On Drowning

So last month was mental health awareness month, and today I’ve seen a couple threads about politics-related burnout and depression.

All of these seem to have a similar theme: if you’re feeling hopeless, if you’re feeling suicidal, if you’re depressed, please reach out. This sort of post happens a lot, especially when someone commits suicide, or someone posts about how they were struggling and that’s why they’ve gone silent for months. After the fact, usually. People say things like, “oh, you should’ve messaged us, we would’ve tried to help,” or “oh, god, I wish he’d reached out to someone”.

And I would sort of like to invite those people to go and seat themselves on the nearest cactus, only that I quite like cacti and would rather not see them squished.

If you’re someone who posts things like “if you ever feel suicidal, MESSAGE ME, BECAUSE I CARE” I’m sure that you have good intentions. But I’d like you to consider that what you’re doing is actually sort of horrifying and cruel. It’s like telling someone who’s drowning “Ok, just swim to shore and we’ll pull you in!”

They can’t swim, dude. They’re drowning.

Telling a drowning person “Oh, hey, I have a life preserver, if you ever need it? Just let me know! You can come get it whenever!” doesn’t help the drowning person. Maybe someone who’s struggling in the water — they have a side stitch, they’re exhausted, they’re not sure they can keep swimming — maybe it could help them. For some people, knowing there’s safety waiting for them is helpful, is galvanizing, and is enough to give them that final push.

But the person who’s drowning still can’t swim.

If you’re drowning, you need help. You need someone to throw you the life preserver. You need someone to swim out to you. It doesn’t matter how great things are on land — knowing that they exist isn’t enough to get you out of the water and to safety. When people feel like they’re drowning in a mental health kind of way, it’s often the same way. You’re paralysed. It feels like dying.

“If you ever need help, reach out to me!” is well intended but puts a huge burden on someone who’s already struggling. You’re asking them to swim to the pier, and then, if they can get there and if they can get your attention, and if you’re not busy, you’ll help.

People drowning in water will sometimes be so scared, so desperate to stay alive, that they’ll drown a would-be rescuer. They’re terrified and flailing and trying to stay above water, and push their rescuer underwater to save themselves.

My experience has been that many people who’re drowning in their own mental health crisis are terrified of doing exactly that. Aware of and terrified of their own ability to cause harm. Aware that moods can be contagious. Aware that no one needs one more reason to be bummed out. Aware that messaging someone is asking them to take on some of this burden for you, that it’s an imposition. So you convince yourself that you can swim just a little further, and maybe eventually there’ll be somewhere you can get your footing.

And sometimes there is! Sometimes you’re lucky and it turns out that your desperate flailing has taken you somewhere safer. These are the people who make posts after the fact, apologizing for going dark, explaining that they’ve been having a hard time. Sometimes there isn’t, though. Sometimes you’re still treading desperately, and it feels like the sky is closing in, and you’re alone.

Afterwards, people say “why didn’t you reach out?” and the answer is that you couldn’t, because you were drowning.

Here are some things I know about drowning: It doesn’t look like you think it does. It’s easy to stand on the beach and watch someone drown. Drowning is quieter than people think it is. Drowning involves less splashing than people think it does.

This is true in metaphorical drowning, as well.

People don’t like to draw attention. They don’t want to make a scene. They’re quiet.

But the good news is that unlike swimming, throwing a metaphorical life preserver doesn’t have to be a huge dramatic deal. All you have to do is reach out to people. Not even all the time, or with everyone, but just within your friend group. Just once in a while.

You message and say “Hey, you’ve been quiet — are you ok? I miss you.”

You message and say “How are you, really?”

You message and say, “Are things ok for you?”

You message and say, “Do you need to talk? I miss hearing about you.”

And then you listen.

You actively make a space for someone, and give them room to talk if they need or want to. You talk to them like they’re a person, and you listen sympathetically. You don’t have to fix things, you don’t have to have answers, and you don’t have to offer platitudes. You can just say that you’re sorry, and it really sucks that things are so hard right now. And then you listen some more.

Sometimes, it’s worth noting, you’ll be wrong! Sometimes it’s not drowning at all. Sometimes people are just feeling quiet, or are busy, or whatever. And the nice thing about this is that it doesn’t matter. In a worst-case scenario, you’ve reached out to someone you like, and they’re perfectly fine, and you’ve reminded them that you like them. That’s…not a bad thing, you know?

But maybe they needed to hear it. Maybe they couldn’t reach out. Maybe you were the life preserver.

This isn’t a perfect system. You can’t do it for everyone, or all the time. And it takes more work than the vague “reach out!” kind of message. “Reach out!” is an easy thing to post, because it absolves you of having to do anything. After all, you offered. Isn’t that enough?

But it’s the “thoughts and prayers” of interpersonal relationships. Sometimes it’s all you can do, but sometimes it’s disengagement.

So all of that is a roundabout way of getting to the point, which is this: reach out to the people you care about, and remind them that you care. That’s all.

The end.