The Thrill and Grief of Being a Singlehanded Sailor
I still wonder, what is the right amount of time to grieve?
I wondered if we should turn back, unnerved that we were so far out, with no way to make it back if he got tired from the weight of driving us forward. Still, he insisted we keep going—which I expected. Jonathan has always pushed me toward adventures I would never have considered on my own; like riding three-hours across New York State through rain and hail on the back of his motorcycle or having my first sailing experience be a seven-day trip in Croatia.
Once we were completely hidden from view, with just a deserted island as witness, we talked about regret. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but that is one of the gifts of being at sea: It creates space for unexpected moments to give name to feelings, that otherwise, on dry land, resist understanding.
I began: “When my mother was sick, scared, running away, and needed me to save her from monsters real and imagined, I was always the one to show up.”
As I spoke, the steady waves and the rhythm of his paddling soothed me. I watched schools of tiny fish dart off ahead of us.
“But the last time she called me, I didn’t pick up,” I said. “I needed a break from being the one to show up and save her.”
As the words left me, I felt heavy with the weight of regret. I don’t know how we didn’t sink to the ocean floor.
The last time I spoke to my mother was December 23, 2014. She called me early that morning, paranoid and frantic. Her words were a familiar mix of contradictory accusations and desperate pleas for help.
It had always been my job to protect my mother. But it had become increasingly difficult to figure out what I was protecting her from. Was it the drug-induced paranoia crashing over her, the abusive codependent relationship with my father that would always boil over into violent threats, or something else, a deeper and older pain that she would never speak out loud but never stopped running from?
I stared at the phone feeling empty, devoid of any more compassion, tired and resentful.
“I’m not doing this with you again!” I yelled. “You need to get help.”
After we hung up, she poured bleach over the living room floor and threw coffee on my father, who called 911. She was admitted to a psychiatric ward where she stayed for three months and was diagnosed for the first time at sixty-three-years old with clinical depression. I felt relieved that someone else might now take over the work of caring for her when I had for years.
So I put space between us and decided to focus on taking care of myself. She called me one last time, a few days before her death, but I just wasn’t ready to pick up the phone yet.
For years, I replayed that last conversation and the years that had led up to it. Trying to think of ways I could have changed course.
When I was twelve years old, my mother collapsed on the floor of the social service agency where she was a caseworker. Her kidneys shut down from toxic stress and uncontrolled high blood pressure. To survive, she needed peritoneal dialysis—a way of cleaning your blood when your kidneys shut down. Each night, after completing my homework, washing the dishes, and laying out my clothes for school, I weighed and hooked bags of electrolyte solution to her dialysis machine. She spent her nights attached to the machine through a soft plastic tube catheter in her stomach pumping the cleansing solution into her body. This became our nightly ritual.
My mother survived twenty-two years of countless hospitalizations and surgeries. Through dialysis and a kidney transplant, she lived long enough to see her two daughters graduate from high school and college, the birth of her grandson, and my wedding day. Which is why, when she did die, I didn’t quite understand it. She had been her own best advocate in hospitals, demanding that doctors and nurses provide her the lifesaving care she deserved. Yet on July 18, 2015, she took her own life with a lethal overdose of the prescription opioids on which she had long been dependent.
Lots of people can relate to losing a parent, but not as many understand what it’s like when a parent dies by suicide. Suddenly, empathy is replaced with a frozen shock. If people lack a vocabulary for talking to the grieving, they are even less skilled at talking about suicide. So, I avoid naming it. I avoid any questions about how she died, or offer a vague “she was chronically ill.” Then, I nod and say thank you after the customary, “Sorry for your loss.” And quickly change the subject. My way of signaling that I am more than capable of carrying this weight on my own.
A few weeks after she died, I went to the doctor with a long list of symptoms: fatigue, random chest pains, elevated blood pressure, and muscle aches. I was preparing myself for some chronic and slowly degenerative ailment, putting me on track to follow the same path as my mom. But when I mentioned that my mother had just died, my doctor turned to me with sympathy and clarity.
“Nothing will feel the same for a long time,” she said. In that moment, I realized that grief was both a physical ailment and an emotional state.
Over time, grief continued to defy my efforts to understand and manage it. I thought I could treat it like a cold; eventually, it would run its course and just pass, and life would get back to normal. But it never did.
My grief changed shape. The symptoms evolved. It made me exhausted in ways I didn’t understand. I could muster enough energy to go to work each day, but once I was home, all I could do was lie on my couch and watch hours of TV. Friends invited me out, but I passed or canceled at the last minute. I became so deeply moored in my pain that making contact with others felt more painful than being alone. Instead, I spent my weekends completely immobile, sometimes not even eating a full meal all day. I felt numb, empty.
