I first came across the poem ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ by Stevie Smith in high school and I remember even then, it hit me in the gut, and over the years I have returned to it time and again because it so aptly describes how I feel a lot of the times.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
If you want to know what depression feels like, the gaping chasm that sometimes feels like it’s eating your heart, a chasm in which you can scream as much as you like but no one ever hears you, then read this poem. It says the dead man lay moaning and nobody heard him. That’s what depression is like. It’s like death whispering at you even in your happiest moment, when you should be rejoicing it whispers ‘this won’t last, you know it won’t’ or even worse yet, ‘this is a dream, it’s not real, enjoy the adrenaline while it lasts, because soon it will be gone…you know I’m right.’
And even worse, it feels like it is your condition alone to carry – only the dead man lay moaning; no one else heard him but they heard each other…
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way, They said.
‘He always loved larking…’ That is what they think…people wonder how someone who seems so strong, seems so capable and gifted and beautiful and whatever it is could take their own life…
There was a song I heard years ago and I remember I could never get the one line out of my head… ‘I was always on the outside looking in’.
A dis-associative feeling, like somehow you consciously know you are in the world but you feel far apart from it and all those around you. Many people have felt it but it is hard to describe and worse yet explain to someone else.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always (Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
I really find the final stanza fascinating: It is poignant sad and for once quite clear in meaning… ‘it was too cold always’, and because he is dead, he is truly beyond help – ‘I was much too far out all my life and not waving but drowning.’
Are you drowning and everyone else thinks you are waving? Putting on that winning smile, clapping your hands so you stay in beat with the rhythm of this life – people’s expectations that you are struggling to live up to? Your own expectations for yourself? Your own limitations? Feeling trapped in the shadow of other people’s successes and afraid to say how you really feel – frail, unaccomplished, unwanted, unheard and misheard, like an outsider? Is that you too saying, ‘Im not waving I’m drowning!’ and no one hears your screams or sees your frantic flailing in the deep deep waters of life against a never-ending onslaught of waves, each new one bigger than the last and threatening to overwhelm and sink you to depths where no one else can reach you?
Well you are not alone. I have been drowning not waving and for a long time unable to articulate it. To speak it out loud. That life is too hard. The world is too big and sometimes, many times we will be standing in the middle of a crowded street screaming our lungs out and not a soul will stop or see or hear us.
Never has that scripture been more profound to me that we are strangers in this land –
‘For I am a stranger with You,
A sojourner, as all my fathers were.’
And sadder still – everyone is screaming. They may not tell you, but they are screaming too. But if you are reading this you are still alive. Unlike the man in the poem who is now an afterthought, gone like vapour in the wind – you are still breathing. You are not alone. You are not forsaken. You are not forgotten.
“But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, And my Lord has forgotten me.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.
Your sons shall make haste;
Your destroyers and those who laid you waste
Shall go away from you.”
“Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”
You are not alone and I am not alone, and while we yet breathe there is hope for a better day.