I was probably in kindergarten or first grade when my family decided to dig a big hole in the backyard to put in a pool. I learned over the course of that first summer to swim and became a great swimmer throughout my remaining years at home (we lived in four different homes with a pool at each place). I could swim laps with the endurance of a marathon runner, hold my breath under water for an extended period of time, and experiment with several types of dives or jumps from the side of the pool or the diving board.
One thing I discovered was that doing front flips into the pool left me extremely disoriented for around 30 seconds. I would make this leap, flip through the air, slip into the water, and hope that I had adequate air in my lungs to float me to the top rather than sinking. Oddly, I really enjoy that feeling even if I can’t swim immediately after hitting the water. Either way, being a great swimmer means nothing if you cannot figure out which direction to swim to get to the surface.
Another thing I learned was that turning in a pool is extremely difficult. I cannot flip turn. Well, actually, I can. I just hate getting water in my ears, and somehow it happened every time. When I would flip turn, I would immediately stop swimming to dance around banging my head and pulling on my ear to clear the water out. Being an efficient, great swimmer usually necessitates a good turn, and I would lose momentum every time.
This is my current situation in life.
Eighteen months of learning and using coping strategies, grounding skills, mindfulness exercises, and connection with myself (and to some degree, others) has taught me how to swim. I am also surrounded by great swimmers who demonstrate by example and swim with me to teach breathing, swim strokes, and tuning in to the way each stroke and breath feel to become more efficient.
Each challenging situation for me is a race in the pool. CPT was a race, not necessarily a sprint race, but a race, nonetheless. I was prepared. I dove into the pool and started swimming. Unfortunately, turns are necessary in those races. Each new step in CPT was like a turn in that Olympic-sized pool. Eventually I pulled out of the race because the turns slowed me down too much. I needed to work on those before entering another race. I am making that effort now. I can speed toward the wall, hold my breath, and tuck my chin. I tuck my legs and elbows in and start the somersault. Halfway through my turn, my ears fill with water. In CPT terms (or more broadly CBT – Cognitive Behavior Therapy), I am noticing unhelpful thoughts I am having and reframing them. It is still extremely difficult to identify evidence to disprove those thoughts so that they are no longer so BIG, but that will come. And when that comes, I’ve been told the feelings will change too.
Lately, it seems every time I try to start swimming (or working on myself in any capacity) I fail to dive into the pool gracefully. The whistle blows, and I do a front flip. I hit the water in a state of complete disorientation, unaware of which direction is up, holding my breath and hoping to break the surface before my lungs run out of air. That front flip represents every maladaptive coping strategy or self-destructive behavior in my dysfunctional toolbox. I like the feeling of jumping in. I can do it over and over again just for the proprioceptive input, but I cannot swim when I enter the water that way. I am not sure why I choose this route much of the time. Maybe it is because it is familiar. Maybe it is because I like it. Maybe it is because I am afraid to swim and flip turn, so I give myself an excuse to avoid it.
As part of my movement toward courage this year, I am going to make more of an effort to work on my flip turn (reframing and eventually fighting the thoughts I have about myself that are so incredibly unhelpful to my recovery). I will also make an effort to enter each race knowing I may not take first place, or even finish. An absolute fear of not being great paralyzes my ability to try, and worse, if I think I may fail, I quit before I give myself the chance. A front flip (self-destructive coping “skills”) feels good, but I will never progress past a certain point if I continue to start each race that way.
If you know I am entering a race, remind me how hard it is to swim when I start the race with a flip. If you know I did a front flip into the pool, please do not scream for me to swim. I need to find which way is up. Pull me up; please don’t let me float to the surface, and don’t wait too long. I might run out of air.
Pick me up. Pull me out of the pool. Remind me to dive in. Push me to swim with proper form and breathing techniques as hard as I can. Be patient as I learn to somersault under water and push with my legs against the side to maintain speed and efficiency. Ultimately, each race is mine to complete, and I have the courage (when I find and use it) to do my best. The responsibility of my coach is to instruct, lead by example, and push me through each race (safely). I need my audience (the ones who know what I am capable of and know how to dive, swim, and flip turn) to pull me up and push me too.
I was once in a very large cross country invitational with some incredible runners. The starting line was really muddy, and I had not yet invested in a pair spikes (I did right after this race). The gun went off, and the person next to me spiked me in the leg as I slipped in the mud and lost 25 yards to most of the other runners. The runner on the other side of me, a friend from running camp (who could beat me by 2 minutes in a 5k at the time), picked me up. She was unaware of the fact that I was spiked and slipped. She turned around because she knew I did not start at the gun, pulled me up, and ran the first half mile to push me to get caught up where I needed to be before she took off on her own.