That was the sound my hamstring made while I was stretching after a workout. It was so loud the guy at the front desk actually came into the gym to ask what it was. It sounded like Hulk Hogan shredding his infamous yellow and red tank. I was sitting on the floor in a little bit of shock expecting to be paralyzed or in some kind of pain, but nothing like that happened. Jake was a massage therapist and ski instructor so that qualified him to look at my leg and determine I’d ripped something, but as long as I rested and iced it, I’d be fine. Good news seeing as how I was living in the White Mountains making essentially no money and didn’t have health insurance. Apparently the backside of my thigh was noticeably swollen. I was glad I could stand but immediately started to panic wondering how this was going to affect my ability to workout since at the time, the gym was becoming a second home and the only place I wanted to be. I was nearly two years into my separation and the gym was my very cheap shrink who never gave me any, unsolicited advice.
Sojourner Truth said it’s the mind that makes the body. That audible tear happened over 7 years ago. By that Spring I was smoking again. I’d moved into the furnished apartment above the kayak shop and he had moved into a cabin 20 minutes away. I wasn’t waiting for a miraculous cure to my torn tendon or our shredded marriage, but I wasn’t in a rush to leave just yet. I contented myself with cigarettes and my great grandmother’s homemade chocolate frosting recipe which I ate with a butter knife at my kitchen counter after long runs. My leg only seemed to bother me if I ran up hill. For extra irony, after my run, I’d hide behind parked SUV’s down the back road behind the kayak shop and smoke. Since I still worked at the resort I didn’t want my guests, or my nosy boss to see me. In truth, I never wanted anyone to see my smoking. It was my favorite secret thing to do and had been on and off since high school. Everything was coming apart and I remember feeling kind of elated about that, like that falling girl in the weird computer app who cascades down through an endless fountain of pastel colored bubbles, aimlessly falling but never crashing or landing. She occasionally got stuck, but remained expressionless about it and easily began falling again with a few jiggles of the mouse. I had nothing to do except work, run and sleep and since I hadn’t yet determined any sort of finality there were no repercussions or explanations required. We were just living apart and there was nothing to say.
Sometimes the pain traveled up the back of my leg and into my lower back, or wrapped itself around my knee and I’d get stuck on my run, hoppling until I was all hopped out and forced to pause and stretch. I hated the pauses, and the helpless feelings that would come from having my body tell me what to do instead of the other way around. I think I have found some strange safety in being the one to abuse my body, as if taking that power away from the ones who came before me and assuming that my body had no wants or needs of its own, other than to serve others or serve me. In the early parts of my recovery I made little attempts to do that thing which is called ‘befriending’ your body, but honestly I think I just detached from it in a different way and plowed myself into paper writing and research and building a career. It wasn’t until my practicum in grad school that I actually had to consider how I looked.
When the unexpected job offer came I had already done the so called ‘hard part’ of sorting through who was going to keep what, like picking out the dirt from the seeds, except instead of it being a garden, it had been a life I shared with this other person for over a decade. Our seeds never actually bloomed. So that was something. I decided I mostly didn’t want to keep anything. Separating things like, heaping stuff into piles in the guestroom of our condo in the resort, was an energetic dissection. Between the narrow living room which looked out over a dumpster and the mountains, there was an invisible web of strands of energy being pulled apart as I moved things from the wall or a cabinet and into a box or a pile that would be his, which had been ours. I would leave instructions about what to take and walk the mile up the road to my gym at the other mountain resort. It had a steam room which was the perfect place to disappear. It was very small, very dark and very steamy. I was being seduced back into the smooth, velvet arms of my eating disorder and pretending not to notice.
