Measuring Progress

“How’s therapy?” friends who know of my weekly appointments to keep myself reasonably together occasionally ask, “is it working?”

“I don’t know,” I always say. It’s an honest answer, but I leave out the part about how, since I had lacked the self-awareness to realize how not okay I was until I was severely not okay, assuming that I could now somehow judge my progress is either a testament to how much my friends believe in me and my capacity to make progress, or, perhaps more accurately, how little they know about my descent into sadness. Sometimes, when pressed, I’d offer that, “my therapist thinks I’m doing okay.” People seem to take this as a good sign, but given that she has also congratulated me on not being a manipulative sociopath, I probably set the bar kind of low with that relationship.

The problem is that it’s difficult to measure progress you can’t see. There are no progress pictures you can take of your mental health, no benchmark VO2Max, lifts, or WODs. There’s no road map or training program. Other than the uncomfortable realization that I was more unhappy than I’d like to be, there wasn’t much else I was sure of.

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If the first step to addressing your own bullshit is recognizing the problem, they say the second step is acceptance. Somewhere in between, you’re assumed to have pulled yourself back to a functional state and mentally prepared yourself to address your numerous hang ups. It’s an uncomfortable experience made even more frustrating by the fact that no one actually tells you how to get from step one to generally happy. Even when you pay for professional therapy, you’re left to claw your way out yourself while answering vague questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “how do you think you can deal with this issue better next time?”

“What do you mean, ‘next time’?” I’m tempted to say, fully prepared to take the easy way out and avoid, for the indefinite future, whoever in my life had created whatever unpleasant situation I was complaining about.  “Does there have to be a ‘next time’?”

It’s the same question I voice at the CrossFit box, except, because no one there is paid to give a shit about my feelings, I’m bluntly told yes, I will eventually have to put myself through that extremely painful experience again. That the increasing weight on the bar or the heavier kettlebells are entirely for my benefit. This information usually annihilates the last thin thread of willpower I was clinging to to stay both upright and conscious. It also seems fundamentally unfair. I understand my therapist’s attempts to turn me into a better person – that’s what I pay her for – but no one told me building character was part of CrossFit or Olympic weightlifting.

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Yet, as if to make up for the fact that I can’t snap under the bar with anything that resembles speed, the harder I’m thrown, the faster I seem to come back. This could be proof that I’m still clinging to learned behavior, that I’m still seeking out situations which maximize my suffering. I like to believe, however, that this time around, I’m at least limiting my masochism to the CrossFit box.

I will concede that this is by default, not by choice. The beauty of any activity that corners you into playing self-defense so you don’t die is that it doesn’t leave you with much energy for remaining high-strung for the rest of the day. It just sort of beats you into acquiescence of whatever might have previously evoked some type of strong emotion. Completely drained of the majority of my will to live, I’ve been forced to stop fighting the things I can’t change. Exhaustion has led me not only to acceptance, but to exercise-induced Stockholm’s Syndrome, as, inexplicably, I’ve taught myself to love it. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the whiteboard, staring at the WOD with a friend, as if I could change the numbers or exercises by glaring at them.

“Well, at least it’s box jumps, not burpee box jumps,” I said.

“So basically,” my friend said, “you’re saying that since coach isn’t going to kill you, you’re okay with him punching you repeatedly in the face.”

This probably isn’t the form of acceptance they talk about in therapy. You’re probably supposed to choose to accept things rather than be cornered, then beaten, into it. Sometimes, however, the amount of bullshit you’ve allowed yourself to get away with dictates that nothing else is really going to work.

It doesn’t seem like much, but I’m going to go ahead and call that progress.

Surviving through CrossFit

A couple days after I published my last post, I got my heart broken.

It wasn’t the usual breakup because I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone as intensely. It wasn’t because the feelings weren’t mutual; and so, it completely obliterated me.

The first two weeks, I couldn’t function. To be honest, I don’t really remember much of those two weeks, but for the next month, I woke up with a nervous pain in my chest that would explode into wailing sobs throughout the day. I lost my appetite and stopped eating. I wanted to disappear. Life ceases to have meaning after you lose someone you thought was the love of your life. In a lot of ways, I still don't see the point in it.

It would be nice to say that it drove me back to the bike, but it didn’t. I threw myself into CrossFit instead.

