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Peace at the Bottom of the Ocean

June 2, 2009


Her voice is far away. I’m sinking. The floating plunge of a stone in high speed photography. Fish dart and I catch them out of the corner of my eye. In the distance, the water’s cloudiness grows dark. But around me all is light. My body relaxes more the further–

There’s a voice somewhere and it’s saying something. Like those garbled sentences told underwater as a kid–the ones we’d laugh at when we dolphined up to share what we’d said. No one had ever understood those underwater words. If I focus, I hear–

“—All of my friends are praying for you.”

I’m floating up through the water like a helium balloon lost by a kid at Disneyworld. Dammit! I’d almost reached the bottom. I switch the phone to the other ear.

“And then they said–”

I descend again. A little faster this time–I’m determined. The further I go down, the more peaceful I feel. “Uh huh” I say. Her voice fades. I no longer see the fish. I don’t feel the water. I sit on the ocean floor. Motionless. I feel absolutely nothing at all. 


I’ve sunk to the ocean floor three or four times in my life. All were during a period of emotional crisis and all came before a psychological breakthrough. I came up with the idea after a friend told me that she sets emotional boundaries with exes by building a wall–brick by brick–in her mind between that person and herself. If she could do that, I could use my imagination to escape feelings that were too intense and overwhelming.  

The ocean floor is peaceful. No sound. Feelings are externalized–objects floating away in underwater currents. My body is foreign, which would be a curiosity if my mind weren’t flat lining in a free fall of nothingness. The fall deadens better than any dentist’s novacaine.

It’s survival. It’s better than hopelessness and despair.

I could never stay on the bottom for long. Actually, only a few minutes. I kept floating to the top because as painful as everything was, I wanted to feel. And I wanted connection with other people and things. The price of peace was disconnection from others and myself. A price I couldn’t pay–because the only way I ever truly escaped a crisis was through my relationships with others. The very things I tried to sever when sinking. 

I haven’t visited the ocean floor for a couple of years. While my temporary escape is extreme, many of us do this type of deadening to a lesser extent. Sometimes we’re not aware of it until a relationship dies, a tragedy strikes, or a therapist digs down deep into our soul. All of these things can reveal the subtle numbness around the edges of our psyche, which is a symptom of a deeper problem: buried, sealed rooms of the self. Leaking.

It’s as if we’ve sealed parts of ourselves behind doors–the ones we think no one else wants to see or know–then submerge them into a novacaine-laced sea. The doors are sealed because if they weren’t—-No one would ever love us. 

So we think. 

What we really mean is: I can’t feel everything I’ve buried in that sea. 

I don’t have answers for this. I have my rooms, too. They affect my relationships–put distance between me and others. And sometimes that’s how I survive. The entire ocean can’t pour out of a room all at once. I would drown. 

Philosopher Simone Weil says that every good has its counterfeit. The self or parts of the self submerged in salty water brings peace. By subtraction. Stripping the self slowly of its ties to others. But there is a greater peace. I whisper this rumor through sealed doors to parts of myself at the ocean’s bottom. Sometimes they hear me. 


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    June 4, 2009 2:37 am

    Deep Thoughts
    Melissa, I think that your writing is very rich in its ability to cause the reader to see it in their own minds as they read. All of us have used some means of escape over our own lifetime – this has been one of yours and probably one others use, too. I want to hear more about the “greater peace” you mention in the end.

    • June 4, 2009 3:10 pm

      Re: Deep Thoughts
      Thank you! It’s funny that you ask about the “greater peace” in the end. When I originally thought about writing this, I thought I’d start with the idea of Simone Weil’s near the end-that for every (true) good there is a counterfeit. But I came up with the idea of describing my state, and this is what happened instead. I ended where it felt right (ok–I was also tired when I wrote it and didn’t want to write anymore :). Also, I’m still learning about living with “greater peace” myself.
      For me “greater peace” is almost the opposite of the peace represented here. Instead of distancing and subtracting relationships from our lives, it forms through them. It’s richer, fuller, and involves the total person (body, mind, spirit). Many times it’s hard won–tested by going through the fires of fear and pain. (But I don’t think it always has to be.) If you’re wondering if it has some type of connection to God, I would say yes-but understood in many, many ways–and not necessarily as “religious” (such as the use of creativity). Perhaps at the basic level, peace is a joy that can underlie other states of mind as well as be experienced more intensely in some moments. But whatever it is, it makes us more connected to things and people and experiences–not less.

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