I’m a proud, homegrown St. Louisan. This city is like my own emotional hot-tub party: The water is warm and full of all my favorite people. I’m comfortable and relaxed. I feel validated here, too, in certain ways, but there’s another type of validation that’s rarer — and requires venturing into the unknown.
Last winter, I stuffed a duffle bag full of jeans and sneakers and flew to Malmö, Sweden. It was an impulsive and slightly reckless decision. I’d bought the ticket on my phone after a night of truth-or-dare with a few co-workers, then arranged to stay a week with an old buddy.
Upon arrival, I found myself bundled up, trudging through the Scandinavian wind. With a crumpled map in my pocket, I had resolved to dip outside of my comfort zone and visit the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus. It’s a century-old Swedish bathhouse out on the end of an ocean pier where patrons are dared to skinny-dip outside in the Sound.
I walked into the bathhouse. At the front desk, my tongue flipped and flopped in my mouth with the fragments of Swedish I’d learned on the short train ride from Copenhagen. I bit my lip hard, sensing the frustration of the cashier who waited on me. He was ridiculously handsome — not my type, being a man and all, but still easy on the eyes. He eventually just smiled, gave me a towel and let me through.
It works like this: You strip down and leave your belongings in the locker room. You shower and sit in a wooden sauna until your body is steaming hot. Then you go outside onto the main deck and jump into the frigid waters. You can repeat this several times. Legend has it that the contrast of the hot sauna and freezing water will reset your body, both physically and mentally.
I walked outside onto the deck overlooking the sea. Night had crept in. The only sound was slow-crashing waves. Half naked, I felt my purple toes throbbing from the 20-degree windchill. Wood creaked underneath as I walked to a flight of rickety stairs, lit by a lantern swinging in the breeze. The stairs plunged into a circle of dark water surrounded by a thin layer of ice.
I tossed the towel to the ground. Without thinking, I jumped. The cold knocked the wind out of me. Not in the way that falling off a horse or jogging might take your breath. No, this felt like a punch to the gut, like shattering glass, or like coming out to your parents. I was convinced that my heart had stopped and every last breath and memory were slipping away into the darkness. My arms and legs went rigid. I sunk. I raised my eyes towards the surface and saw a sliver of light from the nearby bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. I floated there for a while, between two worlds, then kicked my way back to the surface to breathe.
I was completely alone in that moment. No phone, not one article of clothing. There was no one around to count down the jump, to check my vitals and ensure I wouldn’t go into shock, to tell me, “It’s not so cold, you’ll be fine.” No one around to press the bright red button of a Snapchat video, to prove to the world that I’d actually jumped. It was just me and my towel.
I’m back in St. Louis now, my warm little social hot tub. I’ve realized that through my cell phone and social media accounts, many of my decisions are designed to win approval and validation.
But in the water that day, shivering and cracking icicles on my eyelashes, I was more level-headed and clear-minded than I had been in a long while. Crashing through that ice was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to being reborn.
Today, in the moments I need clarity and balance, I remember the night I jumped into the sea. I needed only one person’s validation that night. And I got it.
Camara “Cami” Thomas is a St. Louis native and graduate of Loyola University New Orleans. By day she works for Red Bull as a field marketing specialist, and by night she’s the creator and producer for FTCTVofficial.com, an underground media network.