A short while back, the founder of Australian Girls in Gi (if you’re a woman practicing Jiujitsu in Australia, get in on this awesomeness) posted a before and after (training Brazilian Jiujitsu [BJJ]) pic of herself that prompted a very moving thread in the group’s Facebook forum. In it, a large number of women came forwards with their stories; of how BJJ had helped them in battles against everything from anxiety to overcoming childhood trauma to adult hardships like difficulty conceiving. It was inspiring to have so many women come forth to speak openly about their issues, insecurities and the ways in which they were battling them to create healthier, happier lives for themselves.
But a weird thing happened upon reading it. At the same time I felt inspired, I also felt very, very depressed.
Because I tried a couple times to add my own contribution. I’m a big fan of sharing openly the things we typically hold inside, whether that hesitance to share comes from a fear of rejection or social conventions we were raised with and just can’t shake off. But each of these gals, even the ones still in the heart of their issues, came across as success stories whereas I was feeling like I was. . .still failing.
Almost 6 months into my MMA training I was looking fitter than I’d ever been, and had some pretty cool unexpected takeaways from this most recent life change: Among them, the Australian Girls in Gi (AGIG) group teaching me how vital it is to be part of a community. It’s particularly awesome, as a woman, to have a group of females around you that you know have your back (even if they’re sometimes trying to choke you from it). It’s damn warm and fuzzy, and not something I’d ever really had before.
But, at the same time, a number of health issues had begun insidiously creeping into my life. I was tired, constantly. Like, really fucking tired. Despite that, my sleep had become broken – I’d wake 4 or 5 times a night for hours at a time. I’d roll out of bed at the last minute in the morning, ashamed of how much time I’d spent there, and jump on my bike to rush to training, arriving just in time to jump on the mat, with no pre-training yoga stretching, still not even fully awake.
And I’d begun to hurt. My knees were beginning to ache and were losing some of their flexibility, my skin was overly sensitive and, a couple months back, a pain had begun to develop in my sternum that I did a pretty convincing job of ignoring for far too long. I’d be fighting against tears when someone would put their weight on me during a roll. I fought to develop a solid top game not only as a means of looking for submissions, but a battle to remain in a position in which I could breathe without pain.
And as life does continue outside of training, other stressors were working their way into my life and mind in the form of job security, financial concerns, visa issues. . . .
I dealt with it all by fighting harder. More time on the mat meant less time lying in bed and cursing the fact that I couldn’t sleep. But the harder I pushed, the more I hurt and the less I slept. . .
And I went into defence mode – That nasty mental state where you allow yourself to slip into old, bad habits that you’ve convinced yourself are ‘getting you through it’. Most embarrassingly, I began smoking again. Which is, really, about the stupidest thing one can do when you’re concerned about your health.
I was scared as hell. All this fatigue and pain was frighteningly similar to the way I’d felt just before the onset of chronic fatigue in my early twenties, which was, without exception, the hardest year of my life. I would sooner be back on that Indian train with the fear I was about to shit myself to death than deal with Fibromyalgia again. No lie.
And I was angry – I’d already dealt with this, dammit. I’d done the whole travel-the-world-and-soul-search thing. I’d done the take-time-off-to-find-yourself thing. I’d switched up habits and cleaned up my diet and done so many mental shifts to get to a good place that I felt I should be above such irritating afflictions as stress, depression and anxiety. But here’s the infuriating kicker – Dealing with stress at one stage of your life doesn’t guarantee sustained mental and emotional health any more than spending one summer doing 500 crunches a day guarantees you abs for life.
You need to keep working at it.
I’ll say that again: You need. To KEEP. Working at it.
I’m saying that for myself as much as anyone else. More than, really.
Not only do you need to keep up the habits that got you to a good place, whether it’s a cleaner diet, a solid exercise routine or regular meditation, but you need to adjust them to deal with changes in your life and body. What worked for you at 20 is probably not going to work for you at 30. Weight routines that got you solid strength gains a year ago will likely have plateued and will need adjustment if you want to continue improving.
