…or How I Discovered that Movement is My Medicine
When I was in high school, I ran-walked the mile in the Presidential fitness test in just over fourteen minutes. I played on the tennis team where our conditioning drills amounted to a few suicides and a run around the backstops of the three softball fields that abutted our courts, all before the season started. I was routinely told to get the lead out of my feet. Suffice it to say that, though I was coordinated and motivated to do well in everything I attempted, I was not the picture of athleticism.
If the 16-year-old me was staring into a group fitness class at the gym she wouldn’t recognize me. How did I go from slogging through the mile to killing it in class and confounding my friends with my commitment to my fitness? How did I go from loathing physical activity to needing it like medicine? Like most things, it evolved:
I was always encouraged to workout. My mother was — and still is — a Jazzercise franchise owner. There was ample opportunity. But, two things kept me away, at least part of the time. I felt like I was routinely failing at all the tests of physical endurance. And, I had boobs so big that I was convinced they were a physical impediment to my efforts. A deformity. Something that would keep me sidelined, like a club foot. The day my bra strap snapped in Jazzercise class only served as confirmation.
I never experienced exercise as stress-relief because asking my body to do all the things required of it was anything but stress-free. I could never move freely. Exercise was just a reminder of how gross I thought I was. Exercise was another opportunity to trot out my distorted thinking. I’m deformed. I can’t. If I move, I will be seen. And there’s nothing worse than being seen.
Late in college, after I had breast reduction surgery, my excuses dissolved a bit and I discovered the Stairmaster. That summer, I jogged outside on the gravel paths at the sleep-away camp where I was a counselor. And I actually enjoyed it. Then, when I moved to New York City, I discovered group fitness. Even though I was exercising in a group setting I felt less concerned about what I looked like and I was less convinced people were watching me. Though I’d taken dance class since I was four until I graduated high school, I finally experienced true joy while dancing. And it was dancing with strangers at the gym that got me there.
I had now cultivated my enthusiasm for working out and I had my routine. Kickboxing Monday. Dance Tuesday. Run Wednesday. Dance Thursday. Body sculpting Friday. Step Saturday. I was so committed I’d wait around until as late as 7:30 for dance to begin some days. And I never went home in between class and work because I had the vague sense that I’d never get myself back off the couch and I’d be haunted by guilt. This practice became unwieldy when I started dating the dude who’d become my husband. In favor of hanging out during the week, I began to try to work out in the mornings. It was hella hard. I felt like I couldn’t move in the morning. And it took me three months to get totally used to it. But once I did, I suddenly couldn’t turn back. My morning workouts became my medicine. I would feel all weird or out-of-it if I didn’t get to the gym.
I was so dedicated to my practice that for more than four years I woke up at 4:45am every weekday. My friends were some combination of awestruck and appalled by my dedication. The benefits far outweighed how tired I might have been at the end of the day. I started to find a community through my morning pilgrimage. And, I had inadvertently found a prophylactic agent that kept the blues at bay.
Then, not too long ago, I thought I could game the system. We were out of town, and I let myself fall out of my routine. Exercise was tended to less regularly. Meditation was non-existent. As a consequence, I melted the f— down. My self-talk was punishing. Destructive. I was crying myself to sleep, crying in public, crying in the shower. And we were on “vacation.” Then, I promised myself that this would never happen again. The thing is the mood stuff is always there. The risk of falling into the dark spiraling thoughts is a real possibility. And here, I had given up the tools I knew gave me a fighting chance. That vacation was a peek into how important routine is to me. When you’re dealing with funky mood stuff, the “things” that keep you feeling good are so important. If you know what they are, cherish them, honor them. They are your salvation. This is when I realized: Movement is my medicine.