
This is it.
Suddenly a different kind of pull: an arm on my shoulder. Scrambling. Pulling. Wet yellow
plastic raft hot from the sun.
I’m face down in a raft.
“Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.”
Retching. There would be vomit if there was anything in my stomach. Lungs convulsing trying
to remind themselves to breathe the air.
“Are you okay, miss?”
How am I supposed to answer that? I’m no longer taking water into my lungs. Am I okay? No. I
“I’ve been better.”
Lying face down in the raft, I listen around me, desperate to ignore the water roaring in
my ears. I realize it’s a group of strangers that pulled me out of the brutal water: teenagers. As
soon as they think I’m okay they ignore me. They are obnoxious, shouting to each other and
cracking jokes. I’m thankful they saved my life but I want to scream at them to shut up for a
minute so I can try to remember how to breathe.
They row to a calmer area. I’m still face down in the raft. Every movement on the water
sends me into more whimpers. I’m still under the waves. I’m still drowning.
I hear other rafts. Dingo’s group rows over.
“She’s one of ours.”
“Put her in our raft.”
“Ellen. Are you okay?”
“She was in the water WAY too long.”
I want to say I’m sorry, but somehow I don’t think he’s yelling at me.
Later, at lunch, he pulls all of the other river guides to the side and chews them out. They
weren’t close enough to each other. That’s why he’s mad. If they stayed close I would’ve been
pulled out much sooner. It makes me feel like maybe it wasn’t my fault somehow.
I don’t know how long I was in the water; it felt like a lifetime. Maybe it was a matter of
seconds or of minutes. But Dingo was upset. It must have been minutes. Minutes with only the
occasional chance to gasp for air.
I’m moved over to Dingo’s raft. He gives me medicine for my scrapes. Tells me to sit
next to him in the back. Don’t row. Just sit. Relax.
Where’s Dad? He’s probably having a heart attack. Where’s my Dad?
Finally, the other raft comes into sight. Everyone looks normal. Looks calm. My dad is white as
a sheet. He looks pissed. I need to calm him down.
My voice feels like it’s filled with water. My ears buzz. My mind is still under the waves. I need
to seem okay.
“Dad. I’m okay. I’m okay. I promise.”
I flash him a small smile and a thumbs up.
I don’t think it’s much, but it’s all I can do.
When we stop for lunch, I try to make a joke out of it. I can’t think about it any other
way. I can’t figure out why people from the raft I fell out of ask if I had fun, while the people in
Dingo’s raft ask if I’m okay with shaky voices.
I don’t know how many more hours I sit in the raft, but I think it’s at least four or five.
After lunch, I move back into the first raft. I don’t row. I can’t. My shoulder hurts and I’m still
shaky. I hold onto the rope and try to relax. It’s harder in this raft because I can’t just listen to
Dingo’s chatter. There’s too much of a chance to think.
Thinking means seeing and hearing and tasting water.
But I have to think.
This is the time for the thoughts I didn’t have time for while drowning.
I didn’t hug my sister goodbye.
I almost never saw my friends again.
Color returns to my cheeks. I breathe. I try to get back to enjoying the water but I can’t.
Ever since I was pulled out of the water, I’ve felt like I was going to vomit. Thinking
about the water makes it worse, but I can’t think about anything else. I try to focus on things that
aren’t so serious:
I almost died in these shoes, Mom’s water shoes. I would have died in these ugly shoes!
Oh my God. The kid who pulled me out had a GoPro camera on his head. There is footage of me
dry-heaving in a raft. That needs to be deleted. NOW.
My uncle sits down next to me at dinner.
“You weren’t in any real danger, you know that, right?”
That uncle was in Devin’s raft.
They didn’t know.
The last thing they saw was me drifting downstream on my back with my feet up, just like Dingo
You weren’t in any real danger, you know that, right?
I feel bad for Devin in a way. Rocks happen. It wasn’t his fault.
My Dad says that when I fell out, everything was silent for a moment.
“Well…. Confidence is at an all-time low.”
He seemed really upset the rest of the day.
But I almost died.
And I’ve never been so scared in my life.
In the gift shop there is a poster, the Golden Paddle Award. People who fall out sign it.
I’m handed a pen. I carefully write my name and the date. I think I’m still shaking. It’s been
hours. I don’t know when I’ll stop.
I look at other Golden Paddle people:
“Greatest fall of my life!”
“So much fun!”
What did I do wrong?
That night around the campfire I lose track of how many times I’m asked: “Will you go again
Hell no. I will never go white water rafting ever again. Ever.
“No, I don’t think so…”
Aunt Donna tells me it’s good I kept my feet up. Putting your feet down means they’ll be
caught in the rocks, you’ll be pushed over by the water and drown. I guess I made the right
Some things I think about that day: the shoes, my family, and friends.
Other things don’t hit until later.
A week later I’m at home. I’m sitting on my bed. Even after a week, I notice myself
gasping for air sometimes. Maybe because my lungs are still scared. Or maybe it’s because I can.
I’ve never loved breathing so much.
It hits me like an 18 wheeler. It hasn’t crossed my mind a single time, not even while I was in the
Six months ago I wanted to die. Why did I struggle so hard to live this time?
An urge to live no matter what the cost—broken legs or a broken heart. Is that why I
could never get myself to actually kill myself? Is there something deep down I’m living for, even
when I don’t want to?
Depression is drowning, and right now I’m face down in a raft, gasping for air, hoping
that I don’t find myself underwater any time soon. In January, I was dealing with an abusive
friend and wanted to die. In February, I promised my sister I would try to live until March when
my niece was born. In July, I fought with all of my strength to live.