And when you, say, leave a career, move to the other side of the world and up your exercise regime in frequency and intensity by approximately 400%, it’s pretty fucking likely that what kept you healthy, level and sane may begin to cease doing so.
I had tried multiple times to reign in my head and health on my own and was failing miserably. I’d hit the point where I would cry at the drop of the hat, was staying in bed way too long without getting any real, restorative sleep and had begun smoking and drinking too much coffee and alcohol just so I could feel like a passable human being in social situations. I was so embarrassed about the crying and smoking in particular that I’d bow out of conversations and social obligations for fear of making an ass of myself. And I didn’t want my coaches or teammates to ever think I wasn’t serious about my training so I wouldn’t take days off when my body was telling me to – I’d continue to push, even when my body was screaming at me to stop.
Lastly, I was infuriated at and ashamed of myself because I had written a fair amount on self-actualization and awareness and I should KNOW BETTER THAN THIS, DAMMIT.
I’ll beat my head off a wall longer than I should but, at this stage in my life at least, I will eventually hit a point where I go, “Shit, this brick just ain’t got no give.” And I’ll take my brainmeats and the fractured skull in which they reside and sit down and ponder – “Right. What can I do about this? What haven’t I tried yet?”
I hadn’t tried seeing someone. Digging into my dwindling finances and making an investment in someone’s else’s education and knowledge to help me out – in my training, my diet, my habits and health.
So I did that.
One man came highly recommended by a number of people I respect and so, over the holidays, I finally scheduled in some time with him. Having also fought through chronic fatigue, four years of it in his case, he could sympathize. Which made his strict advice credible if not necessarily any easier to hear:
No cigarettes, no coffee, no caffeine, full stop. No dairy, no grains, no sugar, no chocolate, no processed food, no chili, no. . . .a lot of foods.
Less training. More meditation. More light cardio. An exercise program composed of breathing exercises and slow movements. Setting time aside for breathing exercises.
No tap water, begin filtering. No plastic bottles, switch to stainless steel.
Bed by 10pm.
Keep a training and diet journal.
To paraphrase, he explained that my ’shit bucket’ (his words, which endeared him to me) was full, and I needed to do everything possible to, really, chill the fuck out. That just telling myself ‘everything’s cool, chill the fuck out, nutcase’ wasn’t sufficient, and that I needed to teach my body how to breathe, and to recover. That, if I didn’t, stress was going to continue to manifest physically in whatever ways it could until it ripped me apart.
Despite the compelling evidence of many holistic approaches I find it incredibly hard to take them seriously. The conventionally masculine part of me sneers, scoffs and says ‘That’s hippie shit. Just suck it up, princess’. The same part of me that rolls its eyes and turns away, pretending it doesn’t know me, when unexpected waterworks come on looks at meditation and says, ‘skip this time-waster. Just get it together. Instantly. Go. Just be stronger. Now.’
I don’t, of course. That’s not the way our bodies work. But I want mine to. I just want to be healthy, naturally. I want a strong constitution that can eat and drink whatever the fuck it wants, benchpress its own bodyweight, slam back a beer with mates then do it all again the next day on 4 hours sleep. Admitting that I’m setting aside time each day to do something as mundane as breathe. . .worse, admitting I need to do that just to continue operating at the level of a normal, functioning human being. . .it feels like admitting weakness. I shudder at the thought of someone seeing me move through hella slow axe chopper exercises as opposed to wailing on a heavy bag, and go red-faced at the concept of looking at a menu and having to declare, ‘there’s nothing I can really eat here’.
There’s this unhealthy stereotype in our society of the spoiled, hysterical housewife who’ll hop on any trend diet that comes along and goes to see someone twice a week to align her chakras that makes me groan. Because in my socially-shaped perception, I associate those activities with someone who can’t deal with life and all its mundane first world problems. They are the actions taken by someone with whom nothing is wrong, but who needs to create some fictional stress disease as an excuse for why they can’t be happy with all the good things they have. And I don’t like trying to consolidate myself with that image.
