When I moved out of my mom’s house after high school I became an avid exerciser. I wanted to lose weight after one too many Florida summers spent hiding my plus-sized body behind dark tee-shirts and jackets. So I did the work and shed the pounds the healthy way, without the help of supplements or personal trainers, and it made me feel like a new woman. Literally. Once I reached my goal weight I knew the only way to keep my new figure would be to keep my diet healthy and my body moving. And for days when outdoor exercise was not an option, I had a gym membership to ensure that I had no excuse for not exercising even when it was 101 degrees out.
Ever since then I have had a gym membership. Call me crazy, but I have learned to enjoy it. And while some people see it as a laborious chore to “check-off” the daily to-do list and the act itself about as pleasant as getting a tooth pulled, I crave what I consider to be my sacred hour of the day when I put on my music, throw my hair in a sloppy ponytail and double – knot my Adidas to escape life and commune with my body.
There are days, however, when I’d rather eat a plate of road kill over working out. There are days when I yell at the palm trees I pass by en route to my gym because I am so-not-in-the-mood-to-sweat.
The thought process goes something like this: I want to go home and eat funfetti cupcakes and lay in bed. But I’m going to the gym. Why am I going to the gym? Because I am an adult and know its good for me…dumb palm trees, they never have to work out. Must be nice. I hate palm trees. I HATE EVERYTHING. Except cupcakes. Maybe I should just go home. NO! STOP BEING LAZY!
After a few minutes of this internal tantrum-throwing, I usually come to my senses and feel better. And less angry at the palm trees.
But walking into a pit of protein-shake guzzling beefcakes and perfectly toned duchesses dashing along on the treadmill can be a scary thing — no matter how healthy you are. While I think I’m in pretty good shape, I still get self – conscious when I go to the gym. And it is not the nineteen-year-old cheerleader in spandex climbing the stairs on the stair-master next to me or the chiseled thirty-year-old mom on her fifth set of crunches that make me second guess the confidence I have in my grass-stained sneakers. For me, its the group exercise classes.
I hate them. I really, really hate them. And here is why:
Last Tuesday a gym employee approached me while I pedaled away on the elliptical machine and asked if I wanted to try a “cardio dance” class. I said I was not interested at first, but she kept pressing it and trying to sell the idea to me.
“You’ll use so many muscles you didn’t even know you had! It is such a great work-out and combination of both strength training and cardio!” She explained. I said I would think about it to shut her up. She walked away and I got back to listening to Elton John on my iPod. Yeah, I listen to Elton John sometimes when I work out. Who doesn’t?
But then I felt guilty. Maybe I should just give it a try, right? I might like it and make a new friend or something.
I took a long swig from my water.
Okay, fine. I will. I’ll go to the dance class, I told myself. This better not suck.
So I did it. I walked into a room full of strangers who all seemed to know each other and stretched and fixed my ponytail. I was here for a fitness challenge, I told myself, how hard could it be?
The instructor was a thin, middle-aged-woman who looked like Susan Sarandon minus ten pounds, and was dressed in a tie-dye tank and purple running shorts with a head full of curly brown hair. She had a lot of spunk. Maybe a bit too much for my taste.
“Okay class! Do we have any newbies here today? First-timers? Don’t be shy, raise your hand! We want to celebrate you!”
I pretended not to hear her. I didn’t want to raise my hand and be celebrated. I wanted to find out if this class was worth my time and subsequent humiliation and get on with my life.
A few seconds later the music began, and not shortly after that, so did the class.
For the first ten minutes, I shimmied and shook my hips around to washed out 90′s boombox beats like “pump up the jam,” and “whoomp! (there it is)”
I hid along the back row next to a bright and bouncy gray haired woman with tattooed eyebrows, sporting a bright blue belly shirt. I had no idea what I was doing.
I sort of liked it at first. But then something bad happened.
Mariah Carey’s “fantasy” came on and we were told to follow the instructor’s lead. There were some complicated moves that incorporated the arms and chest and one that required a twist and a turn.
