So the 2012 Chicago Polar Plunge for Special Olympics is less than a month away. We’re jumping with our friends from Hawthorne Race Course. But I’ve done it once before…in Green Bay, Wisconsin…through 2-foot-thick ice. Here’s a look back at what I wrote then about that craziness.
A Trauma of the Imagination
trauma (n): a rupture in the barrier against all stimuli
22 degrees. Wind-chill like 8. We got to the river. A 20×30 foot hole cut in the ice. 2 feet thick. We stood waiting our turn. We took off our clothes. Hopped back and forth, up and down waiting in the wind, dressed in swimsuits and shoes. But also fear; we were dressed in mind-numbing, glazed-face fear. A fear I later realized was only a shadow of something much more frightening.
Asked if we were “ready,” the answer invariably gurgled up from our preparing-to-hibernate minds that you are not ever “ready” for this. It is a moment of truly perverted impulse. If you think about it, you will not do it. You are merely carried by the momentum of hay-wired electrical impulses in the brain. The analogy to how a computer might short-circuit itself trying to do something it is not programmed to do like breathe.
We watched others run, jump, and shiver in and out of the hole in the ice. Understand there is no grace. Even the most burly of men, trying not to run out of the water, walk briskly like senior citizens in exercise groups at the mall. Most people are flailing.
Our number is called. We move forward. There was a plan to surround the hole and jump together, as if our sheer surface area of exposed flesh might intimidate the river. We spread out. Not like an army. Like lemmings. We are hurling ourselves into the water. I’ve circled it, to sneak up on it from behind. There are bodies, big bodies thrashing now in the water. I am on the ice. There is no where to jump without landing on a lemming. This is the last sane moment I remember.
Everyone is playing in the water. It looks nice. People are laughing. The sun is coming out. I can’t wait to get into the water and have some fun.
An opening. I make my mark. I jump. My mind shuts down. Completely.
Sometimes you have moments of instinct mixed with intellect. You can feel yourself motivated to action in a visceral sense, and your mind it not so at odds with the inexplicable impulses that you just go with it. This is not a moment like that. There is no rationale here. No mind. Your body has mustered all of its power to fully thwart the brain in all of its stupidity. This is a coup of epic necessity.
My imagination is broad. I thought I could imagine how cold it would be. I was wrong. It was literally beyond my imagination and yet it—this cold—existed. How could that be? This is Fear. Capital F-Fear. Full, undeniable confrontation with that which you thought could not exist. The mind abandons all other certainties, and becomes useless. The body takes over.
The shock of the cold is just that: shock. Trauma. You struggle for breath without consciousness. And you need that. You need it because your body is too busy trying to get out of that water. Out of what it senses physically as certain death. It is the body in pure survival mode. Prioritizing movement over breathing.
I scrabble out of the hole. The river is deep. There is no step ladder, no Navy Seal smiling in a wet suit to help me out like he is doing for everyone on the front side of the hole. I claw my way out. I pull myself bodily over the ledge of the ice like a seal. I am blubber, and bluster and a great exhalation of air that I would rather keep inside of me. My body shakes trying to fling off the cold. I yowl. A grotesque bark.
I run like an animal, confused but in the direction of the others. There is no room in the hot tub for my body. I stick my hands in. I stick my feet in. I splash my face, desperate for mere drops of liquid warmth. I wrap myself in a towel, small and bluish. Not vibrant orange-red, and double-fluffed. I realize my knuckles are bleeding. My finger nails are cracked off. The pain is quite remarkable yet my brain is only now just coming back online, still barely communicating with the rest of my body. The program for pain is not running 100% yet. Later, I will realize that my knees are bleeding and bruised. Later still, I will find a cut down my chest from where I scraped myself over the icy ledge.
But at the moment, after I’ve used my towel to at least dry my head. I feel strangely warm. We walk back to the car. I feel calm. I feel tough. I am slogging through puddles of slush. Not 10 minutes after my body had literally revolted against my mind in unimaginable ways, I think: I could do this again. The limits of imagination have been broken.
And that is it. That is what should be feared.