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You know those days…

July 14, 2016

Ok, you know those days where you are going along doing something you do repetitively and then that ONE day it might as well be like you are Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill ( ).  No matter how hard you try either your mind or body is just not having it.  For example:  you can always run a 9 minute mile (FYI – no idea if this is a good or bad time or even reasonable mile time), you do it every day as part of your workout.  And then you get up one day for your regular run and you can’t break 9:30.  No real reason that you can think of.  You feel fine.  You had a normal day, week, month.  In theory there should be no reason why you can’t run your 9 minute mile.  However, you can’t and no matter how hard you try you are not going to get 9 minutes.

Well this happens in cold water swimming too.  There are some days where unexpectedly my body is just not going to tolerate the cold.  Now most often this occurs during a training day and doesn’t cause to much of an issue.  Unfortunately, my body decided that during my North Channel attempt it was the day to roll the stone.  Sure I could roll that stone all I wanted but I wasn’t going to get to the other side as my body was revolting against the temperature.  Ok I realize that my metaphor sort of fell apart there because a stone isn’t water temperature, but nobody said I was Mark Twain so go with me here.

The North Channel gave up a good day to do some swimming.  The winds had calmed down from the bluster of the previous days.  The weather prediction was swimmable.  All I had to do was swim.  I jumped into the water at stupid o’clock am and got to the business of swimming.  Now for the first hour my crew just leave me alone to settle into my rhythm, release butterflies, and generally get over any bad mental vibes about what I’m about to do.  Oh yeah, I do get the feelings of “What the heck am I doing? We could be back home in bed.”  Usually if I’m left alone for the hour, I can settle in and remember that I do love this crazy sport.

All was going well…sort of.  My stroke rate was good.  I felt strong.  The sunrise was starting to turn the sky which was lovely.  But at the surface, I kept thinking “Man this feels pretty fresh.”  I had been acclimatizing for the last week.  I felt good in the water.  Not so much during this day.  I figured it would just take me a bit of time to adjust and all would go back to normal working order.

3 hours in though, I knew it wasn’t the case.  I couldn’t adjust and my body was not participating.  I knew from past experience that either I called the swim and remained safe or continue forward and get pulled out in potential emergency situation causing issues for the crew and pilot.  My mantra is always first and foremost a safe swim, so that is what I decided.  I had a frank conversation with the crew and pilot and basically said that my body was not tolerating the cold.  I had lost all feeling in my extremities.  I had started retching as my body didn’t want to waste energy digesting food, and there were some internal tremors.  Now if we were 2 hours from the end, I probably would have pushed on.  We were at the beginning with a long way to go.

I know that ultimately I made the right call, but I’m not happy about it.  Plenty have asked if there was the opportunity to go again during this tide.  The answer is yes, but then the next question is should I?  I think no.  There is something going on with my body that isn’t readily apparent.  Since the swim, I’ve been sleeping like the dead and sleeping a lot.  (OK I know it has only been really a day and a half, but seriously lots of sleeping.)  Additionally, I had a small whoopsies in trying to get back on the boat after calling the swim.  Minor detail when you don’t have control of hands or feet…climbing a ladder back into a boat is VERY difficult, impossible even.  I may have fell off the ladder creating some pretty spectacular bruises on my arms and legs, which on a positive note I couldn’t feel until much later, but it does still affect my body’s performance for another attempt so soon.

Other positives from this swim is that my stroke was there.  In 3 hours, I had traveled 7 miles (2.3 miles per hour), which in running is 28 miles in 3 hours.  Not a bad marathon time I’m told.  So when my internal body gets reset, I know my swimming will be there to get me across the next channel.  My back and shoulders in the past few days feel pretty good which is HUGE considering I couldn’t stand upright at all 10 months ago.  Plus, I was having a good time mentally in the water.  I still love this sport and want to compete in it AND it looks like I can.

There it is.  I had a bad cold acclimatization day on a good swimming day in the North Channel.   (SIDE NOTE:  My head crew does want me to point out that it was 54 degree water + air temp never above 58 + a wind which creates wind chill, so it wasn’t tropical out there and it WAS a COLD DAY.  She even had on ski pants.  While I know all this to be true, I’m still upset and sad about the outcome.)

Thank you all for your continued support and encouragement.  Onto the next swim…planned for November 🙂

I’ve already gone back in the water for a little swimmy swim to start training.  What, me rest?

