Treading for Life

Do you remember swimming as a child? I do. I remember that I was always terrified of drowning. All my friends, even my siblings would dive into the deep end, but not me. I would wait anxiously on the side of the pool waiting for them to come back up. Maybe it’s the adrenaline. The rush. And even though my parents took me to swimming lessons and even though I actually knew how to swim, I was always terrified.
I knew something was wrong with me. It wasn’t the diving-to-the-bottom part that worried me. It was the coming back up. Coming back up for air. What if I didn’t make it? I couldn’t take the feeling I experienced every time I came back up. My heart and head pounding. My lungs ready to burst. The relief of the oxygen entering my lungs after reaching the top could not soothe the anxiety that it caused me. There was nothing at the bottom of that pool or any pool or lake or ocean in the world that was worth that feeling.
All my life I have had reoccurring nightmares that I or someone I love is drowning. They fell into the river. They jumped into the river. They fall into the lake, at the cabin, off the dock, right in front of my eyes and there is nothing I can do about it. Or I slipped into the river downtown, near the falls. I am pulled under into the cold depths. I can feel the cold in my sleep. I swim as hard as I can, but I never reach the surface. I am afraid of drowning. Of losing myself. Of dying.
Today, as an adult, I realize that my fears and anxieties revolve around losing myself or losing my loved ones. To suicide. To addiction. To greed. To pride. To ignorance. To political-correctness.
That anxiety. That fear. That pain. That agony- they are anchors tied to my feet. That fear of doing all that I can and still not being able to make it back up onto land is something that I fight. The fear that if I do not text my friend or family member back that that may have been the last chance I had to contact them. That I may have had something to do with their death or addiction or self-harm. That I didn’t do enough for them.
This is what mental illness has turned my life into. This is why I isolate myself. This is why I don’t text back. This is why I don’t show up for church. Why I push you away. Why I avoid responsibility and commitments and relationships and feeling anything at all, really.
It’s too much. Some days, I am literally choking for oxygen, as my throat closes with anxiety- at the thought that I will feel this way forever. Some days I have to force myself to eat or drink something. To get out of bed.
I am so ashamed of not having the ability to swim or live carefree like the other kids. I am so ashamed of not having the ability to just be there for someone. I am so ashamed that I can’t just be a good wife. Daughter. Sister. Aunt. Friend. Christian. Neighbor. And it’s not just what the world “says” I should be. It’s what I want to be!
There are some days that I am able to be the person that I want to be- that I can tread water for a little bit, but I tire quickly. Some days, I barely make it to the side of the pool, just so I can get out, dry off, and try again the next day.
Some days I am able to swim about the pool and even hold my breath under water for five seconds or float on my back. I remember some days I would even make myself sink to the bottom of a 6ft pool just to try to make myself get over it. But mental illness has taken my drive. It has taken my energy and my oxygen. It has taken away my thrive and fight to just keep kicking and to survive.
So I avoid the pool (life, community, interaction) like the plague. Because I know if I jump in, I will drown. At some point, my arms will become too tired and my legs will cramp up. My heart will give out and my lungs will fill with water as I sink to the bottom. And I will be in helpless pain and agony as I am able to process the last few images and thoughts running through my mind before my brain dies. This will happen to all of us. We cannot tread water forever.
If I avoid you, it’s not because I don’t care about you. If I don’t reply your text or like your photo on facebook, it’s not because I don’t have time for you. If I don’t visit you or ask you how your day is going, it’s not because I think I am better than you. It’s because I’m treading, for my life. And it’s not just that. I’m treading for my life while people all around me keep asking me to swim harder or swim faster or swim better. I. Just. Can’t. All I can do is what I can do. And I wish that was enough for everyone, but it’s understandable that it’s not.
Yes, it’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s terrifying. It gets old as hell. Some days I ask myself why I keep treading. Why I keep fighting. Why I choose to live in physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional agony. It’s because this world is too beautiful to leave. My husband and my parents and my sister and my brothers and my nephew, my extended family and my friends, and the souls in this world are too beautiful to leave.
Millions of people in our country are fighting through this waking nightmare daily. But not everyone has a reason to fight. Some people lose sight of the surface. Some people can’t yell for help.
This is my biggest fear. That we are forgetting someone. That we are ignoring this problem that affects millions of us. That it’s “too shameful” to talk about.  It’s not. It’s real. It’s happening. Open your eyes. Raise your voice.
Sometimes, we don’t realize that people around us are drowning, because we are too busy fighting our own fight. That’s okay! But if you have five minutes or even two, as you are lounging by the side of the pool or resting between laps, take a look around you. Reach out to someone who may look a little tired. Reach out to someone who may need an extra hand. Just love people. Be there for people. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Give them grace. Do what you can. Call the life guard. Tell a family member. Throw them a life-line. Or a freaking pool noodle for crap-sake. Some of us can’t do it alone.
And for those who have thrown me a life-line, who have said hello to me, or have suffered through any amount of time with me, I thank you. With all of my heart.

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