Good Friday: A face-off with anxiety at the edge of the ocean

Today, I walked alone to the edge of the ocean, to confront my cross. It’s Good Friday, after all, it’s what you do. But my cross isn’t in the church. It’s there on the beach, in the shadows of the cliffs, right on the line where the surf comes to the end of itself and is absorbed by the black west coast sand … that’s my Golgotha, my Place of the Skull.

It’s been that way for more than 20 years, because of September 27, 1996, when I stood for hours on a west coast beach in the southwest of Western Australia, as they — and, for a time, we — dug nine bodies from beneath a mound of sand and limestone that had fallen from the cliff face during a school surf competition. It was a Friday. A terrible Friday. An unforgettable Friday. The rain continued throughout the entire Friday afternoon, and the weekend darkness came early, and the late, rising surf hammered our backs, and the communal, unbidden grief rose around us like a primordial flood, and we were collectively overcome by the senselessness of life and the arbitrariness of death. And that was the context in which I realised my childhood Christian ‘faith’ was meaningless and valueless and arbitrary too. Like all religions, when confronted with the bleak, harsh realities of our actual human existence, my belief system reached the limit of its usefulness that afternoon. In terms I’ve borrowed from my own Christian tradition, it was nailed to the cross. If the Christian cross represents the futility of all human attempts to self-deify, then for me that reality occurred on September 27, 1996. That was the day I realised, once and for all, we are not and we will never be gods. Which is why for 30 years I have called that Friday, Good Friday.

Meanwhile, over the course of that same Friday afternoon, I developed anxieties I didn’t know were a thing, but which I have never been able to shake — agoraphobia, mainly, particularly on beaches like that one in the southwest of WA, with cliffs and rocks and pounding west coast surf. I’d forgotten all about these particular anxieties — as you can do when you move away from the coast and learn to distract your mind from what you have witnessed — until we moved to New Zealand in 2008, and shortly thereafter took a trip to the caves at Whatipu. It was there, on the open beach, that I suddenly froze, incapable of moving, not because I was rigid like a statue but because I was wobbly like a jelly, as the breath left my lungs, and as my lungs shut down like punctured bellows, and as my heart raced as if I’d run all the way from Karekare. The terror of that moment, like the collective grief on the beach that first Friday, was unbidden and came without warning. It rose up inside of me as if I’d absorbed something alien from the beach through the soles of my shoes — a toxin that flooded my veins and made its way quickly to the heart, where it meant to finish me off. I was terrified. I was embarrassed. I was caught short. But as I looked around at the all-too-familiar features of the west coast beach, I knew the source of everything I was feeling.

But that day I wasn’t alone.

Today, Good Friday, I was alone. Intentionally. I drove to Piha with the goal of walking to the edge of the surf, to the foot of my cross, and to face down my fear. And my shame, I suppose — hence doing it alone. And if it didn’t work out — if I actually couldn’t go through with it — I could always run back home and never speak of it to anyone.

The anxiety in me was high in the car park, well before I even laid eyes on the ocean. I’d listened to Beyonce for distraction, because few people distract me like Beyonce. But as I closed the car door I felt the familiar indicators — the tight chest, like asthma. The inflated gut, like a Space Hopper. Pins and needles in the fingers. Blurry vision. But I walked through the dunes anyway, and saw that it was a high tide, and thanked God that the water’s edge wasn’t actually that far away. I thanked God too that it was a holiday, because everyone was out at Piha this morning. The swell was light but the breeze was offshore, and the waves sat up long enough for everyone to have at least a bit of fun. Everyone but me, that is.

So, I’m on the black sand for less than a minute when I have to start counting my breaths. Four seconds in, four seconds out. Why? Because I’m already so anxious I can’t breathe out properly. That’s what happens. I suck in small, inefficient breaths, and don’t let them out again. As I’m counting, four in, four out, I stand still and think about turning back. It’s clear to me already that I won’t be reaching the water’s edge today. The sand is soft. Too soft. I think about the stations of the cross. It’s easier to walk the stations on a hard, rocky surface. But this black sand … it parts and folds and swallows your feet, and feels like mockery. I’m already looking around for help. If I fall now, who will notice? It’s Good Friday and the surf is playful, so the lifeguards aren’t even here yet. No — I am indeed alone. And if I’m going to do this at all, it has to be alone. Just take one more step.

I keep walking, my eyes on the black sand, my ears on the waves. All the senses tingling, heightened, like Spiderman. That’s the adrenaline. It turns everything up to 11. Fight or flight. Which makes no sense to me. When my adrenal system is overwhelmed I can neither fight nor flee. I just breathe. Four in, four out. There’s another rush of panic from deep in my torso, so I write mental notes about the place that I’m walking towards … my place of isolation, my place of loneliness, my godforsaken place, my darkness, the one place where I will never forget that no matter how many words of reassurance I’ve been given by the people I trust most in all the world, anything can still happen. There are no rules. No guarantees. All of life is capricious and cruel, and I know it because I have seen it. Capricious. What a cool word. It’s the word I’ve been searching for. Life’s moments are fucking capricious, regardless of how much faith you bring to them.

