Friday, July 6, 2018

Facing fear: When you start to compare yourself to others, remember the little things

I went to the pool today.

I guess that's not a big deal for most people, but I haven't been in probably six years. Growing up, my family didn't love the water, and as us kids grew up, any water-related activities pretty much ceased among us.

For a long time, I decided I just wasn't a water person because my family wasn't, but lately I've been questioning a lot of the things I learned not to like because my family doesn't, including going to the pool. So today when a friend invited me, I said yes, figuring several trips around the lazy river wouldn't be a bad way to spend one of my last afternoons before I start my new job.

Once I had my toes in the water, I felt satisfied I had faced my fears. I felt a tad self-conscious in my swimsuit -- not only do I still have winter tummy, but being raised in a culture that emphasized modesty, this was my first time even wearing a one-piece without shorts over it -- but looking around, I realized nobody else looked especially stellar either.

When my friend asked if it would be okay if we did a few laps so she could get some exercise in, I agreed, in spite of my inner hesitance. I grabbed my goggles and hopped into the five-foot end of one of the lanes, my eyes barely over the water. As I bobbed up and down on my tip-toes, I felt the comfort of being in the water on a hot summer day rush over me. Sure, I couldn't float on my back, but I still remembered breaststroke and could once again relish in dunking my head underwater like when I was a child. Swimming laps? Why not! I never considered myself a strong swimmer, but I knew I could get across the length of the pool. So I pushed off against the wall and dove under. Things went smoothly until a quarter of the way down the length of the lane, I caught sight of the sharp drop ahead of me. Suddenly it all came rushing back to me: the reason I had avoided water so long -- my freshman year swim test.

It is a silly story really, but like most things related to anxiety, other people don't get it unless they experienced it. For some strange reason, the college I started my undergraduate education at required all freshmen to pass a swimming test. We lined up in droves out the gym center door one day in September to determine our fate: sink (and be required to take swimming as your first gym rotation) or swim.

I and three other students were commanded to jump in the pool, my first shock, as I was used to climbing down like a lady. As I plunged in, feet first, I began to panic, feeling myself sink further and further. Shit. (actually I didn't swear in those days but I'm taking artistic liberties here.) I struggled to kick against gravity and push myself back up to the surface, sputtering, my heart beginning to race. The next command came: swim freestyle down the length of the pool.

My freestyle swim is horrific. I probably look like a flailing duck being pulled under by a shark. And, quite frankly, I felt like one too. I felt like I couldn't catch my breath, I could feel every once of how shrimpy my arm muscles were, I had an adrenaline drain instead of a rush, I stopped once in the middle of the pool and tread water because I was so exhausted, and to top it all off, every time I lifted my head up to breathe, I could see the gym coaches on the side of the pool, gazing at me skeptically and commenting to one another that they didn't know if I would make it.

It all got worse when I caught sight of just how damn long the lane was -- and how deep it dropped halfway through. Shit. I had to swim over that vast unknown?? I knew there wasn't a shark down there, but it felt like there should be...

I managed to pass the test because the second lap was a stroke of our choice and my breaststroke is pretty decent, but the coach singled me out and made it clear to me that I had made it by the skin of my teeth (and the fact that the swim class was filling up very quickly with all the failures.) I left with an immense sense of relief, but I held the terror of that moment perfectly encapsulated in my mind in the years that followed.

Being in the pool today, seeing the lane stretch out, seeing the sharp dip in the bottom concrete, I felt my heart constrict and my pace quicken. I tried to push but I just couldn't -- I turned back and swam to the wall like a noob and hopped out, telling my friend I'd wait for her in the other part of the pool.

I pottered about, doing my trusty breaststroke back and forth around the 5-feet-with-no-treacherous-drop section, next to some kids playing chicken, allowing myself to sink back into reveling in the sensations of the water. But the knowledge that I had caved to my anxiety hung over me. I got back out and went back to the swim lanes, reasoning that maybe if I started in the deep end, it would be easier.

I was too afraid to even get in.

I walked back to the normal section and hopped back in, well aware of how odd I must look. I kept swimming back and forth in my little corner, enjoying the sensation of swimming laps without the terror of a cavernous mouth of water below me. I found that I could keep my head underwater for two strokes to make things a little faster. I dove down and touched the bottom. But still it niggled in the back of my head that I was giving into fear.

My friend finished her laps and told me she was going to use the restroom and then we could get in the lazy river. As she walked away, I made up my mind to try one more time. Like Dory, I would just keep swimming...

Don't look down.

Shit. I can tell it's deep even if I don't look.

Ugh, this is awful. What if I lose strength in the 13-foot section and sink to the bottom...

Wait, I'm swimming over it. I'm doing it. And it's not half bad!

And with that, I faced my fear. Going to the pool, baring my thighs in my dowdy suit, swimming laps over the great unknown...Fighting anxiety is about the small victories, about not letting fear get the best of you in the tiny everyday challenges where nobody but you would notice if you gave into the hidden inner terror and opted for the comfort of the status quo instead. These little conquests may seem silly to others and not-big-enough-to-change-anything to us, but they are the foundation of building boldness and freeing ourselves to live happier lives, not controlled by the fears that have seeped into our psyche and taken over over the years.

I didn't mean to write this piece, but just before I lay down to go to sleep, I made the mistake of looking at the Instagram of a girl I am jealous of, who shares my birthday and has the affection and admiration of the man I love. She gets his time and his devoted friendship. She is accomplished in the career field I want to work in. She is fashionable and bold and confident and carefree. She parties and jokes and lives in a way I will never feel free to do but that probably gains her more friends than I'll ever have. She travels. She lives a normal, grown-up life. I know probably not everything is as perfect as it seems from the outside, but I felt insecure as I inevitably began to compare myself with her, feeling inadequate because of the lack of accomplishment and independence I perceived in myself when held up to her.

Then I remembered the pool. And I realized that I can't compare myself to other people because our situations are completely different. We have different struggles, different pasts, different obstacles we've had to overcome, different futures we're destined for. The fact is, I'm sensitive and anxious. A lot of things in life are harder for me than they are for other people. I grew up with an anxious family so I didn't necessarily get pushed to do stuff most "normal" kids would. I push myself a lot to do things that scare me, but a lot of times I get too overwhelmed to know what to do to push myself more. Or the anxiety builds up to much.

Celebrate the little victories. Cut yourself some slack. Don't stalk the social media of the people you perceive as perfect. Keep pushing.

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