Adventures in Fitness, or How to Get Murdered by Your Sports Bra

It’s 7:00 a.m. and I am getting ready to go to the gym. As soon as I finish my coffee so I can poop first. This is my life at 39 (and three-quarters) – held hostage to the schedule of my intestines. Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am.

The gym, I long thought, was for young, svelte, fitness freaks who look like they model part time for Nike. (And if they don’t, how in the hell can they afford workout clothes? One pair of Lyrca/Spandex pants cost me $50! Don’t even get me started on sports bras – I’ll get to that in a minute.) Even when I was young and svelte, I didn’t think much of exercise and Nike can just bugger right off with its infamous marketing tagline. NOBODY TELLS ME TO JUST DO ANYTHING. But age and boredom and the 14 breaks I have to take on the stairs to carry my laundry into the basement have convinced me that perhaps I should re-evaluate my stance on fitness.

I use the gym on a military installation. It’s free, it’s local, it’s well-equipped. And on a good day, I can snag the recumbent bike overlooking the free weight room and get a show with my workout. Yes, I’m watching them.  They don’t seem to notice, being preoccupied, as they are, with watching themselves. That place is a hall of mirrors, taking muscles on a psychedelic trip through geometry. Groovy, man.

But I’ve mostly overcome the idea that anyone is watching me. If anyone is looking at me wheeze and melt through one lousy mile on the eliptical, I don’t think they’re actually noticing. They’re too busy striding magnificently on a steeply inclined treadmill, chest out, chin up, arms pumping furiously in full on Forrest Gump mode, no doubt imagining themselves running to the top of Mount Olympus to take their rightful place among the ancient Greek pantheon. I sincerely doubt they’re concerned about the pond of sweat that’s sloshing around in that little flat tray beneath my control panel. What’s that for, anyway?

The more often I go, the more I reward myself with the accessories that help me forget I’m going to the gym. Wireless earphones. Blue-tooth enabled iPod to listen to on the wireless earphones. New music specifically designed to keep your heart rate above that of a nervous hamster. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m supposed to be listening or convulsing. It works, though. I rarely find myself dropping back down to Leisurely Stroll Through the Park speeds. I’m trying to outrun the riot of 20-somethings that are attempting to have a rave in my ears. Are those still a thing, raves? I’ll tell you right now, if anyone breaks out glowsticks and a pacifier, I’m taking up shuffleboard.

I’m a largish gal. Squishy, you might say. Containing it all is a challenge for the most experienced of athletic brands, and they charge dearly for the privilege of carrying my boobs over the course of an hour. I have yet to find a sports bra that doesn’t get hung up on my back fat, making stripping off after the gym an exercise unto itself. Somewhere around the five-minute mark, after I’ve pulled 18 muscles in my neck I didn’t know I had, dislocating my shoulder and somehow punching myself in the nose with my elbow, I wonder if crime scene investigators will even suspect that the pitiful tangle of sweat-soaked Lyrca was actually the murderer. “The house appeared to be empty at the time of death, Sergeant, probably a suicide… Wait, what is this… AAAAH, IT’S GOT ME, SIR! IT’S WRAPPING AROUND MY NECK AND BLLLLAAAARGH… help!…” Why hasn’t anyone made this movie yet? There is nothing more horrifying than the prospect of removing a sweaty sports bra.

I have not lost a single ounce in the six weeks I’ve been going to the gym. My clothes fit exactly the same as before, and I would take up precisely as much room on a bus seat as I did before, if I took the bus. I told myself I was utterly unconcerned with losing weight when I started, and it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m a little disappointed. Looks like my dream career of booth babe at Comic Con is more out of reach than ever. ::sigh:: But I no longer take 14 breaks on the stairs to the basement. Last weekend I performed TWO chores outside in the yard (in Missouri. in August) and survived. And I think I may have passed some kind of fitness threshold when I started laughing maniacally halfway through my workout the other day. I like to think it was an endorphin rush and not my new pants giving me a wedgie.

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The 8th Dwarf

It’s not as though you’re the eighth dwarf, Angry, with just the one trait to define you.

Those words were written to me by a (slightly exasperated) friend who’d been watching me struggle with a decision that I thought would fundamentally change my identity. It probably doesn’t occur to him that over 10 years later that sentence still shocks me into stillness, into silent revelation.

I’ve fallen out of touch with that friend, a fact that makes me sad, nostalgic, mournful – even a little angry. But knowing that it makes me all of those things is his continuing gift to me. The knowledge that I am not a single, volatile emotion. I am not a caricature of myself. I am a complete human, and from that – I am enough.

Where did I get the idea that I was just Angry? Part of it is language. In English, we don’t say we “have” something, we say we “are” something. I am hungry, I am bored, I am scared. I am angry. (German and French, for examples that I have some knowledge of, don’t have this problem.) The other part comes from growing up with a parent who was scared to death of anger. It terrified her in a primitive, vulnerable, damaged place in her brain and she never developed beyond that fear. Seeing the parents she grew up with explains a lot about that, but doesn’t change the outcome.

The outcome is that anger as part of a spectrum was not an idea in my developmental toolbox. The perception of my anger was that it was dangerous, an invader bent on pillaging good sense and reason. I was unmanageable, unlovable when I was angry. I learned to fundamentally misunderstand every interaction where it was present – seeing threats where there were none, attacking without provocation, righteousness and shame inverted.  I learned to fear it, too.

But it was still there, existing on the spectrum even as I shied away from it. Eventually, it refused to be buried. Lacking any tools for dealing with the expression of anger, I let it simmer until a random addition of heat set me to boiling over. Sometime around puberty, I became known for my “temper”. Rather than help me dig beneath it, the people in my life entrusted with my emotional development  retreated behind great walls of disciplinary action. I’m experienced enough now to guess that was a defense on their part, but it had consequences.

At some point, I embraced the label. “Temperamental.” “Bitchy.” “Angry.” I let it off leash at the drop of a hat, my reliable anger there to keep threats at bay. Don’t get the idea that my life was all misunderstood, caring people just trying to get close to me. Sometimes my anger was justified and an effective tool. Sometimes people used it to their own advantage. In a display of internalized shame that still twists my gut, I was proud that I could be used in such a way. My anger didn’t just have value, it was my value. I am Angry, the eighth dwarf – never part of the official narrative, just there to lend uncomfortable realism.

I would like to claim that my friend’s words were the bolt of lightning that changed everything. The reality is more gradual. I was working my way out of that impossibly narrow definition for a while through being a parent myself, through friendships, through unutterable loneliness. I just didn’t have the words (a case of irony so thick it has to be processed with industrial grade machinery). I needed those words to give shape to the struggle – to define new boundaries and light my inner rebellion.

I’m still rebelling. I still find myself trying to listen to all my emotions as they play their symphony on my spectrum. Still trying to reconcile that I have a spectrum. Still trying. I am not the eighth dwarf. I’m not a fairy tale. I’m real, and I get to have all that it confers.

Beginning. Again.

I had a blog, once. I wrote often and was pleased with my own cleverness. I wrote for the approval of my friends and family and strangers. I tried hard to be funny and a little bit zany. It was never a popular blog outside a small circle of people, but it taught me about the kind of writing I am capable of, and the kind that no longer suits my life.

This is different. This is just me, reaching out into the crowded blankness of the internet – striking, pleading, wondering, and asserting – trying to turn honesty into a verb.