How Two Bits of Plastic Pulled Me Out of Depression

A story of suffering, sinking, and swimming once more

Mark Starmach
11 min readMar 8, 2018

These are my earplugs. I use them to swim.

Without them, water gets in my ears and causes a weird ringing pain. With them, I can swim for much longer — and it’s swimming much longer, each day over the course of several months, that helped me out of a really dark spot in my life a few years ago. I’d like to tell you the story of how.

We’ve all heard how depression creeps its way in — slowly, unnoticeably, bit by bit like some squatter who moves in one atom at a time — so I’ll save you the detail and sketch the strokes.

I’d just graduated uni and seemingly had the whole world at my fingertips. Except, as I slowly came to realise, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I had to do to do it — which I suspect is something felt by a good percent of unsuspecting twentysomethings when all the structure and purpose provided by 15 years of educational institutionalisation is suddenly whipped out from beneath them like a silk robe. Instead of working stuff out, I adopted a very unstructured lifestyle. Most days I’d stay at home on the internet, and half-assedly research various career options before falling into a six-hour-long YouTube spiral of philosophy lectures, Let’s Plays, and stupid comment wars. I began to sleep later and later, and wake later and later, until it wasn’t uncommon to still be beneath my bedsheets at 2 in the afternoon, seized by the distinct feeling that I was Facebooking and Redditing and Minecrafting away the best years of my life.

No one around me knew what to do. My mum would ask innocently: “What are you doing today?”, which in my mind Google-translated into “What are you doing with your life?”, which made the answer “nothing” twice as tough. I’d respond aggressively, and eventually she stopped asking. On all fronts I withdrew, as a simple conversation with friends would stir up similarly painful points.

To feed my increasingly isolated, sedentary, nocturnal lifestyle, I’d order whole cheese pizzas for myself several nights a week, then do 5 minutes of sit-ups here and there and wonder where my abs were. Combined with a few shitty life events in the preceding years: my grandma dying, a flopping lovelife, the loss of my childhood faith, a weekend job I wanted to leave— it’s no wonder depression was on my doorstep.

It wasn’t until years later that I came across a book called ‘How To Be Miserable’ by a Canadian psychologist, Randy J Peterson. In it, Peterson lays out 40 or so behaviours and habits that are guaranteed to make you sad — I was checking off about 31. If any of the previous paragraphs read like a mirror, I’d highly recommend downloading the audiobook, or at least watching this video by YouTuber CGP Grey that peekaboos Peterson’s key points.

It should come as no surprise then that, soon enough and set on by a bad flu, my mind became a sewer lumped with depression. A self-sustaining ecosystem. A 24/7 shit-stream tainting every little rising thought with an overwhelming sense of stomach-churning angst. Shame blobs clumped into sad blobs, which flowed down fear tunnels, which churned and funnelled the same shit through the whole system over and over and over again. There was no escape.

Crying and wallowing didn’t solve anything, it fuelled it more.

In that sort of mental environment, you lose the ability to think outside of yourself. So how do you even begin to think to swim your way out?

The answer, I believe, is somewhat pessimistic but at least realistic: The two-fold realisation that (a) something’s wrong, and (b) you can do something about it. Sometimes this realisation can come from an astute other, a friend or family member or internet buddy who’s noticed your change in behaviour and recognises what it is, and takes it upon themselves to comfort you through the dark.

But if not, your mind realises it itself. It has to. For with that many thoughts swirling round your head, it’s statistically inevitable that eventually one wafts to the top of your consciousness along the lines of “This doesn’t feel good”, “I don’t like this”, “What is happening here?”, “Is this normal?”, or even “If I haven’t committed suicide yet, there must be some part of me that still wants to live”. It might be a thought like that that got you to this article now —if so, congratulations.

Seize those thoughts. Write them down. Use them to form a new clump in your sewer. That’s your raft and it will lead you out.

For me the thought was: “Is this what depression feels like?”. As soon as it flickered across my mind my heart beat faster — I grabbed my phone and googled ‘depression symptoms’ which, when I read that a surefire sign of depression is not having a single positive thought for a few days in a row, made me realise I hadn’t had a single positive thought in about three months.

‘Depression’ isn’t a label to shy from, but one to embrace — because you can’t fix something unless you know it’s broken. Being able to put that language around your feelings is like swinging the world’s most powerful lasso around the universe’s murkiest monster. Only then is it possible to see the swirl as something separate from your self. As something escapable, not the entirety of your being. In the beautiful words of Matt Haig in ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’, another must-read, “Always, [depression] is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky but — if that is the metaphor — you are the sky.”

I felt an instant sense of urgency to change things, anything, else I knew I’d just slip deeper. Slowly at first and very haphazardly, I let out my pent-up thoughts — about philosophy, religion, life, connection. Blogging became an outlet and not only did my mind lighten, I also got a buzz from the comments people left. I took tippy-toes back out into my social life too, hung out with friends who I felt good around. We went to the zoo, karaoke, movies — places where I didn’t have to talk about myself. I even mustered up the courage to quit my weekend job at the end of the year, and vowed that the new year wouldn’t be a repeat of the last.

And when my mum asked over dinner one night “How are you doing?”, I let myself cry. And cry and cry and cry and cry — heavy tears that felt like they’d travelled up from the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of my soul. My parents sat either side of me on the edge of my bed, with their warm hands on my back as I got out every last drop.

And that’s when I started to swim.

I sorta accidented into it — it was particularly hot one day in the new year, so I went out into the pool and splashed about. It was golden hour, so everything was vibrant and backlit, and as a slight summer breeze whispered across my back, I felt happy — deep down happy.

