I’m Annaleise and over 3 years ago, I left the Navy after six years. After struggling both during and after service, I lost my will to live. 2 years ago; I sought help and was diagnosed with severe depression. I started anti-depressants, was flagged as a high-risk patient and went sober for the first time. One year ago, I left my marriage after 9 months. Without being a sailor or a wife, I needed to figure out who I was.
I’m telling you this because I’ve been there. I’ve hit the bottom. I’ve had suicidal thoughts flood my mind. I slumped onto the couch, unable to move as my world lost all colour. I know what it’s like when the heaviness takes over and you can’t come up for air.
After enduring some of my toughest chapters, I found a reason to live. I realised I could share what I’ve learned along my mental health journey to show others that even when you may feel like it, you are never alone. So I started writing. After a lot of tears, hard work and perseverance, my book, ‘Keep Swimming,’ was born.
Welcome to the Q&A with Annaleise the author of ‘Keep Swimming’.
What inspired you to share your personal battle with mental health?
I first shared my battle with mental health via an Instagram post. I was so tired of posting a photo with a generic caption that would imply that I was living the life when my reality was so incredibly different. I would look at my page and feel like an imposter in my own world. So I shared a post that told the truth, my truth and from that I had people reach out and thank me for sharing, because they too, were experiencing something similar but had felt so alone. It was through these messages that I realised the value of speaking up about what was happening because if my story could help one person then it makes it all worth it. The idea of saving someone else from the pain of navigating the waves of mental health on their own gave me such a big drive to keep going, to keep working through my own struggles but most importantly, to be honest, vulnerable and open. Once I saw the value in sharing my story, the idea for Keep Swimming was born. It was a book that didn’t exist in the world because I couldn’t find it when I needed it. So I created it. A book to show others that even when they may feel like it they are never alone and it is possible to make it through.
How did you find the strength to overcome the challenges you faced during your journey toward better mental health?
It was and still is the hardest thing that I’ve had to do. For me, it was a choice I had to make. I was either going to continue down the path and lose myself – potentially not even be here anymore to tell my story – or make a change and give myself the best chance of finding myself.
I got too close to the edge. I was far too close to leaving this world before I ever truly allowed myself to live in it. I didn’t have the strength for a very long time. I reached a breaking point, where I had no choice but to seek help. While I waited for my first psych appointment, my fiancé at the time and my mum took turns to make sure I wasn’t home by myself. What I was facing was scary, dark and very real. With their help, I made it through to the first appointment. At this point, I was flagged as a high-risk patient and was told that if I didn’t make an appointment an ambulance would be sent to my house. This solidified that there really was something going on. At that time, it was the combination of therapy, medication and support that worked for me.
But it is still constant work every single day to keep on top of my mental health journey. There is no end destination. I may have made it through what was the worst of it, but I still face those times when it really does grab me and hold me down. I just know how to manage it better now. I know my triggers, and my warning signs and I know what steps I need to take to keep going.
In “Keep Swimming,” you discuss coming out the other side. Could you share some pivotal moments or strategies that helped you in your recovery?
- After speaking with my psych during an appointment, we discussed my relationship with alcohol. I told her I would drink to get happy and then continue to drink to prolong that feeling. I hadn’t felt genuine happiness in so long, so when I drank, it felt like an escape, I would feel the heaviness lift, even if only temporary and I would do what I could to make sure it didn’t return. My psych identified that I was using alcohol to self-medicate.
If I wanted to give myself the best chance, I needed to cut alcohol out. So I made the decision to go sober for a year. This was one of the best decisions I could have made. My journey towards better mental health would’ve looked so different had I continued to drink and tried to heal myself. Without alcohol, I was able to feel absolutely everything. I learned how to put myself first, and I learned how to set boundaries. If I didn’t have the energy to show up for others, I no longer drank to force it. I no longer spent Sundays in a worse state because of the night before.
- My single most important tool that helped me face these struggles but also continues to help me every single day is my ability to ask myself “What do I need?” No matter what I always ask myself this question, and I always give myself what I need. I always put myself first and foremost. A few months ago I was in Sri Lanka finishing up the book and I noticed my mental health slipping, so I asked myself this question. I knew I needed to go back to Australia, ground myself, find a routine and breath. So I spent the money to fly back a week early because even though it cost a lot of money, nothing is worth the cost to my mental health. I have spent too long in a state of just existing, of not wanting to be here, that I am just not willing to lose my mental health again. If it slips, I will do whatever it takes to get on top of it. It might be a divorce, a flight home, a long drive, or a call to Lifeline – no matter what it takes, my mental health is and always will be my top priority.
Were there any specific resources or support systems that played a significant role in your journey to improved mental health?
- I acknowledge this person a lot in my book because she truly changed my life. That is my psychologist, Michelle. It is not lost on me how fortunate I am to have found someone who understood me, heard me and saw me. From the very first appointment, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. It took me so long to recognise that I needed to seek help but it truly did have the most impact.
