I Didn't Do It
READ TIME: 4m 45s
THIS IS NOT THE POST I EXPECTED TO WRITE THIS WEEK.
I had planned many times in my head, the post that I was going to write and share on Saturday, along with a picture of me triumphantly smiling out from a photograph holding a medal for completing my first triathlon. A super sprint version - 400m swim, 20k bike, 4k run.
Even if I came last, it would still have been a triumph for me, and it was that fact that was leading me to plan with excitement what I wanted to say and how I would celebrate.
But there is no medal. Not because I didn’t finish, but because I didn’t even start.
I am, however, still celebrating. Here’s why.
This triathlon that wasn’t a triathlon, was a long, long time coming. Just under five years ago I caught a virus. I’ll try and keep this long story short by saying that this particular virus turned out to be a pretty potent one. I aided it’s potency by refusing to accept how ill I was, and pretending to myself and to everyone else that I was fine. My body tried a number of ways to say ‘enough’. I didn’t listen. I was left feeling exhausted and sore in a way I didn’t know it was possible to feel. And I don’t mean ‘very tired’. I know now what tired is, and what I experienced was so far beyond tired it is very hard to explain. That exhaustion stuck around. Almost a year later, confused at how I could still be so shattered, physically and mentally, my GP gave me an article on Post Viral Chronic Fatigue and said with support, kindness and some much needed and well meant challenge too, “You need to accept this will take years rather than months. It will take time.”
Fast forward another three years (that were in reality very slow) and watching my sons take part in a triathlon I started to think that could be me the following year. The precious energy that had taken so long to return felt ready to be tested to see if I could now start incorporating exercise again, and building back to something.
For a year now I had been working and living doing pretty much everything I wanted to do, with the exception of the kind of exercise that I really missed – the classes and the runs that involved sustained high energy. I entered the triathlon for the following year, telling no-one. Another year of very gradual build, taking care to go slowly and to quietly celebrate the small increments of progress and I was going further and further each week whilst, and this is the crucial part, still being able to live and work as normal. I worked at the distances, very gradually. I worked at the rest. I stretched. I took care. I found some partners in crime.
There is so much more to this story, and maybe some day I’ll share more of it, but for now let’s cut to the week before the triathlon. So proud of how far I’d come, having purchased a tri-suit –a garment that I can only describe as deeply unflattering but was still excited about – and knowing I could now do the distances I even told a few close friends and family what I was doing. And then I woke with a cold, that got worse as the week progressed. It went to my sinuses and chest and by Friday, I knew deep down I shouldn’t do it. I still got my stuff ready, not willing to admit defeat. On Saturday I was still unwell.
Could I have made it round? Quite possibly.
Would I have been irresponsible to try? Without doubt.
Was it an easy decision? No.
Did I cry? Yes.
My hard won, longed for moment of proof to myself that I was back was not going to happen. I needed to feel sad for a bit.
And, what I know to be true, is that I still got the prize. Several of them actually.
The first prize was that I was ready to do it. The fact that, if this little virus with a week to go (pesky things these viruses!) hadn’t shown up when it did, I was ready. That in and of itself is monumental for me. There were many days when literally the only thing I did was walk to my son’s school and back, and I only managed that because I had to. Two years of working one, maybe two days and using the rest of the week to recover, and then a very gradual return to more. Years of missing most things socially, and on the occasion that I did go, planning the days I would need to recover from that. Years of pretending to be much more OK than I was, because it was easier than explaining the long-winded, boring, complicated truth. And now, I am OK. I am ready to do a triathlon for goodness sake. It’s all good.
The even bigger prize was that I chose not to do it.
There is no doubt that my refusal to accept how I felt in the early months of my illness contributed to how bad it got and how long it had an impact. And still, knowing what I know and having learned all I’ve learned–and I’ve learned a lot over these years– it was a tussle last Saturday. I wrestled hard with what to do. The temptation to go anyway was so strong. I almost did it, because I wanted to tell the story the way I had dared to plan to in the recent months that it started to look as though I could do this. I was excited. I wanted the hard won neat happy ending I had written in my head, and had waited a long time for.
I chose not to do it. Right up until the point that I made it, it was a hard choice. Once I made it, I was upset, but not for long at all, and even that I think was more about relief, because I very quickly remembered how grateful I was to be able to even think about doing it. Learning means nothing unless you choose to apply it. I knew in that moment that I had learned, and that more importantly, I was choosing to use what I had learned. Five years ago, I would have done it anyway - and look how that turned out! The impulse to do the same was so strong. And I didn’t. So, I won. There will be more triathlons, if I want to. Or maybe not. Either is fine. What I haven’t done is set myself back 6 months (or more) by digging my heels in and sticking to the script I’d written rather than being up for improvising a bit!
