Ruminations Over a Fig Newton Bar
Updated: Apr 27, 2019
I stare at the Fig Newton Bar on my plate as I say, “I claim my Fig Newton bar for bread and fat.” I wait for the others to say the same before we can eat them. I put the bar in my mouth in slow, seething bites, wondering how a dietician could possibly approve of eating this many carbs. I finish, uncomfortably aware of the roundness of my stomach and the presence of food in it.
Everyone finishes their bar and drains their water cup and we begin “honoring”- thanking the fat and bread for what it does for our bodies. “I honor my Fig Newton bar for good brain function and smooth skin and silky hair,” I say.
“Good job,” the other girls echo around the table. Good job for giving that Fig Newton the honor it deserves.
It’s 8 years ago, and Coach Diego’s pre-race talk is some ridiculous story about the enemy team and his Fig Newton Bar.
The rest of the 11-12 girls A medley relay team and I are falling on each other in giggles as he relays his account of how an enemy swimmer had knocked his prize to the bottom of the pool.
We beat the opposing team by a significant distance, thus securing the high point for our team; my teammates and I scream in delight and hug each others’ slippery bodies.
2 years ago. I’m walking around the convenience store with the sole purpose to be surrounded by food. I walk between rows of chips and candy bars, stopping to pick up various items and memorize the nutrition labels of foods I could never allow myself to eat.
I pick up a Fig Newton bar. I don’t need to flip over the nutrition label to know that it’s not an option. I caress the sugary, artificial snack through the plastic anyway.
There’s another fake, “clean” fig bar version; I pick it up, feel it, flip over the nutrition label. Clean enough ingredients- but 15 grams of sugar. The small volume of it isn’t even near worth the 190 calories.
I put it back. Buy a water for my time.
And now, in an eating disorder residential treatment facility, I am required to perform the ritual of “claiming and honoring” this stupid Fig Newton bar.
Yesterday, my therapist asked me where my fear of failure might come from- or more accurately, my fear of accomplishing anything less than over-achievement.
Where did it come from? My eyes wander off to the right as I try to recall how people perceived me as a child. Was there ever a time where I wasn’t an overachiever?
“The only time I can remember is when I was about ten…”
A talented little musician, the one who made her teachers happy, who picked up her violin without fail or prompting every single day. The little girl who begged to stop at every museum we passed, who finished the first two Harry Potter books on her own at age 6, who picked up Genesis at age 9 and read one chapter every night. A skinny, “chicken-legged” swimmer who was goofy with her friends but serious during practice, who could be surprisingly competitive when her breastroke title was challenged.
I realize that there was a time before I was the overachiever. At ten, I was naturally passionate for many things, intellectual and artistic and even athletic, but this was not the identity that tormented me for years.
“Well, back when I was a really good swimmer… I had this swim coach…”
“Skyler, you’re the best. You know you’re the best. Go out there and do what you know how to do.”
That was my pre-race talk from Coach Diego. No technique or strategy advice; a dose of vanity was apparently all I needed.
At that time, it was true- I’d had three years of undeniable success as a breatroker- I was nationally ranked and the fastest breastroker of my age group in the State of Florida in all six events. I was selected as one of 8 girls in Florida to compete against the fastest swimmers of other states.
(10 years old, winning the 50m Breastroke at the Florida Junior Olympics)
I was a prize to my swim team. I owned at least eight team records, and I had been voted team captain by my teammates for two years in a row. Going back to that medley relay, I was a huge contributor to our success- breastrokers swim the most strategically crucial leg of the medley relay. Our backstroker, my best friend, would start the race and keep up with the front of the pack. Then I would jump in- and as another “swim mom” tearfully described to me- and pull away from the field with every stroke. When I touched the wall, it was up to the last two girls to hold the lead.
At 12 years old, three years of success felt like my entire life.
I was clearly, obnoxiously, Diego’s favorite; and day in and day out at practice, he let me know why I was the best.