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That was then…this is now.

July 7, 2016

My “fake it until I make it”  has gotten me all the way over to the UK where I’ve begun acclimation and preparation for July 10 – 18th North Channel tide dates.  I’m not sure the faking it anymore is going to hold up.  OK really I was using this method to help with my anxiety and depression versus my actual physical fitness.  Now that I’m here, I’m quite terrified of the days to come.

For the past 6 years, I’ve used a tested and I’d say pretty successful training regimen.  Due to the bulging discs in my back, that regimen was no longer sustainable.  I couldn’t put in the miles of swimming or the hours of cross training that I used to do.  What I found is that if I tried to accomplish that schedule, is that I would have a pretty major setback in spinal nerve pain and be literally flat on my back for days.  My coach and trainer adjusted for this new normal.  I began more quality over quantity swimming and very focused strength training on my body.  While this has seen me through the past few months, I stand on the edge of what I know to be one of the most (if not the most) challenging marathon swims in the world and I am starting from a new place.  (SIDE NOTE 1:  I’m beginning to realize just how insane I am to decide to do the BIGGEST swim after an injury instead of starting easier.  Go big or go home I guess.  Too late to change focus now.  North Channel stats:  21+ miles, below 55 degree water, one swimsuit, one cap, and one pair of goggles, no stopping or support once you start).

I sort of feel like I did years ago when I returned to the pool after a 6 year hiatus.  All of my mental measurements were from when I was in college.  I definitely wasn’t that college swimmer anymore even though my mind thought that I was.  I was out of shape, heavier and much slower.  Plus there was more of life to juggle and balance.  I would say that it took a good year or two to accept that as a 30 year old swimmer I couldn’t compare myself to my 20 year old swimmer.  It is very similar now, except I’m not exactly sure what I look like now as a swimmer coming back from an injury.  What is the new NOW?  And will the now training help me succeed in the sport I love.

What I get to do while I acclimate here in Northern Ireland is wait.  You may remember that I have to wait for a good weather day to even be able to swim, so there is a chance that the weather won’t cooperate between the 10th-18th.  This means no swim.  Yep months of training and mental preparation and I could just have a very successful trip of waiting in Northern Ireland. (SIDE NOTE 2:  While I can do some sight-seeing, I tend to lay low, rest and work remotely waiting for the weather.  I’d hate to expend all my energy playing around to get the call that the swim is a go in 8 hours.)  (SIDE NOTE 3:  No word yet on the date of the swim.  All the pilot says is that the weather this weekend is crap and extended forecast is too unpredictable.)

As I think about this possibility of not swimming, my stomach turns to butterflies.  I wish that I had a crystal ball that would tell me the outcome:  would the weather cooperate, would I have a good swim, would I succeed?  All questions that I have to wait to have answered and in the words of Inigo Montoya “I hate waiting.”  And then there is the flip side that if I get the call that the swim is on…how will it all go and am I ready to jump into the water.   ARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!

My therapist asked why I have put so much pressure on this swim.  In my modification of his advice “You’ve failed before and it didn’t mean that you couldn’t be a marathon swimmer, why if you fail this time would it be different?”  Ok, he probably didn’t say failed, but then this may prove why I have a therapist in the first place J  For me this swim represents whether I’ve still got “it.”  And it will help me understand what is the new “it.”  I know I’m not as fast as I used to be and that could be that I’ve only been back training since November and I’m still 30 pounds too heavy.  I guess my fear is that IF I’m not successful that the reason will be that my back/spine gives out thus making me have to take another step back and re-evaluate.  I know my mom would say “it doesn’t do any good to deal in what ifs, just take the day has it comes do your best and then we will see.”

So that is sort of my mantra “A safe, relaxed swim and then we will see.”  If I can stay focused on that, keep breathing and not fall down the rabbit hole of crazy, maybe just maybe I’ll be ok with the new now.

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Lights in the Darkness

May 10, 2016

When sitting in the darkness of pain and mental anguish, it felt like the only safe place was to build a blanket fort and hide out. You remember the ones we made as children stealing (or borrowing) all the sofa cushions, all the blankets and trying to make our own little haven with popcorn, soda, your favorite stuffed animal and book. In your fort, nobody could be mean, tell you what to do, or allow you to question your value. However, when we were little we may not have been contemplating the big questions in life and our mental state. All we knew is that the blanket fort made us feel better.