Sometimes on days off I’d visit him at the cabin and run up and down his road wondering how he was going to pay for his expensive cable package, or really, how he was paying for anything. The bags from George’s Bakery meant his parents were making regular trips up as that was one division he’d yet to make. None of that mattered as I was moving out of state in a few short weeks. He would later follow me, bring his bills, drain my savings, be a psychologically annihilating disaster of an alcoholic and then I’d finally file for the divorce and lose more weight. My apartment complex had a gym that was open 24/7. I’d switched from frosting to Cool Whip and chocolate protein smoothies from the Starbucks on the corner. Sometimes two a day since I never felt like cooking and didn’t have a car to go food shopping anyway. You sweat more in Florida, and since it was Florida you essentially don’t feel anything because it’s Florida and therefore not real. If you had once been a human being with actual feelings and had a life with context that had been rooted in dreams, faith and values, they were now somewhere else because those things dissipate in Gulf sunsets and the blinding glare of florescent, flamingo shaped sequins.
Everything is too bright and too loud for a thoughtful reality to co-exist. I invite you to take a yoga class in Florida and then tell me how that resonates for you. Therefore, it is the perfect place to get divorced. I would learn that divorce is called Disillusionment. It’s like they knew. And I didn’t, until I did.
My Egyptian doctor practiced next door from where I was working. He took note of me because he kept catching me on the scale in his office. The patient exit door was always open and the scale was right there, so naturally. Come for your check up, you have hospital’s insurance. Yeah, ok. I would have avoided it but then I had started taking Xanax so I could sleep at night, only I wasn’t ever sleeping. I was exhausted, and dizzy and had been to the ER a couple of times for this and that. So, I let him work me up.
This happened the last time. Complete strangers tell you how great you look at the gym. “You’re so ripped, disciplined, thin, skinny, beautiful, lean, perfect, slender, fit, you look like a model, you’re hot, you’re flexible, wow, damn, you sexy, ugh I’m so jealous, is that how you want me to look?, lemme getcher number, can I talk to you, you don’t really look like you need a trainer, why are you here everyday if you already look like that? (and my favorite) yo, I mean this will all due respect, your ass is amazing!” Despite intentionally wearing the wrong thing, styling my hair with my own sweat, donning a resting bitch-face and omitting deodorant, people still comment. Praising the sick. I’ve talked to many obese women who end up feeling just as stuck in their fat. When so much notice is given to the extremities of size you begin to wonder what shape your body would have to remain in order to secure love or acceptance and whether or not you’d want it or even trust it if this is how people really feel. You praise my sickness, you mock my sickness. Gaining or losing this much suddenly jolts me into the category of your disgust, but 3 pounds ago I was practically a goddess. The helpful part of an eating disorder is that it’s not actually driven by outside opinion. The comments are background chatter, like black flies swarming around the pile of shit that you are when your physical projections are made up of processed sugar and lies.
The doctor said my hematocrit and hemoglobin were so low he was ordering a blood transfusion. This is Florida! I’m a vegetarian! Please tell me what my alternatives options are. 10 weeks of I.V iron infusions and I should start thinking about eating beef liver. Are you fucking kidding? Is there any way out of this? How do I fix it without the needles? I go where for the treatments? They’re going to cost how much? And the hematologist is an idiot who thinks this is all caused by heavy periods because he refuses to actually look at me. I won’t gain weight or change my diet because now I am confined to a chair for two hours every week and then sort of racked for the rest of the day after that. The most I can do is lay on my floor and wait for the sick feelings to go away.
I feel selfish for crying during the treatments because there are real sick people sitting around me and I’ve essentially done this to myself. There was a brief period where I was eating as much as I could to try and gain weight; the hospital cafeteria chocolate cake, cups of tuna salad, more protein shakes and nothing was working. Anxiety burnt up everything I put in; which in a way, was nice, but once I got down to that place where you’re just losing everything it starts to feel scary and out of your control. And then there’s more comments, which are always unhelpful, ‘you’re not that skinny, you look fine, you look waaaaaay too skinny, you look sick, you look terrible, she told me she thought you looked very thin, you’ve gained weight!, oh, you’re putting some weight on, you’re so athletic looking. geez, eat a cheeseburger!’