- I think it’s important to recognise the impact that mental health struggles can have on family and friends trying to support their loved ones. I know it’s not always easy for those surrounding me, to see me in the state I was and sometimes still can be in, but their support even if they may feel like it isn’t, helps. I did, however, go through a period where I felt I had lost all support after my separation and this was incredibly tough. I had to fall back on everything my psychologist had taught me and had to really trust myself, and have complete faith in myself and the decisions I was making. I’m incredibly glad I did because I am here now able to tell my story because of it.
What advice would you give to someone who is currently struggling with their mental health and feels like there is no way out?
This was me just over a week ago. I was struggling to come to terms with something that I was faced with. I couldn’t quite understand, “why me?” I was mentally exhausted, unable to care for myself, and unable to leave my bedroom and felt like this might’ve been the straw that broke my back. At this time, and in the times earlier, I have to just focus on the next five minutes. Often the bigger picture seems too overwhelming. So I narrow it down. What can I do in the next five minutes to keep myself alive? How do I keep going? Bit by bit, if I chip away at those next five minutes, I’m already surviving what I thought wasn’t possible.
I give myself what I need. I also give myself time to feel everything that comes up. There’s a saying, “You have to feel it to heal it,” and I believe it’s so true. Sometimes your world really does have to come crashing down, so you can build it back up exactly how you need, with more colour and beauty than ever before.
Did writing “Just Keep Swimming” serve as a therapeutic process for you, or was it challenging to revisit those experiences?
100%. Writing “Keep Swimming” was just as healing for me as it might be for those reading it. When I first started writing Keep Swimming, I was struggling after transitioning from the defence force. I had lost all sense of purpose, identity, connection and community. But when I started writing this book, I found my purpose again. It gave me a reason to get out of bed each and every morning. Then when I started to reach out to each of the featured writers and they’d responded so positively about being involved in the book, I felt that sense of connection that I was missing since leaving the defence. This book has given me a purpose, connection, and identity – it’s given me so incredibly much and healed me in more ways than I can ever express.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book, particularly those who are also battling with their mental health?
I hope they take away comfort, support and hope. Comfort in times when they need it most. Support to know that they can turn to the pages in the book and find a way to keep swimming. And hope, hope that it will get better. It IS possible to make it through even the darkest of days. It is possible to have your world filled with colour once again. I hope they find a way to keep swimming, even if just for the next five minutes.
How did launching your book impact your own healing and growth, and did it bring any unexpected challenges or rewards?
Writing and launching the book definitely came with a lot of challenges. For a while there I was working full-time as well as devoting my spare time to the book, and I ended up incredibly stressed. I made the decision to leave my full-time job in January this year to throw my energy into myself and also dedicate more time to the book and it is the best decision I could have made.
Every single aspect of this book has been carefully thought out, it’s designed in a way that won’t overwhelm the reader. They can turn to any page and take something of value from it when they’re struggling. They don’t need to read it from front to back. It has ocean-themed photographs and beautiful illustrations to help transport the reader to a place of calm. This book is my heart and soul – and because of that – it also meant a lot of sleepless nights. I remember I would be sitting under my hot pink mosquito networking on the book in Sri Lanka until the early hours of the morning. Chipping away trying my best to make it the very best it could be. And I am so very happy with how it’s turned out, it’s everything I dreamed of, and so much more. The rewards are endless. Every single day I have a strong sense of achievement from the book. I celebrate every single message, comment, and review I receive about the book. It’s making its way to the people who need it, it’s achieving exactly what it’s intended for. It’s helping people and even if I may never know whose hands it lands in, the biggest reward is knowing that it’s already done what it was meant to – it has already helped one person and that makes all the stress and sleepless nights worth every second.
Were there any significant turning points or revelations that you experienced while writing “Keep Swimming”?
Just time and time again I realise how much value there is in being open and honest. I am in an incredibly fortunate position where I’m at a stage in my life where I am comfortable sharing my experience knowing it could help just one person. Every time I hear someone’s thoughts on the book, the book launch or the podcast I was just featured on, I know I’m on the right path.
Working on this book has shown me that my true purpose is in helping others and I know that as long as I don’t stray from that, I will be completely fine. I know I’m on the right path now, it took facing the toughest years of my life but I would do it all over again, to be able to share my experience and potentially save someone else the pain from going through it alone. Because we are never alone. Even when it feels like it and most importantly, there is always hope.
As I mentioned earlier, I prioritise my mental health above all else. If something is causing my mental health to slip, I will address it and make the necessary changes to ensure I am not sacrificing my happiness or my well-being.
I am a huge believer in finding an environment that nourishes your mental health. Often this means I drive two hours south to go to the beach so I can walk along the water for two hours, it may seem extreme, but I know I breathe easier when I’m by the water. I reflect on every aspect of my life – friendships, relationships, work, location – and if it doesn’t benefit my mental health then I know I need to do what I can to make sure I look after myself first. Then, I will be in a much better place to help others.
I thank you Annaleise for sharing so honestly what it’s like to live through mental illness and I thank you for keeping the hope alive and inspiring those who need it most!