I froze. I didn’t want to do it. Everyone else seemed confident but me. But I decided to try anyway. The first move was okay. However, when I went to do the twist and turn, I lost my balance. I tried to correct myself and regain control, but it was too late. And that is when I fell onto the cold, scuffed-up, gym floor.
I biffed it. Badly.
And my ego had been popped like a bubble of gum.
The instructor noticed me on the ground and shouted “are you okay back there!?”
For the first time since junior high, I felt like the fat kid on the kickball field, trying to look like I knew what was going on when I was really out of place and clueless.
My thought at that moment: “I’m 5’11 with about as much coordination as a drunk toddler on stilts and here I am trying to do your stupid dance because I thought it might be nice to give it a try but now all I have done is confirm what I already know — I don’t have the rhythm for this!”
I stood up and said I was fine and the class went on. The old lady next to me stared at me for a couple of seconds as if she sincerely pitied my poor, uncoordinated soul. I wanted to stand up and pour my bottle of water over her head. But instead I did the right thing and slyly and stealthily scooted out the back door.
This experience perfectly illustrates why despite my love for exercise, I do not like “group fitness” classes. At least not dance oriented ones. They’re just not my thing. Never was. Never will be. My ego is just too fragile to accept that a woman three times my age can show me up in her ability to wiggle her hips and perform choreographed moves to boom-box beats like the woman next to me last Tuesday with her tattooed eyebrows and belly shirt.
And did I mention how awkward it was to look at the front wall of mirrors only to see the reflection of my radish-colored face oozing sweat as I jumped around like a toddler on Ritalin to a remixed version of “Walking on Sunshine?” That happened right before Uncle Cracker’s “Follow Me,” started to play which certified my feelings of deliriousness and dread.
It’s hard to believe that there are people who enjoy sweating out last night’s cheesecake to washed-out, terribly remixed one-hit wonders. But there are. And If you happen to enjoy boosting your heart rate to Uncle Cracker or swear by Zumba or cardio fitness classes then more power to you. You have the patience and tolerance and motivation to do something that I can’t. However, it will take more than a “cardio dance” class to steal my work-out thunder.
You can still find me at the gym most days of the week. The employees at the front desk know me by name. But don’t look for me in a class full of people pumping their fists in the air or pushing pedals to Run DMC. I’ll be on the treadmill doing my thing in my grass-stained Adidas with my iPod clipped to my shorts and Elton John crooning through my earbuds — zero coordination required and no risk for public humiliation. Just the way I like it.
I will never forget one of the first times it happened. It was three days after Christmas in December of 2011, and the air outside was unseasonably dry and warm. My in-laws were in town and my husband and I had agreed to go kayaking with them that afternoon around two o’ clock. I didn’t really want to go which made me feel guilty and selfish. It wasn’t because I don’t like my in-laws or kayaking. It was because I woke up that day feeling anxious. And I didn’t know why.
“You get to go kayaking on a beautiful day with people you love and you’re not looking forward to it? You should be ashamed, Jamie. You are so lucky to have what you have, stop taking it for granted!” I scolded myself internally.
It was around eleven o’clock in the morning and I had at least two hours before I needed to be ready. A feeling of dread washed over me and an impending sense of doom took control of my mind’s steering wheel. The first physical manifestation of my anxiety showed up in my palms as they became clammy. The second manifestation happened in my chest as my heart began to beat faster with each passing minute. At signs of the third manifestation of my increasing anxiety, shortness of breath, I decided to combat the feelings the best way I knew how at the time: by going for a run.
The first twenty minutes of it were miserable. The sun was sweltering and beating against my face, making the pearls of sweat on my skin drip over and into my eyes where the salt of it stung and made it hard to keep my eyes open. When I had reached mile three of the run I realized that it was not helping — I didn’t feel better. In fact, I felt worse. I turned the corner toward home and felt my chest become tighter. I tried to take in a few deep breaths but failed. I felt weak and exhausted and mentally fried.
“You suck at running. You shouldn’t try anymore…you barely made three miles, that’s pathetic,” I scolded myself again. At the time I was a distance runner who could plow through an 7-mile training run as easily as I could woof down three slices of pizza. Whenever my performance was “off,” it made my anxiety spiral out of control. And that is exactly what happened that day.