You make every attempt to self assess. Sometimes I took pictures and hung onto them so I could compare the lines, but that rarely works. The most accurate was always the tape measure and the body fat monitor at the gym. The one that looks like the gears on a plane, minus the plane. 13% body fat and my periods came every 28 days like clockwork. And the BMI chart says I’m fine. And Sir Lift Alot over there still thinks I have a great bum, so I must be healthy. But I feel like death. I feel exhausted. I feel so beyond tired. I feel like I want to sleep forever and never wake up. I feel like I will melt into the plastic fibers of this shag rug. I feel like I will never feel good ever again. It becomes scary when the doctors and nurses around don’t seem to get it. You can’t ask them for real prognosis because they aren’t speaking into your reality. You’re a medical mystery which baffles their ego so they punish you with passive aggression and useless prescriptions. Everything is a pat answer or a condemnation of what you should or shouldn’t do; something you could find yourself on WebMD. And it doesn’t end there. Jesus hates me too. I’d started going back to church and it turns out a divorced women in a Catholic church is a whore, undeserving of saving. There was something of a cycle repeating itself. I was ripped apart from love, convinced it was my fault. I didn’t measure up.
The first time I got sick I would stay up late and count my bones. I would hold a candle under my ribs and see how many ribs I could count while sucking in, and then see how many I could count without sucking in and then I’d do quiet little exercises until I believed I’d burned little layers of fat off the bones I couldn’t count. Then I’d wake up with my heart pounding out of my chest like a panicked bird in a cage, get carried to the ER and throw plastic bowls at the doctor who told me I couldn’t lose any more weight without doing certain things which he wasn’t going to tell me about. I hope he’s fired somewhere. I figured out how to lose more weight despite him.
But in Florida, I was trying to find that elusive path to internal and external perfection by starting over with nothing. I wanted to figure out how to do it the complete right way; to be shredded out of everything I didn’t need or want and have the by-product of that be a body-home I could live in comfortably. It was about eliminating the limitations of the past by running through them into a present reality that I’d constructed and made safe for only me. The place where the fibers get torn and heal is thicker as it repairs itself and the imbalance creates a pulling pain that travels on whatever path it finds in your body until it works itself out of you. If you participate in the process, it goes quicker. I don’t even remember what side of me I tore, but I do know that I am officially now, one inch shorter and crooked on a side. I suppose we all wear our stories. There came a point during the iron treatments where my grown-up self had a rational conversation with the body and calmly explained that we could not afford to continue in this way, so we found a respectable Registered Dietitian and started keeping the food journal and doing everything she said which included our agreement that we weren’t going to have to gain any weight, but we also had to stop losing weight. And the nurse said no more running till the treatments were done, so we walked from the apartment, over the green bridge that spanned Manatee harbor to the fishing pier wall and back. When you walk instead of run your thoughts slow down and you can really see people’s faces and think.
This meant coming back into the body and remembering why we checked out in the first place.
6 thoughts on “Ripped”
Really excellent piece – another Pensieve experience. You have this superb ability to bring a reader right into your experience as if they were there and somehow had X-ray vision to see what was going on within as well as without.
Isn’t it extraordinary what the body can be pushed to when it’s in fight/flight response, when it’s supercharged with adrenaline and stress hormones. It was never meant as a long-term strategy biologically, but with things like CPTSD and other conditions involving anxiety it can become a way of life for decades, until you crash and burn, or find some way to get out of that modus operandi. The fact that someone can still have the (nervous) energy to run when well into anaemia… when normally you’d be too tired to even get out of a chair with that condition… It’s sort of like animals still running on three legs after a limb has been ripped off in an accident, and literally running until they bleed out.
