Patty Chang Anker

Some Nerve

When the Going Gets Tough

What to do when you hit a wall. A really icky wall.

Posted Sep 04, 2015
It looks like clear sailing, but...

Have you ever worked really hard for a long time toward a goal, and then suddenly hit a wall? Yeah, me too. I’ve followed doctors orders and had my body rebel, I’ve painstakingly revised work that never saw the light of day, and most recently, while training for my first Olympic distance triathlon, I — an extremely nervous swimmer — got stung by sea lice!

I will pause for you to shriek, "Ew! What is that? Does that really exist? Could I get stung by sea lice?"

Yes, exactly. When I hit a wall, I find the hardest part is determining how big the wall actually is, if it’s surmountable or a deal breaker. I have hit so many walls while dealing with my fear of open water. I’ve dealt with panic attacks, flashbacks (see previous Some Nerve columns for the story of how I almost drowned in a river as a teen,) seaweed, swallowing water right off of Rye Playland amusement park for crying out loud (I have done some crying out loud over this, actually) – and I've kept bravely going in because I have something to prove. I have told myself and others that I don’t want to be a quitter anymore, that we must face our fears. But sea lice? Oh, come on.

Sea lice are the larvae of stinging nasties like jellyfish and anemone. They are tiny and when they get caught in your swimsuit they don’t like it and release venom.  A friend told me to show those sea lice who’s boss. I said they have venom, I think that pretty much makes them boss. It feels like a bee sting, then you spray vinegar on yourself to deactivate them, which feels about as good as pouring acid on a bee sting. I will say this – I overreact to many things, including bug bites which swell up on me like bad botox. So maybe sea lice wouldn’t feel as bad to you. But I had welts up and down my right arm and under both armpits. And I cried.

[The good news is, they aren’t anything like head lice, so you don’t have to cancel any playdates.]

To say that hitting this wall put a damper on my training is putting it mildly. I already dreaded every open water swim practice and now there was even more to fear. But, my fear-taming friends, what is it we do when we’re afraid? We figure out why. What is it that scares us, really? The sea lice are icky but the venom is not lethal to me. I worry about drowning, but drowning is not likely to happen while swimming with a buoyant wetsuit in a group with lifeguards. What scares me most, and what really happens every time, is that everyone else is faster and I get left behind. I’m afraid of getting left behind. That is what happened to me on the river as a teen – all my friends went down one way and I got sucked down another, alone. Seeing that happen at practice makes me feel anxious, breathless, teary. My limbs get heavy, I don’t think I can finish. That is what I dread. That is the hardest wall to scale.

Obviously, the best way to combat this fear is to swim faster! But despite all my faithful workouts I remain a slow swimmer. I wasn’t sure what to do. Then Ellen, a lovely woman, mother and triathlete, from my triathlon training 

group asked if I wanted a Swim Angel. What’s that? I asked.

“Someone to swim with you at the race, keep you company,” she replied. “I’d be happy to be your angel.”

I swear I saw a halo pop up over her head!

So this is how I’m dealing with the wall. I’m getting help to get around it. Ellen swam next to me at the next open water practice, calmly asking “How are you doing?” whenever I stopped and got flustered, which forced me to take a breath and practice my mantra, “I’m ok.” And for the first time in open water, I really am.

What do you do when the going gets tough?