Understanding the Water We Swim In: A Mental Health Journey

In his now famous commencement speech given at Kenyon College in May of 2005, the late David Foster Wallace opened with this parable, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

Wallace offers his interpretation of the parable, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” His more significant point is that the banality of life threatens to overwhelm and distract us from making the conscious choice of how we see the world.

In my first 41 years, I moved through the world with a certain confidence about who I was. Some of my identity was codified by genetic realities, some by social-familial determinants at play in my particular story, and the rest from the parts of the cultural script given to me that I internalized.

That is too simplistic but broadly speaking, these forces collectively create the nature of the water we swim in, which becomes imperceptible to us.

In March 2023, a series of events unfolded that sent me spinning. What began with a few sleepless nights turned into a mental obsession. This turned into a full-blown episode of mania, which, I discovered, will give you almost supernatural energy. 

I began exercising fanatically. My wife would find me doing push-ups and sit-ups in our living room in the middle of the night.  

My eating became erratic. My body tore through hydroxyzine, and then, when that proved ineffective, ambien, which might yield me 5 hours of sleep on a good night.  

After 28 days, I lost 23 pounds. While my body was becoming a kind of anti-sacrament, which made the chaos of my choices fully visible, the graver concern was what was happening in my head. 

The trouble in recounting those details is that the mania ravaged my memory. Only weeks later would I be given clues. These came from loved ones who conversed with me or from me reading back on text threads to discover just how erratic my behavior had become. 

All of this, and many more details I am leaving out, landed me in a five-day, four-night stay at a mental health care facility that, I don’t think is hyperbolic to say, may have saved my life.

When I prepared to leave my inpatient care facility, I read over paperwork that included a diagnosis of “Bipolar Disorder.” Some of the people who know and love me well were surprised, so let me offer this nuance: I had a mixed episode of mania and depression. I have pressed my care team on the specifics of the diagnosis, wondering how this could have been uncovered for the first time at 41.

I have learned a lot about mental health in these last few months, including its subjective nature. Whatever I am and have been my whole life is now best treated with an antipsychotic. I am not parsing this in defensiveness or because the stigma bothers me but because truthfulness seems to be helpful for those closest to me.

This all happened over a year ago now and while it took a good eight months to feel “normal” again, I have been playing the part of detective to understand the nature of the water that I have always been swimming in.

In the days after I got out of the mental health care facility, my wife did what she does best. She read a book on bipolar disorder. With a discerning eye on my fragility, she would send me curated dispatches synthesized from what she had read and experienced with me. 

We had many “aha!” moments in those first few weeks as we examined my life.

I began to recall details that might inform my present circumstance: bouts of insomnia as an adolescent, a family history that included an uncle who was described to me as a “conman with at least 13 wives that we know of” (i.e., mental illness,) embarrassing stimming compulsions that confuse onlookers, behavioral obsessiveness and at times, an intellectual rigidity.

I remember high school and college friends frequently asking me what “my latest thing” was.  “My latest thing” referred to my identity obsession, a commitment that would make subtle adjustments in my behavioral patterns, attire and dialect, if applicable. For much of my life, my personality has earned me pardons from my perceived quirkiness, allowed me to navigate professional spaces with relative ease and even succeed. 

But my diagnosis has also given me a clearer understanding of my liabilities and the wakes of pain I have created in my family’s life and those of friends and co-workers. 

I have cognitive faculties that are predisposed to a kind of relational chaos. By the grace of God, I have an effective antidote that is a cocktail made up of a supportive family, therapy, medication, exercise, routine, and, for the past year, sobriety. I am fortunate.  

In the spirit of continually identifying the nature of the water, I have made another discovery. As normalcy has returned to my body, so have some of my prior thinking patterns.  

One morning this winter, I noticed the same depressing thoughts from before had returned. I also noticed the lack of accompanying feelings that previously plagued those thoughts. This change is undoubtedly one of the miracles of my medication, a miracle that allowed me to quickly dismiss the thoughts and move into my day with intention and hope.

This experience has helped me understand how substantial my depression had been in the years before my mixed episode. It is strange that only now can I see what I had been living in for so long. But this is also why I think Wallace’s parable has so much explanatory power for the human experience.

Since it is mental health awareness month, I feel compelled to offer something hopeful, not just descriptive. From what I gather, there is still a cultural reluctance not just to be honest about but also to identify with mental health disorders. I am trying to consider that carefully.

My life is one of privilege. Even in the midst of what happened to me, I enjoyed the unqualified support of my employer, friends and family. 

I have quality health insurance and was given immediate access to an inpatient care facility. In July of 2023, I went public with my story and received nothing but encouragement and support. 

Perhaps I am naive. One day, a potential employer’s discrete research may keep me from a job opportunity, or I may be the punchline of jokes at the water cooler. 

But for now, I can only tell you what I have learned. Understanding what was happening to my brain and body empowered me. It introduced understanding and grace in my relationships and gave me another opportunity to offer vulnerability as a gift to those around me. 

It has allowed me to say, “This is the way I am suffering and this is a way it is still working despite my suffering.” So, each morning, I get up and begin my day by doing hard work to understand the nature of the water in which I am swimming.  

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