I am aware of even the tiniest changes in my body, like a bird that notices a feather out of place or a bumble bee who notices one too many pollen grains on her hind leg. This awareness isn’t necessarily a gift, nor is it rooted entirely in the practical need to make my flight feathers work properly, or to rid myself of weight that might impede my journey. While it is a practical concern to move with grace and efficiency, the more formidable impedance has been shame.
In my teenage and young woman years, the shame invaded every cell and bone, and was so powerful that I could not bear the feel of clothing that touched my skin or to taste the food I had to eat in order to stay alive. There was not a single friendly mirror or plate glass window, none gave back to me what I hoped to see, and I avoided all reflections, unable to see myself with adoration or even a small measure of approval. Like Wendy in the story of Peter Pan, I stepped on the fearsome scale like Wendy stepped on the plank, hands bound behind her to walk off the edge and plunge to her death. The terror of becoming fleshed out and full, of developing the hips and breasts my mother warned me not to develop, began when I was twelve, against her wishes, and has been my constant shadow ever since. It has taken many years of tender self-mothering to cultivate a more loving and affirming voice to displace the once omnipresent and relentless internal dictator, the punisher and persecutor who caught every bite of food and screamed at me not to swallow, and would not let me see my reflection in the mirror in a way that one might greet a beloved companion. This massively ominous presence appears when I am anxious, tired or in any way vulnerable, and it is a daily practice to rise up as my own best mother and feed myself.
I have been a competitive athlete for over half my life. Beyond competition, my time in the outdoors running or cycling or Nordic skiing, has brought me peace, and a feeling of having power in my life; a sense of being grounded, clear, and true. Running was a way in to the emotional pain that kept me constricted from years of living with trauma and uncertainty as a child and as a teenager. Since that first flood of tears as a seventeen year-old on a particularly strenuous mountain trail, I have relied on running, and now, at nearly sixty, other endurance sports, as a way of moving into myself, the effort releasing a pressure valve, allowing me to shiver and shake as a traumatized animal does upon seeing that the threat has passed. My nervous system knows how to be in fight or flight and it knows how to be in complete shut-down, and the swing between those two states was my “normal” for many years.
As a wife and mother often too tired from training to do much of anything other than eat and sleep, I know I wasn’t always energetic and fully present. Having children forced me out of the craziness of chronic and fear-saturated self-absorption and let me express an aspect of myself that could love and care for another with unabashed devotion. Being a mother and a competitive athlete was very much like to keep two leaky buckets full at all times. All I did was run back and forth between my buckets trying to keep them full. And I added more buckets sometimes out of necessity, other times it simply because I’m a little off in my judgment; an extra job to pay the rent, an extra-marital affair, deciding to go to graduate school. I needed at least three buckets to feel I deserved to be alive it seems.
The hundred mile weeks were challenging when I had children and a job. When I think of how many times my three year-old would take off in hot pursuit of a puppy, or a ball bouncing into the middle of the street, and I had thought I would tear my hips out of their sockets trying to chase him down having just finished a twenty-five mile training run. And how many times did I nod off to sleep while reading bedtime stories, and had required a reprimand from my children to quit reading the same page over and over again? And what about the hundreds of dollars spent on upon pizza for dinner; that soul-less pizza with a lot of cheese and fake mushrooms that trick you into thinking it’s nutritious. After a day of training, working as a house-cleaner and doing my homework in my VW beetle by flashlight while the kids finished soccer practice, I told myself it was okay to feed my children that stuff. I ate the crusts telling myself I needed the carbs. I dipped the crusts in the dressing for the Greek Salad I always ordered along with the soul-less pizza.
Still, learning to run saved my life; snatched me from the jaws of self-destruction when I was about seventeen. The effort of running, especially mountain running, broke me down to my barest bones, brought me to my knees, and revealed a pathway into the shadows where I was hiding out from all the memories I dared not pick up; all the emotions too overwhelming to give language to and all the loss I could not bear to hold. It was in those moments at the top of a mountain trail, quietly sobbing into the soft earth, that I found a way to be with myself in a more compassionate way. Starvation had been occupying space in my body for a long time.
