Swimming Inside Depression

Apr 17, 2017 | Blog

I have this dream. It comes up every so often (and usually during times of strife). In the dream, I’m swimming in the ocean. DEEP in the ocean. Below the surface. Something within me realizes that I need to come up for air. So I start moving in the direction of the…top. How had I gotten so far down? I’m flailing around for a bit before I finally start to pick up traction. But I am not progressing fast enough. Seconds are ticking by and with each one, I’m realizing that if I don’t get to the surface soon, my lungs are going to explode. But I just….can’t…get there.

At some point, it occurs to me that I’m not ever going to. There’s an ounce of panic, packaged in a pound of surrender. So this is it, then. Huh… Whoda thunk? And I’m such a good swimmer, too.

I open my lungs and let the water in. I know I’m going to drown. But that’s just the way it has to be.

Except that when I breathe in….I discover I can breathe under water. And I smile.

One can interpret this dream to mean any number of things. Survival in the midst of adversity, perhaps? Maybe it means, as dream interpreters online tell me, that it means I feel helpless and that I a m attempting to retreat back into the womb? Or maybe it just means I should take up swimming lessons.

In any case – here is what I found interesting about what many of those I spoke to on the topic had to offer me in terms of advice.

“It sounds like it has to do with emotions…so maybe look at what emotion or circumstance is causing your sense of feeling helpless and try to solve it. That will help you get back to the metaphorical surface…”

But I don’t know if I agree. I mean…seriously? I just found out t hat I can breath under water. What is “helpless” about that? For lack of more sophisticated language…that’s just badass!

I bring this dream up in my post today because I feel there is a similar kind of dynamic in the realm of my experience with depression. For years…really as long as long as I can remember…I have danced with depression. Not all the time. It’s not constant. But I have felt it on my skin. I know what it feels like. I know what it tastes like. I can sense its impending arrival the way a dog might smell lightening on its way out of the sky. And for YEARS, I have framed it in narratives of drowning. Because that is kinda what it feels like. It feels like being “de-pressed” I’m being pressed down…down…down.

But more recently, I’ve started to play with that narrative. Is this depression thing really a problem? I mean…obviously it’s not pleasant. It doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s certainly not motivating. If depression were a substance, it sure as hell wouldn’t be coffee. Not ecstasy. If anything, it would be a hallucinogen. Upon taking a hit of it, the world takes on a very different look. Shadows that weren’t there come to life. And all those life giving elements I love so much seem to shrink. They say depression is a “negative” experience. That rings true. Because being in a state of depression feels like looking at a “negative” of a photograph. Everything is switched.

But again….is that necessarily bad?  I’m no longer so sure.

I say this because I am noticing a kind of pattern. I have a tendency to take on a lot. I take on a lot of emotions from those around me (whether they ask it of me or not). I take in information. I take on work. I take in ideas. Always taking in or on. And I love to do. Do my exercises, do my calls, do my writing….doing.

So in effect, I have a habit of taking in more than I need, and doing more tasks than, perhaps, need to get done.

And then in comes depression. She doesn’t knock. She’s got a key. So she just quietly walks on in. And suddenly all of my bandwidth is taken up by her presence.

At first, I resist her pull. In frustration, I tug at the leash that binds me to her like a puppy fighting against her master. Maybe if I keep running. Keep eating healthy food. Keep doing…doing….she’ll realize I don’t need her. Don’t want her. Maybe she’ll go.

But she never does just go. Not until she is heard. And listening to her is challenging. She speaks in whispers…and in a dialect that is both familiar and foreign to me. In a language that feels ancient, primal and sure.

What, you might ask, does she say? Only this:


Being a human being with a human ego, I initially fight it. I don’t WANT to stop Damnit!

But eventually, that wriggling puppy within me surrenders to the obvious alpha of the room. I do stop. I don’t run. I don’t eat. I don’t write. I don’t do.

In that moment…the moment when I stop…it feels remarkably similar to that moment in my dream…where I pause midswim. Knowing I will probably drown. An ounce of panic hugged in a pound of surrender.

And, just as in the dream, I try to breathe in. I find I can. And in a moment as dark and bitter as a cocoa bean, I smile. Because the world might look darker. Shadowed. Slow. But I’m still…fucking….HERE.

I’m swimming in a metaphorical ocean of possibility and potential.

I’m also terrified. But I’m also a little excited (as you might be, too, if you discovered you could breathe underwater without dying).

Here’s what is funny to me. In the past, when it came to depression, the moment that I would surrender…only to discover that I can still breathe….I would use that oxygen to immediately get myself back up to the surface. Sure, I can breathe under water. But who knows for how long? I need to get the hell outta there!

For the first time in my life…I’m starting to get curious about it. I found myself in a state of depression (there really is no other word for it). I did my usual tug-of-war with it at first. Then I caved in. I stopped everything. I cancelled plans. I removed items from my tyrannical to-do list. I just…S T O P P E D.

But this time, before surfacing back up to the cheerful sunlight…I am hanging low for a little while. I’m starting to explore the world down here.

I mean….if you discovered that you could breathe under water…wouldn’t you kinda want to see what was down there?

So that’s what I’m doing down here, in my depression. I’m floating midswim for a moment. Looking around. I can feel myself gradually floating to the surface – without any special effort on my part (a usual side effect of letting go). And you know something? It’s not so scary. It’s dark. It’s potentially dangerous. But still….it’s  interesting. 

It’s fitting, in a way. The ocean is where we all came from. It’s the source of life. And yet – if we linger too long in it, we can “die.” Or maybe we just think we will. I’m not sure.

Either way, despite how uncomfortable I feel, I am grateful. Grateful for this beautiful, thick, muffled, silent moment. Grateful to have commanded to stop.

Do you have any experience with depression? How would you describe your experience of it?