The world becomes very small when your body is in crisis. The second we jumped into the Baltic Sea, everything stopped. I gasped for air and started hyperventilating. I waited to catch my breath, but it didn’t happen.
I had no choice but to swim like that. Calm body, panicked breath. It was more of a doggy paddle than a swim, any motion to propel me forward.
The waves were high and wide apart. I would ride the crest of one and then slide into the valley of the next, feeling myself get smaller and smaller and my place in the world becoming nothing more than another bubble in the sea.
The sea affected my traveling companion, Earl Bridges, differently. As I hyperventilated, his breath calmed. He started swimming backward and watching me closely.
“I’ve got you,” he said. A wave lifted him high above me and then he slid below as a wave lifted me. “I’ve got you,” he said again.
It made me feel safe and it made me furious. This was my idea after all, to jump into the icy Helsinki water in October and swim from one yellow ladder to another like the locals do. Why was this so easy for him and so jarring for me?
Another wave lifted us. At that moment, the erasure of the world was complete and we were the only people in existence, suspended in a cold womb.
I felt strong and weak. The blood was rushing to the core of my body to keep me alive, leaving empty arms and legs to propel me forward. I could feel the joints of my elbows and the space between the bones in my fingers. I could feel every decision I had ever made and how it had built me into who I was, cell by cell.
The yellow exit ladder came into view with the crest of the next wave. I kicked my legs and pulled myself forward with my brittle arms.
And then it was over. My hand grabbed the cold metal of the ladder wrung and I held on as the sea tried to hold on to me, pulling at my legs while I searched for a foothold.
There were two women on the dock, drying themselves off and changing back into work clothes. We made eye contact as I pulled myself up the ladder and back to solid ground. We all laughed a little bonding laugh but didn’t say a word.
Earl and I walked back to the place where we left our towels and clothes.
And that’s when I felt it, the reason people jump into the Baltic Sea, day after day.
Originally published in The Post & Courier
by Autumn Phillips