How to Breathe Underwater: My struggle with depression and PTSD and what it has to do with Harry Potter

When the waves of life keep on driving you down, how do you catch your breath?

If every stressor and struggle I had in my life were a droplet of water, I could easily drown. I know I’m not alone in feeling like no matter how hard I tread, I am barely able to keep my head above water. So how do you keep your eyes over the waves, to see the big picture?  How is this battle against the never-ending affront of life’s issues, won?

Have you ever heard the expression “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” For our purposes, today, I am going to revise it a little. “How do you win a fight? One punch at a time.”

See, life is always taking its best shot at us, and sometimes it takes some low blows. Life doesn’t fight fair. I think we often get caught up in a mindset of exhausted defeat, when we can’t seem to catch a break in the waves to breathe. So, how do we stand under the pressure? How do we breathe under water?

This may not be a fight for survival, in the sense of whether-or-not we survive, but it is a fight over how. Will we merely live, or will we thrive?

I love watching UFC, and the most amazing thing about it to me, is the ability those fighters have to take a hit. They take blow after blow, and are still standing, well, sometimes. The fighters I admire most, aren’t the ones who can throw a good punch, they all can. The ones I sit in awe over, are the ones who can take the most hits and still seem coherent. They are focused, not just on surviving. They are in it to win.

This is a fight over our survival, our right to thrive, and we should have a sense of urgency about that. We were not designed for a life of daily grind. We were intricately designed to fulfill purpose, and to find joy in it.

I’m going to be a little vulnerable here…

Up to this point I have stayed light with my blogging. I have been dipping my toes in the water, wondering how far I wanted to go in. I’ve kept everything shallow for a reason. I’m nervous. I’ve been trying to figure out how deep I am willing to go with you all.

I grew up on an island, and I know to catch the good waves, you have to paddle out. So I’m diving in, headfirst.

I have PTSD. Parts of my childhood and teen years were extremely traumatic. They shaped who I am as an adult. As a side effect, I struggle with anxiety and a constant need to grapple for control in my life. While I am praised for being “so together” for someone my age, the truth is when I am not in control, I panic. On top of that, when my PTSD is triggered by situations that are similar to, or remind me of the things I have experienced, I go into panic attacks, and deep, sometimes long lasting, spells of depression. And the thing is you would never know.

This struggle is made even more difficult because I unintentionally isolate myself. I have a hard time trusting people, and no matter how hard I try, I typically come across as distant, and accidentally push people away while I am actually trying to let them in. I am an introvert, and it isn’t uncommon for me to withdraw when I’m happy. So my friends never worry when I disappear. No one comes looking.

The thing is, when I’m doing okay and just need to recharge my introvert batteries, I prefer it that way. But when I am depressed, this silence I would have appreciated turns into a prison, solitary confinement.

Often times I feel like I am completely alone, and most unfortunately, unwanted. In my deepest depressions I have wondered if I was cursed by God, and if he hated me. I have felt like a burden and an inconvenience to those closest to me. I have flogged myself internally for not being stronger or better, and I have hated myself for not being able to just pull myself together.

All of this can lead to a suffocating, drowning sensation in your life. There are days, when I reflect on everything that I have survived, that I wonder how I managed it. The truth is, I didn’t.

No, I’m not a ghost or anything…

The truth is when I look back on my life and everything I did survive, very little of it had anything to do with what I did.

Sure, I learned defense mechanisms that got me through. But when I look back on the darkest parts of my life, I can see the light in it.

The light looks like the people who “happened” to be in the right place at the right time.

The light looks like the teachers I had in school who looked out for me, and pulled me into their offices for long chats about what was going on at home.

It looks like my friends parents who kept covert eyes on me, while making me feel like a normal kid when I was at their houses.

It looks like my adoptive church family who took me in and made me feel valued.

See I was stuck under the water, but with the sun shining in from the surface, I knew which way was up. I knew which direction to swim. I knew I wouldn’t be drowning forever. I could see hope, even if it wasn’t mine. I knew hope was a thing that existed, and I wanted it!

