What you can learn about recovery from Diana Nyad

DianaNyadOver the weekend, when you and I were eating hamburgers from the grill and watching TV, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. What makes this even more impressive is that she is 64 years old, and this was her fifth try (her first attempt was in 1978). She swam 110 miles in 53 hours, through the Florida Straits, notorious for its strong currents, sharks and swarms of stinging jellyfish. Amazing!

You can read the NY Times article about her trip here. Also, I’ve included a video at the end of this article of her super-inspiring TED talk — from a few years ago (after an unsuccessful attempt … and prior to another unsuccessful attempt) — that talks about her motivation, and some of the personal struggles that such an undertaking involves.

When she completed her swim on Monday, here’s what she said:

“I have three messages…

One is we should never, ever give up.

Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.

Three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”

Never Give Up

Each of these three lessons is worth reflecting on, but I’d like to emphasize the first, especially as it relates to recovery. Never, ever give up. Anything worth doing is hard. Anything worth doing will take more time, effort, and money than you expect. Anything worth doing will likely involve setbacks and times of discouragement.

This is especially true in the process of recovery. Here is a fact about recovery that might be sobering for some, but encouraging for others: most people take faltering steps towards recovery that involve struggle, failure, and relapse. But these struggles create lessons that lead towards ongoing successful recovery.

A fascinating book to read form a recovery perspective is “Thin for Life,” by Anne Fletcher. She wrote a book after studying — and interviewing — 160 people who had lost at least 40 pounds and kept it off for at least three years (most had kept the weight off for decades). Here is what she found:

  • Over 60 per cent of these weight loss “masters” had tried to lose weight at least five times before they were finally successful
  • Close to another 20 per cent had tried to lose weight three or four times before they were successful at losing it and keeping it off
  • The National Weight Control Registry tracks thousands of Americans who’ve maintained significant weight loss and found that 9 out of 10 people in the registry reported having failed attempts at weight loss before finding success.

What is true about weight loss is true about all kinds of “struggles” with compulsive behavior and full blown addictions. Just read through the stories in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (or companion programs like Sex Addicts Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous). They are filled with stories of people who started to change — even started going to 12 Step meetings — and struggled to get and stay sober. The stories go on for four or five pages, because the phrase “… and then I discovered this recovery program and it was easy from there” is not found in the book. It often takes people time, and struggle.

Most of us tend to be optimists, and most of us are naive about all the things that can go wrong. When engaging in challenging tasks, we are often surprised and dismayed by the resistance and obstacles that need to be overcome. Keep going. Don’t give up.

Learning instead of quitting

Diana Nyad tried – and failed – four times to complete this quest. Each time she was discouraged, and wondered if it was time to give up. Especially as she was getting older, I’m sure it must have been tempting to let go of the dream. But instead she learned from each of her attempts, and kept trying.

On one of her attempts, she was derailed by jellyfish stinging her face. She was eventually taken out of the water with swelling that raised serious concerns for her health. Instead of giving up, she developed a special mask to protect her face on subsequent trips. One time she was derailed by the currents pulling her off course. She adjusted to that in future trips as well, by having the lead boat establish the direction for her.

I love that tenacity, and want to see it more in my own life, and in the recovery groups I lead. Just because you are on the right track doesn’t mean it will be easy. In fact, the right track is often the harder one to follow. Don’t take difficulties and challenges as spiritual signs that you’re off-track. Difficulties and challenges are just part of life … and part of recovery. “Doing the right thing” or “living clean and sober” doesn’t function like an umbrella to keep you from getting wet.

Diana Nyad has a lot to teach all of us. Make adjustments as needed. Take setbacks as feedback to learn from, and alter your course accordingly. But keep going.

Here’s Nyad giving a TED talk about extreme swimming. Like everything else about her, it’s inspiring (especially when you realize that this talk was given prior to one of her failed attempts).

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