To cut you in, this is a continuation of Part 3a: Months 2 through Forever. I’m discussing how as it became more and more apparent that my shoulder was not going to be heal in winter 2013, I refocused my energy into taking the good out of what I had to work with.
“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving; you just get stronger.” –Steve Maraboli
The barn in which I lived in Lake Leelanau, MI, illuminated at night. Photo courtesy of A. VanDeusen
Few people’s mental health is ever top notch amidst any Snowpocalypse, mine being no exception. My previous winter had been spent half in the idyllic northern Michigan, and then in freaking Hawaii, so believe me when I say I was dealing with that comparison, as well as a transition into the city (where I hate living, but it just makes sense to live at this point in my life) and my first ever 9-5 job. I’ll take my previous winter back any day. I’d spent a year and a half arguably goofing off after college, but really just taking advantage of my complete freedom while I had the chance. Truthfully, however, that time was invaluable in its opportunities to really straighten myself out a bit after the mess that was college and get myself back on my feet. Having accomplished this mission, this past winter, the world then started asking me to grow up.
The first thing it really asked of me was to work on was some self control. This is something that some may argue I more or less have in the bag. Let’s take my senior year of college, for example. I was a rower, a Residence Hall Coordinator (in charge of a dorm, excuse me, “residence hall”), a straight-A student, a bloody Catholic (I throw this in there because the demands of Catholicism can seem quite daunting at times, especially in the face of a college setting, not this this is to say I was any type of saint), and I somehow even managed to squeeze a social life into that, or pieces of one at the very least. Sounds like I pretty much do alright for myself. False. The thing you have to realize here, is that rowing took care of it all for me. At least a large part of it. The reward of getting to go to practice in the mornings and getting to race on the weekends was, without fail, beyond enough for me to get my act together again, day after day after day. The rest was just details.
So what types of self control, you might be asking? Well, let’s start with food. As I always say, “My first favorite thing about rowing is rowing. My second favorite thing about rowing is eating.” But this statement extends beyond simply my foodie tendencies and propensity for cooking and especially baking. It extends beyond the fact that I was the girl who would read recipes as a means of procrastination and who would sit in the Great Room (my college dining hall) worrying about how she was ever going to make it in the real world because she’d catch herself eating with her hands, face in a pile of food, and all but licking her plate (although I can promise you I do this after more meals than not in the privacy of my own company) and enjoying the experience that is a meal far too much for it ever to be socially acceptable. It extends beyond the fact that I love food so much I literally plan my days around my meals and secretly engage in competitive eating with everyone around me (which given that I hang out primarily with males and specifically with male rowers… that equals a lot of food). And playing off of that, it extends beyond the fact that I have had to learn to moderate my food intake in the absence of the ravenous hunger that is any and every rowing practice’s inevitable hangover.
I guess this is where my blog starts getting kind of personal. My relationship with food, although today is very positive, has not always been so. As early as middle school, I had anorexic tendencies. I will tell you that this was mostly something stemming from other issues, driven by a need for control and a desire for perfection. It never got to the point that it was especially unhealthy, but man, I look at the few photos of myself from that age that I was willing to let be taken sometimes, and I was a rail. Long story short, the anorexia aspect of things pretty much fizzled out when I started track in ninth grade, but I still constantly thought I was fat (which it’s pretty much impossible to be if you run track) and was ridiculously insecure with my body all through high school. I started rowing in spring of eleventh grade, and I’d say by the end of senior year, thanks in large part to this glorious sport, I was starting to feel a lot better about myself, body image wise and otherwise. By senior year of college, I will admit that I was freaking ripped and pretty much in love with myself, to the point that it was unhealthy as far as borderline narcissism goes. Yet all the while, my weight and the appearance of my body are something I think about, at least to some extent, literally every time the topic of food so much as crosses my mind. Thank goodness I no longer obsess — I’ve put a lot of time and energy into accepting my build and what I have to work with in terms of it. It’s an issue I rarely talk about, even to this day, because truth be told I’m pretty ashamed of the fact that I give so much weight (no pun intended) to something that shouldn’t even matter. But I guess that the fact that even someone like me, the Anthropology major who, given the choice, would shower almost never and who is resistant to most any culture norm in the book, still from time to time struggles with the societal ideals of body image just goes to show how disgustingly overboard their strength really is.
