I've realized something recently...I've been waiting for something, something that may never come to pass. I've been holding my breath, in a sense, hanging out in suspended animation, waiting for time to begin spooling backwards, to rewind me to a state I used to know, a woman I used to be.
Specifically, I've been waiting for a body I used to have, a body I had come to know intimately, love deeply, and feel pride and power living within. This was a new relationship for me, this reveling in my physicality. I was a chubby child, teased by my classmates for my soft, round body. I had little interest in or aptitude for sports, so I did not participate in them. PE was my least favorite class. To call the hours I spent in so-called physical education traumatic would not be inaccurate.
Dressing down, which was required to pass class, was the first insult to my psyche, the initial wound that would join with others to cover my relationship with my body in livid, rippled scars. In order to receive a passing grade, they told me through policy and procedure, you will need to fully expose that body that others so harshly judge. Take off the only armor you're allowed to wear, the pants chosen carefully to avoid a muffin-top, the baggy, shapeless shirts. Fold it neatly and put it in your locker. Now put on some shorts and a t-shirt, exposing your pale skin and your frail self-worth to further examination and excoriation. That's a good girl.
Now, please proceed into the gymnasium. There, you will be asked to perform feats of physical activity. No one will teach you the mechanics of these movements--how to run, jump, swing a bat, hit a ball. It is assumed that these skills are naturally present in all children. Oh, you do not have these skills by nature? How sad for you. We'll allow the children who do have them, or who have been taught elsewhere, to select teams for games and sports. They will, of course, choose you last, owing to your natural dysfunction. You don't mind, do you? That's a good girl.
We'll be playing lots of games with scores. To obtain a winning score, you'll be needing those skills we discussed. We'll teach you all about the rules of these games, how to keep the score. We trust you'll simply develop the skills as you attempt to keep up. No? Well, someone has to be the loser. That's a good girl.
And please do not forget! You'll need to expose that weak and worthless body one more time when you get back to the locker room...showers are required.
Through pickleball and dodgeball, tennis and timed lap runs, and certainly through the particularly devastating Presidential Physical Fitness Test (Penner, the point of the exercise is to hang on to the bar, are you having trouble understanding that?), I learned that my body was deficient. It didn't perform the way other bodies did. The message was clear: my body not only looked different from other bodies, (in the 1970s and '80s childhood obesity was not yet common) it WAS different from other bodies. I began to develop a vocabulary for this body: clumsy, graceless, fat, ugly, slow, weak, stupid.
I carried this definition of deficiency into my 30s. I held it close as my knees literally weakened with relief while I showered off following the final required PE class of my public school career. I felt it resurge when I saw the prerequisite for physical education had followed me to college, like a mangy puppy clearly crawling with lice that could not be enticed to leave my side.
The limits I saw beneath my skin, wrapped around my bones and woven through my muscles and tendons, kept me from participating in rec league sports with friends, ensured that my hobbies were all cerebral. My brain I could relish. My body? More than a decade after leaving the hallowed halls where I learned how poorly I was built, I was still unable to love the physical vessel that housed the mind with which I was so comfortable.
In my late 20s, my very own White Rabbit came, drawing me down the rabbit hole into depression. By this time I had voluntarily exercised for around 10 years, always based on how I looked. Never in public, mind you. I was much too clumsy for a gym, for aerobics classes or that volleyball league so many of my friends enjoyed. No, that's not for this body.
But the sting on my skin, the memory of being teased as on overweight child, still lingered, burning along my flesh like a caustic chemical. Staying trim made it better, soothed the burn. And so I was what I call a consistently inconsistent exerciser: regularly working out when the pounds crept on and the burn came back, gratefully leaving off my time with Jane Fonda and Kathy Smith for more enjoyable pursuits when my weight felt comfortable.
When I sought treatment for depression, one of the first queries from my therapist was whether I had an exercise routine. I told her I did exercise sometimes, but hadn't been lately. She instructed me to start again. I did, and I quickly realized that it had a powerful effect on the depressive symptoms. Now exercise had a place in my life...
