how to change the world

This is How You Change the World 1 Starfish at a Time

Depths Of Depression

I have been through an intensely difficult period in my life during which I was diagnosed with severe depression and PTSD. The support I have received has been exceptional, from professionals to family, friends to colleagues – I couldn’t have asked for more.

I know I have been exceptionally fortunate for that. Yet, in the depths of depression, often there is little that anyone can do to ease your pain or soften your despair. And there were many occasions that I couldn’t see beyond the agonising place my mind had settled.

Recovery is Never a Straight Line

Over time, with intense support, this situation improved greatly. I was feeling brighter, more positive, more energetic and essentially ready for my life to ‘get back to normal.’ Although I’d been reminded many times that recovery is never a straight line, I didn’t really believe that that applied to me and fully expected my own recovery to be vertical and swift.

Imagine my surprise when it wasn’t. I was shocked. Disappointed. And, quite frankly, ashamed. Not only did I have to admit it to myself that I was struggling again but also to the people around me. It was made even harder because my therapist fell ill and I couldn’t see her for three weeks.

This happened to coincide with me connecting with a therapist on the other side of the world through social media. Her posts (@victoriamathewspsychotherapy), frequently struck a chord with me and I began to comment on them. One day she sent me a direct message to thank me for a particular remark and this began regular communication between us.

I Was Her Chosen Starfish

I hit a particularly low point. I couldn’t contact my therapist and I didn’t want to speak to a different one. Scared to admit I was ‘failing’ to my husband, I reached out to this stranger who I knew little about apart from inspiring posts on social media. For a couple of weeks, this person who didn’t know me, responded patiently and thoughtfully to a stream of messages. At times she reassured me. At other times she challenged me. She helped me focus on the positive aspects of my recovery, rather than on the current dip. She reminded me that recovery always looks like a scribble rather than a straight line; and that I would reach the end of it eventually.

She clearly had faith in me and she cared. I was enormously grateful. Yet, once I began to feel a little better, it struck me that I didn’t get it. Why had she made such an effort to support a complete stranger?

So I asked her with this message:

Create a ripple effect

Her response was “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eiseley…

The Starfish Story

“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”

Blown Away

Now, I’m a teacher and I’ve read stories and shown videos to children to convey this concept a thousand times. Helping others is at the heart of my classroom ethos, as well as that of my family.

Yet her response, blew me away.

A complete stranger had recognized my need. She had responded to it with love and care as though she knew me. She’d offered her professional expertise without the expectation of anything in return. And she’d given me that valuable gift of time that many of us feel too busy to give. Her actions had made a huge difference to me during a very difficult time; and, I had to admit, she’d responded in a way I never would have done to someone I didn’t know.

I was, and still am, deeply touched and grateful for it. I told her so and this is what she replied:

Create a ripple effect
Create a ripple effect

It’s a beautiful thought that the world might be full of people like her…but I don’t necessarily think it’s the case. Victoria, you really do have a Lionheart!

On the Look Out For My Own Starfish

In a future message, she mentioned the ripple effect that helping someone can have. Not only can it be vital to them but it can also have a significant impact on the people close to them.

This is so true. This stranger enabled me to turn in a tricky corner that fortnight. In doing so, she saved me, my family and my friends the heartache of another relapse. That in itself is incredible.

Yet the ripple goes much further than that. She has changed my perspective completely on those in need. I have since reached out to help others on social media in a way I wouldn’t have done before and I have had some lovely, positive, surprised responses…much in the same way I was positive yet surprised when she supported me.

In the ‘real’ world, my renewed openness has led others to talk to me in a way that they never have done before. They sense I’m interested, they sense I care and they sense that I know that I can make a difference even if is ‘only’ by offering my time and listening.

And now, in a strong place of nearly full recovery, I am working on a project to save as many starfish as I can. I know I won’t change the world but if I can change just one person’s world, as was done for me, then I know it’s worth it.

Keep your eyes open.

Who will your starfish be? Don’t worry about the thousands that surround you. Focus on the one or two you are able to support and see the ripple effect. It will be worth it.

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Article Author

Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco

Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco

Raw, honest and open as a mental health warrior. Keen mental health advocate. Writer, poet and lover of words that encourage and inspire. Third culture, bilingual kids in a fab family of four + one (four-legged fluff ball that barks). Identical twin and mother of twins. Lived in UK, Italy and The Netherlands. Passionate primary school teacher. Mad about sport – cycling, squash, swimming, tennis, football – it varies. I just need to move!
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