You Remember The Weirdest Little Things

My routine begins with stripping off whatever uncomfortable, poorly-fitting clothes I was wearing to make myself presentable, and replacing them with athletic shorts and a tank top.

Then plain white socks, which I almost never wear except for this.

I reapply my deodorant.

I make sure my phone is charged and updated with the newest Citizen Radio episode.

I fill up my drawstring bag: wallet, keys, water bottle, phone.

I tie my hair back, ignoring the little curls that fight their way out anyway.

If I’m wearing makeup, I wash it off. Where I’m going, I don’t need it.

The last part: I step into my black gym shoes (I hate white gym shoes) and put on the drawstring bag.

But after that, the routine deviates. Before, I’d glide down the carpeted stairway, two flights, and out the front door, where the street is lined with trees and students carry bags of groceries. On the way there I pass small apartment buildings and large single-family houses with gardens that spill over with flowers. The sun is starting to set, but it’s still hot and muggy. The sprinklers keep the lawns happy.

I turn right and cut through campus, past the huge science building (one of the largest academic buildings on the continent, I heard my freshman year). To the north of it, they’re building a parking garage for the gym, and the dust from the construction site gets in my eyes every time.

But I finally make it to the gym, where it’s cool, where the windows overlook the beach, the grass, and the water. Even during the busiest times, I have my pick of the machines. When I’m doing upper body, I do pecs, triceps, delts, a few other things I don’t know the names of, and sometimes biceps. When I’m doing lower body, I do calves, quads, inner thighs, glutes, and hip flexors. And always, I finish it off with 30 minutes on the elliptical.

And then I’m back into the humid evening, darker now, a little cooler.

Now things are different. Even though there’s an excellent, affordable, 24-hour gym just five minutes away from me (compared to 20 minutes before), it took me a while to start going and it’s still hard to get myself to do it. I don’t want to walk down the stairs of Not My Building and up Not My Street into Not My Gym where I’d have to do Not My Routine because the machines are different and wrong and usually taken up by burly men who terrify me and honestly don’t need those machines as much as I do anyway. (Oh, what I wouldn’t give to feel like I belong in the gym as much as they do.)

But that’s what I have to make myself do if I want to keep working out in Not (Quite Yet) My City.

The hardest part is the part of the routine that has stayed the same. The smallest physical actions become laden with meanings that are impossible to negotiate and reconcile. Putting on deodorant. Putting on socks. Putting my water bottle in my bag. The same deodorant I used before, when I was there, the same socks, the same bag. Not the same water bottle, though, because I have no idea what happened to the one I had during the move.

Obviously, the solution isn’t to stop working out, because I love it and it saves me every time. After that first time I finally went to Not My Gym, my shoulder was so sore I could barely take my shirt off, and it was the best feeling. But if that’s the best feeling, the feeling I get as I put on my black shoes and realize that after this point, it’s not going to be the way I’m used to it being anymore, is the worst.

Why, of all things, has my brain picked the stupid gym thing to torture me with? I don’t know, except maybe that everything else here is just so different that there are no other triggers for that poisonous nostalgia. Nothing about my life here resembles what my life was like three weeks ago, except the parts of it that I spend on the internet. (But even then, it’s hard to forget, with the constant questions from friends about how grad school and life in Not [Quite Yet] My City are.)

Even my domestic routines are different; my bed feels completely different, I dress differently (sensible shoes, naturally), my apartment is very different (insert snark about New York apartments here, but actually, it’s a beautiful place), commuting no longer means walking 10 minutes through campus to class but walking 5 to the subway, waiting at the station, jumping on the train, taking it for 15 minutes or an hour or an hour and a half, getting off, walking somewhere else, etc.

Shopping is different, the city looks and sounds different, the grocery store chains are different, taking out the trash is different, doing the laundry is different. The food I eat is different (just as I looked forward to), the things I do for fun are different. The people I see are different and virtually nothing about them reminds me of my friends back home.

