All Talk No Talk

A lot of us have turned to lifting as a way to manage ourselves mentally. I don’t know how you can exist socially within this community and not acknowledge this. Further, I don’t know why people struggle so much with addressing their own emotions or at least addressing the emotions of those around them, particularly the emotions of those for whom they ostensibly hold some level of affection.

Our society appears to have a default setting that is to not acknowledge the existence of emotional health at all costs until someone’s emotional health has become so poor that those around them cannot help but do so. This is the standard. This is the status quo. The way people react to discussion of mental health looks very close to the discomfort and fear with which people have reacted to such concepts as witchcraft in past centuries. I watch and experience and listen to the experiences of this particular variety of cultural dysfunction on a daily basis.

And it is at this point in my life that I find the continued fear, minimization, and continued attempts to erase emotional life akin to denying the earth is a sphere. If you blow through life avoiding your own emotions and denying the expression and existence thereof in others around you, you are a flat-earther variant. You cannot be a fully functioning adult human being if you do not take responsibility for your own emotional existence. To be a “good person,” dare I suggest that you must further take responsibility for how you impact others emotionally in addition to your own self-management. So you are kind when possible. You are aware of what you put out into the world, and I mean that as broadly as it sounds. This is not a small task. It is enormously taxing and takes constant self-awareness.

People who are capable of constant self-awareness are subsequently more susceptible to being overwhelmed by a culture that is absolutely glutted with all forms of media, information, and exchange. Today alone I have seen at least three different sets of statistics pointing towards rising suicide rates over the span of recent decades. I do not think I am off-base in suggesting that today we are as isolated emotionally as ever in a world where we are as superficially connected as ever. This is not a new or original concern in the information age, but it is one that it is crucial we continue to recognize and mine.

It is crucial because while many of us are “out there” ostensibly showing ourselves to the world, such candid content is misleading. I know it is misleading because I have posted one way and felt another. I have tried to be as candid and as honest as possible but I have failed repeatedly. I do not feel I have lied, but I certainly have not divulged as deeply or as much as I could.I have tried to be open about when I am not okay, as much as I can, when I am able to put my pain out there. I can do more, I can face my own shit more, and I can do so in front of others with no shame more. I promise it, and I promise I will work on it and improve what I do in this regard because I believe that in doing so, in a small way I am countering an onslaught of human-generated content that is often swiss-cheesed by omitted struggle and pain and fear.

Do not judge mental health by what someone says, what someone creates. Do not appraise emotional stability based on what you see and read. Do. Not. I have been suicidal and no one would ever have guessed as much had they just encountered my instagram account. Indeed, this has been the case more than once in the past two years. I have sat in my car and wondered if I should have myself committed to save myself from myself. I have lived in the prison of a mind I’m not sure I should always trust. I know I am not alone. I will say this again, and more: I know I am not alone, and some of the most internally beautiful people I have met have been in the same place I have just described.

We have no trouble celebrating people overcoming obstacle. You see this in the way we trill over a war hero’s feats or the manner in which someone with great physical disability found a way to perform some activity that would be performed without thought by an able-bodied person. And yet, we stop short of really digging into the dark places, the doubt, the depression, the stagnation, the long waiting periods, the nights spent lying on the floor motionless or the mornings where the act of tooth-brushing is closer to pulling one’s own teeth because it means doing another day, facing the mind during a period that seems insurmountable and ugly and horribly friendless. The mind is not always a friend to people who have achieved what look like great successes or made beautiful things.

I do not have any more to offer than anyone else. I often think I have much less. But I am very, very willing to say what I just said. I am willing to talk about it, to post about it, to yell about it when others prefer only whispered conversations. I will continue. And I will find beauty in the speech of anyone else willing to do the same thing.

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Getting Through

Enlight5

The day I turned 32, I benched at a gym a few hours away from my normal one. The garage bay doors of the Anvil in Cedar Rapids, Iowa are thrown open as wide as they will go when the weather is agreeable–and less agreeable, if you feel the way I do about summer. But it wasn’t summer yet on this day and I remember looking towards the light slanting in from outside as I lifted and everyone else lifted and enjoying the space I was in as much for what I was doing there as how it looked and sounded and felt. I moved in and out of different rooms during my training session–the strongman and powerlifting area for my main work and a smaller assistance area for pull-ups and staring at my phone and the bathroom for…whatever. Sometimes a few children would appear during my floating from one area to another and I noticed a girl watching me. She was pretty young, and because I’m just bad at children in general I’m not sure how to guess how old she was, but we’ll say she was not older than 11. I’m pretty sure about that. Yeah, I’m not having kids, okay?

