Caught in a Whirlpool: The Role You Play in Your Own Rescue

buoy on the beachI was not far from the shore in the fickle, warm Gulf of Mexico, a place I love. I was swimming, enjoying the sun, feeling deeply at peace. I loved the smell of the water, the feel of the air. I was carefree and at ease, like a butterfly on honeysuckle.

Then I was ambushed by a whirlpool, kidnapped from my reverie. I wasn’t paying attention, and I swam right into it, caught before I knew it was there. I’m a strong swimmer, and expected to swim out of the vortex and get back to shore, but I couldn’t. Each time I made it to the edge of the circle, I was forced back by the whirlpool. Each time I thought I was making my escape, I was sucked back in. I kept trying, but I couldn’t get out. I was getting scared. What if I drowned?

I didn’t know it then, but built into every whirlpool is a backdoor, a path to survival, but when you’re in the middle of a whirlpool you can’t see it—you need someone outside, someone standing on the shore, to see you’re in trouble, to help find the solution, to show you the path so you’ll survive.

Lucky for me, there was a lifeguard standing on the shore; I screamed to him for help and he saw what was happening. I expected him to swim to me and rescue me, carry me out of the ocean like you see in the movies. I was prepared to be grateful—but that’s not what happened at all. Instead, he waded in a bit, careful not to get caught in the whirlpool himself, and pointed at something. I was angry; why didn’t he save me? I didn’t know what he was pointing at, but he insisted that I pay attention and pointed again until I saw the path out of that swift, inexorable current.

He was showing me how to escape, how to save myself.

This is like the therapist/client relationship, like what happens when I’m helping a client. I have a different perspective on what’s happening, even if I had a similar experience sometime in the past, in my own life, but to help I will stay slightly apart, so as not to get caught in the whirlpool. I will feel for you, but I’ll keep those feelings in check. It’s almost like being in two places at once—feeling close to your experience but a bit apart, too.

Inside your own whirlpool, you just can’t see. You don’t know what’s happening. Maybe you’ll even have the feeling that you’ve been through something like this before, but you don’t know what to do about it. With relationships, for instance, the kind where you split up and make up, over and over again. Each new breakup feels like other breakups in the past—you keep on breaking up/making up with the same person, and never make it to shore.

I will stand with you but a little to the side. We’ll find your path together, but then you must swim out yourself. I’ll help, but you have to do the work.

Sometimes people get very angry about that: If I know the answer, why don’t I just tell you? If I really cared I would rescue you, right?

I remember when I was in therapy myself. I was about 30 years old, recently divorced, mother of an infant, full-time social worker, and struggling financially. I did not know how to get out. I was stuck. I could not believe how I had arrived in such a miserable place, so I started treatment. I was almost completely hopeless.

My therapist listened to me, felt for and with me, showed me some of my less healthy habits, expanded my ways of thinking, and adjusted my vision. She loved me. She did not quit on me and did not let me quit on myself, either. She did not carry me out of my misery, but she was a positive example and helper, and I emerged, eventually, with a better understanding of the world and my place in it, so I could find my path and make it to shore. You can, too.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, RYT, Object Relations Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Gary h

    October 16th, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    The way that I see it is that the more you fight against it the more life tends to drag you down, very much like the proverbial whirlpool. But when you begin to go with the flow, accept the challenge and work with it rather than against it, that is when you will find that you can begin to get your life back and start to really get some things accomplished.
    I am like anyone else, the natural instinct is to fight it, but I started to learn (old dog new tricks) that this isn’t the way to make a dent in it. Instead the more positive approach seems to be accept it for what it is and to try to move forward from there.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 16th, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    Well said, Gary. And good for you- always learning more about new ways, and the positive approach.
    Thanks for writing!

  • Gary h

    October 16th, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    You are welcome Lynn. But believe me- these are life lessons that have been a long time coming! But better late than never, right?

  • pam (MFTi)

    October 16th, 2013 at 8:45 PM

    great article, thanks!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 19th, 2013 at 5:29 PM

    Gary, we both know we can’t predict when life hands us lessons, or when we’re able to learn from them. As you said, better late than never.