I felt there was something in here I could share with clients and colleagues. Some illustrations perhaps of the work we do and ways we go about it.
An illustration of long term goals and the need to set and celebrate small incremental goals on the way.
An illustration of being willing to place a value on the small steps. I remain grateful to a colleague who was so inspiring on this– if looking four years ahead is good enough for an Olympian it can be good enough for me– and see them as part of a bigger future gain. (It took a lot for me to place a value on jogging to the end of the road and back when the voice in my head said anything less than 5k isn’t a run so why bother).
An illustration of going towards a goal, and being willing to celebrate the gains even if the end result isn’t quite what you planned or hoped.
An illustration of that brilliant Abraham Lincoln quote, “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”
An illustration of how important inspiration is. I will always be grateful to the colleague of my husband, who after his chronic fatigue came up and they had a conversation, had lunch with me, and listened to me say things I hadn’t said to anyone about my darkest moments with this because he shared his and I knew he got it, and showed me someone who had got well, and got his life back, including as it happened triathlons, though much faster than I could do them even if I used a boat and a car!
An illustration of how transformative it is to have the right people on your side. I have been so fortunate, and am so grateful, to have worked with and been treated by some incredible practitioners, generous with their expertise, time, support and encouragement as I gradually got aching joints moving again and a flattened energy and immune system playing ball again.
An illustration of how saying something out loud, usually goes a very long way to quieting and re-assigning proportion to the less useful voices we all have.
An illustration of how useful the practice of gratitude is. Keeping a gratitude journal helped so much. Not because it means you’re not allowed bad days, but because it helps you get past them quicker– it literally makes the bad days easier and the good days even better. And if that sounds cliché then I’ll say what I’ve said before and I know I will say again, that I believe cliché’s exist because they have truth worthy of repetition in them.
Which brings me to the writing of this blog. Another tussle.
I wrestled with whether this was sharing too much of me and my story, when I prefer the attention to be on the work and for me to be a catalyst rather than a focus for that. And in reflecting on what was stopping me, I was reminded that when I work as a coach there are pillars of that work. The coaching process first and foremost, and the ethics and boundaries therein, as well as my continued learning and where appropriate offering of that – and then there’s me. I’m there too.
For all sorts of reasons I have chosen to say little about this aspect of my life– either in writing or in general. Why? Well, to use Brené Brown’s work as I so often do, I find myself in all sorts of arenas there*. The guilt I have felt at finding so difficult something that whilst life changing, is not life threatening, when there are too many close to me dealing with exactly that. The fear that this condition is so hard to explain and will invoke a collective eye roll (which is a story I tell myself, not one I have found to be true.) The vulnerability that comes with saying I haven’t been OK, I’m not as strong as I might seem, and the greater vulnerability that comes with facing up to the fact that people probably already knew that.
To the guilt I am saying to myself what I say to others, and the challenge is to mean it for myself, because I know I absolutely mean it for others when I say it’s OK to find things hard sometimes. Your struggle does not diminish your capacity to recognise, respect and support someone else’s. You know others are dealing with worse, and it doesn’t make you feel any less of what you feel for them, or diminish your gratitude for what you do have, that some days your stuff is hard too. To the fears and vulnerabilities I say ‘yup’, you’ve got to go there. Because the truth is however hard it is to go towards the difficult stuff, it is ultimately always harder not to. And again, that’s what I think my work is all about. Going with someone towards their difficult stuff and moving towards something else, rather than staying stuck in it.
And if my writing is to be a reflection of my work, then every now and then I’ve concluded, a bit more me is fine. Because If I’m not willing to show up, how can I expect my clients to be? I support and challenge, and indeed expect, my clients to be totally honest with themselves and with me. So, having shown up in my arena, you get the whole me when you ask me to witness you showing up in yours.
So here we are. At the end of the post I didn’t hope and plan to write this week, almost five years to the day that this all began, feeling grateful for the one I ended up writing. Pass the cardboard and felt tip pens – I’m off to make me a medal!
*Brené Brown’s work, a constant source of inspiration, challenge, support and ways to improve my work and life centres on her research around shame, vulnerability and courage, and a pillar of her work is the Theodore Roosevelt quote:
“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.”