Seneca wrote: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” And suffer I did.
The first six months of changing my fate were the most difficult. Not because of the physical effort. Not because of learning (ie: forcing!) better habits. But because of the fear. The many different kinds of fears that revealed themselves to me each step along the way. And I was haunted by these private devils endlessly.
I was scared of failure. Constantly. And not just failure to reach my goals. But scared of even trying. Because here I was: a flabby, nerdy, unhealthy, uncoordinated middle-aged guy who had to drag himself into a gym filled with muscled-up, athletic 20-somethings and do my little workout with my little weights. I was scared of looking too weak. I was scared of my arms shaking as I struggled. I was scared of trying to do a chin-up and fight to even get ONE done, let alone multiple chin-ups. Half the time I wasn’t sweating because of the workout, I was sweating because my heart was in my throat and my blood pressure was in orbit because I was terrified of everyone turning around and laughing at my miserable performance.
I was scared of rejection. That people would not just laugh at me, but be completely repulsed by me. And by my efforts to fix myself. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t ask for any help. I tried to be invisible, day after day. The less I had to interact with any of those healthy folks, the less I would feel so bad about myself.
Here’s one of my worst memories. When you hear about marathon runners hitting “the wall,” this was mine. Even preparing to write about it is making my heart rate climb and I realize I have not thought about this event in a while…
The first time I wore “swim shorts” to the pool, I specifically picked a late-evening hour so that everyone had probably gone home. I even went to the outside pool, which was colder and less lit. Even less chance of being seen. I was near the top of my personal weight. As a guy who graduated high school at 140lbs, I was approaching 240lbs that day. And my waist line was the largest it had ever been. Half a foot of girth that I don’t have now. And even as I type this I’m hoping I’ll never see again…
So, I’m in this very unflattering pair of tight trunks and damn near hyperventilating with anxiety because I’m also shirtless. And pale. And flabby. And awkward. And as I walk to the furthest possible pool. I slowly realize that it is completely packed. Not with normal gym patrons, either. But with tall, lean, beautiful young women. Yes, the local women’s swim team was practicing. And I picked that day to wear my swim trunks for the first time.
That was my wall. In my head, the world was focused on my terrible appearance and my pitiful performance and MSNBC was running a weekend special report on what a vile, loathsome creature I was. It all unfolded in slow motion and my six or eight or ten laps felt like four hours of swimming under a spotlight with a horde of athletic uberwomen pointing and taunting the whole terrible duration.
But here is the thing: All my fears were completely unfounded. Nobody said a negative word to me. Ever. Nobody pointed to me and snickered. Nobody laughed at my workouts. Nothing negative ever happened. In fact, many of the guys were in the same shape I was. Some were in far worse shape. That didn’t stop me from digging my own hole in my own private hell and trying to bury myself alive.
Fear held me back. Kept me unhealthy. My lack of effort was predicated on a never-ending stream of worse case scenarios that never came true. And that put me on that downward spiral. I experienced failure over and over in my head, before it ever happened.
I swam that night at the pool. I lost weight, too. I’m healthy now. But I still have fear. And I still hyperventilate with anxiety.
But I don’t let fear consume me. Or stop me.
And swim forward. At whatever pace I can muster at that moment. Just don’t stop.