How Almost Dying Showed Me That I Wanted To LiveWho would have thought there was a life-changing, aha moment waiting for me in a bay in Hawaii?

Seven months after I sustained a brain injury resulting from a pill-popping suicide attempt, I was still mentally impaired, but trying very hard not to act like it. Taking a trip to Hawaii with my brother was going to be a much-needed bright spot in an otherwise gray existence. Just packing for the trip and navigating my way to and through the airport was a daunting challenge which made my underarms wet.

At times, I felt like a scared, little kid lost at the mall.  At other times, I cheered myself on saying, “You CAN do this!” It felt wonderful to be accomplishing what most people would consider normal and no big deal.  Although I found the normal activities terrifying, I somehow knew that I had to overcome and push through my fear to regain anything resembling a regular life.

I traveled to California from the East coast alone where I met my brother, and we flew to Hawaii together.  On our first day there, we were anxious to start vacationing and set out to embark on our first snorkeling excursion. Following the directions in the tour book, my brother drove the rental car about 20 minutes to what promised to be a hidden Hawaiian treasure.  With leaning palm trees heavy with coconuts flanking a black sand beach leading up to azure blue water rolling in gentle white-capped waves, Honomolino Bay looked just like a picture on a postcard and did not disappoint.

At first, we were content to swim around the bay, close to the shore, oohing and aahing at the sights feet below the surface of the water. Not being nearly as physically coordinated as I used to be before the brain injury, it took me a while to get the hang of breathing through the snorkeling tube. But, having been a lifeguard during the summers in college, I soon felt fairly comfortable in the water and ventured out to where the bay opened up to the ocean.

Here, the current and waves had much more force.

When I kicked some rocks with one of my fins, it came off of my foot and sunk to the bottom. Without the aid of the fin, I wasn’t nearly as strong a swimmer. While I don’t know how deep the water was, I do know that it was way over my head.

Fighting the waves and current, I found that just keeping my head above the water was a real struggle.  With my heart pounding, I had that urgent, panicky feeling that I’d imagine an antelope has when being chased by a lion.  I downed gulps of salty water as I gasped for air. Making my way over to some lava rocks jutting up out of the water, I partially climbed on and clung to them cutting my feet, legs, and hands because they were covered with coral which sliced my skin upon contact.

By this time, my brother, noticing my predicament, yelled for me to stay on the rocks while he ran to get my sandshoes. However, never having been one to follow directions too well, I decided to leave my painful perch and swim to a sailboat anchored in the bay rather than just wait there.

After what seemed like the longest swim of my life, I reached the sailboat and managed to grab the top of the side and squeak out, “help!”  A tanned, thin, scruffy looking man with long hair wearing cutoff jeans came up on deck and looked startled and surprised to see me hanging from the side of his boat in my bikini bleeding. He had that universal “WTF??” look.   After comprehending the situation, he quickly pulled me over the side of the boat, lowered a smaller rowboat in the water, and rowed me to shore. My hippie hero!

The experience scared me, for sure, but it was also taught me a meaningful lesson which I didn’t figure out until later at home. I was brain injured because I had tried to kill myself. In the months that followed before the Hawaii trip, I did recover physically somewhat, but I was still emotionally unstable and undecided as to whether I wanted to live. I had wanted to die before I gave myself a brain injury, and now I was supposed to want live as I was, mentally impaired and talking like I was drunk.  I wasn’t convinced.

When faced with drowning, I realized that instinctively, without me going through the drama of weighing the pros and cons, something inside of me had kicked in and fought hard to live. I could have very easily slipped quietly under the water and finished what I’d started months earlier.

Why didn’t I? Because something inside of me wanted to live!

That was a major turning point for me in which I realized that I didn’t want to die. From that point on, I started acting like I wanted to live. I started taking responsibility for my recovery and my life and worked every day to get better and make my life better.

And you know what?  It worked!

For a long time, I had a few grains of black sand in my foot that remained after a cut healed to remind me of the valuable lesson I learned that day — just in case I forget.

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  1. Tony Piparo Reply

    Great Article. Somewhat difficult to read as it reminded me of my own attempted "death trip" But gave me solace and encouragement. Glad you stuck around. You're a true inspiration.

  2. Debbie Hampton Reply

    I think if people are honest, almost everyone has had "a moment." It is an instinctual part of human nature to survive. It is wonderful when you consciously get the head and the instincts working together to not only ensure surviving, but flourishing and thriving. Is great! I am sooo glad I stuck around too!!

  3. Kim Williams Reply

    the trick is to keep that urgency about life as the days become mundane…

  4. Lori Franklin Reply

    Nice! Excellent! Love this!

    I was once caught in a rip tide off the coast of Southern California and had a very similar experience. I remember thinking, "Wow, could this be *it*?" and then pulling out all the stops, finding almost inhuman energy to make it to safety. It was a memorable experience, to say the least.

    Sometimes I think it takes these "game changers" to wake us and help us remember the gift of life we've been given.

    Horay for you, Debbie! And, two thumbs for near drowning. It can teach us a lot, yes?

  5. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Kim – exactly! You are so right! We need to keep and remember that feeling of being glad to be alive without almost dying.

    Lori – Even seemingly "bad" things such as a brain injury, a near drowning or having MS are really blessings in disguise and have many gifts to give us if we allow them. I would not have scripted my life this way, but I also would not change anything.

    One of my favorite sayings these days is "If you like where you are, you can't complain about how you got there."

  6. Thanks for pointing me back to this, Debbie. Yes, this is the kind of thing I was trying to explain, and it doesn’t matter if the decision is unconscious at first – because it’s still a choice, taken through will, intent and desire. You and I share some labyrinthine emotional defense mechanisms, but there’s a luminous egg shining unencumbered inside them. The egg decides when to hatch.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I am just glad the egg hatched! Now it is a conscious choice and curiosity to live and experience and learn. Before, it was as if there was a filter which dulled everything through which I lived. I am really enjoying this….the good and the bad.

  7. Marty, The Napkin Dad Reply

    It’s like in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when Jimmy Stewart is going to jump and kill himself. Instead he sees someone else jump and immediately knows he has to save him. Except in your case the two people were in the same body. The part of you who could have just sank beneath the waves was saved by the part of you who wanted to live and knew you could if you tried.
    It’s a wonderful ‘aha moment’ and I am glad you had it.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Good analogy. I will have to go back and watch the movie. I think the two parts were the ego and the higher self. The higher self just acted on inner wisdom and instinct and the ego, which had haunted me all my life until the brain injury, shut up. The brain injury quieted it….a good symptom!

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