I walked inside, soaked in sweat, and began to hyperventilate. My husband was watching a ball game on TV and didn’t notice anything until I called out for help. I had come in through the garage and bee-lined it to our bedroom where I promptly collapsed on the carpet and suffered a full-blown anxiety attack.
I sucked in as much air into my lungs as I could to get out the words needed to call for him.
I will never forget the moment he came in and saw me on the floor. It was one of the first times I felt that I had lost control of both my mind and body at the same time and I was terrified, humiliated, and certain that I was going totally nuts.
“What can I do? What do you need? What’s going on?” My husband asked after dropping to his knees to hold my hand and help me breathe.
At that moment I began to weep. I hated what was happening inside my head and to my body. I hated that my husband had to see me in that condition. And I hated that in a half an hour I needed to be smiley and happy and ready to go kayaking with my in-laws.
There was no way I was going out on the water that day. And for that, and every other detail of what happened that afternoon, I blamed myself for the curse of having been afflicted with what I thought at the time was just general anxiety. That was about two years before I was properly diagnosed with PTSD, for which anxiety is a symptom.
I wept for about twenty minutes, curled up in a ball on the floor. I didn’t know what to say to my husband. And that’s because I didn’t know what I needed or what would help me.
“Unless you tell me what I can do I can’t be any help…” he said softly.
“I know, I just don’t know what will help me,” I replied tearfully.
I insisted my husband go out with his parents that day despite my condition. After he helped me into the shower and I was able to do some deep breathing, I felt better, but not well enough to be around people.
I refer to this story because it was an experience that in hindsight, has helped equip me to deal with overwhelming bouts of anxiety or depression or panic-inducing fear. And more importantly, identifying what I need from those around me to get through it.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “10 Things You Should Never Say To Someone With A Mental Health Condition,” that was later featured on Thought Catalog. A lot of readers who read the piece were curious about what things they should say that could help and I wanted to address that. And the best way I could think to do so is by using an example from my own experience, like what happened that warm December day three years ago, followed up with statements that have reassured me in my weakest moments when I’m afraid of going certifiably insane.
With that being said, here are 10 things that you can say to someone when you encounter them during a moment of panic, depression, or emotional distress related to their mental health:
“You’re not alone in this.”
Feeling isolated in your suffering is one of the worst feelings to endure when you have a mental illness. Knowing someone is willing to walk with you through the experience rather than just pay you lip-service can be life-changing.
“You are important to me. You matter to me and so do your feelings.”
Validating how someone feels rather than shaming, questioning, or trying to analyze it, also makes a great difference. Validation helps comfort the sufferer and can release them from feeling the kind of shame that at its worst, can drive people to self-destruct or self-harm.
“Will you let me help you?”
Knowing that the people you love genuinely want to help you and don’t just feel obligated to out of pity is huge. The best way to show that is by offering to help before the person can ask for it. (Depending on the situation, of course). It could be as simple as getting them a cup of cold water and a snack, or as intense as doing deep-breathing exercises with them to calm them down during or after an anxiety/ panic attack.
“You are not going crazy.”
Blunt and to the point. Many sufferers of mental illness convince themselves they are crazy because of the way society approaches and treats the mental health conversation. Insensitivity and ignorance abound, that may never change, but assuring someone who feels crazy in the moment that they are not may help them see themselves differently.
“If you are going crazy, than I want to go crazy with you.”
The sentiment here is a more light-hearted and humorous take on making sure the sufferer knows they are not alone. And that you are willing to walk with them through what they are going through.
“You will survive this experience. And when it’s over, I will be here and so will you.”
State this as a fact. Because it is a fact.
“This does not define you.”
Telling someone that they’re mental health struggle does not define who they are or what makes up their identity can release them from the fear that many sufferers and survivors have of being a lost cause or too broken or crazy to ever be seen as “normal,” again. And that helps.
“You did not ask for this or bring this on yourself.”
I did not ask for PTSD. Those that I know who are depressed or struggle with eating disorders or OCD did not ask for it. We are a product of many things, most of them being things we can not or could not control. And that is not our fault.