But it’s not that simple…

See I kind of felt like Harry Potter in the Order of the Pheonix. For those of you who aren’t die hard Harry Potter fans, I’ll explain:

At the beginning of the book, Harry is at his aunt and uncle’s in the muggle (non-magic humans) world. Just weeks before, he (spoiler alert) witnessed his classmate murdered, and was almost killed himself. He has PTSD!

As a kid reading these books I was so thankful for JK Rowling writing a young character who had suffered so much, and who didn’t always handle it well.

PTSD is messy, it hurts, and not always just the one who has it, but their friends and family. I was twelve when I read the book, and I still had a lot of hard things that I was going to live through, but these books gave me a feeling of normalcy. I didn’t feel like I was the only kid whose biggest concern, wasn’t school. But I digress…

By this point in the series, Harry has experienced a lot of other horrible things to give him PTSD, but this is the worst so far. Harry feels cut off from the magical world, and all of his friends.

So Harry has PTSD, and Harry is isolated, sound familiar?

 “Everyday this summer had been the same: the tension, the expectation, the temporary relief, and then mounting tension agian…”

“Perhaps he was so desperate for the tiniest sign of contact from the world to which he belonged that he was simply overreacting…”

“Harry felt the dull, sinking sensation in his stomach and, before he knew it, the feeling of hopelessness that had plagued him all summer rolled over him once again…”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, ch 1

All of that was just from the first seven pages, it gets worse!

The quote I love most out of the three I listed, is the second. Mainly, because I can relate so much. I can’t count the times I have been desperate for someone else to reach out, for contact. But how are people supposed to know I need it, if I don’t tell them? An introvert’s worst nightmare, on top of a hellish situation.

Every time I had one of those moments of semi-relief, I would hope to God that I was coming out of it on my own, and that the depression was subsiding, but inevitably, I would sink back down. The waves just kept coming.

See the thing is, I wasn’t desperate for contact from this world.

As much as my friends and family love me, they can’t make this better.

[Side note: I really want you to hear that. If you’re a part of someone’s support system who is struggling, It isn’t your responsibility to fix it! Don’t try to! Don’t try to answer things you don’t understand. Don’t try to walk them through it, if you’ve never been down that road. Your job, is just to be there. Sit in the same silent room with them. Hold them, if they like that sort of thing, as for me, don’t touch me. Weep with them. Just let them know, they aren’t alone. And assure them, they never will be.]

As much as they might wish they could, my support system can’t heal me. But the kicker is the next part in the quote there “from the world to which he belonged”. See, Harry didn’t belong in the muggle world any more than we belong in this broken damaged place we live in.

God created the world whole, complete, perfect, alive. Since then, man has worn it down, brought death into the picture, and tainted paradise. This isn’t the world God had in mind. We weren’t designed for this, but for something greater. And we long for it.

See, even when I let them in, my friends don’t always know what to say. And honestly, there have been times where people have said the absolute wrong things, when I needed help most. But it’s not their job to mend me. God put the people I needed in my life so I could remember that I’m not alone, but they’re not the ones that help me breathe.

How do you then?

When I was a little girl I used to go to the beach with my family. My dad was a surfer, and had hoped to raise my sister and I to be as well. I remember this particular day was choppy. The waves were rough and I was having a grand ol’ time taunting the waves. I would run into the surf, and wait for the waves to come in, and I would run back up the beach with the tide on my heels.

That is, until that one wave…

I ran into the water, and was determined to wait until the last possible second to turn back to the shore. I had gone in deeper than I ever had before, and was looking at the biggest wave yet. Only, when I turned back to the shore, the tide was going back out. I was being pulled right into the base of the wave that I was trying to run away from.

I was sucked under the water, and immediately felt like I was in a washing machine with gravel. Sand and shells whipped around me. I was tossed around in every direction until I didn’t know which direction was up. I struggled and tried to swim to the surface with the air knocked out of me, and instead, found the ocean floor.

I was being yanked, and pulled, I couldn’t see, and I was being pelted by ocean debris on every inch of my body. Then, I hit ground hard as I was thrust onto the surf. I tried to breath, but the wave was still crashing over me.

