The Space We Fill

On reconnecting with my body and quieting the chaos in my mind

Photo: gremlin/Getty Images

InIn 2014 I started going to the gym. Not to get fit or lean or build muscle mass, but to burn energy. I was crawling with it. It felt like ants under my skin. Angry ants revolting against a tyrannical queen.

So, when vodka and all-night marathon painting sessions failed to quiet the manic chaos, I dragged my messy anthill ass to the Fairmont Hotel gym at the airport. I work at the airport, so this was convenient. I could go immediately before or after my shift. I developed a routine: stationary bike, weights, cry in the sauna, shower.

My fascination was not so much with the physical changes themselves, but with how I had dictated the rules of transformation for my body.

My body started to change, tighten. When I added squats, my butt started to appear higher and more defined; looking at myself in the full-length mirror of the changing room also became part of the routine. I was fascinated.

This sounds like vanity. But prior to this, changes to my body’s shape had occurred without intent on my part. And whatever the changes were, they would seem to dictate how I was expected to behave in the world, how proud I was meant to be, how boisterous, how bold. My fascination was not so much with the physical changes themselves, but with how I had dictated the rules of transformation for my body — instead of the rules seeming to be dictated by my body’s transformation.

For me, the transition from girl to woman had been something breaking, not maturing. My body changed quickly, extremely, and while I was still a child. This new form felt like it didn’t belong to me anymore, like this body was now a commodity provoking opinions from friends and strangers. And whether or not these opinions were shared with me, my physical form was now linked to my importance.

We speak of raising young girls to know their worth. To know that their value is immeasurable and their humanity is equal to anyone else’s. But if society isn’t reflective of these sentiments, they are only platitudes.

Many girls, then women, focus on their bodies. Pull themselves apart and target their flaws for ridicule. Spend time and money to edit themselves. I separated my sense of self completely from mine. Treated it as an inconvenient flesh cage.

The gym not only helped with the excess energy, the changes in my body’s strength and shape gave me a feeling of control over it.

The benefit was money saved on products marketed to women to assist them in living up to their human potential by looking better. The loss was a disconnect from feeling good about the physical space I occupy in the world.

I would feel (and sometimes still feel) extreme discomfort when my body was looked at. I was protective of the cage; it was both restricting and vulnerable. It had proven itself to be worthless armor at times.

In 2014, when I started going to the gym, I was in the middle of a manic episode. The disconnect was as great as ever, the boundless energy making my body feel frustratingly small and constrained. The gym not only helped with the excess energy, but the changes in my body’s strength and shape gave me a feeling of control over it.

I had been fighting for control for months. Trying to rein in increasingly self-destructive behavior as I struggled with the way I knew I was being perceived at work. My stoic norm had become increasingly emotional and erratic, and the strict lines I’d always kept between professional and personal were being breached regularly.

There would often be women at the airport gym making use of the sauna and spacious showers before one of the later flights to Australia. When they would enter the changing room, I would regain whatever control I had lost, trying to appear as cool and normal as possible.

One night a woman flew into the room like a hummingbird, darting erratically from mirror to mirror and trying to find a suitable locker. It was a familiar energy.

“Oh, I just noticed you sitting there! Sorry, love, I’ve caught my fourth wind, and I’m a bit buzzed from the lack of sleep.”

She had thrown herself into her gym clothes and was fighting her fingers through her hair, a mess of silver curls. She gave me a long once-over and said, “That’s the ticket,” pointing at my braids.

As she dug around in a Hello Kitty makeup bag for an elastic band, having braided one side of her head in record time, I attempted small talk. “I’m never sure, you know, if I look a little too girlish. The way I do my braids.”

“Oh yeah, well, you will find this marvelous thing happens to older women. We become invisible, you know. People will try to tell you it’s tragic. It’s not. Invisibility is a superpower, releasing you forever after from giving a damn.”

I sat in the extra space she left behind when she ran out to the gym. Tried to find a calm place. Decided it was past time to speak to someone. Get help.

I took a couple of long deep breaths and imagined owning again every inch of me.

Poet, Writer at Optimistic Learner and Digital Economy Forum. Board member at Vancouver Poetry House. www.optimisticlearner.com

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