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Kayaking and the Mental Health Survivor

Thoughts of life are careening around inside my head like calving ice bergs with one piece breaking off and plummeting into the already floating mass.  The laborious task of moving with the ebb and flow of life's current is wearisome.  In the agonizing seasons, the will to survive grudgingly gives passage to thriving as more energy is invested to maintain that middle ground in order to not fall into depression.  This hand to hand combat, within the mind, is as exhausting as flailing against a #10 whitewater with its roiling river current of foamy white power.  The most experienced kayaker may lose the battle with this watery jaw of death.  You can picture the desperate scenario of the kayaker lying on the river stones, chest and lungs heaving as the next breath is sucked in.  In a moment like this, it is doubtful the kayaker is thinking about the next river challenge.  No, rather a resolve to complete this challenge..... gather emotions and harness physical energy to move forward.  In so many ways this is a parallel to life's rhythms which in this case looks more like surviving than thriving.  Not many kayakers would feel accomplished if most of their time was spent upside down with the craft on top of them.  The most experienced kayakers prepare their bodies and mind to be in control of ensuing dangers.  I desperately wish the course of mental illness could be manipulated so as to limit the casualties.  It's a disease which obstinately longs to place one in the most precarious of threatening whirlpools.  The whitewater kayaker surrounds and equips himself with tools to both protect them and manage the treacherous trip.  One of the most crucial pieces is the helmet, worn for the obvious protection of the head and ultimately the brain.  A sudden lurch into a boulder, can find a kayaker suddenly unconscious, adrift like flotsam.  

The person with mental illness must protect and minimize potential damage as medications are consistently taken.  In some cases, these medications control and manage psychosis or the most dangerous of mental health minefields.  This medicine helmet assists with shielding grand central station from potential and even life threatening scenarios.  The safety conscious kayaker always wears a vest or pfd, (personal floatation device).  In the case of capsizing, their is the ability to float, especially if head or other extremities are disabled.  In life threatening rapids, it is most effective to move with the current than to flail away what precious energy remains.  The vest allows the water logged victim to relax and find safety.  I wouldn't say the vest is anymore important than the helmet as the two comprise the safety ensemble of the kayaker.  It works in concert with the other safety management tools of the kayaker.   

So what do persons possess for their life management tools as they tackle the swift white water current of Mental Illness?  The medications certainly prepare us in limiting our casualties even before we put our kayak in the rough turbulent water ahead.  There is a season where the disease is going to maim us.  Our safety vest or net is going to be employed as our head is slammed against the rocks.  Most kayakers don't run alone, they team up.  Persons with mental illness employ people as a component of their LMT (life management team).  A note of reality:  Kayaker team members are much easier to form than a mental health team on which you can rely.  If the disease renders you helpless, like the kayaker knocked unconscious, someone can snatch you from the white water of life.  

This is where family members are vitally important.  Unfortunately, many family members don't sign up for the exhausting, faith filled, dangerous, breath taking trip of a life time.  Its much more dangerous to run these death defying rapids alone...but I am sure it has been accomplished.  For those who can assist a person with mental illness, I hope you grasp the danger and sadness for a life without this safety net or vest.  Similar to the kayaker, the thoughts, while knifing through these turns of white death for the person with mental illness are, just allow me to get through the next section and perhaps the destiny.  The concept and meaning of surviving versus thriving is vast in its differences.  Kayakers approach each challenge differently.  There are trips which command the most extreme skill, technique, physical and emotional readiness.  Kayakers are greeted with river updates which may include a recent death.  Conversations change drastically upon hearing this news.  While the entire team wishes to excel, which for our discussion can be synonymous with thriving, the mood is one of surviving this white water.  All of the preparation has been made to perform at the highest level.  However, if at the finish line all kayakers are safely moored, the trip will have been successful.....maybe not in the thriving category but, mission accomplished.  The kayakers placed themselves in a position to conquer human fears and push the physical and emotional boundaries.  It may not be perfect, but it is exhilarating.  

I believe the person who is navigating the chilly and unforgiving waters of mental illness can enjoy similar experiences.  However, this is not a one time adventure as it can be for a kayaker.  The episodes and seasons of depression hurdle at the survivor at a rapid pace.  Regardless of the preparation and life management skills, the episode is too strong and the mind shifts from thriving to surviving.  As with kayakers, the mid stream survival moments turn deadly and the paddler loses the fight against the mighty rushing water.  Sadly this is the plight of the mental health survivor.  For the loner who set out, somewhere in the middle, it was too lonely.  The helmet or vest didn't save them.  However, for those who paddled up to the rocky shoreline, exhausted, bloodied and drained, the exhilaration from beating the odds is overwhelming.  Another depressive or manic season is over and it may have been surviving but you garnered another tool to place in your life management kit.  The next season may find you navigating the river of life with a spirit much more akin to thriving.  For many who walk this wearisome path, they travel alone.  Hopefully, there will be those who team up with you, who will paddle the rapids along side you.  For those who don't live with a diagnosis, find a person who is, and paddle with them so together you can experience what it means to conquer a challenge and partner with those who want to thrive and not just survive.                



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