Alarms ending in seven were just one of the latest products of my sporadic self-diagnosed OCD. My phone began beeping at 5:37 am. The bottle of Trader Joe’s Two-Buck Chuck I’d downed the night before had left me with a pulsing headache—a too-familiar state.

With a deep sigh and a great deal of effort, I turned off the alarm and checked my notifications, squinting to shut out the screen’s brightness. I had a text from a surf instructor, Bodhi—a man I was supposed to meet for my first lesson in an hour off the hazy coast of Broad Beach in Malibu County. 

Today won’t be any good for us. Windy, cold water. “Confused” seas… better tomorrow when it gets warmer and milder… ok?

A wave of exhausted relief rolled over my cloudy brain. I didn’t have to be the one to cancel, but why stop there? I texted the family I babysat for and mentally scrolled through the variety of excuses I had yet to use. Strep throat. Contagious yet curable in 24 hours from a quick round of antibiotics.

With no water in sight and only the remnants of wine from the night before on my nightstand, I grabbed the glass, swallowed a .5 pill of Klonopin, and went back to sleep.

I woke up four hours later and stared at the ceiling. On days like these, my life felt completely out of my own hands. My intrusive thoughts, the ultimate devilish puppeteer, dictated my every move. Sluggish and heavy, I slowly turned my head towards the bright light outlining the white shades of my window, noticing yet another stunning, cloudless day in Los Angeles that I was missing. An invisible harness held me hostage in my own bed.

Reaching wearily for my phone, I rolled onto my side where I responded to emails and text messages, refusing to reveal my current state, watching the world rotate around me as I revolved helplessly in a black hole. Two minutes turned into twenty minutes and then into two hours.

In my sea of blankets and pillows, I opened my computer to surround myself with the only six people I could find comfort in at the time: the cast of Friends. I found solace in knowing how each episode was going to end, and I enjoyed watching these uncomplicated, charming and deeply lovable characters navigate their conflicts through comedy.

After watching five or six episodes, at around 3 pm, I willed myself out of bed. I put my favorite Joni Mitchell album (Blue, obviously) on my record player, lit a candle, and opened the blinds. I stripped my sheets and dumped them into the washing machine. I knew what was coming.

Scanning my apartment, I noticed every out-of-place trinket, every dust particle, each dirty dish, countermarks, and anything else I could categorize as a mess (another product of my self-diagnosed OCD). Minutes turned into hours once again, and I funneled all my energy into the second phase of my routine on familiar days like this: debilitating perfectionism and excessive cleanliness. I spent the rest of the day, scrubbing, reorganizing, dusting, vacuuming, folding, convincing myself that these chores could anchor me—protect me—from the threatening void.

I fell asleep and woke up the next morning at 5:37 am to meet Bodhi for my surfing lesson.

With immense effort, I made it to the beach by sunrise. The crisp air and the acrid smell of embers from a week-old fire filled the orange-tinted, cloudless sky. Goosebumps stippled my forearms, and my lower lip began to shiver. I looked ahead to scan the endless body of water. I was ready to plunge into the piercing cold just to feel anything.

When I was in middle school, I’d walk up the stairs with my light blue Jansport backpack, filled with Milky Way pencils, a pink iPod mini, oily stickers, and a lifetime supply of Claire’s scrunchies. My friends and I would race up the stairway. But to gain advantage over me, sometimes a friend would jokingly pull on my backpack to slow me down. The added resistance always made it so difficult to continue moving upward. It was lighthearted and fun in middle school, but now, that’s what life ultimately felt like—physically navigating that same resistance.

Finding life’s little joys was increasingly difficult. I constantly scrutinized every detail from my past, looking back on my childhood, trying to reignite my spark. I listened to artists that filled our family home with positive energy and togetherness like Hooked on a Feeling by B.J. Thomas and Make Your Own Kind of Music by Cass Elliot. I re-watched my favorite movies: Legally Blonde, The Sound of Music,and anything starring the Olsen twins. I looked at photographs from family vacations to Aruba and Mexico, birthday parties, school functions, holidays, sleepovers, and summers at the beach, searching for anything that could pull me back together to remedy my fragmented emptiness.

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a worn vintage family photo of my pure ten-year-old self beaming on a yellow and baby blue soft-top surfboard in Ocean Bay Park, Fire Island. My blonde hair was pulled into a rough bun on the top of my head, and I was sporting a dark blue quicksilver rash guard. I studied the photo, it dawned on me where I could start. She’s the girl I desperately wanted to meet again.

Surfing was my first love, but not because I was some child prodigy or even slightly remarkable at the sport. When I was ten, my sister’s best friend Chloe taught me one day during the summer, and I worked for weeks to stand up on my board for the very first time. I was forced to surrender to patience I didn’t have and learn a certain type of stamina I wasn’t familiar with. The mystifying adrenaline moved me as I soared through the currents. I had never been exposed to such a quiet, calm world. I was mesmerized by the unknown that existed below me, immersing myself in nature and uncertainty. Nothing made me happier than going to the water.