“Be kind to yourself and gentle. You are doing the best you can.”
Identify that the person has already accomplished a lot and that they are doing the best the can, even if on the outside it doesn’t seem like it.
No specific example here because it’s pretty simple: sometimes people who are in a great deal of psychological pain need something to laugh about. I mean really laugh about. “I dressed my dog up in people clothes the other day and it was funny,” might not cut it. Dig deep and try and unearth something bizarre and hilarious and stupidly funny that happened to you. Personal example: I have a friend who struggles with depression and in a moment of weakness, she called me, and I told her about how the day prior while at work when no one was looking, I took a piece of cake out of the fridge in the staff lounge area that didn’t belong to me with MY BARE HANDS. Yep. You read that right. I saw the cake and wanted a piece and didn’t want to waste time looking for utensils so I reached in there and grabbed a slice with my bare hand. Shameful? Yes. Hilarious? Yup. My friend laughed with me for about five solid minutes and I could tell she felt some relief which sometimes, in our darkest, most painful, and bleak moments, is all we need to know that we really will be okay. Because no matter how hopeless, ugly, or scary their world may seem, most people just want a friend. A friend who, as my husband did that day in December, would be willing to drop to their knees in their moment of weakness or pain and hold their hand until they can find the strength to catch their breath again.
Yesterday morning my best friend left for Florida after a four-day stay with me to celebrate my 27th birthday. When she shuffled away, wheeling her suitcase behind her, she turned toward me and lifted her hand for one final wave to bid adieu before take-off. I managed a smile and waved back. And at that moment my heart fell into my feet as my brain struggled to process her departure. Two tiny droplets of tears welled up in the corners of my sleepy and slightly disoriented brown eyes as I watched her ponytail of coffee-bean brown curls disappear in the distance. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel okay to watch her go.
I tried to keep my cool but it wasn’t easy. When someone you love with every cell of your body leaves you for an uncertain amount of time it can feel like a punch to the gut, the kind that knocks the wind out of you. I have known my best friend since I was thirteen, and perhaps that is part of the reason why when she strolled towards her terminal at the airport yesterday a little piece of me died. Because just for that moment I thought I may never see her again. It felt final. I wanted to run after her. I wanted to tell her to stay for a few more hours — we could get coffee and have eggs and toast together one last time or sit at a park in the grass and tell each other one more funny story under the hot August sun before it was time for her to go. We could extend the party just a little longer before having to face reality. But that’s not how life works. That’s not how adulthood works. We must learn how to let go and say goodbye and be okay with not knowing when we will see the people that we are separated from by a thousand or more miles again after they come visit for birthdays or holidays or any kind of day. And to be frank, it’s a crappy feeling.
Last Friday, the morning after my birthday I woke up not knowing who was flying to California to surprise me for the occasion of having made it to my twenty-seventh year. I had to temper and tame a chorus of butterflies that fluttered in my chest every time I thought about it. All I was told was that someone I loved was coming to see me and to be ready around three o’ clock the day we were to pick them up. I had to shield my eyes but the bandanna I had wasn’t sufficient so I ripped out a page from an old magazine in my backseat and secured it over my face with my sunglasses.
After we picked her up we went to a nearby dive bar for the “reveal.” I waited in suspense for a good twenty minutes.
That is what I looked like two minutes before I took off my glasses and looked across from me to see the face of my most dearest friend sitting there with a smile the size of the sun sparkling back at me.
“Happy birthday!” she exclaimed after I nearly knocked over the table in excitement to give her a hug.
It didn’t seem real at first. I thought it was either a dream or some kind of cruel joke. Like it wasn’t really her body but a hologram of her body and there was a hidden camera somewhere recording my stupidity in believing it was really my best friend in the flesh.
After a few minutes of ecstatic shouts and expressions of disbelief, it hit me that it was all really happening.
And it was one of the best birthday gifts I have ever received.
