کار غیر ممکنکتاب: نمی توانی به من آسیب بزنی / فصل 4
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CHAPTER THREE - THE IMPOSSIBLE TASK
It was past midnight and the streets were dead. I steered my pickup truck into another empty parking lot and killed the engine. In the quiet all I could hear were the eerie halogen hum of the street lamps and the scratch of my pen as I checked off another franchise feed trough. The latest in a never-ending series of fast food and dine-in industrial kitchens that received more nightly visitors than you’d care to know about. That’s why guys like me showed up to places like this in the wee hours. I stuffed my clipboard under the armrest, grabbed my gear, and began restocking rat traps.
They’re everywhere, those little green boxes. Look around almost any restaurant and you’ll find them, hidden in plain sight. My job was to bait, move, or replace them. Sometimes I hit pay dirt and found a rat carcass, which never caught me by surprise. You know death when you smell it.
This wasn’t the mission I signed up for when I enlisted in the Air Force with dreams of joining a Pararescue unit. Back then I was nineteen years old and weighed 175 pounds. By the time I was discharged four years later, I had ballooned to nearly 300 pounds and was on a different kind of patrol. At that weight, even bending down to bait the traps took effort. I was so damn fat I had to sew an athletic sock into the crotch of my work pants so they wouldn’t split when I dropped to one knee. No bullsh@t. I was a sorry fu@king sight.
With the exterior handled, it was time to venture indoors, which was its own wilderness. I had keys to almost every restaurant in this part of Indianapolis, and their alarm codes too. Once inside, I pumped my hand-held silver canister full of poison and placed a fumigation mask over my face. I looked like a damn space alien in that thing, with its dual filters jutting out from my mouth, protecting me from toxic fumes.
If there was anything I liked about that job it was the stealth nature of working late, moving in and out of inky shadows. I loved that mask for the same reason. It was vital, and not because of any damn insecticide. I needed it because it made it impossible for anyone to see me, especially me. Even if by chance I caught my own reflection in a glass doorway or on a stainless steel countertop, it wasn’t me I was seeing. It was some janky-ass, low-budget storm trooper. The kind of guy who would palm yesterday’s brownies on his way out the door.
It wasn’t me.
Sometimes I’d see roaches scurry for cover when I flipped the lights on to spray down the counters and the tiled floors. I’d see dead rodents stuck to sticky traps I’d laid on previous visits. I bagged and dumped them. I checked the lighting systems I’d installed to catch moths and flies and cleaned those out too. Within a half hour I was gone, rolling on to the next restaurant. I had a dozen stops every night and had to hit them all before dawn.
Maybe this kind of gig sounds disgusting to you. When I think back I’m disgusted too, but not because of the job. It was honest work. Necessary. Hell, in Air Force boot camp I got on the wrong side of my first drill sergeant and she made me the latrine queen. It was my job to keep the latrines in our barracks shining. She told me that if she found one speck of dirt in that latrine at any moment I would get recycled back to day one and join a new flight. I took my discipline. I was happy just to be in the Air Force, and I cleaned the hell out of that latrine. You could have eaten off that floor. Four years later, the guy who was so energized by opportunity that he was excited to clean latrines was gone and I didn’t feel anything at all.
They say there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, but not once your eyes adjust to the darkness, and that’s what happened to me. I was numb. Numb to my life, miserable in my marriage, and I’d accepted that reality. I was a would-be warrior turned cockroach sniper on the graveyard shift. Just another zombie selling his time on earth, going through the motions. In fact, the only insight I had into my job at that time was that it was actually a step up.
When I was first discharged from the military I got a job at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I worked security from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for minimum wage and cleared about $700 a month. Every now and then I’d see an Ecolab truck pull up. We were on the exterminator’s regular rotation, and it was my job to unlock the hospital kitchen for him. One night we got to talking, and he mentioned that Ecolab was hiring, and that the job came with a free truck and no boss looking over your shoulder. It was also a 35 percent pay raise. I didn’t think about the health risks. I didn’t think at all. I was taking what was being offered. I was on that spoon-fed path of least resistance, letting dominoes fall on my head, and it was killing me slowly. But there’s a difference between being numb and clueless. In the dark night there weren’t a lot of distractions to get me out of my head, and I knew that I had tipped the first domino. I’d started the chain reaction that put me on Ecolab duty.
The Air Force should have been my way out. That first drill sergeant did end up recycling me into a different unit, and in my new flight I became a star recruit. I was 6’2” and weighed about 175 pounds. I was fast and strong, our unit was the best flight in all of boot camp, and soon I was training for my dream job: Air Force Pararescue. We were guardian angels with fangs, trained to drop from the sky behind enemy lines and pull downed pilots out of harm’s way. I was one of the best guys in that training. I was one of the best at push-ups, and the best at sit-ups, flutter kicks, and running. I was one point behind honor grad, but there was something they didn’t talk about in the lead-up to Pararescue training: water confidence. That’s a nice name for a course where they try to drown your ass for weeks, and I was uncomfortable as hell in the water.
