I wrote this short story one desperate day. Mental health had been a real struggle in The Gurney house and I was only starting to notice when it all spilled out over the last two years. In my grief, I found such strength in vulnerable and honest stories from others. While I am still struggling, I’ve wrestled enough with it in my own soul that I’m ready to write. This short story is for all those who are struggling with mental health. In some ways, it’s even more for the caretakers and partners who love their people enough to swim beside them.
I told everyone we were just going for a swim. A beach vacation desired by so many. It’s full of Instagram worthy moments with the sun setting over the water.
Before we knew it, the sun was gone and the ocean went dark. How had the light gone so quickly? Why didn’t we notice the danger looming? But it is dark now, the waves smashing and crashing. “We are strong, especially you”, I tell myself believing we have everything inside ourselves to keep swimming. This is still vacation, after all, we can make this fun, plaster smiles across our faces, turn this night swim into an adventure. “It will be a good story to tell.” I am so good at finding the positive.
Time drags and I’m no longer swimming but treading water. You shout to me for help and a tone of anger travels across the water. The ocean hears aggression but I hear something different. That’s what panic and fear sound like from your mouth.
I reach out a hand to share my strength. “We can do this together, my love. We have always carried each other and always will.” Gradually we are not holding hands anymore. Bobbing above the waves you have moved to my shoulders and back desperately seeking relief. I am small but I’ve always held you. My back is stronger than it looks and my legs kick harder to hold us both afloat, but then you stop kicking altogether.
A faint breeze moves the cloud cover and light from the moon shines on a boat we have not seen before. Was it always there? How did I not see it before?
“This is what we’ve been waiting for”, I tell you as I start swimming toward safety, sure you will follow me.
Yet, you are doubtful and filled with worry. “Maybe the boat has holes. It could be going in the wrong direction,” you say with wide eyes.
“It’s worth a try”, I say, pleading “We can’t swim much longer.”
“It’s a bad idea, the boat might cost money I can’t repay. If we row in on that boat, people will believe I wasn’t strong enough to swim. I can do this on my own.” you declare with finality frozen to this place in the ocean, hanging on to me as we both begin to sink. My mouth, then nose, and whole head go under as the air in my lungs is stolen.
I kick with everything I have and propel my arms through the water toward that boat. My voice hopeful yet desperate, “Follow me, I don’t want to go without you!” But I cannot make you swim and I don’t want to drown.
In the boat I take my first deep breath healing my muscles and awakening my brain. Clarity comes and I know the boat is not a mistake. I row towards you showing you the safety of the boat but you still won’t get in.
Tears run down my face as I begin to row away. To what I am rowing, I don’t really know but away from here is all I can manage. Maybe I can find help to bring back. Maybe if I show you where to go you’ll follow. I turn the boat around and push towards the shore. We lock eyes and I refuse to blink, keeping sight of you, feeling the impossibility of leaving you behind. Song lyrics drift from my lips like a prayer sent across the waves- “ Swim, swim for your life.”
While help for mental health looks different for everyone, I have found great support in The Scatter Joy Project. The stories from these ambassadors have given us both the courage to swim.
Song lyrics referenced: Jack’s Mannequin Swim for your Life.
Visit The Scatter Joy Project to learn more.