So rowing, combined with climbing and an active lifestyle in general, helped me, for the first time in my life, become more or less comfortable in my own skin. And yeah, you can burn calories doing a lot of things. But rowing and climbing sculpt your body in beautifully comprehensive ways that few other sports do, and more importantly, they are extensively FUN and challenging. And let me tell you. There is straight up NO hunger in this world quite like rowing hunger. My stomach becomes a nearly bottomless vat, large enough to consume an entire refrigerator, and then some. Not to mention I eat when I am stressed, I eat when I am bored, I eat when I’m down, I eat when it is mealtime even if I am not especially hungry. I have a wicked sweet tooth. And I have no self control when it comes to food. It can really be a struggle sometimes. But since I’ve started rowing, rowing has allowed me to get away with this, completely. I could put away an what felt at times like an entire bakery case with next to zero repercussions. Which means that bye bye shoulder meant bye bye mindless overeating. I’ve been a solid 10 pounds over what I’d like to be since winter hit, which on a relatively small person such as myself, is a decent enough amount. Thankfully I have very much been able to level it out at that. But I am still pained any time I let myself think about it by the fact that my body quite simply is not going to be what I want it to be right now, and for the next year, it is probably only going to continue to get worse.
But you know, it’s like, oh well. As much as this hurts my ego, yes, I absolutely know it could be worse. The fact that the seriousness of this injury has come in stages, while it means that it has nearly doubled the healing process, allowed me the time to ease myself into a place where I am able to take this loss. It has given me months to work on moderating my intake as well as just straight up accepting my body for where it is, and not beating myself up so much about every decision I make in regards to food. While these were things I’d already managed to accomplish within the scope of rowing, coming to terms with them without the given promise of that perfect rower’s body was a whole new ballgame. The eventual thought that I might need surgery hit me hard enough as it was; had these things been completely hitting me along with that, I don’t even like to think about the damage they could have done. And although I am still upset about this almost every day, my discontent with my body image and combined lack of self control when it comes to food is something that I am quite sick of, and have been looking for ways to get over for years. In my mind, which I will admit I am quite extreme, me not rowing essentially equals me not needing calories period. But obviously I know that is not true. So as I will continue to face this all year, with any luck, this will finally, FINALLY have been a challenge that has really helped me get a grip on my eating habits, as well as accept my body in all its imperfections and realize that it really and truly IS okay if I don’t look like a Greek god. Or even that girl in the magazine. Or even that girl standing next to me. My body is gonna do its thing, but I am the one, quite literally, who feeds it. Knock on wood I will be able to harness this growing mentality that I have as a result of not being able to row, wherein I have control over my body, rather than it having control over me. So this, having been a lifelong struggle, is the start of a very good thing.
Another form of self control that not being able to row has forced me to work on is my anger. Without going into too many specifics, you want to talk about getting personal, I will tell you that I am, at times, an all but uncontrollable, irrationally angry beast. Please rest assured that these are things I would never, ever do, but I simply do not know any other way to paint a picture for you. Angry to the extent that I find catharsis in legitimately picturing smashing things with baseball bats. Angry to the extent that that it has almost killed me. Angry to the extent that I understand, on an emotional level so deep that it becomes physical, anger I feel I should not even know. These are scary things to admit — it is impossibly difficult to look at yourself some days, knowing the capacity you hold to absolutely Destroy, and to, in that, still know that you need to find a way to love yourself, a monster. It is impossible, some days, to bear that in your heart. You have no idea.– They are scarier to hold inside.
Thank GOD, quite literally, that it has always been RIDICULOUSLY important to me that I didn’t take my anger out on other people. I don’t know where I got that from, but I’ve always had it. And thank GOD I have it. The only unfortunate aspect of my love for the people in my life and the world around me, however, is that this anger had to go somewhere. And so for years, I took it out on myself. In every single form of abuse and self destruction you could imagine, and then some. All things considered, it truly is a miracle some days that I am still alive. I will tell you that the first thing that helped me learn to live with myself was God, but that is a story of its own. But the second thing, the tangible, worldly, every day tool which I was generously given to learn to deal with life, was rowing.
“The athlete’s anaerobic threshold [is] the point at which the body’s muscles have exhausted their oxygen store and start burning other fuel,” explains ESPN Magazine, May 2000. “For regular folks, reaching that threshold is quitting time; anaerobic work is 19 times harder than aerobic work. But rowing is all about harder. Elite rowers fire off the start at sprint speed — 53 strokes per minute. With 95 pounds of force on the blade end, each stroke is a weightlifter’s power clean. Rowers cross their anaerobic threshold with that first stroke. Then there are 225 more to the finish line.” Rowing is a safe place to unleash. Every single stroke, I am beating up on the water, beating up on myself in a mentally healthy, physically productive manner. The formula is simple: rowing lets me destroy things, and what’s more, rowing destroys me. Resultantly, I no longer have to destroy myself.