Although my mom got us off the public dole and out of subsidized housing within three years, she still didn’t have extra cash for swim lessons, and we avoided pools. It wasn’t until I attended Boy Scout camp when I was twelve years old that I was finally confronted with swimming. Leaving Buffalo allowed me to join the Scouts, and camp was my best opportunity to score all the merit badges I’d need to stay on the path to becoming an Eagle Scout. One morning it was time to qualify for the swimming merit badge and that meant a one-mile swim in a lake course, marked off with buoys. All the other kids jumped in and started getting after it, and if I wanted to save face I had to pretend I knew what I was doing, so I followed them into the lake. I dog paddled the best I could, but kept swallowing water so I flipped onto my back and ended up swimming the entire mile with a fu@ked-up backstroke I’d improvised on the fly. Merit badge secured.
When it came time to take the swim test to get into Pararescue, I needed to be able to swim for real. This was a timed, 500-meter freestyle swim, and even at nineteen years old I didn’t know how to swim freestyle. So I took my stunted ass down to Barnes & Noble, bought Swimming for Dummies, studied the diagrams, and practiced in the pool every day. I hated putting my face in the water, but I’d manage for one stroke, then two, and before long I could swim an entire lap.
I wasn’t as buoyant as most swimmers. Whenever I stopped swimming, even for a moment, I’d start to sink, which made my heart pound with panic, and my increased tension just made it worse. Eventually, I passed that swim test, but there is a difference between being competent and comfortable in the water, another big gap from comfortable to confident, and when you can’t float like most people, water confidence does not come easy. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all.
In Pararescue training, water confidence is part of the ten-week program, and it’s filled with specific evolutions designed to test how well we perform in the water under stress. One of the worst evolutions for me was called Bobbing. The class was divided into groups of five, lined up from gutter to gutter in the shallow end, and fully kitted up. Our backs were strapped with twin eighty-liter tanks made from galvanized steel, and we wore sixteen-pound weight belts too. We were loaded the fu@k down, which would have been fine, except in this evolution we weren’t allowed to breathe from those tanks. Instead, we were told to walk backward down the slope of the pool from the three-foot section to the deep end, about ten feet down, and on that slow walk into position, my mind swirled with doubt and negativity.
What the fu@k are you doing here? This isn’t for you! You can’t swim! You’re an imposter and they will find you out!
Time slowed down and those seconds seemed like minutes. My diaphragm lurched, trying to force air into my lungs. Theoretically, I knew that relaxation was the key to all the underwater evolutions, but I was too terrified to let go. My jaw clenched as tight as my fists. My head throbbed as I worked to stave off panic. Finally, we were all in position and it was time to start bobbing. That meant pushing up from the bottom to the surface (without the benefit of finning), getting a gulp of air, and sinking back down. It wasn’t easy, getting up fully loaded, but at least I was able to breathe, and that first breath was a salvation. Oxygen flooded my system and I started to relax until the instructor yelled “Switch!” That was our cue to take our fins from our feet, place them on our hands, and use one pull with our arms to propel ourselves to the surface. We were allowed to push off the floor of the pool, but we couldn’t kick. We did that for five minutes.
Shallow water and surface blackouts aren’t uncommon during water confidence training. It goes along with stressing the body and limiting oxygen intake. With the flippers on my hands I’d barely get my face high enough out of the water to breathe, and in between I was working hard and burning oxygen. And when you burn too much too fast, your brain shuts down and you will black the fu@k out. Our instructors called that, “meeting the wizard.” As the clock ticked, I could see stars materializing in my peripheral vision and felt the wizard creeping close.
I passed that evolution, and soon, finning with my arms or feet became easy for me. What stayed hard from beginning to end was one of our simplest tasks: treading water without our hands. We had to keep our hands and our chins high above the water, using only our legs, which we’d swirl in a blender-like motion, for three minutes. That doesn’t sound like much time, and for most of the class it was easy. For me, it was damn near impossible. My chin kept hitting the water, which meant the time would start again from triple zero. All around me, my classmates were so comfortable their legs were barely moving, while mine were whirring at top speed, and I still couldn’t get half as high as those white boys who looked to be defying gravity.
Every day it was another humiliation in the pool. Not that I was embarrassed publicly. I passed all the evolutions, but inside I was suffering. Each night, I’d fixate on the next day’s task and become so terrified I couldn’t sleep, and soon my fear morphed into resentment toward my classmates who, in my mind, had it easy, which dredged up my past.
I was the only black man in my unit, which reminded me of my childhood in rural Indiana, and the harder the water confidence training became, the higher those dark waters would rise until it seemed I was also being drowned from the inside out. While the rest of my class was sleeping, that potent cocktail of fear and rage thrummed through my veins and my nocturnal fixations became their own kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. One where failure was inevitable because my unchecked fear was unleashing something I couldn’t control: the quitting mind.