Suddenly I’m there, because I’ve talked to myself the whole way … to the water’s edge, where I take photos of footprints and aerated seawater, hearing louder than before the sounds of the waves, constant yet polyrhythmic, broken by the voices of surfers and grommets yelping and whooping from the ocean. I’m here. I made it. I’ve come further than I’ve been able to come, by myself, for more than 10 years. So, I do what I came to do. I look around for the monster, to stare him down, to defeat him.

And the first wave of real anxiety rises in me like vascular infusion. This time it rises from the legs. I’d assumed it would rise from the belly. But no — the first thing I feel is that the bones of my legs are trembling and brittle, like caramel that’s been cooked beyond hard crack. All the strength has drained from my muscles, not just those in my legs, but my arms as well, which hang awkwardly by my side. I’m frozen. Absolutely grounded to that spot. But at the same time I feel I might collapse. My lungs are empty and I can’t take in more. I try. They just won’t work. I look around and I’m close to shouting for help, but no one’s nearby, and no one’s paying any attention anyway. They don’t on Good Friday. I look back towards the car park, and think about just running. But I know I won’t make it. It’s too far. I know also that I shouldn’t have come. High tide or not. Good Friday or not. This was a terrible mistake. I’m stranded. Who did I think I was?

I know I have to sit down, but I can’t even do that. I am right in the moment I dread, that godforsaken place I’ve been running from, and it’s not until I’m there, right in the heart of it, that I remember the full terror of it, the full senselessness of it. So I stay where I am. Not because I’m being bold or brave. But because I can’t move. I have to stay. There’s no other option. It’s also Good Friday, and this is what Good Friday is all about — confronting the human terror. I tell myself this. I speak it aloud. No one’s listening, so it doesn’t matter. And I’m sure as hell God isn’t listening … not in this space. God is nowhere near this place. It’s Good Friday. He has church services to attend.

I’ve come to the limit of myself. I know it. I can feel it. I have no resources to take me out of or beyond this place and this time. So I stand there.

And then a second wave hits. From the belly this time, and up into the chest. I hadn’t even considered there might be another wave. But it just comes, bigger than the first, more terrifying. I’d started to breathe, actually. I realise that now. As I stood watching the surfers I had started to calm, to find the me that I am outside that Good Friday moment. But this second wave takes all that away; dumps me in the white water before I can catch any of my breath. Now I’m really scared. Now I know I’m in for a fight. Except I don’t fight. I tell myself not to. You can’t defeat this ocean, I say. Just relax. Just rest. Just let yourself be carried to shore. And that’s when I realise that Good Friday is also that … having confronted the terror of your limitations, sometimes you just have to rest.

But it’s not so straightforward as just resting. I feel suddenly dizzy, and suspect I’m about to fall over. But why would I fall over? I never just fall over. Not even in sickness, or sadness, or drunkenness, or all three combined. Never have I fallen over. So why would I now? I guess my pounding heart could suddenly stop. But when has that ever happened?

Two planes fly overhead at the exact same time. What are the chances of that? A light aircraft, hugging the coast like a spotter; and much higher up, a passenger jet, crossing the coastline on its way to Auckland’s other coastline, where it will bank and bank again and probably bank a third time before it comes in to land. But I can barely look up, because looking up heightens the agoraphobia and suddenly I’m feeling more exposed than ever, with nothing to lean on, nowhere to hide, just me and my fear and everybody at Piha watching me suffer — while actually no one is watching me at all. Because nobody cares. And as I tell myself no one cares, the third wave hits me, again from the legs and up through the torso. And this time I know I’m defeated. I turn and start walking like a wobbling drunkard towards the car park.

But then I stop.

‘You can’t make it,’ I say out loud. ‘There’s no running from this. You have to stay in it.’

But I can’t stay in it. I want to run. And now I feel the terror is rising again, like terror does when it’s truly taken hold. It just keeps coming. And this time I suspect it might actually overwhelm me, and that I’m standing here, in real time, experiencing my very last moments.

I walk 10 feet away from the edge of the ocean. That’s all. Just 10 feet. And the air comes back into my lungs. The heart rate slows. The legs strengthen. None of it makes sense to me. Any more sense than the fear. So, I turn back towards the ocean, and look again for the monster.

‘Come on then,’ I shout.

But I needn’t have shouted at all. Because he’s right fucking there. And this time I’m in full-blown panic.

A group of people walk by and I go to stop them, and to aski them for help. I know that encounter with people will get me out of this moment. But will it? My last encounter with someone yesterday didn’t go so well. So even in this there’s no guarantee. And anyway, I haven’t come here for encounter. I’ve come to face my godforsakeness. So that’s what I do. I let them pass, and I stand there again, in my darkness and my dread, looking out to the ocean and searching for the eyes of my accuser.

And suddenly it’s over.

Suddenly, with no warning, the anxiety is gone. All of it. I haven’t moved, I haven’t done anything different — but in a moment I’m me again. The me that I was before I came to the water’s edge. A gladness takes over — I’m glad that I stayed in the space and felt every bit of its fear. But now I’m breathing normally. I’m not afraid. And when I look around, I see that I’m not at the foot of the cross at all, I’m not in the Place of the Skull … it’s just Piha Beach, and I’m standing at the edge of the ocean. There’s no godforsakeness, there’s no isolation or abandonment. There’s just the rolling, polyrhythmic sound of the surf and the occasional cries of the grommets.

It’s a day off, after all. It’s Easter holidays in New Zealand. It’s Good Friday.