How I Drowned My Swimming Career In Anxiety

Flickr / Eyrne!

I grew up in a small, wealthy, suburban town 25 minutes outside San Francisco. With a picture-perfect upbringing, I excelled academically and athletically throughout my young adolescence. I was walking when I was seven months, speaking full, comprehensive sentences by thirteen months, reading by two, and swimming without any assistance by three. I learned social skills early on by connecting with my older brother George and his friends, so when I entered preschool, I was already ahead of the curve. Teachers wrote home about me, gushing to my parents about my intelligence in academics and social interactions, as well as my natural inclination to both arts—visual and performing—along with athletics.

My mom and dad represented the model parents as well. Even though they already had one kid under their belts by thirty, the moment they discovered my mother’s pregnancy at thirty-three, they purchased all-new editions of parenting books, read up on the latest prenatal necessities, and signed up for yoga classes. My thin, blonde, and bronzed mother’s belly grew, but she stayed fit, eating only healthy foods and continuing to exercise at a safe level. My father even halted his intake of alcohol and unhealthy foods in order to assist my mother on her journey. The two of them loved each other to the moon and back, and with my birth, their love grew even stronger. They were the definition of a healthy marriage and they raised my brother and me to be the kids everyone wanted.

By middle school, I was top of my class. I held straight As, with only personal pressure and minimal pressure from the home front. My art had been published in a national art magazine and I was succeeding to great lengths in the swimming pool. My bleached blonde hair began to darken a little with age to match my mother’s, complementing the green eyes I had inherited from my dad. By twelve, the attention boys paid to me had become apparent, but I kept my distance. I preferred to wait until I was a little older, maybe high school, to explore that side of myself.

And when high school came around, that’s exactly what I did. I had already landed an all-American, brown-haired football player as my boyfriend a month into my freshman year. He showed me all the things high school had to offer before I even knew my way around. I joined at least ten clubs, was ranked the top swimmer in the state, was ranked within the top tenth of my school academically, and had one of the most booked-up social lives of any other freshman girl. My boyfriend showed me the drinking scene, and while often I attended parties with him, I never so much as touched a drink of alcohol. Somehow, even with all of the directions I was going and being pulled, I never felt overwhelmed. When I returned home at the end of the day after swim practice, we sat down and ate a home-cooked meal as a family, and the pace of my day slowed down. I felt comfortable with my parents, enough to always keep them informed on all aspects of my life. They never told me who to be friends with or how to act; they only shared their position on certain things. Obviously, as most parents of high school kids are, they were against drinking, drugs, and sex, but if I was doing any of those things, they told me they wouldn’t be angry and that they could only hope I would share my experiences with them so they could advise me and keep me safe. I told them everything.

My sophomore year, my older brother George went off to Brown University in Rhode Island, having graduated with honors and a full academic scholarship, as well as a spot on their lacrosse team. Looking back at the photos from the day he boarded the plane, I can only smile myself, noticing the wide, white grin plastered on his face as he pulls in my parents on both sides. The perfect family photo—all it’s missing is a white picket fence. I missed him a lot when he left, as we had a very close relationship. Since I had turned eight and become a competitive swimmer, my brother had been at every single one of my meets, cheering and giving me the thumbs-up from the stands. My first meet since he had left for university, I remember standing on the block and rotating my head to the stands, blindly and subconsciously scanning the crowd for George. I shook it off, neglecting the pit in my stomach and putting it off as force of habit, before refocusing on the aqua water rippling three feet below me. My hands gripped the edge of the coarse white board and my body bent into a loaded position, prepared to dive. In this state, I had always been completely still, mesmerized by the sound of my heart beating in my ears and the booming sound of the announcer’s voice. This time, however, I felt my bare foot spasm slightly behind me, like a fidget. When the start of the race was announced, I was not at all in the zone. I flailed off the board and into a disjointed freestyle for the entirety of the race, placing—for the first time since fourth grade—in third place. I hadn’t even placed so low as second since sixth grade.

When I exited the pool to my parents after being wracked with sobs in the showers for half an hour, they approached me solemnly and hugged me.

“You did great,” my mother whispered to me, a soft smile spreading on her lustrous pink lips. “Third is not the end of the world. It would be incredible for almost any other girl!”

