When I was four or five I nearly drowned. After that I was afraid of water.
Couldn’t take showers until high school, couldn’t keep myself afloat in a pool until 19. Learned to swim properly at 30 to do my first triathlon.
I have done triathlons for ten years, building a massive toolkit of coping skills for anxiety and panic. I started full custom triathlon coaching last year. A few months ago I was telling my coach about my whole history with water and she said “It sounds like you have some Post Traumatic Stress from that.”
Because so many other people in my life had “Bigger Problems” or “Real Problems,” because I was able to cope, I was able to go on despite my anxieties, I had never thought to even consider the impact of my near drowning in anything other than practical terms e.g. how do I swim, how do I shower? It had never occurred to me that there was anything other than just dealing with it in the moment.
After under-swimming my fitness in two races my coach said “I think it’s time for you to talk to the sports psychologist.” I had a session with a psychologist named Will and we went through an exercise that was developed to help people with Post Traumatic Stress. It seemed pretty simple and easy.
I think that once you live with the memory of a traumatic event for long enough, you stop recognizing what it brings up as a problem because you need to live your life. As Lady Gaga said about trauma – you need to put it in a box so you can keep functioning and living your life. So sitting there and ranking my feelings of fear and panic at close to a ten was the normal I had developed.
I will always be grateful that I learned to look my fear in the face and say “That’s cool, let’s go anyway.” That I have learned how to pull myself out of a panic attack. How to observe my thoughts and choose my reactions to them. It had never once occurred to me that I could have no fear, no panic, no anxiety.
Two weeks ago I went swimming in open water for the first time since my session with Will. It was just…swimming. In a wetsuit in the San Francisco Bay. It was cold and dark and it was just swimming. Not a one hour exercise in anxiety management with some swimming added. I was in the pool this Monday and we were going hard and it just felt like running.
Now that I’m in this new space I’m realizing how much of my life was spent managing constant anxiety. That one experience had jammed the panic button in my brain so hard that my whole life was in one way or another brushing that button, triggering that very real and justified fear that was now in the way of everything else in my life.
That constant anxiety is falling away and I’m working to identify the habits I built to cope with it and rebuild my life to reflect my healing. I’m spending a lot of my days thinking “Why am I doing this? I am acting as if I had anxiety about this but I do not feel anxious. This is a coping habit and I can let it go.”
I’m telling this story because I you to know that no matter what anyone else’s problems are, your problems are real. There is treatment available and it can work. You deserve and are worthy of treatment.