But one thing that has remained completely the same is the process of getting ready to go to the gym, and whenever I have to go through that process, I swear I’m convinced for a moment that I’m going to walk out that door and into my old routines. Where my friends are, where my real gym is, where everything is comfortable and safe.

You remember the weirdest little things. The cluttered desk where the deodorant hid, the mismatched socks pulled out of the drawer, the waning light through the window of the conditioning room, the opening lines of Citizen Radio as you start the first set.

Eventually I will be able to force myself to do this the new way enough times, and with a short enough interval in between, that the new routine will solidify in my head, and Not My Gym will become my gym, as will my building and the street and the city itself. Eventually I will stop feeling like I’m on some weird vacation/summer camp/reality TV show. I love Not (Quite Yet) My City enough to know that that will happen even when it doesn’t feel like it at all.

~~~

P.S. I chose to write about this particular aspect of moving to New York because that’s what I felt like writing about today, but the big picture is rather different. I love it here and I’m glad I moved, and so far it’s actually been even better than I imagined. But sometimes, it’s very hard.

Living With Depression: Strength

[Content note: depression]

Half a year ago I started a series of posts about living with depression in order to help people understand what it’s like to have it beyond just the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. Then I moved to FtB and got super intimidated and didn’t want to write it anymore. But now I have writer’s block and I’m feeling too overwhelmed by everything going on in the world so I’m going to write about myself.

It’s not meant to reflect anyone’s experience but my own, although I’m sure plenty of people will identify with it. If things were completely different for you and you feel comfortable sharing, the comments section’s all yours.

The two previous posts, if you’re curious, were about trust and openness.

For many people, both sufferers and non-, depression is primarily a lack of strength.

Emotional strength, that is. When you hear people call depression a “weakness,” consider the fact that the opposite of “weakness” is “strength,” and you’ll see exactly what they think is lacking in those who suffer from it. Of course, enlightened as depression sufferers supposedly are about their own illness, most of us fall into the same trap at some point.

Because on the surface, depression really can look like a lack of strength. For many years, at the slightest sign of misfortune or difficulty–a bad grade, a rude remark from someone–my entire mental composure would crumple like a dry leaf you crush in your hand. Imagine going to the gym and trying to lift one of the lightest weights they have, but you drop it and collapse in a heap on the floor. That’s approximately the physical equivalent of how it feels, with all the humiliation and self-blame involved.

In reality, of course, it has nothing to do with weakness or strength. It’s an illness. It’s not your fault. (It’s not a “chemical imbalance,” by the way, as someone would usually say right about now, but it’s not a weakness either.)

But, honestly, most days I can’t internalize that knowledge, no matter how many courses I take and articles I read. I feel weak.

Anyway, my solution to this for a while was to try to present a false persona that is strong, competent, and detached. I spent a lot of time furiously pretending not to care about things, because that’s what I thought strength was. It never worked. I’m sure people saw through it, and besides, the thing with depression is that often you can’t fake your way out of it. The pain and emotions it causes are too powerful to hide. It’s like the difference between not letting it show on your face when you’ve stubbed your toe, and not letting it show on your face when you’ve fractured your leg in three places. People are gonna be able to tell. No matter what.

And that inability to hide what I felt was private, shameful, and weak was probably the worst way I’d ever felt like I failed myself. Worse than not liking college, worse than having to drop journalism, worse than not getting (or having to decline) a slew of coveted internships and other opportunities. In the endless parade of personal failures to which I am a constant, unwilling spectator, failing to be “mentally strong” is the absolute worst.

So what about physical strength, then?

It’ll probably come as no surprise (as I’m sure I’m far from the only person who does this) that I use physical strength and competence as a way to distract from and make up for the emotional strength that, despite everything I know about depression, I still feel I do not have.