It all came to a head six weeks into training with the “buddy breathing” exercise. We partnered up, each pair gripped one another by the forearm, and took turns breathing through just one snorkel. Meanwhile, the instructors thrashed us, trying to separate us from our snorkel. All of this was supposed to be happening at or near the surface, but I was negatively buoyant, which meant I was sinking into the middle waters of the deep end, dragging my partner down with me. He’d take a breath and pass the snorkel down to me. I’d swim to the surface, exhale and attempt to clear the water from our snorkel and get a clean breath before passing it back to him, but the instructors made that almost impossible. I’d usually only clear the tube halfway, and inhale more water than air. From the jump, I was operating from an oxygen deficit while fighting to stay near the surface.
In military training, it’s the instructors’ job to identify weak links and challenge them to perform or quit, and they could tell I was struggling. In the pool that day, one of them was always in my face, yelling and thrashing me, while I choked, trying and failing to gulp air through a narrow tube to stave off the wizard. I went under and remember looking up at the rest of the class, splayed out like serene starfish on the surface. Calm as can be, they passed their snorkels back and forth with ease, while I fumed. I know now that my instructor was just doing his job, but back then I thought, This fu@ker’s not giving me a fair shot!
I passed that evolution too, but I still had eleven more evolutions and four more weeks of water confidence training to go. It made sense. We would be jumping out of airplanes over water. We needed it. I just didn’t want to do it anymore, and the next morning, I was offered a way out I hadn’t seen coming.
Weeks earlier, we’d had our blood drawn during a med check, and the doctors had just discovered I carried the Sickle Cell Trait. I didn’t have the disease, Sickle Cell Anemia, but I had the trait, which was believed at the time to increase the risk of sudden, exercise-related death due to cardiac arrest. The Air Force didn’t want me dropping dead in the middle of an evolution and pulled me out of training on a medical. I pretended to take the news hard, as if my dream was being ripped away. I made a big fu@king act of being pissed off, but inside I was ecstatic.
Later that week the doctors reversed their decision. They didn’t specifically say it was safe for me to continue, but they said the trait wasn’t yet well understood and allowed me to decide for myself. When I reported back to training the Master Sergeant (MSgt) informed me that I’d missed too much time and that if I wanted to continue I would have to start over from day one, week one. Instead of less than four weeks, I’d have to endure another ten weeks of the terror, rage, and insomnia that came with water confidence.
These days, that kind of thing wouldn’t even register on my radar. You tell me to run longer and harder than everyone else just to get a fair shake, I’d say, “Roger that,” and keep moving, but back then I was still half-baked. Physically I was strong, but I was not even close to mastering my mind.
The MSgt stared at me, awaiting my response. I couldn’t even look him in the eye when I said, “You know what, Master Sergeant, the doctor doesn’t know much about this Sickle Cell thing, and it’s bothering me.”
He nodded, emotionless, and signed the papers pulling me out of the program for good. He cited Sickle Cell, and on paper I didn’t quit, but I knew the truth. If I had been the guy I am today, I wouldn’t have given two fu@ks about Sickle Cell. I still have the Sickle Cell Trait. You don’t just get rid of it, but back then an obstacle had appeared, and I’d folded.
I moved on to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, told my friends and family that I was forced from the program on a medical, and served out my four years in the Tactical Air Control Party (TAC-P), which works with some special operations units. I trained to liaise between ground units and air support—fast movers like F-15s and F-16s—behind enemy lines. It was challenging work with intelligent people, but sadly I was never proud of it and didn’t see the opportunities offered because I knew I was a quitter who had let fear dictate my future.
I buried my shame in the gym and at the kitchen table. I got into powerlifting and layered on the mass. I ate and worked out. Worked out and ate. In my last days in the Air Force I weighed 255 pounds. After my discharge I continued to bulk up with both muscle and fat until I weighed nearly 300 pounds. I wanted to be big because being big hid David Goggins. I was able to tuck this 175-pound person into those 21-inch biceps and that flabby belly. I grew a burly mustache and was intimidating to everyone who saw me, but inside I knew I was a pussy, and that’s a haunting feeling.
After Air Force Boot Camp at 175 lbs in 1994
290 lbs at the beach in 1999
The morning I began to take charge of my destiny started out like any other. When the clock struck 7 a.m., my Ecolab shift ended and I hit the Steak ’n Shake drive-thru to score a large chocolate milkshake. Next stop, 7-Eleven, for a box of Hostess mini chocolate doughnuts. I gobbled those on my forty-five-minute drive home, to a beautiful apartment on a golf course in pretty Carmel, Indiana, which I shared with my wife, Pam, and her daughter. Remember that Pizza Hut incident? I married that girl. I married a girl whose dad called me a nigger. What does that say about me?
We couldn’t afford that life. Pam wasn’t even working, but in those credit-card-debt-loading days, nothing made much sense. I was doing 70 mph on the highway, mainlining sugar and listening to a local classic rock station when Sound of Silence poured from the stereo. Simon & Garfunkel’s words echoed like truth.
