From the blog of Max Conserva
It’s Sunday 9am in La Jolla, California and I’m naked in public for the first time in my life. I’m sitting on a folding chair surrounded by a few thousand others who have traveled here to occupy the nicely manicured park for the day. An energy, unnatural for this early in the morning, emanates from the mass. The buzzing crowd and brightly colored temporary structures create a surreal feel that complements the strange level of comfort I am experiencing. Athletes move hurriedly to specific destinations. Spectators seem to rush around to nowhere in particular. I simply sit, my stare far-off, my race done. My gaze transitions back into the foreground, the shaved head of a competitor takes focus directly in front of me. We are in mid-conversation, his rapid speech aligned with the pitch of the commotion. Like me, he has just completed the one mile open water swim of the Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon. A swim that only one month ago I had no idea how I would complete. With his speedy monologue seemingly only near it’s midpoint, I subconsciously give myself permission to drift off again. I look down at the white towel wrapped around my waist. It’s only long enough to cover down to around my knees. I gaze further down, past the towel, to my deformed right leg. I see it all in the morning sun. The awkward angle, the abnormal rotation, the child-like girth, the wholesale vacancy of standard anatomical reference points. I know these hallmarks well. I have stared at them for the last twenty-five years. My stare deepens, past the physical damage to the emotional scaring that lies beneath. Hopelessness. Embarrassment. Inadequacy. Shame. A familiar urge begins welling within to grab for another towel and cover up my limb. However, for the first time in my life, I don’t. I simply continue to stare. Then, spell broken, I look up and reengage in the conversation.
In 1989, at the age of eight, my body and a twenty ton semi-truck attempted to occupy the same space. Marred from that day forward, I became an expert at hiding the resulting damage. It started small. I stopped wearing shorts. I only bought pants that were baggy enough to hide the abnormal contour of my leg. I wouldn’t change clothes in front of others. For most of my life this self-preservation was seemingly superficial, a minor inconvenience, an everyday accommodation. However in the last few years I began to realize how deep the charade had progressed. I noticed how more and more I was tactically managing the environments I was exposing myself to. Heeding an anxious inner voice to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations. Hot tubbing? Nope, everyone will see my awkward leg on the way to the tub. Pick-up basketball? I can wear track pants but I don’t want people to see me limping around the court. Beach? Okay, but I will wear pants and not go in the water. Every activity had to first pass this screen. I’d attempted to banish my deformity to an unscalable tower, behind a locked gate, in a sealed box, convinced the imprisonment would nullify it’s impact on the rest of my life. However in doing so I successfully accomplished the opposite. I inserted my fear into a position of maximum effect; I had granted it first veto power over every decision in my life. Regardless of the merit of the experience, fear now stood as the unyielding judge, jury and executioner. What I’d attempted to relegate to a corner now held court over the rest of my faculties.
After living for decades under this arrangement of inhibitions and lost opportunities, I began to grow weary. Emotionally exhausted, it became abundantly clear that the bargain I made so long ago was holding me back. With the path to unwind this construct unclear, I did the only thing I could think of, walk straight towards my fear. Force myself into situations where I had to deal with the uncomfortable. The last year of navigating this path has taken me many places, this weekend I found myself at a triathlon. A competition I committed to specifically because I knew with the crowds of people there would be nowhere to hide. Where would I change into my wetsuit in privacy? How would I manage getting down to the beach without the brace that covered up my disability? I didn’t have the time to fret over the answers because a much larger question loomed. How do I swim a mile in the waves without drowning? I had no training. No trainer. No wetsuit. No access to a pool. My first time in the water revealed, with my horrible technique, that I couldn’t swim more than 100 yards before losing my breath. By signing up with only four weeks to prepare, I placed myself in an emergency situation that required an override of all normal operating procedures. Under threat of flood, the court was indefinitely suspended, all veto powers revoked.
I didn’t drown. In seven days I found a pool, a wetsuit and even a trainer of sorts. In fourteen days I swam a half mile. In twenty-one I swam my first mile. On race day, my fifth time in open water, I smashed my previous time by over fifteen minutes which even included mid-race breaks for pictures and a pee. A few years ago I would have never dreamed of sitting in a public place so exposed, my disability naked for all to see. I now sit casually in the triathlon transition area among other challenged athletes, individuals who, by virtue of their presence, overthrew the same internal arbitrator. It has been a long road to this point, and I know there is still work to be done. The specter remains. I can still feel it as a layer upon me. But now it’s thin, almost transparent. The sting has been blunted. I’m buoyed by a new sense of contentment, the exhilaration of accomplishment, the spent adrenaline of physical exhaustion, but perhaps most of all, by the knowledge of a commitment to another competition in less than 7 days. A completely different event, in a different city, with a new set of urgent questions. Court will have to remain dismissed.