As an adult, while a blanket fort can still be made, we can’t unfortunately hide out until life is better. We have to leave the house to go to work, put on the happy face and pretend that life is all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. From my post “The Slippery Slope”, I was pretty crap at pretending. Everyone knew something was wrong and I just couldn’t find the way to say “I’m in extreme physical and mental pain. I don’t know how to get out of this hole. And I’m taking a path that I’m not proud of.” Maybe it is just me, but these sentences don’t feel acceptable to say at work. I mean you are supposed to be professional and have your sh!t together.

Then with my friends, I felt like the constant whiner. I didn’t want to keep being the broken record saying the same thing over and over again and not making any forward progress. Oh sure friends and family state that is what they are there for, but for better or worse I often think if you aren’t doing something to pick yourself up then quit complaining about it. And seriously after a while people are ready for you to be over your crap and move on or at least stop talking to them about it.  Based on this self-talk, I didn’t reach out to any friends or family.  I hid out in my fort wanting the world to fade away.

Whether I consciously was trying to pick myself up or find some flickers of light in my dark world, I read. Many of you don’t know that I’m a voracious reader. I read everything: fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, medical journals, fluff magazines, etc. I read it all and I love it. I was a really good reader in my blanket fort. One book wouldn’t do for me, I had to go in with at least 3-5 books to keep me occupied. Just like swimming for hours on end, I can read for hours and sometimes days straight if the book is engaging enough. In my reading, I came across 3 particular books that became little fireflies blinking in the darkness. I thought I would share in case these books could bring wonder and joy to others.

Book 1 – Furiously Happy by Jennifer Lawson
Furiously HappyI originally chose this book completely by the cover photo. I mean look at that smiling raccoon. And then the title – FURIOUSLY HAPPY. I was far from happy let alone furiously happy. I was more furious. But the raccoon had me hooked and I found the book in my Powell’s basket and soon in the car. When I got home, I tentatively opened the book not sure exactly what to expect and I found myself genuinely laughing. Not the fake chuckle that I was using in public, but a real laugh. I was only reading the accolades on why to read the book. (Note: yes, I even read these sections in books). Then I began to read the book and I laughed until I cried and I also just cried. Jennifer documents her mental diseases with such clarity, humility and with such funny anecdotes that it is hard not to be sucked in.

When she started talking about how society rallies around people who are diagnosed with cancer and talk to these people about fighting the good fight and being a hero. Heads are shaved in solidarity. With mental illness, it is different. You are shunned. People look away or are uncomfortable if you state that you see a therapist or that you are a little bit crazy. We aren’t survivors, there is no head shaving. People don’t say to cancer victims – just be happy. There are no ribbons. Jennifer talks about starting the silver ribbon movement to help connect with others who are fighting mental illness or have been touched by mental illness. She went on to state that she almost accomplished it too, but then she was too depressed to get out of bed to go to her craft room and even look for the silver ribbon. All I could think was “YES!! I get that.”

Then she also has this amazing theory about spoons and how many spoons we have in our basket to accomplish tasks every day. People with mental illness have just been allotted a few less spoons therefore we have to be very careful where we use them.

I loved this book. I’ve read it already 3 times and I bought the audio book that is narrated by Jennifer. I felt in some way that I knew her and she in turn knew what I was going through. Also she reminded me of one of my dearest friends that I hadn’t seen because I spent most of my free time in my blanket fort. And it was really good to genuinely laugh again. – A firefly in the darkness.

Book 2 – Healing Back Pain – The Mind Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno
This book was recommended by a friend of a friend. Since I’m not one to turn down a book recommendation, I went and picked it up. I was recommended to read the reviews before buying the book. (Besides a voracious reader, I’m also a rule follower. Shocking I’m sure to many of you!) So I read the reviews. Many were like reading/watching a televangelist where people were miraculously cured after reading the book. Pain that was chronic and debilitating magically disappeared as the readers finished the book. Needless to say I was skeptical, but again I was off the happy yellow brick road and what was the harm in reading a book. I read the book. I can’t say that I was cured, but the pain was better. I began to understand that by hiding the “unacceptable” feelings and emotions like anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, my body was manifesting it in the only way possible, through physical pain. I started to just write quick statements, words, pictures to give voice to what I was feeling. The journal, if I could really call it that, is ugly. It is mostly just chicken scratches, but I started to feel the tightness ease in my back. There was some relief.