I was pushed and rolled up the beach, struggling to stop the momentum and get my hands and feet under me. I wanted to get above the surface, to breathe. I was convinced I was suffocating. My lungs were screaming, bathed in saltwater. My throat was on fire.

When I emerged, I was coughing up water, had sand burn over 90% of my body and some pretty serious surfer’s drip (if you don’t know, don’t ask- it’s gross). I felt like I had been put into a concrete mixer! [No this is not what gave me PTSD…]

See the thing is, nobody pulled me out.

There in the middle, when I realized what was happening, I knew what to do. (Thank God for growing up on an island with a surfer dad!)

How to fight waves…

You don’t. You embrace them.

See, in life, you can’t fight the tide. Life, the ocean, they are more powerful forces than we are. They will suck you in, and spit you back out, and it’s going to hurt.

That’s life! But much like the tide, you don’t fight the current. You will wear yourself out completely, probably end up swimming in the wrong direction, and you’ll drown.

So how do you breathe under water? How do you survive the waves of life beating you over the head? That’s easy. Give in, and wait.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not telling you to give up. Sometimes, you take that one last breath, you go under, and you don’t try to figure it out on your own. You relax into the current and move where it pulls you. It’s okay to hurt. Its okay to be present in the pain, and to just sit there and be in it. You can’t make yourself not be. You can try to push back, but that wave isn’t going to be stopped by little ol’ you.

Is it going to hurt?

Yes.

Is it going to be scary?

Yeah.

But will the wave eventually carry you back to the shore?

images

Struggles in life are going to come. But they are also going to end.

Don’t wear yourself out fighting the battles you were never meant to fight, against foes who will always win. Take your breath, take the hit, and reserve your strength for when it’s time to stand back up. And when that time comes, don’t wallow, stand.

“[Jesus] got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to [the disciples], “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?””

Mark 4:39-41

If God can still the sea, he can conquer my fear. If he can quiet the wind, he can silence my anxiety. If God is greater than the elements of this world, and even the wind and waves obey him, then what is my PTSD to stand up to him?

So why am I afraid? Why am I depressed? Do I still have no faith?

Honestly, when it hits, my faith falters. When I regain my faith, and focus on God, and his might, and his will, that is when my symptoms start to subside. When I get my eyes above the waves, and look at the big picture. His picture.

God built us durable. He made us in his own image. We can handle a lot, we are worth a lot. He isn’t about to let me, or you, be destroyed so easily. I can take that breath of relief under water, because the one who made my lungs gives me just enough peace to get through. It doesn’t make sense. It transcends all understanding. But he does. He always does.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Philippians 4:6-8

I don’t think that this was a random jump to a different topic. There is a reason he wrote those thoughts together! That is how we get our eyes back up above the waves. We fight back with prayer, and our thought process…

Another Harry Potter quote for you, from the Prisoner of Azkaban:

“I knew I could do it all this time,” said Harry, “because I’d already done it…”

Harry is referring to fighting off a horde of dementors (dark hooded creatures that symbolize depression) after they were about to suck out his soul.

In my life I have survived some truly terrible things. I bet you have too. So I know you can get through this. I know it, because I already have, and so have you. We have a pretty good track record of surviving things, 100%.

kintsugi

See no matter how beat up and broken we are, God says we have value. The Chinese pottery Kintsugi is broken pottery that is put back together using gold to mend the cracks. The pottery is worth more broken, than it was before it was shattered.

Your brokenness is a part of your worth, because in spite of it God thought you were worth saving, and valuable.

So I’m not going to lose faith, fear the end, or despair in my depression. Even when I feel like it will never end, I know it will.

I wont give in to my panic attacks, but I will fold into the waves. I will choose to have faith  that the tide will deliver me onto the shore; where, weak, beaten, and ragged, I will stand.

beach-pano-2

Bonus:

There was one song that nailed it for me. I remember the first time I heard it on the radio. I was driving over a bridge and I had to pull over when I got to the other side because it hit me so hard where I was. I love this song. I am posting the link to the lyric video, because I want you guys to soak the words in. Please go and listen to Plumb’s Need you Now.

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