OVERCOMING ANXIETY - WILL I SINK OR SWIM?
I’ve written about trying new things many times. Trust me; I know it’s super uncomfortable. Putting ourselves out there into the unknown sucks. It sucks until the magic of it starts to unfold.
I was out for a bike ride a few weeks ago, and I rode by Musselman’s Lake. It reminded me of the first time I went open water swimming. It was far from fun, enjoyable, and all of the positive things you hope for when trying something new. Jon and I had been working with a coach and learning how to do the front crawl in a swimming pool. We had come a long way and had become quite comfortable in the water. Spring had hit, and it was time to take our new sport to the open water in preparation for the triathlon season. We went out to buy our wetsuits and were excited to get started. Swimming hadn’t been an easy sport to take up as an adult who had never learned the correct form. We had to take everything back down to the basics, and being a beginner is always uncomfortable for high achievers.
We drove out to meet our swim coach and a few of his other athletes for the first swim of the year. It was early April, and I believe the last of the ice had just melted. I suspiciously eyed the water; a heavy fog hovered over it, making it look like a scene out of a horror movie. Panic started to rise in my chest, and I was having second thoughts. Jon was feeling much braver than I was and kept the momentum going.
We parked close to the shore and opened the car doors letting in the cool, crisp air of the early morning. Seriously? I thought. It’s effing freezing out here; we can’t really be going swimming? I noticed a small boat getting ready to leave the dock. Maybe a fisherman going out to catch some fish, he must think we are crazy. As soon as his boat pulled off, he disappeared into the fog. My panic grew stronger. I caught sight of the other swimmers standing on the shore, all settled into their wetsuits, laughing, and looking ready for the adventure. Shit, I can do this. I struggled into my wetsuit, put my cap and goggles on, and tried to keep my distress undercover. Jon and I were clearly the only newbies, and I didn’t want to look like a wimp.
Our coach showed us how to prime our suit: getting into the water and letting a bit of the water in. He said it would help warm us up. Our body heat was supposed to warm the water in our suits, making it into extra insulation. I call bullshit. I stepped into the freezing water and lowered myself in. My lungs were immediately constricted, and my breathing became shallow. Wading in, I was the last one to take the first stroke. As soon as my face hit the water, I froze with fear. It was so cold and so dark! I couldn’t see anything, and my mind started racing. I began to imagine giant fish, dead bodies, and sunken boats beneath me. The mind goes wild when fear sets in.
I started to do some form of breaststroke, keeping my head above water, and switching back and forth between that and the front crawl. My breath rate was rapidly increasing, and a full-blown panic attack was about to expose me. I flipped onto my back and started to flutter kick, taking deep breaths as I watched the clouds float through a crisp blue sky. The fog had lifted, and the day was promising to be beautiful. I popped my head back up and scouted the shore; it was 500 meters away. I turned around to see the group slowly moving away from me. The group looked closer, so I opted to start moving towards them. Planting my face back into the freezing, black water caused panic to rush through my body once more. I quickly flipped onto my back and panicked silently.
In a few moments, my swim coach was next to me. I popped up and told him I was going back; open water swimming wasn’t for me. Maybe I would try again on another day. He smiled at me and said absolutely not. “Lay back, and rest your head into my hands.” I did as he said. I let the weight of my head go and allowed him to cradle me. He walked me through some deep breathing until I was completely calm. He then gave me a pair of fins that kept me very buoyant and gave me a bit more speed allowing me to stay with the more experienced group.
Swimming alongside me until he could see I had found comfort in the activity and was able to stay with the group, my swim coach had saved the day. Not just the day though, it may have been an entire sport: triathlon, which eventually turned into cycling. If he had let me turn back like I desperately wanted to, seeking warmth and a dry body, I might have never got back in.
The moment was there: sink or swim. He forced me to choose to swim, not to give up until I had given it a fair shake. As I rode my bike past the lake, I thought to myself; I may not be riding right now if I hadn’t pushed through that discomfort. I may have given up on trying triathlon. That may have led me to give up cycling. When things get hard, remember that the fog will lift and working through challenging situations will always be rewarded.