Struggle – Lewis Pugh and the Ice of Depression
I’m in a terrible emotional state at the moment, starting maybe 2 days ago but really reaching a crescendo today, and Kevin asked me to look at my wall of Extreme Mentors and pick which one of them could help me through this. “None of them,” I very unhelpfully responded, but then I gave it some thought anyway. “Lewis Pugh,” I said.
Pugh is an extreme guy. Not in his persona – he seems pretty mild in disposition – but he undergoes extreme experiences in the name of his mission, which is to bring awareness to the melting of the Polar Ice Caps due to Global Warming. He does this by swimming the North Pole. You shouldn’t be able to swim there, and even though, due to melting Ice Caps, you literally can swim there, you still shouldn’t. It’s incredibly dangerous. Pugh has to swim in a wetsuit and with a thermometer in his rectum so that his body temperature can be monitored at every moment, because literally a few seconds can mean life or death in those conditions. Sounds fun, right?! – you can read more about him here or check out his book 21 Yaks and a Speedo.
My current state is a combination of my long-time disposition of tending toward self-hatred, a bout of depression which sometimes I struggle with, and probably a huge hit of hormonal turbulence just to stir it all up. I picked Lewis Pugh as my Extreme Mentor in this situation because the experience of physical shock and mental distress of being in 29 degree Fahrenheit water is beyond intense. Your limbs stop wanting to move, your brain is at once in a state of panic from the shock of the cold but also needing to be quieted down so you can focus and control your motor functions. You are submerged in a physical and mental sensation of “get the fuck out of here.” That’s how I feel, abstractly, but without the heart-racing motivation to get out of the water. More like the moment of Hypothermia when it seems a great idea to just lay down and take a nap for a moment, which of course will likely become a forever-nap as you sink into the Abyss. So, I picked Pugh because he wills himself into the water, then wills himself through it. Getting out is easy, anyone can do that, but he submits himself to the fire (that is nearly ice) on purpose – with purpose.
This morning I woke up and did everything “right.” I had a conference call with the mental training group I’m part of, I planned out my day, decided how I wanted to feel, meditated, wrote down and completed all the tasks I’m supposed to complete… but this storm just swallowed me anyway. I totally fell apart in padwork with Pi Nu. He could see I was a mess and invited me to do a workout with him, but I started sobbing as I took off my wraps and had to take a few minutes in the bathroom with the shower running just to calm myself down. I can’t shake it. I’m doing all the actions I’m supposed to do, but I can’t get a grip on the mental adjustments needed to pull myself out of this. I do believe that it will just take a few days and I just have to do the best I can within that time. But fuck… I’m going to be staring at this photo of Lewis Pugh swimming with glaciers behind him and try to find the strength. I know I have it. I know it’s in me. But knowing and believing are slightly different and the latter is the part I need now.
Update, the next day: Yesterday [in the afternoon session, after I had written the above] I just accepted that everything was going to be difficult. I acknowledged that my limbs were more or less paralyzed by the cold water and my mind was in a near hibernation. So when Pi Nu called me into the ring to spar with Team, I more or less put my energy toward not looking as miserable as I felt because looking exactly as I did would very likely express to Pi Nu that I don’t want to spar – which, to be fair, at that moment I did not – and I’ve been asking for more sparring since day 1 in Thailand so that’s not a subliminal message I can afford to send. Team is bigger than I am now, but we started working together when he was still smaller, so his practiced approach to me is as the smaller fighter and he has not yet adjusted to the fact that he’s literally outgrown me. He still goes as hard as he did when that was more appropriate due to our sizes. I thought about that scene in “Man of Steel” when little Clark is hiding in the broom closet at school, overwhelmed by his hyper-senses, whispering to his mother through the closed door that “the world is too big.” His mother, calmly, answers back, “so make it small.” That’s kind of what got me through sparring with Team: anytime I was overwhelmed, either physically or emotionally, I’d just narrow my focus. He was landing a lot of punches through my guard, which had been working a minute before but now wasn’t, so I stopped worrying about not being hit and focused only on not letting my butt go back in response. That worked, so then I zoomed out a bit more and focused on hitting back. Then I got overwhelmed by this rush he was doing to close space and narrowed my focus to just tracking his weight transfers. Sometimes I could respond with a counter when I saw his weight shift, sometimes I missed my chance and got whacked, so I narrowed even further to just watch his left leg. Only that. Only respond to the left leg. By narrowing my focus, simplifying my tasks, my mind got nice and quiet. Not still, just quiet. It didn’t result in a total turnaround of my disposition but it was a pretty huge change and allowed me to wake up focused this morning. In extreme conditions, every inch is important. Like stroke after stroke in the ice water.