drowning doesn't look like drowning until it does

It’s been a weird few years.

Usually when white people say that nowadays, they’re talking about politics. They’re talking about their discovery of the inequities always known by those outside of majority culture. They’re talking about the process of now knowing after not knowing.

Sure, there’s been some of that for me too. That’s not what has made the past few years weird for me though having so many friends weather the weird because of public shifts has made me feel less alone as I did so with personal shifts.


My personal shifts haven’t been completely private, so some of what I am about to share will be old news while some might surprise. I’m going to tell it through the story of my knees, but you’ll find that this is much more than that story. It’s much more than my story, I’m realizing too. It’s a story of how drowning doesn’t look like drowning until it does.

My knees looked fine, as far as knees go. I’m not sure they’re anyone’s favorite body part. The function is helpful, but otherwise, they’re just there, waiting to be skinned or to fail.

When my knees first failed, I was at an age at which they still wore childhood scabs. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it was, all at the same time. By my father and my older brother, my body had not been my own for a long time, maybe ever, so nothing felt incongruous to me about my kneecaps being forcibly dislocated as my legs were spread against my will.

I was 11.

I didn’t tell anyone until I was 15, because I didn’t know how to say what happened without feeling like I was telling on myself. I knew what happened was wrong, but I didn’t know I wasn’t wrong along with it. I didn’t know how to tell the story of my knees without confessing something primally disorienting. Daddies are meant to protect their young, but mine should have been a protector by trade too. He wore a badge, a uniform, and an officer’s rank. Both our large metropolitan county’s sheriff’s office and our country’s Green Berets in Vietnam knew him well.

So did my body.

At 15, my kneecaps finally dislocated in a public place, in the ordinary act of climbing in a van. Other people saw. They asked if it had ever happened before, and I said no. I still didn’t know how to say yes. I still didn’t know saying yes wouldn’t be the same as saying I was a whore. I still didn’t know if I could tell the truth that incestual abuse had evolved into other men being invited into our home and my body without my consent, because I still didn’t know that I wasn’t complicit in my trafficking. I still didn’t know the truth that none of it was my fault. My knees knew, though, and they told some of the story before my words could.

A condescending doctor dismissed me as my mother spoke over me, telling him this was a one-time incident when she and I both knew it wasn’t. I went to physical therapy. I learned how to strengthen muscles to compensate for my injuries, which seemed about right. I had been compensating for injuries in secret my whole life, with my earliest memory being one of terror as I ran from physical danger in the form of a family member. I don’t remember what happened after I got caught, and I think that’s probably merciful.

I started to tell parts of the story, bit by bit. I earned a scholarship with an essay I had to recant once my mom found out I had written about the abuse. While the committee couldn’t prove my original story was the truth without my cooperation, they still awarded me the honor. I imagine they thought they were helping, hoping to be guardian angels for a young woman in need of a legion; and they were.

In high school, I told my story by extreme perfectionism, not just trying to be perfect but needing to be to earn love and belonging. (I didn’t know those were my birthright.) In college, I told my story with binge drinking and bulimia. Going back to age 11, I told my story with thin lines carved into my forearms and upper thighs.

It was socially acceptable to be a perfectionist, a problem drinker, a sickly thin girl, and even a cutter. Being a teenager who had a decade of sexual and physical and emotional trauma behind her, while walking on knees that told a story that my lips couldn’t? That wasn’t anything anyone wanted to hear. It was socially acceptable to talk about the horrors of sex trafficking but I noticed it was not socially acceptable to be a survivor of it. I knew no one who told that story.

If they did tell it, it never included happy endings. It never included love. I never expected mine to include that either.


I didn’t mean to fall in love. Lee was an accident. If I had seen him coming, I would have tried to protect myself by pushing him away.

Because he loved me, I started to believe that maybe I had never been wrong after all. I started telling more pieces of my story. I started to see doctors who could hear parts of my story and treat injuries that should have been treated years before, injuries that shouldn’t have ever happened to need to be treated.

I knew how to do, so I kept doing. I didn’t know how to be. I didn’t know how to breathe. I didn’t know how to rest. I didn’t know how to care for a body that had only known neglect before him.