Darkness was a friend indeed. I worked in the dark, hid my true self from friends and strangers. Nobody would have believed how numb and afraid I was back then because I looked like a beast that no one would dare fu@k with, but my mind wasn’t right, and my soul was weighed down by too much trauma and failure. I had every excuse in the world to be a loser, and used them all. My life was crumbling, and Pam dealt with that by fleeing the scene. Her parents still lived in Brazil, just seventy miles away. We spent most of our time apart.
I arrived home from work around 8 a.m., and the phone rang as soon as I walked in the door. It was my mother. She knew my routine.
“Come on over for your staple,” she said.
My staple was a breakfast buffet for one, the likes of which few could put down in a single sitting. Think: eight Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, a half-dozen scrambled eggs, a half-pound of bacon, and two bowls of Fruity Pebbles. Don’t forget, I had just decimated a box of donuts and a chocolate shake. I didn’t even have to respond. She knew I was coming. Food was my drug of choice and I always sucked up every last crumb.
I hung up, flipped on the television, and stomped down the hall to the shower, where I could hear a narrator’s voice filter through the steam. I caught snippets. “Navy SEALs…toughest…the world.” I wrapped a towel around my waist and rushed back into the living room. I was so big, the towel barely covered my fat ass, but I sat down on the couch and didn’t move for thirty minutes.
The show followed Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL (BUD/S) Training Class 224 through Hell Week: the most arduous series of tasks in the most physically demanding training in the military. I watched men sweat and suffer as they tore through muddy obstacle courses, ran on the soft sand holding logs overhead, and shivered in icy surf. Sweat pearled on my scalp, I was literally on the edge of my seat as I saw guys—some of the strongest of them all—ring the bell and quit. Made sense. Only one-third of the men who begin BUD/S make it through Hell Week, and in all of my time in Pararescue training, I couldn’t remember feeling as awful as these men looked. They were swollen, chafed, sleep-deprived, and dead on their feet, and I was jealous of them.
The longer I watched the more certain I became that there were answers buried in all that suffering. Answers that I needed. More than once the camera panned over the endless frothing ocean, and each time I felt pathetic. The SEALs were everything I wasn’t. They were about pride, dignity, and the type of excellence that came from bathing in the fire, getting beat the fu@k down, and going back for more, again and again. They were the human equivalent of the hardest, sharpest sword you could imagine. They sought out the flame, took the pounding for as long as necessary, longer even, until they were fearless and deadly. They weren’t motivated. They were driven. The show ended with graduation. Twenty-two proud men stood shoulder to shoulder in their dress whites before the camera pushed in on their Commanding Officer.
“In a society where mediocrity is too often the standard and too often rewarded,” he said, “there is intense fascination with men who detest mediocrity, who refuse to define themselves in conventional terms, and who seek to transcend traditionally recognized human capabilities. This is exactly the type of person BUD/S is meant to find. The man who finds a way to complete each and every task to the best of his ability. The man who will adapt and overcome any and all obstacles.” In that moment it felt as though the Commanding Officer was talking directly to me, but after the show ended I walked back to the bathroom, faced the mirror, and stared myself down. I looked every bit of 300 pounds. I was everything all the haters back home said I would be: uneducated, with no real world skills, zero discipline, and a dead-end future. Mediocrity would have been a major promotion. I was at the bottom of the barrel of life, pooling in the dregs, but, for the first time in way too long, I was awake.
I barely spoke to my mother during breakfast, and only ate half my staple because my mind was on unfinished business. I’d always wanted to join an elite special operations unit, and beneath all the rolls of flesh and layers of failure, that desire was still there. Now it was coming back to life, thanks to a chance viewing of a show that continued to work on me like a virus moving cell to cell, taking over.
It became an obsession I couldn’t shake. Every morning after work for almost three weeks, I called active duty recruiters in the Navy and told them my story. I called offices all over the country. I said I was willing to move as long as they could get me to SEAL training. Everyone turned me down. Most weren’t interested in candidates with prior service. One local recruiting office was intrigued and wanted to meet in person, but when I got there they laughed in my face. I was way too heavy, and in their eyes I was just another delusional pretender. I left that meeting feeling the same way.
After calling all the active duty recruiting offices I could find, I dialed the local unit of the Naval reserves, and spoke to Petty Officer Steven Schaljo for the first time. Schaljo had worked with multiple F-14 Squadrons as an electrician and instructor at NAS Miramar for eight years before joining the recruitment staff in San Diego, where the SEALs train. He worked day and night and rose quickly in the ranks. His move to Indianapolis came with a promotion and the challenge of finding Navy recruits in the middle of the corn. He’d only been on the job in Indy for ten days by the time I called, and if I’d reached anyone else you probably wouldn’t be reading this book. But through a combination of dumb luck and stubborn persistence I found one of the finest recruiters in the Navy, a guy whose favorite task was discovering diamonds in the rough—prior service guys like me who were looking to re-enlist and hoping to land in special operations.
