This summer, my mental health took a dive. When that happens, I gain weight. Pounds accrued between a mix of inspiration/exhaustion, insight/grouchiness, hope/resentment. Between the extremes, I took refuge on the couch, watching TV to calm my ping-pong brain. I knew what could make me feel better. I just couldn’t do it. At this point, it was easy to sink into hopelessness — which I did. Eventually, when hope returned, a question arose like a buoy bobbing up from the deep:
When life gets hard, how are we supposed to keep going?
It sucks to be this stuck. I’m living a nagging paradox: feeling like less, but still wanting more. I float in lazy limbo, having lost my tether to any tactics I have used to keep going. Little stops and starts fill the time but get me nowhere. I resort to quirky, impulsive attempts at resuscitating hope (“Clear!”)
For example, this summer, I caught myself examining my hands a lot. I used them as a barometer for my entire body. Puffy pillows between my knuckles? Weight gain. Tendons pop as I flutter my fingers? Lost weight. This became my nightly ritual, catching clues out of the corner of my eye while reading in bed. Wrinkles reminded me of Reva. In her 80’s, she was a social sprite with a streak of moxie (the kind of gal I want to be when I’m that age). Sure, her fingers wore wrinkles, but she kept them ringed in cherished bobbles, so I didn’t get it when, one late night at Denny’s, she started crying.
Reva dropped her fork and floated both hands in front of her. Bobbles up, fingers shaking, she held the table in silence. I stopped chewing. Stillness is the best dish for digesting wisdom, and Reva was about to serve some. A tired huff rose from her throat. “These are not my hands,” she objected. I nested my own fork. “They used to be so smooth; they used to be so pretty,” she lamented in a teary tremor, palms up.
When I remember Reva, I wonder…
Will my body eventually drift that much out of reach for me? Will it become a stranger to me?
When life gets hard, and I get stuck, it sometimes feel like that day is closer than ever. Desperation drives me to JUST DO SOMETHING. I plan extreme workouts or consider starving myself. Like an animal caught in a steel trap, I would gnaw my leg off to escape the rusty clench of doom. That pain would be easier to bare than any loss of control. But they say control is an illusion, right? In cheerier moments, I remember that. Plus, I realize that I can micro-measure all I want, but it won’t keep me from finding some other body part to worry into a problem. There’s a better way.
What if I chose compassion over control? Could I learn to become a friend to my body? This is more than just accepting my body as it is (I still want to feel better; I still want to get fit.) It’s not acceptance but insistence. Insistence on kindness: towards me, by me, and around me. This radically-generous approach, in fact, redeems the only control I ever really have. I get to decide how to see myself. I get to determine what health looks like on me. So, recently, I had this thought…
I’m already taking up space with my body. It’s time to start taking up space in my life.
I started where I could. When my dog, Huxley, licked my hands to get me off the couch, I got up and took him to the river. When I arrived river rats were anchoring their kayaks or rafts after a sunny day on the water. I refused to resent their fun. Instead, I insisted on my own version. I threw a stick into the current, and Huxley vaulted in. I scanned the crowd: no kids. I shed my shirt. Huxley nabbed his treasure. I dropped my shorts. He dog-paddled back. I tightened my sandals. Just before he touched down in the shallows, I dove past Huxley – in all my nakedness – leaving him bobbing in my wake. I didn’t glance back. My belly, double-chin, curves, and ripples, they all came unabashedly with me.
By Labor Day, the spirit behind those chunky-dunks had trickled into other parts of my life. Ironically, tiny doses of kindness can bring big healing. Things I’ve tweaked so far:
- Unfollowing all those fitness sites and filling my Facebook feed with “Body Positive” images. Some of my favorites are Brittany Gibbons, Yoga Body Image Coalition, Girl With Curves, and a favorite You Tube video called This Girl Can.
- Crafting flexible workouts I can do, no matter how I feel. Using an app called Motive, I programmed a daily text reminder that reads, “Custom movement for today?”
- Honoring Reva by embracing my own sense of style. My belly roll bends the lines on my striped maxi skirt, but I enjoy modeling the beauty of a woman who fully inhabits her body.
As of this writing, the river has cooled to a brisk polar plunge. I’ve lost some of the weight I gained. Though, some days, I still brace for a crash on the couch. The hardest part is trust. Trusting my best self to return. Trusting my body to want to move when the time comes. I tuck my soft self between kindness and trust — holding both at the same time – waiting for energy to come. Compassion creates space, and I keep finding ways to take it up by living in the full spectrum of my life. It’s easier to move through the spaces in life (an old Chinese adage). Even if hard times get in the way again – as they undoubtedly will – I’ll have a way to keep going.
It’s not acceptance, but insistence, that keeps me going.