I don’t do particularly well with people watching me. Ever. Ever, ever. In any circumstance. If you’re in a room with me and you’re watching me do something and I know about it I probably hate you in that moment unless you’re one of about five people. So the kid watched me and I warily watched the kid. Because I grew up in a family filled with judgment, I lived under judgment; the way I tied my shoes was judged, the way I walked was judged, the clothing I wore was judged, and among some relatives how I looked was ALWAYS commented on. Yes, that classic shit that burns the concept into young heads that their aesthetic makeup is their primary worth, that old virus–I contracted it very young, and it stayed, and I used it to try to destroy myself later, but that’s an old story.

Hours later, I received a message online from the girl’s father. Perhaps you can guess how this goes; he said that in the time he had taken the girl to the gym, she had never expressed interest in lifting. He said that after seeing me on that day she said she wanted to lift. And my reaction to this is the point of what I’m writing now. I read what the father of this girl wrote to me and all I could think of was a sense of sorrow for what the girl was going to have to get through as she grew older and a sense of hope that maybe, if she tried lifting and it did work out for her, she would get through things more smoothly. I stop just short of saying more smoothly than I did, but really, I should just say it. There was not much in my life as I grew up to make me feel good about myself. I had a lot of things in my life, a lot of activities, a lot of schooling, a lot of privilege, but for whatever reason things did not align such that any activity in which I partook made me feel a sense of accomplishment, or like I had WORKED for something.

And here’s the thing, I’m not here to write about how lifting changes people’s lives and kids are going to benefit from it becoming a more popular pastime, ESPECIALLY GIRL KIDS. I don’t even have to write that at this point and the story I just related above should do the work for me. I’m more interested in the thought that I didn’t want to think when I read what the father and fellow lifter sent me: that this girl was going to have to get through things in her life. It’s waiting for her. Because I just turned 32 and I am at the point with what has gone on in my life for the last two years where I have learned a few things about the concept of instability and unforeseen events and endings of different varieties and the chasms they leave in their wake. I am not bitching. My point isn’t to hold a pity party. My point is to point out that everyone runs up against obstacle, and so I am not unique, I’m not at all special, and I’m not claiming it. But I am observant and I see patterns and I notice who tends to get through when things go to hell and I try to understand why certain people get through better than others and I’m pretty absolutely sure it often has something to do with people feeling like they have any sort of power. It has something to do with someone feeling like they have accomplished things before and they can and will do so again. I has to do with the work and the trials it takes to get to the point where someone can feel like they have achieved anything.

So if you know me, which most people really don’t and they’re probably lucky for it, then you know that I cling to my lifting like it is a buoy out in the middle of a raging sea, because it is. It is the only thing, and I mean the only thing, that has ever given me a sense that I accomplished something real. School wasn’t real. My degrees, I’m sorry, aren’t real to me. I played a game, I fed into a broken system, I walked away with some pieces of prettily stamped-up paper I believe I have actually lost. And I’m not even saying that lifting being the buoy is a good thing. It’s not, probably. But right now, at the start of 32, there is not a lot else around me to hold onto, and nothing else that feels like it’s going to save me from going under if I let go. So, you don’t. You just keep holding on and you feel the water sometimes at your shoulders and sometimes at your neck and you realize that there’s not a whole lot of possibility within the world of this metaphor–what, is a ship going to come through and save you? Are some seagulls going to come and collectively carry you away? Maybe you just train to swim farther and farther over time. You swim a little farther in one direction and then back to the buoy day after day–every day, a little farther, gaining strength and endurance until one day you swim away from your buoy and you don’t have to swim back if you don’t want to.