“And so in time, the rowboat and I became one and the same — like the archer and his bow or the artist and his paint. What I learned wasn’t mastery over the elements; it was mastery over myself.” Richard Bode, First You Have to Row a Little Boat.
Photo source unknown. Possibly Harper’s Magazine?
Thankfully, part of my post-undergrad escapades involved, between the long Michigan winter and resourceless Hawaiian shores (as far as competitive rowing is concerned, at any rate), me intentionally living life without crew for a while, because it was direly important to me to prove to myself that I could. That being said, while normally I would have a team to train with in the winter, we wouldn’t be on the water Nov — Feb anyway, so this was a minimal exercise. And besides, I knew that if and when I did decide to stop running, rowing would be there for me, just as it always has been, when I finally got back. Welcoming me like the father to his prodigal son. Not quite the same story. But very much with that level of love. So I had to make it through a winter without rowing, but this I had already done. Granted, I would not have nature and freedom and boundless adventures to distract me. But I was confident I could do it again. And anyway, I just had to make it until my shoulder was healed: Spring.
The anger would come and go in bouts, much of it now a product of the fact that I was unable to row. (Oh, as an aside. In case you are wondering why I have so much anger, once again without going into too many specifics, the answer is one for the emo jar, so brace yourselves: the simple fact of the matter is that it is easier to be angry than it is to feel pain/hurt. So there you have it.) In a house where I lived for a few months upon first moving to Baltimore, “my summer home,” as I fondly like to call it, the basement was empty and the house was going to be renovated, so my roommate and I had free reign to destroy it in any manner we please. That was an easy one for me. Basement = bottle smashing room. When I get angry, I want to smash things. I lived in the house through the end of December 2013. So here was one good outlet.
Running is an okay outlet. Nothing like rowing, but on a good day when I’m able to hit my stride, a way of tiring me out. Writing. Driving too fast. City-acceptable road rage. Prayer. Naps. Visualization. Giving myself a hard look in the eye and calming myself down. Sometimes just accepting my anger and letting it run its course. Focusing my thoughts instead on WHY I was angry, rather than just being angry, and seeing if that was something I could actively deal with instead. Sometimes just letting this hurt me for a while. These were things I’ve done in bits and pieces in my life, but for the past seven years, I’ve had rowing to back me up. Climbing, too. Leaving it all at the wall. To help me and, in the scheme of things, let me be lazy about dealing with my problems and my anger, because I could just take it out there. To say that rowing is my anti-drug is an understatement; rowing is my drug. But suddenly it wasn’t an available option for me, and I had to really start to handling myself by myself, no more crutch. No more self-medicating.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Everything I’ve learned about life, I’ve learned from rowing. And so, in the same way I’ve applied principles of hard work to my schooling and principles of determination to refusing to let life beat me down, I applied the insane amount of self-discipline rowing demands to my everyday, harnessing the spirit of my sport even when I couldn’t actively participate in it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a gradual process, as is any change in the name of self improvement, with unrelenting setbacks and trials along the way, but I just had to make it until April; I just had to make it until April. Not to mention, I had plenty of other adjustments to focus on. A new job, a new budget, a new apartment the holidays, the snowiest winter in Baltimore that I can remember. Beyond that, having returned to Baltimore (I’m from the area originally and went to a state school so know a lot of other people who are as well) after my gap year only to have everyone I was looking forward to seeing start to move away for their next steps, I was starting to make friends.
More than anything to me, community is ultimately what is important. As far as I’m concerned, at the end of the day and the end of a life, we are all we’ve really got. It’s amazing what happens when you’re not always running off to the rock wall or the boathouse; it’s like the people come out of nowhere, I’m telling you! For those of you who know me, I’m quite social, yes. And very compassionate whether I express it well or not. But I’m also a hardcore, German introvert who (jokingly) hates everyone and laments the exhaustion that is making, and what’s more, having friends. That being said, I’m a hardcore, German introvert, which means that in fact my corest of cores is indeed quite soft, and I know for a fact that in spite of all my eye rolling and sarcasm about how ooey-gooey thankful I am to have formed some solid bonds where I live… it’s true. I can’t say these friendships would be anywhere near as tight as they are if I’d been hiding in a rock cave all winter. Some of these people I definitely wouldn’t have even met. Granted, I know my best friends through crew. But spent much more time with them this winter than I would have otherwise. And I may have met other people had I been busy doing other things. But I will selfishly admit that i am quite partial to the ones I’ve got =).
So winter put a lot on my plate. Or rather, it really made me pay attention to what was already on my plate, that I’d previously been able to shovel into my face without even paying a terrible amount of mind to, courtesy of and with my sights always set instead on rowing. As much as I hated it, I knew that this was all going to be good for me. And April would be here soon.