Drowning in Sorrow

Lifeguards will tell you, if you ask, that drowning doesn’t look like you think it does. There’s no yelling, waving, or splashing—and if there is, it’s only for a brief moment that often gets mistaken for having fun.

Photography: Emir Ozsahin

Photography: Emir Ozsahin

Instead, a drowning person looks like they’re standing—they’re literally vertical in the water. Their hands are at their sides, trying to push themselves up by pushing the water down. If you look closely, you might see their lips surfacing now and again. They have only enough energy to exhale and inhale quickly. There’s nothing left with which to cry out.

When I first read a description of this, it seemed oddly familiar. Thankfully, I’ve never witnessed anyone drowning in a body of water. But I have seen more than a few drowning people walking the streets or sitting across from me during a client session.

Someone who’s drowning emotionally looks very much the same as someone drowning physically.

They look like they’re standing—but on the inside, they are curled in a fetal position. They’re not waving around in any obvious manner; their hands are at their sides, or doing normal everyday things. If you look closely, you might see the underlying despair just at the surface now and again. They have only enough energy to breathe and get through the day. There’s nothing left with which to cry out.

I’ve actually been in both situations. When I was little, I got taken under by the surf in the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t even get to the surface—I was being pounded by the waves against the ocean floor. I got lucky; my dad found me, scooped me up, and got me to shore. I had at least 30 minutes worth of sobbing to work through and half the beach inside my bathing suit, but I was otherwise unharmed.

And I have also been there emotionally, at that point where it took all my energy just to get through the day in one piece. I couldn’t be bothered, most of the time, to call out for help–in fact, I think I believed for a while that there wasn’t any point. But I got lucky here, too. I had and have a strong survival instinct despite everything, and with loving and consistent prompting, I was able to reach out to my community of caring people, including an insightful coach, a doctor who knew how to listen, and a compassionate therapist.

The main difference between the two? When you’re drowning in water, you can be rescued by another, even against your will (though a smart lifeguard will hook an arm around you from behind so you can’t take them down with you).
But when you’re drowning emotionally? All the help in the world can’t save you unless you are willing to help save yourself.

UGH, right? This is probably the last thing you want to hear from your metaphorical or literal fetal position. Everything is overwhelming and it feels like you’re going under and now you have to SAVE YOURSELF? Next thing you know, we’ll all be expecting you to SMILE, too. Can’t we see that it’s all you can do to just hold still, let alone DO something to get out of this mess?

The good news is, you don’t have to do much, not at first. Be aware. Stay awake. Be open to someone or something that comes along that you can hold onto and get leverage. It might be a person. It could be a a fleeting, even tiny interest in something, in anything. Might be your pet. Hint: it’s almost always easier to find motivation to help someone else than it is to help yourself. Better yet, engaging in the former usually results in the latter.

Not that I, a life coach, would know anything about that.

So will you sink or will you swim? Unlike me in the Gulf of Mexico, the choice is really up to you.

Standing by with a life preserver and a tow line,

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