• Mark J. Keenan

Don't Push The River



“Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.”

This quote, cut from the page of a desktop calendar which Karen bought me a few years back, sits on my desk, held up by the tail of a cheap souvenir bronze dragon statue. It’s right in the centre, just below the computer monitor, so I can’t miss it.

I don’t like having things out of my control. I much prefer to feel I have the power to manage things; to take charge; to create outcomes.

I also have an ability to imagine all the options, and the different combinations, and to analyse and put them into action.

Being a creative thinking “control freak” has been a useful combo in the past. I’ve been good in a crisis and useful in solving problems. Because my capacity to think of alternatives, and my drive to gain control, push me towards action.

The combo however has a side effect; anxiety. And anxiety has it’s own side effect; depression.

I don’t know how long I’ve had GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) - I was only formally diagnosed last year - but I’ve been the “control freak” for as long as I can remember. So maybe a few decades or so.

At the moment we are all caught in a flooding river. Some are clinging to remnants of their past lives. Others are barely able to hold on to anything except memories. Tragically, many have lost family and friends.

I am fortunate.

I live in a part of the world where the response to managing the pandemic has been mostly positive and seems to be working. I already work from home so there hasn’t been much change for me in that sense; apart from having to make occasional random supermarket trips during the day, in the hope of finding toilet paper. But I’m not unaffected. No one is. My family and friends are impacted. So many Australians are in distress. There is so much uncertainty in this country, and in the world.

So many - so, so many - are in countries far less fortunate than mine, with larger populations, weak or non-existent social support systems, and inadequate or inaccessible medical facilities. I feel so heart-broken when I think of these people. I can’t control any of it; not the pandemic, not the response to the pandemic, not what other people do or don’t do. None of it. And my mind, capable as it is of determining all the different permutations of outcomes, had an absolute field day for the first week after the infection count started exponentially increasing and restrictions started being applied.

But here’s the thing, I do have control. I have control of how I treat my thoughts and my resulting actions. It’s something I’ve learned only recently, and I still have a way to go before it becomes something I can do automatically.

In February of this year, I undertook an intensive cognitive behaviour therapy program. I am so grateful I was given the chance to do so and glad I took it. It has changed my outlook, and my life.

I still have many of the same thoughts I would have had before the course, but now I treat them differently. Between the thought and the action is cognition - an assessment of the type of thinking I’m doing, whether it is distorted, and what an appropriate action then might be.

I’m learning to let the river flow.

Around my hands, along my arms, past my chest.

Continuing on it’s way, as if I was never there.

Sometimes it lifts me up, drags my feet from the muddy bottom, and pulls me along, amongst the debris.

And I try to float along, arms outstretched, looking up at the sky, until I reach the shoreline or a tree branch hanging in the water.

I no longer try to swim upstream. Or at least I try not to swim upstream. Sometimes I can’t help myself and start thrashing my arms about, fighting the stream. Usually I work out I shouldn’t be doing it before I get completely exhausted. But not always. Occasionally, I turn around and swim with the flow. It’s less tiring, and I go fast, but I often miss the beauty of the sky and the shoreline trees while I’m dunking my head in the murky water between breaths.

So, what’s my point? Do I even have one? Should we just drift along with life and not make any effort to manage things?

No, I don’t think so. We are human. Endeavour. Effort. Trying. These are all part of what makes life good. But choose where to put your energy. Try to put it into things which will reward you, simply, and preferably while you are doing them. Avoid those things which will just wear you out; and avoid putting your energy or worry into things you can’t control.

Last week, I started training for a 100km trail event. I don’t know if the event will actually be held in September when it’s planned. I also don’t know if the state borders will be open by this time. Or if there will be flights available. None of that matters to me. It’s the journey I want. The comfortable feeling where I am learning and slowly getting better at something.

If you are feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, please reach out to family and friends or call Lifeline 131114. You don’t need to swim alone.

© Mark J. Keenan