Standing on the Shoulders of the Littlest Giant

It seemed as though he had been on the edge of that board forever. During that forever, he had changed from shivering to vibrating and his lips had turned the shade of purple that we had all become accustomed to seeing during that change. The breeze that day was cool, and considering his lack of any body fat of any kind, it may as well have been January. During the occasional day like that at the pool, sometimes the rest of us would offer up our towels for him to use as blankets so he could warm up and so his lips could inevitably return to their natural color. But this day was different. This was a day of reckoning….that is, as much as a ten year old boy would probably dream there was to reckon.

He stood there looking down at the water, which was exactly one meter below the toes he had curled over the edge of the big, old diving board. It just looks so much higher the first time you get up there and stand on the edge. Surrounding the water he was staring into was six or seven of the older kids who had been treading water since before he had inched his way out to the end of the board, and who were patiently trying to reassure him that, despite being terrified and half frozen, he was about to do the single greatest thing in his life thus far. And those of us who had already leapt from the death-defying one meter mountain top knew exactly the pure joy that awaited our friend whenever he finally got tired of vibrating.

Years ago, the swimming pool in town was the place to be on a summer day, any summer day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There was a time when a kid would actually have to plan to get there early to claim a spot big enough for a beach towel on the huge cement landscape that surrounded that beautiful, crystal clear oasis. And the sounds… The radio that sat in the check in/lifeguard/clothes storage booth window that could be heard across the lake in town as it played one of the local radio stations during open hours. The smacking sound a lifeguard’s flip flops would make as they walked on the cement. The old diving board could be heard clear on the other side of town, too, with its familiar, “ka-klunk, ka-klunk,” which signaled that another kid had just been launched into the air and would soon be splashing down in ten feet of perfect, chemically-balanced paradise. The pool was an ideal, coconut oil-scented melting pot of sorts, and it was a daily fifty cent adventure we were always excited to take at that age. Big kids, little kids, young adults, old adults, boys and girls, and with each neighborhood in town represented and recognized. This melting pot was pretty efficiently managed by sun glasses-wearing, whistle string-spinning, sun screen-nosed lifeguards. They were, more often than not, pretty lenient with most of our adventures, and usually pretty forgiving of our pranks.

Back on the board, lips ever purple and his whole being still vibrating, our friend was listening to one of the bigger kids who was in the circle of water treaders. He was trying to convince our friend how safe it actually was to step off the board and toward the water, surrounded by strong swimmers who cared about him, as well as the handful of others of us who were either standing on the pool’s edge or resting on the side in the water. His toes relaxed and his arms came unwrapped. Then, in a flash, his arms jerked back up around each other and his toes re-curled around the edge of the board. This went on for what seemed like days, and I am sure it seemed a lot longer than that for our friend.

Our friend was smaller than most of us were at the time, and I guess it had always been that way. Smart, funny as the day was long, and adventurous as any of us were, even at the age when it seemed we were always exploring something. But he always had the heart of a lion. He always pushed through things that could have been made more difficult due to his size, things that the rest of us made look easy or took for granted. I guess the board thing was no exception.

But he had passed his test, along with the rest of us. The test, which consisted of swimming across the pool and back without touching the bottom and then treading water for a minute, was easy for him. He swam effortlessly and could hold his breath like no one else I’d ever seen, which was weird considering he was asthmatic. In fact, I’m sure that he took the test more than once, while helping and guiding other aspiring big kids to achieve their own utopias. Almost every little kid dreamed of a few seconds of weightlessness thanks to the spring of the board, and the following entry into the world below the water’s surface. We idolized the big kids and their flips and spins and defiance of gravity. This is why we took the test, after all, so we could leave the shallow water behind and plant our flags on the diving board like big kids. It was our destiny, and it was Destiny Day.

“What if I don’t come up?,” I remember him asking.

“That’s not possible, I bet your head won’t even get wet,” one of the big kids replied, still calmly and patiently treading water with the others, while the rest of us continued to watch on around him. All this after what seemed like three or four days of watching our frozen friend ever so slightly bob up and down on the end of the board while fighting off a rare case of mid-July hypothermia.

A line had begun to form behind our friend by the steps of the board by this time, but no one said anything or acted like they were in much of a hurry. In fact, it seemed that at that time, the only thing the entire pool was interested in was whether or not another little kid would graduate to big kid status. The excitement was genuine due to the fact that if it were to happen, it would surely be a case of one of the smaller little kids becoming what would have been the littlest big kid in the history of the whole diving board area.

And then it happened. For those who were at the pool that day all those years ago, they will probably tell you that it happened in slow motion. First, the unfolding of the arms and the one after another uncurling of toes. A slight bend the knees. A deep breath, deep enough where he could have spent three hours at the bottom of the pool and still not run out of air. Purple lips pressed tightly together, and for a second or two, the vibrating and teeth chattering stopped. Pause, and then he did it. He stepped off the board.

He hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. All of the big kids in the circle reached up in unison like some precursor to synchronized swimming. As our friend fell closer to the water, they were reaching up to the sky to meet him. He finally splashed down and things sped back up to real time. As I remember, his head barely went under water and then he popped immediately back up to the surface, both under his own half-frozen, destiny-driven, adrenaline-fueled power and from help with the big kids who were making sure he was safe, just as they had promised they would.

As the last water drops returned to the pool from the splash heard ’round the world, a chorus of whistling, clapping and cheering broke out at the pool, only to be drowned out by our friend’s flopping and splashing wildly as the big kids , still surrounding him, tried help him stay afloat in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Why all the distress after such an amazing accomplishment? He was trying to swim as fast as he could to the ladder so he could get out of the pool…….So he could do it all again.

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A thousand lifetimes and millions of miles have passed since the day that Arni Anderson made his jump. I could have shared instead the story of how he contracted chicken pox and I didn’t, and went through it smiling the whole way. Or when one of the bigger kids in the old neighborhood helped him ride the big red two-wheeled bike that all the other little kids were scared of. Or the day he climbed the huge pine tree across the street from my house until he was so high we could hardly see him.

Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea that we are farther along because of those who have come before us goes back to the time when people first recorded history. Those who made an impact on us in some way, although they are no longer here, can also serve as the shoulders we stand on.

I could have also shared a long story of his passing at such an early age, and how the town literally shut down the day of his funeral. School was closed and businesses stopped. His church was packed full, shoulder to shoulder, front to back. Upstairs, downstairs, hallways, stairways, aisles. Or that his friends and the community as a whole was rocked by his loss, for sure, but that we will never know the depths of loss his family felt. Or that no one really knew at that point how to move on. We just did. Sadly, that was more years ago than I care to remember but his memory always remains close within me.

Sometimes I go through the park when I’m back home to visit. I’ll stop by the pool and watch for a minute or two. It never takes long to be transported back to the old sounds and smells, and to the day that some forty years earlier, the littlest giant let me begin to stand on his shoulders.

In memory of a dear childhood friend,

Arnold “Arni” Anderson

Old Coaches, Depression and Warrior Mentality

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It was during the fifth day of my third inpatient treatment, fresh off a four day detox, when my newly appointed counselor looked up from her assessment notes, and asked,  “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?”

We had been sitting in her office for what seemed like days. She asked me questions about everything from my friends and family to my drug of choice to thoughts and feelings.  I didn’t really give much thought to the answers until she asked the one about depression.  Up until then I had never been screened or diagnosed with anything.  I was in a treatment facility for alcohol and drug addiction after all, and not for depression.  I had no idea at that time that depression was real and that addiction and depression could be related.

The only time I’d ever seen a psychologist or psychiatrist up until that time was after I wound up in my first detox stay and weekend hold, and that was only to assess whether or not I was a danger to myself.  The night I ended up in that detox, I had been out with some friends one evening and, as was the norm, I drank too much.  What wasn’t the norm -at least at that time- was that during a blackout I threatened people’s lives (including my own), and I was apparently unhinged enough that my Dad had to hold me face down in the yard, after one of the times I fell, until the policeman in town and the ambulance arrived.  I still remember, many years later, Mom crying and Dad apologizing to me as he held me down to protect me from myself.  It turns out that a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit agreed neither with my mind nor my body, and it didn’t do much for the people around me, either.

Back to my counselor and the assessment.  In hindsight, that question, and her insight and willingness to ask after it had been missed in previous interventions, probably did a lot to save my life.  She connected me with a doctor in the area who had a lot of experience with patients with co-occurring disorders, patients with two different issues going on at the same time.  In my case they were addiction (substance use disorder) and a suspected depression.  The result of our meeting was that I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I learned as we continued to meet that it is something that I had lived with as far back into my childhood as I could remember.

 

When I was diagnosed with depression, I felt two completely different emotions at once, or within  seconds.  When the doctor described the diagnosis and some of the symptoms and how they may explain some of the deep, dark things I was going through at that time, I felt an enormous amount of relief.  There was a name for it.  It was something I didn’t have to (if I so chose) hide anymore.  There was help.  There was treatment.  There was hope.  Then, an instant later, a feeling of dread washed in like a wave on a beach, ruining the neat little sand castle of hope that my mind had built on the shore during that few seconds of relief.  Dread, of course, due to the realization that now not only would I have to fight a drug and alcohol addiction that was raising hell in every facet of my life, while I seemed almost eager to aid in the destruction any way I could, there was another enemy to fight in depression.  However, what I learned over time was that the dread was unnecessary.  It wasn’t really a new opponent.  It was a new label.  I used to describe it with words like “empty” or “dark.”  From that point on, it just had a new name.

