Bedhead

The alarm beeps shrilly and my eyes flutter open to the dim light cast and stretched by a nearby street lamp. My husband snuffles quietly and mumbles, “Are you gonna get up?”

“Unnghh,” I reply, grumbling at the mere thought of getting out of our warm, soft bed and venturing downstairs to get dressed for swim practice.

This is how each winter weekday morning starts in our house. Always with the overeager chirp of the alarm clock. Always with a groan. Always too early.

Elaine K Howley 2013 Athleta Featured AthleteBreaking the bonds of bed is honestly the hardest part of my training. The tedium, hard work, exhaustion, and all that physical effort seems minor sometimes compared to how difficult it is on some days to just get out of bed. And staying motivated through the dark, cold winter months that seem to take up more than three-quarters of the year here in New England is no easy task.

Add to that reluctant early morning start— necessitated by my work schedule and the not-always convenient traffic patterns and opening times of the pool— the two-and-a-half feet of snow that pummeled us recently, (thanks, Nemo) and it’s enough to make even the most ardent morning person contemplate hibernation ‘til May.

Wintertime in New England offers prime evidence of Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest will stay at rest unless an unbalanced force acts upon it.

It would seem my annoying alarm clock is just such an unbalanced force. Most of the time it works. But not always.

The alarm clock can’t always overcome the inertia of sleep. See, sometimes that body at rest just really needs to stay at rest, perhaps because of a physical need for more sleep, maybe the consequence of overtraining, illness, or fatigue. And sometimes, it requires the quiet of a twilit bedroom because that mirrors the internal feelings of gloom that can encroach during the dim days of winter. In these instances, you get a cranky swimmer who just doesn’t want to admit it’s morning.

In the depths of February, I find it especially difficult to pull myself from under the covers, not just because of the weather, but because of the season— late winter eternally bleeding into a promise of spring that seems so slow to materialize no matter what that groundhog saw a couple weeks ago. The winter blues are very real, and I am more susceptible than some because of my history of mental illness. (There, I said it. Still reading? Good. It’s a poor reflection on our society’s impression of mental health issues that I have to worry about negative judgments just for stating the truth.)

I have struggled with moderate depression for over 15 years, having seen my first therapist as a freshman in college. That initial tentative trip to the on-campus mental health center was prompted by a terrible morning on the Potomac when, during a normal crew team workout, I watched a woman throw herself from the Key Bridge into the cold November water. It scared me, and though she survived, I couldn’t shake the image or the dread it called up in me.

That event was a trigger for feelings of inadequacy and sadness that I had long harbored but was too young to fully understand or articulate. Not long into my therapy journey, I realized that my struggle with depression had far older origins than that raw morning row. It wasn’t just the difficult transition to college, or the fact that my family had a lot less money than most of my new friends’ and when we wandered on posh M Street on a Saturday afternoon, all I could afford was a small lemonade while the others would shop in designer boutiques. It wasn’t that I had a difficult time on the crew team, where the coach— a very tall woman— routinely told me I was too short to ever be any good (but ignored my top erg scores and weightlifting sessions that indicated my strength and stamina). No, all that paled in comparison to what was really the deeper problem.

RachelMy “black dog,” as Sir Winston Churchill called the depression that shadowed him, was the loss of my younger sister to leukemia when I was eight years old. It was 1986, and Rachel was three-and-a-half years old. Bossy and bright, funny and beautiful, she was always the special one in our family. She was diagnosed with leukemia at just seven months old, so she never knew a life free from the blood cancer that was, at the time, largely a death sentence. After nearly two years of painful treatment and two relapses, the doctors determined her last, best attempt at a cure would come in the form of what was then cutting edge technology: a bone marrow transplant. For the transplant to be successful, they would seal Rachel off inside a sterile room, kill off her own bone marrow and immune system, and install healthy marrow from a donor.

That donor was me. A weighty responsibility, sure, but a no-brainer from my perspective. Though my parents agonized over the decision to risk the life of one, healthy daughter in an attempt to save the other, I knew I had something Rachel needed, so I would have been despondent if they hadn’t let me go through with the procedure. Rachel was worth the risk.

SistersSo the transplant took place in June 1985, and ultimately, Rachel relapsed for the last time four months later. She died the following July, a few days after the one-year anniversary of the transplant. And at just eight years old, I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong and why my marrow wasn’t good enough to help my sister, who I loved so much and shared a bedroom, and toys, and now the very marrow of my bones with.

