Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Swimming Lessons for Depression

One summer my family went to Lake Michigan for a little time on the beach. My sister and I--water-lovers that we are--headed straight for the water. The waves were running a little high this particular day which, to us, was all the better. We had swam out, unbeknownst to us, onto a narrow sand bar. Then, one spectacularly huge wave hit us where we were swimming, knocking my sister and I both underwater. When I surfaced my sister was about 15 feet downshore from where we were swimming. She was flailing about and screaming. I was only about 9 at the time, but I knew enough to know that she was in trouble. I took one step toward her, only to step over the edge of the sandbar into much, much deeper water. Unable to feel the bottom, I surfaced and swam toward her. When I reached her, she was in full panic. I grabbed her around the waist and started swimming toward the shore. She screamed at me to let her go and was trying to squirm out of my grasp. I told her everything was okay and that I would not let her go. (My mind flashed back to swim class where our teacher told us that if the person you're trying to rescue is pulling you under, you should knock them unconscious. With one arm around my sister and the other engaged in keeping us above water, it occured to me that I should have asked more questions about how one might knock a drowning person unconscious while rescuing them.) Miraculously, we made it back to shore, both of us still conscious.

Looking back, I don't know how we survived. My sister was about 6 years old at the time, and while she was smaller than me, it wasn't by much. The lifeguard later told us the waves that knocked her off the sandbar were around 4 feet. I routinely failed my swim test for not having enough stamina to swim the length of a placid pool. The only way to explain how we survived was the power of the emotional bond of siblings. She is my sister, and there was no way I was going to leave her to the waves to fend for herself.

So it is with depression. Depression is like that wave that knocked my sister off the sand bar. A person can be caught unawares by a sudden wave of depression that leaves them flailing. When a loved one sees what's happened, s/he might try to lend support, but in doing so, s/he subjects herself to the power of the waves as well. Now, two are stronger than one, and together they might emerge safely. Depression is strong, but love is often stronger.

If someone you love is struggling with depression, you know that depression affects more than just the person who "has" depression. Depression takes its toll out on anyone close to its wake. In Brooke Shields' memoir, Down Came the Rain, I was struck by just how affected her husband, friends, and family were by "her" post-partum depression. Her story is a strong testament that while loved ones can help one overcome depression, it is dangerous to underestimate its powerful effects on one's support network. When seeking professional help for depression, it would be wise to invite them into the treatment process. Not only may support people be the key to swimming to safety, they may need to be thrown a lifesaver, too.

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