The Monster Under the Starting Block
Facing the darkness within and moving forward
I’m a culinary school washout. However, that hasn’t stopped me from diving headfirst into all things foodie. I really enjoy the postings on the Eatocracy blog on the CNN website. When Kat Kinsman, the blog’s Managing Editor, gets posted on the CNN front page, I take notice, because her topic in those cases isn’t always food.
Kat Kinsman suffers from what is dryly called generalized anxiety syndrome (300.02 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and a recent article she posted graphically described an anxiety attack she had while out Christmas shopping with her husband. The flash of empathy knocked me back a few paces. You see, back in the early 90s, I was going through that same thing myself. I remember the feeling well—the shortness of breath, the racing heart, the cold sweat, the nausea, the panic, and worst of all, that feeling of hopelessness and shame that followed.
Winston Churchill famously described depression as a big black dog that follows the sufferer around. Truman Capote contrasted the onset of the blues with an attack of the reds, and Kat Kinsman described her anxiety as a feral cat that just randomly jumps up and starts clawing away. In my case, I’d wrestled with crises of confidence my entire life, but it seemed normal enough. And I found certain things that would keep the wolves at bay. First and foremost among these was my swimming.
It was not an easy start. I was not nearly as athletic as my peers, but with a little prodding, I stayed with it and caught the bug, eventually earning myself a Big Ten letter jacket ten years later. After the requisite few years of drying off after college, I found my way back to the pool and hitched up with a Masters club. I was having the time of my life for a couple of years, and then in the early 90s, it was as if someone had flipped a switch.
The catalyst was a set of unrealistic expectations at a meet in 1991. The disappointment in my performance coupled with some really tough weather conditions—and my lack of preparation for them—hardcoded a level of anxiety in me, both mental and physical. My mind was quick to associate that anxiety with racing, something that I’d been doing fearlessly for years. The effect was devastating, all the more so because I could eventually set my watch by it. If the meet were on a Saturday, the panic attack would come Thursday evening, and I would spend all day Friday nursing myself back into a condition where I could at least race the next day, albeit poorly. My self-recriminations were vicious.
And then it got worse. My monster under the starting blocks followed me home from the pool.
It was bad enough that my swimming, something in which I had taken such great pride, was suffering. But now, my relationships with my family, my friends, my teammates, and my coworkers were suffering as well. It seemed as if everything fun in my life fell prey to that beast. And all the while, I grew angrier and angrier with myself. The rage built until one day I found myself standing at the edge, gazing down into the abyss. That’s when I remembered an offhand remark that a high school teacher of mine, Bob Doran, made to our psychology class in 1979. He said, “Mental health is a lot like drinking. If you think you have a problem, you probably do, and you should go talk to someone about it.”
It is the greatest bit of advice I’ve ever received. It saved my life. There was no denying that there was something far more serious about this than a few bad meets. I turned back and went to see my doctor, who got me into therapy.
That was more than 20 years ago, and I still go see my psychiatrist regularly. I suffer from a kind of clinical depression (309.28 in the DSM, for those of you keeping score at home), but I am coping with it very well, all things considered.
The path that so many of us walk is not an easy one. There is tremendous stigma attached to us by society in general, and sometimes, those closest to us seem to be the least capable of understanding or even accepting and acknowledging the problem.
To make things even more difficult, every case is as unique as the person it afflicts. In my case, it’s not something where I can pop a pill and forget it. It’s a battle I will fight every day for the rest of my life. I am a survivor, and one of the things I have learned is that survival takes great courage. And that commands respect, if from no one else but yourself.
Think about that for a moment. Courage doesn’t mean fearlessness; I have lots of fear. Courage is a skill that I’ve developed—and it means putting fear into a more reasonable perspective and then moving onwards in spite of it. Recognition of the problem and diagnosis are the first steps. And those are big steps. Realize just how much courage it takes to back away from the abyss and go get help. By yourself. Treatment then helps to build that framework of perspective needed to help manage fear.
