I Am (not) A Failure

Well, it happened. Here I was thinking that I am so mentally healthy now and I’ve finally gotten control of this whole depression thing and – WHAM – I got knocked back a few steps. Out of nowhere, those thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness and anxiety just hit me. Everything was fine. It was great, really. Hanging out with my husband and my kid, off work, dinner with friends, mostly cleaned up house. Then there was (as my husband describes it) “a click”. Not audible, I hope, but a distinct change in my thoughts and my actions. I was cranky, I started picking fights, I stopped making eye contact. And in my head, I was only a little aware that I was doing all this. I don’t even remember it all that well. I just remember thinking, “I don’t want to be here anymore. This is all bad and it is never going to be good and it’s all my fault.” What. The. Hell? I’m fine now, so don’t worry. No need to call and check on me. I have a great husband who has had to deal with me for a while now and he’s getting better at noticing when my anxiety is showing. After many, many tears (mine) and some frustration (his) and some confusion (ours), everything calmed down in my head and I was able to go to sleep. The next day, though, I kept thinking about what a failure I was for letting myself get that far down into that hole again. Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why didn’t I try harder to stop those negative thoughts? I scared J. I scared me. It caught us both off guard just enough to shake our sense of stability. It was nothing, nothing like “The Incident”, but it was enough of a reminder of my mental state at the time to shake us both. How had I let that happen?! I had failed. Again.

Failure is my biggest fear. No one likes to fail. I am scared to fail. Terrified. As a matter of fact, I’m just waiting for everyone to figure out that I am really just a big failure who has been fooling them all this time. I lie awake worrying that I made the wrong decision for a patient, that I missed something. I worry that I’m failing as a mother. There are so many things I should be doing that I’m not. I’m not as active as I should be politically; I’m failing to make the world better. Sometimes my fear of failure keeps me from doing potentially awesome things, like auditioning for a stage performance (with speaking parts?!) or joining a chorus or karaoke or dancing with friends or even just dinner if it means having to have conversation with people I don’t know well. Because they might see me as a failure at acting or singing or dancing or conversation or being interesting.

I really have tried to push myself beyond that fear of failure. It’s getting easier (sort of) the more I fail. And I have had some doozies. Here is a tiny sampling: I was booed at a speech in high school (still not sure if that’s a fail, but it was a bit traumatic). My first marriage failed. Of course, there was “The Incident” splashed all over local and regional media. And then there were my first 2 Ironman attempts. Ugh.

My first Ironman was going to be in Cozumel in 2012. I was so dedicated to training. I ate healthy. I trained according to schedule. I lost time with my little girl to go and ride my bike for 5 hours. I was ready. But then the swim happened. I’m not a really strong swimmer, but I’m okay. The water was already choppy when we all got in to tread water until the start. The race started and things were going ok. Initially, you swim “upstream” against the pretty mild current. I started having more trouble making progress and the waves got bigger. Once I made the turn and headed “downstream”, I couldn’t see the buoys. I could see on the ocean floor that they had been dragged down the course. I followed the drag marks as best I could. A paddleboarder helped call out where the next buoy was. I was starting to get really tired and dehydrated (my tongue felt like sandpaper and about 10 times too big in my mouth) from the salt water I kept swallowing. I reached the next turn to head back “upstream”, only this time, it was like a river. The current had picked up tremendously. I held on to a life guard’s float and vomited into the water (it wasn’t too gross because it was immediately swept away by the current). I tried to swim away, but came back to throw up one more time. Then I headed toward the swim exit. Except I didn’t. I swam in place. I swam HARD in place. The paddleboarder said she would stay with me until I got out of the water. She said she had to paddle hard and continuously just to stay with me. If we stopped, we lost so much ground so quickly! I had 20 minutes left before the cut off, but I was making no headway and I started to vomit again. I waved for the boat pick me up. It was my first DNF (Did Not Finish, for you tri-newbs) I cried so hard, hanging onto the paddleboard while we waited for the boat. (Little did I know that it was taking so long because they were busy picking up 400 –FOUR HUNDRED – other swimmers who were also DNFing) I cried because I had failed. I had taken so much time to prepare for this epic thing and I had failed. I wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t prepared to fail.

Other swimmers in the boat tried to console me, including a 5 time Ironman finisher and former Flying Tiger. But I sobbed. I had to walk/ride my bike back to the bike transition area, past the cyclists who hadn’t failed. The volunteers were sweet but weren’t sure how I was supposed to get my bike where it needed to be. They weren’t prepared for a failure. I finally racked my bike and waited at the bike course to cheer for my husband, who had waited 40 minutes for me to get out of the water. (This alone was pretty telling. He’s a much stronger swimmer than I, but it had taken him an hour to swim that last 0.5 miles.) Then I jogged back to the hotel at the end of the marathon course to drop off all the stuff in my transition bags that I should have needed but didn’t get to use. People cheered for me, thinking I was still in the race. Thinking I was not a failure. I cried some more. I met J at the beginning of his marathon, wearing my race number, and did the marathon with him. People cheered for us, but it didn’t count for me. Because I was a failure. I was an imposter. He finished and I cheered for him because he is awesome and he never quits. I couldn’t enjoy the full beauty and fun of COZUMEL for the next few days because I had failed.

Then came Ironman Louisville. I was definitely going to do this. I couldn’t deal with failing again. I had trained and trained for the heat and the hills. I knew this race, because J had done it 2 times before. The swim was fine. Upstream and crowded for a little bit but then downstream and just fine. I rolled onto my back and smiled (which broke the seal on my goggles and made them leak for the rest of the swim, but whatever). The bike was going pretty well, but then I couldn’t choke down my nutrition. All the foods and drinks I had practiced with on all those 75, 100, 110 mile rides? Not. Going. To. Happen. I wasted a lot of time trying to get those calories into my stomach, even getting off the bike a few times. Nope. I got off the bike before the cut off, but pretty late. And I couldn’t make my body run. Those brick workouts were for naught. I had no calories and no energy. After mostly walking, I realized there was no way for me to finish in time. I met a girl who was injured and crying because she wasn’t going to finish and I made the decision to DNF. I walked in with her. We talked and I told her about my DNF in Cozumel. I reassured her that it was ok. Whether she finished or not, her friends knew she was awesome. Her husband thought she was incredible for training with all the other stuff she had on her plate. The world would go on. She would get another chance.

I paused and I heard myself. She wasn’t a failure.

This time, I only cried a little when they took my timing chip and confirmed that I was DNF-ing. I stood at that finish line and I cheered as loud as I could for those Ironmen coming into the chute. I was so proud of them. I cheered them in and got so many smiles in return. I loved each one of those sweaty, exhausted, slightly (but only temporarily) broken people as they became Ironmen that night. And I felt only somewhat of a failure.

Now removed from those failures, I can see them as they are. I failed to complete those races, but I was not a failure. I worked hard. I gave everything I could. I made it to the start lines and I pushed myself forward again and again. I got knocked back a few times. But I was not a failure.

Failing to complete something as big as an Ironman is pretty much the worst for someone as afraid of failure as I am. But it happened. And I learned. I learned that my friends love me whether I finish the Ironman or not. My family loves me even if I fail to keep it together all the time. My husband and my daughter love me even if I fail to keep anxiety and depression at bay all the time. And the rest of the world doesn’t care at all. They’re not watching me. They’re worrying about failing at whatever they’re doing.

Each time I fail, it gets easier. It still really, really sucks, but it takes less of a toll on me. Even though I failed to control my depression a few days ago, I’m not a failure. I’m a work in progress.

After all, I’m awesome, not perfect!