On athletic anxiety and defining fitness for myself.

When I was a child, fitness was not rigid. It wasn’t a responsibility or a way to measure value, worth, or health - it was FUN. 

Running barefoot through neighborhoods with callused little feet, splashing in the pool, jumping on the trampoline, acrobatics in the front yard, and rollerblading around the block…It was all play, without focus on performance or the failings of my body. It was all refreshingly simple.

From the moment I was able to pick up a baseball bat, I was enrolled in t-ball. I immersed myself in dance classes, figure skating, softball, basketball, and competitive swimming. I loved it all with boundless energy, diving into various athletic activities with excitement and an eagerness to enjoy myself with my friends.

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(Before puberty struck, I was ambivalent towards my body - because it had not yet begun to hold weight.)

At some point, as I grew older and made it onto my junior high basketball team, the whole “It doesn’t matter if you win so long as you have fun” mentality stopped being enforced - and in retrospect, I can see how that is the point at which my relationship with sports and fitness began to take a turn into problematic territory. 

While I was never a first-string player or a high contender for winning heats during swim meets, I was far from a bottom-of-the-barrel athlete. But from my mega-jock father’s perspective (and that of my coaches and teammates) - I was constantly selling myself short.

I don’t blame him for anything. Really, I don’t think he knew how his perfectionist athletic nature was affecting me - and a lot of that could be attributed to his inability to understand that I was simply not a competitive or naturally aggressive person, nor did I retain even a fraction of the passion for sports that he held.

I was just happy to be active, part of a team, having fun with friends on the field, on the court, or in the pool. It didn’t matter to me how well I excelled - all that mattered was that I enjoyed myself and felt good about it.

But at the end of each game or meet, when I’d approach my dad with a bag slung over my shoulder, ready to retreat to the car - the inevitable verbal pummeling would begin.

"I know you’re not built like the other girls on the team, but I’ve seen some really great WNBA players with your build, and you could be really powerful if you would just apply yourself!" was one such comment that has been burned into my brain for an eternity. 

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(As a chubby teen I was always conflicted about my feelings toward sports, especially as I gravitated more naturally towards introspective creativity. I mean, LOOK HOW ANGSTY I WAS.)

It’s the sort of thing I’d heard countless times before - a sort of back-handed way of saying, “I know you’re a chubby kid, and you’re not confident in your abilities, BUT IF YOU’D ONLY TRY…”

It appeared no one seemed to care that I wasn’t particularly interested in excelling because honestly, at that point - I was just trying to survive.

While I didn’t understand it at the time, I was dealing with some pretty new and intense mental weirdness. This was the formative stages of my anxiety disorder, the turning point at which I grew from a child into a young adult with a lot of intensely conflicting internal chaos.

As I continued to play softball and compete for my high school swim team, my issues with anxiety would manifest themselves at inopportune moments. I would get sick before swim meets, my head would pound with pain before a big game, and if the pressure was ever turned up on me unexpectedly - I’d launch into a panic attack.

The pressure to perform became all-consuming. The point at which I realized I couldn’t take it anymore manifested during one afternoon softball practice, when my dad decided to arrive early to watch. He caught the tail-end of our post-practice run around the track. I had hung back for the second half of the last lap, briskly walking with a few teammates, chatting away about lord knows what, before grabbing my things and launching myself into the car.

I could tell my dad was dissatisfied the moment I saw his face. He has this perma-frown and furrowed brow combination that kills.

"You can’t even complete a lap around the track without slowing down to chat with your buddies! Where is your dedication? You should be finishing it right and giving everything 110%, you could be so much better…” 

This went on for a while.

The car had come to a stop at a crosswalk. I don’t remember what I yelled at him - all I remember is my blood boiling over as I got out of the car, slammed the door, and ran the last half-mile home.

I ran hard, angrily, without stopping. As my feet slammed against the pavement I could feel my brain rattling in my skull, and my thoughts began to scream. I cursed my dad for never listening and I cursed myself for not being good enough, for not WANTING to be good enough.

I’d completely lost track of my own standards and realized I was performing for everyone except myself - so I stopped.

My dad’s attention shifted to my little brother as he began to grow into the sort of athlete a father could be proud of. I continued to play sports, but he stopped attending games and meets, and eventually I stopped all activities my senior year so that I could properly dedicate myself to getting admitted into art school.

Sports and fitness fell from my life more easily than I could have expected. I replaced after-school practice with time working in the media labs and art studios, assembling my portfolio, applying and visiting colleges, absolutely throwing myself into academics, design, and my future career.

Throughout college I lived on shit food, coffee, and cigarettes - really no different from the kind of lifestyle most students fall into. My world was living and breathing for my work and studies, and nothing else. I completely lost touch with the athletic aspect of my character and actually welcomed the opportunity to push it away, farther and farther, until it was a tiny blip in my past that I could easily ignore.

As I’ve graduated and settled into my career, I’ve had a whole hell of a lot of time to truly focus on my health for the first time since subjecting myself to the pressures and demands of private art school hell - and I had absolutely no idea where to start.

Certain aspects of my life had amplified. I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression, chronic migraines, and a host of chronic skin and stomach issues over the years. So I decided to focus on tackling my mental bullshit through therapy and worked with my psychiatrist to pinpoint a cocktail of medications that actually worked well for me.

But no matter how hard I tried (and holy fuck did I try), it seemed I could never mend my relationship with fitness.

The thought of working out felt like punishment and would actually trigger my anxiety and panic. It was not only reminiscent of my “failing” as an athlete, but of those times I used to work out multiple times a day with an intent to beat my fat body into submission - as if doing so would influence my waistline to wither away. (It never really did - I was a solid size 12 at my thinnest.)

So I developed a habit of tricking myself, and my mind, into thinking I’m not “working out” whenever I get active, and it has helped to bypass that anxiety.

In my mind it’s no longer called “exercise” - it’s “moving my body in ways that make me happy” or “dancing and kick-boxing around my room to music for a half hour” or even “mashing ballet/pilates/yoga movements together in a way that is totally made up but actually leaves me feeling deliciously sore the next day”.

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(Sometimes when I move, my shirt creeps up over my belly and I like to leave it there. I don’t need to want it to go away.)

There’s no doubt that the anxiety I live with every day is dense within my body. It saturates my muscles and nerve-endings so much that it seems I can feel it surge and recede under my skin like jolts of electricity.

Sometimes, my body is sore from anxiety’s effect alone. My muscles twitch, sting, and ache due to internal forces rather than outward physical exertion. The burn of physical movement and the ache of anxious muscles, together, is bittersweet.

So I focus on that feeling, on myself, when I move my body. I feel how my fat sways and gives way as I bend, jump, and stretch - and it empowers me to move more. I test my flexibility and feel as the tension dissipates. I am aware.

I am so aware and in touch with myself in these moments of radical self worth and solitary in movement that I actually forget what “fitness” is.

I don’t need a set of rules to tell me how I should or shouldn’t be moving my body in a healthful way. I don’t need to know I’m the best, or most excellent in my form. I don’t need anyone else’s validation - I just need to move because I want to.

Despite all the negative influential weirdness in my past, I have finally been able to redefine what fitness means to me, and most importantly I’m defining it for myself. 

This is the first time “fitness” has ever felt right for me - and I am ready to embrace the fuck out of it.

Notes

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    Lovely, wonderful post from Haley. The pictures from soccer and swimming look just like me when I was a little girl and...
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