Once I was able to take those first steps and start developing that sense of perspective, my courage grew. I still have plenty of fear, but it doesn’t seem to stop me in my tracks anymore. Racing has become fun again. And functional. Every time I step up on the blocks, whether my race is fast or slow, whether I come in first or last, my courage grows and my fear diminishes.
Where once I had panic attacks before meet, now my mantra is, “So many meets. So little money and vacation time.”
Some might consider that approach pathological. But the fringe benefits that I’ve enjoyed as a result say otherwise. Not only does every race make me a better swimmer—smarter technically and stronger mentally—it makes me a better person as well. I respect the courage it takes not only to race, but to train, prepare, and set goals. Not just in me, but in all athletes.
We now have something in common, and from that common ground, I’ve built countless wonderful and supportive friendships in the water and on the deck. These are the building blocks of a sense of community, a sense of belonging in a positive place. And that, in turn, brings out what Abe Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature.”
I have decided that one of the best ways to help myself is to help others. It’s my good fortune to be part of the Masters Swimming community, where such opportunities abound. I coach locally, and I volunteer at the LMSC and USMS levels. I draw inspiration from those around me, and I hope to be able pass that inspiration on to someone else.
Kat Kinsman, I salute you. I enjoy your work on the Eatocracy blog, I appreciate your openness about your struggles with depression and anxiety, and I have complete empathy for you when the clouds roll in. On days like that, remember what Stephen Fry says—it may be raining now, but it will not rain forever, and the sun will come out. And if it takes too long, go for a swim. I hear feral cats hate the water.
Though I’m not an expert, I am a survivor. These 10 suggestions may or may not work for you, but I’ve applied these “Pool Rules” to other aspects of my life with great effect.
10 Pool Rules to Live By
- Be you. Not somebody else. Maybe you’re a short axis guy, or a drop-dead sprinter. You are unique, and there’s something special about you. It might not be easy to find, but it’s worth a lifetime of searching.
- It takes four people to swim a relay. I learned this one growing up with two brothers and a friend in my age group who were faster than I was. Together, we won a conference championship. Everyone around you has value. Be grateful for them. Especially when times are tough.
- You’re not the Lone Ranger. If you’re suffering, you’re not alone. There is support out there. Think about building bridges in your life, not walls. When the heat is on, you’ll be glad you did, because some burdens are not meant to be shouldered alone. That’s what teammates and friends are for. That’s why there are mental health care providers, should the situation require it. But be fair. If someone helps you, return the favor.
- Swim in your own lane. This one is from noted sports psychologist Alan Goldberg. If you’re going to worry, worry about those things under your control. Worrying about things that are not will wear you out. You can’t control whether or not that guy in the lane next to you is going to have the best or worst race of his life. That’s not something that should concern you.
- Every swim comes in a context. Judge your success not by where you finish, but by what you had to overcome to get there. Jeff Commings told me that one of his measures of success is swimming a race the way he trained for it. Sometimes, just making it to the pool is a miracle. As Mo Chambers once told me, “It’s a stopwatch. Not a judge of character.”
- Sometimes, “Perfect” is the enemy of “Good Enough”. 99% of the time, you don’t have your best stuff. If you wait for perfect conditions, chances are you’ll never get started. Sometimes, we need to pick our battles, because we’re not going to win every one.
- The water is your friend. Alexander Popov means that you should work with your environment, not fight against it. Learn when to go with the flow, and when to buck the tide.
- If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. More mindless yardage doesn’t make you a better swimmer. Every stroke has a purpose. Have a goal, an intelligent and thoughtful one. If you’re just marking time, you’ll accomplish nothing.
- While you may be one workout away from a better day, know the difference between a good workout and just beating yourself up. If you’re using your workout to punish yourself, it’s time to get out of the water.
- RESPECT. Have respect for the sport, have respect for your competitors and teammates, but most importantly, have respect for yourself. If you can’t love and respect that person in the mirror who stares back at you when you brush your teeth, you’re not going to be able to love and respect anyone else. Once you have that respect, that belief in yourself, you’ll find that you can achieve amazing things.