Maybe it is just voodoo, but I do believe that the mind has a lot of power that we are only beginning to understand. And I felt better after reading this book. Do I think all of my back pain is psychosomatic, no because as I was told I’m an aging athlete that does an extreme sport that requires a lot of repetitive motion. (SIDE NOTE: I was mildly offended when my doctor told me this.) But was some of my pain caused by stress, anger and any other society unacceptable emotion, I do believe yes. Again reading this book brought that to light for me. Time well spent in the blanket fort.

Book 3 – Rising Strong by Brene Brown
The last book was also a recommendation from a dear friend. My friend kept posting this book cover on Facebook while she was in her version of the blanket fort. I began to think, if it is working for this amazing woman, why don’t I read some of this Brene Brown? This book seemed to combine the rawness of Jennifer Lawson’s stories and the medical recommendations of Dr. Sarno and put it into a practice that I could use right away. She helped me understand that when we don’t use our words we fill in interactions with our own stories. Stories that are usually influenced by or reflect our personal insecurities or believed flaws. It is Brene that states what we do when we are face down in the arena is very very important. What stories have we told ourselves? How do we get to not necessarily the truth but a better version of the story where we can engage with people and move forward? She talks a lot about taking time to write the shitty first draft of the story. Get it down on paper so that it doesn’t sit and fester in your head. Then take time to reflect and look at it. What are the facts in the story, where have I filled in the blanks in the story with my perceptions, what and how am I going to move forward.

My shitty first draft was a lot of woe is me and that I didn’t have value if I wasn’t swimming. I know now that is not the case. It was a really shitty first draft. I have spent time wrestling in the arena with this story. I believe it is getting better with each new draft that I build. It has helped me engage with myself and people in new ways. Sometimes I do wish that humans weren’t made to be social animals because then the blanket fort would be ok to live in and I wouldn’t feel so out of sorts in social settings. But again this book provided some light in the darkness.

There you have it. Even in the darkness there can be flickers of light. For me they came from these 3 books. In them, I found some joy, a new way to engage with my subconscious and with the world at large. Through these readings and practices, I’ve found my way back into the pool and had some success. Recently, I completed a 4 hour open water training swim in 66 degree water. It was the longest I’ve been in the water for a very long time. It went mostly well. My back kicked up some arguments but nothing that wasn’t manageable. Besides finding my way into the water, I’ve also found my way out of my fort. Sure it is for moments at a time and I still feel safer in its warmth than out, but I’ve started to engage in life again. I’ve started to leave the dark pain treatment path behind and find healthier methods of restorative yoga, therapy and lots of rest and recovery.

I know that I still have a long way to go to get out of the arena. However, I don’t feel like I’m face down anymore. Some days I’m on my hands and knees and some days I get a foot underneath myself. I know that this will be a process and I will have stumbles and be face down again. My hope is that with these new books, techniques and professionals helping me that I won’t be tasting the dirt for as long as I did. As with any mental or physical pain, I’m learning that it can be cyclical and that it is OK at times to build a blanket fort, get your favorite stuffed animal and settle in with a good book for a recuperative rest.

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Fake it ’til you make it

May 5, 2016

How many of us have heard the phrase “Fake it ‘til you make it?” Raise your hands. Ok so a LOT of us. I have a love/extreme dislike relationship with this phrase. The extreme dislike comes from it hitting the same nerve as someone telling me to “Just be happy!” when I’m in deep mental funk. Again I think this can go to the societal misunderstanding about mental illness. Anyways, I’ve been on this soap box in the last emails so I’ll step down…for now.

Why do I love this statement? Mainly because it reminds me that when I’m in my mental funk and wanting to take up permanent residence in my blanket fort, this is not necessarily the best action to help me heal. There is the balance of blanket fort time and “faking it” in the real world. It’s a good thing that in my real world there are friends, chosen family and blood family who are almost as good as a blanket fort. Maybe they are human forts. People to be with who you can occupy space with without needing to act or be a certain way. They offer a hug, a smile, maybe hold my hand. You know these people, the ones who you talk to in your head while hiding out. Man, I hope your shaking your head in agreement here otherwise my therapist and I need to add this to my list to discuss. I’m going to go with that you totally know what I’m talking about here. See “fakin’ it ‘til I make it!”