Back on the beach, I exchanged hellos with Bodhi, and he reminded me of the basic rules of surfing. I remembered them for the most part, but I wasn’t willing to engage in any type of conversation, so I let him continue uninterrupted.

The back of the board is the brake, and the front is the gas pedal. The more weight you put on your front foot, the faster you will go. And whatever you do, don’t snake (steal another surfer’s wave). You’ll be the least popular surfer girl on this beach.

Bodhi was a lighthearted Malibu beach bum, who had dedicated his life to teaching amateurs the proper way to stand up on a surfboard. While occasionally training Hollywood actors for their upcoming surf-themed films, he seemingly lived a simple, content life. I decided this solely on the fact that Bodhi taught lessons in the morning, surfed the rest of the day on his own, and came to the beach with a bag of Lays salt and vinegar chips and a saran-wrapped sandwich made by his wife. Bodhi’s incredibly warm and inviting nature aligned perfectly with his encompassing surfer-dude aura.

I zipped up my full-body wetsuit, and put on my booties because, as much as I loved surfing, I despised being cold. I tossed my long blonde hair into a rough bun on the top of my head, trying to smooth the smaller hairs away from my face as they waved in the salt wind. I stared at the crashing waves ahead of me. I quickly rolled my right wrist three times, and then did the same on my left. A new development when alleviating my anxiety, and a lovely reminder that my OCD was coming along for the ride.

The rolling ocean seemed overwhelmingly large—a deep void filled with little diamonds from the sun’s reflection. Standing in the breeze on the beach, staring at the never-ending, inviting black hole I was preparing to plunge into, I realized I was willing to let it swallow me whole. It would almost be a relief if it did.

Today’s a bit rough, if it’s too much we can always come back in, Bodhi said.

I’ll be fine, I assured him.

I hopped on my board and paddled out against the current. The water’s piercing chill shocked my body, rousing my groggy mind and causing me to feel more alert than I’d felt in months. I tasted the bitterness of the saltwater on my lips and felt the wet strands of hair that had worked free of my hasty knot stick to my neck. My body acclimated to the entrapment of my tight wetsuit, presenting me with the familiar smell of neoprene. The thickness of the sleeves made it that much more difficult to fight the resistance of the strong current. I had forgotten the physical toll that comes with surfing. My arms felt weak and it had been months since I could motivate myself to exercise properly. I didn’t know if I could do it again.

Oh, this is a beauty. Ready? Turn around NOW!

Bodhi gave my board strong push to assist my lack of upper body strength into the first wave. I fell immediately. My surfboard tumbled away, out of sync with me, pulling and contorting my body in multiple directions as I flipped through and was pushed under the tumbling waterfall. Disoriented, I swallowed an unhealthy amount of saltwater. I felt like I was drowning as water flooded my lungs.

When I finally came up, it was hard to catch my breath.

It’s going to take some getting used to. Don’t look so defeated so quickly.

The sigh that escaped me turned into more sputtering and coughing. My nose burned from the water I had inhaled. I paddled impatiently into the next wave. Down again.

You’re popping up too quickly. You’re thinking about it too much. It’s not that serious. Just let it happen.

Great advise. Bodhi’s namaste and go-with-the-flow attitude was proving to be extremely irritating. How could taking things less seriously or thinking less possibly instill my body with the knowledge needed to magically stand up on a surfboard and hold onto the tossing water? I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult to get the hang of it. My muscle memory had failed me, and I wanted to go home. I craved my silent sea of blankets over these vast salt waves; I wanted the power to shut out the world simply by throwing my phone across the room. My frustrations were on the brink of tears. The sliver of hope that I could reunite with my inner child felt like an idiotic delusion.

I couldn’t muster up the energy or courage to say any of that, though.

Without hope, I bitterly looked towards the horizon to see if I could spot another wave. As I tracked its progress toward where I floated in the surf, I hesitantly reconsidered Bodhi’s words: It’s not that serious.

It’s coming! Turn around and paddle now! Like your life depends on it!

I closed my eyes and inhaled slowly. I paddled with all my might. My toes touched the tail of the board as I placed my thumbs in line with my lower ribs, slid my knees below me, shifted my palms to rest on my finger tips, brought my left foot forward, twisted my hips and looked straight ahead. My board glided with the wave and somehow, at the right time, I rose securely. I held onto the swell in a miraculous moment. If you looked closely, the muscles surrounding my mouth began to form a slight smile as the rushing swell swept me along.

Moments later, as the momentum ebbed, I hopped off my board and submerged my head under the frigid water. A cascade of chemicals coursed through my body as I naturally released dopamine and felt a rush of endorphins. My smile became whole as I broke the surface.

