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Learning to Surf the Waves of Mental Illness

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I am autistic. While being on the spectrum comes with many challenges, my different way of thinking and being in our world has played a key part in my many successes. With a diagnosis came answers and an identity, which brought a sense of belonging, within which I have found friendship.

Mental illness is different. The challenges are many, the strengths and advantages are few. For me, there is no sense of pride in identity, and the self-stigma is huge. Anxiety has been a lifelong challenge, but more recently the appearance of “stupid,” the voice of a restrictive eating disorder, or anorexia, has plunged me into the experience of living with mental illness.

In the last couple of days I came across a quote on Facebook: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” I love the ocean and I think for this reason I drew meaning and strength from this quote. I described my analogy to a very special friend, who asked, “How did you get out there?” I’m not too sure yet of the answer, but this is my story.

For some time I had been paddling at the water’s edge and into the shallows. Friends, and people who care for me, came to the beach, calling me back when I had gone a little deep, but I was OK. I was in my depth. I was coping. Occasionally the wave that came was a little bigger. I wobbled, but regained my balance and carried on. I was OK with being there and told them I was fine. They would check on me occasionally but had no reason to be concerned.

Then, there was a much bigger wave. I fell and went under. I couldn’t breath. I came up and called out for help and they tried, but the current pulled me out into the ocean, far from shore.

Out there it was calm, it was still and for some time I floated, looking back. I was OK. I felt safe.

After a little while though, I realized I needed to get back to the beach, but I didn’t know how. I called out and asked for help. They answered, but I couldn’t hear what they said. I tried so hard to listen, but was too far out. The sea was no longer calm, the waves were small at first, but I no longer felt safe. I needed help, but I couldn’t reach it. A big wave pushed me under again. I came up beside a plank of wood. From the beach they told me to hold it. I wasn’t sure at first, but I trusted them, and was able to rest just a little.

I wanted to get back to the beach but was tired, and put my head down. The waves continued, they weren’t big, but the calm was over. Though unsafe, each one pushed me just a little closer, and as they did the voices from the beach grew louder.

Now, I can hear them more clearly, but as I near shore the waves are bigger. They try to push me under, and the current tries to pull me back out. Sometimes the noise of the waves drowns out the voices, but they call out again, a little louder, until I hear. They are teaching me to surf — to ride the waves — and I know now how to make it to the beach.

There are more people there, encouraging and believing that I can do it. I’m exhausted but I’ll make it, and I know that when I reach the sand they will help me up.

I’m drawn to the ocean, and I’ll walk on the beach again, but if I go into the water, even just paddling in the shallows, I’ll call out for someone to come with me and hold my hand. And just in case, I’ll learn how to surf. If I do fall I’ll know how to make it back, and if I see someone else struggling, then maybe I’ll be able to help them.

To the people who have “come to the beach” and to Nicky particularly, who was there when I fell, has called out to others and hasn’t left, thank you. I will walk with you on the sand soon.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 12, 2016
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