During her stay we did the things good girlfriends do when they’re together — we shopped the sale racks at H&M, wore lipstick out for drinks, curled our hair for dinner on the town, ate Oreos in our pajamas, did important “research” on fashion trends for fall, and shared stories and jokes on my back porch into the wee hours of night. I didn’t want her visit to come to an end and avoided all thoughts about it until the morning of her flight home. I didn’t want her to leave because I knew that her going home meant that the trip, and the good times within it were over. And that meant reality would have to set in — a reality that hurts to think about when you’ve suspended your understanding of time and responsibility in favor of living completely in the moment with your BFF.
I think this is a part of adulthood that we all experience. And I am not one who copes with it well. I love the euphoria of human connection with someone that I share a rich and beautiful history with — it’s an addiction for me — I can’t get enough. That is in part why a hole was left in my heart yesterday when I had to watch my best friend walk away with her bags. The four-day-long visit that felt more like a dreamlike, momentary blur where nothing mattered and life seemed perfect had ended. And it pained me to know it was no longer my present reality but just like that had become a memory cemented in time and no longer there to touch, taste, and feel right in front of me. In it’s place instead was a feeling of melancholy as thick as the late summer heat, hanging heavy in the air. I wished I could press “rewind” and re-live it all over. But I suppose that part of growing up is coming to terms with the fact that even our best and most fun experiences must come to an end. Though we would prefer they last forever.
I hate endings. I am terrible at saying goodbye and coming to terms with something being “over.” As an adult, however, this is a discipline we must practice if we are to stay sane. Because special occasions and celebratory gatherings and holidays come to represent the pieces and people and places of the past that we can’t and don’t want to forget no matter how much time and age try and force us to.
I wish the good moments and memories could last forever. I wish I was better at letting them go. But like so many my age I can’t quite accept that the best and most gloriously youthful and impassioned and memorable experiences of my existence happen just as fast as they end, and are over as surely as the sun rises on a new day. And when they’re over, I find myself wanting to immediately recreate and re-live them just one more time. That’s how I felt yesterday as I was funneled onto the freeway after watching my best friend of fourteen years disappear into the airport. For it was more than just her head of soft curls and her big brown eyes and glittery green earrings that vanished in with the crowds of travelers and TSA workers, it was the ability to create memories and be together, side by side, that vanished as well. And that is what I miss most in the aftermath — the thrill of what was and how it felt to be in a moment that made life feel infinitely more perfect than it feels on any other day. There never seems to be enough time to take it all in and breathe it into the depths of your lungs. And even when there does seem to be enough time, somehow you close your eyes and wake up and it’s over and you are still left wanting more.
The process of dealing with and understanding that want is yet another part of growing up that I am not good at. And maybe I never will be. Because for me, the hardest part of life sometimes is coming home from a vacation and turning on the lights after partying in the haze of another realm where the good moments never end and you never have to say goodbye or watch your best friend wheel her suitcase away into the airport after four days of feeling invincible and like nothing else matters. Nothing except being together and doing the things you love most without having to confront the reality of time and the process of growing up which ironically, is exactly what my best friend came out to California celebrate with me as I just turned twenty-seven.
This is the stuff that makes growing up hard for me. But I am not so naive to think that it is not also the very thing that in it’s own special, painful, and beautiful way defines my identity as an adult — an adult who still feels like a little girl at heart. And an adult who just wishes she had a little more time and one more night to curl her hair and put on lipstick and go out for a cocktail with her best friend, certain that the night, like all good things in life, would last forever and never have to end. And we would never have to say goodbye.
If you know me personally, you know that I am a big fan of hip hop. If you know me personally and maybe did not know that, well than…now you know. This might surprise some people who can’t make sense of a vegetarian book-nerd listening to Jay-Z, but I like what I like and that includes Kanye and Drake.
One of my favorite hip-hop albums to come out in recent years is “Watch the Throne” by aforementioned rappers, Jay-Z and Kanye West. This album helped power me through the 2011 Long Beach half marathon and was a constant for my long commutes home from work and sweat sessions at the gym.
There’s a line from a song on the album called “Welcome to the Jungle,” that goes like this:
I’m losing myself, I’m stuck in the moment.
I look in the mirror, my only opponent.
