When I first moved to California I wanted to learn to surf. Growing up in the east, surfing was the iconic activity of California kids. Many of my friends surfed, so it wasn’t difficult to find guys to get out into the water with. During my first winter, when the waves tend to be much larger and more frequent, I was in the ocean with a buddy on a day that was too big for my inexperience. My friend Mike had caught a couple of waves, but I kept getting tossed over the top and tumbled underneath the wave, the region surfers sometimes call the washing machine. In the washing machine, it’s easy to lose track of which way is up as you roll through the spin cycle.
At one point, I naively tried to catch the first wave in a set – the first wave is typically not the biggest and is always followed by more waves. As I flipped and rolled under the water, I felt the leash that held my board – my only floatation device – snap off my ankle. I popped up, gasping for air, just in time to see the next wave of the set begin to break over my head. I had to quickly hold my breath and dive deep, clinging to the bottom so I wouldn’t get pinned under again. When I came up again, exhausted from two trips through the spin cycle, I had only a couple seconds to fill my lungs again and go for another dive. Each time I dove and tumbled around beneath the surface, my strength grew weaker. Finally, after what seemed like hours – though it was probably less than two minutes, the set passed and I could stay at the surface, trying to catch my breath.
I knew I needed to get to shore before the next set came in, which only gave me a few minutes, so I began swimming hard. After a minute of purposeful swimming I looked up, thinking that surely I was almost there. But instead, the shoreline looked even further away than when I had begun. Looking to my right I saw that the pylons of the pier were gliding past me in the wrong direction. I was in a rip current and quickly heading out to sea!
Knowing that I didn’t have the strength left to swim parallel to the shore – what I should have done to begin with – I dug in towards the nearest pylon and grabbed on, sinking my fingers into the barnacles for a place to grip. I called out to Mike, thinking he could give me a ride back to shore on his board, but he couldn’t hear me. As I clung desperately to the pylon, I heard a calm voice behind me say, “hello sir, could you use some help?” I turned around to see a young lifeguard, effortlessly swimming toward me. I released my hold of the barnacles and let him tow me out of the rip current and back to shore.
There are many lessons we could tease out of this story, but for now I want to emphasize the effects of the relentless waves crashing over me after I lost my surfboard. I could handle diving under the first wave, and even the second wasn’t too terrible, but after three or four waves, without any time to catch my breath, I was exhausted and desperate. In my confused state, I made a poor choice that took the very last breath from my lungs. In the end, I had to be rescued by a professional, someone trained who could see very clearly the trouble I had gotten into and who knew the way to safety.
We Americans are struggling to catch our breath between waves. By some estimates, about half of all Americans will suffer from a serious mental health issue at some point in his or her lifetime. The most common of these are anxiety and its cousin depression. Approximately 18% of Americans over the age of 18 are currently living with some sort of anxiety disorder: generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, or panic disorder. In fact, it has been reported that 3% of the US population experiences a panic attack in any given year and 1 in 4 will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime.
Lesson 1: You’re not alone in your struggles.
Lesson 2: It’s imperative that you catch your breath between crises.
Lesson 3: Don’t try to surf on days that are bigger than your skill level.