Not Waving But Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

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.

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.

Stevie Smith

A woman, who later accused me of cheating to save her own skin, made a comparison between me and a swan. It was quite apt, despite her lack of judgement about other things. She said, ‘you always appear so graceful on the surface, and people must think staying afloat is easy for you, but only those who know you really well know the amount of paddling and flapping and effort beneath the surface’. On that count, she was right. Still, I should maybe have learned a lesson from this woman who I thought of as my closest teaching ally and ended up completely pulling the rug out from under me. I didn’t.

I can’t help but be of the optimistic frame-of-mind about people. I don’t trust easily. I have few close friends. Most people see ‘surface swan’. I trust my family, with absolutely no shadow of a doubt. Lucky for me they’re there when I need them. I reserve judgement about people for a very long time and don’t really trust people easily. Still, though, I like to think that the people who I do like are trustworthy and honest and when I decide I like you, then I’ll be utterly dependable, utterly reliable – as best I can be – and completely trustworthy. A friend for life. No holds barred. You could end up in prison on a murder charge and I’d defend you to the death.

And these people are those who see the flapping beneath the surface. Unfortunately, because there are so few of them, not many people know when I’m really trying hard to stay afloat. It’s funny, being bipolar – well, that in itself isn’t funny – because so many people go totally off the rails, one step down from schizophrenia – but you’d think it’d show more than it does. I like to think that I do, anyway. I think my last boss was absolutely flabbergasted when he saw me flapping about against the tides when things were at their worst. He couldn’t understand how I’ve been medicated for more than half of my adult life and that I’ve been ‘not waving but drowning’ many times in my life. He thought he knew me. But he saw the swan.

Problem is, mostly I’m that good at hiding it, you’d never know I was flapping. The more panache I seem to do things with, the more it’s probably all falling apart inside. When I’m size 10, running, getting up at 5:30, marking, teaching, writing, blonde, tanned, be-chanelled and Russell & Bromleyed, I’m at my very best pretending. And mostly, the only person who really knows that I’m falling apart is my sister – and to some extent my brother-in-law.

And if you think I’m a swan, you’ll know afterwards that it was hard for me to stay afloat. I think that pisses some people off – that I look like I’m doing amazing things – and actually, it’s lots of superficial glamour. They would rather I was doing my best flapping, like Marge our hen who loves a flap, and a bit of a drama.

Anyway, sometimes, just so you know… I’m at the bottom of the Hokkusai Angry Wave, about to have a tsunami wash over me. Mostly, I seem to surf through it. But, if you see me waving, I’m probably drowning. And if you think it all seems perfect, it’s probably just as real as everyone else’s attempts to get through life.


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