Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Going the Distance: Swimming through Recovery: Parallels from the Pool

I am a long distance swimmer rather than a sprinter.  Whilst I can, and occasionally do, swim fast, my preferred pool style is characterised by endurance.  On a recent visit to the pool, I began to think a little more about the parallels between swimming and recovery.

Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare comes to mind...

Once upon a time there was a hare who, boasting how he could run faster than anyone else, was forever teasing tortoise for its slowness. Then one day, the irate tortoise answered back: “Who do you think you are? There’s no denying you’re swift, but even you can be beaten!” The hare squealed with laughter.  “Beaten in a race? By whom? Not you, surely! I bet there’s nobody in the world that can win against me, I’m so speedy. Now, why don’t you try?”

Annoyed by such bragging, the tortoise accepted the challenge. A course was planned, and the next day at dawn they stood at the starting line. The hare yawned sleepily as the meek tortoise trudged slowly off. When the hare saw how painfully slow his rival was, he decided, half asleep on his feet, to have a quick nap. “Take your time!” he said. “I’ll have forty winks and catch up with you in a minute.”

The hare woke with a start from a fitful sleep and gazed round, looking for the tortoise. But the creature was only a short distance away, having barely covered a third of the course. Breathing a sigh of relief, the hare decided he might as well have breakfast too, and off he went to munch some cabbages he had noticed in a nearby field. But the heavy meal and the hot sun made his eyelids droop. With a careless glance at the tortoise, now halfway along the course, he decided to have another snooze before flashing past the winning post. And smiling at the thought of the look on the tortoise’s face when it saw the hare speed by, he fell fast asleep and was soon snoring happily.

The sun started to sink, below the horizon, and the tortoise, who had been plodding towards the winning post since morning, was scarcely a yard from the finish. At that very point, the hare woke with a jolt. He could see the tortoise a speck in the distance and away he dashed. He leapt and bounded at a great rate, his tongue lolling, and gasping for breath. Just a little more and he’d be first at the finish. But the hare’s last leap was just too late, for the tortoise had beaten him to the winning post. Poor hare! Tired and in disgrace, he slumped down beside the tortoise who was silently smiling at him.  “Slowly does it every time!” he said.

Going the distance in the pool, or in recovery involve the same ingredients:  preparation, rhythm and maintenance.  Just as I would not consider heading to the pool without goggles, and a drink, recovery involves preparation and planning. 

It is a well known truth that unless and until someone wants to get well, it is unlikely that they will succeed in sobriety. 

I don't get to the pool by accident: I make a conscious decision to do so.  This bodes better for my swim, in the same way as it does for someone entering recovery.   

In order to sustain myself in the pool for the 50-75 minutes I tend to spend there, rhythm is vital.  I tend to focus on nothing other than my breath to begin with for it is my first 30 lengths that are both the most challenging, and the most important.  It is during this first 12-14 minutes that my rhythm is established, and the foundations laid. 

The same might be said about recovery:  the early days are some of the hardest and it is for this reason that the suggestion of getting to '90 in 90' (ninety meetings in ninety days) is made - to encourage those new in (or newly back) to avail themselves of the most support they can.

Once I have got into a rhythm, it is essential for me to maintain this as best I can.  I try to keep my breaks to a minimum, and tumble-turn at the end of each length, to swim continuously.  It is for this reason that I, like other keen swimmers, prefer longer pools (and, in my case, nothing less than 25m).

Maintaining a routine in recovery is a real asset; addiction is characterised by chaos, and often entails a lot of unpredictability.  Living life on life's terms is not always easy; life isn't always a bed of roses, or a bowl of cherries - having a strong routine makes things considerably easier, and paradoxically allows us to be flexible come what may. 

There are, it occurred to me later, other parallels between the pool and the road of recovery... 

Swimming can be rather lonely.  It is (unless you are involved with either water polo, or synchronised swimming) a solitary activity.  That said, I have over time, come to know some regulars who frequent the pool with a similar regularity as I do, and whose training regimens are not unlike my own. 

Finding someone to swim alongside, with whom you can pace yourself has great advantages. 

This stands up in relation to recovery:  addiction in all its guises is about isolation.  Relationships are are avoided or destroyed.  Walking alongside others with shared experience, and a common goal is a good way to get there. 

Mid-swim I occasionally find myself reminded of the inevitability of powerlessness:  people, places and things over which we have no control.  Shit happens.  Whilst swimming, the lane-invader represents a good example of this.  It serves me not at all to fight the intrusion, less still to give in to 'lane rage' and allow a resentment to develop - to do so quite literally puts me off my stroke.  Far better to let go, retain my focus, and look ahead.  Chances are, they won't stay for long anyway (there are few of us who swim over 2.5k in a session).

Whilst swimming is without a doubt beneficial to body and mind, to swim my best, I need to look after my physical and mental well being.  I need sufficient sleep, and adequate energy before diving in, and then need to bring with me into the water self belief, determination, and focus.   

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