I’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember. I used ballet that way when I used to dance, from when I was 6 years old until I was 15. Then I switched to marching band, which you may think isn’t hard until you’ve done it. During the off-season I’d bike or walk pretty long distances or go to the gym or exercise at home. Of course, all that was irrevocably tainted by the fact that I had massive body image issues and eating habits that at times were very unhealthy, but I do remember the difference between wanting to lose weight and wanting to be strong. I haven’t always wanted to lose weight, but I’ve always, always wanted to be strong.

(Of course, physical strength is a gendered trait, and the gender that we usually associate it with is male. That means that we think of physical strength as being able to lift a whole lot of pounds–with your arms, that is–and it means that my male friends scoff at how pathetically I compare to them in that department. Of course, I just smile and roll my eyes, because I’d love to see them sit calmly in the splits for 15 minutes while reading a book, or twirl on the toes of one foot. Whatever.)

Partially, I like being strong for the same reasons anyone else does–it feels good, it’s useful, it keeps you healthier. But also, it allows me to shape my body in the way I’ve never managed to shape my mind. Getting physically strong requires a lot of effort, sure, but everyone knows exactly how it’s done. I don’t know how to stop being so emotionally nonresilient. I only know that sometimes I go months without any problems, and then suddenly, for no reason, I start crumpling again.

Muscles don’t work that way. You work them out, and they get stronger. You don’t work them out, and they eventually get weaker. You know which exercises work out which muscles. You know that if muscles are sore, you gave them a good workout. (I say this as I can barely walk for the third day in a row because of this thing I did with my calves, so there ya go).

If I were able to afford a therapist who could actually help (as opposed to the ones that I’ve had, who did not), maybe I’d eventually become emotionally strong. But for now I’ve mostly given up. The only thing that works when I feel weak is simple distraction, but the more tired and overwhelmed I am and the more mental effort I’ve already exerted on other things, the harder distraction gets.

But when I feel strong physically, it makes up for not feeling strong emotionally. Just a little bit.

All These Years I Thought I Was Just Lazy

[Content note: eating disorders/weight loss stuff]

My arms are on fire. When I woke up this morning I felt the burn immediately. I’ve been stretching and moving them around all day, simultaneously wincing and savoring the feeling because it tells me that I’m getting stronger.

I’m on spring break right now and have been taking advantage of the sudden free time by going to the gym every day. It may not sound like a big deal, but for me it is–with the exception of a few random workouts, I’ve been largely avoiding the gym for at least three years.

When I was in high school it was a different story. Back then going to the gym was punishment. I felt that I’d done a lot of things that I deserved to be punished for; not looking right being the main one. I was furious with myself because no amount of exercise seemed to be enough to make me look the way I wanted to, so I combined that with brief spurts of severe caloric restriction. That didn’t help, either. I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of hunger.

So I went to the gym and took my fury out on my body. At least, that’s how it felt to me psychologically. In reality, of course, exercise within reason is good for you. But I couldn’t feel that. Working out for me was only about two things: 1) losing weight, and 2) punishing myself for not losing enough weight quickly enough.

Then I stopped. Partially because I got too busy to make it to the gym, but also because I realized that, at the time, the only way to recover would be to give up on exercise for a while. I still did stuff like walking, swimming, and biking in the summers, but that was only because I find that stuff fun, not because I was trying to work out.

And, to be sure, whenever I attempted exercise for its own sake, I quickly fell back into my old mentality of “needing” to lose weight at all costs. Along with exercising came calorie counting, bending over naked to assess the gap between my thighs, pinching my stomach mindlessly while sitting in class and trying to hide it, freaking out when my jeans came out of the wash a bit too tight, dreading buying new clothes, and on and on and on.

So I’d inevitably stop going to the gym after a few days. When it feels like that, it’s not at all worth it.

But when spring break started a few days ago, I decided to try it one more time. And this time, it worked.

This time I look forward to it. This time I keep eating whatever the fuck I want. This time I don’t even touch the scale in the locker room. This time I don’t tell people about my workouts if I know they’re going to preemptively congratulate me on the weight I’m going to lose. This time I get to do the exercises I feel like doing, not the ones that burn the most calories. This time I get to do what I thought was impossible–see exercise as a treat, not a punishment.