Another way that I use this phrase to my advantage is to think of something bigger outside my immediate world that I can focus some energy on. It takes the focus off my broken mind and allows me to get shit done and maybe help someone else along the way. Lately my energy and thoughts have been occupied by the crisis occurring in the Mediterranean sea. This location holds so many amazingly beautiful memories for me.

Greece, Italy and Turkey were where I study abroad when in college (Yes, I can remember that far back). The Greek islands that I hear about daily in the news are where I fell in love with travel and living in a new culture. The sunsets were amazing setting over the white marble ruins. And oh my gosh the food. There is a reason that the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the best. Frankly I liked sitting for hours over amazing meals just watching life go by and this was totally acceptable. No rushing from place to place. I also really like siesta time. I’m a great proponent of naps.

Then more recently the Strait of Gibraltar was where I had an amazing swim. It was my first time in Africa, even if it was just for a minute before swimming back to the boat. It was where I was attacked by a pod of pilot whales. Ok attacked is an extreme exaggeration, but they did get really really close. Let’s just say my crew yelled to me “Don’t worry they won’t eat you.” One of the scariest and most comforting things to hear on a swim.

The daily tragedy that is occurring in these places created such a dilemma for me, especially since my plan in the next few years is to swim the Bosporus Strait between Turkey and Greece. How can these places where I spend money to go play and have fun, be the same places where money and people are exploited to reach safety? I can’t necessarily reconcile these two feelings. Just recently I was introduced to Circle of Health International (COH Intl.) by two colleagues. This non-profit is focused on aiding women and children in crisis situations. And they were beginning to launch their Go the Distance Campaign, with the goal to mimic the most dangerous part of a woman’s journey as they flee towards safety. Imagine my surprise that one of the journeys was to mimic swimming the Bosporus strait. I don’t know if it was the world giving me a sign to crawl out of my fort, but I latched on.

I contacted the COH Intl and offered my support and contacts in the marathon swimming community. I figured that I couldn’t be the only marathon swimmer struggling with the same ideas about Mediterranean and our own personal swimming passions. Thankfully the non-profit has allowed me to barge my way in. (I wish I was kidding about the barging. I’m not.) While we were hoping to go to Greece/Turkey to swim the Bosporus Strait on May 8th – Mother’s Day, the travel restrictions and crisis situation over there is not cooperating. Is this a case of irony? I don’t really know as Alanis Morsette kind of ruined my understanding of irony. Dang that catchy song. I’m getting off track here, sorry.

Regardless, I have taken the reigns of Go the Distance to help me fake it ‘til I make it. Instead of the campaign culminating in an event on Mother’s Day, COH Intl. and I are going to work to have a Go the Distance event every month up until at least the new year. The kick-off is going to be Mother’s Day in Austin TX, COH Intl headquarters. I’m really looking forward to heading down there in the next few weeks and getting in some good time in the water in an amazing city and for a good cause.

The good karma from this event is spreading beyond the Mother’s Day Austin event mainly from the great work of COH Intl and a little publicity from the Daily News of Open Water Swimming. In June, Go the Distance will head to Northern California. Then in July, I’ll take the banner and campaign with me to Northern Ireland, as I await for the weather window to swim the North Channel. August leads the campaign to Massachusetts for a swim there with Elaine Howley.

Want to join the campaign? Well, you can. You don’t even have to be a swimmer. They are even accepting you land sport people – crazy as you all are. See Go the Distance is very accepting. In fact, one of our my colleagues has created a team called the “Sneaker Flippers” Come on, join the fun! Want to help keep the campaign running throughout the year – let me know and I’ll get you the banner and instructions. It wouldn’t take more than 1-2 hours of your time mostly Facebook, Twitter posts and getting the word out. I’m trying to leverage the groups that we already have created that we swim/run/bike/skateboard/etc. with rather than creating an “official” event. We want this easy to participate in and for those feel- good endorphins to kick in quickly.

4 months planned for Go the Distance and I haven’t retreated yet to my fort. Maybe this faking it isn’t quite so bad.

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You are not alone!

May 3, 2016

Let’s just say that I’m shocked that this last posting “The Slippery Slope…” was reported by Facebook to be the most viewed posting in MacySwim history.  At first I thought that people may just be reveling in the story of my fall.  (Then I told myself to get out of the depression fog.)  Maybe what it is really about is being honest, open and raw.  To that end, I wanted to take a moment to write a personal note to those of you who reached out to me after this last update. (You may be thinking that a blog post is not that personal of a response, but there were many that reached out or read the post and I felt important to share this part of the journey here on MacySwim.)

