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This Is Northern New South Wales


Words by Rebecca Olive. Photos by Alex Frings

This morning I was drowning.

After my alarm woke me I had hit it off, rolled over and briefly fallen back asleep. According to my clock, it was only for ten minutes, but in that small amount of time I was suddenly under water, under waves, held below, straining for air. Lost between sleeping, waking and surfing.

Somewhere, I knew I was dreaming. But I was mixed and confused and refusing to let go of it all. Somewhere, I was calming myself;

Just. Breathe. In.

But my dreaming mind and body was under water and flailing.

I never caught a wave, I never fell, but was simply under. The water was clear and white and fizzing around me. I was waiting for the pull of a leash on my leg, but it never came. I was waiting to hit the bottom to recoil and push towards the surface, but I never reached it. I was fighting against water that provided no resistance, no potential for power. In that irritating way of dreams, I was both doing and watching, drowning and observing, sinking and floating. I felt the water warm and swirling on my skin, against my muscles, painting oceanic stories with my limbs. My knee hit my jaw, my arm scraped a rock, and then, I was simply suspended, panic rising in my chest as my lungs emptied and began to feel as though they were becoming a vacuum of themselves. The water continued to thrash and spin around me, but I was still. Echoes of rational thought creeping in – You’re only dreaming. Breathe in, breathe in! But I didn’t, I couldn’t. I wanted to be under water, I wanted to be submerged and spinning and straining and still. I wanted my lungs to empty, to burn. I yearned for the panic to rise in my chest, to sink, helpless, into darkness and cold. I looked for shapes above me – waves, bodies, boards, light – but there were none. There was only what was beneath.

It was a dream. I knew it was a dream. Somewhere. I knew I could wake up, I would wake up. But then my chest was tighter, and tighter, I was fighting the drift into the depths. Breathe, breathe! But I was still under water. Breathe! But my lungs will flood, I’ll be dead! Breathe, you must breathe in! My still-dreaming body would not respond, sucked under, held below.

And I woke, gasping and retching. I can’t remember if I sat quickly upright and clutched at my chest, or if my mind followed my panicked inhalations more slowly, easing itself dry, but I remember the white clouds of pillows, sheets and quilts surrounding me, wrapping me, holding me safe and warm in my bed. I remember wanting to lean over and cough watery vomit into the mug on the table beside me. I remember panting and catching my breath. I remember hearing the rain outside and I know I sat still and silent for some time after regaining consciousness. I don’t know in what order or whether this all happened, but these are my memories of waking.

Even now, in the retelling, I barely remember any of that, but I can still feel in my chest and my stomach, echoes of the panic and vacuum and burn that consumed me as I drifted in and out of consciousness. I can still see myself motionless and suspended in the water; a collage of bubbling white momentum and clear blue glass. But I wonder… I wonder if I was safely breathing the whole time, cosy in bed with winter rain falling outside? I wonder if I was panting, if I was gasping and flailing in amongst the sheets and pillows? I wonder if, perhaps, I was still and submerged, slowly drowning in my dreams, in my memories, fears and futures? Drowning in those briefly stolen moments between sleep and waking?

To read more from Rebecca Olive, visit her website –