Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

I went through a period in my mid 20s where I was driven to exercise. I got a personal trainer, showed up at the gym at the crack of dawn every weekday and watched what I ate. At that time my sole motivation was vanity. I had no self-esteem and was convinced if I overhauled my physique men would like me and I guess by proxy I would like me.

Remembering this time is maddening for me now. Looking back at pictures, there was nothing wrong with how I looked. If anything turned off interest it’s that they could smell my insecurity and desperation for approval. I’m embarassed how much I cared.

Part way into this gym obsession a funny thing happened. I stopped caring so much, I just kind of naturally felt better about me. I stood up taller, I smiled more and before I even had any significant results people were attracted to me. I had a few of the best organically social years of my life. It definitely wasn’t perfect, but it was the most relaxed I’d ever been.

I didn’t put two and two together, but I see the same phenomenon at work now in my recovery.

A few months ago I started going to the gym again 5 days a week. Mostly classes, a lot of yoga. I notice on the days that I attend my brain gives me a break: I let go a little easier and lean into moments a little more fully.

I think I’m more aware this time because I started working on my mental fitness before I started back at the gym. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty open-minded when it comes to treatment of mental health issues (for others) but truthfully I was never all that willing to consider it for myself. However, after I bottomed out on codependency I knew I needed help and found a therapist. Having experienced it now, I would encourage anyone who is curious to at least try it. It’s awkward at times, hard, and emotional, but it’s worth it. With her gentle guidance I finally think I’m starting to understand what shaped me and what behaviours aren’t serving me anymore. I’m also starting to understand that vulnerability can be done in a safe way that doesn’t have to lead to more pain.

Something that comes up in sessions is that she asks me to describe a feeling physically. Now, before you laugh, think about it. Describe where you feel sadness in your body. Is it in your chest? Your stomach? Does it feel like pain? What kind? Now describe that. Is it like a hand squeezing you? Are you being crushed by a heavy weight?

You get the idea.

Maybe this comes easily for you, but it’s a truly alien concept for me. I’ve come to realize that my brain and body do not communicate very well and I have little emotional intelligence. I suppose that makes sense; if you are going to live a life where you need to ignore your instincts and trust people who don’t have your best interests in mind you can’t be connected to your body or your feelings. I’ve spent most of my life running from feeling and shunning any ideas of self compassion. I shrug off any discomfort in my body and pretend it’s not happening. The truly tragic thing about this is you can’t just numb the bad, it takes the joy with it. Regret is a fruitless exercise, but I can’t help but wonder how many happy feelings I’ve missed in my efforts to run from potential (not even realized) pain.

That’s why exercise, especially the kind that teaches awareness of the body and mind as a cooperative, is helpful for people in recovery. By design it rebuilds those weak synapses and recharges those connections. With practice you start hearing your warning bells. You recognize when you need to rethink your actions or detach from someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. You start to understand that your body is just trying to give you a heads up about what your brain hasn’t figured out yet. You feel everything more fully, the bad and the good, and over time develop calmness, awareness, and acceptance. You don’t need to numb, you understand that feeling is normal, it’s valid, and it passes in the fullness of time with or without your intervention. And without even trying others will intuitively notice this shift and relationships will also become easier.  I know it sounds like mojo, but I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

A year ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a yoga studio or a meditation class. I probably would have made fun of such an idea and anyone enjoying it. A year ago I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do something so vulnerable, let alone do it as a group. I just didn’t get it. Both yoga and meditation can be very personal practices, helping you feel grounded to the earth. Over the last few months I’ve started to prefer practicing in a group because in addition to feeling grounded I feel connected to the others in the space. It can be calming, energizing, and eliminates some of the social anxiety I sometimes feel making small talk with strangers. There’s no need to discuss personal details, you can just breathe and lean into the poses together.

I’m drafting this from deep outside my comfort zone. I went alone to a 2 day yoga retreat in the woods. This may not seem like a big thing, but for me it’s a huge deal. Since I was a child I have avoided trying new things that I wasn’t certain I would be good at or that would have put me in the position of being judged. I certainly would not have dreamed to take this sort of risk without the safety net of going with someone else. At least then I would be able to use inside jokes to hide my insecurity.

You know what? I’m actually having a good time. I tried snowshoeing for the first time, participated in a number of yoga and meditation classes with gusto, and feel the value of experience that isn’t numbed in any of the creative ways I’ve tried in the past. The people are lovely, the cabin is adorable, and the grounds are breathtaking. I even bought their vegetarian cookbook, the food is that good! I’m not even vegetarian.

I’m glad that rediscovering exercise has brought such unexpected gifts and adventure. I’m glad I know I can do things I want to do without waiting for someone to be available to join me. I’m grateful that I am getting the opportunity to retrain my brain to listen to my body, to relax, slow down, and understand that I don’t need to be perfect. It’s worth taking risks and being vulnerable for growth.

I’m grateful I finally understand the value of both my mind and body working together as allies and not adversaries.

A bit more about the benefits of yoga and meditation to recovery: Yoga for Addiction Recovery (Yoga Journal)

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Just ’cause, 10 years later this is still my favourite workout track. Outside of the yoga studio, of course.

The Myth of Perfection

Like many people who find themselves unwittingly attracted to the allure of trying to save addicts, I developed a need for perfection and outside validation at an early age.  In my household, emotional displays were criticized as sensitive and I was discouraged from discussing my feelings or sharing the family business. This was reinforced by encouraging guilt and shame when I did not live up to standard with lectures, disappointment, and sometimes language that could border on cruel.

I was the kid that had to build Lego from the instructions and wash my hands or clothes immediately if they were dirty.  I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I was so obsessive because I thought being anything less than perfect would bring negative attention… It just wasn’t safe to be anything less.

Of course I didn’t realize that I was absorbing all these experiences as a critique of my worth and I thought all families were cold and uncommunicative. Over time I began to believe that there was something wrong with me and everything that happened to or around me was my fault. I started to associate vulnerability with feelings of panic and fear and over time developed the expectation that people would betray me. I created a hard shell and lone wolf persona which held everyone at a safe distance to keep them from seeing the traits in me that I had come to see as negative and weak: a big heart, need for acceptance, and the deep cracks that were developing in my sense of self-love and confidence.

Today, I know that my parents did the best they could.  They passed along the same lessons they got from their parents, and so on.  It doesn’t make it right, but it wasn’t totally their fault.  I understand all too well how painful and difficult it is to look in your own blind spots and how low I had to go to take this journey. My family’s legacies include a deep need for perfection, a mythical and impossible thing.

I’ve done a staggering amount of reading and research in the last year on a variety of topics.  This is one of the healthier things I’ve done for myself: investing in trying to understand and accept the reality of things as opposed to my unfulfilled expectations.

One interesting thing I stumbled across is Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with resin and precious metals such as gold, platinum and silver.  What results is an amazing and unique piece of art marked with a spider’s web of shine.  The philosophy behind Kintsugi is that we can embrace the flawed or the imperfect as beautiful.  There is no need to hide the damage or throw away something broken. In fact we can illuminate the repair and celebrate the change as an improvement.

Even early in my efforts to repair myself this idea brought some encouragement as I hope it does with you.  I didn’t have to remain a pile of broken shards; with enough effort maybe I could be better… maybe even beautiful.

A little more reading on Kintsugi, for those craving more: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/how-japanese-art-technique-kintsugi-can-help-you-be-more-ncna866471