"I think I'm getting closer, but the scenery's the same. Am I a disappointment? "
-AWOLNATION, "All I Need"
The past few weeks have had frustratingly slow progress. I've been sleeping poorly, nothing new in my life unfortunately. There has been one day in February where I have slept uninterrupted for more than six hours.
The lack of quality sleep has hampered my recovery, and in turn my training has been stuck in a holding pattern. I spent two weeks going to the pool and either having to take a step back or struggle to replicate my previous best performance.
Did I Do a Good Job?
Over my life, one of the things I've struggled with most is knowing when to admit to myself I've done a good job. I've always been followed by a restlessness, uncomfortable lingering around any "success".
These days, many people complain about a culture where every kid gets a trophy, but the opposite is even more worse. I grew up feeling that my mom, my most important relationship in my young life, was almost always disappointed in me. I didn't know when I was doing well, but I certainly knew when I had made a mistake, which seemed often. I knew I was a burden and a hindrance to her living the life she wanted. i knew that the sooner I figured out to do things for myself, the less disappointing I would be.
In Swimming, Hope
I've written often about how swimming changed my life. That's not an understatement. Although good coaches were few and far between, the best ones filled a hole that I desperately needed. Every hard set that I pushed myself through, a simple "good job" from coach healed me a little bit.
The clock told its own story- as time flew off and I improved rapidly, I had more evidence. I was doing a good job, the hard work was paying off.
Begging for rest
Just as I started to really get where with swimming, my sleep problems started. Looking back, it was hard for me to understand. I simply found myself laying in bed, my body exhausted but my mind racing.
Older has more perspective. The stress of life only builds through its first half- but I had no safe space, nowhere I could turn for help with the thoughts and feelings that were stressing me. I tried, like everything else, to go it alone. And I failed.
The lack of sleep was one factor on in stopping my progress in swimming for a while, which only led to vicious cycle, where I felt more and more stressed about how I was not "doing well". At one point I started forcing myself to swim bruising workouts on Sundays, especially at night after a disappointing meet, as a punishment for my poor performance. It didn't help.
Better, Than Worse Again
I was lucky to have two exceptional high school swim coaches, both of whom are still my friends today. By the end of high school I gave up club swimming, and through their nurturing and support, managed to move forward in swimming and feel more restful. I spent too much time at the pool, often showing up more than an hour early to practice. It felt a lot safer than home.
All that reverted terribly when I went to college. I found myself with a coach who saw my insecurity and how it could drive me to train harder. He saw that if he withheld any praise I would dig in harder, hoping against hope that he would see me. I spent two years training harder than I ever had, and getting slower.
In four years of college swimming, I was never late, never missed a practice. When I got sick, I would come in and train on my own so as to not get other's sick. It was at this time that I started to sleep truly terribly. I became a true insomniac- having some nights where didn't sleep at all.
A bandaid is better than just bleeding
I went to my doctor, and told them what was going on. At least, that I wasn't sleeping. I was prescribed medication to help me go to sleep. It worked, mostly, at least enough that I slept like a normal person, good some nights and bad others.
I don't blame my doctor for not digging deeper as to why I wasn't sleeping. I didn't give any indication that anything else was wrong. I presented as an otherwise healthy person who for some strange reason couldn't sleep at night. But all the things that kept me up at night where still there- my mind still raced when it needed to rest.
Getting to the bottom (of it)
I spent most of my adult life managing along in this way. I never dealt with the reasons why I didn't sleep, but I slept ok because I had a medication strong enough to overwhelm all of that and get me to rest.
At around the same time I started to even conceive this project, I knew that I would have to start working on the underlying issues for my restlessness sooner rather than later. And while I am still obviously struggling, here is what I have learned so far:
- It is important to recognize when you have done well. This goes both for mundane, continuous stuff, but also small one time things. One of the things that has always kept me up at night is the immense pressure I felt to be my best the following day. Everyone has bad days, but when you can't acknowledge your own good ones you're trapped.
- "Other people matter" The famous simple words of Chris Petersen. But in this context, it means that no one can just handle all their emotions, their stresses and anxieties. You need to have people to share them with that will help you to deal with them.
- Revisit areas of learned helplessness. At many points along this process, I have decided that I could never get better, that I was just a "poor sleeper", and that was that. That mindset is a block to ever getting better, and while redirecting it is a blog post of it's own, you should always evaluate what areas you have closed off for future improvement.
Last week I took a vacation with my wife. No kid. I swam every day but without pressure, without a pace clock. I just felt the water and did what felt good.
We did almost nothing. For the first time in my life I sat still by the pool and took some deep breaths. Although I was still awoken at night, I quickly fell back asleep. There was nothing pressing for me to do a good job on the following day.
Upon my return, I went back to the pool. Can you guess what happened?
I did 30x25 breaststroke, all of them on :15 seconds pace, for the first time ever.