Learning to swim

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One sunny afternoon last fall, I drove the 80 kilometers from work awash in a sea of gulping tears. As my heart galloped as if it would come right out of my chest, I succumbed once again to a never-ending cycle of sadness.

I arrived home to an empty house. My children were still in daycare; my husband on his way to get them. As I sat brooding on our front porch, listening to the rustle of trees and gazing thoughtfully at the vibrant reds and golds that had once signaled a time of joy for me, I felt an overwhelming desire to run. I didn’t think I could face another moment of my life. I considered leaving everything behind, just packing my bag and escaping  somewhere far away.

Rooted to that spot for what seemed like an eternity, the ache was darker than I had ever experienced. A nebulous and oppressive cloak had wrapped itself around my soul. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t muster the energy to shrug it off.

Somewhere in my desperation I found the courage to acknowledge that something had to be done. It was no longer enough to wait for a better day. I needed help. I had to get it.

I saw my doctor, and she gently told me what I already knew. It was time. Time to treat my darkness for what it was.

I was battling depression.

It was a painful realization and I was scared. My sadness pressed against me, sharp and judgmental. I was convinced I had lost and believed myself guilty for it.

Somewhere along the line, my life had gone all fuzzy. At 33 I was blessed with a happy and loving marriage and two wonderful sons. I enjoyed a fulfilling career, supportive network of family and friends and yet, I could not cope. I was completely depleted, lacking the reserves I needed to weather this storm.

Help did come. It came in the form of a much needed rest from work and the many responsibilities in my life. It also came in the form of medication.

For weeks, I sank completely into myself. I did no more than I had to. I gave myself permission to quietly and steadily focus on me. With time, I gained a very small sense of equilibrium.

And I found the strength to go on.

When I started to live the breadth of my life again—the one where I struggle with depression while raising two boys, working full-time and spending hours commuting back and forth between the two—my husband assured me it would be easier. He said that now there would be less low lying cloud. He was right.

As the weeks passed, I slowly felt my centre widen and my capacity to focus stretch, tentatively. Before long, I was seeing things with a new clarity. The edges of my life felt crisp and fresh, no longer sharp and threatening. My energy rebounded and my heart’s cadence slowed to a more manageable rhythm.

At the same time, I was struggling to accept and understand the role the medication was playing. I worried it was tricking me into a tenuous complacency that I wouldn’t be able to hold on to. I was afraid that my tenuous grip was false and would fall apart.

When I explained my worry to my therapist, she threw me a lifeline.

“The medication will keep you from drowning, but it won’t teach you to swim.”

I held on to her words with a white knuckle grip. They propelled me forward, firmly encouraging me to continue focusing on the hard work of digging myself out.

For the first time in a very long time, I began to feel more like myself. It was like the return of an old friend who you hadn’t realized you missed. The familiarity was ripe with possibilities. Strangely, the clarity also scared me. As the edges of my life sharpened and felt brighter, I resisted. I clung to my sadness as a warm security blanket. Uncovering the reality of what my life had been left me vulnerable and hesitant.

I still faced a wall that separated two parts of my self—who I was before motherhood and who I wanted to be.

I spent long, disquieting and raw hours talking with my therapist. I wrote and wrote, and read so many words by others. I discovered meditation, and learned to sit in quiet contemplation. As I did I slowly began to forgive myself.

Yet, I still couldn’t bridge the gap and inhabit either life with any degree of certainty. I focused intently on that wall, wondering how to get through it. In the beginning, I practically pleaded for it to clear a path and let me through; then I begged and cried, until I realized I had to accept it and forget about focusing on what was beyond it, and worry about right now.

When I did, I could finally see my path winding gradually, but steadily ahead of me. In the distance I recognized a hazy resting place called recovery.

This marked a subtle, but deeply profound shift. If I hadn’t been paying such close attention, I’m certain I wouldn’t have noticed it. A deep calm started to spread, tenuously at first, but stronger with time. I realized that all the work that I had been doing for months—the writing, the talking, the meditating, the reading and thinking and crying, and gut-deep soul work, was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

Something primal whispered to me: This is you. This is who you are.

The soul work, the slowing down and living life, the writing, the inward focus—all of it—it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. What’s more, it won’t lead me somewhere new, it’s right now. I’m there. This is it.

As mothers, we spend so much time giving of ourselves, to our children, our partners, our employer, friends and family that a deficit accumulates that we forget to regularly pay ourselves in rest, relaxation, and tranquility. I believed it was my job to be in control. I focused all of my energies on being a good mom. I forgot to spend any energy on me.

We are a generation of achievers raised to believe that if we only work hard enough our lives will be filled with opportunity. We set aside our hearts for reason; to push ahead, do more and have it all.

But I needed something more—I needed me. I needed to know myself and to authentically feeling happy and filled with purpose as both a woman and a mother.

So now I breathe in the simplicity of a life lived each day. I strive to let go of expectations in favour of embracing the wonder that is right in front of me. I’m becoming the mother I want to be, instead of the mother I thought I should be. But more importantly, I’m learning to be me.

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