Learning to Swim
by Wendy Estavien
For someone who grew up learning the art of survival, I never learned how to swim.
I had never really been put in a situation where I needed to know how to anyway. Even if I had stepped into shallow water, I only went in with the hope of solely wading or getting my feet wet. And I have always come out, minimally wet, leaving two firm footprints in the sand.
Over a short period of time, the water took me farther and farther away from shore, and the tide pulled me under. The waves were rough and the undertow was strong. I was quickly in over my head — and then I drowned. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t know how to keep the ocean from taking over.
I struggled with my drowning. I fought against the waves and tried so hard to pull myself up for air but I couldn’t kick my feet hard enough. Every life boat seemed too far to reach. Every time I tried to open my mouth, water filled my lungs. I couldn’t see anything clearly with the salt burning my eyes. I couldn’t even keep myself afloat on sheer willpower alone.
If you haven’t already picked up on it, this is what depression feels like. It goes by many other names, but describing the tumultuous sea is the only metaphor that can truly illustrate what it felt like at its worse. This vast body of water is a vivid motion picture screening of my personal battle with depression. This troubled ocean bore countless tears, crippling anxiety, complacency, self depreciation, self hatred and self medicating. Each symptom a massive wave that tossed me until I could not see myself for who I was anymore.
I tried to resist the power of my own emotions until I got lost in it–no compass, no direction. My mind, that I’d always been comfortable with, turned around and consumed me, ran me down and stabbed me deep in the back like a bad friend. Being isolated in what felt like the endless, inexplicable sadness was an experience that I never thought I would encounter. Having to hide what felt like the worst pain was a skill I had to learn just so I wouldn’t suffocate under the pressure I created in my own head.
People who have known me for the years leading up would tell you that succumbing to adversity was foreign to my character. I was a conqueror of challenges. I knew how to solve my problems and very few things could stand in my path for long. I was able to tackle most things on my own, and would exhaust all my options before I’d even think to ask for help.
I was in command and complete control all the time… until I wasn’t.
The woman I knew rapidly eroded away until she was just gone. My motivation dissolved completely. I tolerated quite a bit of negativity. I let a lot of harmful behaviors slide. I let horrible things happen to me. I let bad choices fester into bad habits. My physical health was shot. My mind was so dark that I soon gave up the idea of even trying to breathe again.
To be honest - I just didn’t want to.
There was no point in fighting this internal battle that I had clearly already lost. I welcomed the idea of staying entrapped in that dark place forever. I became complacent where I was and accepted rock bottom as my fate. I was pushed to the floor of the ocean - broken, weighed down, and far past the point of saving.
It took a few years of feeling low and defeated to realize that - at my depth - the path back to shore was going to be challenging and painful. But it was a path worth taking nonetheless. My journey up from rock bottom required a shift in attitude. It required lifting my fragmented body off the ground. It required removing the people and things that weighed me down, no matter how difficult it was to do. It required taking a hard look at my own reflection, accepting my faults and changing my bad behaviors. It required openly asking for the help I so desperately needed. It required finding ways to cope that didn’t harm me years into the future.
I had to relearn a lot of things about myself, and had to reteach myself a lot more. I found guidance, love, and a solid support system to uplift me and hold me accountable. I opened doors that allowed me to find new kinds of love in far away places. I found new motivation and moved forward. And with all this, the journey became substantially easier.
Slowly, I got closer to the surface of the water until I was able to breathe again. But my journey wasn’t over; I was still very far from the shore, where I wanted to be. The moment I found myself in still water and took the opportunity to start kicking my feet, I truly knew what it felt like to just swim for the first time. I’ve been swimming everyday since then.
Realistically, my body gets tired some days. Sometimes the water gets a little rough. Other times I realize give myself a break and just ride the waves for a while. I’ve learned that, at this point, anything that safely gets me to shore is okay. And that I’m okay, even with some damaged parts.
So here I am - somewhere in the middle of the ocean - but far above water and definitely closer to shore than I was a year ago, a month ago, yesterday and even this morning. I can honestly say I don’t have the slightest clue how long it’ll take before I get to feel the sand under my feet again. Though, I’m certain that day will come soon enough.
But for right now, I’m taking this ocean one stroke at a time.