Vulnerable Strong_ Triathlon Training & Swimming With Fear

When I quit going to my last therapist, I told her that I was going to start attending Transcendental Meditation meetings and would no longer have money for therapy. I quickly realized that Transcendental Meditation was quite expensive and chose to sign up for the New York City Triathlon

As it turns out, learning how to swim in open water has proven to be as frightening as going to therapy and talking about my deepest issues. If the feeling of fear runs as deep and cuts as powerfully as shame or pain do, then I certainly have been afforded the opportunity to deal with that fear.

I first tried open water swimming about 7 years ago and lasted 10 minutes… though 6 is more accurate. I was swimming in Green Pond, the lake that I came to growing up and my friend paddled alongside me in a canoe. As I swam, I didn’t understand why anxiety was taking a suffocating stranglehold around my chest. I just knew that the process was so uncomfortable I couldn’t tolerate it, and I needed to stop.

Much like going to therapy and being confronted with a set of emotions that feel traumatizing at best; swimming in open water is not fun for me. 

As it turns out I’m not alone. Evidently there is a team of psychologists at the start of the Hudson River jumping-in point for the Panasonic New York City Triathlon who are ready to talk to you about your fear of open water swimming. Clearly this is something that many people grapple with.

In fact, it’s very common in our society today to be immersed in some sort of anxiety on perhaps a daily basis. Everyone deals with it differently. Some people smoke pot. Many people work so much that they don’t have to think about their pain or fears. Some people make sure they work right up until 5 o’clock and then have a drink (or a few). Some people eat to numb out, as a form of escapism.

In order to cope with modern society, many of us avoid immersing ourselves in fear, anxiety, or doubt. Here I was diving right in: literally!

Perhaps you don’t share this perspective with me. Perhaps you don’t have anxiety. But you probably know someone who does. It’s hard to tell these days because so many people are taking antidepressants in order to cope. There is something very, very real about growing up in the modern world and having to face reality these days.

The last issue I remember dealing with before taking a break from therapy for PTSD had emerged when I was 12. This was when my mother moved out and I started to look in the mirror and think to myself how fat I was.

The foreword examination, the sideways examination, pushing my belly out, slumping forward and pushing my belly out more; I was going through puberty and my body was changing shape but I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with. I just assumed I was getting fat.

It was much easier to hate this fat than it was to hate my mother for not being there for me, in the way that I needed her. The fact that I could not go to her, to talk to her created within me a sense of hatred, self-loathing, shame, and doubt about my body that came from feeling truly alone in the world.

This therapist helped me to realize that I was seeking coping methods because I didn’t want to be alone with the feeling of fear and extreme anxiety that I had not dealt with when I was 12 years old. She told me that I needed to take time and learn to feel it, to move through it.

I decided to embrace that feeling on my own and process the thoughts that come with those feelings. Instead of running away from the fear, or turn it into self-loathing, I would confront it. I went to France and decided that I would cry whenever I felt like crying: a luxury that most of us do not have as we go about our daily lives.

Maybe it sounds a little crazy but I never really have had a time in my life when I was allowed to just cry my eyes out and then let it subside. In my childhood I would either get smothered with love when crying, or get in trouble for being ‘hysterical’. I was not allowed to have my feelings. I wasn’t often encouraged to just work my feelings out with open & direct conversation.

France was good enough, but I still had tremendous anxiety when I came back to New York. Although Transcendental Meditation was too expensive, I did decide to explore meditation through the app Headspace. I try to keep it up about 10 to 15 minutes per day. I also go to a goal-setting DBT class once a week which is very, very helpful.

I think above all, the thing that is helping me the most right now is swimming in open water and letting myself feel the intense anxiety while I train my body to keep me going. When the fear comes up, I’m training my body and my mind.

I’ve tried everything to keep the feeling of fear away. I float on my back. I swim breaststroke.  But what I’ve learned from swimming in open water with other people is that these two options hold those swimming around you back. Then the fear of holding other people back provokes another anxiety attack!

So this summer I rented a cottage for the first Pongo Power employee retreat. After everyone was gone, and I was alone, I decided to swim every day: one mile no matter what.

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I talk myself through the big, huge uprisings of fear and doubt. I am truly learning how to self regulate.

I trace my thoughts. “Wait! Ok! When did this latest anxiety attack begin? What was the precipitating thought?” I parse out the rational thoughts from the irrational thoughts and I observe them as they pass me by on the conveyor belt of thoughts and feelings.

I was actually starting to feel pretty good about myself and my body. I was feeling thankful! I was feeling more toned and strong. I had less aches and pains each day. Overall, I was starting to feel a little bit more self-confident!

And then, in a series of unrelated events, I walked past the storm door to the cottage that I’m staying in and caught the reflection of my lower body in the window.

I’m posting pictures here to prove it – I have fat on my lower body. People don’t seem to believe me. I finally found the proof that I’ve been looking for!

Now here’s the thing. As my good friend and colleague Shannon Wagner told me, “How we look changes according to our mindset, lighting, angles, and like feelings, it’s impermanent.” I look fat, to myself, from that angle, with that lighting in that particular reflection. I am sure I look great in someone else’s mind’s eye.

And really what’s the big deal? I’m healthy. I’m grateful for my body working properly. AND here’s another photo where I look amazing!

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WTF? Who really cares?

It’s the first time in my life that I’m having the realization that I do indeed have fat, but not completely turning upon myself and hating myself, for letting myself get into this situation.

I’m trying to talk to myself like I talk to one of my clients. So I had a lot of wine and cheese over the winter: it was a glorious winter!

It was a phase that I went through and I enjoyed it, it was worth it.

And now I’m moving on to a new phase. In this stage of life I would rather feel more energetic and perhaps drink a little less and eat a little bit less cheese. I’m eating more vegetables, & more lean protein. I’m eating less refined sugar, and no, I will not cut it out completely. I’m feeling better day by day, as I get ready for the Tri.

It’s signing up for a triathlon that has helped me to realize that there are many ways to deal with our feelings and our emotions and our bodies that are positive and beneficial and ultimately leading up to a very joyous event. 

As I was jogging along with my friend Ray next to the lake, last week he reminded me the training is the hardest part. The day of the event is filled with excitement, exhilaration and tons of people cheering you on. The team spirit and the sense of community and togetherness is palpable.

So I say, if you’re feeling fat or overwhelmed by fear and anxiety,  talk about it with someone! Don’t hide your feelings nor feel ashamed of yourself. As my favorite nutritionist Sara Cowlan used to say when I was getting over bulimia: “Fat is not a feeling.” Yet every woman who has ever “felt fat” can surely relate to my experiences.

Our relationships with our bodies are complex.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t share our feelings with one another. That doesn’t mean that we can’t trust each other and rely on each other for support when we need to grow.

No matter who you are, you have a right to tell people your feelings in a way that is respectful.  I’m learning how to respect myself and how to respect other people, each and every day. That sense of self-esteem and self-respect combined with respect for my fellow human being is truly one of the best, most fortunate gifts in life.

I respect the fact that exercise is hard and not everyone wants to do it. I had to build an entire gym and my entire career around exercise in order to learn how to do it in a healthy way, for the right reasons.

Event training has been the thing that has kept me going. Signing up for the New York City Tri has helped me to face my fears and also given me a healthy way to take care of my body.

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Here’s the plan when you feel fear!

  1.      Share your feelings with someone you trust.
  2.      Allow yourself to fully have all of those feelings.
  3.      When you are ready, sign up for something that helps you to confront those feelings in a healthy way.

Thanks to everyone who has been such a supportive fan along the way!! This is my biggest fan, right here (below). xo

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