I could hear a barking noise. It was unnatural, loud, close.
I slipped back under the waves.
The barking was me; it was the noise I was making as I tried to get air into my lungs. I pushed up through the water.
I heard something else now. It was a man’s voice. He had been on the raft with me.
“Breathe,” he yelled. “Breathe!”
He was yelling at me. I gasped, as I pushed up out the water, my head breaking the surface again. I saw him through the waves. He was swimming back to safety. My arms flopped, my legs kicked. I went down under the water, and then pushed back up.
I felt for the raft and grabbed at the rope. I pulled up and threw myself on the side. Two arms helped me over the edge. I collasped on the bottom, trying to steady my breath, dripping water and tears on my fellow passengers.
“Ah ha,” said the guide. “That is why you must hold on!” He laughed. His name was Potato. I tried to think of a smart comeback that had to do with mixers, butter, and cream, but I figured he had likely heard it all before.
I sat up slowly, eyeing him with irritation. My mother smiled kindly. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. I scanned the rest of the raft. The others were settled, ready to head down the rapid again. The man who had been yelling at me to breathe sat with his wife and two young children. They were calm. I was the one completely losing my mind.
I was on white water raft, in the Zambezi River, with my mother, Potato, and a family from Seattle who were traveling the world. I had fallen out of the raft on our very first rapid. A class one. It was the most terrifying moment of my life, and I lost it. I had a good old-fashioned panic attack.
I hadn’t wanted to go white water rafting in the first place. I frankly couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less, but my mother had wanted to go and I couldn’t let her go solo. We were on a safari trip together, visiting Gaborone, Botswana (where I had had a business trip), the Okavangao Delta in northern Botswana (one of the most amazing experiences in my life), and Victoria Falls in Zambia, staying at a boutique resort on the banks of the Zambezi (you. must. go. now.). The trip was part once-in-a-lifetime adventure, part healing; my father had died only a few months before.
My fall into the water was the closest I had ever come to absolutely losing my mind, to feeling out-of-control, to experiencing true terror. I couldn’t breathe, see, or even calm down enough to get my bearings and get myself to a safe place. I’m sure Potato and the rescue team following us on kayack would have helped me, but thankfully, my fellow rafter “yelled” me out of my fear. That jolt gave me enough sense to get out of the water. It had been the equivalent to a slap across the face.
I just wanted to leave, to climb out of the raft onto dry land, but I had to go on. I had continue down the river. I held onto the raft so tightly I ended up with callouses. I even fell in again (thankfully, that time I wasn’t as traumatized). But, as soon as I could, I said good-bye to Potato and left. I have never been white water rafting again.