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Lifejackets, A Cautionary Tale

This week’s blog by psychologist Hazel McKenzie offers a view into a world you may not know, or you may live there everyday.

In the beginning the sea was calm. The sun was shining. You set out with good intentions, some ‘you’ time. Time out. Self care. Self improvement. Getting back to your best. Everyone can benefit from that, right?

It felt so good, being alone on the ocean. No noise, no alarms, no bells. No accountability. No sense of time. You and the waves and the sun and your beloved boat. Going in whichever direction you pleased. It felt good. Nothing in the world to touch you out there, by yourself, in control. Steering your own ship. You forgot how good it was.

You didn’t see the storm on the horizon at first. Enjoying the relaxation of the day, you didn’t realise the time. No rush, nothing that couldn’t wait at home. The storm would pass, it was way out to the east. You were comfortable, your thoughts drifting away reassured by the motion of the boat as it rocked you to sleep. No harm in a nap, just a little one. The boat was safe, the air was warm, the waves rocking, soothing. You were feeling the benefits already, wishing you had done this earlier. You wake and it’s dark. How long has it been? It is raining. You reassure yourself though. Not far from land, plenty of time to get back to the harbour. Lifejackets on board – not that you’ll ever need them. The weather forecast assuring you that no big storms are predicted. Not tonight. You’ll be OK.

The rain gets heavier. Intuitively you realise that the storm is heading your way but you don’t trust your intuition, you trusted the weather channel instead. As you consider heading back into the harbour you suddenly realise you’ve drifted much further than you realised. You must have slept for hours. The storm is heading your way and there seems no way to avoid it now. You put on the lifejacket and with no radio signal you are totally alone. Ready to face the storm. The lifejacket offers you warmth, security and hope.

The storm hits with ferocity and the boat starts to fill with water. You try to empty bucketfuls back into the ocean, but you are one person with one back and the water just keeps coming in. It feels like a losing battle. You tire, feeling like the situation is hopeless after what seems like the millionth bucket. But your lifejacket is secure and if the worst happens it promises you will be OK. You can keep your head above water with the lifejacket on and you will live, even if the water gets too much for the little boat to carry anymore.

Inevitably, the boat sinks. The weight of the water rips it apart until it is no longer recognisable. Pieces of wood and debris you hardly recognise float around you. No comfort, this boat has not saved you from the storm, without the lifejacket you would surely have perished to the same watery graveyard below.

Hours pass. The storm passes. You are alive. The lifejacket your only saviour. Hours pass. The lifejacket now has you safely in its arms, carries you where it wants to go, sometimes this way, sometimes that. You have no control over the direction you drift in, your life literally now in the jacket’s hands. The sun beats down on you. The yellow plastic reflects the sun’s rays onto your face and they burn. The ragged edges of the plastic fray your neck like a rope. You are alive. The lifesaver has sustained you still, has not deflated, not let you down.

Two days pass. You are tired, the lifesaver has carried you with the current, away from the shore and the wreck of the boat. It is all you have now. Hope is fading but your lifejacket is here, trying to reignite your hope…it will be your saviour.

The sun rises and with the opening of your eyes for the first time you see land. You try to swim towards it but the current is going the other way and the lifejacket pulls you in the other direction. You fight, but you have little energy left.

It is then you realise that you have two options. You can continue to trust the lifejacket that has kept you afloat for days or you can take it off and try to swim for shore. The thought of removing the lifejacket terrifies you. It has given you security, hope, trust, it was there for you in your darkest hour. You doubt your ability to swim. You doubt yourself. What’s left of your logic tells you your limbs are not strong enough to swim the short distance to shore. If you take it off you will surely drown. Fear vs hope. Hope vs fear. The decision sits heavy. You are convinced that you cannot swim. Have lost the faith in yourself to know how to. In a moment of quiet you hear a voice. You are unsure if it has come from the shore or perhaps it is your voice. You barely recognise it. SWIM. Surely a trick of the sea? SWIM. You are barely conscious, not knowing the depth of the water, could be 200m could be 2m. SWIM. DROWN. The decision is overwhelming. Sink or swim. Float or drown.

SWIM. And don’t look back.

The above story was inspired by a metaphor used by Family Therapist and Mental Health Nurse Peta Marks. It hopes to give some insight into the journey that Anorexia Nervosa can take clients on, but it also can be applied to any fear or situation that starts off being helpful and healthy and then takes over your decision making. I dedicate this story to the clients who having made the decision to swim are now on dry land. What will your decision be? Will you let fear take you further downstream this week?

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