girl making hand gesture on her face
Photo by Edi Libedinsky / Unsplash

A simple lesson in psychology delivered through one hell of a performance

First, let me explain the title. A friend gave me that saying recently. It's an obvious - but not to all- psychological truth that we live. What I see in others exists in me. So if I call out hate, racism, beauty, goodness, selfishness, greed, generosity, it is embodied in me as well.

It's a fundamental human truth. We can't sidestep it. Like projection, another psychological law.

That way lies evolution. Peace, if you will, which always and forever begins and ends with us. If I see X in you, then first X exists in me. Of course it's uncomfortable. Such truths usually are.

With that as a backdrop, my story.

Last night I finished watching Nyad, which was difficult for several reasons. Diana Nyad is a polarizing figure, her demanding personality a bit hard to take. Watching Nyad herself juxtaposed against Annette Bening's character in the movie was difficult.

As Nyad, she comes across as arrogant, pushy, demanding. She nailed Nyad.

What I see in her, I see in myself.

I spot it, I got it.

Her drive and intensity also mirror mine. Given her sexual assault history by her coach, I suspect it stems from the same source. Unless you've been subjected to incest or sexual assault as a child, it might be hard to fully comprehend the lifelong effects.

Yet so typical of our culture, we blame the victim for how they cope.

Here's an excerpt from People's review of Nyad:

Instead, before she successfully swims 111 miles in nearly 53 hours in 2013, she’s stung and lacerated by jellyfish and man o’ wars, threatened by a shark and subjected to a violent storm at sea that may possibly be heaven’s way of instilling a little humility in her.

Because Diana Nyad is nothing if not defiantly proud. 

She’s also self-centered, obsessive, inconsiderate, short-tempered, condescending and relentless. She’s Swimming Bull, or maybe The Terminator by way of The Little Mermaid. (author bolded)

There's a great deal of truth in this not only for the viewer but for me as well. This hit very close to home.

In 2013, the year Nyad did indeed succeed in her swim at 64, I started something similar but utterly unheralded: I trained for Kilimanjaro at sixty, succeeded, then launched myself into twelve years of extreme adventure travel.

What I have done in my sixties, very few people, much less women, and even fewer women my age have even attempted. Like Nyad, I never quit, even when severely injured.

When I was injured, I trained like a banshee to get right back after it again in weeks.

How DARE I speak of my accomplishments. Right? Who the hell do I think I am, anyway?

This line speaks to me from the People review:

that may possibly be heaven’s way of instilling a little humility in her.

This smacks of "who the HELL do you think you are?" Why is a smackdown necessary?

How dare you be so brazen, so driven, so proud?

As a species, but particularly those societies which view women through a patriarchal lens, we have a problem with strong women. Worse, we have a real issue with strong, accomplished women who aren't afraid to go for it and then talk about what they've done.

Celebrate it, which most interpret as bragging.

We like it when they're humbled, hurt and humiliated publicly, as if they had it coming.

How DARE they, anyway?

While I don't know all Nyad's history with sexual abuse, I had multiple offenders starting in my own home and extending into the Army. I didn't turn those into a stellar athletic career.

Rather, the pain and guilt from those experiences twisted me into decades of eating disorders. I've been suicidal for years on and off, believing that I had brought those offenses onto myself for being born female. Happily those moments are rare, but they're there.

I'd be dishonest if I said I don't still have those occasional thoughts, when terrible physical pain and isolation crowd in on me, as they have the last several years.

This last year in particular had some very dark moments driven by so much pain and loss of fitness, loneliness and stark isolation that my fair share of basement demons came a-visiting every so often.

I've written about this before but it's relevant in this context:

How dare I offend the world by being born female. That messaging began with my mother's telling me that when I was born a girl, she wanted to drown me right away. I was barely ten when she said that.

I'm quite sure that at the time my mother was at the end of her emotional rope. Nobody is handed the playbook for parenting; those who've done it stumble badly.

Such statements from parents do irreparable harm. I'm not sure we ever quite overcome them. Maybe negotiate terms, but like in the Mideast, war is always breaking out anew, because the feelings never quite go away.

It wasn't until I finally healed the eating disorders in 2011 that I was free, but only from that particular compulsion. As with all such anxiety-related behaviors, they simply morph into something else.

In my case, I threw my whole heart and soul into training at another level and took on adventure travel at sixty. People often ask me if I was/still am trying to prove something. Truth? That's likely.

Most likely, that I deserve to take up space in the world. That I have the right to breathe the air. My mother didn't think I did. You can see how profound this was, and still is.

My folks gave me a lot of gifts. Self-confidence wasn't among them. What of that I have has been hard won, and it is easily lost.

The intense insecurity and feelings of worthlessness can drive people who have been damaged as children and young adults. Those are not so easily dislodged, but they can act as the furnace for achievement.

Shortly after that pivotal January of 2011 I found my inner athlete.

At the same time Nyad was swimming to the Keys from Cuba, I was training four hours a day to climb Kilimanjaro.