All this happened many years ago now, around the time of the big antidepressant boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and over the years I was prescribed everything under the sun which was thought to ease depression, rewire the brain or to help balance brain chemicals, with varying success.  Back then, antidepressant medications were everywhere and were thought to be real life savers for people with mental health issues, issues that up until that time were often not spoken about, even between family members, close friends or spouses.  Depression, anxiety and the like were often seen as weaknesses, and they could be fixed much like addiction, with new routines, added diligence and more will power.  There was a long-standing stigma to mental health issues, and sadly, some of that still exists.

That day in treatment was many years ago now, and although it marked a turning point for me in my battle with addiction and depression, I wasn’t able to achieve long-term recovery from alcohol and drugs for some time after this.  At that time, I counted it a failure, my not staying clean after that treatment experience.  But I’ve learned in the almost 18 years of recovery since that it wasn’t a failure, and I didn’t lose the war.  I lost a battle.  There is a huge difference.

There is a question often posed in treatment and recovery circles, and for people with co-occurring disorders, about which disorder came first, a chicken or egg thing, I guess.  Some people claim their depressive disorder or anxiety disorders are brought on by addiction.  Some say trauma makes one or both likely, in either order.  In my case it is clear cut.  I’ve never wondered about it.  Depression, the “empty,” was a tenant in my head long before addiction was, but they seemed to feed off each other once I found alcohol and then drugs.  I look back at some of the people who were unfortunate enough to be in my life at that time, and I wonder, among other things, how some of them didn’t lose their sense of reality in what must have been a heavy storm for them, or lash out at me in fear or frustration, which they did not. In the end people in my life at that time had two choices: they could stay and eventually become pulled into the ongoing chaos, or they could save themselves and leave.  Sometimes I left because even early on, the alcohol and drug use had become a full time job, which didn’t leave much room for anything else.  I was continually trying to kill the depression and fill the empty with chemicals, and I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore, but that’s another story for another time.

“The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but  vitality.”   -Andrew Solomon

Today, I still battle depression and it is all a part of daily recovery.  It hasn’t gone away, and I don’t kid myself thinking that it ever will.  There are days when I am pretty sure I can take on the world and come out of it okay, while there are still days that are quite the opposite.  There are days when I cope well and there are days when I act like a pissed off four year old in the midst of a sugar crash.  I’ve seen people tougher than me die from addiction and depression, and I’ve seen people overcome odds that seem impossible.

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to adopt and adapt my mindset as my journey continues, and I learn from a lot of inspiring, motivating people who battle their opponents daily.  Even words, terms and my perspectives on things have changed along the way.  Words have meaning, and I don’t share the following to upset anyone else on their journey with addiction recovery or mental health recovery.  I share it because it is important to me, and it has been important in my recovery from both.  Earlier I said I battle depression, and that is what I mean. I used to struggle with addiction.  I used to suffer from depression.  Today, I battle it, and that simple change in terms and perspective has been invaluable in the way I approach recovery.  I don’t suffer from it.  I don’t struggle with it.  I don’t bow down to it.  I don’t use it as a crutch.  I battle it, and I prepare, not as a victim or prisoner, but as a warrior.

 

When I was growing up, my classmates and I had the privilege of playing different sports at a small school for three coaches who would later end up in their respective coaching halls of fame.  Each of the three had vastly different coaching styles, huge knowledge bases and experience, and unique ways of communicating their knowledge and developing skill.   There was also the belief that we were never out of a game, no matter the score, if there was still time left on the clock.  I recall arriving at film studies and chalk talks and being met at the door with scouting reports that were so thorough and film that was so dissected that we knew more about the teams we were going to play than they knew about themselves.  Although I have borrowed a lot from their teachings and applied them to my life over the years, the one thing that stands out above all else was their preparation and attention to detail, and they were masters at both.

Perspective and preparation have gone hand in hand in my battle with depression and journey through recovery. As someone who suffered or struggled, I spent a lot of time reacting, playing defense, and waiting for my opponent’s next attack.  I was always tired, and it seemed I could never really plan or enjoy anything because I could never really be sure when the next wave would hit, and I didn’t do a good job preparing for it either way.  That isn’t to say that thinking about an obstacle differently somehow changes the obstacle.  In my experience, it doesn’t.  It changes me.

Today I have a scouting report on my opponent and I use it.  Today I better understand my skills and abilities as they pertain to battling depression and continuing the journey of recovery.  I have family and friends, I have hope and the gift of today.  I can share my experience in hopes of helping others, when for years I kept it all hidden.  Adopting a kind of warrior mentality and having the mindset that my opponent is beatable has truly made all the difference.