(In the tune of I dreamed a dream)
There was a time, when I loved exercise,
And the water was warm,
And the pool was inviting
And to swim was a song,
And that song was exciting.
There was a time.
Then it all went wrong.
(You gotta love the Les Miz for their earworms.)
To say I have a love-hate relationship with exercise is giving the love-hate relationships too little credit. I loathed and adored it, at different times in my life. I hated physical education at school for its rating systems and the way it pitted small children against each other, mostly because I was always coming out on the bottom of the pack. I loved solitary sports, for the peace that came with them (praise the silence of the pool, and praise the dead hours when you can have a lane to yourself). I was my biggest protector when it came to skipping classes (either because of illness or because I just sucked at basketball). I was also my worst punisher when I skipped a day in my half-marathon training schedule (You will COLLAPSE on the day! You will make a fool of yourself in front of people with phones and Internet connection! You will also get so fat your trousers won’t fit you!)
There’s guilt, there’s self-righteousness, and then there’s what I was doing, which was full on abuse.
That’s not to say I didn’t have a little bit of help. You can’t throw a rock and not hit another self-proclaimed diet genius who cracked the code for abs, or nutritionist who thinks they discovered the truth about our diet. Papers need to be sold, the obesity epidemic is a catchy title, and we can still make fun of fat people, so what harm could it do? After all, the people suffering believe they deserve it.
There’s the well-intentioned doctor who noticed I was stressed enough to prescribe St John’s Wort, but also a starvation diet in order to get rid of my acne.
There’s the blogger who found she could manage a chronic condition with a change of diet and wanted to share her experience, and who I chose to follow because what she described sounded marvellous, and she seemed to love her life.
There’s the friend who made fun of a fat woman on the street, then the other friend, then this one guy I had a crush on, and I thought I had to work hard to make myself worthy of love.
Let this sink in: I thought I had to work hard to make myself worthy of love.
On some days, that meant staying away from sugary sweets and drinking lots and lots of coffee.
On others, it meant going to training, even when I was sick, or injured, or jet lagged, or right on the worst day of my period.
There were times when I exercised for the sake of it, and it was wonderful. One of my fondest memories is the summer when I would rise at 6 AM so that my grandfather could take my brother and me to the communal pool by the marina. We’d get in at seven, as the sun was starting to rise, and we would swim and swim and swim, drinking the gorgeous morning air, until we got kicked out with the rest of the plebians an hour later. Then we would go back home and eat like kings, and the days would be beautiful and exciting and I’d be happy to be alive.
I still have such days. Training sessions where I just can’t wipe the smile off my face, no matter what sensei says. Early morning runs when I’d stand at my mid point and just hum with excitement. Swims in the pool, swims in the sea, where the water would be heart-stoppingly cold and every stroke would feel like a lover’s caress.
But on the worst of days, I wasn’t doing exercise because it pleased me. I did it for punishment.
A particularly memorable run stands out in my mind – an 8-miler, smack dab in the middle of a sunny day in June. It was the Monday after I graded to an orange belt. I was still trying to detox my life from sugar. Two friends of mine had recently been in distressed. Take a moment, and imagine it. Imagine how tired, physically and emotionally, I was feeling. How hungry. And then imagine running while the sun beats down on you and your mouth is slowly getting drier and your own sweat won’t stay on your skin for long. You pass your usual checkpoint. You pass your second checkpoint. You head for the third. You head for the furthest you’ve ever gone to.
See, for some people (people with chronic conditions, or sick people) a particular diet might be life-saving. For a normally healthy person, who also does a lot of exercise, that diet can make them tired. It can make them irritable. It can make it very difficult for them to be there for their friends, without exhausting themselves in the process.
I ran and I ran and I ran, and my pedometer kept telling me I wasn’t there yet, and my skin felt tight with salt, and I was thirsty, so thirsty. I thought I would collapse, then and there, and just listen to the cicadas chirping. Even in the UK, where the seasons are so mild, running at high noon can be devastating. When I turned around to go back, I kept thinking how nice it would be if I just ran into the canal to cool off.
I got home, and blended some yoghurt with raspberries (low-sugar fruit!) and ice, and drank like a camel. And then I broke down and looked for eating disorder support because I was not okay.
I just wasn’t.
These days, it’s slightly easier to tell when I’m loving and when I’m not. Slightly. Not entirely better, but I’m not as blind as when I laced up my shoes that Monday. I like to think that I would know better than to push myself when I was at my breaking point. But who knows? The thing about love-hate relationships isn’t how bad they are at their worst – it’s how good they are at their best. The promise of one makes you put up with the other. It doesn’t change whether it’s your relationship with your partner or your body.
(In the tune of I dreamed a dream)