Navigating the “emotional white-water rapids” of life.

By Brian Case - 03/01/2022


When I was 16 years old, I went on a white water rafting trip with my scout troop.  There were a few seasoned veterans within our group but most of us were clueless greenies.  The river we were going to conquer was the Green River – a major tributary to the Colorado River.  Being 16 years old, and being surrounded by about 15 other testosterone filled young men, I approached the adventure with a great deal of bravado. This was despite having never been in any water more turbulent than a backyard swimming pool when somebody was making waves by repeatedly pushing a pool lounger down into the water with his legs while sitting on the diving board.

My sense of invulnerability was a bit shaky however, when the guide was giving us some safety tips. Specifically the one that was something along the lines of, “if your raft flips and you get caught up in a rapid that keeps you spinning in it (known as a “hole”), don’t fight to get out when at the top where the current pulling you back down is too powerful – you’ll likely not be able to beat it.  Instead, when you feel the rapid pulling you down, dive down deeper and the undercurrent will pop you out”.  He then went on to explain that the life vests we were wearing would help us float back up to the top and the helmets would protect our noggins if we happened to get thrown up against the huge rocks while in the washing machine.

First thought:  I REALLY hope our raft does not flip!

Second thought: If it does I REALLY hope, I don’t get sucked in to this liquid vortex of death!

Third thought: There’s no way in heck (I was a good Mormon kid so wouldn’t have likely thought to myself “hell”) that I am going to dive down deeper in to if that does happen!!

White water river rapids are classified based on difficulty and danger, with class 5 being the highest level that most commercial companies will raft. Fortunately over the course of the 4-day trip and sailing through several Class III and IV rapids, only one of our rafts flipped (I was not on that raft) and nobody got sucked in to a hole. 

Since that awesome adventure over 40 years ago I’ve often thought of how absolutely crazy the idea of diving down deeper in to a rapid that was scaring the hell out of me just on the surface.  In my own life, as well as with the therapy clients I’ve worked with over the past 29 years, I’ve seen frequently seen how scary it is to “dive deeper” in to uncomfortable or unfamiliar emotions.  The fear felt is often just as real as the fear I felt on the Green River at the prospect of getting sucked in and pulled down deeper and deeper to my ultimate demise. 

With intense emotions like grief, pain or fear, there is often a great sense of overwhelm and thoughts along the lines of “if I allow myself to feel this any longer or any deeper I may never be able to get out”.  And so we often do things to keep from having to feel such emotions at all – or at least not too deeply or for too long.  Food, sex, drugs, alcohol, shopping, spending, gambling, pornography, adrenaline seeking, compulsive exercise, busyness/workaholism, taking care of others so we don’t have to feel our own pain, video games, social media, and numerous other outlets are usually readily available.  Some of these are socially acceptable and we get rewarded for our work ethic or selfless acts of service.  Others we do our best to hide and often are contributors to our shame-based selves. 

Thinking back to the river, it’s easy to assume that if somebody DID get tossed out of the raft and sucked in to a rapid, and somehow popped out (aka survived) but had no clue how they survived it – or thought it to be a fluke, they would most likely demand fellow rowers to beeline it for the shore, and then get out and stay out of the river declaring “I’m not ever doing that again!!”.  Perhaps that person would walk along the shore as the rest of the group floats down the river.  Maybe he/she would be willing to get back in the raft but only if the guide was able to GUARANTEE that there would be plenty of time to get out before the next set of rapids…..EVEN IF THEY ARE ONLY CLASS I RAPIDS!!  Or perhaps that person would see the smiles and hear the cheers and laughter as the others conquered the next stretch of rapids and begin to contemplate getting back in the river. 

I’ve come to learn that too many people have “somehow” popped out of a class V or VI emotional rapid (a traumatic experience, abuse, neglect, betrayal or any form of heartbreak) and are so afraid of getting hurt again that they have been stuck sitting on or walking along the shoreline as they watch others in the crazy, wonderful, unpredictable, scary, exhilarating, and joyful river of life and love, as they cheer, scream, cry, and high-five one another.  While watching, they know that some of the rafters are going to get tossed, and are perplexed as to why somebody would be willing to risk getting hurt and maybe even dying.  They are essentially stuck in over-protection…sadly at the expense of human connection. Their superficial walk through life leaves them safe, yet alone.  Loneliness for most people is one of, if not THE most painful experience in life: a tragic irony.

Getting back in the river and being vulnerable is….well, vulnerable.  If we had a guarantee of NOT in any way getting hurt by somebody, being in relationship with them would not involve any degree of vulnerability.  So the key is finding relationships (a person, group, etc.) where there is a high likelihood of safety, and also a high likelihood of connection, joy, fulfillment, etc. (interpret as: people who are imperfect yet overall have good hearts, and are willing to own, apologize for, and seek to change assholy behaviors and who are pretty fun to be with and love) -and then making sure we have our safety gear on.

 In the river the experts taught us rowing techniques, how to avoid common dangers, made sure we were wearing helmets and life vests that were the right size and properly secured, and taught techniques such as “point your feet down river if you’re flung out of the raft and floating in rapid water” and of course the “dive deeper” tip. 

For the river of life and love, with all its many rapids, there are also numerous safety tips and tools. Specifically as it relates to “diving deeper” in to our feelings it’s important to make sure we’ve got a life vest and helmet securely attached.  This might take the form of processing a break up or betrayal in the presence of a loved one or with the guidance of a skilled therapist.  It might involve reaching out to a loved one and letting them know you are choosing to allow yourself to grieve the death of your child tonight versus drinking yourself to oblivion and asking, “Can I call you later if it feels too much to handle?”  Perhaps it would be holding off on unpacking a childhood trauma until you’ve built up some solid self-soothing tools.  One way or another, we have to “put on our helmet and life vest” and get back in “the raft”. 

And when we do get tossed and end up in one of those really scary emotional rapids…if we take a leap of faith choose to follow the advice of someone who’s been there/done that and actually dive deeper toward what feels like a bottomless pit and our inevitable demise…and hit that undercurrent and get popped out….realizing “HEY IT ACTUALLY WORKS!!”…. it’s then when we will be screaming and cheering in celebration, – having survived what seemed impossible to survive, emerging confident in our ability to handle the really tough and scary parts of vulnerable connected living.  It’s in that space, where truth has been born of our own experience and is not just somebody else’s suggestion or theory.  It is then that we are ready, willing and able to live and love fully. 

If your heart or soul has been broken and you find yourself lonely and numb behind your walls of protection, or too often watching others from the shore, I invite you to put on your helmet and life vest and get back in the river.  It’s OK to start with some still water, and then slowly row toward parts of the river with class I or II rapids, and then III, then IV, and even class V level rapids!!  Hopefully with some fellow rafters who make the ride so much more enjoyable.  Oh, and it’s OK to stay away from Class VI rapids if at all possible…..but guess what, if you find yourself in one, you don’t have to survive it alone!!  Trust that one of your fellow rafters will throw you a line! Maybe you’ll need all of them to help pull you out, and maybe you’ll even get a little help “from up above”. 

Enjoy the trip!!

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