But it wasn't a place in my body. It was a place in my mind. My pasty, graceless body was no longer useless; now it existed to serve my broken mind. It was a useful tool; to this day I rely on exercise to manage my mental health. But this didn't shift my definition of my body far. I was fit, and I was healthy. But athletic? No. No, not this girl. Hell no! That's not something I could ever be.
The first gaping crack in this sorrowful definition of my physical form came when I returned to college and the age of 29 to pursue a degree in Kinesiology. In a feat as mad as the Hatter himself, I arrived on campus to study the form and function of the human body while very deliberately rejecting my own form and disregarding my own function. A very merry unbirthday to me!
Through the looking glass came a physical therapist who taught several of my classes. A man of great wisdom and an even greater sense of humor, Ed Robertson taught biomechanics, offered his students a complete understanding of how athletic shoes are constructed and should function in use, and regaled us with what he called "Ed's Butt-Head Rule" (when your head goes one way, your butt naturally goes the other).
I have no doubt Ed's other students still use what he taught us often in their careers, as I have in mine. But by far the most powerful thing I learned from Ed wasn't part of any lesson plan. I have no idea what class we were in, nor what the topic of the day was. The information that instigated a complete re-write of my physical self-definition was shared off-hand, the beginning of a sentence whose point was something else entirely, analogous to "of course" or "as you know." At the beginning of a sentence that I will never recall was the information I will never forget: what was supposed to happen in a Physical Education class.
As it turns out, one of the central aims of physical education is to teach basic physical skills--kicking, throwing, running, jumping. The games and sports we played in my school career are also part of PE, included to offer a wide range of experiences with physical activities that can be performed across a human life span. But those skills I had always assumed I was just born without? They aren't inherent. They are learned!
One of the reasons I cannot tell you today what Ed went out to talk about in that lesson is because I was no longer listening. I was sitting, stunned, in my chair. You could surely have pushed me over with a wiffleball bat. I truly had no idea that this was a reality, that not only were running, batting, jumping, and kicking skills that could be learned, but that someone was supposed to have taught them to ME. Those teachers who watched me struggle, who frowned over my inability to connect with the kickball, groaned each time I swung a bat and missed, averted their eyes every single time I was picked last...they were supposed to be teaching me how to move my body! It was their damned job!! And they failed. They failed, and they failed me.
I was shocked. And I was furious! I was nearly 30 years old, and I'd spent my entire life believing I was handicapped in some way, that I was born lacking a full complement of normal human features, like a child born missing an eye or a limb. My early adulthood was behind me, and it was utterly devoid of a stunning number of physical experiences, because that I assumed they were inaccessible to me, every bit as much as a top floor walk-up is inaccessible to someone confined to a wheelchair.
I have no memory of the rest of that class. I recall only sitting through it, shell-shocked, alternating between feelings of rage and grief. I rushed home after class and sobbed. I cried for the uncountable times I had been invited to play on the softball team at a bar where I'd worked for years and said no. I cried for the high school boyfriend who wanted me to run with him and was left to run alone. And I cried with relief, because in the instant I understood what had happened to me in my childhood, I understood that my assessment of my body was all wrong. You can't build a definition from a defective dictionary. I had never been offered the word "athlete." No wonder I'd never written it on my own skin.
I didn't scribe it then, either. But the unraveling of years of mistaken identity had begun, and I would eventually come to call myself an athlete. In my mid-30s I began dating a man who wears that title like Ironman's power core, settled deeply in his chest, glowing with a soft but endless light. With this man I learned to rock climb, to mountaineer. I competed in obstacle races. I mastered feats of physical strength that were unimaginable for that little girl fidgeting miserably in her gym shorts--thirty foot rope climbs, two-fingered push-ups, inverted wall climbs, big-kid money bars. I bought a road bike after signing up for a 206 mile road race. I sat in the saddle for the first time 5 months before I rode across the finish line.
