Not waving but drowning

Sometimes we need help to fly again

If you need it, seek it

Six months on from being picked up from the North Pacific seems like a good time to talk about the struggle I had on coming home. An ocean of  madness and sadness swamped me and I would like to encourage folk that, ‘It’s OK to ask for help: If you need it, seek it.’

I am an upbeat person, generally positive and  pretty robust.  I like to think I can kick tough times into touch and move on and forwards. This summer and autumn I really struggled and kept the depth and detail of it under wraps as much as possible. Why? Because I wanted to keep up the deep-seated notion that I would head back to sea and, I guess, because there is still an embarrassment, shame perhaps, attached to mental health issues. It felt too like there was an expectation (real or imagined) to move on and forwards more quickly. Why on earth? Who knows at all. There shouldn’t be.  It is normal, often expected and is very, very common.

Post-ocean storm

My life post ocean was a crazy storm. There was the normal ‘culture shock’ of coming home from a 15 month expedition; the double grieving  and sense of loss for my boat Gulliver and my Project Manager; and the huge trauma of that final storm which blanketed itself onto everything. The combined emotion took its toll and for four months rendered me a scared, volatile, depressed and unconfident shell of Sarah O, utterly unlike me. It was a huge effort to maintain ‘face’ and keep enough plates spinning to keep it as under wraps as possible, at first showing the darkness only to those I trusted, and then trying to limit the audience as much as possible. The weeks where I cried almost constantly were a turning point – I had to admit that I wasn’t really coping. I was overwhelmed and finding it hard to stay afloat. I didn’t even want to – such was the depth of fear, pain and confusion.

Share and seek

We all suffer and struggle at times, both to make sense of the world and to find a way forward, to see a way out of depression and darkness – so we should all have the space and support to be able to share that and seek appropriate support  without fear of stigma or judgement.

Having been to some frighteningly low lows this summer I am keen to encourage anyone in that position to be brave and stand up and ask for help, and for anyone near those facing such lows to be brave enough to take an active interest in supporting them.  It is never enough to assume that someone is OK and coping – you need to ask questions and find answers.

Human nature makes it hard to ask for help, hard to expose yourself and your sadness and battles to others, especially when you don’t fully understand it yourself and are often thinking irrationally, whatever you might be portraying to the outside world.  Seek help when you wobble and support those battling tough times, seeking professional help where needed.  Then, once fixed, be open and honest about the difficulties and the solutions and tactics for kicking it into touch – help someone else out of their hole. Some of the most powerful moments in my recovery were hearing some very well respected sponsors and friends of mine tell me of their own battles and sources of strength, and the reminder that nothing will last forever.

Talk  tough

I think that in my field of adventuring it often isn’t acknowledged or fully enough – this mad sad stuff –  and having done a couple of big, intense trips myself now and spoken to others in similar situations,  I would say that looking after your head and heart before, during and after a trip is the most important bits of  time that you can invest in. For me, my most important fixer is Dr Briony Nicholls – psychotherapist and friend, but there are plenty of people who helped me get back to the surface this year. Thank you all.

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36 Responses to Not waving but drowning

  1. Jessica says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Why is it that we seem to need to cover up our most “human” moments? You are inspiring even in your darkest days. Thanks again for your honesty.

    • Whitney says:

      Thanks for sharing. I can relate to depression and mental unrest. It’s a touchy subject because it makes others uncomfortable. I feel the more it’s shared and put out there for other’s to understand the less taboo’ness there’ll be about it. Congrats on finding your stroke and stride now and hope you continue to have good days.

  2. Ray Girard says:

    Imagine if we lived in a world where it was normal to understand that we all will go through a time when we are ‘depressed’. People would look upon it like having a winter cold, or a sore foot; something everyone has at one time. The subject needs to be opened up and aired, just like you have just done. A bout of depression should be look upon like a ‘passage’ through a life stage; like a passage to adulthood. The stigma needs to be gone. If we all have emotions then what is so bad or strange about swinging to one side once in a while. It’s normal.
    Also, …sure, its a cliche, but most of us come out stronger on the other side, or we at least, know ourselves better. Sarah, you have done many ….a great service. Allow me to say “Thankyou” for the many.

  3. Janette middleton says:

    It is easy to imagine that there really is no fixing this brokenness, but yours is a message of hope, and for that I thank you

  4. Janette Leigh says:

    It is easy to think that there is no fixing this brokenness but yours is a message if hope, and for that I am thankful.

