How I’m learning to stop saying “I’ll Never”

In the spirit of being open, and vulnerable, and wanting to connect with the heart and soul of a community of people, I’ve decided to share this post.

I have been afraid to share this post. I have had it written for over two months and just keep using excuses to not hit “send.” I have been afraid of alienating people for being too open, or showing too much emotion, or of being too transparent. In the past I have generally tried to keep my challenges and difficulties private. I had thought of myself as a fighter and avoided any display of vulnerability. This was further reinforced by medical training. Medical peers frequently label each other, and the worst thing that you could be called is weak.  I have lived practically all of my life hiding any discomfort or struggle for fear of appearing incapable of handling tough situations and also for fear of being burdensome to others. I have faced many challenges (as you all have) but up until recently kept them to myself.

I have realized that for me this isn’t sustainable.

In the spirit of trying to change old patterns of behavior towards growing into my best version of myself (and maybe help inspire some of you to do the same), I’ve decided to go ahead and share the post. If you choose to read it, please read to the end.

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I don’t remember thinking that anything was impossible when I was younger. Travel at the age of six to a new country and go into public school not speaking a word of English? Heck yeah, learning a new language will be fun! Join the cross country team in eighth grade even though I’ve never even been on a hike through the woods? Great, sounds exciting! Go away to Harvard to major in biochemistry and pay for all of it myself by working multiple jobs? Sure, anything to help out my family. Go to Penn Med and take a sculpting course on the side because, you know, it’s different and I’m curious about it? The course was free! Why wouldn’t I take advantage of it? Match at Pitt EM, one of the country’s most competitive emergency medicine residency programs and be only one of two women out of a twelve person class? Excellent, I love hanging out with guys; bring on the challenge! Fly in air medical transport helicopters as a flight physician and take shifts driving the physician response vehicle? Awesome, more adventure! Graduate from residency and work the night shift as the only ED doc in a small community hospital, where “I’m it” when the shit hits the fan? Absolutely, it’s why I went into medicine! And that brings my story up to my early thirties.

I’m not sure what happened after that. Maybe being a parent makes you become a bit more cautious. Maybe seeing and doing so much living gives a new perspective and appreciation for what pitfalls and challenges and dangers lie ahead. Needless to say I started to doubt myself.

It started when a friend of mine suggested that we sign up for a marathon. Sure, it was on my bucket list, but I hadn’t run farther than a 10k at that point. “I’ll never finish” I thought to myself. I was even making arrangements in my head to catch the “straggler’s bus.” Well it turns out that I did finish (several toenails less to show for it), and have managed to complete 12 more since that first one, including Boston.

The following year another friend suggested that I try a sprint triathlon. “I’ve never swam before.” OK, so I actually have “swam” before… you know, the kind of swimming that involves cannon balls into the water, and handstands, and throwing kids in the air, and playing beach volleyball. I had never truly swam before. And my only real exposure to biking was the occasional rare trail ride on my mountain bike. “I’ll never finish” was my mantra during that first triathlon. It kept repeating itself through my head every time I would veer off course on the swim due to inability to sight properly or cough from aspirating way too much lake water. It kept repeating itself as I dropped my chain not once, but twice during the ride (on my mountain bike with the big nubby mountain bike tires). It kept repeating itself as I wrecked my hand and drew blood trying to figure out how to get the chain back on. It kept repeating itself when I couldn’t feel my feet for the first mile of the run and when I was chafing terribly as a reward for running with my wet cycling shorts on. It finally quieted down when I crossed the finish line. But it wasn’t done harassing me.

“I’ll never do an Ironman.”

I had wanted to do an Ironman for so long. Every time the World Championships were aired on TV I’d be fixated to the screen, dreaming that someday I would be one of those finishers. That was the young, hopeful me. The older now-in-her-40’s me thought, “How can I possibly even attempt a marathon after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112?” Up to that point I’d managed to do several olympic distance triathlons and even a couple of half Ironman distances. But the Full Monte? Ugh. “I’ll never do an Ironman.”

Yet I signed up. And I did one… and two… and three. They all hurt, but I did them.

I am pleased to say that I have learned something in the last 46 years. I have learned that the voice that keeps saying “I’ll never…” is often wrong. I have learned that doubt is normal but you can’t know your limitations unless you test them. I have also learned that the more “I’ll nevers” you prove wrong the more likely you are to challenge them in the future. It starts with one.

Here are some current “I’ll nevers” that I hope to challenge someday:

-I’ll never pick the guitar back up.

-I’ll never successfully get up on a surfboard and ride that elusive wave start to finish.

-I’ll never speak Italian fluently.

-I’ll never qualify for the Hawaii Ironman World Championship.

-I’ll never get over the embarrassment of being marginalized, ridiculed and bullied as a teenager for being a “nerd and a prude.”

-I’ll never be one of the cool kids.

-I’ll never silence that inner voice that sometimes whispers, sometimes screams “You’re not enough.” The voice that planted itself in my head when my marriage dissolved. The one that reminds me that I was not able to save something so important. The voice that mocks me when I try to share any tidbits of wisdom. The one that tauntingly sneers, “Who are you to give advice when you’ve failed at one of the most important aspects of life?” The voice of shame that tries to keep me silent and insists that I keep my vulnerabilities to myself. The voice that admonishes me when I try to put my shield down, because all that will be accomplished from sharing my story is that I will get hurt in the process, and it will be my own damn fault. That voice will never be silenced.

Or will it?

Perhaps all of my doubts and uncertainties have led me to this point. Perhaps I should look to the past for reassurance on the future. Perhaps I should stop believing “I’ll never” and have faith that “I may.”

I may silence that inner voice some day.

Yet having said all of this, here’s a “never” that I’m sure to do:  I’ll never stop trying. I hope that you do the same.

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