My grief changed shape.
A year passed, and my doctor had a new name for it—complicated grief, a clinical term ascribed to those of us who fail to move on from loss after an appropriate amount of time. I still wonder, what is the right amount of time to grieve? But then, I just nodded in agreement.
Complicated grief seemed like the most accurate descriptor of this see-saw of regret, relief, shame, anger, and sadness that I felt about losing a parent, one whose suffering had always taken precedence over my own. The grief was just as complicated as our relationship.
Sailing solo is called the singlehanded sail; as in to sail alone, managing all the tasks necessary to sail—navigation, adjusting the sails, managing provisions, sleeping in short thirty-minute spurts because only you can make sure the boat stays on course—alone. But the most difficult part is managing the constant isolation which can lead to hallucinations, depression, and even suicidal ideation. At worst, solo sailing can be fatal; if you fall overboard, there’s no one to pull you back in, and eventually, you drown or freeze to death as your boat drifts away.
With the right planning and strategy, I believed I could will myself to move through depression and grief as long as I kept moving. So, I began with small changes to my routine. I joined a co-working space so that I had a reason to leave the house every day. After work, instead of going home, I went to the gym. I thought I could outrun grief through work, exercise, and eventually travel.
A year after Croatia, I sailed the Andaman Sea with a crew. It was here that I discovered that when a storm heads my way, I take hold of the helm, a large steering wheel. On the Andaman Sea, I drove the boat as rain whipped my face. I kept the main sail at the perfect angle to catch all the wind we needed to go fast.
Our crew was mostly first timers, which meant everyone wanted to get a taste of being the captain, so after I had my turn at the helm, my crew mate, Rachel took over. I watched her steer the fifty foot boat through gusting winds and swelling waves. And I noticed something else: the joy on her face. Her grin peeked out beneath the brim of her hooded rain jacket. She had fully given over to the beauty and power of this experience.
“You looked so stern and focused at the helm,” she later remarked. The observation surprised me at first, but then, it occurred to me: The joy of sailing was something I thought I felt, but couldn’t quite touch. I was encased in armor, unable to access anything beneath my hard surface. It turns out, you can’t protect yourself from pain without forfeiting your access to joy.
I couldn’t feel it, but I could give it my attention. While sailing through heavy down winds made me feel powerful and capable, did it actually give me a sense of joy? Or was it another reminder that I have always been the one to show up when the moment requires a steady hand and a weather-worn captain?
Downwind sailing is faster. The winds and swells are bigger and more dramatic. On a clear sunny day out on the Andaman, we were sailing upwind. The wind was at our back, and it was calm. The swells here were small, just light puffs on the sun-glistening water. We hummed along, the main sail reefed to capture just enough wind to maintain this pace without buckling. I got behind the helm and stared out into the ocean ahead, until I felt that familiar sea hypnosis.
I’m still learning how to go at this pace; how to enjoy a slow upwind sail with my crew on a beautiful day without constantly bracing myself for the next storm, the next collusion, the next crisis to jolt me into action.
The thrill of being a singlehanded sailor is anything can go wrong, but your ability to survive those treacherous stretches is what makes it all worth it. Offering a sense of who you are and what you’re capable of.
But who am I, when I am no longer the oldest daughter, the caretaker of a sick mother, the one she turned to when her never-ending race to escape created a new crisis that I needed to bring her back from? In those moments, it’s easy to mistake the excitement of sailing fast through rocky wind and rain with aliveness. But in the process, you never learn to be held, supported.
I think about when Jonathan and I were so lost in conversation on that paddle board years ago. How we paddled all the way around another island and back to my boat without stopping. He never got tired of carrying me forward. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the weight of me and my grief. I wasn’t too much to bear. I had allowed someone else to care for me without worrying that they would turn away and give up on the effort.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that while the singlehanded sail is a daring feat, we were never truly meant to go it alone.
Piper Anderson is a writer, strategist, and facilitator based in Philadelphia. She is an alum of The New School’s Riggio Honors Writing and Democracy Program and the TED Residency. Through her company, Create Forward, she works to advance racial equity and justice by cultivating generative practices and spaces to build thriving communities and organizations. She is a faculty member at NYU’s Gallatin School where she teaches interdisciplinary courses of criminal justice and public memory. Her writing has been featured in The Huffington Post, HowlRound.com, and ForHarriet.com.