Our initial conversation didn’t last long. He said he could help me and that I should come in to meet in person. That sounded familiar. I grabbed my keys and drove straight to his office, but didn’t get my hopes too high. By the time I arrived a half-hour later he was already on the phone with BUD/S administration.
Every sailor in that office—all of them white—were surprised to see me except Schaljo. If I was a heavyweight, Schaljo was a lightweight at 5’7”, but he didn’t seem fazed by my size, at least not at first. He was outgoing and warm, like any salesman, though I could tell he had some pit bull in him. He led me down a hall to weigh me in, and while standing on the scale I eyed a weight chart pinned to the wall. At my height, the maximum allowable weight for the Navy was 191 pounds. I held my breath, sucked in my gut as much as I could, and puffed out my chest in a sorry attempt to stave off the humiliating moment where he’d let me down easy. That moment never came.
“You’re a big boy,” Schaljo said, smiling and shaking his head, as he scratched 297 pounds on a chart in his file folder. “The Navy has a program that allows recruits in the reserves to become active duty. That’s what we’ll use for this. It’s being phased out at the end of the year, so we need to get you classed up before then. Point is, you have some work to do, but you knew that.” I followed his eyes to the weight chart and checked it again. He nodded, smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and left me to face my truth.
I had less than three months to lose 106 pounds.
It sounded like an impossible task, which is one reason I didn’t quit my job. The other was the ASVAB. That nightmare test had come back to life like Frankenstein’s fu@king monster. I’d passed it once before to enlist in the Air Force, but to qualify for BUD/S I’d have to score much higher. For two weeks I studied all day and zapped pests each night. I wasn’t working out yet. Serious weight loss would have to wait.
I took the test on a Saturday afternoon. The following Monday I called Schaljo. “Welcome to the Navy,” he said. He downloaded the good news first. I’d done exceptionally well on some sections and was now officially a reservist, but I’d only scored a 44 on Mechanical Comprehension. To qualify for BUD/S I needed a 50. I’d have to retake the entire test in five weeks.
These days Steven Schaljo likes to call our chance connection “fate.” He said he could sense my drive the first moment we spoke, and that he believed in me from the jump, which is why my weight wasn’t an issue for him, but after that ASVAB test I was full of doubt. So maybe what happened later that night was also a form of fate, or a much needed dose of divine intervention.
I’m not going to drop the name of the restaurant where it went down because if I did you’d never eat there again and I’d have to hire a lawyer. Just know, this place was a disaster. I checked the traps outside first and found a dead rat. Inside, there were more dead rodents—a mouse and two rats—on the sticky traps, and roaches in the garbage which hadn’t been emptied. I shook my head, got down on my knees under the sink, and sprayed up through a narrow gap in the wall. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d found their nesting column and when the poison hit they started to scatter.
Within seconds there was a skittering across the back of my neck. I brushed it off, and craned my neck to see a storm of roaches raining down to the kitchen floor from an open panel in the ceiling. I’d hit the motherlode of cockroaches and the worst infestation I ever saw on the job for Ecolab. They kept coming. Roaches landed on my shoulders and my head. The floor was writhing with them.
I left my canister in the kitchen, grabbed the sticky traps, and burst outside. I needed fresh air and more time to figure out how I was going to clear the restaurant of vermin. I considered my options on my way to the dumpster to trash the rodents, opened the lid, and found a live raccoon, hissing mad. He bared his yellow teeth and lunged at me. I slammed the dumpster shut.
What the fu@k? I mean, seriously, what the fu@king fu@k? When was enough truly going to be enough? Was I willing to let my sorry present become a fu@ked-up future? How much longer would I wait, how many more years would I burn, wondering if there was some greater purpose out there waiting for me? I knew right then that if I didn’t make a stand and start walking the path of most resistance, I would end up in this mental hell forever.
I didn’t go back inside that restaurant. I didn’t collect my gear. I started my truck, stopped for a chocolate shake—my comfort tea at that time—and drove home. It was still dark when I pulled up. I didn’t care. I stripped off my work clothes, put on some sweats and laced up my running shoes. I hadn’t run in over a year, but I hit the streets ready to go four miles.
I lasted 400 yards. My heart raced. I was so dizzy I had to sit down on the edge of the golf course to catch my breath before making the slow walk back to my house, where my melted shake was waiting to comfort me in yet another failure. I grabbed it, slurped, and slumped into my sofa. My eyes welled with tears.
Who the fu@k did I think I was? I was born nothing, I’d proven nothing, and I still wasn’t worth a damn thing. David Goggins, a Navy SEAL? Yeah, right. What a pipe dream. I couldn’t even run down the block for five minutes. All my fears and insecurities I’d bottled up for my entire life started raining down on my head. I was on the verge of giving in and giving up for good. That’s when I found my old, beat to sh@t VHS copy of Rocky (the one I’d had for fifteen years), slid it into the machine, and fast forwarded to my favorite scene: Round 14.
