It wasn’t until I sat down with a counselor to recap the last few months of my life that I realized how important the ritual of pushups had become. I started on June 1st, after listening to my cousin Lynette, aka Blue Dress Project. Part of my wish was to start doing only what could be sustainable. Pushups are an effective total-body workout – and they can be done anywhere, require no equipment, and are a tremendous incremental workout. Most of my shoulder pain disappeared as my ability to do a lot of pushups crescendoed. Lynette likes to tease me about my reluctance to add more physical activity to my life. I was cautious about further damage; all of that concern turned out to be pointless, and especially because it wasn’t my shoulder that turned traitorous to me. Isn’t it amusing that we worry about things, only to discover that almost none of what we expect comes to fruition – while the stuff we’d never expect blossoms and distracts us?
My job is much more physical than most people realize. When I was fat, it was hard for people to see me and imagine that I walked miles every day and moved tons of medical supplies. Now that I’m thin, people seem to have no doubts. It’s a lesson in self-image and the oddness of how your body sends messages to other people, even though we don’t like to think so. I don’t take it personally. I wish that we had a way to pull people aside and say, “I’m concerned. You’re overweight, and your health is probably suffering.” Yesterday, I went to work for a bit to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday and retirement. I’ve known her for 16+ years, and her absence will be a strange void, especially at 4 a.m. While I was at work for the short visit, a few people who’d not seen me in weeks were shocked at my transformation. They’d forgotten that I’d lost almost 90+ lbs before my emergency surgery. In the interim, my body shape has changed and become what it’s supposed to be, except, of course, for the permanent scar and reminder of life’s capriciousness. Though people have had months to watch my body melt away, they still have an old image of me in their heads. They laugh when I tell them, “Never again.” The other component of my transformation, the mental one, is invisible to me. That’ll take longer to percolate and replace the old me.
Since my surgery four-plus weeks ago, I haven’t been able to do many traditional pushups. In the last couple of days, I’ve done a few, a very few, carefully. I’ve also done more by leaning on the kitchen counter or deck landing to minimize any potential stress to my abdomen. I’ve given the dumbbells a lot of work, but it’s not quite the same, especially since I have to be extremely careful. A return to work is approaching like a snowball. After a few weeks with post-surgery dumbbells, I’ve discovered that I enjoy the ritual of repetitions and increasing fatigue.
My counselor knew I’d started doing pushups because my therapy slightly overlapped the date I started back in June. She looked at me in surprise when I told her I had made it to the point I could do 1500-plus in a day. I also told her that the irony was that I decided to limit myself to 500 a day three days before my emergency surgery. “Just 500?” she said and laughed.
I find myself shaking my head at the irony of spending a year eating healthily and getting in the best shape of my adult life, only to find myself hospitalized for the first time as an adult.
Until I had to stop doing them after surgery, I hadn’t connected the dots explicitly about how pushups are exercise and meditative. They incorporate counting, breathing, and a bit of simultaneous mindlessness. For anyone reading my posts about them, I admitted countless times that I often used them to counteract anxiety. Over the last five weeks, I realized that the habit and instinctive desire to do them was always in the back of my mind. I realized that I had been so successful early on because pushups were my single-best anxiety tool.
One of my most effective tools to help cope with anxiety was taken from me. I have a lot to be thankful for, regardless. Like so many other non-physical ailments, stress can quickly derail anyone, partly because it’s invisible to other people until it manifests itself with undesirable behavior.
It’s evident to me that pushups became an addiction. People scoff at the idea that something perceived as so healthy can be an addiction. It’s one of the reasons I’d already decided to reduce my maximum to 500 a day. It’s still a lot – but not crazy. Going back to work, there’s no doubt I will get more exercise than I probably want for a while.
I’m going back to work on Monday 4 weeks and 6 days after my emergency surgery.
People ask me about my most significant setback during my recovery.
It wasn’t the pain, the staples, regrets, or the disconnectedness I often experience.
It was the unexpected vomiting spell I had last Saturday. Don’t worry; it wasn’t physical. Because I’d hit my physical limit with exercise for the day, I didn’t have the easy tools to trick my mind into quietness. I WANTED to do several hundred pushups, don’t get me wrong. The stress and anxiety hit me like a brick. It was over relatively quickly. I knew immediately I’d oddly strained the muscles on the left side of my stomach, away from the vertical scar running down the valley of my middle. Though the external stressors hadn’t diminished, my focus shifted immediately to damage mode – and my mind sidestepped ongoing anxiety. After abdominal surgery, the surgeons give you constructive advice such as, “Don’t sneeze too much. Or cough. And especially don’t vomit. Or force yourself as you go to the bathroom. Don’t worry about a ‘little’ blood.” Thanks, Doc – now that’s all I can think about.
It was a moment of clarity.
The foolishness of letting external stress affect me like that washed over me. After losing all the weight and getting into surprising shape, I’d already survived an unexpected physical setback with the surgery. Even doing things well, the universe needed a laugh at my expense.
And so it was after I vomited. It reinforced my decision to see a counselor again. People are stressed more than ever, or so it seems. I don’t want to point fingers at the circumstances that led me to be quickly sick. The truth is that it is on me to continue to learn new habits and not internalize things, no matter how crazy, dramatic, or wild they may be. The world is inevitably going to shock me, and people will behave in self-destructive or ridiculous ways. (This explains why some people like rodeos or fashion shows.)
I have to learn to stand quietly, even if I’m in the eye of the storm.
I have to learn to stand quietly, even as people act disturbingly.
There will always be storms and also people to cause anguish.
To expect otherwise is both a form of attempted control and surrender of my peace. I’d forgotten to take control of the thoughts running through my head, justifying it because my concern was for someone else who couldn’t pull up out of their flight path.
I don’t want to disengage from people. Most people are pursuing their interests without inflicting damage. Now, more than ever, I need other people to share moments.
During this most prolonged dormant period of my adult life, I tried to take advantage of the downtime and channel my loneliness. People roll their eyes when I tell them I don’t understand boredom. There is SO much to do, books to read (all non-fiction in this irregular period), TED talks to watch and listen to, colorful art and projects to finish, and a universe idly waiting for me to engage. Not to mention my favorite, writing. I accidentally wrote a 100+ page story in the last few weeks, one so intensely personal that I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day. I became friends with the lengthy spiderweb of streets around my apartment, including many dogs who need attention.
I laugh when I think of all the surprises I’ve done within a few miles of my apartment. Some were noticed, but not all. Some undoubtedly caused happiness or laughter. Others? Probably confusion. I tried to do random acts of kindness (and many not so random). I can see a couple from the landing outside my apartment, one of them ridiculous. I can’t believe no one noticed or asked me, “How?”
I’m not sure what the message of this is supposed to be. And that’s okay. Not all sharing can be tied up with a bow.
Maybe you learned something about me. I learned something about myself. Not all of it is good. Anxiety is a real issue, and if you suffer from it, sleeplessness, or depression, or just want to feel better in life, there is help. All of it starts from within, in an attempt to be who you’re supposed to be. If you have a day or thirty years ahead of you, you might as well try to live in the best way you can. All of it centers on being honest and being surrounded by people who light you up.
Go find your fire. Start with an ember if you must. Just start.