Anxiety, depression and stress are of course very real things that can, given the chance, rip our minds and bodies apart. But they don’t show on CT scans or as physical scars so it’s hard to give them their due, even when experiencing them slamming your system. There’s no shame in avoiding the mats for a couple months because you’ve torn a muscle but having to explain to people you’re just rolling lightly because ‘your skin hurts’ or that you should be in bed by ten because your body ‘needs the sleep’. . . .
. . .I’m just going to say it: It makes me feel lame. Weak.
I just didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to slack off on my training at the very moment things were beginning to fall into place (health aside). I didn’t want to have to set aside time every week to do shit like meal planning and breathing exercises. I didn’t want to have to be anal with things as trivial as the water I consume, making sure to filter enough overnight and then move it to stainless steel containers to take with me through the day (remembering to add a pinch of sea salt to replenish the minerals that the filter would take out). . .
But I’d seen evidence of how big a difference things like this could make. I used to procrastinate doing simple tasks on account of anxiety. Taking the time to meditate and adjust my thought process had gotten me to a point where I just did shit and stopped having panic attacks about it. And after years of trying everything from physio to heavy painkillers to deal with the crippling lower back pain I experienced from scoliosis, it was eventually yoga that made any real difference.
So – keep trying to ‘man’ my way through it until I truly injured myself or my body just gave out on me and I had to give up the MMA dream anyway, or suck it up, put misplaced perceptions aside and accept that I am not made of steel and that maintaining my health may mean being strict and anal with myself with things as trivial as water consumption and the way I breathe?
I still needed something. Some way to eradicate from my mind that whiney ‘hysterical housewife’ image I associated with things like chakras and mindful meditation so I could take it seriously, so I wouldn’t think less of myself while trying to take care of myself.
The lightbulb came in the form of the same awesome lady whose picture starts this post.
After a session of rolling, Jess asked if I was heading to our other gym for another session. I was just sitting on a bench in the changeroom at the time, trying to calm down my swirling thoughts and anxiety enough that I could make it out the door and to my bicycle without bursting into tears. I just shook my head and managed to make some vague hand gesture and mumble that I wasn’t up for it. Because I can’t speak when I’m upset without crying, the tears followed shortly after.
Jess took the time to offer her shoulder and, after a bit of conversation on the topic, explained how she used to put such unrealistic expectations on herself and how, through the aid of a teammate, learning how to laugh on the mat helped her to relieve some of that pressure.
“I reckon that’s what you need,” she smiled. “You need someone to help you learn to laugh again.”
It was a couple hours before the dots really connected and the lightbulb went off. Humor. That’s how I would deal with this: By writing about it. And, in doing do, by taking the piss out of myself. Taking the changes seriously by not taking them seriously, so to speak.
Because if I’m writing about how ridiculous I feel sitting on the floor and breathing through one nostril I can laugh at myself enough to enjoy doing it, instead of getting frustrated with it and saying ‘fuck this’ and going out to smoke another cigarette instead.
So that’s my plan for the moment. Instead of trying to just muscle and poster my way through the pain, I’m admitting to myself that I am not healthy right now, much as I might look it, and am slacking off, even if that means slowed progress in strength and technique gains. Instead of using cigarettes and coffee as crutches to get through the day I’m stripping them, and many other things, away so my body can actually heal instead of ride a rush that just gets it through the next ten minutes. And instead of hiding in the dark back corners of the gym to do my super slow-paced movement/breathing exercises lest someone giggle, I’m openly writing about them here and laughing at myself before they can.
. . .I’m probably also going to winge a lot about how much I miss cheese.
Edit: WordPress has notified me that this was blog post #42 (for non-HGTTG fans, that’s the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything). This made me smile.