According to my mom, soon after Rachel died, I spiraled into a very dark depression. I don’t remember much from that segment of my life, and that’s probably a good thing. But I was lucky that I was surrounded by observant, caring parents and others who knew our struggle and wanted to help. But still, I floundered. The only things that pulled me out of that place and gave me comfort were music and swimming. It was around that time that I started playing the harp, and through that, learned to channel my feelings into the instrument where I could leave the sorrow to linger a while on the strings and let the harp’s sturdy wood frame take the weight of the world for me. In swimming, I was weightless, too, buoyed by the water that supported and soothed me. I pursued these endeavors with passion, and soon became skilled at both.

But when I arrived at Georgetown, there was no space in my tiny two-person dorm room— not much more than a standard prison cell, actually— for my five-foot-tall troubadour. Even though by harp standards it’s small, it’s still a big instrument, so it stayed home. And insecure in my swimming abilities at a Division I level, I took up crew and left the pool behind.

It didn’t take long for the absence of my two primary coping mechanisms to take its toll.

It sounds weird to say “thankfully,” but I am grateful that my mom recognized what was going on— she’s well versed in the signs and symptoms because depression tends to run in the family.

She saw that familiar darkness resurfacing in a somewhat different guise. It’s normal for young trauma sufferers to cycle through bouts of depression many times over until they can fully cope with the original ordeal, and my mom urged me to get help. I did, and though I’ve had many ups and downs since— some more severe than others— I’ve created a successful, contributing existence, and most people who meet me would never guess that under my quick smile and loud laugh lies a lot they probably don’t want to know.

So why am I telling you this intensely personal and private story of my internal struggles, the lasting aftermath of which could label me as “crazy,” “unbalanced,” “uninsurable,” or worse? Because I think it’s important that other women out there know that when it comes to depression, you’re not alone. A lot of us fight this gloom, even if it’s not obvious. Finding a way to cope— and sports can be the perfect outlet for many of us to deal with the problems we have— is paramount to leading a productive, happy life. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And as a society, we should talk about it more and strip away the stigma associated with “mental illness.” Besides, talking about problems can be cathartic and help one work through them.

For me, such talk therapy has helped. By my sophomore year of college, I was feeling better, more confident, and ready to take a chance. I tried out for the swim team, and made the cut. Though I was never very fast and probably never earned more than a handful of points for the team, I know my coach appreciated my work ethic and sheer joy at being back in the water. The instant on-campus family of friends helped, too, and I remembered why swimming had always been— and remains today— such an important part of my life. It keeps me sane in every sense of the word, and it can work for others, too.

So, if you’re wrestling with your own dark dogs, I urge you to act. Find your swimming. Because the flip side of Newton’s First Law is: An object in motion tends to stay in motion, i.e., It’s hard to stop a freight train of progress and improvement once it gets up to speed. It just takes some effort— especially on the days you don’t feel like it. Of course, there are still days when the bed wins, but there are more when I do, and that propels me forward to the next. Each new day is a chance to get it right.

I swim for myself, as a means of caring for me both inside and out. And I do it for someone else, too: Rachel.

Editor’s Note: Rachel’s birthday is February 27. She would have been 30 years old today.

Rachel & Mickey

Photo Credit: Sandi Mitchell

26 Comments
Lisa

February 27, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Thanks so much for sharing. I am happy that you found your swimming. I became a runner. My two older brothers died within a year a part. I started running. I run races for them and for me. It has helped me cope and survive. And feel good again.

Kristen

February 27, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Loved this story. Made me cry. I lost my sister to breast cancer when she was 31. I was 28, newly married and pregnant. I am still searching for a way to honor her with something profound and meaningful. I miss her everyday. You should be very proud of yourself and how strong of a person you are in honoring her every day that you make the choice to swim. Namaste.

Elle

February 27, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Hi Elaine! Your story is beautiful, moving, and true to life. I know a lot of people don’t like to see the pain but I think it is absolutely stunning when people share their truth. Thank you for opening yourself up to the world and know that you are worthy of every happiness!!

P.S. I play the harp too! I guess I was meant to read your post today! 🙂

Jamie

February 27, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Elaine, thank you so much for your story- it made me cry, but it also made me smile. I work out not only to keep my physical health but also to ensure my mental health, and I love that more people are beginning to feel comfortable talking about their experiences with depression. So thank you for being brave and sharing your story!

Gen Matchette

February 27, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Elaine,

Thank you so much for sharing your story! I too have suffered from depression (PTSD). My therapist described depression as being like Type I diabetes – it’s not something that you intentionally “get”. I know your frustration w/people’s reactions to your diagnosis. I, like you, work out to stay stable. My family knows that if I don’t, I get really antsy and cranky! So glad you have swimming. That’s how I feel about running.

