by Carrie Baatz
“Life isn’t about surviving the storm. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”
– Vivian Green
I love the ocean. Something in me is drawn to it, so I visit as often as I can. When I’m there, I want to hang around for hours and watch the waves – thousands and thousands of ups and downs, swelling and collapsing like deep breaths. They rise and fall, resolving somehow into composure. I can feel this stillness pervading all the powerful sounds of rushing and pouring.
Many people who live with mental illness can identify with waves. They experience tumultuous waters in their states of being. Unlike other kinds of disabilities, mental health disorders are invisible. The waves don’t show up on skin and bones. They appear in thought patterns, emotions, feelings, memory and energy. They can shift a person’s whole state of consciousness and suddenly change perception. Some waves can pull a person down into deep sadness or build up tension in their chest. Others act like an erosion beneath the surface, slowly chipping away at a person’s vitality.
Swimming in waters with high waves is a game of survival. Those of us who struggle know this all too well, and we learned survival strategies. I learned at a young age to brace myself against the waves. I kept my head above water for as long as I could, posing as though nothing was wrong. When waves overpowered me, I swam frantically and caught my breath in between the crashes. When nothing else worked, I developed a habit of closing my eyes, sinking down into the water, holding my breath and hiding. The waves kept coming anyway.
About 1 in 4 Americans lives with a mental illness. Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, traumatic-stress disorders, and personality disorders are major kinds of diagnoses. People can be surprised to learn that mental illnesses are just as real and biological as other medical conditions, like diabetes or cancer. For most people, mental illness is caused by an interaction between their genetics and environment. It often runs in families.
It feels natural to acknowledge and help disabilities when we can see them. We wouldn’t hesitate to go to the doctor if we broke our ankle and started limping. But if we are struggling mentally or emotionally, our instinct is to blame ourselves. Sometimes when we reach out, we receive judgment or misunderstanding from our loved ones. Our communities need more education about mental illness, so that people with all kinds of disabilities are accepted.
Recovery is a reality for many people. It’s a journey that begins when a person finds the safety, support and resources that they need. My recovery began when I found awareness. During a storm, it is difficult to see clearly the distinction between ourselves and the waves. We have been conditioned to identify with our thoughts and feelings. But the more we practice, the more we can recognize the waves for what they are. I wear awareness now as a life jacket, and it keeps me afloat.
Thankfully, we are not swimming alone. There are boats out in the water, filled with people who care and tools that can help. At The Independence Center, we offer safe spaces for people who are struggling in our peer support programs and our support groups. We are proud to partner with AspenPointe to offer therapy and diagnosis services, right here at our center. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers free education and support to the Colorado Springs community. Reach out to us at 719-471-8181 for more information.
I used to resist the waves, thinking I needed to rise above them in order to thrive. I’m learning now that I can thrive in the middle of ups and downs, while I’m rising and falling. I thrive when I can accept myself and show myself compassion.
*If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, call the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741741.
*Most employers offer an Employee Assistance Program, which offer many resources for common life struggles. Contact your HR department to find out about this benefit and how it can help you access mental health resources.