The original Rocky is still one of my all-time favorite films because it’s about a know-nothing journeyman fighter living in poverty with no prospects. Even his own trainer won’t work with him. Then, out of the blue, he’s given a title shot with the champion, Apollo Creed, the most feared fighter in history, a man that has knocked out every opponent he’s ever faced. All Rocky wants is to be the first to go the distance with Creed. That alone will make him someone he could be proud of for the first time in his life.
The fight is closer than anyone anticipated, bloody and intense, and by the middle rounds Rocky is taking on more and more punishment. He’s losing the fight, and in Round 14 he gets knocked down early, but pops right back up in the center of the ring. Apollo moves in, stalking him like a lion. He throws sharp left jabs, hits a slow-footed Rocky with a staggering combination, lands a punishing right hook, and another. He backs Rocky into a corner. Rocky’s legs are jelly. He can’t even muster the strength to raise his arms in defense. Apollo slams another right hook into the side of Rocky’s head, then a left hook, and a vicious right-handed uppercut that puts Rocky down.
Apollo retreats to the opposite corner with his arms held high, but even face down in that ring, Rocky doesn’t give up. As the referee begins his ten-count, Rocky squirms toward the ropes. Mickey, his own trainer, urges him to stay down, but Rocky isn’t hearing it. He pulls himself up to one knee, then all fours. The referee hits six as Rocky grabs the ropes and rises up. The crowd roars, and Apollo turns to see him still standing. Rocky waves Apollo over. The champ’s shoulders slump in disbelief.
The fight isn’t over yet.
I turned off the television and thought about my own life. It was a life devoid of any drive and passion, but I knew if I continued to surrender to my fear and my feelings of inadequacy, I would be allowing them to dictate my future forever. My only other choice was to try to find the power in the emotions that had laid me low, harness and use them to empower me to rise up, which is exactly what I did.
I dumped that shake in the trash, laced up my shoes, and hit the streets again. On my first run, I felt severe pain in my legs and my lungs at a quarter mile. My heart raced and I stopped. This time I felt the same pain, my heart raced like a car running hot, but I ran through it and the pain faded. By the time I bent over to catch my breath, I’d run a full mile.
That’s when I first realized that not all physical and mental limitations are real, and that I had a habit of giving up way too soon. I also knew that it would take every ounce of courage and toughness I could muster to pull off the impossible. I was staring at hours, days, and weeks of non-stop suffering. I would have to push myself to the very edge of my mortality. I had to accept the very real possibility that I might die because this time I wouldn’t quit, no matter how fast my heart raced and no matter how much pain I was in. Trouble was there was no battle plan to follow, no blueprint. I had to create one from scratch.
The typical day went something like this. I’d wake up at 4:30 a.m., munch a banana, and hit the ASVAB books. Around 5 a.m., I’d take that book to my stationary bike where I’d sweat and study for two hours. Remember, my body was a mess. I couldn’t run multiple miles yet, so I had to burn as many calories as I could on the bike. After that I’d drive over to Carmel High School and jump into the pool for a two-hour swim. From there I hit the gym for a circuit workout that included the bench press, the incline press, and lots of leg exercises. Bulk was the enemy. I needed reps, and I did five or six sets of 100–200 reps each. Then it was back to the stationary bike for two more hours.
I was constantly hungry. Dinner was my one true meal each day, but there wasn’t much to it. I ate a grilled or sautéed chicken breast and some sautéed vegetables along with a thimble of rice. After dinner I’d do another two hours on the bike, hit the sack, wake up and do it all over again, knowing the odds were stacked sky high against me. What I was trying to achieve is like a D-student applying to Harvard, or walking into a casino and putting every single dollar you own on a number in roulette and acting as if winning is a foregone conclusion. I was betting everything I had on myself with no guarantees.
I weighed myself twice daily, and within two weeks I’d dropped twenty-five pounds. My progress only improved as I kept grinding, and the weight started peeling off. Ten days later I was at 250, light enough to begin doing push-ups, pull-ups, and to start running my ass off. I’d still wake up, hit the stationary bike, the pool, and the gym, but I also incorporated two-, three-, and four-mile runs. I ditched my running shoes and ordered a pair of Bates Lites, the same boots SEAL candidates wear in BUD/S, and started running in those.
With so much effort, you’d think my nights would have been restful, but they were filled with anxiety. My stomach growled and my mind swirled. I’d dream of complex ASVAB questions and dread the next day’s workouts. I was putting out so much, on almost no fuel, that depression became a natural side effect. My splintering marriage was veering toward divorce. Pam made it very clear that she and my stepdaughter would not be moving to San Diego with me, if by some miracle I could pull this off. They stayed in Brazil most of the time, and when I was all alone in Carmel, I was in turmoil. I felt both worthless and helpless as my endless stream of self-defeating thoughts picked up steam.
