026: It Can Feel Like Drowning

Content warning: This post contains information about depression and/or anxiety, which may be triggering to some survivors.

"It Can Feel Like Drowning," Lindsay Olofson


It can feel like drowning.

Like you’re in the ocean and 5 minutes ago the water was calm, but suddenly the swells are rising and every few seconds you lose sight of land.  My family went to Mexico when I was eleven and on the first day my dad, my sister and I went swimming.  We were together, we were happy, we were confident in our swimming abilities, we kept swimming farther out.  I turned around expecting to see my dad just behind me but I saw nothing. I saw a wall of water. The swell moved on and I could see my dad and sister in the distance and the beach further off. Not wanting to seem like I couldn’t handle myself I didn’t call out for help.

I began swimming as hard as I could toward them, only catching brief glimpses of the beach as each swell passed.  I was a strong swimmer but it felt like I would never make it back to land and I started to get the occasional gulp of water making me splutter and gasp. I knew that I was about to drown.

I didn’t.

Obviously I’m alive and writing, but that was one of the very few times I have felt real, honest to goodness, fear. I felt in danger, alone, helpless, and terrified all for very good reasons. There was real danger. Once back on land I felt justified in my fear and moved past it easily.

Those are the same feelings I get when my anxiety resurfaces. There’s no warning and any number of things can set it off so sometimes I get anxiety about getting anxiety. I know, it sounds counterproductive, but that’s just it, anxiety isn’t productive and it isn’t rational. The same level of fear I feel when facing the prospect of drowning is the same as what I feel when facing the prospect of getting my car smogged. Seriously, the realization that my ’95 Ford Explorer needed to be smog tested before renewing registration in CA sent me spiraling into a frenzy of what if’s and I can’t afford a new car and how will I get to work without a vehicle.

My ever-patient and incredibly wise sister said, “Make a list of the things you have to do.”   I wrote down “get the Explorer smogged” she stopped me and said, “That’s it.  That is your whole list. Nothing else can go on that list until you know the outcome of the smog check.” That simple.

Suddenly I felt better, I took the car in, it passed and the rest is history. The fear though. The all-consuming fear of loss and failure and dependency doesn’t usually go away so easily. I do still use the make-a-list process to help bring myself back to center.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but at least then I’ve got a list. And I love lists.

When I moved back down to the bay area from Portland I went deeper than I have ever been and hopefully will ever be. I had just ended a three year relationship, moved in with my father and his new wife, taken a job paying barely enough to make payments on my car and insurance, and had no friends I could get to easily. My mother was in Kenya pursuing her amazing dream, my sister was in India with her incredible family, and I felt lost and left behind.

Even now, it’s hard for me to admit that. In no means do I begrudge them a second of the time that they have been away.  I am so proud and happy for them both, but it was hard to feel so alone. I struggled with everything in my path. Relationships, debt, employment, I made poor decisions and felt the fear creep up with every day. There were days when I could barely get myself to leave my room. I felt it first in my chest. I couldn’t breathe deeply and every inhale felt like a tiny battle. Then I felt it in my conversations with others. I’d break down over the tiniest things and avoid the real issues I was facing.

When I was in high school and was having problems with friends or teachers or projects my mom would often tell me “the thing isn’t always the thing” meaning the problem that you’re seeing may not be the root issue.  Find the root issue and you can solve it. It hit me one day that all of these “things” I was agonizing over (loneliness, underachievement, debt) weren’t actually the “thing” that was eating at me.

I had lost my confidence.

I lost it through listening when people told me their opinion of me, my body, my character. I lost it through accepting my under appreciative job as the best I could do.  I lost it through allowing others to dictate my spending and abuse my generosity out of a fear of being shunned. I hit one of my lowest points when I thought of a phrase my father would tell me growing up. He would look at me with this proud, awed, and slightly bewildered look on his face and say, “Lindsay, you are nothing if not confident.” The phrase had always made me feel empowered. It made me feel I could do anything.  In that moment though it hit me like a sack of bricks. It was crushing to recognize that I had lost all self-confidence but compounded by my own implied secondary meaning to the statement “without my confidence I am nothing” was completely devastating.

Naturally, my father could have never known that a statement he intended to bring more confidence and strength to my character could backfire in such a way.  I do not in any way believe he bred this self-consciousness in me. I’d like that to be very clear. It was through this moment, this terrible drowning moment that I was able to start making changes. I was so determined to get back to a place of complete confidence that I started peeling back layer by painful layer of my life. I made friends, found an incredible partner, got a new job and started to rebuild.