What a selfless and loving gift you gave to your sister! My dad was also a bone marrow donor in ’85 for his sister. Like Rachel, my aunt didn’t survive, but the two other women that my dad has also since then donated marrow for have.

I hope today’s swim was fulfilling as well as meaningful for you. Happy Birthday, Rachel!

Hugs, Gen =)

Elaine

February 28, 2013 at 5:27 am

E2
I’m so so glad you came to MIT and you are my lane at Masters. Nobody else I’d rather swim with. You are an inspiration.
xx
E1

Cathy

February 28, 2013 at 5:44 am

Thank you. Thank you for sharing your story, and for giving voice to mental illness and depression. My little brother would be 42 tomorrow (March 1), but almost four years ago, he lost his struggle with the disease, and took his own life. I miss him EVERY day, and work hard to help ease the stupid stigma society has placed on the terms mental illness and depression.

You are brave. Brave for helping your sister. Brave fore getting the help that you need. Brave for being a voice.

Thank you.

Stinging Bee

February 28, 2013 at 5:58 am

Elaine:

What a wonderful way of remembering your sister…. The part about being an innocent 8 year old, and donating marrow is selfless, and I notice you give to folks all around you — all the time…. Sometimes it’s your smile, friendship, and / or advice about writing, work issues, or marathon swim tips. You inspire so many around you all the time.

Your bravery in writing about depression is impressive and your story in filled with honesty, and pulls at one’s heartstrings. I wonder if Rachel could write you a letter today — what would she say ? She’d probably talk about how much she appreciated your action to save her life… your support to others… and how proud she would be… Your story is touching and thanks for puting it out there!

Ellen

February 28, 2013 at 6:45 am

This is a wonderful essay. I have bipolar disorder which has severely impacted my life. Within the last few years I’ve received the correct diagnosis, found the right medication regime, and done regular talk therapy. All that is very helpful, but I really think that my return to the water six months ago after a 15 year absence has made a major difference in managing the disease. My life has been tumultuous during the same period and yet I’ve stayed on a reasonably even keel. I think being in the water is energizing when I’m down yet calming when I’m starting to verge on manic. No other exercise is able to do that for me.

Marty

February 28, 2013 at 7:32 am

Elaine, thank you so much for a wonderful post. So many of us feel that we cannot show any weakness and therefore hide our depression, fears and insecurities away, refusing to open up and get help. I agree that exercise is one of the best therapies. Keep getting up and moving! You are an inspiration.

Lucija

February 28, 2013 at 8:13 am

Elaine, I loved your first post and this one had me in tears as I am also on a first name basis with the woes of a depression that had clutched and stifled me for close to three and a half decades. I am mystified by the power of water to heal my soul and am grateful to have found the emotionally curative wonders of SUP and running which have been key to keeping my depression away for the past couple of years. I am sorry for the loss of your dear sister—you were her angel when she needed you. Know that moving forward you will inspire many more through your experiences and will make a positive impact.

sharon

February 28, 2013 at 9:31 am

Elaine, today is my birthday. And I am of the belief that one needs to pay attention to “their” day. There are gifts all around.
About the same time that you lost your sister, I lost my god brother. Oh,how I liked him, let alone love. What a great person!
My heart broke…
It’s been nothing but healing for me ever since. Your site, I am grateful to say, has been a part of that healing.

Caterina

March 01, 2013 at 6:35 am

Beautiful writing, and a lovely tribute to your sister. Thank you for sharing and inspiring.

Elaine

March 01, 2013 at 7:01 am

Thank you all so much for the wonderfully supportive comments. I was nervous about putting this all out there, but once again, this community has amazed and rewarded me with all this positivity in return. Many thanks for reading my story and sharing so many of your own. This life of ours ain’t easy, but with a little support from one another, we can flourish. I had a great swim this morning- how about you? 🙂

Vicki Crall

March 01, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this part of your story with us! It was beautiful, informative, and so inspiring!!! I want to find my swimming! By the way, I know you already know this but you are the best little sister anyone could ask for! You are more than enough! I am sure Rachel is looking down and agreeing!

Karen

March 01, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Thank you so much for sharing your inspirational story. You have no idea how much I am so grateful for you and your story and so sorry for your sister. Keep swimming. I don’t swim, but I do workout almost every day. Life feels like swimming sometimes and I am not very good at it.