Some Card Metaphor

Enlight29

I am not a good card player. Many times I have sat in proximity to my brother at a table filled with friends or family and lit by an overhead light and listened to his incredulous outbursts of “Janis, I LITERALLY just saw your card.” And Joel could see the card I was about to play not because I was physically incapable of keeping it close but more because I just didn’t really care about whether or not someone knew my hand. And this was probably sourced in the fact that card games do not hold my attention. So too does the world of competitive powerlifting have a limited ability to hold my attention or me hostage. Any time I have felt the creeping sense that I am under too much control by external forces that without a doubt do not have more than a very passing interest in my actions in this sport, I change course.

So let me show and/or play my cards now, to the very few who have an interest in my actions. In five days as of this writing I was scheduled to do a meet. Over a series of weeks from when I signed up for this meet to now, I “entered” and withdrew from the meet several times, at least mentally. Physically, I am in okay shape to compete. Mentally, as usual, as with all people who are not robots, I identified cracks in my intent. Where the body is ready to be piloted, the mind is usually far less pliant. As is no secret because, again, I don’t really keep my cards very close, the last year and a half has not been all that easy for me, and the last eight or so months in particular have not. So while I was convinced of my ability to go and physically do a meet, I knew mentally was probably another story. And so I chose not to, and I only bring my official withdrawal from a meet into this blog post because it is an important precursor to where I will be trying to go from here.

And I want to write a blog post about that because I feel like what I am thinking about and how I am thinking about it–I just don’t see discussion of this that often. I also see a lot of people who are so entrapped by “supposed to” and “should” that they are unable to write their own rules within the boundaries of an activity that isn’t going to serve them that well if they don’t take on more responsibility for understanding how it functions in their lives. So, here we go, here’s me talking MORE about my quest to figure out what is best for my body in context of this sport. Oh my god I KNOW, I ALWAYS talk about this, man do I have issues. Except the body is never static, and my navigation of this sport and my body and my body image and my physical health is far different than it was four years ago, four months ago, whatever. The less I stop and ask myself what I’m actually doing, the more autopilot I try to keep myself in so I can execute this number in this weight class, the worse things tend to go. So, here we go, let’s talk about where I’m at with things right now and what it might mean for what I do in this sport.

I am the leanest I have ever been at about 140 pounds at the moment. If I take an honest look at my frame and where I am filled out and where I am not and consider average height ranges within the various weight classes, a lot is coming together that suggests to me that I probably am going to stay the healthiest and sanest and happiest the longest by allowing myself to compete in the 148 weight class. Now, let’s take a look at the word I just used, and did not edit–allowed. It speaks of someone critically aware of standards and rules and established norms, someone whose very rhetoric is colored by these guides. What I will tell you is that I, like many women around my size, sit in this uncomfortable no man’s land that is the “between 132 and 148” classes. I will also tell you that I am VASTLY undersized as a “competitive” 148. But here’s what’s more critical, and can be looked at a weakness if someone is inclined to see things this way: I am extremely aware of my history as someone with eating disorders and living the kind of life that asks me to be aware of my weight in the way the 132 class would ask me to is something I am both unwilling to do as well as don’t believe will best serve me physically in the sport in the long run. Do we even need to go into how mentally problematic it would be? That of all the issues suppressing my weight for 132 would raise, that it would be nearly stupid for me to dangle my past addictions on a wire before me, their glitter impossible to ignore and not enough of a warning against the sharp edge hidden beneath that diamond glow–do I need to flesh that out further? At this point, if you’ve followed me long enough, I sort of hope not. I do not fit myself inside of someone else’s box or standard or ideal. Mine are painful enough to get in and out of.

And so I just let go. Not of training, which is all I care about. All I care about is that I can train. All I care about is that I get better. I could not live without this, not easily. But I don’t give a fuck about how well I do in this sport. I can compete sometimes but what I’ve learned by being in multiple top rankings in multiple weight classes, having two totals on Soong’s list, having broken two all time world records, is that no one gives a FUCK about any of what you do with that. I have said it over and over and over. I will say it again. It gets you NOTHING. And so I am, in a sense, back at a sort of start. Because I am so undersized and poorly developed as a 148 lifter, I really don’t know when I will be competitive in that class. Where I had some thin, dry laurels to rest on before, now I have nothing but a field of dirt mixed with some fertilizer. I am nothing, I have no hidden cards, there is no pressure on me. All I have are my instincts, which have done pretty well for me so far. Looks like it’s about to be the season of the witch.