I looked away, blinking away the omnipresent wetness from my eyes and attempting to swallow down the painful lump in my throat. I knew she meant well, but I didn’t care about anyone else. Third could kill my ranking in the state and, in my mind at the time, destroy my future and my chance of going to Brown. While I already had an offer from Stanford for a full ride, one of the most sought-after spots in the country, and my dream school since I had been five, all of a sudden Stanford wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted Brown. And to me, third place had destroyed my chances and now I was destined for failure. What-if’s started to cloud my head: What if I don’t get first every race for the rest of the season? What if I get third again? What if Brown doesn’t want me? What if I never see George again? I had never been one to focus so much on the possible negatives of the future, but at that moment it was all I could think about. However, I forced a blank smile and pushed a squeaky, “Thanks, you’re right” in her direction. We piled into the car and returned home, like nothing was different—like nothing had changed.

A week later, after compulsively studying for my chemistry test, a subject in which I had shone in the past, my usual put-together self was a nervous wreck at the door. I had rubbed black mascara around my eyes and was clawing at my hair as I manically flipped back and forth through my binder. I knew I knew the material but the what-if’s were reigning supreme again: What if I forget what I studied? What if my calculator runs out of battery? What if I have a fever and I get sick in the middle of the test? What if something happens to my mom while I’m taking this test? It didn’t even seem weird to me, at the time, that I was thinking these strange, incoherent thoughts that had little to do with the test prior to it. It seemed to me like they were real, plausible worries. When I took the test, my typical calm demeanor had turned into a rapidly tapping foot and a constant agitation. I couldn’t remember things I had just went over and had been going over all week. When I got back the test a few days later, an enormous 86 stained the top of the sheet. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe.

After a string of falling grades, tumbling morale, and poor performance, everything came tumbling down at the state swimming finals. I was up next for the IM, a tough event that includes all four strokes, and as I stood up to prepare, my chest abruptly constricted. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes watered as I gasped for help, feeling hopeless and desperate. I was surrounded by moving bodies as my vision blurred and I was helped to the ground. I kept panting: “What if I fail? What if this is my last chance to prove myself? What if I don’t get first again? What if I don’t get recruited to Brown? What if I don’t get into college?” At some point, I fainted.

My blurry eyes reopened some time later to stinging fluorescent light. My right hand was enclosed by another, and my body had sunken into the plush below me. I swallowed hard, coughing through a raw throat.

“Oh, thank god,” I heard my mother sigh. “You’re awake.”

I struggled to push my eyes open and turn my head to her. I was absolutely exhausted. Honestly, I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately—my worries kept me up. “Hi, Mom,” I croaked, the corners of my lips turning up into a thin smile.

Dense tears were wetting my mother’s deep blue eyes as she blinked at me through thick dark lashes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I am so sorry, I should have known something was wrong. You changed so quickly. This is all my fault.”

I quickly avowed, “No! Mom, this isn’t your fault, it’s mine. Had I just prepared better for the race. Had I just been better. I could have stopped this. I know I could have.”

Obviously, my mom disputed me, saying once again that it was her fault, that it could never be mine, that I did nothing wrong. At the moment, I didn’t believe it. At the moment, I was still thinking about how no college would ever want me now, how I would never get to Brown. And when later—after going through a number of tedious sessions with a psychologist and filling out numerous questionnaires and answering what felt like hundreds of questions—I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder with symptoms of panic disorder, I still upheld that this must have been have my fault. The newscast put the blame on my parents, headlines reading: LOCAL SWIMMING PRODIGY CRUSHED BY CRIPPLING PRESSURE FROM HOME and PARENTAL PRESSURE SUFFOCATES OUTSTANDING STUDENT-ATHLETE. No one knew that my parents never pushed me into anything I didn’t want to do. No one knew that all they wanted for me was my happiness. The tabloids made up their stories, blaming my issues on my parents. Kids at school (who my mother would say were always just jealous of my drive) would write online how it was my own overachiever try-hard mindset that put me here. I agreed it was my fault, but I didn’t agree with their reasoning.

But looking back now, years later, at college, swimming for Stanford University, and on medication to treat my mental disorder, I’ve realized that this was nobody’s fault. My anxiety was under nobody’s control. Nobody ever asked for it or caused it. It just…happened. And I’m treating it. And I’m living with it. And I’m just as successful and “overachieving”—as some may say—as I’ve always been. I looked inside myself and realized that sometimes, the world is just random and cruel and I simply got caught in its fire show. I even got an offer from Brown that I didn’t take because I realized it wasn’t me who wanted to go there, it was my anxiety. Mental disorders are nobody’s fault. Someday, I hope people may realize that. TC mark

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