How to Float

Shannon Gibbons


I never met Sean, but every day I’m entrusted with handling photos of him, sharing in his stories, and walking through his house. Every day I get another piece of this larger-than-life person. I may not have ever met Sean, but I feel like I carry a part of him. I’m overwhelmed with emotion and compassion when I think about him because it feels like I’m looking in the mirror at myself.  

Last fall, to the outsider looking in, I was a girl who had everything she had ever worked for, a girl who had it all “together.”

Division 1 walk-on athlete. Straight A nursing student. Undergrad researcher. Presidential Scholarship recipient. Leader, tutor, friend… The list goes on.

Little did anyone around me know that if it wasn’t for that 5 AM alarm telling me to go to practice, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed for the day. The emails to my professors saying that I had a “migraine” were cover-ups for days I spent in bed having a panic attack. Constant anxiety meant that my routine for leaving my dorm each day was ID, backpack, keys, and Xanax. Behind the straight A’s were tears in the bathroom at the Hockessin Starbucks and check-ins from my friend Maddie every twenty minutes. She knew I couldn’t focus. My brain was so heavy with fog. And Fridays? I spent them drowning in anxiety, terrified that I would have a panic attack at a race, that I wouldn’t be able to show up for my team. I couldn’t keep that perfect face on any longer. Trembling, I finally told my coaches that I needed a break. 

As the seasons change and fall comes back around again, I think back to that girl with tears in my eyes. She was working so hard to keep functioning, to keep up the act.

Behind the personal accolades and well-crafted resume, I struggled and still struggle every day with anxiety and depression. 

My accolades can’t protect me, but mental health care–both clinical and personal–has at least given me the tools I need to survive it.

I think of it in relation to the water.

I have been teaching swim lessons on and off for over three years, and when you teach a kid how to float, you teach them the basics in shallow water. You slowly practice with them in deeper and deeper water, with them barely noticing the change, but as the instructor you know that you are preparing them. You are teaching them to float in any depth of water life throws at them. Eventually, you let go.

This past June, I was working with a very timid kindergartener. She knew how to float in shallow water, but every time I’d try to let go of her in the deeper water she’d panic. After many failed attempts, I let her in on a little secret: The more you fight, the harder it’ll be. The first rule when you feel like you’re drowning is to relax. Don’t clench your muscles and panic, remember that you know how to float no matter how deep the water gets.

When the water is deep, when my anxiety and depression open the floor up beneath me and I feel like I’m drowning, the worst thing I can do is fight it. The more I fight it, the more energy I expend, and the faster I lose control. When the water gets deep, I have to remember that I know what to do. I won’t fight it; I will lean in knowing full well that I will float. It won’t overtake me. I’ll unclench my muscles and do what I know how to do until the help and relief arrives.

I have lists. I’m prepared. And when I start to feel like I’m drowning, when I’m edgy, can’t sleep, when the doubts start to get louder than the truth, and when it feels easier to just withdraw…

I’ll call Maddie and be honest. I won’t hide.

I’ll tell my designated people that I’m struggling, and I won’t fight them when they advocate and care for me, even if it doesn’t feel pleasant in the moment.

I’ll look over the note in my phone that says “things to do if things get dark.” I’ll cut my caffeine intake in half. Caffeine is not my friend at these times.

I’ll schedule counseling every week and sometimes even twice a week.

I’ll communicate what I need rather than assume people just know.

I’ll take my meds every day with no exceptions, even if it doesn’t feel like they’re working.

I’ll make sure I’m eating meals and snacks regularly.

I’ll write what I know is true, even if it doesn’t feel true. I’ll speak my truth into the dark.

I’ll look at my calendar and decide what I can take off my plate.

I’ll be self aware of my capacity by being protective of my “yes’”

I’ll set reminders to eat and try not to just consume a diet of Ben & Jerry’s “All Nighter.”

I’ll schedule an appointment with my psychiatrist. 

I’ll practice the coping skills I’ve learned even if they feel elementary.

I’ll talk to my sports psych, athletic trainers, and coaches without fear.

These are the things I know how to do. They aren’t easy, but they are doable. And I have to hold onto that.

They don’t ensure that things will get better in 24 hours, but they help me work through the deep stretches knowing the shallows are within reach and that I will survive. These things don’t come naturally to me, but I am learning them. I am choosing them in little ways, the best I can manage each day, and the positive effect on my mental health is adding up.

I wish I could give you a story of massive triumph. The reality is that I struggle, some days more than others. But I have tools, people, an emergency plan, and perspective. I am proud of the work I’ve put in when I set a clear boundary with my time, when I don’t ignore the rest day on my training calendar, when I intentionally schedule counseling into my calendar, and when I let a friend into my struggle. I may not have it all “together,” but I definitely know how to swim.

Friends, unclench your muscles. Remember my little secret. I know it is so, so hard, and I am so sorry for that. But know that you are seen and known even in the deepest, darkest of places. Even when the water would swallow you up. This won’t overtake you and it won’t define you. 

You are not alone.



Shannon Gibbons

Shannon Gibbons

Shannon is a nursing student with a concentration in entrepreneurship in health at the University of Delaware. She is a member of D1 Women's Rowing team. She serves as the Operations Assistant for SL24: UnLocke The Light. You can find Shannon at the local coffee shop drinking an extra hot flat white.

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