These are two of my favorite lines from that album. This is why:
Yesterday I turned twenty-seven years old. And it was surreal and strange. It has become more and more apparent to me that aging is not something I am good at accepting or embracing. Though I am certainly trying to. For me, it is hard to comprehend the idea of never being able to go back in time — never being a certain age again or experiencing the “firsts” of life that make life the delicious feast that it is — first days of school and college, first dates and kisses, first car keys and apartments and credit cards, first jobs and first loves — these are the things that make life, life. And what make growing up the hard and sometimes heart-breaking experience that it is.
Whether or not I am ready for it, life is going to keep moving and propelling me forward towards the next thing, the next moment, and next steps that are required for growth.
And truth be told, I hate that. I hate that I have no control over time and can’t stop it or press pause or rewind and go back just a little bit when everything seemed easier and less complicated.
When it comes to the transitions and change and risk-taking that come along with adulthood, I am my greatest competition — my greatest enemy. And though I often fall prey to blaming circumstances and other people and outside forces for the things in my life that I’m not happy with or feel I have failed at, I am ultimately my only opponent in this game of life. The biggest challenge I face most days is the challenge of battling the voices in my head that tell me I’m not good, strong, or put-together enough — and choosing what truths I will choose to believe about what my worth is and what I am capable of when I try.
That’s why when Jay-Z raps about being his only opponent, I get it and feel it in a way that motivates me to take on the challenge of defeating the competition within my own self. The competition of my past accomplishments and victories, as well as the competition over which voice will guide my sense of worth — the voice of self-love and positivity, or the one of self-loathing and doubt.
I am an opponent against my own potential. To change, risk-taking, and acts of courage and strength, no one holds me back from my full potential more than I do. Without even knowing it, I often sabotage my efforts and strides toward my goals and dreams and the good things I want for myself. In the war for how I think about and view myself, I am often my own worst enemy.
And for my 27th birthday, I want that to change. I want to flip the script and resolve to live differently. I want to stop being an enemy of myself, but a friend and proud fan cheering from the sidelines instead.
I think I deserve that. I think we all deserve it.
Twenty-six was a strange year for me. Looking back upon it I can see the ways in which I grew as a person, friend, daughter, writer, wife, and person of faith. But I can also see how that growth came at a cost and was sometimes more painful that I thought I could bear.
For 26 gave me hardships and those hardships gave me heart-ache and tears. But those tears made me stronger.
Twenty-six gave me uncertainty and that uncertainty gave me anxiety and fear. But that fear has forced me confront parts of myself that I needed to confront in order to grow.
Twenty-six gave me pain. But that pain made me a stronger woman who understands that this life isn’t easy for any one of us and though a lot of people out there like to pretend that there existence is naturally fabulous and easy, those people will ultimately live to be the most unfulfilled.
Twenty-six broke my heart into a thousand pieces. But through that, I learned what it means to pick up those pieces and learn from the unrelenting and unfair blows and bruises of being human.
Twenty-six stole the security I thought I had in my identity and health. But in turn, I learned that my identity and health aren’t comprised of the things I thought they were. And they won’t be the things that sustain me in life’s dark moments.
Twenty-six almost made me give up on a lot of my hopes and dreams and trust in people. But through that I learned how to persevere and trust even when it’s not easy.
Twenty-six broke me. But because of that brokenness, light was able to seep in through the cracks of the perfectly intact surface I tried so hard to maintain but knew would eventually crack and crumble. And that is the light that I hope to take with me and walk in as I enter my twenty-seventh year — a year in which I will strive to no longer be an opposing force against myself and the good things of life.
For 27 I want to wake up and look in the mirror, step back from the moment, and say, “you can do this. Because you are strong and have brought yourself this far already, keep going, I believe in you.”
It might not be easy and may take me a few tries, but if I can learn to live that way, one day at a time, I will have defeated the enemy within myself that would love nothing more than to see the next year of my life spent tangled up in doubt and fear and self-loathing.
Here’s to flipping the script.
Here’s to being a friend to the little girl within as she grows up, rather than her adversary.
Here’s to hopes and dreams and telling the world my story.
Here’s to the light that seeped in through the cracks of my exterior.
And finally…here’s to turning 27.
I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a wild, crazy, and beautiful adventure.
“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn