Guarding Your Own Life

If you saw a loved one in danger of drowning, your immediate reaction would probably be to jump in and pull them to safety. Unfortunately, it is actually the most dangerous action to take. A panicked person has unusual strength and will actually push the rescuer under the water in an instinctive attempt to reach the surface. It is better to keep a safe distance and extend something toward them to retain leverage.

I am certainly not a lifeguard. A friend shared this tidbit of safety knowledge with me today as a metaphor for being in a relationship with someone managing depression. The idea sparked a few insights that I wanted to explore:

The Water
Individuals with mental illness were born in deeper waters than most; the depths beneath them are always there. The danger of “drowning” (falling into a deep depression) is inherent within their make-up as a human being, particularly when life circumstances or chemical changes in the brain cause rough, choppy waters.

The Drowning Person
The instinctive self-preservation of the drowning person – pushing the rescuer down in an effort to reach air – made me think about how depression changes a person’s personality and motivations at times. Mental illness is real; there are chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions. Actions that appear selfish or illogical are often manifestations of this illness in the brain. That’s not to say that choice does not exist, but these physical components of the illness tangle together, making motivations unclear. Thinking of it like this softens the pain of misunderstanding and disappointment.

The Rescuer
The advice not to jump into the water feels counterintuitive. My tendency is to dive right into the dangerous waters, thinking I can solve any problem, fix any situation. In reality, I can’t even swim and I’m not particularly strong. The panicked strength of a drowning person could quickly overpower me. Despite my enthusiasm, all I would accomplish is my own drowning, in addition to the loved one I sought to rescue. At times, I am in the water already, struggling with my own depression. How can I save someone else, when I am barely treading water?

In my own situation, I realized that because we both suffer from depression of varying degrees, I need more distance to keep myself from falling deeper into the water. It gives me more leverage which enhances my overall strength. We can’t be together, but I can offer more loving support from a safe distance than I ever could from beside him in the water.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson