"What's Your Anchor?" by Dr. Tjorvi E. Perry

A young man enjoys a moon-lit evening on the deck of a large cruise ship when he stumbles over a misplaced deck chair and plunges over the railing. Luckily, he lands on the ship’s anchor housed just a few feet below. After the initial shock and disappointment, he recognizes his luck and makes himself comfortable, knowing he’ll likely spend the rest of his vacation clinging to the anchor. The young man settles in for the night, even manages to get some sleep. But as dawn breaks, so does the chain to the anchor. The anchor drives toward the ocean’s bottom, but not before the young man is able to tighten his grip and take one last gasp of air. 

“This isn’t so bad,” he thinks to himself, “the water is warm, the fish are beautiful. This is something I’m sure I could get used to.” But the further down the anchor dives, the more uncomfortable the man gets. The ocean turns cold and dark. Life around him disappears. The young man feels isolated and starts to panic for breath. “This anchor is all I have,” he thinks to himself as he tightens his grip. “I must hold on. Many things have let me down, but this anchor has saved me. I can’t live without it.” 

There are moments in my life that stand out. The pride I felt when I launched a soccer ball clear over my father’s head for the first time. The rush I felt as I launched into bed from 3-4 feet out to avoid the monster (I might still do that…a little). The joy of freshly cut grass just before soccer practice. The empathy I felt for the new kid, who had just moved from Argentina, and didn’t speak much English. And the safety of drifting on my grandparents’ deep-pile bedroom carpet, watching the Lone Ranger and sucking on a cherry popsicle. Moments that may have gone unnoticed or seemed trivial to others but, to me, stand out like mountains on a relief map.

As I got older, my grip tightened and things around me seemed colder and darker. I eclipsed my memories with protective mechanisms. I decided to act confident no matter the situation, no matter how scared I felt. I decided life wasn’t a team sport and relationships, even those most inmate, could never be more than transactional. I gave up on happiness. These were the qualities that now kept me safe. As my curriculum vitae grew and my material wealth exceeded my expectations, these were the qualities that had ensured and fed my success. Why would I let go of them? When curiosity and naïveté had failed me, arrogance and anger kept me safe. When vulnerability left me exposed, projecting blame in every direction kept others at arm’s length. And when empathy felt way too risky, cynicism saved me. Those were my anchors, and I was drowning. 

As the young man’s anchor came to rest on the ocean’s bottom, he grew hungry for air. He was dying. Alone and terrified, he weakened his grip. He exhaled the very last bit of doubt and let go. 

With help, I’m now able to tell the difference between my self and my anchor. With help, I’m now able to understand that while my anchor protected me for many years, it also nearly killed me. And while I’m not always ready to completely let go, I hope to be able to loosen my grip from time to time, to make space for awareness and self-compassion, insight and self-care, vulnerability and connection. 

Dr. Tjörvi E Perry lives just outside Minneapolis with his wife Kata, his 3 kids, Edda Brynja (21), Kári Karl (14) and Anja Valborg (10) and their Wiemeriner, Misty. Born in Reykjavik Iceland, he grew up on the north shore of Boston. He completed his anesthesia and cardiac anesthesia training at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He went on to receive his Masters degree in translational and clinical research at the Harvard Medical School. He is currently Assistant Professor and Chief of Cardiac and Thoracic Anesthesia at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.