When depression smothers you, it blots out all light and leaves you with nothing to cling onto for hope. All you see is negativity. For me, the only way to make it through that was to feed off my depression. I had to flip it and convince myself that all that self-doubt and anxiety was confirmation that I was no longer living an aimless life. My task may turn out to be impossible but at least I was back on a motherfu@king mission.
Some nights, when I was feeling low, I’d call Schaljo. He was always in the office early in the morning and late at night. I didn’t confide in him about my depression because I didn’t want him to doubt me. I used those calls to pump myself up. I told him how many pounds I dropped and how much work I was putting in, and he reminded me to keep studying for that ASVAB.
I had the Rocky soundtrack on cassette and I’d listen to Going the Distance for inspiration. On long bike rides and runs, with those horns blasting in my brain, I’d imagine myself going through BUD/S, diving into cold water, and crushing Hell Week. I was wishing, I was hoping, but by the time I was down to 250, my quest to qualify for the SEALs wasn’t a daydream anymore. I had a real chance to accomplish something most people, including myself, thought was impossible. Still, there were bad days. One morning not long after I dipped below 250, I weighed in and had only lost a pound from the day before. I had so much weight to lose I could not afford to plateau. That’s all I thought about while running six miles and swimming two. I was exhausted and sore when I arrived in the gym for my typical three-hour circuit.
After rocking over 100 pull-ups in a series of sets, I was back on the bar for a max set with no ceiling. Going in, my goal was to get to twelve but my hands were burning fire as I stretched my chin over the bar for the tenth time. For weeks, the temptation to pull back had been ever present, and I always refused. That day, however, the pain was too much and after my eleventh pull-up, I gave in, dropped down, and finished my workout, one pull-up shy.
That one rep stayed with me, along with that one pound. I tried to get them out of my head but they wouldn’t leave me the fu@k alone. They taunted me on the drive home, and at my kitchen table while I ate a sliver of grilled chicken and a bland, baked potato. I knew I wouldn’t sleep that night unless I did something about it, so I grabbed my keys.
“You cut corners and you are not gonna fu@king make it,” I said, out loud, as I drove back to the gym. “There are no shortcuts for you, Goggins!”
I did my entire pull-up workout over again. One missed pull-up cost me an extra 250, and there would be similar episodes. Whenever I cut a run or swim short because I was hungry or tired, I’d always go back and beat myself down even harder. That was the only way I could manage the demons in my mind. Either way there would be suffering. I had to choose between physical suffering in the moment, and the mental anguish of wondering if that one missed pull-up, that last lap in the pool, the quarter mile I skipped on the road or trail, would end up costing me an opportunity of a lifetime. It was an easy choice. When it came to the SEALs, I wasn’t leaving anything up to chance.
On the eve of the ASVAB, with four weeks to go before training, making weight was no longer a worry. I was already down to 215 pounds and was faster and stronger than I’d ever been. I was running six miles a day, bicycling over twenty miles, and swimming more than two. All of it in the dead of winter. My favorite run was the six-mile Monon trail, an asphalt bike and walking path that laced through the trees in Indianapolis. It was the domain of cyclists and soccer moms with jogging strollers, weekend warriors and seniors. By then Schaljo had passed along the Navy SEAL warning order. It included all the workouts I would be expected to complete during first phase of BUD/S, and I was happy to double them. I knew that 190 men usually class-up for a typical SEAL training and only about forty people make it all the way through. I didn’t want to be just one of those forty. I wanted to be the best.
But I had to pass the damn ASVAB first. I’d been cramming every spare second. If I wasn’t working out, I was at my kitchen table, memorizing formulas and cycling through hundreds of vocabulary words. With my physical training going well, all my anxiety stuck to the ASVAB like paper clips to a magnet. This would be my last chance to take the test before my eligibility for the SEALs expired. I wasn’t very smart, and based on past academic performance there was no good reason to believe I’d pass with a score high enough to qualify for the SEALs. If I failed, my dream would die, and I’d be floating without purpose once again.
The test was held in a small classroom on Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. There were about thirty people there, all of us young. Most were just out of high school. We were each assigned an old-school desktop computer. In the past month, the test had been digitized and I wasn’t experienced with computers. I didn’t even think I could work the damn machine let alone answer the questions, but the program proved idiot proof and I settled in.
The ASVAB has ten sections, and I was breezing through until I reached Mechanical Comprehension, my truth serum. Within the hour I would have a decent idea if I’d been lying to myself or if I had the raw stuff necessary to become a SEAL. Whenever a question stumped me, I marked my worksheet with a dash. There were about thirty questions in that section and by the time I completed the test, I’d guessed at least ten times. I needed some of them to go my way or I was out.
After completing the final section, I was prompted to send the entire bundle to the administrator’s computer at the front of the room where the score would be tabulated instantly. I peeked over my monitor and saw him sitting there, waiting. I pointed, clicked, and left the room. Buzzing with nervous energy, I paced the parking lot for a few minutes before finally ducking into my Honda Accord, but I didn’t start the engine. I couldn’t leave.