I don’t talk about my love story with Lee often, because I like to play a cynic but can’t keep that up as I acknowledge how much of a fairy tale I entered when I met him. He isn’t perfect. I’m not perfect. Life isn’t perfect.

But somehow that doesn’t matter with him. It never has. But I have always mattered to him, in a way I never knew I could matter before he happened to me.

He happened to me eighteen years and four months ago. Our fairy tale has looked picturesque on the outside, as our stories weaved together into the lives of our children through birth and adoption in ways we hadn’t expected. People fell in love with the idea of our family, and they couldn’t see my gasps for air because they had placed me on a pedestal too far away to check my vitals. Oddly enough, I was better than ever before, but being better meant I could finally see the cracks, not that they were gone.

Even as I saw therapists and specialists and had a few corrective surgeries early in our marriage, I was still drowning on dry land. My knees had looked mostly fine. I knew how to compensate, still, and I used that to downplay the increasing erosion of joint and spine function, as the years of violence stopped hiding below the surface, as my history met my present, as my body revealed it had been keeping score all along.

That’s the story of unbecoming and becoming, not linearly but cyclically, that ushered me into the weirdness of these past few years. That’s how I ended up having seven major surgeries in less than two years, the last one in September. That’s how I ended up here, in such a different space than I used to be. My personal weirdness happened to coincide with America’s political farce of fact and fiction, and it was nice to collide with my internal reckoning while the rest of the world watched - and continues to watch – our country’s collective external one. That’s how I felt less alone.

Yes, politics plays a role in my unraveling from chaos into something still taking form today but not quite there yet. For me, it hasn’t been the catalyst it has for so many others. Sure, I’ve written about the impact of this administration, but for me, that’s been the side story not the central one.

Sometimes the sideshow distracts from the larger story. It has for many who have been following along with mine. And it reminds me of something I learned in my lifeguard training, not long after Lee and I met.


Drowning doesn’t look like drowning until it does. The splashing and struggling isn’t the danger. No, I blew my whistle for that to prevent injury, not because it was already there. Drowning - real drowning - looks like almost nothing at all. It isn’t splashy. It is a slow slipping under, a gradual burial that isn’t obvious until it’s too late unless you know what to look for.

I’ve been un-drowning for a few years now, and breathing deeply without gulping down waves of misplaced blame, shame, and guilt still feels foreign. My knees are as fixed as they can be, but they had to be literally taken apart and reassembled through four surgeries. That part of the story, the surgeries and recoveries, has been visible. The part of the story in which my soul has done the same has been harder to see, mainly because it was never meant to be seen until now. It was reserved apart from those who aren’t intricately woven into my private world, at least not while the story’s words were still being intimately crafted from wounds into scars.

Some of you met me when I was drowning but looking dry. All the transition that’s been happening in public and private has been cohesive in my larger narrative but probably confusing from the outside. Even questions like, “wait, another surgery? what in the world?” are ones that have been completely logical while also being heavier questions than they seem on the surface.

The heaviness of them, the years of unpacked griefcases underwater, were my iceberg, while the world only saw the exposed tip. As I’ve thawed and began un-drowning, the unpacking has made me seem different from before.

And I am.

I used to think that was wrong. I valued consistency in viewpoints as if that were a sign of integrity. I’ve learned now that real integrity includes room for growth and change and learning and unpacking, of being somehow the same and yet completely different all at once.

I know, though our stories aren’t identical, my words resonate with you. I’m not the only one experiencing this state of sameness to and difference from the person I once was. I know, too, that many others are drowning, just like I was, but it isn’t looking like drowning, not yet. Because drowning never looks like it’s drowning until it does.

I am not alone. You are not alone. Those who are drowning imperceptibly aren’t alone either. We were each made not only to be human but also to be bound to one another in our shared humanity.

The world seems like it’s at least half ruined, but it felt that way when I was 11 too. Some of the ruin is still ruin, yes, but some of it has been redeemed into something like hope. If you’re disoriented by all the differences or drowning in them, I’m here to let you know that the beautiful and horrible reality of life is that it always changes.

That change is inescapable, but the drowning doesn’t have to be. We can figure out how to swim, not on our own but by learning from each other. It’s been a weird few years, yes, but our griefcases don’t have to anchor us in sameness.

Drowning doesn’t look like drowning until it does, after all, but drowning doesn’t have to be inevitable.