  5. Mary Ann Barton says:

    Just to say, you are not alone, life throws wobblies at inconvenient times, but to recognise ones weakness is strength itself. I have been there and understand completely, look after yourself and the rest will follow

  6. Sara says:

    Thank you for your honesty. You are an inspirational speaker and motivator and you now have another string to your bow, looking after one’s mental health is as important as the rest of the body. It is a strength to ask for help, you didn’t hesitate to ask for help with the practicals of your amazing adventures and you as a whole are necessary for your journey through life. Well done Sarah and good luck with the next stage you will succeed. I heartedly agree with Ray’s comments.

  7. Sarah says:

    Thanks for all the kind comments both here and to my inbox as well. I am very happy to say I am now out the other side of the dark stuff and fully back to normal, charging along. As dark and difficult as the summer and autumn were, I am glad to have been there because now I have a greater understanding of what it is like to be stuck in a place and moment that you struggle to get out of.

    Here’s to more talking and sharing about the tricky bits in this life to help iron out wobbles as we go!


    Sarah x

  8. Robin says:

    I followed your adventures with admiration as you showed such inner strength, maintaining your humour in the toughest of situations, but I find these words even more inspiring. Thankyou so much for your caringness and honesty; you will have helped many people.

  9. Andrew wood says:

    It takes much more inner strength to stand up and ask for help than to struggle on your own , you should be so proud of yourself for all you’ve done & achieved , it’s been a pleasure following your blog .

  10. lesley says:

    Hi Sarah after a month of banging my head against a brick wall (not literally) I realised it was depression and when I found the person (professional) to help unfortunately it didnt help so I asked for a change and it did help on Friday I finally got rid of migrane after giving in and having a better day this blog is going to help a lot of people remember to put one foot in front of another because if you go right right left you will end up on your face on the ground God Bless and have a wonderful christmas and may you be back on a boat (possibly not rowing in 2013 Lesley

  11. christina watts says:

    There is always so much to deal within the darkness that is attached to the unknown when we are depressed.

    From the highs to the lows, and from the lows to the highs in our journey along life, for each and everyone of us – we all need to address this honestly and to talk outwardly about mental health in a positive way for us all to understand we are in this together – when we are in the darkness it feels very lonely and painful and frightening , everyone above has expressed their comments which tell us that we are not on our own in this.

    I am sure many of us were very aware of how you might be feeling Sarah when things changed in your journey and so pleased that you found help with your family and friends (who know you so well) and that they were there for you with support and love, and of course Dr Briony Nicholls.

    Once we have been there we can lift ourselves through this patch of darkness – hoping that it is not as scary as it eats into us when and if we go there again.
    There’s so much to add here as you have now opened up another journey of survival.

    lots of love as always

  12. Alan Pacific says:

    You continue to be an inspiration to me, Sarah. Thank you for you openness, your willingness, and your continued perseverance!

  13. Katie says:

    Thanks so much for sharing and making other adventurers feel less alone. You rock.

  14. Yet again you have shown your formidable strengths Sarah. An inspiration to many in your adventures, you have also shown that even the strongest person can find coping with the aftermath of events extremely difficult. As a society we often feel that it is a weakness to expose our problems, in particular your inner, emotional issues. Thank you for showing a way forward that will hopefully help others.

    We will continue to follow your adventures & wish you all the very best for Part 2. xx

  15. Bruce says:

    You are an inspiration, Sarah. Thank you.

  16. john Globemasterone says:

    Hello Sarah….
    “Sometimes we need help to fly again”…so true. I’ve experienced it in my family …my brother was lost to depression years ago and his son still struggles today with “if only I…” And today I have a 21 year old co-worker getting professional help through an employee assistance program. I read that at least 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer from mental illness in their lifetimes, but the unfortunate reality is that most won’t seek treatment because of the continuing stigma around the disease.
    But hearing about it from wonderful people like yourself can encourage others to initiate that help for themselves. I am reminded that six time Canadian Olympic medalist Clara Hughes is part of a national campaign “Let’s Talk” trying to bring awareness to the issue in support of mental health in our country.
    So I look forward to seeing your beautiful smile from Japan in 2013….and your new boat.
    And I would like to take this opportunity to wish you and your mom…and all your followers around the world the best of the season.
    Take care,

  17. Tony F says:

    Thanks Sarah. It’s nice to know you are not alone when the despair starts to rise.

    Seasons felicitations!