“I saw you finish that warm-down when no-one else bothered- little things like that are what puts you ahead of your teammates.”
“You are so clearly putting in the work that no one else on this team- probably no one else in Florida- wants to do, and it’s going to pay off this season like it always does.”
I was the best because I worked the hardest. I worked the hardest, and so I was the best.
“Hard working” was not a compliment to describe me anymore. I was the hardest worker. The best at breastroke because I was also the most dedicated; the best at self-denial of things like rest and distractions; the most serious, the most responsible, the best at juggling a ridiculous schedule of swimming, violin, piano, choir, track, and school.
These messages were the result of years of subtle messages from multiple teachers and an obsessed coach who were all but extolling me. These praises felt good. And my goal was pretty simple; just keep being the best, and I will always be this valued.
At 12, I recognized that my position was precarious. If I was touched out at a race, my post-race talk went something like: “you’re going to get that girl at the end of the season, right? She probably tapered for this meet- don’t worry, keep working like you always do and you’ll redeem your title at Junior Olympics.”
Afraid of looking like a sore loser, I would cry discreetly into my goggles in the warm-down pool, wondering if there would come a day where I wouldn’t redeem myself. I wished that being the best didn’t come with so much pressure.
That day came when I was 13 and a half.
I hadn’t dropped any time that season; I had only won one event at Junior Olympics, and all of the other “fast” swimmers had prioritized different events- I didn’t have anyone to race, they said.
There was a new girl on the team who had won four events at Junior Olympics. And, though I kept telling myself I was imagining it- Coach Diego seemed to be paying a lot more attention to her than me.
7 years ago- we had been rained out of practice.
I sat there, stunned, winded.
The fears that I was losing Coach Diego’s favor because of my recent failures had just been perfectly, totally confirmed.
Also confirmed- instead of me, his old favorite, there was a new star- one who had just had a very successful season.
I had gone on an abroad trip with my choir that summer just a month before our championship. I had done my best to keep up with my training in the two weeks I was gone- swimming in hot, 15 yard hotel pools all across Ireland and England, and getting up early to run when there was no pool.
End of season came- it wasn’t enough.
He had just finished listing off the new swimmer’s victories. He told us how she had showed up at practice every day, how she had put the work in.
Then he pointed at me. I was an example of contrast.
“Someone who was usually successful,” he said. “But who didn’t prioritize right this season and as a result of that, did... not so great.”
There it was. I was no longer a hard worker because I had failed- or was sit the other way around?
My feelings of bitter rejection were tormented by the fact that I was friends with this girl- with whom I had practically been given no choice but to feel resentment towards. But I was not allowed to feel that, I told myself.
Because, as Coach Diego had said, she deserved her victories.
And I deserved my failures.
I cried long and bitterly that night. I thought of the way my friend and my coach had looked at me. I figured they were both angry and disgusted with me.
“I’m sorry,” I cried, scratching and biting my hands.
Shame, self-loathing, hopelessness- ideals I had only flirted with before- were now, at thirteen-and-a-half years old, my ever-present companions.
I would go on to swim for another 6 years. I would spend my high school years swimming 25 hours a week with an elite team, diligently arriving at the pool at 4:42 am and returning later in the day at 3:30pm.
In those 6 years, I would receive multiple features in my local newspaper for my athletic accomplishments. I would be named “most valuable swimmer of the year” of my high school team, and make States individually four years in a row. I would be selected to be part of the Florida Zones team again, and I would place in A finals at international championship meets many times.
But if you would have asked me, none of this was anything to be proud of- not really.
My 200 SCY breastroke personal record would remain at 2:19.54. The record I made when I was 12.
If you would have asked me, I never redeemed myself.
What would have “redemption” looked like, if the numerous and significant accomplishments weren’t enough? Maybe if I made that Junior National cut that was .99 seconds away. Or if I actually won a States event, instead of just being somewhere in A finals. Maybe if I made the Florida top ten list again.
I tried, and worked, and tried again- and was disappointed, for 6 years. I tried and was disappointed until I simply stopped hoping for success and pretended that swimming meant nothing to me.
But despite the concrete goals that I just listed, I think the thing I was truly craving to be loved and valued by a swim coach and a team, just one more time.
There was no reason for me to warm down from my 100 fly at 2016 States. It had been the final race of my swim career.
(2016 100 fly at the 3A Regional meet)
It was an unremarkable race; I touched the wall in 5th place and had added a little less than second.
“Well,” I thought, “that’s it.”
Various memories, swim friends, old races, losses and victories, and coaches flashed before my eyes as I warmed down. I felt nothing.
I had purposely, willingly numbed myself out to swimming about a year before, just after the 2015 States meet. I finished that meet with a 100 fly also, with high hopes and inflated predictions that I would make a Junior National cut. I missed it by less than a second.
The next month, I watched two of my teammates- that had leveled up to my group almost a year after I had- make the cut. A month later, I wished them luck as they left, bubbling with excitement and pride, for their first Junior National meet. The head coach sent out an email to the entire club to say that the Junior National team now consisted of seven people; they updated the team page to show them holding their medals in front of the pool.
I remembered the time when my team had updated their page to show a picture of me holding my framed certificate of my National Top 10 status.
Two months later, I had convinced myself that I no longer cared about swimming, and made the conviction to never make or hope for an end of season goal time.
After I swam my final race and stopped going to practice, my coach didn’t contact me for weeks- not until my membership bill didn’t come in. I never got a text from a single teammate. I wondered if anyone had noticed I was gone.
Two months after my final race, I entered the phase of my life which I have associated with the rapid development of my eating disorder.
I needed to count calories because I had looked in the mirror and thought I looked a bit fluffier two months after quitting swimming, but I needed an eating disorder because I needed the numbness.
Telling myself I didn’t care about the disappointing end of my swim career wasn’t enough to stop the pain; I needed the physical pain of slow and constant starvation to distract me instead.
Facing the loneliness of those months was too much- after States, I did not interact with a single friend until a banquet in January, and then not again until March for a birthday party. I don’t believe I even texted any of them.
Fears of inadequacy were too much as well; I was auditioning for music conservatories all over the country, with no idea how my playing compared to the competition. I had never in my memory lived without swimming every day, and I constantly wondered if quitting made me less of a person.
My depression had taken away my power to do or accomplish, well, almost anything, from practicing violin to sometimes even showering.
I began to restrict calories in hopes of keeping my old athletic body. And when I eventually got hungry, I found that I enjoyed it.
The feeling of the emptiness filled a need within me; the shedding of pounds represented accomplishment and control; my mind quieted as the pain embodied itself physically.
Not all athletes who experience disappointment and rejection in this way develop an eating disorder or severe depression, but far too many have had their lives and self-worth affected by the misdirected messages of a swim coach.
I am no longer bitter about my experiences- I can’t be after God gave me a second chance with life and happiness when I entered treatment in February of 2019. I wish many things had been different, however, and I wish to save others from this reality.
I wish that I had cried more over my disappointments; I wish that my coaches had taken the time to say “I’m sorry”, or at least acknowledged my disappointment, before they told me to “screw my head back on” and “reflect on where I messed up in my training.”
I wish that my swim coach had never put me on a pedestal, and I wish he had cared for me or for any of his swimmers for more than the number of points they won the team.
I wish I had let myself believe that being my high school team’s “most valuable swimmer of the year”- even if it wasn’t “the best breastroker in Florida”- was still pretty cool.
Or maybe, I still can.
Maybe I can still cry over the races I never let myself grieve; maybe I can reach out to the friends I lost when I isolated myself in shame.
Maybe I can find peace with the fact that I never broke my 12-year-old 200 breastroke records; maybe I can amend my past and current identities- figure out what else I am if “elite athlete” is no longer one of my titles.
Maybe I can heal from 14 years of swimming; maybe I can remember the joys I had along the way.