Zoom drowning: A personal essay

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Is it possible to drown on dry land? According to Fedhealth, the answer is yes. About 1%-2% of drowning cases are classified as “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning,” occurring as late as two to three days after water exposure.

While I have never experienced this sensation, I imagine that my personal experience with the combined effects of social isolation because of lockdown and seemingly endless hours on Zoom isn’t dissimilar from the helplessness of drowning on dry land.

This summer, I began my collegiate career by participating in UC Berkeley’s Summer Bridge program, figuring it would be an effective use of my time during a period in which the coronavirus effectively ended any potential plans. At first, I was excited to gain experience and insight into my future college experience. I had finished high school, learning on Zoom for the last few months before graduating. So, I figured the transition to online college would be smooth and easy. I was dead wrong.

After the first few weeks of Summer Bridge, the ever-rising amount of time I spent using my laptop for homework or Zoom classes overwhelmed me. Hours upon hours of screen time combined with the lack of release that I got from spending time with friends meant that I was constantly nauseous or in the middle of a headache. I felt claustrophobic in my own room, which now served as my workplace, too. The space that had always provided me comfort and safety suddenly presented a constant source of danger. The combination of classes, assignments and readings became a deluge of water quickly filling my bedroom, stealing what seemed to me like the precious little oxygen left in the space. While I was managing to wade in the water for the moment, I felt like I was only a few drops away from being fully consumed. I was just a few drops away from drowning on dry land.

Eventually, my wading turned into thrashing. Soon after, the thrashing became exhausting. For a few days, I simply gave up. I began drowning from the weight of skipped lectures and discussions while ignoring my assignments, sitting idly in my room while my only oxygen supply resided in my lungs. When my lungs began begging for a reprieve, I faced a decision between two options: Either I run out of oxygen and give up in my very first college semester or I find a new place to breathe in the sensations of comfort and safety. Fortunately, I chose the latter.

Sometimes, the most difficult problems have the simplest solutions. As it turns out, the solution to my problems lay a measly 2 feet away from the desk where I experienced the sensation of Zoom drowning. Two feet to the left of my desk, a window separates my claustrophobic workplace from the plentiful oxygen of the outside world. While I couldn’t do fun things with my friends the normal way and was averse to any further use of Zoom, I could find new ways to de-stress. I began walking several miles a day, eventually integrating long runs and bike rides into the new habit. The practice was unbelievably therapeutic for me; it felt like breathing new life every time I stepped outside after the final class of the day. The sweet sensation of used muscles became my favorite feeling just after waking up every morning.

I maintained this sort of schedule into the fall semester, reducing the length of each excursion with the increased course load. After a stressful day, fresh air never failed to empty the clutter in my brain for just one blissful moment. Unfortunately, life has a tendency to throw a curveball right when the fastball becomes easy.

The sweet sensation of used muscles became my favorite feeling just after waking up every morning.

Just when I had settled into the rhythm of the new semester, the very bike rides that liberated me from the stresses of my workplace chained me there. In what is still an unexplainable accident to me, my bicycle stalled in the middle of the street, sending me barreling into the pavement and decorating my face, shoulder, forearms and knees with scrapes and bruises. Worst of all, my left leg landed on the gear of my traitorous bicycle, lacerating the area just above my knee. I was rushed to the emergency room, receiving 22 stitches after a few hours of waiting. Grimly, I received the news that I would not be allowed to exercise for at least a month.

Quickly, I found myself falling into old patterns. On top of the return of nausea, headaches and the inability to focus, I began overeating, physically feeling worse as I gained weight. This time, the escape I had crafted for myself lingered just out of reach, bringing me right back to that sensation of being one drop away from drowning. However, I was now armed with the knowledge of what to do, even if I had difficulty figuring out how. Once again, I needed to find a new place of safety and comfort.

My newfound lack of mobility led me to explore new things in search of a replacement for the beauty of simply being outside. I discovered Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” played Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life on repeat and pondered with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History,” each facilitating a series of quick, little breaths.

These quick, little breaths, however, paled in comparison to accomplishing my primary function as an older brother: annoying my younger sisters as much as humanly possible. Both of my younger sisters subscribe to the belief that the much-maligned country music genre is appropriately hated; I, however, don’t find the genre so disagreeable. The dramatic ear-covering that occurred whenever I burst into my sisters’ room blasting Morgan Wallen or the commiserating laughter between them when making fun of my terrible music taste properly balanced the natural order of older and younger sibling relationships. While art helped empty my water-filled room drop by drop, these moments more effectively drained the space.

So, the next time the world feels too overpowering and drowning seems inevitable, remember that a breath of fresh air could be right under your nose; or, as it were, right outside of your window and just in the other room. Stopping to appreciate the little things might just prevent drowning on dry land.

Contact Lucas Yen at [email protected].