Posted by Phil Muls

Christmas Day 2012.  I find myself swimming in the Caribbean Sea, an hour before dusk. I am wondering what will happen if it gets completely dark. I am pretty far out and nobody knows where I am.


Where I am is on Curacao, for a 30-day rehab at the Jellinek Retreat, a serious attempt at sobriety. This is typical of me, this coming to an exotic place to get sober. Believing that the tropical sun can take the pain away, looking for the path of least resistance. Paying a lot of money so the extra guilt will propel me forward. I am 276 hours sober now. But I am the only one counting. My fight, my demons.


The water is surprisingly warm, causing sensory confusion in my brain which is absurdly visualizing a white Christmas.


While I am putting an ever wider distance between myself and the beach, it occurs to me that it is completely up to me whether I continue swimming to open sea or not. Nobody will tell me to turn around and swim back to shore. It makes me weary to think of this complete freedom to either live or die. I feel utterly alone and groundless, literally as well as metaphorically. Am I really unobserved? Is there nobody to stop me? I did not create myself, yet I am stuck with me. If I am part of the universe, why does it not care? I shiver despite the warmness of the water.


For some reason, I see Edvard Munch’s The Scream in my mind, the iconic painting of the hopeless figure grasping its cheeks in dread along a Norwegian fiord. I am guessing this pops up now because on the plane over, I read in the Wall Street Journal  that the painting has just been sold for 100M$ at Sotheby’s in London. While swimming, I get an image of a 15-year old me, looking at that painting for the very first time in art class, being explained by the teacher that it depicts existential fear. I remember her using the German word Angst to describe the emotion of the character in the picture. The younger me listening, fascinated both with that word and the art. I remember that evening looking up the word Angst and wondering what ‘intense inner turmoil’ meant really.


I know my own mind, nothing is ever a coincidence. Angst perfectly describes the loneliness and frailty I feel here in the ocean. I feel more self-conscious than I want to be. I picture myself in a Google Maps kind of way, a small red dot in a vast blue body of water. A mortal creature in a brutal cosmos.


Not a new feeling. Since I was a boy, I have always been more aware of the absurdity of it all, like I was missing a basic map of the land. Surely there must be a point to all this? And that point cannot be my swimming on and then drowning? All my life, I have been waiting for an outside power to give me purpose. I have been roaming around, circling in a holding pattern above my life, looking down and observing myself. Counting down for real life to begin.


Like a shipwrecked person, I am looking for something to hold on to. My mind’s eye sees a raft. If I have not come imprinted with the right Operating System, I can build one myself. I can create an essence out of my own existence. I realize that how I solve my inborn desire for meaning directly affects the quality of my life. I suddenly feel I am back in control. I will aim high, I will aim for the meaning of my life.


I feel a sudden exhilaration with this new insight, a surge of power from a center that was hidden and off-limits until this very moment.



I decide to swim back to shore. It does not end here, not today.



Stay strong, there is beauty in the struggle of life. The incredible pain as well as euphoria of each of experiences make us who we are. Pity the person who does not experience the full dimension of what it is to be human. Only then can we allow the though and desire of an existence beyond us that I truly believe is God. Open your heart and throw away the feeble veil of what we call reality to truly allow the possibility that their is a creator who truly cares and loves you. John 3:16

Posted by Mia

I love this. I can relate to it. I had many attempts at sobriety. I'm sitting in my sober house, introduced to this group by my Psychology of Death and Dying class. I often felt unsure, confused, like I didn't have a place to fit into this world or a purpose to want to fit in. I've seen others pass from the same condition I've lived through for years. I didn't understand and feared making decisions. I have hope today. I see insight in you. This meant a lot to me to see scrolling through the posts. You can do this. My life has improved exponentially over the last 10 months sober. This is amazing writing, creative. Thanks

Posted by Robin H

Thanks for sharing this excellent piece. Jon

Posted by Jon Underwood

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