You took time to share your journeys through similar pain, anxiety, depression, and slide down the slippery slope. It has taken me some time to process all of your emails, texts, messages and stories. At first, I was overwhelmed and wondered “How can I help? I’m not doing enough. I didn’t know.” Then I realized that by sharing your story what you were really saying was “You are not alone. Keep struggling. Keep fighting the good fight and there will be moments where the sun shines.”

I want to let each of you know the same message. You are not alone. This is a crazy world where we hide portions of who we are because society, family or other pressures tell us it is not OK. Thank you for having the courage to share your own journey with me and provide me some light as I hide under the covers and continue to fight to move forward through pain, through fear, through depressions and anxiety. I have read and re-read your messages and in them I see hope.

I have decided to continue to share this dark period of my journey. In a time when stories of heroes quickly overcome adversity, I have found that it makes me feel like I should rise quickly. I think it is important to share that being “face down in the arena” is not always a quick recovery. Sometimes it is a long battle of getting up and knocked down. If I can provide similar hope or a tiny flicker of light in the darkness for someone like you all did for me, then continuing to share this story is critical.

Below is a small excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic” – Sorbonne Paris France 4/23/1910

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

SIDE NOTE:  Many stated that my posting was brave.  I’m still struggling with the questions:  Was it brave because I shared that I have depression, anxiety and have struggles?  As in “Holy crud, that was brave I wouldn’t share that. Think who will see it”  Or is it brave because I am struggling and fighting?  On good days it is the latter,  on bad days the former.  Maybe in a lot of ways the statement reflects both questions.  And in the end, does it matter?

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The slippery slope – 2015/16

April 26, 2016

Things have been quiet from me for over 12+ months and part of that was because I was having an internal debate about what I share on these updates. Should they be the sunshine, roses, rainbows and funny occurrences that I experience throughout my swimming journey or should they tell the deep down dirty uncomfortable stuff that even I have a hard time admitting let alone processing. It was a long debate and I’ve ultimately decided to share. You have been with me on this journey and supported me throughout so you should have some visibility into the whole crazy world regardless of how private I sometimes would like to be.

Back in June 2015,  I was diagnosed with bulging discs (3 in total) in my thoracic region of my back. Ultimately after 2 epidural shots in between my shoulder blades, I was receiving no relief from the pain. Living at a pain level of 6-8 constantly is amazingly dark and awful. I just didn’t know how dark it would become. It was decided that the best thing for me to do was to stop all activity. I think that bears repeating…STOP ALL ACTIVITY. For me that was like asking me to stop living. My life really focuses around my swimming, training and challenges. What the heck was I supposed to be doing now?

What I found out is that I started slipping…into darkness. I wanted to do and try anything to stop the pain or get even a moments rest, as sleep was nearly impossible. I tried a litany of healthy options: acupuncture, stretching, meditation, yoga, inversion boards, massage, float tanks, etc. you name it I probably tried it. Everything seemed to aggravate my symptoms more. Plus I knew some of these fell into the “doing activities” so I wasn’t supposed to be doing them in the first place. When none of these options were providing relief even for brief moments, mentally I started to crack. Late July 2015 was I believe the real breaking point for me. I was supposed to be on my trip to swim the North Sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Instead I was in Oregon, in pain and stuck in my head. The only place I could find quiet from the noises in my head and the pain from my body was in leveraging prescription pain killers and alcohol. Initially the dosages were nothing out of the normal, a glass of wine with dinner and a pain pill to sleep before bed. However, the story is probably as old as time, I started to build tolerance so it took more pain pills and more alcohol just to get those few hours of rest.

Now I’m not typically described as a sunshiny bubbly personality to start with, you can imagine that I became even less so during this time. I tried my best to keep my aggravation, frustration, and pain separated from my friends and work. Looking back now, that was a stupid thing. There is no hiding. My face is really transparent. I wasn’t functioning at my best. I wasn’t functioning even at good. I could still hit work deliverables, but I wasn’t a nice person to be around while I was doing it. I started to also notice the concern in my friend’s faces. Then I became concerned. I suppose the benefit was that I was still lucid enough to know that the direction I was heading was a dangerous one. And at the same time, I could only stop for a few days at a time before I just had to get some rest, which turned me back to pills and/or alcohol. My goal was to gut it out until I could get to my sabbatical in September 2015. 2 months of utter torture for me and probably a lot of people around me.