When this new partner looked at me, he saw an athlete. And in time, I came to see her, too. I began to move and treat my body differently. Exercise became about pushing my physical limits, not just maintaining my mental balance. My body became a vehicle for adventure and challenge. It became normal to have a competition of some kind on the horizon, something I was training for, a challenge I could not be certain of completing at the moment I paid the entry fee. These events became woven into the fabric of my marriage. We chose races and planned vacations around them, together. We trained together, celebrated at the finish line together. And I loved every second of it.
I loved being an athlete. Seeking the new limit was fascinating, exhilarating. I felt powerful and purposeful in my skin. And the woman I had become comforted the little girl I once was. I healed her wounds as I built my body. Everything she believed was impossible for her, I did, and I brought her with me through every step. As I moved from one pull-up to ten to twenty, as I covered more and more miles and crossed ever more distant finish lines, I asked her to watch. I told her the teachers who scoffed at her inability to hold a flexed arm hang for even one second were ignorant. Perhaps they didn't know any better, or maybe they just didn't care. But it doesn't matter now, little one. Now you are strong and powerful. Now people look to you with wonder. No one picks teams anymore, but if they did, you would be among the first selected. That's a good girl!
And just as I settled into this new body, the strong and stable joints, the constantly improving balance and explosive power, the skin with "athlete" written all over it...I got sick.
My hair started falling out. I was exhausted all of the time. But far worse, in terms of my athletic pursuits, I developed terrible pain in my left hip and low back. My pelvis became unstable. I couldn't flex my left hip without pain, and at times the pain was so excruciating that I was unable to bring my left leg into the car unassisted. I had ridden a road bike over 200 miles in two days. I had completed a 13 mile obstacle race. And I had to lift my leg with my hands to get in my car.
I assumed whatever was wrong could and would be quickly resolved. I'd had injuries before: sprained joints, torn muscles, irritated nerves. I had modified exercise many times to allow my body the space to heal. I set about doing #allthethings--seeing my physical therapist, getting more regular chiropractic care, getting my thyroid and other hormones tested. Some things were out of whack, some treatments were instigated. I retained the assumption that there was an impermanent root to these issues, that with enough time and treatment I would regain my former level of activity, I would arrive again in that body I had come to know and love. But treatments piled on treatments, tests and pills followed each other in an endless train...and nothing really got better.
That was over 4 years ago. Since then, many things have gotten better. I have periods of normal energy, without hair loss, brain fog, or delayed recovery from exercise. I had an IUD removed last summer and experienced some unbelievable healing as a result. I take thyroid medication now, along with a dizzying array of other pills, powders, and potions that support my body as it continues to heal. Insightful therapy has uncovered some movement dysfunction in my hip that I continue to address. I am getting stronger.
But I'm nowhere near where I was when this began. My cardiovascular endurance is drastically reduced. Though I remain fit and functionally strong, I doubt I could do a single pull-up. I know I can no longer do fingertip push-ups. The skills that carried me over, under, and through obstacles, that allowed me to exercise at high levels for hours on end, have eroded away, like solid black iron turning to russet rust that eventually blows away in flakes of near colorless dust.
I have modified my workouts for more than four years. Is it still considered modifying at that point? I think perhaps not. And here we come upon the thing I've been waiting for, the suspension in which I've only just realizing I am hanging.
When I got sick, I put my body away. I hung it in a metaphorical closet, like one hangs a heavy winter coat when greening grass indicates the intractable emergence of spring. I put it there thinking, just like the winter coat, that I would eventually pull it out again. I tucked it away, fully believing that there would be a "someday" when I could return to using my body, reveling in my body, exactly as I had been, as I had only recently learned how to. It did not occur to me at the time that this day might never come, that the changes in my body might be permanent, that I would once again be faced with redefining this vessel that moves my soul through the physical plane.
I recently received a tentative diagnosis of dysautonomia--a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates a wide variety of bodily functions, including heart rate and blood pressure. People with dysautonomia often experience fatigue and exercise intolerance. There is no cure for this condition; there is no someday when the symptoms go away.