The large waves turned into smaller waves as the set became sluggish. Bodhi and I sat facing the abyss, feet dangling off our longboards, legs swaying with the current and waiting for the next set of surfable waves.

            You know, you remind me of my son.

I groaned internally at the provocation to chat. I wasn’t there to make friends, nor exchange small talk. It had been a while since I last surfed by myself. I didn’t have my own board or a wetsuit, both of which Bodhi provided, so I figured a few lessons couldn’t hurt. However, if I’d felt confident enough to go on my own, I definitely would have. My high from catching the previous wave was the closest thing to peace I’d felt in months; I didn’t want anything to ruin it.

Both of you are quiet, but I can tell your mind never stops working. Your eyes never stay in one place. They’re always on the move. A little mysterious and moody too.

I couldn’t tell if my cheeks became hot from the sun or out of sheer embarrassment. I shot him a quick fake smile but couldn’t find the words to respond.

What made you want to start taking lessons?

Irritated, once again, I took a deep breath before responding.

I used to love it out here as a kid. Thought I’d give it a try again.

He turned to me, smiled, and then fixed his gaze back on the open water.

You know what I love most about the ocean? I feel so small out here. I don’t matter one bit, and I love it. It’s true what they say about saltwater washing away your worries. We’re just little specks, and I think that’s really cool.

My blip of serenity instantly died. What I needed was comfort or some quiet, not a justification for why my existence meant nothing.

Sometimes my wife tells me I’m annoying. I like to talk a lot. I can tell you may not like to and that’s ok. You can tell me to shut up. Surfing should be as calm as possible. I won’t be offended.

I tried to resist the temptation to cry or tell him that I did want him to shut up so we could surf in peace, but it was out of my control and, deep down, I didn’t want him to stop. I was so frustrated and overwhelmed. I used to like to talk a lot too. I used to have a bright personality, eager to ask the next question and learn everything there was to learn about someone. But that wasn’t me anymore. The joyful part of me was gone, replaced by a pile of ashes and cynicism. My mouth tasted salty, and I couldn’t tell if I had tasted a tear from my cheek or only the salt water still dripping from my hair.

I’m not a very chatty person. Not anymore. But I felt the need to justify my coldness. My mom died a few months ago. Since then, everything has felt a little bleak.   

            I’m sorry your mom died, Bodhi said regretfully, no one your age should ever have to

experience such pain.

Thanks, I said under my breath. I already knew that much.

My right wrist rolled three times, quickly followed by my left.

My wife and I also lost our son in a freak car accident a few months ago too. He was twenty.

I felt my jaw slightly disengage, hoping words would follow, but I was speechless. A gentle smile formed on Bodhi’s face as he stared out into the ocean. We sat in silence.

Sometimes, life just happens to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Grief is uncontrollable. What is your call though, is how you let it affect you. Now, that’s entirely up to you.

I nodded, still searching for the right words. The truth in Bodhi’s words pierced through me like a fishhook.

            Now that looks like a beautiful wave. Ready?

I paddled again. I stood up on my board and soared to the shore. I turned back to look at Bodhi as he raised his arms in celebration. I turned away as tears streamed down my sticky, salty cheeks.

My behavior shamed and haunted me. I wasn’t quite sure what made me believe my pain was so significant that I couldn’t see past myself; and that, when presented with someone else’s trauma, I was reminded that the world did not revolve around me. Bad things happen to people all the time, what made me so special?

As waves broke gently around me and the distant surf washed rhythmically onto the shore, I became aware of my heartbeat thumping in my ears. I felt so small, floating above unfathomable depths on a simple, brightly colored board. The black hole I seemed always in danger of disappearing into seemed farther away, disconnected from the majesty of thundering waves. There was something comforting in my insignificance. Maybe Bodhi was right.

Maybe my pain didn’t have to matter quite so much. Maybe the world could continue spinning, the waves could continue to somersault.

Bodhi walked me to my car half an hour later.

            I’m really sorry about your son. I can’t imagine…

He’s still out there. I feel him in the ocean. Be open to the signs.

He smiled and we hugged goodbye.

            It was great to meet you, I said.

And I meant it.

As I drove away in my 2018 Toyota Corolla, I felt sticky and unsettled as if all the pieces I had so carefully locked away were starting to come just a little bit loose. My face stung from the dryness of the salt water, my hair was tangled, and the remaining sand refused to part ways with my skin. I turned my head and looked out at the open water. The only place big enough to begin reuniting me with my empathy.

I felt lighter, but this feeling was new. I wasn’t necessarily happier, I just felt smaller. Only this time, it didn’t bother me so much.

Tara Layne is an actress and writer based in Studio City, California. She is currently writing a collection of essays and developing a feature film about navigating complicated forms of grief and growing up in your early 20s.