I was a gymnast from age 4 to age 22. Gymnasts tend to have heightened body awareness. My mind can keep track of my feet while I am flipping and twisting. I can sense exactly where my center of gravity is. Tell me what angle to bend my knee at when I swing it behind me and I will hit it. But gymnasts are also masters at ignoring our bodies. We learn how to stifle stress triggers like sweaty palms and upset stomachs warning us that the skill that we are about to attempt for the first time is dangerous. The surging pain in my left ankle got pushed aside until the last routine is competed. The headaches that came each time I tumbled got two Advil instead of my concern. My career was saturated with small, chronic pain and accented with traumatic injuries. Without fully realizing it, I was constantly triaging pain and making split second decisions on which pain to pay attention to and which to ignore. I could go from deeply embodied and aware to deeply disconnected at a moment’s notice. It felt like a superhuman power.
I haven’t been a gymnast for a decade now, and my adult person benefits and suffers from the tough girl residue that has stuck around. I like how in touch I am with my body. I like that my adult body can still achieve crazy feats of strength and flexibility. But I can also do the ignoring thing all too well. The work ethic, striving for the perfect 10.0 and intensity of my sports career overflows into my work life. I like to be busy, work hard, to achieve. My smart body tries to give me signs that I am pushing too hard, but because of my ability to ignore pain, my body is forced to go to great lengths to get my mind’s attention.
One year I got styes in my eye over and over again. One stye was so big that my vision was obstructed and I took it upon myself to push the pus out through my tear duct so I could continue with life as usual. Another year I got huge canker sores on my uvula in the back of my mouth, a pain much worse than strep. I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Each time, my body is yelling at me, “Stop. Slow down. Take a look around. This is not sustainable.” It my body’s stubborn revolt, and it works, at least for a bit. I do slow down, I do look around, I do try to make changes. Then I get busy again and I stifle.
Two weeks ago I saw some spots on my torso. I told myself it was just eczema. They spread. Then I convinced myself it was hives. They grew. I wondered about shingles, but told myself that I haven’t been stressed out. I’ve been healthy. I’m young. It can’t be. A week later, I was in enough pain to go to the doctor.
At first glance she said, “Oh that’s shingles.”
I could almost hear my body chuckle at me. “Stop. Slow down. Take a look around. This is not sustainable.”
“Yeah, okay I got it. Geez.”
So now I’m taking five anti-viral pills a day. I’m spending a lot of time laying on my right side, shingles side up, on the couch doing a whole lot of nothing. It’s a little bit miserable. And I know, at some level, I brought it on myself. I feel good enough today that I can laugh about it all- my relationship with my body, the new and creative ways it keeps finding to make me slow down. As a pathetic little pile on the couch I ask myself why I keep making the same mistakes.
It’s easy. I want to matter. I want my work to matter. I want my life to matter. Slowing down is a direct affront to my striving to matter. Deep down I believe that sitting on the couch doesn’t count. It’s just taking up space. Sure, no one will blame me for being a couch potato now when I am full of shingles. But the shingles will go away, and I will be faced with the choices I am always faced with. Will I keep trying to prove my worth through external recognition and approval or can I be enough by just being?