In the Breaking Bad TV Club this week, one of the big questions is what Skyler, Walter White’s wife, intended to do by walking into the family pool in the middle of her husband’s birthday party. Was it a “cry-for-help suicide attempt,” as Matthew Yglesias put it? Or merely “a stunt”? And how much danger was she actually in? Can you really drown yourself without the aid of drugs or weights?
It’s not easy. While the human mind may have the will to die, it is nearly impossible for a person to inhibit the initial gasping and bodily reflexes that occur when the head becomes submerged in water. As soon as water begins to enter the parts of the body where water is not naturally found—in the breathing apparatuses—involuntary reactions kick in, including hyperventilation and laryngospasm. The latter (which can occur in or out of the water) is an abrupt spasm of the laryngeal cords, sealing off the airway to the lungs, and increasing the acidity of the body. Such uncomfortable visceral effects prompt the body to instinctively fight against them.
While you can learn to hold your breath for long periods (à la David Blaine), doing so until you black out underwater won’t necessarily cause you to drown. Instead, your body will float to the surface and you will begin breathing again. Likewise, if you do not lose consciousness, your reflexes will eventually return and force you to breathe again, whether your head is submerged underwater or not.
The body does other things to keep you alive underwater as well. Something called the Mammalian Diving Reflex is triggered by both cold water and by holding your breath. The heart rate slows and the flow of blood to the limbs is constricted, so that more blood is available for the essential organs (the heart, brain, and lungs). MDR does decrease as we get older, however.
It can be difficult to determine whether a drowning was deliberately self-inflicted, but whatever the precise figures are, such deaths account for a small percentage of all suicides. They also frequently involve additional injuries unrelated to the drowning itself. Swimming pool suicides are rarer still; in general, people are more likely to kill themselves by drowning in coastal regions or other areas which, unlike Albuquerque, N.M., are near large bodies of water.
Thanks to Dr. Jeremy A. Spiegel of the DiMele Center for Psychotherapy, Dr. Ole J. Thienhaus of The University of Arizona, and Dr. David Shaffer of Columbia University.