    And thank you, Pam– I’m glad you liked the article.
    Take care,

  • tracey

    November 7th, 2013 at 1:20 AM

    Letting go of my two Herion addicted daughters and the destructive life they.have caused our family. Knowing and accepting if im drowning I can’t save them.when and if they find their way out of the force.pulling them away. I work every day at mentally “preparing” myself for whatever the future brings and accept I can’t control its path, just be alive in the end and here if I’m needed.

  • kelvin o

    November 3rd, 2016 at 2:05 AM

    did you solve the problem of your daughter? i have a better idea and how to come out of , that is w hy i came across when i was learning something on how the whirlpool works…

  • Arthur

    September 22nd, 2017 at 3:35 PM

    Dealing with addiction is a very difficult thing to do, especially if you’ve not experienced it yourself. You have adapted the right attitude, and, as a recovering addict and current Master’s in Counseling student, I applaud you for your right attitude. Keep your head up, and know that heroine addiction can be overcome, though it takes a lot of work and therapy (again, take it from me, a recovering opiate addict).

  • Lynn Somerstein

    November 7th, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    Tracey, thanks for writing, I carry you and your daughters in my heart.

  • Lydia

    December 25th, 2013 at 6:31 PM

    Well said. A therapist cannot be the rescuer. It’s difficult balance to empathize and disassociate from the person’s problems.

  • Pecky M

    December 25th, 2013 at 7:15 PM

    I have been through trauma… 3 years out.. still trying to “be okay”. Still trying to re-adjust and understand this new me, on the other side. Realizing that there are actual “reasons”. Even identifying the fact that it was, in fact, trauma that I suffered. And having to cope with the many many ppl who will never understand.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    December 26th, 2013 at 8:53 AM

    Dear Pecky,
    By its nature trauma tries to disguise itself– it’s painful to identify, and then to live through and cope with.

    Sometimes people don’t understand because they’re afraid to look inside. I hope you find people with more courage.

    Thank you for writing– I wish you a fruitful New Year.
    Take care,

  • Cheryl P.

    July 23rd, 2014 at 1:35 PM

    Hi Lynn-
    I am in the midst of writing a grant to support our program that assists families that are in a homeless situation and I am trying to describe the importance of case management to the funders and how our families are caught in vicious cycle. As I was trying to find the words to describe this I googled ‘whirlpool’ and came across your wonderful article. This article truly describes how our families are when they come to us and what we as staff desperately try to do to show them that there is way out. I would like to know if you could give me permission to use part of your story to help paint a picture…this would be extremely helpful as I am not gifted with capturing the audience through my words. I would be very grateful to use some of yours.
    Thank you so much for your story, it truly was inspirational!

    Kind Regards-
    Cheryl P.
    Family Promise of Southern Ocean County

  • Maryam Abdul W.

    October 19th, 2014 at 1:37 AM

    Hello Lynn,
    I was in Therapy and Medication for 2 years. I was anti-social in school as well as depressed. Attempted suicide twice by overdosing on random pills.I can really say that I’m totally alright. Everyone tells me I’m lovable. I have alot of friends and I like to socialise now. But no matter how hard I try there’s always this time in my life where I feel that the past hits me hard. I get restless,Moody and start feeling stupid for all the things I have ever done in my life for every wrong I said. But then I try to understand that every negative has a positive side. I thank for being there always. I love the articles they post and I have been their fan from quite a few years now. When I tell people how I have been on medication they always tend to give me this look that makes me feel I am some kind of a pshyco. Which is WRONG!TOTALLY WRONG!
    Not everyone who goes to a pshyciatrist or pshycologist is mentally ill. If only people would start helping each other instead of judging I believe the world be a much better place to live for me and for thousands out there who feel this way

  • Lynn Somerstein

    October 19th, 2014 at 4:23 PM

    Well said, Maryam. I’m so glad that life is better for you now, and sad that other people don’t get it.
    And thanks for the kind words.
    Take care,

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