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Maybe I was doing it because I had nothing else to do, and the bike had its own share of burdens. Maybe it was a convenient distraction that I’d already paid for. Maybe, in the end, I kept going because he had gotten me into it. But I had fallen in love with CrossFit by myself, and those first few weeks, it saved me. The searing of straining muscles, the feeling of pain reduced to numbness from exhaustion and exertion, the suffocation, the sensation that I might be drowning. It all mirrored my state outside the CrossFit box but somehow, there, there was catharsis.

I started going to classes every day the box was open. I switched classes so that I could stay afterwards to practice everything I couldn’t do. When the memories ripped through whatever healing I’d managed, I practiced pull-up negatives and push-ups at home. Last weekend, I doubled up and went to two classes in one day.

It sounds crazy, I know, or at least, excessive. Overcompensation for a lost love and a directionless life. Seeking redemption from emotional trauma through physical pain. Or worse, a self-imposed punishment for a perceived general lack of worthiness. All embarrassing ways of coping with loss and projections of internal strife.

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But isn’t that how we all survive? You put yourself through solitary trials until one day you don’t wake up every day wishing you hadn’t. Until you reach a point where whatever you’re doing, day in and day out, is less of a coping mechanism, and the desire to do that thing or activity overshadows the frantic need to do it. Until that raw, open wound of true heartbreak becomes a more manageable – though lifelong – hurt.

I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m trying.

Prescription Dom Perignon

Every couple of months, I find myself in a compromising position, where the strangest part about my situation is not that I don’t have any pants on. It’s not that a virtual stranger is hovering over me with a giant popsicle stick, or that hot wax is involved. Or that I actually enjoy the process. It’s always something else with my waxing sessions.

There was the time in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I swear the woman was using a pumice. It was so painful, it scared my hair into not growing back for nearly two weeks (unfortunately, it’s also been the best wax job I’ve ever received). There was the time I ended up hearing about how much skin you have to push, pull, and generally move around when you wax a scrotum. That time I got offered a job (I’m still not quite sure what to think of the fact that the only time I’ve been offered a job on the spot, I was naked from the waist down). And then there was that time that the nice lady working industriously over my nether regions was convinced that I really needed to get on Tinder.

Of course, I could lie. “I’m dating this awesome guy, fantastic in bed,” I could say. “I’m totally gainfully employed; love my job,” I could also claim. Yet, somehow, being deceptive at a time when you’re lying back, half naked, seems extremely silly. And because that translates to guys as well, I haven’t allowed myself to download Tinder. Besides, I like to tell myself, I’m not a reliable date. After all, I’ve been prescribed Dom Perignon.

Okay, it’s domperidone. Not quite the fizzy, alcoholic elixir – ironically named after a monk – of the French aristocracy, and more like a small, coincidentally pale yellow tablet that lets me eat somewhat normally. It’s the current fix for stomach problems that have been getting progressively worse over the past three to four years: hardcore morning nausea, a tight throat and more nausea after meals, and other unpleasant symptoms like bloating until I look pregnant.

And so, while I had hoped by this time that I’d be re-establishing those tan lines, I haven’t ridden outside in over two months.

It sucks. A lot. The worst part is the unpredictability. I’ll be fine for five days in a row, and kitted up and ready to head out on a long-anticipated outdoor ride, my stomach will suddenly throw a temper tantrum. I’d like to say that I’m coming to terms with it, but my friends would probably claim otherwise. They’d be right; I’ve been reduced – more times than I’d like to admit – to lying in bed in my bib shorts and sports bra, weeping in frustration.

It hasn’t been all bad, though. Usually, I’ve managed to make it to the gym a few times a week. One could argue, of course, that if I could lift, I can probably ride. That may be true; but fighting nausea in a squat rack near friends seems far more appealing and comforting than trying to keep a belly full of Skratch down while attempting to pedal myself home, alone. And though I still can’t squat for shit, I’m finally growing some arms. I’ve made gym friends I can laugh with, too, and lifting ensures I go home genuinely, honestly hungry.

On days I lift, the rest of the day can throw what it wants at me. It can involve stories about scrotums, some serious exfoliation that borders on sadism, or not-so-subtle hints that I need to get laid. It can involve that frustrating feeling of being hungry yet nauseous at the same time, for the entire day, or acid reflux that burns my throat and keeps me up at night. Even getting creeped on by the local creeper at the gym ain't no thang. I might not have my bike to run to, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay.

If not, I can always take more Dom Perignon.