when i was growing up, my family would go to lake michigan for most of the summer. we spent a lot of time at the beach. the lake was mostly calm with small waves, and sometimes was so completely smooth that it looked like a huge plate of glass. occasionally the water would become rough and there would be big waves and stronger currents, usually before or after a storm.
i remember one of those stormy days at the beach when i was about ten years old. i decided to venture into deeper water so that i could ride the waves back to shore. i took a wave board out with me and strapped the cord around my ankle so that i wouldn’t become separated from it. my confidence was high as i paddled out past where i normally stopped. i envisioned myself coasting effortlessly to shore on top of the board like surfers i had seen in the movies. i didn’t realize i was getting in over my head.
i pulled myself out of the water and hoisted my body on top of the board. first i knelt down and then, slowly, stood up. i think i lasted about five seconds before a huge wave crashed into the board and sent me flying into the air. i scraped my shoulder on the surf board as i plunged hard under water. lake water shot into my mouth and nose and ears, burning my nostrils and my throat. i was spinning and couldn’t tell which way was up. the cord was wrapped around both of my legs and i hit my head on the board several times as i tried to resurface. i gagged for air and was sucked back under water again, feeling overwhelmed with panic.
that incident on lake michigan reminds me very much of being struck with an episode of mental illness. i was overconfident and ignored warning signs. i didn’t see it coming. i fell down hard and couldn’t get back up. at times i felt like i couldn’t even breathe. the ground had vanished from under my feet and i couldn’t get my world to straighten out again. i desperately needed to come up for air, to have a break, but i kept getting sucked back under and smacked over the head with yet another setback. i felt tied down and entangled in unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior but didn’t yet know how to free myself. and i was far from shore, far from safety, far from everyone i loved. i felt alone and i felt afraid.
but my story didn’t end at the bottom of a lake. i finally managed to free my legs from the cord, grab hold of the board and keep myself above the surface. i knew how to tread water and, once i had caught my breath, i swam back to the beach.
just as getting sucked under water symbolizes getting sick, my return to the shore is a metaphor for recovery. slowly, ever so slowly, i stabilized after the tsunami of depression and anxiety knocked me down. i found my sea legs and started to take one shaky step after another. i could tell up from down and left from right again. i disentangled myself from the ties of shame and self doubt. i learned how to keep my head above water. i took deep breaths and let the air fill my lungs. the world around me became less scary. life started to make sense again.
and after what felt like an eternity out at sea, i finally made it back to the shore.