Jennifer Widemire Smith
The Determination to Overcome
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
A year in a half ago my husband came home from work and said 14 words that changed our whole world, “The pharmacy is closing. I will be out of a job in a month.”
I didn’t cry. I didn’t freak out. I just hugged him—the ramifications swirled in my mind. He lovingly left me alone to process.
I got on facebook, looking for a reprieve from my thoughts. Maybe looking for a like or comment to release an endorphin. That’s not what I found.
My dear sweet friend, Ardith Goodwin, who I share a unique connection with, had just posted an image she’d painted.
I didn’t read her statement, nor the title. I didn't need to, my heart speaks her visual language. The image broke my dam. I fell to my knees and wept. Everything we’d worked for. Everything we’d been trying to build for the past 13 years was about to crash down all around us. Ardith had summed up what I needed to do in one beautifully poetic image—stay determined, overcome, push back.
She felt ominous. Like a warning. What we were facing was going to take everything in me and then some.
When I could see through my tears I read the title, “The Determination to Overcome.”
I smiled. “Oh Ardith, how do you this?” I treasure our friendship like no other. I wasn't ready for the change that was coming but ready or not here it was. I sat in her studio and talked shop, made the image my phone’s wallpaper, and braced.
A year went by. We faced everything imaginable. Then the stress began to buckle my resolve. I felt myself crumbling. I’d grown weary and I cried out, “If something doesn’t give soon, I’m going to break in half.”
I found a book, at the top of my closet, that had a Siren's call for a title, “Unbreakable, A Navy SEAL’s Way of Life.” by Retired Navy SEAL, Thom Shea.
Nothing in my life gave way, and I found myself on life's floor again clutching this book. It’s very title containing a promise I desperately needed, unbreakable. I started reading and within the first three pages of his introduction found the strength to stand back up.
When I finished it I cried again because there was nothing left to read. So I began to listen to his podcasts. At the end of one he’d said, “If you’re brave enough send me a message.” I wanted so badly to reach out but felt intimidated to do so. That phrase though, "if you're brave enough… if you're brave enough…" repeated itself in my head. Am I brave enough to reach out to one of the world's deadliest men? With trembling fingers I did just that.
I didn’t really expect a response. Let alone a response within minutes. I had so much nervous energy I had to pace for what seemed like hours in order to respond back. When I finally did he challenged me, “Sign up for my lessons.” He’d taken his book and created a course, UnbreakableLessons.com. Let me just tell ya, he doesn’t play around.
Everything in me wanted to say yes immediately, but I knew Josh would need some convincing. The lessons were not free. Nor would they be easy. Life was already hard enough and Josh was just starting his first week at his new job after 13 months without a steady paycheck.
He walked in, “Hi Love. How was your day?” he asked.
“Oh it was good...” I causally dropped the bomb that I’d reached out to a Navy SEAL who’d reached back, between the dropping of kids off at school and the assortments of errands I'd ran.
He stopped walking, turned, with a befuddled look on his face, “You did what?”
I was excited to learn that after 21 years I could still shock and awe him. “By the way, you have to do the lessons with me, Shea says.” Josh didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night.
Geronimo…I signed us up.
We’re on Lesson 2. Conquering fears. Each activity Shea has made us do has been simple but not easy. The lessons, the coaching, it’s only slightly intimating. He doesn’t hesitate to call you out when you give excuses. The lessons force issues you’d rather sweep under a rug. They test you. Strengthen you. Push you. Train you. Everything I’ve been wanting and needing but too afraid to do on my own.
Normally for this lesson Shea requires one to repel down a 100 foot cliff and climb back up. Everyone has a fear of heights and it’s a lesson on conquering that natural fear. Except, I had to open my big mouth and tell a SEAL, who’s practically born in the water, that I was afraid of the ocean—afraid of rip tides, sharks, jellyfish, the unknown elements, as well as, panic and nausea taking hold once again—like it did during my first triathlon relay race where I experienced what it feels like to dry heave under water, not pleasant!
