By Priscilla Thomas
I’m not good at being hurt. It has always been important for me to be strong. Strong is safe. Strong is capable. Strong is dependable. Strong isn’t hurt. When I’m hurt, I feel worthless, and embarrassed, and inadequate. And completely out of my body, as if it’s not me anymore, but instead some defective, unwanted machinery.
There is popular advice about body image that encourages you to shift your thinking from what you look like to what you can do. I’ve shared that advice myself, and written about how trying to transition into that mindset has helped me change my relationship with myself. But it presents its own problems, because I am still me. I tie my worth to capability instead of size, and it’s not better. It’s not different.
When I’m strong, I’m worthy. I’m good. When I want to be stronger, more capable, I’m not enough. Not working enough, not dedicated enough, not good enough. And when I’m too tired or injured to work out, when I’m recovering from sickness and unable to lift my heaviest or go my hardest, I am done. I have no value.
It’s one more failure.
A muscle spasm laid me out for two weeks. I spent most of my time lying on my side, trying to avoid the migraines that gathered my brain in two clawed handfuls and raked the pieces apart. Days of vomiting from the pain, worrying over missing the weeks of school before holiday break. I was well-cared for by my partner, and I was convinced I was infecting him. My sadness was a heavy vapor he breathed in each time he leaned over my aching, the sheen of anxiety on my skin was soaking into his gently soothing palm. Each day, the rooms grew narrower, the air more still, my body more foreign.
“Your body is not broken. You are not broken.” I had tried to sit up. My head was locked in place, so he sat at my feet, laying these lamb-soft words across my lap. Sharp pinches and yanks rippled up and down my spine, each one determined to tell me otherwise.
After a few weeks of sessions, one of my physical therapists, Amani, dug her elbow into my right butt cheek and declared my piriformis in her Tightest Top Five.
“Ever?” I asked.
“Ever,” she said, and I laughed, because it was all I could do with the words stuck in that fist beneath my collarbones.
The week before, she had poked at the same spot with two gentle fingertips while I tried not to rip the cushion off the massage table. “I think you store all your stress in your tush, lady,” she told me.
I said she should ask Lucy, the massage therapist eviscerating my neck muscles every Tuesday, about where I keep my stress.
Lucy called me “girl,” “Amani,” “lady,” and they both asked me every week, “What is going on?”
One evening, after Anik had teased me through the brutal burn of banded walkouts, I told him how disappointing it was to not be able to do what I wanted to do, how these physical therapist workouts used to be warm-ups for me and now they would leave me shaking and sore.
“I know,” I said quickly. “I need to be where I am. I know I’m recovering.” The words came out in someone else’s voice, like they were shaped by someone else’s teeth.
Gently, Anik told me that it’s good to have the background that I do. Body awareness, he said, is what PT is really all about. That’s the secret.
I laughed, at nothing, because all the things I wanted to say were too heavy, too sharp to push up into the air.
On my way home, melancholy and bad memories sloshed around inside me like too much candy in my belly: the grainy heat in my throat, the smoky tingling behind my eyes. I was thinking of things I try not to think of, feeling ghosts of hands I try to forget.
Body awareness, for me, is knowing that it’s not simply stress I keep tied up in my muscles. It means knowing my body isn’t always a nice place to be. It means being here anyway, mid-exorcism, welcoming myself back to my haunted self. I’ve been studying trauma and bodies for over a decade and still I resist applying what I know to myself. So much of living with trauma, after all, is insisting that you’re “fine.”
Shortly after the second debilitating muscle spasm, only months from the first, a friend texted me to tell me she was pissed.
“None of this is your fault. When does it stop? I don’t know. For any of us.”
I held her anger in my hands like a chunk of broken, jagged-edged rock. “This probably isn’t helpful,” she continued, but I thought otherwise of the weight of this stone jaw giving my hands new shape. I had learned always to point the fingers, the blades, back at me; to eat the blame and bear out only silence.
It is easier to label my body the problem, ill-fitting of norms and held beliefs as it is, than to say, “No, this is a body built despite attempts to destroy it — despite shame, despite abuse, despite secrets and lies — and it functions differently than some.” It’s easier than saying, “I’m doing the best I can,” and believing it.
It’s easier not to say any of this because people will insist they know better. Because you’ll be fussy. Sensitive. Too specific and particular and precious. Too delicate. Because you can tell people who you are, what you need, how you want to be treated, and they won’t listen. So it’s easier to let yourself be misdiagnosed and misunderstood, and misrepresented, and maligned. To do so to yourself. Until it isn’t.
I remember teenage growing pains, the deep aching that seemed to be splintering my bones from the center. There was no soothing them. I could only lay in bed, tossing uselessly from side to side. Stretching uselessly, kicking uselessly, massaging uselessly until the surface of my skin felt as tender as the marrow.
It’s a bit like that now. It’s that deep pain I can’t touch, plus the knowledge that there is no way to get past it except to go through it.
I want to pick up immediately where I left off, as if this pain has just been an interlude. As if I have pressed pause to quickly to attend to some other matter and now I am ready to play again, no recap necessary. I want to get back to feeling like myself, as if myself is only the version of me that can lift the heaviest weight, endure the most grueling of days, accomplish everything on the to-do list and then some.
Finding myself where I am at takes work. I know, in the knowing part of my brain, that I am here. I know that I am myself when I cut the lists in half, and in half again, when I go home at the end of a workday instead of staying after for hours. I know I am myself when I do my five squats and five push-ups, once a day. I check the box; I say, “Done.” I tell myself I did a good job. I filter the fitness newsletters to a hidden inbox, ignore the ads for “just 45 minutes a day” workout plans. I unfollow and unfollow, mute and mute, until I can convince myself that I am not lazy and in need of a jumpstart.
I never feel like I’m doing it right. Relief is not the tangible, low-hanging fruit of pushing heavy weight overhead. I miss PRs and sweat and easy movement. I miss not being in pain. I miss not filling every deep breath with pleas to my body, get well get well get well.
Five squats, five push-ups, until moving feels safe and normal again.
When I tell myself that it Is not enough, that I should throw in 20 minutes of yoga or a quick kettlebell workout, that I should do more work, more chores, more and more, I practice the same response: This is going to take the time it takes, so take the time. It’s the kind of poem I like to say aloud to myself, just on the edge of nonsense and easy to repeat over and over, to turn inside out.
Take the time, it takes the time to take.
Five and five, one and done.
Until it’s time.