Our bodies are fragile, but that doesn't mean we are not strong.
Growing up, I wasn't the most athletic person in the world, but I aspired to be. Always self-conscious of my intellect as it compared to that of my trailblazing siblings, I saw athletics as the place I would make my mark. As a gangly middle schooler in oversized athletic uniforms, I tried out for everything. I saw my bench position on the C-team as the noble position of someone who never gave up. When we were required to run a mile in the eighth grade in order to pass gym class, I squeaked in at 11 minutes 59 seconds when the limit was 12 minutes. I was not naturally gifted.
I saw high school as a place for redemption and a fresh start in a sea of new faces. I researched every sport. After crossing off every team sport in fear of reliving my middle school traumas of being hit in the face with volleyballs while waving to my parents from the bench, I settled on being a runner. The track team was the only “no cut” team at the high school. No matter how bad I was, I could walk the halls of my school in the coveted athletic gear and embody the so-called "Creek Mystique" on every race day.
I really sucked at first. I was bad, really bad. Then, after a year of practice, I was awarded "Most Improved Player" at the end of my season because I managed to get my mile time down about four minutes, and I learned to stomach the longest of the sprints, the 400-meter dash.
I soon found myself addicted to the feeling of running, exercising and seeing results while building strength. This was my outlet. This was my opportunity to build my body into something sustainable, strong and worthy. I went from crying at the finish of my first race, succumbing to the pain of sprinting a considerable distance, to craving the feeling of crossing the finish line. I loved running. I began running long distances during college and going to the gym everyday, some days twice. On the college campus, a space where female bodies are degraded and often threatened, I saw my body's strength as a way to protect myself and to shore myself up from the dangers of the world. While other students stayed out late, I studied hard and worked out even harder.
I liked the mental strength my physical prowess had given me. I liked knowing I could hold my own in a room full of people whose confidence outshone mine. My physical strength made me feel capable. I was the nerdy girl who loved my fitness DVDs, aspired to make my own someday, and enjoyed bringing other people into the world of living a healthy lifestyle. Eventually I became a yoga sculpt teacher, embracing my love for people, fitness and teaching all in one career path. Though this was not a career that could sustain all of my ambitions, the love I brought to it knew no bounds. I was a runner. I was a yoga teacher. I was finally an athlete.
I had arrived.
It was around the time of my peak physical fitness that I found out about my brain tumor. My fitness had become such a routine that my friends and family knew I must've skipped my exercise if I was cranky. My body loved the endorphins, and I loved the quiet superiority of being physically strong. I can name it now. I can name the ego that often comes with physical strength, because once I lost it, I couldn't stomach being around it.
After my first surgery, I eagerly awaited my return to physical activity. Indeed, so eager was I to prove myself stronger than any disability my surgery had caused me, I spent a fruitful season participating in CrossFit, pushing my body past its threshold, urging myself through physical pain. I did that until I felt the fragile repairs of the incisions in my skull give way, filling my nose with cerebral spinal fluid and sending it out of my body, draining out of my face. I knew a cerebral spinal fluid leak was a risk of brain surgery, I just didn't know it was a risk that would happen to me.
I stopped participating in CrossFit. I continued to try to exercise as my body healed, and despite follow-up surgery after follow-up surgery to keep both my spinal fluid leak and tumor at bay, I continued to find ways to push my body. I wanted to keep at least looking like the weight of the surgeries had not left a mark. I fought hard against my body, often sitting in the gym parking lot crying in pain after a gentle half hour on an elliptical. I wanted the body I had before-- the body of a person who could, without a smirk, say trite phrases like, "strong body, strong mind."
I soon realized that a truly strong body, or more importantly a truly strong person, begins with a strong, accepting and thoughtful mind. After eight craniotomies, I lost my ability to run because the pounding tends to cause a great deal of pain. I have lost much of my ability to lift weights because the stress on my muscles causes spasms and headaches. I cannot often work out more than two days in a row without having to forgo all things I love on the third day. This doesn't mean I can't or don't try, but many days I must contend with a body that simply cannot meet the standards of an unforgiving mind. I must contend with a body that is no longer honed to be an amateur athlete.
So I had to learn how to think differently. I had to learn to accept my body and to meet it where it is and still try to gently push myself in quiet and meaningful ways. I had to first forgive my body and my cells for the violent betrayal of allowing a tumor to grow inside me. I had to forgive my body for not being able to heal as fast as I begged it to. I had to forgive my body for not being able to run as fast as it once could. I had to forgive myself for so much of the self-punishment that comes with healing.
Accepting this new, slightly softer and more unruly body is a daily struggle for me. For a time, I saw my body as a wasted investment of time and energy. I argued vehemently against healthy habits with the flippant declaration, "It doesn't matter, you'll just get a tumor anyway."
Then, once my pity party ended, I realized that my strength, though perhaps developed problematically, was one of the reasons why my body survives each surgery. It is what gets me out of bed after each surgery. That muscle memory ignites within me each time, propelling me forward, urging me to try, to walk, to fight the fatigue, to survive and to thrive.
I used to think that being an athlete was how I would show the world my strength. I idealized the idea of what an athlete was, thinking that feeling and giving in to pain would make me less of an athlete. I thought if I could make my body strong, my mind would follow. I thought physical discipline would ultimately save me from any cruelty the world could throw at me. I learned that that isn't true. I learned that strength of mind, of heart and of soul, has nothing to do with my physical body. I learned that our bodies bend and break. They are vessels to carry us through the journey. Perfection on a vessel’s exterior doesn't indicate a fruitful journey.
I now think of myself differently. Now, I am an athlete in training, always learning and always growing. Just as I am a person in training, always learning, always growing. I am not after perfection. I see myself like my little hatchback car that I've been driving around the last six years. It's dented and scratched up, but it carries me from the various destinations of my life and it takes me where I need to go. My body is scarred and tired. Some days it performs and excels physically and mentally, while other days it tires in the first moments of the day and quietly rests. I am, however, stronger than I have ever been. In doing the work to accept my post-surgical self and physical body, I have set my heart free, let go a bit, and in that space found a strength in myself that was overshadowed by the pursuits of my physical body.
Here and now, in this broken down vessel, I undertake my journey towards a full life. A life of acceptance, of learning, of trying and, ultimately, of strength.