I've pushed myself to the limits, climbed big mountains, kayaked icy waters and ridden very spicy horses, coming home on stretchers more than once with awful injuries. Healed, did the PT and went right back out into the world to do it all over again.

Then I've talked about it. Written about it.


How dare I live such a life and then talk about it.

Even my writing coach accused me of too much "chest-pounding." What's fascinating about that is that he too was abused as a child, and engages in the same behaviors.

If you spot it, you got it.

I am not the athlete Nyad is. Never will be. But I most certainly am accomplished. I have done what very few will ever do. For me, Kilimanjaro was an appetizer.

Yet, after all those trips and experiences, the adventures and the stories, I still feel, in this moment, worthless, unworthy. That's what I mean when I say those feelings are like the simmering tensions in the Middle East which, like now, break out into all-out war. Those are the demons I dance with. Most of the time I win.

Sometimes, like a bad house guest or fish, they stick around and stink for three days.

I have to be my own peacemaker. Sometimes I fail horribly at it.

I am driven to write about such things because I am so aware of how many of us dance with the same demons. How many of us are damaged young and struggle to find permission to live a full life.

The world we inhabit doesn't like for women to be outspoken to begin with, and it most assuredly doesn't care for what smacks of pride or condescension. If we are indeed accomplished, and then we are prideful, we are to be brought down hard, the more publicly the better.

And the more bloody the beatdown, the better.

Most of us fail to see the drivers behind those behaviors, and we also don't offer them the grace of compassion. Instead we attack and wish for them to be attacked for the crime of owning their geography, geography that is hard-won and constantly questioned internally without any additional help from external critics.

Nyad made me deeply uncomfortable. I was watching aspects of myself.

This past week I also watched the biopic Sly, which reveals a great deal about the now 77-year-old action hero Sylvester Stallone. His complex, competitive relationship with his father reminded me vividly of the same dynamics I had with mine.

At several points in his life, Stallone, who in his teens was a nationally-ranked polo player, was shamed publicly by his father. The second time, during a well-attended match that Stallone funded, his father actually speared him in the back during play, forcing Stallone off his horse. According to Sly, he was fortunate the horse didn't stomp him to death.

Here's that story:

Sylvester Stallone Reveals His Dad Attacked Him in a Polo Match: ‘I Never Want to See a Horse Again’
In his Netflix documentary ‘Sly,’ Sylvester Stallone recalls painful memories of verbal and physical abuse from his father, Frank Stallone Sr.

Sly's father, right after the commercial success of Rocky, showed up with a screenplay called Sonny, which was precisely the same story. It wasn't just childish. It was churlish and ridiculous.

Stallone's life is the envy of many; he's accomplished, rich, famous. And yet still. None of those things absolved him of of the deep questions of his intrinsic worth, instilled in him by a brutal father.

My father, who failed at several very important moments in his own life, was fond of saying to friends, always well within my earshot, that he had raised a couple of losers.

His verbal abuse is woven into my DNA, just as my mother's outright rejection. He could spot it, he got it. But he wasn't wise enough, so he took out his anger on his kids.

At 77, Stallone is still haunted. At 74, Nyad is still haunted. At 70, I am still haunted.

Sometimes I wonder if the terrible injuries I've suffered during my adventures, the broken back, the smashed pelvis and more, are punishment I'm inflicting on myself for the audacity to try to live a dream.

I have no idea, but it exists as a question.

Sometimes I wonder if the incredible pain load I've carried these last five years from all the surgeries, the stresses of the move, the car wreck, the injuries and all the rest, are ways I am living out my mother's anger at me for being born a girl.

I have no idea, but it exists as a question.

Such experiences instill compassion and empathy. If nothing else I can watch Nyad with wiser eyes. I can appreciate her struggles, for they are the struggles of all children of damaged parents, all children and adults subjected to brutality.

A few of you have shared with me some of your reactions to my writing. Eye-rolls, one wrote. I have the same reactions at times when I revisit previous pieces. Perfectly understandable. I rolled my eyes several times watching Nyad.

And when I did, what immediately came up for me is this:

What is this bringing up? Why is it uncomfortable? What truths am I avoiding?

Above all, perhaps,

What kind of pain is driving her?

All I can do is live in the question, and in doing so, perhaps find new ways forward.

At seventy, nearly at the end of the year, I am slowly coming out of a very long, dark tunnel. I've done my level best to make hay out of the situations, laugh at the absurdity of all of it, and keep right on getting back up and going.

Those, too, are accomplishments. Lots of people just give up. I don't. And this is where Nyad's words really hit home.

As she comes out of the water, inching forward after three days of swimming from Cuba to the Keys, she says, first, Never ever give up. Then,

"You are never too old to chase your dreams."

As I watched that moment and then reviewed the actual ABC footage, I had to wonder how much of that swim was a continued attempt to overcome the horrific, nagging doubt of our value, the question of what's ever enough to prove we are worthy of life.

Are we ever enough?

The question haunts me still. I don't know. But I am going to keep trying.

man in green long-sleeved shirt doing a push-up on gray concrete pavement
Photo by Sam Owoyemi / Unsplash

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