I have had a really bad relationship with my body. A *really* bad relationship with my body. At the horrible risk of offending the quadriplegic community, I will say that for most of my life, I have been a psychological quadriplegic; my psyche was disconnected from my body. I did not include my body in my decisions, life, goals, etc. My body had let me down so often, that my entire life was in my head; my life was invested in academics, in reading, in writing, in conversation.
Everything, I thought, was mind over matter. Exercise was painful. Mind over matter. Backpacking, one of my favorite hobbies, was still painful. Mind over matter. My body brought me no joy. Pushing my body through the journey was a means to an end, dictated by my mind. Get to the top of the mountain and digest the view! F*ck the vomiting and the pain. Get through it. My body brought me no joy.
My body was the cause of psychic pain: in grade school, a very ungifted child at any form of athletics (except hula-hooping, and I’ll get to that later), I was always picked last. When you get picked last time after time, you learn to divorce yourself from the source of that pain, and that pain was my body. There are students who fail in school, and after awhile, they remove any self esteem from academic success.
I learned, strategically, to position myself as the CAPTAIN of teams in grade school. Guess what: I was a wizard at strategizing so that I picked the strongest teams. The “Dangerous Dandelions” won every single soccer game during lunch hour. I positioned myself as a fullback and prayed the ball would never come my way. It never did. Everyone on my team knew better than to let the ball get to me. I was proud of them for being so wise.
I was good at hula-hooping. But that was because my dad thought that hula hooping would chisel away at my belly fat. I could hula-hoop for an hour straight. I was a wizard at hula-hooping. Still, it had been a painful road; I had to hula-hoop in front of my dad who made me hula-hoop for an hour on end.
When I told a friend in my mid-20s that I didn’t work out because it was so painful and difficult, he gave me a response that was straightforward and true. He said, “Christine, if it were easy to be fit, everyone would be fit.” Oh. I realized that it wasn’t supposed to be easy. But–still, why was it so difficult for me? Why did I pass out during workouts? Why did running leave me dizzy and gasping for air, and often, throwing up by the side of a road or by the side of a treadmill?
My body was a source of pain in so many ways; I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. I was taught to cover my body up. I was told my body looked horrible in a bikini, not because it looked horrible, but because, in hindsight, I realize it was a way to prevent me from wearing a bikini. But the message came through, all the same.
When I got to college, and experienced the first amorous pair of male hands on my body, I stiffened. I divorced myself from my body in a way that I’d divorced my body before hundreds of times. My body was no longer there. And because I went numb, I let the boy go too far; I’d never been kissed before, but there I was, being kissed. His tongue was cold and probing and I wasn’t there. So I didn’t stop him. It wasn’t until my roommate walked in, saying, “Oops!” that I was able to snap out of my stupor and tell the guy, “I just want to go to sleep.” He was confused. And he was angry later, when I told a mutual friend that his advances were unwanted.
Future amorous encounters were just as uncomfortable. Had I been abused? No. I just couldn’t STAND my body. The next time a boy touched me, it tickled. It.tickled. I couldn’t stop laughing. It.tickled!!! I couldn’t get comfortable. I couldn’t get relaxed. I had to drink to be touched. My friends heard me recount my dependence on alcohol to be touched and they became concerned. But it was what I had to do to divorce myself from my shame around my body.
I thought I was so fat and ugly. These days, when I look at myself in high school and college, I can’t believe how slim I was. How really really slim I was. I was not fat. In college, I averaged 120 pounds at 5’3″.
I abused my body. I starved it. And then when I could no longer starve it (I was eating less than 800 kcal/day), I started binging and purging so much so that the enamel started wearing off my teeth. I didn’t care what I did to my body, because I felt it needed to be punished. It was the bane of my existence.
In the end, both my psyche/mind and my body suffered for the divorce. My body, despite my abusing it as if I wanted it to disappear, existed. It was trying to survive.
Two medical diagnoses changed my life:
1) First, my PCOS
2) Second, my PFO
(I like to joke, “I came with a lot of defects out of the factory!” But there I go again, deriding my body).
After I got married, in my twenties, I gained weight. I gained a lot of weight. I was in denial; I would yell at photographers because “they made me look fat”–but the reality was that I’d gained nearly thirty pounds, which on a 5’3″ frame is not an amount to laugh at. It was not until my husband said something to me that I made a connection with reality. “You look so unhealthy.” Thud. Kaboom. Where was my breath.
Standing up at the time, I had rolls. Rolls of belly fat. I remember trying on a slim fitting sweater and being distraught at the fact that the rolls were showing through the knit material. I was crying. My mother-in-law brought me another sweater to try on. There are very few pictures from that time period, because I never wanted it recorded for posterity. But I was…fat. I was 5’3″ and 165 pounds. Some might call that obese.
I had abused my body and then I ignored it. At around the same time, I had started trying to have a baby; after years of going to doctors, I was finally diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome at UCSF. PCOS explained my inability to lose weight. It explained my infertility, another failing of my body. I cried. So many of my frustrations with my body were linked to PCOS.