So I began to swim more often. Laps at a time. I built up from ten laps of freestyle, to twenty, to thirty. I’d dry myself off, rinse and repeat the following day. A small ripple of achievement washed over me each time. Before long, I realised I’d swum every day for the past two weeks, so why not keep going? I promised to myself that I would swim every single day for a year.

Now, there was no way to know that this would be the thing that would greatly accelerate my recovery from depression — but in retrospect, there were several things working in my favour:

  1. Firstly, it gave me a goal: a SMART goal — meaning it was Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. This little gem comes from Peterson’s book mentioned above, but is a widely-used mnemonic by positive psychologists. Its less-used opposite, ‘VAPID goals’, comes from CGP Grey, also above, and has equal explanatory weight — VAPID goals are Vague, Amorphous, Pie in the Sky, Irrelevant, and Delayed, guaranteeing any of your brain’s productive efforts are left unrewarded and deflated. When depressed, your mind tends to gravitate toward VAPID goals — for me, it was trying to figure out the next forty years of my life all at once. But with a SMART goal, like swimming each day for a year, now there’s an end in sight and regular pitstops at which your brain can reward you with dopamine and other stuff. This flows quite naturally into my second point.
  2. Swimming made me active. The scientific literature is pretty darn clear on the fact that the more you move, the better you feel. This is because when your heart rate increases repeatedly (as it does during exercise), your brain interprets this as stress and counteracts it with a flood of feel-good endorphins and something called BDNF, which you can Wikipedia in your own time. But you don’t even have to sweat to feel the payoff — simply moving stimulates more parts of your brain than, say, brooding on your bed in YouTube hell. The link between a sedentary lifestyle and the onset of depression is equally well-documented — so it’s little wonder a physical activity like swimming, even if it didn’t make me sweat, made me feel better. What’s more, I started to see muscle where there hadn’t been any before which also caused my posture to improve. All this made me evermore certain that I was on to a good thing.
  3. Third, swimming made me go outside. I’ll keep this one short: sunlight is good for you. It regulates your sleep patterns which aids in your return to normalcy. Going outside also reminds you that the world is much bigger than your brain. Just make sure to wear sunscreen.
  4. And lastly, swimming taught me how to find motivation when there is none. Like committing to any physical exercise, jumping into cold water each day forces you to build up a little arsenal of reasons to just go for it and do shit. As the months got colder and colder, I’d stand by the edge of the pool longer and longer, as my mind desperately scrambled for anything to make me dive in: “Well, you’ve gotten this far”, “Did you get in your swimmers for nothing?”, “If not now, when?”, “The sooner you do it, the sooner it’s done”, “The water will always be wet”, “The water is colder than you think”. As with the first few thoughts that twigged me on to the fact that I was depressed to begin with, I realised these were powerful thoughts worth holding on to. And so the edge of the pool became a site of therapy, a controlled environment in which to master the paralytic fear that emerges whenever you think about jumping into an unknown future — be that cold water, or a cold and indifferent world.

Water is a magical thing. A substance so basic and primal but also complex and transformative. We bathe in it, are born in it, are baptised in it. And we think best in the shower surrounded by it — it’s like water drowns out all the noise of our minds and taps into a deeper well inside us, reverts us to some primitive state when we were like fish or in the womb or something. Lap by lap, I’d think clearer and clearer.

I began to note another unintended side-effect of all this swimming: As long as I’d swum that day, I gave myself licence to try something else and fail. For I’d succeeded already on another front. In this way, I made steps toward the career I wanted, I asked my crush out and fell in and out of love, I went overseas on a whim with a friend — and made sure we booked a hotel with a decent pool.

Spurred on by all these things, I swam daily all the way til winter when the water got icy, around 10–15 degrees, and was dropping by the day. This one day was white and overcast, and I spent a good fifteen minutes on the ledge, jumping, shaking, limbering up, debating with my mind — before I thought fuck it and dove in. The water pierced like a thousand tiny knives, and five or six laps later it didn’t let up. I got out, grabbed my towel and stood quaking with pins and needles head to toe. Not two minutes later, I shivered into a deep sleep. An unnatural sleep. As though it was brought on by a witch’s spell.

When I woke I felt light. Alive. In that state, squinting toward the setting sun, I remembered just a few short months before, feeling like I’d felt everything I was ever going to feel. And now I’d just felt hypothermia, which was pretty fucking different.

That was the moment I knew my experience with depression was gone. Or at least for the time being. My swimming days were done.

I hung my earplugs up.

A friend recently said to me, speaking about their own experience with depression, that no one should ever go through what they did. But I kinda think the opposite — I think everyone should go through something like I did.

Why? There’s a line in ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, the story of an anxious boy who grows up with the dream that his life will go one way, and who must come to peace with the fact that as a man, it hasn’t. The moon hovers in the sky as an old friend whose arrogance he once admired now stands before him, humbled by life, and says: “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”

Depression in particular bends you and breaks you — but it also builds you into a better shape, takes you down to your base components and reforms you — makes you more deeply engaged with life, more eager to sniff out meaning, more sensitive toward the suffering of others, and more able to shepherd the suffering inside yourself.

Looking back, I am grateful for what I have learned. I’ve learned that pulling yourself out of depression (or anything for that matter) is always its hardest at the start — but that with each day and each stroke, it gets easier and easier to breathe.

I still swim as often as I can. It is my medicine. And so whenever I feel stressed or sad or lonely or hopeless or worried or depressed, I up the dosage —

Two bits of plastic, daily.

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, counsellor, or any other form of mental health professional. Please take my opinion expressed above at face value — and if you believe that you (or someone you know) may be suffering from mental illness, please seek the support of a qualified service.