Surfing a Tsunami
Standing next to quick-moving brisling water, the leaves all around me were a piercing bright green, and the sun glimmered onto our faces. It was the beginning of August, and in my hands, I held a fresh copy of my first book for the first time. Brushing my fingers over my name on the front cover, I felt absolutely elated. The culmination of a year's hard work, research, interviews, and vulnerability bound tightly between 368 pages. In this moment, I exhaled a sigh of relief – my story would be out publicly. I spent an immense amount of time dedicated to thoughtfully self-disclosing my lived experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Disordered Eating (ED), Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), and Suicidal Ideation (SI) – a total of four carefully crafted chapters. Little did I know, the most intense and hardest chapter of my mental health journey had yet to unfold.
A mere two weeks after standing underneath the leaves on one of the best days of my life, I lost touch with reality and was hospitalized for acute psychosis.
Prior to living through it, I had only ever heard of psychosis in movies and psychology classes. Never in a million years did I ever think that I would be able to say that I know what it feels like to experience hallucinations, delusions of grandiosity, and intense paranoia. When my psychosis hit, it completely took over and made me think and act in ways that make my present-day self shake. It was horrific – for myself and for all the people around me. I learned weeks later that my reality – which felt entirely real – was fabricated. My world flipped upside down as I quickly transformed from counselor to patient overnight.
For months after the episode, I swam in thick puddles of shame and guilt. And despite having just written a book about how to prevent suicide and promote mental health on college campuses, my mind was again convinced that the world would be better off without me in it. Suicidal ideation came back full force, and I fell into a deep hole of depression.
Acceptance has been and continues to be a large piece of my recovery. One of my favorite quotes by John Kabot Zinn states: “You cannot control the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” In my experience of Bipolar 1:
The waves started off disguised in bright blue. Faster and stronger they came and I felt confident in my ability to handle the tides. Suddenly overnight, the bright blue waves transformed into a deep dark black-blue. I stood with my surfboard looking up at a tsunami. The tsunami took my board, snapped it into pieces, and pressed my body under the water. For months after the crash, I stayed there, numb and paralyzed. Replaying over and over and over how and why the tsunami came. How can a reality that feels so real be fabricated? Why did I do the things I did when the tsunami hit? I was stuck, failing to put together the pieces of my old board, trapped by the weight of the past. Shame and guilt were suffocating, and they screamed that I deserved to drown. For a long time, I seriously considered staying under the water.
Time breathes perspective, and I realized that the key to moving forward isn’t trying to piece together the shards of my broken old surfboard. It’s accepting that I need to start paddling with a new surfboard. It’s accepting that I will never fully understand the how or the why behind the tsunami. It’s accepting that I lost control of my old board. It’s accepting that so many people saw me lose my grip on the surfboard as a result of my screaming when the tsunami hit. It’s waking up and realizing that the nightmare was real. It’s feeling like a failure knowing that the organ you once trusted with all your life turned against you, against all the people around you, and against the things most important to you. And it’s re-learning how to surf with increased awareness of how to prevent my new board from breaking.
I share my personal experiences to say: it is okay to not be okay. Recovery is not always linear. It is often one step backward for every two steps forward. I can know how to teach coping skills inside and out and still experience moments of deep suffering. I can have published a book about suicide prevention and still be vulnerable to experiencing a crisis.
Often when experiencing a crisis, we feel as though we are the only ones on the planet who have had these experiences. Common humanity is one of the three principles of self-compassion that touches on the idea that we are all connected. Common humanity helps to recognize that we are all navigating the challenges of life itself.
Emily Kumpf graduated from the University of Rochester in 2019. Emily spent her years at Rochester dedicated to studying public health, researching suicide in youth, decreasing stigma around mental health issues, and advocating for change. Currently, Emily works as a post-baccalaureate clinical fellow in a division of child and adolescent psychiatry.
Emily is the author of the book I'm Fine: A Student Perspective on Suicide and Mental Health on College Campuses.