The assignment changed: “Go sit in the ocean until you don’t feel panicked then swim.”
The next day our temps dropped below freezing and the water temps dipped into wetsuit legal territory (below 68 degrees, our temps had dropped into 64 range). Winter on the gulf coast had officially arrived. Damn I can be a real blonde sometimes.
In the ocean there is no rip cord to pull for help to come running. No lane guides or black lines to follow in a straight path. Swimming alone is a no-go so I needed a swim buddy, or a kayak with someone willing to go out with me. I also needed a wetsuit. I was planning all this out, watching the weather, trying to carve out time to go, the temps were only getting lower. And the excuses began…
It was Thanksgiving. We were headed out of town. I got food poisoning and lost 5 pounds in 4 days. My energy levels tanked. Yada yada...
When I went back to the pool three weeks later I pushed hard, and did something challenging, I swam with my eyes closed. I learned my amygdala has a voice.
“WTF are you doing?” It asked as it pushed up its sleeves entering into fight mode. Panic swept through my veins. I struggled to control my breathing. I felt dizzy, disoriented, and I began to feel nauseas.
My amygdala and I called a truce, "Until next time…"
A friend asked me how I was doing with my training and with Shea's lessons. He’s a warrior in his own right with the National Guard. I was honest about my struggles and his response was, “Well if you need someone to go with you I’ll do it. It sounds like fun.” I had a tentative day, but I was being noncommittal.
The next morning I woke up to a message, “How’s the training going?” From Shea. Face palm. I’d like to hide under a rock please. All my excuses ran through my head.
“It’s suppose to rain all week. I’ll try again next week.”
A friend canceled, “Oh. You have a thing. Cool. Catch ya next time.”
“Hey Josh? Want to go to Dauphin Island and help me do this thing? Oh, you have a baseball game. Well Lyla has ballet rehearsals too. No biggie. Maybe next weekend.”
"It's going to storm again."
Convenient little excuses.
I had to give Shea an update, then I gave myself my own epic eye roll at my lallygagging.
Which did not sit well with me. The next day, I asked my Guard friend—who’s also a firefighter, medic, combat vet, special forces, and training for ranger school—could I ask for a better swim buddy?
“How serious were you when you said...”
“Name the day.”
“How does Friday sound?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
I went back to the gym pool. I swam again and again with my eyes closed until it stopped making me panic and that voice inside, questioning each move I made, shut the hell up. I did this because in the ocean, where I live, you can't see a damn thing underwater and you might as well be blind as a bat.
I met my swim buddy at the fire station and we made our way down to Dauphin Island.
Inside my head my thoughts were sarcastic, “Learn about Navy SEALs, it’ll be fun. Reach out to say, 'thank you for your book sir.' Get challenged. Swim with sharks. What could go wrong?”
Anxiety/fear is a normal part of life but if you’re dyslexic it’s practically a given that you will struggle with it. You learn to anticipate getting knocked into invisible walls that come out of no where. Reading, tests, new concepts all cause fear and panic when you grow up in a system that wasn't designed to teach you how you learn. If you don’t figure out how to deal with the anxiety, it flattens you.
My kids suffer these effects daily. Every end of quarter tests, or at the end of every school break, I deal with my son and daughter's extreme anxiousness and meltdowns. My 9 year old son has already learned what it feels like to have a panic attack during a test (or two). I absolutely hate it for them but I also know that it is absolutely imperative that I teach them to overcome. In fact I feel this calling so deeply that if I fail to teach them it will mean that I fail as a mother—and that is unacceptable. My goal is to raise extraordinary warrior kids who turn into warrior adults. Who learn how to conquer themselves. Who learn to never give up. Who learn to communicate through frustrations.
I told my children I was planning on swimming in the ocean as I took them to school that morning.
“Mom won’t you freeze to death?” Landon asked.
“Nope. I’ll have a special wetsuit on to keep me warm.”
“But mom? What if you get tired and drown?” Lyla asked.
“That’s why I have a friend going with me. He won’t let that happen.”