    Tony F

  18. Pam Stocker says:

    And out in the open … what you are is real. And that’s the greatest gift we can offer to our fellow mortals. There’s nothing that can help us share courage more than honesty in a different kind of shipwreck. Who says sorted, fixed, happy, positive, confident is more real? It’s wonderful when you’re in a good place like that, but no one is there all the time, and for some, it’s an elusive place, hard to find, hard to keep. And the way out from dark places is like finding a way out of labyrinth. Much of the time, it’s not even certain if you are finding your way at all. But the result of such a journey is so much more vibrant, humble, and (that word again) real. Have you heard the phrase ‘treasures of darkness’?
    Now that I too work in the business of quietly, carefully and privately helping folk find their way forward out of their different kinds of darkness and shipreck, I’m so glad you are feeling better (most of the time?!) and that you were generous enough to share a different type of adventure with us all. You’re a richer, more precious and more deeply loved Outey for it. Thanks. Pam

    • Sarah says:

      Interesting thoughts Pam. I reckon all these versions of ourselves are ‘real’ as ‘real’ is whatever we happen to be at any point in our lives. For my part, I am thankful that my default is bouncy and positive, but I certainly look at the down parts (with hindsight at least) as some of my richest lessons – more aware of myself, more aware of others’ afterwards.

      It is good and useful work you fixing folk to. Keep it up!

      Sarah x

  19. TERRY B says:

    Hi SARAH
    Thanks for giving us ( your followers around the world) a chance to be with you at times like these,
    We are with you all the time as we admire your courage and spirit of the past , and know you will stand up for us again as soon as your on your journey in 2013
    TERRY B !!!!!!!! AUST

  20. Susan says:

    Sarah, wonderful to hear you talk so openly and positively about your experiences and challenges-which shows the strength you now feel at being able to confront and move forward. Time is a great healer but having people along the way to share with is also a tremendous boost. Your definitely getting your groove on!

  21. Alan Hind says:

    Sarah we all shared your disappointment and frustration at the way your attempt ended. So good to see you come through physically and now emotionally strong. To echo another comment – YOU ROCK! Looking forward to hearing more of your adventures in 2013. You’re an inspiration 🙂

  22. h says:

    I needed to read this because I need to get over myself and get help. I will. Thank you for posting.

  23. Geoff Chambers says:

    The funny thing about depression is when you confide in your shrink that you’re suicidal and he insists you start paying in advance!

  24. eddie edrich says:

    Wow Sarah I did not expect that in your blog.So heartsearching and honest.But you are made of stern stuff and will succeed in your adventures which I have been following since you set out to row the Indian Ocean way back when. I will look forward to reading your blog when you set out next March for part 2 of your latest adventure. I for one have never doubted your ability since first meeting you so go for it girl! Kindest regards. Ed

  25. Lee says:

    I’m sure many, many people can relate to your feelings, Sarah. I know I can. Thank you for sharing this very personal time with us, your dear readers. I’d also like to thank your followers for their insightful, gentle comments.

  26. June Bibby says:

    My dear Sarah,
    That you have been open to having depression shows strength indeed and I admire you for it.
    Just keep going Sarah and with your indomitable spirit you will experience calm waters once more.
    May God bless you and help you as you take up the oars once again. Very best wishes, June

  27. Linda, Cambridge says:

    Well done and thank you for sharing your experiences, both good – in earlier days – and bad – as a result of the storm and the way your journey was brought to such an abrupt and terrifying end. The fact that you experienced such extreme emotions on your return is entirely understandable. It makes you human, and accepting the vulnerability of that condition, and overcoming the sadness, fear and depression that you felt,
    will make you even stronger and more self-aware than you were before. Here’s wishing you all the very best for the next part of your mission!

  28. Sarah says:

    Folks, I have been really touched and moved by all the comments and emails to my inbox – thanks indeed. I am really glad to have written a little of that sad mad stuff as it seems to have resonated with lots of people. It seems we need, as a society – a species , to keep talking about mental health and wellbeing. So talk we shall.

    All very best,


  29. Hannah says:

    Hi Sarah – Depression is very isolating. I was first diagnosed nearly twenty years ago and have been on medication ever since. When I first got ill, some of my friends didn’t understand that I was genuinely unwell and that I wasn’t weak. One friend told me she had been through far more stress than I had and that she must be “made of stronger stuff” because she didn’t get depression. That kind of attitude is almost as isolating as the illness itself.

    One thing I would say is that, with the proper care and support, depression can be beaten. Since my first breakdown, I’ve been generally very well and lead a normal and happy life.

  30. Your strength to share comes through. You will bounce back stronger, no doubt.

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