Work In Progress

I have been avoiding myself.

It seems like it would be difficult; I’ve even heard people say that it’s impossible to avoid yourself, but it’s actually how I lived most of my life. Hiding from my reflection, draping my body in oversized, baggy clothing, surrounding myself with the noise of TV reruns, background music, and mindless reading. It was how I survived, by distancing myself from the reality I was living and keeping myself from listening to my own thoughts. No longer living in this existence, I have been steadily improving my relationship with myself. I have been tuning in, reclaiming time alone, writing. But lately, I have found myself going through familiar motions – filling all the silence, making excuses not to write, keeping a running list of all the ways I am not “good enough.”

This manifests physically, too. My muscles tense and squeeze under nameless stress until I wake up in the middle of one night unable to turn my head. I make no time to cook or prepare any food and go through the day eating what I can buy at a coffee shop, when I remember or prioritize my own eating; more often than not, I eat once during the day and come home at night to order or pick up whatever I can.

Even writing this has taken days of false starts. I borrowed a technique from my author-friend Lindsey, who often wrote with her screen fully darkened so she wouldn’t have to see and automatically start to edit or criticize what she was putting on the page. I have had to write this way for the past few weeks, but even with pages of words finally poured out, I haven’t been able to edit and post anything.

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It has been hard to acknowledge that for the past few months, I have not been in my own body. The timing made it hard for me to accept, because I returned from the I Am Power retreat in October feeling like I had made a huge breakthrough in terms of finding my way back to myself. I was, I thought, just starting to feel at home with myself. I didn’t want to admit I was pulling away from that.

Not that it’s a surprise. I grew up surrounded by voices that told me what I wanted and needed did not matter, that my safety did not matter, that my body was not my own and its purpose was not to serve me. Its purpose was to serve others. I wish I could have left those voices behind me, but I have always carried them with me. Even as I’ve been able to shed layers of them, their echoes remain and every now and then, they float back up. Lately, they’ve been emboldened and persistent, and I have been relying on old survival mechanisms –  trying to isolate, trying to become numb, trying to get some distance from myself.

I was discouraged to find myself going through familiar motions, but reflecting on this, I realize that even in following the old path, I am different, and I am doing it differently. I held space for myself, I practiced patience. When the distance between body and self was too raw for me to confront head on, i didn’t push myself in ways that have historically led me to injury. I let myself prioritize sleep over working out. I counted victories around eating instead of only cataloging failures; I tried to set myself up for making healthy choices instead of creating the tunnel vision that would make me feel sick and depressed. It wasn’t perfect, but it won’t ever be and I can’t make it my goal. It is progress.

I spent some time with myself this weekend. I put together what I thought would be an easy bodyweight workout, movements I could do but that would still be work. I didn’t grab the heaviest kettlebell I’ve ever pressed and push myself through a painful series of movements that would undoubtedly have set off an injury later in the evening, the next day if I were lucky. That’s progress: self over ego, sustainability over show. And even with four bodyweight moves that have been warm-ups in my recent history, I was humbled. I had to replace one of them right away because I wasn’t in a position to do the move safely. I won’t lie: it felt pretty crappy. Until I went through the circuit twice and I wasn’t in my head, criticizing everything I was doing and not doing. When Boyfriend came home to find me in the gym, I paused only to show him the notes I was taking (we’re nerds) before returning to my circuit. He asked me if he had interrupted me after I had finished and lay on the floor, breathing into my ribs and belly and feeling the pleasant hum of my muscles. I took a moment to listen to myself before I answered – an honest and self-serving response, not one that attempted to make him feel better, not one that prioritized someone else’s feelings over mine. Progress.

Progress is not a steady upward climb; it’s not even a meandering walk that, despite a few twists, leads me forward. I have  had to take detours through my past, been run off the road by oncoming stress and challenges, even fallen into pits that I have dug for myself. I will continue to do so. The first time I realized that – that “setbacks” were an inevitable part of making progress – it was discouraging. What was the point, then? But there’s something liberating about seeing setbacks as a part of the process. For one, it allows me to approach what can be perceived as a backslide, or a moment of weakness, or a failure, as nothing so insurmountable as any of that. It is a step, an opportunity.

For another, it reframes the past for me. My perspective has long been that everything about my history was toxic and awful, including how I lived in it. But I have been ignoring a key piece of the past in order to make that picture work: I lived. The patterns and practices that I used to survive my life thus far worked. I’m here because of those mechanisms, for better or worse. As Erin Brown reminded me at I Am Power, up until now, I have done the best I could. That I would reach for the practices that helped me survive in moments of panic or upset is not a failure. It’s natural.

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And the power I have now is what allows me to respond differently to those automatic reactions, to start building new muscle memory. I have the power to recognize that these responses are old patterns, to exercise patience instead of anger, to remind myself that I am not back in my past even if my brain is afraid that I might be. I can be kind to myself, something I did not have the power to do in the past. I can find my way back to myself. I can show myself the life that I have, how it is safe and joyous and filled with love. I can remind myself that I am not powerless. Progress.


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