“What happens if you don’t swim? If you don’t go at all?” Landon challenged with a timidity in his voice.
“If I don’t do it I’ll learn to quit and quitting becomes easier to do the next time I try to do something hard. Is that ok to do?”
“No.” he shook his head vigorously.
“Lyla are you nervous about standing up today in front of your class to give your report?”
“What happens if you quit?”
“Will you give up? Even if you stutter or someone laughs at you?” She shook her head no. “Well neither will I. You conquer your speech Lyla. You conquer your reading goals Landon. I’ll conquer my fear of the ocean and swim, deal?”
Then they began to list the things that make them fearful and how they’ve both conquered those fears. Lyla dancing on stage for ballet in front of 1,000+ people. Landon striking out at baseball feeling like a failure until he got it right. Lyla reading in front of her class—Landon agreed on that one and took it a step further: Spelling bees. I smiled as I listened.
They’re learning. Truly learning to be warrior kids.
In a podcast titled, “Raising A Warrior Daughter.” Shea said, “There are two kinds of warriors—those in war and those who are forward leaning and are openly willing to make it through adversity to achieve a goal.”
Dyslexia, from what I’ve observed, creates two types of people—warriors who fight the school system until they find ways that work for them or anxiety riddled co-dependent disabled adults.
Josh and I have fought very hard for the past two years to find ways to teach our kids to read, spell, and write despite every set back possible, and it’s paying off.
They’re writing stories in journals and creating books for fun (and they're good too). They’re reading out loud in their classrooms, unafraid of failure. They tell their teachers, “I am dyslexic and I will need your help to do this or that.” and absolutely demand their teachers learn to teach them their way. My daughter told me last night that she'd taught her teacher the CK-Rule—it's a phonics thing—during class. It's suppose to be the other way around. However, the school system is disabled. It has not learned to do better despite the advancements in the science of reading.
I can't change the system, therefore, I have to teach my children to conquer that system so that it does not conquer them and teach them, falsely, that they are the ones who are broken or disabled.
In order to raise warrior kids, I must first be one myself. Conquering the anxiety that wells up and threatens to crush me. Conquering the invisible walls that knock me flat on my ass. Learning to be stronger than the storm of adversity. I have to learn how to be unbreakable how to stay determined to overcome.
So I dropped the kids off at school, gathered my thoughts, brought them to heel and boldly leaned forward into my fears—I swam in the 59 degree ocean, with the fish, the sharks, the current, in water that I couldn't see my own hands in. I swam until it didn’t make me want to puke. Until I was in control and not the fear.
Nothing about it was pleasant. I had to choose not to think about the sharks that were inevitably all around. Especially after my swim buddy teased me about them.
"If one comes we'll deal with it, otherwise stop worrying about it." He said, reminding me to stay out of my head.
I held my breath when I first dove under and got dizzy—a stupid thing to do and something that I know better than to do. I resurfaced until the dizziness stopped. I tried again until I could swim freestyle, even though I zig-zagged since there were no visual anchors to guide me. I got to the point where it no longer felt that big a deal and my special forces buddy made me go until we literally hit the sand bar and could go no further.
Afterwards I was so relieved it was over I could barely feel the cold winds even though I was only in a flimsy wet bathing suit with the wetsuit around my waist dripping salt water. I’d done it. It was over. It was invigorating and the prospect of doing another triathlon race in open water didn’t seem so daunting.
I sent Shea a message. “I did it.” His response hit my phone back and I was struck by the image of his words against the backdrop. It simply read, “well done” with the painted woman’s eyes peaking over the top. The emotion of the accomplishment washed over me and I felt myself stand a bit taller, a bit braver, a bit bolder.
I'm not done. Not even by a long shot. There are still 11 more lessons to go. But today. Today I accomplished more than a goal, and it feels amazing.
If I want my kids to learn to never give up. To overcome their anxiety and fears I have to do the same for strength is not found in the absence of anxiety or fear. It is found in how you face it and tell it to piss off.