Every summer, an article circulates on my Facebook newsfeed called “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning.” True to its title, the article explains that drowning, contrary to popular belief, isn’t a loud, dramatic affair with shouting and violent thrashing about but a quiet, quick immersion that can paralyze victims before they can signal for help. Many victims drown with others around them, their friends unaware of what’s happening. “Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning,” the article states, “is that they don’t look like they’re drowning.”1
During my second year of grad school I had my first major depressive episode. Seven months later I started therapy. When I share my experience, friends with depression often exclaim, “You didn’t get help for seven months? What were you doing all that time?” Good question.
Many people know all too well that when it comes to seeking help for depression, time is of the essence. I know that now, but I didn’t know it then. I also didn’t know I was depressed. In fact, I thought I was getting healthy. It went something like this:
“I think I’m going to start jogging.”
One week later: “I need new running shoes.”
A week after that: “I’ve decided to eat less meat.”
A few weeks more: “I’m training for a half-marathon.”
Every day after finishing class, I went home, put on black spandex and a T-shirt, laced up my new K-Swiss, and went right back out. I’d follow the sidewalk from my house to the closest intersection, cross, and then heave my way up the (slight) hill in my neighborhood, following the oak-lined street back up to the university. Then I’d hop on the trail that circled campus and make my way around.
My pace was slow; walkers nodded politely as they passed me. The trail was just less than two miles, so I’d circle it once and then walk back home, stopping to stretch on my front stoop before going inside.
Not long after I started this daily routine, I called my mother to tell her about my new hobby. “You’re training for a what?” she asked.
“Ha! OK—” she paused, as if she were secretly double checking the caller ID.
“Oh, no, I think that’s great, honey! You’ve just, you know—well, you’ve just never really had any interest in sports, that’s all.”
“Yeah. Anyway, it’s going really great!” It was miserable. But I couldn’t help myself. Every day it was the same routine: Class. Spandex. Jog.
At some point I decided this would be much easier if there were less of me to carry. So a bowl of couscous with chicken and veggies for dinner became a bowl of couscous and veggies, which became a measured cup of couscous and veggies, which became three-quarters of a cup of couscous and a big glass of water.
The weight came off easily, so I kept going. Breakfast became a cup of cottage cheese. Lunch became a small sandwich and yogurt parfait. A snack was steamed edamame. Each meal and snack was carefully measured. If amounts were not exact or I didn’t have measuring cups on hand, I lapsed conservative, taking the smallest portion of the least fatty option on the table. I read nutrition labels not for calories or fat or sugar, but to see how many servings each product contained. The aim was to keep mine smaller than theirs. If a block of tofu had three, I cut it into four. I drank excessive amounts of water.
As winter folded into spring, I was running three, then six, then nine miles a day, and I’d lost thirty pounds. My one-and-half-mile loop expanded into long jogs around downtown. I’d race the sun as it set, passing restaurants and boutiques that bustled with people. I’d run without thinking, rerouting past baseball fields and coffee shops and through neighborhoods. I’d run for hours, until I ran out of steam or out of light—whichever came first.
In my spare time, I completed all the standard runner rites of passage: I read Born to Run and met up with local jogging groups at the farmers’ market on weekends to talk about it. I tried running barefoot (and gave up on it quickly). I started conversations with other runners about our fastest miles. I compared the number of times I pooped each day with fellow athletes. I read, talked, and dreamed about running.
Friends noticed the changes and encouraged my new hobby. Compliments on my weight loss abounded. One friend, who hadn’t seen me in months, was so blown away that later that night he sent me follow-up texts to continue the praise. “Seriously!!!!” his text read, “You look great! Way to go!!”
It turns out drowning didn’t look like drowning.
Looking back, it’s hard to blame my friends and family for missing it. I wasn’t waving a proverbial white flag; these aren’t the symptoms of depression we’re told to look for. In some ways, I hardly knew myself. I only knew that I liked how it felt to control my body, to succeed at making my body do what I wanted. That felt like an astonishing victory.
Many people who don’t have depression don’t realize how physically painful the illness can be. Depression crying, for instance, wasn’t like regular crying, at least not for me. Regular crying involved tears and sadness, but depression crying also included sharp pains that shot down my arms and legs, stomach-knotting nausea, and a far-off ringing in my ears. It produced severe anxiety and a desperate need to pace around whatever building I was in, sometimes without knowing why. It was exhausting. Though I wouldn’t have said it then, my conversion into an obsessive runner was an attempt to control the madness, to switch that pain for half-marathon pain because the half-marathon pain was something I could control and understand. This was my attempt to disembody one pound at a time. And it was working.
The semester ended. My roommates and I left for our summer internships, and ten weeks later—and another ten pounds thinner—I returned and dove back into routine, the August sun beating down as I ran my way through the city.
Then, in September, as I rounded the bend of mile nine on one of my evening jogs, an acute pain shot down my left leg from my knee to my ankle. At first I ignored it—aches and pains are common on runs—but with each step it grew more severe until finally I stopped and limped home.