I sat in the front seat for fifteen minutes with a thousand-yard stare. It would be at least two days before Schaljo would call with my results, but the answer to the riddle that was my future was already solved. I knew exactly where it was, and I had to know the truth. I gathered myself, walked back in, and approached the fortune teller.
“You gotta tell me what I got on this fu@king test, man,” I said. He peered up at me, surprised, but he didn’t buckle.
“I’m sorry, son. This is the government. There’s a system for how they do things,” he said. “I didn’t make the rules and I can’t bend them.”
“Sir, you have no idea what this test means to me, to my life. It’s everything!” He looked into my glassy eyes for what felt like five minutes, then turned toward his machine.
“I’m breaking every rule in the book right now,” he said. “Goggins, right?” I nodded and came around behind his seat as he scrolled through files. “There you are. Congratulations, you scored 65. That’s a great score.” He was referencing my overall, but I didn’t care about that. Everything hinged on my getting a 50-spot where it counted most.
“What did I get on mechanical comprehension?” He shrugged, clicked and scrolled, and there it was. My new favorite number glowed on his screen: 50.
“YES!” I shouted. “YES! YES!”
There was still a handful of others taking the test, but this was the happiest moment in my life and I couldn’t stifle it. I kept screaming “YES!” at the top of my lungs. The administrator damn near fell out of his chair and everyone in that room stared at me like I was crazy. If they only knew how crazed I’d been! For two months I’d dedicated my entire existence to this one moment, and I was damn well gonna enjoy it. I rushed to my car and screamed some more.
On my drive home I called my mom. She was the one person, aside from Schaljo, who witnessed my metamorphosis. “I fu@king did it,” I told her, tears in my eyes. “I fu@king did it! I’m going to be a SEAL.”
When Schaljo came to work the next day, he got the news and called me up. He’d sent in my recruitment package and had just heard back that I was in! I could tell he was happy for me, and proud that what he saw in me the first time we met turned out to be real.
But it wasn’t all happy days. My wife had given me an implied ultimatum, and now I had a decision to make. Abandon the opportunity I’d worked so hard for and stay married, or get divorced and go try to become a SEAL. In the end, my choice didn’t have anything to do with my feelings for Pam or her father. He’d apologized to me, by the way. It was about who I was and who I wanted to be. I was a prisoner in my own my mind and this opportunity was my only chance to break free.
I celebrated my victory the way any SEAL candidate should. I put the fu@k out. The following morning and for the next three weeks I spent time in the pool, strapped with a sixteen-pound weight belt. I swam underwater for fifty meters at a time and walked the length of the pool underwater, with a brick in each hand, all on a single breath. The water would not own my ass this time.
When I was done, I’d swim a mile or two, then head to a pond near my mother’s home. Remember, this was Indiana—the American Midwest—in December. The trees were naked. Icicles hung like crystals from the eaves of houses and snow blanketed the earth in all directions, but the pond wasn’t completely frozen yet. I waded into the icy water, dressed in camo pants, a brown short sleeved t-shirt, and boots, laid back and looked into the gray sky. The hypothermic water washed over me, the pain was excruciating, and I fu@king loved it. After a few minutes I got out and started running, water sloshing in my boots, sand in my underwear. Within seconds my t-shirt was frozen to my chest, my pants iced at the cuffs.
I hit the Monon trail. Steam poured from my nose and mouth as I grunted and slalomed speed-walkers and joggers. Civilians. Their heads turned as I picked up speed and began sprinting, like Rocky in downtown Philly. I ran as fast as I could for as long as I could, from a past that no longer defined me, toward a future undetermined. All I knew was that there would be pain and there would be purpose.
And that I was ready.
The first step on the journey toward a calloused mind is stepping outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. Dig out your journal again and write down all the things you don’t like to do or that make you uncomfortable. Especially those things you know are good for you.
Now go do one of them, and do it again.
In the coming pages, I’ll be asking you to mirror what you just read to some degree, but there is no need for you to find your own impossible task and achieve it on the fast track. This is not about changing your life instantly, it’s about moving the needle bit by bit and making those changes sustainable. That means digging down to the micro level and doing something that sucks every day. Even if it’s as simple as making your bed, doing the dishes, ironing your clothes, or getting up before dawn and running two miles each day. Once that becomes comfortable, take it to five, then ten miles. If you already do all those things, find something you aren’t doing. We all have areas in our lives we either ignore or can improve upon. Find yours. We often choose to focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. Use this time to make your weaknesses your strengths.
Doing things—even small things—that make you uncomfortable will help make you strong. The more often you get uncomfortable the stronger you’ll become, and soon you’ll develop a more productive, can-do dialogue with yourself in stressful situations.
Take a photo or video of yourself in the discomfort zone, post it on social media describing what you’re doing and why, and don’t forget to include the hashtags #discomfortzone #pathofmostresistance #canthurtme #impossibletask.
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