Editor’s Note: This article speaks about the fear of gaining weight and its relationship with food.
How do you feel about food and your body? Do you unconditionally love and accept yourself? Are you at peace with your relationship with food? And would you feel the same if you could no longer run; no longer walk?
A couple of weeks ago I would have answered unequivocally, absolutely yes!
Then I got hurt.
And what I confronted broke me down, quickly and completely.
In spring, I took a minor fall, overstretching my leg and hip. It was no big deal, I thought. I took a day off and got back to my easy runs and walks the following day, careful to be attentive to that hip. It never felt “normal,” but it didn’t feel terrible either. Besides, runners are used to running through soreness, running to recover, and staying active in between those runs.
Then, three weeks later, the day after a long run, I could hardly walk. I felt a real nasty pain–a stabby pain–in my hip. I conceded to taking a week off … of running. I kept doing light cross-training and walking–a lot. My hip slowly improved, but after a full week, it was still hurting, even on a walk. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t the same as my other hip. Why isn’t it better??? I wondered with frustration. I took a week off! But did I really take a week off? I negotiated with my body, and my body did not agree to my terms. I wasn’t really listening. Because I was terrified of the alternative. Terrified to not exercise at all.
After a week, I decided I should take at least a few days off completely. No walking, no cross-training. My immediate response to this idea was fear. How long will it take for me to lose fitness? Is this going to impact my upcoming marathon training? How will I know how much to eat if I don’t exercise? Does this mean no ice cream? I’ll just not eat very much, I thought, meal planning in my head. If I don’t do anything tomorrow, I’ll eat oatmeal, apples, lettuce… With a start, I asked myself, What are you doing??? Why are you planning on controlling and restricting food in order to take a day off? What’s going on here? What are you afraid of?
I’m afraid of losing fitness, of not being able to even jog. But there’s a more insidious and embarrassing and insulting underlying fear that haunted me for decades: the fear of gaining weight. As a body-positive, radical self-acceptance, happiness advocate, I was and am so embarrassed by that realization. I thought I had overcome that fear, those ideas, years ago. I thought I had healed my contentious relationship with my body and food. But here it was, waiting for an opening to infect my thoughts and behavior; ripping away my recovery, empowerment, and growth; uncovering the sleeping “fat kid” I thought I had healed, integrated, and accepted. Why am I afraid of gaining weight? Even as I write this, I fight back tears, knowing it’s because … I’m afraid I won’t love and accept myself that way. And just like that, it feels as if nothing’s changed at all since that troubled past.
But this is just a reaction, a knee-jerk response, a habitual story I told myself for so long that it never completely disappeared. So much has changed. I often tell my daughter that growth and learning aren’t linear; it’s a roller coaster, a lumpy bumpy journey full of switchbacks and falls. So here I find myself, in spitting distance of childhood trauma, with all the experience of my adulthood to help me process it.
Increasingly over the last decade, exercise has been the primary tool in my recovery and healing toolbox, particularly in response to the chaos in the greater world over the past two years. I don’t view it as an attempt to run away from problems and trauma. I see it as medicine I take almost every day to treat a number of conditions. It relieves anxiety, frustration, and sadness. It calms and invigorates. It helps me put things in perspective: being outside and seeing nature exist without any interest in or intervention from me is a reminder that my problems are kind of insignificant, and so am I. It helps me love my body to appreciate its performance and ability to give me these gifts of time outside. It teaches me not to abuse my body through “junk food” binges–because that never sits well in your stomach on the run–but to relish all manner of foods as part of a fully-enjoyed, healthy, life.
Stripped of this coping mechanism, treatment, medicine, and maybe even crutch, I am faced with the uncomfortable truth that I don’t even know what to do. Without one of the central traits of my identity, what do I even do now??? What can I do to heal and treat all the things that running and hiking remedy?
This learning opportunity is not lost on me. I am grateful for the reminder to reexamine my identity and my relentless and singular focus on one type of activity. As a woman navigating middle age, I need to diversify my activities to promote longevity in running and hiking. As a soon-to-be life coach and counselor, I am going to have clients that don’t have easy access to the outdoors; that are struggling to heal their relationship with their bodies and food and can’t treat it with exercise or outside time. Clients who cannot or do not want to exercise at this time in their lives. Clients who are even addicted to exercise and need to heal that relationship. How will we treat our things?
In my recovery, I am finding joy in the small spaces of my everyday existence. I am mindful periodically throughout the day: journaling, spending quality time with a puzzle or project, quietly breathing with my eyes closed while I stretch, having a cup of tea. I am taking explicit and exquisite pleasure in the very smallest moments of beauty: birds by the window, my dog’s calming breathing as she lays or next to me, the ephemeral colors of dawn and dusk. I am talking to my body and listening for responses–How does this feel? What would you like to eat? Was that enough? I’m assigning no judgments of “good” or “bad” to food, “worthwhile” or “worthless” to activities.
I’m not a believer in fate or destiny, or that “everything happens for a reason” outside of cause-and-effect; but I’m a fervent believer in making meaning and opportunity out of challenges. I have (however unwillingly) been given the opportunity to confront the pitfalls in my personal journey and strengthen my self-acceptance more completely and unequivocally than ever before. I have the choice to learn from this and all experiences and make them meaningful, purposeful, and significant. And if I do that, then I’ve lost nothing and gained everything.