Because of the specific type of privileged Millennial Brooklyn over-parenter I am, a lot of my less-restful nights start with catching up on articles on social media warning of the dangers of too much screen time, not enough probiotics, and the viral it-could-happen-to-you horror stories parents love to share. It was this way, two weeks ago, that I stumbled upon an article in an online boating magazine (not my usual reading material but this is the magic spiral of social media) called Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning, shared by a friend urging his circle to learn the real visual cues that indicate someone is either currently drowning or about to drown entirely.
Every parent has a slightly paranoid masochistic side, and as terrifying as it was to read this very short but very informative explanation of the body’s true natural response to drowning, it was relieving to unveil yet another human element that has been misadvertised by television and movies – right up alongside orgasms and childbirth – and the author explains perfectly why so many drownings go unnoticed:
“Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.”
When in distress, our bodies and minds are fully occupied with trying to establish baseline human functions and return to normalcy. You cannot scream for help if you’re already struggling to breathe. You cannot flail your arms to call for attention if you’re only able to paddle enough to keep your head above water. If you’re not a strong swimmer both of these things become harder.
Drowning most often happens in silence.
A few weeks ago, Tamu published some brilliant thoughts in reaction to the loss of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain to suicide in just one workweek. The most common remarks from both strangers and those that knew them was what a shock it was that each them took their own lives. Both struggled with depression, and depression can often coincide with suicidal ideation. But neither took their lives in a drug and alcohol-fueled fugue state. They purposefully and soberly ended themselves. Often we take refuge in the dramatized idea of that last moment as a way of creating distance between ourselves and the possibility of ever being in that mental space. If the victim was out of their mind on drugs and threw themselves off the top of a building, we ourselves would need to first do a lot of drugs and also find a tall building before we found ourselves in that same place. The thought of anyone’s suicide starting at the same place I am sitting now, with a cup of coffee at my kitchen table, almost makes the act entirely too pedestrian and relatable. And then we, too, could be susceptible to these still very mysterious forces, and that thought for many is too much to bear. Educational materials tell us to look for warning signs; distributing personal possessions, obsessively working on end-of-life planning, tying up relationships. These may be indicators, but they are certainly not a reliable norm.
Most suicides happen in silence.
I am not a suicidal person, and to pretend that I am would be to recklessly co-opt a struggle that I have no place in. I have definitely dealt with lifelong depression and anxiety, though, which are both factors that can eventually contribute to escalated mental health issues, and this is something I try to be mindful of as much as possible. I try to check in with myself. I try to admit when I need help. I try to remember that if I stop doing these things it will pose a great threat to my emotional health, and that metric is one of the cornerstones holding my whole foundation together.
I am also a thirty-something single mother living in one of the largest and most challenging metropolises on the planet, with a demanding career and an ambition-oriented personality, and those keywords are never found in a search for optimal mental health conditions. I am one of millions marching uphill toward personal fulfillment, with all the sprained ankles and missteps into poison ivy that that march entails. And, like many others, I am grateful for the journey, which includes victories big and small, mistakes minor and path-changing, and personal highs and lows that make up a real life lived.
And this spring, I started to drown.
What struck me so deftly about this drowning article in the random boating digest was just how accurate everything was. I am not the kind of person who says no to anything, and I don’t think of overextending myself as so much of a personality flaw as it is a lifestyle. My mornings, days, nights and weekends are booked to the gills with obligations basic and grand, and for whatever reason – the stars, my age, the humidity index – a few months ago, these obligations began to crush me. The physical weight manifested itself in a series of bodily injuries, each more painful than the last, as if I were in a heavyweight boxing match and life was Joe Frazier telling me to just stay down goddamit, which of course I ignored and kept fighting the good fight out of habit and pride.
Then I began to lose sleep – not in the I’m so excited about the world and I can’t stop thinking these big ideas way that I am used to, but instead in a nameless anxiety bouncing recklessly from thought to thought without concluding or resolving any actual issues sort of way. I love solving problems, and this continuous Pac-Man thought pattern every night got me to a place where I actually dreaded each day coming to an end because it meant my mind’s relay race would begin.
I am very open with these issues on social media, which may or may not be to my detriment, sometimes I think people log into Instagram to purposefully subject themselves to the FOMO of scrolling through what appears to be an endless feed of luxury vacations and expensive gifts. My hope, when I share that I am anxious or that I struggled with anxiety on any given day, is not to go fishing for pity or compliments, but rather that amongst my small group of friends and acquaintances, we can begin to normalize discussions around mental health and understand the way different bandwidths of stress and anxiety become overtaxed, and most importantly how we can support each other. That it should be as acceptable to identify publicly that we are struggling as it is to identify that we are thriving. You don’t get one without some of the other. Talking honestly about mental and emotional health is, to me, the spiritual iteration of a No Makeup Selfie.
When I started to share these issues as they began to happen, I was surprised by the response, which was mainly echoes on echoes of women feeling the exact same way. Drowning in work, drowning in family, drowning in feeling constantly that they are disappointing their friends, drowning in the expectation that perfection is normalcy. The emotional relief that was returned to me by so many humans paying the same tolls as I was astounding, and helped keep me buoyant enough to keep breathing, keep treading, and start paring away the things that were contributing to my stress. Knowing that other people are also in pain is no comfort, but knowing that they, too, are out there continuing to fight through the days is inspiring enough for me to do it too.
So, no: drowning doesn’t look like drowning. Drowning looks strikingly normal, and is not a one-size-fits-all moment with thrashing arms and dramatic gulps of breath with ample opportunity for intervention. But one thing whose looks do not deceive is outreach. Whether your personal capacity for stress is big or small, reaching out to your friends and family at times when you start to feel yourself falling back on survival instincts is key, and in return, being the friend who can be relied on to help someone breathe – which doesn’t always mean pulling someone out of the water and paying their hospital bills and feeding their cat while they recover, just letting them breathe – is the most important thing we can do.