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.
Breaking 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.
My “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.
So 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.
Photo Credit: Sandi Mitchell
ELAINE HOWLEY is a former Division I collegiate swimmer and ocean lifeguard who began competing in long-distance open water events in 2006 on a dare; she hasn’t looked back since, and only trains in the pool when the New England weather turns really beastly. A recent convert to the roller coaster that is ice swimming... more »