People tell me I’m brave, that I inspire them. I’ve always found it a bit uncomfortable to hear, and many cancer patients** would agree (I’ve even seen it listed on the internet under “things not to say to a cancer patient”): brave people choose to tackle scary things. I didn’t have a choice.
**For those who don’t know me, I’ve been dealing with Small Cell Carcinoma of the Cervix (SCCC) with metastases to the liver, since September 2013. Stage 4. “Incurable” (by all currently proven methods of treatment, and a few unproven ones as well…..I’m the person they test new drugs on, now).
CrossFit Games athlete, Michele Letendre, once wrote about feeling this same discomfort having others call her inspirational simply for being a strong athlete (she is so much more than just strong, but that is another writing). Simply put, we both felt unworthy of admiration.
Last night I watched the new CrossFit 2014 documentary. Unexpectedly, and certainly unwittingly, parts of it gave a glimpse into my cancer experience. Those parts resonated so profoundly with me, and on such a personal level, that I felt immediately compelled to write. What came out happened to be a letter to Michele, continuing our ongoing conversation on the subject of inspiration [Michele has given permission for me to repost the letter here].
I watched the new CrossFit documentary that was posted today, and found some unexpected insight. In it, there is a segment where Camille has heard there will be sled sprints, and so she excitedly pulls out a sled to try it out. But she is trying on a dirt/gravel surface, and her excitement is quickly diminished as she realizes the challenge. She becomes easily frustrated, angry, and nearly tearful. But Dave urges her to try again, this time without breaking, and on the third attempt she calms down, focuses on the task, and figures out how to get it done.
As I watched this, rather unexpectedly, I saw myself. In that clip, she visits what she calls the dark place. I know it well. Each time I receive bad news, and begin to doubt that I will survive, I experience the same frustration, anger, upset and, finally, resolve; to take the challenge in stride and tackle the problem anew.
Camille says throughout the film that to win, you must be willing to go with her to the dark place.
That is true, but I do not think she is giving herself enough credit. Anyone can be willing - or at least think they are willing - to go to the dark place. It is spending time there, without quitting, and then finding your way through and out of the dark place, that sets apart a champion or, in my case, a survivor.
The dark place is scary, partly because of the physical challenge and the pain you know will be waiting there. But worse than that, is the terror-inducing self-doubt that lives there. Doubt that your body is capable. Fear that even all of your capabilities, all of your efforts, and those of people who support you, (and all cumulative scientific knowledge), will not be sufficient to win.
There are, of course, obvious differences between the dark places of a cancer patient and an athlete. The most obvious being that if you lose the CrossFit Games, the world will not end for you. If I lose, it will. But the fact that I am facing a greater fear does not make an athlete’s fear any less real. And besides, I have the advantage of not being given a choice; cancer has happened to me, and therefore I must deal with it. You would do the same. This is why cancer patients tend to feel uncomfortable with being called “brave”. We feel that courage requires there to be a choice in the matter. You, on the other hand, see your fears, and choose to approach them willingly. That is what I admire.
You might claim that you have not exhibited such courage, but I have seen you do it. When you stood waiting for the start of that last event [of the 2014 Canada East Regional, when you were 1 point out of a spot to the Games (at 8:17:00 in this footage)], I could see that you had been to your dark place and come out the other end to the place of resolve. When you picked up the bar without pausing, you trusted your body, your training, and yourself, and left the dark place behind. The feeling I imagine you had standing there waiting, is the feeling I have each time I say “fuck the odds” and trust that I will find a way to conquer my own self doubt, and this disease.
After watching the film I am more comfortable with being called “brave”, if it inspires others to have agency in their own lives. I believe that we both mistakenly thought that people were inspired by the weights we lift (yours, because they are enormous, and mine, because I can lift them at all). But I see now that what they find truly inspiring is that they recognize that we have been to a dark place, found it terribly frightening, and told it to fuck off, anyway. Many believe that, if put in a similar situation, they would become stuck in the dark place, as Camille did on legless two years ago, rather than push through with resolve, as she did in her third attempt at the sled.
The first step out of darkness is the hardest, and takes a great deal of trust. While the dark place is certainly terribly unpleasant, once there, it is far, far easier to stay than it is to purposely leave. It is far more difficult to trust yourself sufficiently to take that first step, and carry on taking steps, with the belief that your body will do what is necessary.
It is easy to fall into the dark place accidentally, but it requires courage to go there willingly, and even more courage, sprinkled with a healthy dollop of support, to come out of it.
|Screen captures from the documentary, CrossFit 2014.|
Camille, on the Dark Place in the CrossFit 2014 documentary:
13:00 - Rich and Camille on mental toughness, and being willing
31:30 - on miserable training days
42:50 - on self doubt
53:00 - 59:00 - Sled practice
59:00 - on mentally preparing for pain
1:08:00 - the sled event
1:27:00 - Legless (the dark place)
1:31:30 - Worth it!
Michele with laser focus in the last event of the 2014 Canada East Regional. She had to beat Christine Andali to reclaim her spot to the games. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu7dqWyC0rY at 8:17:00