I recently learned how to swim. I decided it was time to learn. I asked friends for a swim instructor referral, looked it up and enrolled in a class. A week later, I was swimming across the pool. It was that easy. In my own defense, I knew what to do. I just wasn’t very good at doing it. It’s not just me. It’s a big catch-22 for adults who can’t swim: You’re afraid of the water because you can’t swim. And you can’t swim because you’re afraid of the water. Ultimately, you have to trust the teacher and jump in the water.
As I’ve been proudly sharing the fact that I now know how to swim, my friends have raised several questions. These questions can be summarized into two larger queries:
1. So you can swim laps now?
No. Are you joking?! I just learned how to swim. I still have to practice several times a week. I have to get in the water again. Over and over again. And I have to keep remembering how to kick my legs, move my arms, turn my head, and breathe. It’s not that easy. I assume it will get easier the more I do it. I predict that, after awhile, I may not even have to think that hard about technique. I can just enjoy the exercise.
The second question is actually more profound:
2. How did you get so old without learning how to swim?
Here’s the not-so-subtle subtext: What were you doing as a kid? Isn’t it some kind of parental responsibility to make sure kids know how to swim? It’s a fair question. My parents enrolled me in kiddie swim classes. They sent me to the Y and other summer programs with my cousins. My cousins learned. I did not. Honestly, I wasn’t motivated. I wasn’t excited about water. And I was content to splash around in the shallow end. My everyday life was not diminished by my inability to swim.
I learned to swim when I decided I wanted to learn. And once I decided, it wasn’t difficult, but I wasn’t going to become proficient in a week, either. That’s what it’s like when one explores something new.
I’m coming to realize that living with a mental health challenge is a constant encounter with “the new.” Every so often, I have to try new things. Doctors will often reiterate this when prescribing psychotropic medication. It’s new. Your body has to get used to it. It might not kick in immediately. It affects every person differently. You have may to try more than one. Several years ago, the medication I was taking stopped working. Apparently that happens. And there I was, back on the “new train.”
In some ways, finding medication is easier than the other new things one must encounter with a mental health challenge. Finding the right medication is truly an experience of trial and error. It’s not fun, but one also has little agency. Most of “the new” is about new skills, new patterns, and new ways of operating in the world. And we have to do something.
Since my acceptance of my own condition, “the new” has included: regular exercise, foods with particular nutrients, need for sleep, research, healthy ways of dealing with stress, reducing life stressors in the first place, finding doctors I trust, talking to friends I trust, meeting other people who live with the same condition as me; the list goes on.
Yes, all this was “new” for me. Before, I was fairly intermittent about my exercise, ate the foods I liked, chose work over sleep, and used default methods of coping to reduce the existential pain I was feeling. And, for the record, I was happy to keep most of this to myself.
But I wanted to live. For me, that was the motivation I needed to trust my instructor/ therapist and jump in the waters of life. And then I had to keep at it. I have to keep doing the things I know are healthy – even when I’m tired, frustrated, have a bad experience with a doctor or medication, or meet people who don’t understand me or who judge me.
It’s another catch-22: I’m afraid of doing new things; it’s hard. But things won’t get easier or better, if I don’t do something new.
I’m encouraged by how Jesus talks about the importance of doing something new. One day the disciples ask Jesus why they practice their spirituality differently than the Pharisees. (Matthew 9:14-17) Jesus answers with three metaphors. One of them mentions that we must put new wine in new bottles, or else the bottles will break. This is how I hear Jesus:
If we want to experience something new, we have to do something new.
I believe that each day can bring something new. Sometimes it’s an occasion to celebrate that I’m learning and doing well. Other times, it’s another opportunity to practice something I’m still learning. If swimming is an apt analogy, I predict that after awhile, the “new” will become second nature, and I can just enjoy the process.