It sounds easy, right?

It went quickly, I’ll give you that.  It was anything but easy, though.  Now that I had become more clearheaded about my tangible problems and was well on my way to fixing them, I couldn’t understand why I was still feeling the overwhelming fear. I grew frustrated at my episodes.

My life was worlds better than it had been a few short months earlier, why was I still unhappy? I would talk to my partner about what was bothering me, and as I explained why I was brought to tears in anxiety about whether the grout in my shower was clean enough or if I would make friends I was continually countering myself by saying, “I know this is ridiculous.”  I learned a truth during those conversations, and this one’s really important.

Being self-aware doesn’t mean I can control my emotions.

I had to mull that one over a lot after I initially said it, but it really touched the root of my anxiety. I was self-aware enough to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all of these “issues” I was having were completely fixable and inevitably solvable, however I was still in “I’m about to die in the ocean” fear mode. I tried breathing exercises, I tried talking it out with my partner, I tried everything. Then one day I tried accepting the fact that anxiety was part of who I am. Accepting that I can’t control my emotional response to negative stimuli was oddly freeing and therapeutic. 

As humans, there are lots of things we can control but there are also lots of things we simply can’t. I may be able to control my outward response to something, but my internal emotional response is just out of my reach.

Honestly though, that’s okay.  That right there is the key for me.

Yes, I have anxiety issues and that’s okay.  It’s okay to feel upset about grout. It’s okay to be afraid you won’t make friends even though you are acutely aware of your long history of friend making. It’s okay to feel lonely in a house with too many people in it.  I can’t control how I feel about things, but I can control how I treat myself as a result. I forgive myself and my subconscious for regularly scaring the living daylights out of me for no rational reason. I’ll end with a few sayings that my incredible family has given me over the years.

“Constant forward motion.”  Originally said by my sister trying to impart big sibling wisdom about moving through the city, it has morphed into my reminder in scary desperate times that my next step forward is the only decision I truly need to make.

“You just be the best ‘you’ you can be, and they’re going to be the best ‘them’ they can be.”  My mom’s reminder that everyone is trying, everyone struggles, and everyone is doing their best. Just because it doesn’t look like my best doesn’t mean it’s any better or any worse.

“I am so incredibly stupendous, sometimes I even amaze myself!”  My father firmly believes that the key to confidence is telling yourself how fantastic you are. It feels a little weird at first, but on a bad morning saying this to yourself in an extra exuberant voice does wonders. (bonus points if you can imitate my dad.)

“I only need to remember three truths to bring me back: The sky is blue, The grass is green, and I am a wonderful person.”  This one.  This one right here is what gets me through every single day. Minor hiccups along the way will never stop. If I feel myself ramping up to full blown run-for-the-hills flight mode, this statement can help to bring me back down. I stop what I’m doing, go outside, and focus on these three things for as long as it takes.

The world is hard. Being an adult is difficult no matter how old you get. What works for one person may not work for another. That being said, if you’re drowning and you’re thinking of not saying anything to avoid the appearance of failure, don’t do what I did. My family didn’t know I was in trouble that day in the water and they didn’t know the extent to which I was in trouble with my anxiety and depression. Say something. Chances are there are people close to you who have been where you are even if you don’t know it.

It can feel like drowning, but it doesn’t have to.


About the art:

I know Lindsay from college and while we weren't terribly close, I always admired the vibrancy that she brought to any gathering. All this time, little did I know, we were going through a very very similar struggle with how our mental health impacts our daily lives.

the line that resonates most is, "Being self-aware doesn't mean I can control my emotions." Reading this made so many things click for me. I'm a pretty emotional dude and I don't hide that and I'm very self-aware of those emotions, yet the struggle of balancing all of that awareness and emotions gets very complicated. Especially with family and relationships.

This piece was inspired by the line in Lindsay's story. When I first read the line, it struck me as something disjointed like an anti-poem. But the more I looked at it and read it to myself in the context of Lindsay's story, it made perfect sense. The colors were chosen by Lindsay, who wanted earth and jewel tones!

I am so thankful that Lindsay shared this piece—she actually contributed it back in March, when I first made a call for submissions. So this story has sat with me for a while. It's a great piece to kick off our month of mental health stories.

Keep surviving, Lindsay! Being an adult does suck sometimes. But we got this.

- Craig