It was this diagnosis that led me to the back of the closet, where I had hung my body as I waited impatiently for this momentary lapse in my life to be over. Though I have continued to exercise through the last four years, I'd chosen a very light routine for the last two, hoping to offer my body enough rest to purge it of fatigue and to fully heal the musculoskeletal issues that have plagued me. Now, knowing that regular exercise is one of the best management tools for dysautonomia, I've increased my exercise frequency and intensity. But at the same time, I've been forced to face a challenging reality. What I was once able to do--exercise for hours, train through dozens of miles each week for months on end, constantly push against my physical limits and shift them ever outward--may never be available to me again.
For four years I have steadfastly reused to be in the body that I have. I have gone through the motions of movement without being present in them, because my presence was hanging in the dark, tucked in the pocket of the body I relegated to the farthest recesses of the closet. In the most painful of ironies, I have once again denied myself joy in movement, once again refused to label the body that I have as the body of an athlete. This time I withhold the title not because I don't believe I can hold it, but because I know I can.
I have stood outside the door to this space, this closet where I hung my body, and waited. Time has passed, weeks and months of my life; time in which I could have celebrated this beautiful vessel. Instead, I have spent this time waiting to be reunited with a body from my past, a body that does not, in this moment, exist, the ghost of a dream, a Cheshire cat grin flashing in the back of the closet.
Upon realizing I had mothballed my physical self, I have opened the wardrobe door. I have taken my body out again, put it on, settled back into it. I spend time observing how it fits me differently now, where it is tighter, where it is frayed, where it remains familiar and where it is new again. As I move this body, I open myself to grieving the body that is lost. Though I may one day be able to return to competitive feats, that day is not in my near future. And that makes me terribly sad.
The body I have pulled from the closet is not the one I tucked away all of those long months ago. It's rather like hanging up a warm, quilted anorak and, returning later, pulling out a windbreaker. In truly wearing my body again, I am faced with a difficult truth. I don't want a windbreaker. I want my anorak back. It's hard for me to celebrate this body, this less robust version of what I once wore. If I am honest, I must say that I don't want a body that can't be pushed. I am deeply aggrieved to have lost what I had only so recently found.
I first became aware of this grief during the inaugural FEnomeon women's retreat, as Clara Wisner led us in connecting with our bodies. Though I did not yet realize how I had become separated from my physical form, I was wrenched with grief for what I could no longer access through my bones and muscles. This heart-wresting pain surfaced again as I wrote this post. I cried bitterly upon typing the words "I loved being an athlete." I cried again later, with my husband, telling him what it meant to me that I had found this gift through our relationship.
And it is a gift. Though I am bitter to have loved the life of a competitive athlete for so short a time, I am equally grateful to have known and loved that life, to have been that woman, at all. For the girl I had been to have grown into a challenge-hungry seeker of finish lines and finisher shirts is no small miracle. And while my heart breaks as I settle back into my skin, I can't help thinking it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The short years I spent honing the body that I labeled "athlete" changed more than just my fitness levels; they changed my soul.
Now, through my tears, I seek the challenges that are for this body, the body I am living in today--not races and high-performance events, but healing, nurturing, learning to listen and respect what my body has to offer. Now, too, it is time to redefine "athlete," to recognize this word is still mine to wear, even if I never race another mile or earn another medal.
As I move this new body through its ranges of motion, as I see how it responds to sweat and stress, rest and recovery, I begin to realize...being an athlete is not about what you do with your body. It's about how you do it. An athlete isn't defined by the number of miles they cover or medals they bring home. Instead, they are defined by their relationship to their body, the respect and reverence they bring to movement, the joy they derive from physicality, regardless of its intensity and duration.
And so, as I dust off the body that's been so long hidden away, I see that she still has "athlete" written on her skin. All is not lost. The miles ahead look different than those in the rearview. But they are still worth covering, still worth moving through with grace and power, with love for the physical body that is still mine to honor and care for. And if the fit of this new body takes some getting used to, that's OK. There is no need for a bit of cake to grow larger, a sip of drink to shrink down. All that is needed is a clean closet and a willingness to wear athlete on the skin that I am in.