Ellen Romer Niemiec
Kicking to the Surface
I had someone ask me not long ago why I decided to take medication for my mental health. I was already in therapy. Why did I suddenly need it? What kind of difference does it make? I truthfully wasn’t quite sure how to explain it. I was still in therapy and on medication, making it difficult to see the whole picture. It’s also a delicate experience to share at any time, most certainly when the edges are still a bit raw. Finally, it hit me.
It’s like swimming. I know how to swim; I grew up swimming. There were lessons at the YMCA and many summers at our family’s lakehouse. My siblings and I would ride our bikes to the pool in the summer. I am no Olympian but I am confident in the water and have enjoyed swimming through rough waves at the lake or even in the ocean. Sometimes waters can get rough and the waves become too high and they come so quickly you can’t even catch your breath. You can find yourself in a riptide that just keeps pulling at you no matter how hard you try to get out. No matter how strong of a swimmer you are, you need rest. You can’t tread water forever - you will eventually drown.
Starting on medication was like someone throwing me a life vest. I had coaches and lifeguards - my therapist, my spouse, my family, - offering me a lot of support. I still couldn’t quite stay above water. The riptide was still strong and the waves weren’t slowing down, but having a life vest offered relief to my exhaustion. I could breathe a little bit better and finally had the wherewithal to get a sense of where I was. Did it look like the waves would stop? Which direction did I need to swim in to get out of this riptide? Was there anyone close enough to help me, without pulling them down with me? It gave me the space and just a little more time to ride out the storm until the waters calmed.
It took a while for me to make my way out - and it is certainly not the same for everyone. There are a lot of medications out there and the kind of help someone needs depends a lot on how they swim and what storm they are caught in. For me, it was about a year after starting medication when I realized - I missed swimming. A life vest let me breathe and work back to my comfort level of swimming. It helped me build back my confidence that I am indeed a very capable swimmer. But it’s hard to do a deep dive. You don’t have quite the same range of motion and it can be a little uncomfortable as it pushes up around your chin or chafes under your arms. These are manageable and worthwhile discomforts but they can become less worth it once the water calms. It was nerve wracking to take it off, but I had the encouragement of my loved ones and my therapist. Once I did, it just felt so good to dive back under water. To touch the sand and use my own muscles to kick to the surface. My body needed the rest and care that the life vest provided, but my body is also good, strong and capable without it.
I still struggle with the idea that maybe I am not a good swimmer and I should have been able to handle the waves that came my way. I get nervous that maybe I can’t really swim and start eyeing the shoreline. I know there are people who might think I was just faking my ability to swim and that my struggles are a reflection on my own gifts (or lack thereof) instead of a reflection on the strength of the waves. I know there are people that just don’t want to hear about it or don’t want to risk getting caught in those same waves if they reach out to help me or someone else..
I try to rest as best as I can in the knowledge that I have my gifts, strengths and weaknesses that God wove into my very being. One of my strengths is that I asked for help and got the hell out of the storm before I drowned. I remind myself that God never wants us to drown and has given me so many people to make sure I don’t. I remind myself that God asks us to send out lifelines, not more waves.I try to shift the darker thoughts toward practicing my swimming. I’m not worried about being the next Michael Phelps, but I can stay in shape. I am learning to be more attentive to my surroundings so I don’t get caught off guard. I’m more selective about where and why I swim. I know that you can’t fix everything, you can’t stop hurricanes, and that - most important - using a life vest once, twice, or all the time doesn’t make you a bad swimmer.