Healthy Mind

As Steady as the River Runs: How Fishing Was the Key To Maintaining Good Mental Health and Peace for My Family

Sharon Pruitt-Young

Photo: Sharon Pruitt-Young/ W+G Creative
For as long as I can remember, if you wanted peace, you’d head to the river.

When most people think of fishing, they probably picture old men gathering at their neighborhood parks, spending Sunday afternoons cracking open cans of Bud Light while they sit in folding chairs by the water. And while that image isn’t too far off, especially when it comes to river fishing, for me, fishing has always held a deeper meaning.

I come from farmers, and military men, and blue-collar workers, and PhD holders, and addicts, and people whose life have been defined by their struggles. But the unifying thread among us, one that has transcended years and state lines and even generational trauma, has always been fishing.

I can’t remember the first time my dad took me fishing with my siblings. I only remember browsing a Kmart aisle full of tall fishing reels and colorful lures, and gravitating towards a pink, princess-themed fishing pole for children. Fishing had always been a regular part of my family’s life, as natural as birthday parties and Christmas dinners and church on Sunday mornings. I wouldn’t realize until years later the significance it would come to hold in my heart.

In my working class, one-income family with four children—middle-class during a time period where such a thing was becoming harder and harder to maintain—vacations were few and far between. Fishing was what we always had.

In my working class, one-income family with four children—middle-class during a time period where such a thing was becoming harder and harder to maintain—vacations were few and far between. Fishing was what we always had. On weekdays, especially in the summer months, we had fishing trips at nearby lakes to look forward to after my dad got home from work. There was a routine to it all—packing the car, picking the snacks, bringing the perfect comic book—and I relished that routine. It was Christmas Eve in July, and as the youngest in the family (and the only girl on the trip, since my teenage sister was usually too busy with internships and part-time jobs), I felt privileged to be taken along. I liked that I would get to witness firsthand the stories my dad would tell once we got home, of fish strong enough to break the line at the shore and pull the net into the water with them; of the ones that got away.

River fishing was always for weekends, and if the weeks were exceptionally hard, which they often were, it was a beacon to look forward to, a reward for survival that no one could take away. The drive was longer and we’d stay out later. Coming from the heart of St. Louis, we’d drive until the city slowly morphed into a sparse countryside, all unkempt corn fields and firework stands with spray-painted signs.

Arriving at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in East Alton, Illinois—which I knew only as the “Alton Dam” well into adulthood—felt like entering another world. The Missouri border is on one side, and Illinois on the other; the Mississippi River, with its brown, roiling waters, stretched underneath highways and bridges, seemingly as unending as an ocean. It could have looked menacing to a kid, but I always felt safe with my brothers and with my dad. They would bait my hooks for me because I was too squeamish for worms. My oldest brother would let me ride on his back down a rocky riverside to a hard-to-reach fishing spot below. It was support I never had to ask for, and it was where I learned that these were men I could always depend on, even when I couldn’t depend on myself.

Years later, when I found myself a young, single mother, mired by heartbreak, my dad would go on walks around the lake with us, my son barely able to walk, and I took comfort in not being alone. It was two years later that my dad lost his sight, and the things that I took for granted— all those drives to the lakes and rivers, all those fishing trips—were things that we were not able to do again, not in the same way.

But those fishing trips were where I learned from my dad that you didn’t need money to have family traditions, to build things that would forever keep the ones you love close together, that would teach them how to take the time they needed to themselves when they needed it.

In the lowest lows of my life, I still found myself wishing that I could go fishing and find a reset button at the edge of the water.

In the lowest lows of my life, I still found myself wishing that I could go fishing and find a reset button at the edge of the water. It’s those memories that I cherish the most now, and make me wonder if my father knew what he was building for us back then.

Fishing was something that I never had to be good at, the only area where failure didn’t mean a thing. It was a source of unending calm, always accessible regardless of what shape the storms of my life may have taken. There was always one place where I could belong. Here, at the mouth of a river, with my family all around me, in the comforting silence and the laughter, with no consequences but a wasted afternoon that never felt like it—here, there was peace.

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