And let me tell you something. I am fucking furious that this–the ability to feel such joy and pleasure from exercising, to focus on how my body feels rather than how it looks–was taken away from me for so many years. I don’t mean literally taken away. Nobody forbade me from choosing to exercise because it’s good for you. But the way we talk about exercise, both among the people I knew and in our culture in general, precluded that. It’s almost like we lack the language to talk about working out without also talking about losing weight.

And when I go to the gym now and see signs advertising personal training programs to make you “Lose X Pounds in Just Y Weeks!”, it makes me sad. Not because it affects me anymore, but because I know what it’s like to walk into the gym and know in the back of your mind that you are there for that reason only. Not because you’ll feel good. Not because you’ll sleep better at night. Not to feel your muscles ache the morning after. Not to finally be able to run a marathon or bike to work every day without being exhausted or just so that you never have to ask anyone to help you carry things. Not to make friends with people who like doing the same stuff you do. Not because it helps keep depression at bay. Not even because it’s a better way to pass the time than sitting around looking out the window.

Only, only to watch the numbers slip further and further, not even knowing when you want them to stop.

For all these years I thought I didn’t exercise because I’m lazy and pathetic. I never thought to ask myself why someone who somehow has the wherewithal to do well at a competitive university and write 1000-word blog posts several times a week suddenly finds hidden reserves of laziness whenever the question of exercise comes up.

I wasn’t lazy. I straight-up didn’t want to, because I’d never found a way to think about exercise, let alone actually do it, without feeling waves of shame, inadequacy, boredom, and misery.

Now I have. Maybe because enough time has finally passed, or because of feminism, or because of the fantastic friends I have who work out and make it clear that for them, it’s got nothing to do with weight.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not hoping to lose weight at all, or that I won’t be at least a little bit happy if it happens. I’m not sure that’ll ever completely get out of my system. But even if I lose absolutely zero pounds, it won’t feel like working out is all for nothing. If a doctor told me right now that there is absolutely no chance that I’ll lose any weight given how I’m exercising and eating, I’d keep doing it anyway.

Two years ago, I would not have done the same thing.

For me, personally, that’s as close as it gets to silencing the countless voices telling us to be thin and perfect. That’s as close as it gets to declaring victory.

The Gym: the Poor Man's Runway

But don't try TOO hard. Like this girl.

Yesterday, one of the main student publications at my illustrious university came out with this gem, titled “Dressing to Impress at the Gym.” After the title and byline, the article takes an unfortunately predictable route:

So the gym might not be the sexiest place on earth. But, who says that it can’t be one of the most social? However unlikely, SPAC, Blomquist and the Evanston Athletic Club are some of the best places to meet guys on campus. Yes, The Keg or a fraternity party would be obvious choices, but those get old quickly. Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.

Oh, dear heavens no! Guys could be “on the prowl!”

First of all, I just want to congratulate the author of this article for her implied success in “meeting guys” at the Keg or at a frat party. I have never been able to find decent specimens there, but clearly, this girl is just more skillful than I am.

Anyway. The article goes on to list helpful tips for girls who are super duper concerned with the scant possibility that someone may look at them while they’re working out. Most of the tips involve buying severely overpriced clothing and accessories at places like Lululemon and Gap. One of them involves wearing a bright-colored bra (way to attract attention while also looking completely fucking ridiculous).

The one that really gets me, though, is the last tip:

Don’t be that girl. “You can tell when a girl is trying too hard,” Medill sophomore Antonia Cereijido said. “They’ll wear no clothing and walk on the treadmill rather than actually getting a workout. They just look kind of silly.”

That’s right, ladies–don’t be that girl who “tries so hard” and cares so much about how she looks while working out, but do go ahead and read an entire article that tells you how to look good while working out.

There are so many things wrong with this article. Where to begin?! Well, first of all, with the assumption–never stated in this article, but implied nonetheless–that no matter what a woman happens to be doing, what matters most is always how she looks doing it.