When I was in my professional runner/mother/professional house-cleaner years, my relationship with food was similar to my relationship with a gasoline pump. I ate standing up and got the fuel in as quickly as possible without dribbling it on my shoes and let the tank drain until I ran on fumes, annoyed that I had to stop to fuel up. There was absolutely no ceremony or ritual whatsoever around eating. The fuel I chose was usually not well thought out; I ate bagels and peanut butter because it offered a quick and easily digestible source of energy, I ate leftovers off of my children’s plates, and I ate a lot of salad into which I threw everything I could imagine that could give me a reasonably well-balanced meal without extra calories or effort. Like many women who were competitive runners during the running boom of the 80’s and 90’s, I obsessed over food and whether or not I should eat this or that and whether I was too fat to wear the skimpy little racing briefs that the shoe companies gave us to wear in competitions. Nothing like wearing a big swoosh across your butt cheeks to make your world centered on cellulite.
And I wasn’t the only woman who stood at the start line of a race scanning the thighs of her competition; I had friends that I roomed with whom I knew shared the same complexes. We would scan each other and then lie if needed in order to bolster sagging self-esteem related to our bodies. We always knew the state of the other’s mind by the self-help books we brought with us in our carry-on luggage. If my life happened to be in a rare state of equilibrium, I felt I belonged amongst the gazelles whose thighs and bottoms were lean, without a trace of gristle. But more often, I felt like the warthog sneaking into the herd, an imposter trying to blend in. I self-consciously tugged at my briefs hoping to cover whatever fat might be squeezing itself out from the tight elastic and was sure they all must be wondering who I thought I was trying to pass myself off as one of them. This thinking of course, almost always resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy; I actually felt like a warthog trying to keep up with cheetahs and would lumber across the line breathless, beaten, having spent the last few miles preparing excuses as to my poor performance not that anyone was really that interested. I mean, a warthog is a warthog. If I made excuses to all the cheetahs as to why I couldn’t keep up, they would all say, “Well duh…you’re a warthog.”
Nonetheless, my prepared excuses were drawn from a fairly creative list mostly related to my menstrual cycle, e.g., I was in the luteal phase of my ovarian cycle during which made it harder for me to breathe; I was in the pre-menstrual phase and felt like a warthog with an unstable personality; first day of period, bleeding so hard I had to carry a grocery bag full of tampons in case of mid-race hemorrhage. And then there were always the personal life dramas. Always.
In my post-race ritual of self-flagellation during which I could not produce a single rational thought, I attributed sucking to looking like a warthog and would make a vow to stop eating bagels and peanut butter and pizza crusts dipped in ranch dressing. I decided that I would feel thinner if I wore huge shorts rather than briefs until I had no dimple between the butt cheek and my thigh and could wear briefs without fear of appearing on the cover of The National Enquirer as an imposter in the Boston Marathon. Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984, never wore briefs; she always wore huge shorts and she was pretty diminutive, so I couldn’t imagine she wore them because she felt fat. She probably just didn’t like making a spectacle of herself. I mean let’s face it, wearing a bikini bottom in a race does invite some spectating. Joan Samuelson was also sane and didn’t waste a lot of energy being a freak, running around with different men and drinking like a Barbary Coast stripper at post-race parties like many of us did after races. She just did her training and made jam, the quintessential sensible girl from Maine with clear focus, and no drama.
I would pray for a moment of freedom from my inner critic prior to each race and hope for the Goddess of Lightness to appear and wave her magic wand, transforming what I saw in the mirror. While she was at it, I prayed for her to include a massive cleanse in my brain so that I would begin to behave more like the elite athlete I wanted to be instead of a fucked up drama queen who fell in love with unavailable men and forgot it was my day to bring snack to my kids’ soccer games.
For me, hunger was (and still is) a state of being that remembers that longing. Hunger is an edge where the primal part of me is connected with Nature and how precious food is. Hunger makes food more of a gift. Eating and noticing how good the nourishment feels makes mealtime a sacred ritual, a time to appreciate the miracle of what is available. The ghost of past demons lie dormant just beneath my skin just where the light dances on the crest of bone and can be awakened when the shame is triggered around not being good enough or not really having a place in this world or not being of any use. Over the years, I have developed keen awareness and I see it when it arises. Rather than being fearful of it and thereby reacting to it, I understand it as a relic, an artifact of my Orphan self. I can meet it with compassion and choose not to indulge it and feed it with the old stories around not being thin enough, good enough, athletic enough or whatever enough. I still spend time in battle with this part of myself and it may take a few days of walking with it to prevail over it, but the part of me that wants to be vital and strong, to be an interesting person capable of having conversations about other things, and to live and love wholeheartedly is bigger.