One of the ironic treatments to PCOS is to lose weight; this is achieved with hormone or drug therapy, and so I went on metformin/glucophage, which is traditionally a drug for diabetes. The idea is that the metformin resolves insulin resistance, which then causes weight loss, which then reduces androgens in the body, in a cyclic rotation.
I began to lose weight. I lost twenty pounds inside of a few months without changing my diet or exercise regime. When I began to lose weight, I realized that a part of my identity was being stripped. I missed being fat. Even though I hadn’t been fat my entire life, I had identified with being fat (I still do). And I began to feel very uncomfortable in my new skin; I felt I was a traitor and I felt like I was an impostor.
But I had gotten to a healthier place with my body. I had begun to realize it had needed help. It was beginning to respond to me. I began to eat better. I began to exercise.
And then I had a stroke at the age of 33 when I was in the best shape of my life. I was training with a trainer three times a week, and was lean in a way I hadn’t been lean in years, with a confidence about my body I hadn’t had, ever. I was eating healthy. But I still had a stroke. And at the time, I didn’t care, because I was in a state of brain damaged bliss. Meanwhile, everyone else was asking, “How could someone so young have had a stroke?”
I was the youngest patient in the DCU, and felt like a novelty in the sea of white and gray haired patients, wheeling my heart monitor and Heparin IV up and down the hallway, in my pink pajama bottoms and hello kitty tshirt brought from home for the week in hospital.
My husband had taken me to the ER, knowing something was wrong with me (I couldn’t remember anything, I couldn’t put a meal together, I couldn’t remember phone numbers, including his), but not knowing why. The next day, after being hospitalized, the MRI showed I’d had a left thalamic stroke. Days later, I learned the cause of my stroke was a PFO, or patent foramen ovale, a common birth defect in 25% of the human population. As a fetus, we breathe through our mother’s blood, and so we have no use for our lungs. The blood flows from one side of the heart to the other, skipping our lungs, through a hole in the central wall.
When we’re born, that hole closes up…in about 75% of the human population.
For the rest of us–it doesn’t close up completely or at all, leaving anything from a hole in the central wall to a very loose flapping curtain. I had a very loose flapping curtain that, given a certain pressure or position, will “leak” blood.
And that is what happened to me. A clot traveled through that hole into my head and caused a left thalamic stroke that left me with a 15 minute short term memory. (There are still many things I don’t remember from that time period–but thanks to the journal I kept, I can read about them…and also, much of it has returned to me, because I am now available to retrieve memories again).
(Also, as a side note: I lost fifteen pounds in the initial months of recovery. I would forget to eat, and somehow the stroke damaged an appetite center or something, so I had zero appetite, too. Of course, twisted moi was happy about that).
What happened later improved my relationship with my body tremendously. People don’t believe me when I say that my stroke has been one of the best things to have happened to me. It has been one of the best things to have happened to me as a person and as a writer. I did not feel this at the time, of course, but I learned to retrieve as many life lessons along the way, and it’s those life lessons I treasure.
Because I was left with a 15 minute short term memory, I had the wonderful gift of living entirely in the present tense, something that people try many methods like meditation, to attain. I had a taste of that peace and serenity. I learned what it felt like to have a disability, and to now have empathy and understanding for the disabled. So many times people would ignore me and leave me frustrated, or say rude things, or say I didn’t LOOK sick and then proceed to ignore my special needs, that I now try my best to understand others. It took almost a year to get to a “decent” place (read: ability to write some fiction again, ability to read a novel) in recovery, and over two years to fully recover. I learned so much.
But most of all, it led to a previously undiscovered hole in my heart, located in a particularly difficult to spot area, in the back of my heart. I got it closed.
And then–I discovered I could RUN. I could do aerobic activities. What left me gasping as a child, wondering how it was that other people could handle such pain and struggle, now filled me with elation. Running wasn’t supposed to be THAT hard! As a child, I just couldn’t keep up with any of the children, I just couldn’t.get.enough.air into my lungs. And as an adult, I am famous at my former trainer’s gym for being the person who “puked fourteen times doing stadiums and kept going” and I am known for puking my way up a mountain while backpacking in the Sierras, having early onset altitude sickness. Now, lifting weights no longer meant a 50% chance of a migraine!
I am still trying to understand my body. I am still trying to build a bridge between my mind and body. I can now say there is a truce between the two nations. I can now say that they are working in tandem. I am trying to be good to my body, now. I give it attention, and it gives me energy and strength in return. When my mind is overwhelmed with stress, I go for a run; my body releases stress so that my mind can go on.
I wouldn’t have been able to finish the first draft of my novel had it not been for my new running regimen. It has given me incredible psychic space and energy.
I’m no athlete, still. I have insecurities about my body. There are days I absolutely hate my body, but they no longer outnumber the days I hate my mind. My body is no longer an acute source of disappointment and pain. We are all on the mend.
At a children’s toy store not too long ago, I tried a hula-hoop. “I used to be really really good at hula-hooping,” I said, as I picked one up, sounding the beads inside. Whoops. I couldn’t even do one hula-hoop. I absolutely SUCKED at it. I smiled. I didn’t mind sucking at that.
What is the story of your relationship with your body?