2 months is a LONG time in the world of chronic pain. I now have a better understanding of how seemingly perfectly happy, healthy people end up addicted to alcohol, pain meds and move onto more heavy options. I gained a lot of weight, which in turn did not help my painful back. I was questioning a lot about who would I be if I wasn’t a swimmer? When I close my eyes and imagine who I am, there is always water involved. My internal vision is some convoluted water creature that thrives on the sea. I like being the “marathon swimmer” around my friends and out and about. That label (if we have to live with labels) feels like me. What if I wasn’t a marathon swimmer anymore? What and more importantly who was I?

This mental anxiety and depression only added to my physical pain because there wasn’t an answer to the question. I could only see more darkness. Darkness that had more shades of black than I knew was possible and I’ve swum in the middle of the black sea on a moonless night. I know dark. But this darkness was inside of me, I wasn’t sure when or if the dawn would come.

And it was torture to be around people too. After a while it begins to feel like people’s advice and empathy were more irritating than helpful. This of course was my warped mental interpretation. I wanted to scream when people said things like: Everything happens for a reason, Maybe this is your body’s way of asking for a break, Why don’t you just try x, y, or z?, etc. Plus the worst question was always, what are you going to do now? With a big sigh and holding in tears I could only think – I have no idea. Rationally I know everyone was trying to be helpful. Emotionally I was in no place to accept this help. It felt like I was being berated for not being able to do what I’ve become knows for…marathon swimming. The one method that I feel I can change maybe even one person’s life to inspire them to get out of their comfort zone and GO DO. My way to contribute to the world something positive.

It really is amazing to think that I even made it to sabbatical without committing some irreparable career limiting move or completely alienating my friends and family (although in hindsight, I’ve alienated some and probably deeply hurt them without realizing it.  For this I’m incredibly sorry.). I’m sure some of you may be thinking “Why the heck didn’t you take a leave of absence?” It ultimately may come down to sheer stubbornness or lack of education. In reading through the options, it looked to me like I would have to surrender 2 weeks of PTO (which I needed for my sabbatical) before medical leave could kick in. Plus, the way I read the details is that you are only allocated a percentage of your salary. As the provider for my household, it was not an option for me to take a pay cut and still make the ends meet. Rock…hard place. I just kept thinking make it 2 months, Michelle, and you will have your sabbatical. Then you can really focus on getting better. You can get away, stop drinking, detox, and get your head on straight.

I made it to sabbatical, 6 weeks of break from mid-September to October. I took time to go back to the places that brought me joy. I watched two friends succeed in their goal to swim the English Channel, which was rewarding and super painful at the same time. I took an Oregon Walkabout to see the sights that I’ve never seen since moving here 10 years ago. I went on a Sedona AZ meditation and yoga retreat. I tried to find a way back to myself.

I’m not back to where I was before the injury. However, I have dipped my toes back into the water with various levels of success. I’m out of shape, heavier and much slower. I’m trying to be patient with myself and be kind (not always my forte). I’m trying to go slow…not my forte either.

My back pain is more frequently below a 5. My mental anxiety and depression….well these are going to be a work in progress. I have found some amazing health practitioners and trainers that are going to help me through. We have a plan and I’m fully scheduled to swim the North Channel in July 2016. I booked a plane, accommodations and my boat pilot, so now all I need is to find my way back. Each day I close my eyes and see the little water creature me, take a deep breath, and try.

After reading this, you may be wondering why I finally decided to share this part of the journey. For me it is raw and vulnerable. Emotions and feelings that I don’t like to share and I believe ones that society likes to sweep under the rug or describe as bad or weak. And that maybe part of the reason I decided to share, I shouldn’t feel ashamed by my struggle and yet I do. I shouldn’t feel the need to hide and yet I did (and still do). Being raw, vulnerable, angry, sad, etc. should not be viewed as bad or weak. This is part of what makes me whole and real. For the last few months, I feel like I’ve been a robot. Putting on a really bad happy face, when my world was not happy and I wasn’t sure if my foundation was salvageable. Some days I wasn’t sure if I wanted to salvage it and that is scary. Ultimately I know that this past 2015 and now 2016 journey will be a different one for me. It isn’t just about swimming from one shore to another. It is about finding my way back to me or who I want to be. People say it is all about the journey, not the destination. Well this year is looking to be a really interesting journey.