We’ve seen this before with women like Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Elena Kagan–women who are helping to run the country but find themselves subjected to neverending commentary about their looks.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to find this same principle at work in the student magazine of what I had hoped–before I got here, that is–was a fairly intellectual college. Women, according to this article, exist to be looked at (by men, of course). And this completely ignores the fact that many men find it really sexy when a woman is working out and doesn’t care how she looks.

The second major problem I had with this piece was the implication that even if you’re not at the gym in order to pick up guys, you should still concern yourself with the fact that you may be looked at. As the introduction says, “Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.”

Like it or not? Well, I suppose I don’t, but what the hell do I care if they look? It’s not my job to make sure that no man is ever, G-d forbid, offended by my appearance–especially not while I’m at the gym. I don’t owe anyone anything, and if they look at me and don’t like what they see, they are free to look elsewhere.

But no. According to this article, girls should always care that they’re being looked at, which is why they should always look good, even while working out, even if they’re not even looking to meet any guys. How empowering!

A third issue here is the implication that the gym is only for people who are able to fit their bodies into the cute, tight little shorts and tops that the article practically advertises. Um, last I checked, many people go to the gym in order to lose weight and/or become more fit, not to show off their already-perfect bodies.

But then again, the article isn’t really aimed at those people, is it? Because, after all, who on earth would want to look at them, anyway?

And that’s just the thing. Articles like this always imply that gyms are for attractive people only, which is just as ludicrous as saying that French class is for people who speak French fluently, and art class is for people who can already paint.

Finally, even though the article is obviously aimed at women (men, after all, don’t need to concern themselves with such petty issues as appearance), it nevertheless constructs the gym as a man’s space–one that women may occupy only as long as they follow the rules. As a guy quoted in the beginning of the article says, “I think it’s good that girls take care of their bodies and that they’re not afraid to go into the gym where there’s guys lifting heavy weights and stuff.”

Not afraid to go into the gym? Please.

Of course, the fearlessness that this guy finds so incredible comes with strings attached–women must always look good at the gym, or else…well, I don’t know what happens then. Do our memberships get revoked?

What’s really disappointing about all of this is that I’ve always thought of the gym as a great equalizer, of sorts. Anyone can go there, anyone can benefit from going there. It’s the one place where I’ve never felt like my appearance was being scrutinized, and I’ve always felt comfortable letting go and getting into the flow of exercising.

But clearly, some of the people I go to school with don’t see it that way. You’d think that there are few pursuits more self-directed than exercise, but to them, the gym is just another place to “be seen,” and its health benefits are secondary.

Of course, the author would argue with me here. She even writes at one point, “Remember ladies, health is important, so when at the gym you should still be the number one priority.”

But if she really feels that way, why didn’t she write an article about, say, how to figure out what your heart rate should be while exercising? Or how to use all those damn strength training machines I still haven’t figured out how to use? Or how to work out as many different muscle groups as possible in as few different exercises as possible? Or any number of other health-related topics?

I’m very idealistic about journalism. I think that all journalists, even students at a campus publication, are, in a way, setting the agenda for us as a society. Every moment spent writing piece-of-shit articles like this is a moment not spent writing about stuff that actually matters.

Rather than writing an article that practically shits out the same sexist tropes we’ve all grown up with–that women owe it to men to look good, that only thin athletic women are worth looking at, that men are only attracted to women who actively try to look good rather than just doing what they love with abandon–this student could’ve written an article about why it doesn’t fucking matter what you look like when you’re working out.

But she didn’t do that. She chose to promote the sexist tropes instead, thus doing her small part to keep an unfortunate aspect of our culture going strong.