In the coming weeks I struggled to overcome the injury. I rested for days. I alternated ice and heat. I stretched. I took daily ibuprofen. I massaged my leg. No dice. I was done. I missed my half-marathon, and every time I attempted a run, I made it a half mile, at best, before the pain started.
Without running, my agitation swelled. I had anxiety attacks. I burst into tears. I waxed and waned between sleeping excessively and insomnia. I slowed as I went through daily activities. As I continued to lose weight, even without exercise, compliments about my weight loss were replaced with expressions of concern.
“Hey, are you OK?” asked one friend when she saw me on campus. “You’ve lost a lot of weight. Is that on purpose?”
“You should eat something,” another said gently during a late-night study session.
“I’m not hungry,” I replied sluggishly, trying to focus on my work.
“That’s because you won’t eat,” she nudged.
Finally, a conversation with a roommate convinced me I was in trouble. “I don’t know how to help you,” she said, “and I think you need help.” She looked desperate, and I started to wonder if I did, too. So I called the university counseling center and made an appointment.
My first therapy session was awkward. I stared blankly as the therapist explained how confidentiality worked, and I nodded when he asked if he could turn on a tape recorder. His office was small, about the size of a large closet, with beige walls and sad, generic carpeting. I sat opposite him in a chair that had surely been lifted from a library in the ’70s. The view from his only window was of another building.
“So,” he said finally, “why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”
“I’m depressed,” I said matter-of-factly.
“What makes you think you’re depressed?”
“Well, I sleep a lot. I’ve lost a lot of weight, but that’s mostly because I’m not hungry. And I’m a runner. I cry a lot, too.”
“OK. Why don’t you take me to the beginning and walk me through it?”
I spent the remainder of the hour giving a soaking wet, garbled recap of the last year. We scheduled another session for the same time next week, and I left.
For the next few months, it seemed like that’s all we did—engaged in awkward, emotional back-and-forths. Sometimes I’d walk away feeling naked and exposed because of something I shared. Sometimes I’d leave his office and cry for hours. And sometimes I’d tell my roommates that I wasn’t sure how any of this was helping.
“I googled you!” I burst out during one session, scrunching my face into a guilty grin.
“Uh huh,” he replied slowly. “First, why? And, second, what’d you find?”
So it went. Recovery was slow. During one session, after weeks of feeling great, I had an anxiety attack in the chair when I started answering the question, “How are you?” But at some point I noticed I hadn’t measured my food in a while. I cried a little less. I started sleeping at normal hours. Our sessions began to focus on things that were happening to me, rather than things that had happened or that might happen in the future.
During my final semester, I incorporated the writings of Jean Vanier into my recovery process. I’d started reading Vanier while writing my thesis, but the impact of his words slowly seeped from my academic life into my personal life, restoring a long-lost quiet in those final weeks.
Vanier founded L’Arche, an international network of communities in which adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) live in community with their caretakers. Vanier believes that those with IDDs have a great deal to teach all of us about what it means to experience loss and trauma, to receive love, to be on this earth and in our bodies as we are—to be human. “To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness,” he writes. “To be human is to accept and love others just as they are. To be human is be bonded together, each with our weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other.”2
In his writing, I found solace. I discovered a new way of seeing my own life and wearing my own skin. It seemed that, for the first time, someone finally told me that it is OK to have limits. It is OK to ask for help.
In an interview with Krista Tippett for On Being, Vanier commented,
L’Arche is not based first on the word. You’ll find a lot of communities which are based on the word, thus to say we speak of an ideal together and we are committed to an ideal or to a vision and so on. But L’Arche is based on body and on suffering bodies. They are seen as useless . . . and so we welcome those who apparently are useless. And it’s a suffering body which brings us together. And it’s attention to the body. You see, when somebody comes to our community and is quite severely handicapped, what is important is to see that the body is well. . . . It’s to communicate to them through the body. And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up.3
Vanier writes on many topics: community, disabilities, humanity, and love. But in each article or book, I hear this same quiet, consistent message: be gentle—with others, with yourself.
After six months of weekly sessions with my therapist, our time was coming to a close. Graduation drew near, and I was set to move to a new city. In those final days, amid the tumult of change and the impending unknowns of postgraduate life, I took refuge in the steadiness of that hour. During our final session my therapist asked, “If everything falls into place, what does this new season look like for you? What’s your goal for this next chapter?”
I paused and gathered my thoughts carefully. “Ordinary,” I said finally. “I want to dive nose first into being ordinary. I want life to move slowly. I want to take my time.”
Whoever said, “You can’t run from your problems,” probably had depression. I don’t run anymore, and I’m OK with that. I am staying healthy—physically, mentally, and emotionally—in other ways. And I am daily learning that my body is well.
- Mario Vittone, “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning,” Slate, June 4, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/family/2013/06/rescuing_drowning_children_how_to_know_when_someone_is_in_trouble_in_the.html.
- anier, Becoming Human (Toronto, ON: Anansi, 1998), 40. To learn more about L’Arche, visit their website here: http://www.larche.org:8080/.
- Vanier, interview by Krista Tippett, “The Wisdom of Tenderness,” On Being, podcast audio, http://www.onbeing.org/program/wisdom-tenderness/234.