Sandy S

March 01, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Wow that was such a beautiful essay, as well as tribute to your sister. You are truly an inspiration. 🙂

hopeiseternal

March 02, 2013 at 12:06 am

Dear Elaine,

Thank you for sharing your story. My boyfriend passed on last September due to cancer and I did not know how I got through that period cos there was just a lot to handle and I had my final exams a week later. I will be taking my GCE A levels this November and am striving hard now to be consistent. I still get very emotional, but I will do my best to make my family and loved ones proud.
Just want to tell you you’ve made a difference in my life.

Peggy Pulliam

March 03, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Dear Elaine,

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I suffer from depression (among other things) and exercise has always been my savior, however 3 weeks ago I had shoulder surgery from a yoga injury & was “severly” depressed until I read your article. All I can say is ‘”THANK YOU”, is was perfect timing for me and my recovery. What a beautiful act of kindness for your sister: you are a great inspiration, please keep swimming, so we know there is hope for all of us:)) Namaste , Peg

Melissa

March 03, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Deal Elaine

Thankyou so much for sharing your story. Reading about your sister’s illness and death left me in tears (I am a mum of 3 year old twins and may darkest fear is losing either of them). I too found my swimming 2.5 years ago when my adored younger brother died from a heroin overdose – an addiction that he had fought so hard and beaten on many occasions, but it finally took his life. (Still so hard to admit the cause of his death as people quickly judge the person that they assume him to have been rather than the fun, energetic, loving man that I was so proud of). I started running to cope with my thoughts, anger and grief. Now I run to make him proud and because of my long runs, when its just me and my thoughts, I can remember all the happy times. Keep swimming Elaine, I am sure that Rachel would be proud of the person that you have become.

Jen

March 04, 2013 at 6:49 am

Elaine,
I am one lucky girl that we were lane mates during our WSSC days because not only did I see what an amazing and inspiring athlete you are but I continue to benefit from reading your posts. I am so proud you were able to “put it out there” and share your story about Rachel and your struggle w/ depression. After losing my father (40 years ago), sister (6 years ago) and brother-in-law (5 years ago) to suicide I am all too familiar w/ the stigma society has placed on mental illness and suicide. It was the n8 beatings at 5:30am in the pool that got me through some tough days after losing my sister! On the day of my sister’s celebration of life I vowed I would take her story to the largest platform I knew of in my sport-Hawaii Ironman World Championships. It was this past October I went to Hawaii and raced not one step for myself but 140.2 miles for those I lost to suicide. Athletics is an amazing coping mechanism and I look forward to our next swim together!!!! Willoughby this summer 🙂 xoxo- jen

janine

March 04, 2013 at 6:20 pm

thank you Elaine for sharing your story…as a newbie to swimming i am finding that its has an amazing power to heal and reading all these postings confirms that. the water brings me joy and balance – it took a long time for me to finally find this place that feels like home…for me a really important moment in my journey….and the people i meet through the water improves my life… i finally found my tribe

Mo

March 05, 2013 at 9:55 am

Your story touched me, thank you for posting it. I shared it with my daughter who also struggles with depression. I hope it inspires her to go back to the pool someday.

Kirsten Read

March 06, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Elaine, I have admired you for a long time for your accomplishments in the water and in your career, but this opening of your soul and sharing of the dark places is extraordinary. I am certain that this will help others — swimming has certainly helped me through hard times!

Lynn

March 07, 2013 at 10:38 am

Elaine,
As always you are an inspiration. A gal of true beauty inside and out!
Missing you terribly,
Lynn

Keep It Real

March 17, 2013 at 6:28 am

As I sit here reflecting on yesterdays thoughts, ( Why am I alive? I have nothing, do nothing, and am useless, fat, injured, and miserable.) I have lost a grandmother, brother, 2 cousins, aunt, and uncle to cancer. I am in tons of pain, anger and depression, yet my friends don’t know. (or maybe they do) They live over an hour away in 3 different directions. I never leave the house except to go to the food bank, and have no money to do anything. I also live in New England and blame the weather (and the system) many times. All I can say is good for you! Keep going and never look back. In fact, never sit down, because sometimes it’s just too hard to get back up. But today…maybe I will attempt to get on my elliptical one more time, even though I know tonight I will be in tons of pain from it. Reach out to your friends, people…even if it’s you in the depression, it helps. I feel good when I help someone else. ( I was an EMT and a Federal officer who was injured on both jobs). I just wish someone was here for me. …but I know I keep people at a distance. I am too independent mentally to ask for help physically. Or is it that I am too independent physically to ask for help mentally. Women…we are so complicated. Keep moving….and thank you for sharing!!

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