JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

I’m at the end of my rope…

Posted by on May 17, 2019

Taped to the front of the gray metal desk of my seventh-grade teacher, there was a poster of a kitten (why is it always a kitten?) swinging on a rope with the words, “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” At the time and at that age, it was just an awkward picture of a cute kitten hanging on a rope. Chances are, you saw a similar poster somewhere in your past, maybe even on your wall. That was our version of viral back then, but the difference was we looked at the same thing every day. I remember staring at that poster endlessly as my mind wandered off somewhere far from whatever my teacher was talking about. The end of the rope is not a place or feeling a seventh grader should encounter, ever, and it certainly wasn’t for me then. Vague recollections of my mother with one hand on her forehead and the other on her hip mumbling in distress about the end of her rope would trigger an instant recall of the helpless kitten. It would be more like the memory match game where you try to pair the same hidden icons than a real emotion until much later in life…

One of my best friends is at the end of her rope. “Ann” (not her real name, of course) is awesome, just plain awesome. She is kind, generous, smart, and funny, so funny that we often find ourselves wiping tears and clutching our aching stomachs from laughter. She has had one of the more difficult years anyone could imagine. At the beginning of last year, before the winter had surrendered to a New England spring, she was walking her horse and preparing to get on him to ride. A nasty gust of wind spooked him and the simultaneously powerful reaction of flight for him paired with her innate reaction to hold on, broke her arm and dislocated her shoulder. The break was a significant displacement, one requiring a reconstructive kind of surgery with plates and screws, and months and months of recovery and rehabilitation. Painful barely begins to describe it. She survived the long weeks before surgery and the even longer months following, filled with rehab and ice, lots of ice. Just as she began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, another speeding train appeared: abdominal surgery for a long-standing issue. “Oh man,” I consoled, not really knowing what else to say. Lucky for Ann, her boss is awesome, too. And so, she went, back to the hospital, back to the OR, and back to recovery.

With all this in the past as the new year and future beginning to look a little clearer, she started riding again. Still not 100% in terms of health from some remaining, nagging, seemingly unsolvable issues, being with her horse and the “therapy” he provided seemed worth it. Then, one morning, fourteen short months after breaking her arm, I get an early morning text, “I’m in the hospital. Don’t know what happened. Fell off my horse.” The image of the rope-swinging kitten rushed into my mind. Now she has to recover from this, are you kidding me?!? A few broken ribs and sprained thumb were nothing compared to the concussion that would plague and cloud her brain for weeks. Unable to drive, work, and sometimes talk, Ann dug into to more rehab, more recovery, more unwanted time off. Oh, and did I forget to mention that the guy she was in love with dumped her somewhere in the middle of all this? The swinging kitten was now a full-blown pendulum, rushing from side to side, swooshing loudly as it sliced the air of her life.

Resiliency is woven into Ann’s DNA, so her attitude was just that, bounce back, become even stronger. That was the big picture. The problem with the big picture is that it is less easily compared to the countless, ceaseless images that would comprise each day. And so, the daily grind, as we call it, becomes about things you don’t want your daily to be about, ever. Maneuvering around the house is now a strategic event requiring planning and then execution. So much energy to just get up and dressed that the memory of a normal day becomes depressing. “It is what it is,” became our favorite saying to hate and we hated the hell out it for that entire year plus.

The other day, Ann called and said, “I just can’t take it, I’m at the end of my rope.” And then, after a short pause, “I know many people suffer far worse than I do, so I feel guilty for feeling sorry for myself. Tie a knot,” channeling the adorable kitten. She does that all the time, creates instant perspective so as not to get too lost in her own suffering. A skill I try to model as often as possible. My response was that she was allowed to feel like crap today and for a decent percentage of the upcoming days, as well. “You have been through four major life events, each of which, on their own, could disrupt the strongest person, but you have been bombarded with it all in a little more than a year. Please, whine, cry, complain, and feel as sorry for yourself as you want!” She let out a little chuckle and thanked me for giving her permission she was unable to give herself. “But how do I get through the tough days?”

Life has a rhythm and a flow to it, similar to a roller coaster. It goes up, tick, tick, tick, and then evens out as it slowly, methodically, and perfectly prepares to go roaring down, around, behind, and upside down while you white-knuckle the handles and wait for the next lull. Sometimes it is faster for longer, and sometimes it is slower for longer. Every once in a while, it even stays even for a while. As we grow up, mature, age, or whatever you want to call it, we develop a skill set to tolerate, and even one day enjoy, this roller coaster ride. And then there are the rare times when it goes off the rails, and that is what happened to Ann.

Surviving a roller coaster off the rails takes energy. I learned all about energy, and not the energy in a lightbulb but human energy, from my mentor, Dr. Jim Loehr. He calls it the currency of performance. And performance can mean anything, anything from the Olympics to an important conversation. The better your energy, the better your ability to perform. If you are “too tired to talk about it,” it is unlikely your conversation will go well. Energy has a flow and rhythm to it like the roller coaster. The problem we see these days is that we don’t accept this as fact and we simply push and push, as if our energy were unlimited. We fail to consistently and regularly tend to our energy and energy supply, leaving us more vulnerable to tough times.

Something to establish is a routine that helps you maintain your baseline of energy and fuel. This is something you have to constantly tend to, watch over, and adjust. We all need to pay attention to how much fuel we spend and receive across each day. It doesn’t take much to tip the scales to either side. You know what a day in the life of you is typically like, so how do you make it through each day? Do you have strategies for powering back up after a drain? If not, you better get some now. There will be some weeks, months, or heaven forbid years, that take a ton of energy to get through and without a solid baseline, they become even more challenging. I remember a particularly talkative Captain on a flight somewhere, sometime in my past. Usually, the comments from the Captain are pretty generic and not only quick, but also unintelligible for the most part. This guy was going on, and on, and on about the capacity of the plane he was so obviously thrilled to be flying. In the middle of all of his chatter, he said something that I have never forgotten. He said that during our flight, he would hopefully never need to access the true power of this airplane, intimating the power and maneuverability of the plane were not called upon during a normal flight. I was intrigued. He said commercial flying was like disguising a Ferrari in a VW suit—a ton of capacity hidden under a clock of common. Surprisingly, I felt relieved, pacified, and somehow comforted by the fact that the plane could perform differently if called upon.

This is what we do when we consistently tend to ourselves, our health, our relationships, our fitness, and our energy: we prepare to be able to access more power and maneuverability when necessary. Through our daily routines, we are constantly both tapping and filling the well, and learning what works and what doesn’t. Ann left her baseline level a while ago and has been basically surviving some of her life. The good part is she knew how to maintain her baseline before her first shoulder injury and surgery, supporting her recovery and rehab processes. Then, she built back up before getting the news of her next surgery. And the built back up before falling off her horse again. And now, she is feeling the drain and challenge of building back up after this most recent ding. Ann is feeling this on every level, mind, body, and spirit, which can feel overwhelming and unfair. While she feels like she is at the end of her rope, Ann is really in the process of climbing back up. That is what we do, we get to the end of our rope, tie a knot…and then take a deep breath and start the climb back up.