I didn’t know I had PTSD till my early 40s, and now I look back and shake my head at how I used to live: Work 10-hour days in a job that demanded everything of me on all levels, and then come home and exercise because I just had to, my body was driving me to do it. I’m no runner, but I walked steep hills and did rock clambering around the shoreline and did interval training on the beach – running barefoot best as I could, just to get as out of breath as I could, and then walking with my heart pounding in my ears until I could do it again. On weekends I would do 3-4h mountain walks. It was the only way I could sleep at night. In one way it was an excellent way to be fit, and I didn’t actually overdo it. If I didn’t exercise properly and eat wonderfully well nutritionally and sleep eight hours a night I would just collapse, so I minded those basics, and it was easy to do them because I couldn’t not. So I was glowing with physical health, but as a direct result of having to cope with a post-traumatic body chemistry.
Now my chemistry is more ordinary, I actually have to motivate myself to exercise, and I feel exhausted thinking about the life I used to lead. Wouldn’t it be great to have that much energy and get-up-and-go, but not as a result of post-traumatic body chemistry? Some sort of convenient gene mutation that worked through healthy pathways. On the plus side I could never sit still, and now I can, and can really enjoy it. I think I’ll start looking out for a rocking chair! 😉
That’s the thing though about all this stuff: If you (“you” as in “one” which sounds a bit toffee-nosed) had a more planarian existence then you also wouldn’t think a tenth of the thoughts you do, or want to learn all the time, or constantly add to your complex working models of various aspects of the world, or be so sensitive to and enthused by the nuances of language, or want to read tomes of philosophy etc. In a way it’s the hyperfocus, the needing to rely so much on your own self for survival from a tender age where children in healthy families are protected and can be more carefree, that ends up shaping the person you become and giving you not just problems to deal with (like social anxiety or eating disorders or whatever) but also, paradoxically, some extraordinary abilities, which I hesitate to describe as “gifts” because that would imply things like that they came easily and without tears and agony and that perhaps you should be grateful for your misfortunes and to the people that caused you distress and that maybe even God planned it that way (a theology to which I could never warm – I think “shit happens” is a better proposition – or maybe “shit happens but look what you can grow in it” – feel free to develop that line of thought further if it chimes with you).
Happy (slightly belated) solstice! 🙂
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Sophie, wow. First, thank you. You dig so far back into my writing there are some pieces I’d forgotten about. I’m glad this spoke to you. I have a magnet on my fridge that says running is cheaper than therapy. (But honestly we need both and I’m not just saying that because of my profession 😉 It’s strange and also comforting to think there may be a day when I too no longer needs to exhaust myself in order to feel peaceful and instead am shopping for a rocking chair. There are gifts and benefits to surviving our adversity (I like your universal use of ‘you’ as in ‘one’and will try and use toffee-nosed in a sentence next week) I can NOT imagine having organic energy. It sounds as if yours has found some balance? Well, cheers to that. My anemia has been in remission for just over a year now. Fingers crossed-I’m due for labs and my naturopath says my tongue is a disaster. Apparently the way your tongue looks tells lots about health. It’s been amazing to make it through a workday without wanting to burst into tears from fatigue; sort of like a toddler way past nap time. Maybe life is lived easily for some? Maybe? I don’t honestly know since there are 7 billion-ish people in the world and I only know a handful. But gratitude for very simple things like energy, coffee, a sunny day, a kind stranger, become miracles and I’m not sad for that. Have you ever seen The Bucket List? I love it, it’s the foot and the shoe coming together for a once in a lifetime adventure. Not sure I can quickly articulate it beyond that but I don’t know that any one of us gets both or one without the other. I wrote something recently about compost (which is shit) and how all the substance we seek is in there. We might ruin our mani but so far it’s been worth it. Happy solstice and equinox to you too. I like both. 🙂
I meant equinox. That’s slightly less belated. Weather improving in both hemispheres!
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Hooray for improving weather! Today I ran outside for the first time in 5 months! My knees are grumpy but it felt so good.
I know these are old pieces but just wanted to say what a talented writer you are.
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Thanks for visiting and taking the time to read and comment. It’s good motivation 😉
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