'I Survived Drowning in Quicksand'

My dog Schuyler runs like she is part dolphin. She lopes high over snowbanks, disappearing into the snow for a moment, and then shooting right up again, always in the same level bounds.

Last year was my first Boston winter as a pet owner, and I was especially envious of my dog's patter. The mounting anxiety and depression that plagued me from the time I woke up to the time I finally fell asleep in an uneven haze was unrelenting. On my train rides home from work, I sat and cried as the undercurrent of being depressed would swell and cover me, as a large wave. The depression pushed me out of myself and pulled me under like a fierce undertow.

One day after work in mid-April, I donned my knee-high wellington boots and piled Schuyler into the car and we headed to a beach where dogs are allowed up until Memorial Day Weekend. There were a few other people walking along Quincy Shore, an inlet of Quincy Bay that empties into the Boston Harbor.

That afternoon was as untethered as I had felt for a very long time. The wind whipping my hair, the sun glinting off the waves, the sand softly padding my steps. I let Schuyler off-leash as all she wanted to do was chase seagulls.

As she neared a part of the beach where a tiny yacht club sits on stilts, she turned to see if I was following her under the pedestrian underpass. I got closer to her and she pranced ahead and that is when she began to make her way out across the shallow tidepools. Here the tide was very shallow, the beach seemed to stretch for half a mile before meeting the water. I followed her but soon I found that my dog was happily doing figure eights—while my feet were sinking.

I realized I wasn't hitting a hard bottom. As I yanked one foot up, the other sunk further down. My boots, normally perfect for wet terrain, were heavy and worked against me. They were effectively forming a seal around my pants so that I could not yank my feet out of the boots. Schuyler leaped and panted; she seemed to think this was a fun game I was playing. Her leash was in my hand, so she could not pull a Lassie lifeguard and pull me out. (Rescue dog, my foot.)

There were no other people around that would be close enough to hear me yell. With quicksand up to my thighs already, I was catching flashes of myself neck deep and then buried.

But then I was overcome by an anger that had been simmering well below the surface all winter. For so long, I had felt only sad. My husband would ask me, "You gonna be okay today?" as he left for work. I told him each day that, in all sincerity, I was too depressed to even come up with a plan to end my life, much less execute it. So when this volcanic burst of anger came shooting out of me, it was both shocking and utterly unsurprising. The anger had finally reached a boiling point.

I felt my face grow hot and my neck sweat as I grit my teeth. I wiggled my hips and was able to get just enough traction that I could lean back. Somehow I was able to push my body up with my hands on the sinking sand, like a drunkard trying to pull herself backwards onto a barstool. Finally, I yanked my boots up and crawled toward the sandy area that was more steady.

I looked around once I had caught my breath and managed to get Schuyler back on leash. My pants were soaked in mud and covered in sand. I would need to walk some more to shed some of this debris and allow my pants to dry a little before I got back in the car.

Drowning for months

I read about similar incidents of people pulled into quicksand on Quincy Shore. One of the rescuers described how the mixture of mud, sand, and water did not have enough consistency to support the weight of a person, but once the suction around a person's body takes hold, it was very difficult to break. Rescuers found they could not pull too hard on women who had partially sunken into quicksand because the suction made the resistance so painful. I read elsewhere that the force necessary to pull a foot out of quicksand is tantamount to lifting a Honda Accord.

I had already been drowning for months, though. The sadness had been bubbling for six months at the surface, sinking down into the hollows of me. But after my self-rescue from the quicksand, it was as though the sadness could no longer find a place to settle; it had washed out into the ocean where all the feelings go to foam and splash.

Did the quicksand reboot my system? Had the sudden rush of anger I experienced in fighting for my steady footing on the sand trip my brain's power cord? The landscape of my life, where I spent my days, how I expended my energy, remained exactly the same. Schuyler was still the same dolphin dog that we adopted some months prior.

Author Kendra Stanton Lee on the Boston beach where she narrowly survived drowning in quicksand, 2020. Kendra Stanton Lee/Courtesy

I felt like I had been lent a new buoyancy, though. I didn't know how long the buoyancy would last or when the depression might revisit me. What I did know was that the weather would inevitably turn to longer, warmer days. I would be ready, armed with a leash around my dog and the belief that I was somehow stronger than what could try to swallow me.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day.

Kendra Stanton Lee is a writing professor and freelance writer in Boston. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and Slate, among others.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.