Thank you for coming along for the ride.

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Jackpot 7 – COMPLETE!

December 31, 2013

As Christmas week is about unwrapping and new experiences, I was wrapping up a 7 week personal challenge of new experiences.  I didn’t think that this Jackpot Challenge was going to be as hard as it was, but then again I don’t know why I thought I would create something easy. 

For review, what is the Jackpot 7 Challenge?  It is a 7 week ladder completed in the last 7 weeks of the year.  Each week I would add a new activity to the previous week’s activities.  For each activity, I had to complete 7 miles total with in the 7 day period by the end of week 7 I’d have to complete 49 miles of activities.  The week started at 12 am Sunday and ended at 11:59 pm on Saturday.   (more…)

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Jackpot 7 Challenge – The final two weeks and the last activity is revealed!

December 18, 2013

I find that starting where I left off the last update has been helpful for people to stay connected to the MacySwim story since the updates are sometimes sporadic and I can’t really expect you to think that my journeys are SO interesting that they should be stored for eternity into your long term memories.  I know my life is really ALL ABOUT ME, but perhaps that isn’t the way you view my life and that is A-OK.  

So the Jackpot 7 challenge, this year was shaping up to be the year of sevens.  I had completed the Ocean’s 7 becoming the first American to complete the challenge while setting a new overall record for the North Channel.  I completed my 7th – 8.2 mile Pennock Island Race in Ketchikan Alaska, which is where I started my marathon swimming career.  That left one more 7 event to give me three 7s for a jackpot year – 777.   I decided to create this 7 mile Activity Ladder to be completed in the last 7 weeks of the 2013 year.  Here is how it is shaping up.  (Special Note:  I have the entire week from 12am Sunday to 11:50pm Saturday to complete the mileage of each activity.  There was a misconception that I had to do the mileage every day for the 7 days of that week.  I’m crazy but not that crazy.  Plus I have a day job  :-D) 

Jackpot 7 week challenge (more…)

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Finishing the 2013 year strong with the final 7 in the Jackpot year

December 4, 2013

I’ve been quiet for a while and I bet you thought that meant that I was lying on my couch working on adding more weight. Quite the contrary! OK there was a little bit of that, but mostly I was busy coming up with my final 7 event to close out the Jackpot year.

What Jackpot you ask? As a reminder, this year was shaping up to be the year of sevens. I had completed the Ocean’s 7 becoming the first American to complete the challenge while setting a new overall record for the North Channel. I completed my 7th – 8.2 miles Pennock Island Race in Ketchikan Alaska. That left one more 7 event to give me three 7s for a jackpot year – 777. Some may argue that the first two 7’s may have been enough for the year especially when you consider I also did a double crossing of the Columbia Bar aka “The Graveyard”, set a new women’s record for the 12.7 mile Anacapa Swim between Anacapa Island and California (Side Note: I just realized that I never sent you all this update. SURPRISE!), and I’ve been nominated as World Open Water Swimming Association’s Woman Swimmer of the Year (vote here: Voting is open until the end of December.)

Geez, even writing that and I’m beginning to question why I need another 7. I know the answer though. It’s because I’m a Type A overachiever that likes to round things out. Yes I’m the person that goes on a walk and sets a goal to get to “that” light post and then I have to touch the chosen light post or the walk doesn’t count. I think that I may be becoming a little OCD about the rules of open water swimming and the touching the start and end points.  (more…)

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Are you CRAZY? – The Columbia River Bar aka The Graveyard

November 8, 2013

A recent October weekend I believe that I finally put myself in the shoes of someone after they hear about my swimming. “Wait what, you swim marathons? Are you crazy?” When I get these questions, I’m sort of stumped on how to respond. Often I reply with “Yes and I’ve been tested so I know I’m certifiable.” But really deep down I don’t get the question.

The world is 70% water according to Google (thank goodness for Google). How could you NOT want to swim it? I mean really on a scale of crazy to not crazy. I’m thinking that it’s got to rate closer to the not crazy side. Plus really its practical. I think that Kevin Costner had it right in Waterworld, even with the bad acting. The ice caps are melting. The oceans are rising. Just look how far ahead of the learning curve I am on this one 🙂  (more…)

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