I absolutely adore Denver and its little, big city feel. Not even an hour from the mountains, it is the perfect place for nature and city life to collide. One of my favorite places on earth is in the heart of downtown Denver at the Platte Riverbed right in front of REI. Every summer since my early teen years, I have made this little section of downtown my sanctuary.
In the midst of one of the busiest strips of downtown the water rushes over the rocks, forming tiny pools which are perfect to sit in waist deep and read. With my toes in the gritty city sand, my shoulders in the sun, and my eyes fixed on the faux-skyscrapers downtown, I am at peace.
A few years ago, I invested in a hybrid (road & mountain capable) bike and would ride the 13.1 miles from my apartment in Aurora to the riverbed at least once a week, if not everyday. Biking quickly became my escape from the busyness and chaos of working and being in college full time. When I was flying down the Cherry Creek Trail with the wind rushing over my body, I was independent, I was stress-free, I was finally able to breathe.
At the end of my ride, I would chain up my bike, slip off my backpack and shoes, grab a book from my bag, and slide my lower body into the river. And there I would sit, for hours at a time. Occasionally, if it was a warm day and there were a ton of people at the river, I would precariously cross a portion of the river to the island dividing the river in two, and I would lay there, drinking in the sunshine and cool breeze.
But one July day in 2011, my independence and over confidence got the best of me. As I proudly made my way across the slimy, moss covered rocks under the rushing water, I lost my footing and went down into the river, which promptly sucked me down stream.
Suddenly, all of my knowledge of swimming from years of swim team was gone. As I went gushing down the river and through the rapids. I flailed and flipped, hitting my head, arms, and ankle on the rocks. I couldn’t orient myself in the water and gasped for air when I thought that I had managed to force my head above water, only to realize that I had just breathed in a mouthful of dirty river water and sand. I’m going to die in this river. It’s just that simple. I’m doing to die, all because I didn’t want to sit next to those bratty kids… I thought as I attempted to grab onto the solids objects I was slamming into. But each time, my fingers lost their grip and I tumbled on.
After what seemed like years, but what I’m sure was less than a moment or so, I managed to get my head above water and threw myself toward the sand bar that drags out from the tiny island I had been delicately trying to reach only seconds before.
The book I had clutched in my hand and the sunglasses that had previously been perched on my nose were both gone and as I knelt in the sand, spitting water and God-knows-what out of my mouth, my heartbeat slowed down and eventually I realized I was going to be okay. After another few moments, I was able to turn around and swim across a less choppy part of the river, back to the side where my bike and other belongings were awaiting me.
I didn’t get back in the river that day. I was far too embarrassed. Instead, I slid my feet back into my Toms, put my helmet on, and got out of there as quickly as possible, riding the 13.1 miles home covered in cuts, watered down blood streaks, and moss-stains.
I don’t think that I went back to the river the next day. In fact, now that I think about it, it might have been nearly a week before I had the confidence to bike back to my sanctuary and give my daily routine another try. After all, I loved it far too much to stay away for long.
I write this, not simply to reiterate a pathetic near death experience, or to show what a chronic over-exaggerator my brain can be when faced with an emergency situation, although this story would serve both purposes.
Instead, I write this to say that this is what healing from trauma feels like. Trauma feels like you’re drowning in your own life. You slam into things that you would typically be able to gently grasp onto and every unplanned flip and flail leaves you feeling bruised and raw.
And healing? Healing feels like every time you think you have found the surface, you breathe in sand and water instead of the air that you so desperately need… at least the first few times.
For those of you who have never experienced trauma, I hope you never do. But for those of you who know what it feels like to drown in your own life and circumstances, you know what it feels like to think that you are fine one moment, then slip and fall, and fall, and fall, and think that you will never make it back to dry land.
But eventually, you will break through to clean air and take a deep breath of mountain air instead river water and sludge. Eventually, you will be able to stand up and swim back through the thing that nearly killed you. Eventually you will be able to get on your metaphorical bike and experience freedom again.
I write this also, as a much needed reminder to myself that as I tumble through this slimy, cruddy season of healing that some day, I will be okay. And not because I am an incredibly adept swimmer or some super human who is great at dealing with trauma, emotion, and panic attacks (ha!), but because I serve a God who will never let me drown in life. He is ever present and perpetually filling my lungs back up with His Spirit of fresh air when I am choking.
Someday I will be okay. Today may not be that day, but I know deep in my soul that some day, I will be back on my bike in the sunshine and mountain air.
But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.'”