Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Temple of My Soul

Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.

I’m out of trust with my body. OK, actually I hate my body. I really, deeply hate it.

When I think about it, most of my life I’ve felt scrawny and weak. The other women in my family have sturdy frames, sturdy enough to bench press a child in each arm, sturdy enough that arm muscles and big shoulders have to be monitored so they don’t get too big. Sure I benefit from having a smaller frame that fits society’s images of female attractiveness. And at times it’s nice to be small enough to get into the car when someone parks far too close to me, or move through a crowd by ducking low. But all my life I’ve hated feeling frail and insubstantial.

When I started training to become a law enforcement ranger I made the decision that I wasn’t going to let my small frame stop me. My body would do what I decided it must do. Being a law enforcement ranger is a physically rigorous job. There were running, pushups, sit-ups, and bench pressing requirements; defensive tactics involved several techniques for throwing a person to the ground and into hand-cuffing position, as well as strikes such as punching and kicking. Then there was firearms training, holding out my weapon until my shoulder throbbed, and firing hundreds of rounds until my fatigued finger could no longer pull the trigger. And the basics of rangering include hours at a time of raking, weed eating, chain sawing, repairing plumbing in the freezing rain, mopping out dozens of restrooms, and digging holes for fence posts and signs. In truth I spent a lot of personal time recovering. But it was so satisfying and empowering to feel strong, to not let my body size limit what I could do.

It wasn’t long after I walked away from rangering that my body started to fail me. I’d continued a regular regimen of hiking and jogging. Then suddenly while jogging my legs started to feel like they were weighted down with lead. And soon after I started having chronic joint pain, which then spread to muscle spasms. Before long I had to stop jogging entirely. Then, while working at a particularly stressful job (not only were the responsibilities and learning curve daunting, the “politics” and power struggles were vicious) I started experiencing brain fog and dizziness. These symptoms would last for weeks at a time; I felt like I was drunk, unsteady on my feet and unable to think clearly or articular myself. After presentations I would shake my head to myself, wondering what the heck had just happened – I’d been rambling and disjointed. Being under time pressure to crunch numbers or write reports, I found my brain unable to perform. Do you recall in college preparing for that third or fourth final, when your brain and body are exhausted and you just don’t have it in you to cram for one more all-nighter? It was like that all the time for weeks at a time; I would wake up morning after morning, hoping my head would be clear – and within seconds of standing up the fog and dizziness would rush in again. I lost any sense I’d gained of body-confidence and robustness.

Prior to rangering I hadn’t developed upper body strength, I couldn’t throw someone to the ground or repeatedly kick a bag; but these new difficulties were quite unfamiliar. I’d always been a hiker and jogger, and my brain had always been quick and sharp. I left rangering having lost my spiritual faith; but I still had faith in myself to be able to make it through any challenge. But then my body and brain and nerves failed me. So not only could I no longer count on Life, my body stopped being reliable too.

(I have since come to believe that all these symptoms stem from my PTSD, from too much adrenaline coursing through my system for too many years, and for putting unsustainable pressures on my body for too long.)

I’ve been going to a fabulous therapist for about a year. The primary focus of her technique is to help me learn to tune in to my body. If something triggers me and I start panicking, focusing on my breathing can soothe and distract me. But more than that, as I learn to really pay attention to my body I hope to notice physical precursors to anxiety attacks and be able to thwart them: clouded thinking, dizziness, rapid heart rate and breathing. Alongside this therapy practice I have realized that healing begins with my body. So in addition to the therapy I’m getting regular chiropractic adjustments and massages, practicing body awareness, and doing yoga at home.

Last evening during a massage I decided to focus on each body part as it was being massaged, to try and tune in to its sensations. What happened is that I started to remember some of the amazing things my body has endured and achieved during this life.

L.A. Gear
As the massage started at my feet, I remembered a time as a young adult hiking with my boyfriend through the Big Basin Redwoods towards the California coast. I trekked in over twelve miles wearing my fashionable but decidedly unathletic L.A. Gear. For the last few miles, the bottoms of my feet felt every rock and stick underfoot as pain shot straight up through my entire body and I kept thinking, “my dogs are really barking!” I recalled as a young teen going barefoot an entire summer. It was lovely until I got planters warts on the bottoms of my feet and for weeks had to treat them with medicine and scrub them with pumice. And I recall a time during my sunbathing years getting a burn on the bottoms of my feet, and how unbelievably red and hot and itchy they were. Who knew you could sunburn the bottoms of your feet?

She moved to my legs and I recalled never being a particularly flexible person. Even as a child participating regularly in my mom’s modern dance classes my legs in particular weren’t very flexible. I recall the only time in my life I managed to do the splits. Unfortunately it wasn’t intentional. We had a trapeze at home; I fell from it to the ground with a leg out to either side. Even while writhing in pain I recall hoping that after this I would be able to do the splits again; not so. I remember not many years ago having a huge crush on a woman who was entirely unavailable. Before going on a jog she helped me stretch my calves and thighs. I was lying on my back with a leg extended in the air. She held onto my foot and leaned against my leg, pushing it towards my head. I remember the bittersweet pain and longing of this intimate exchange, her body against mine, the pain in the back of my leg, her face coming close to mine, and knowing that we would only ever be friends. One of my favorite memories from academy happened after the college closed early because of heavy snowfall. That evening a knock came on my hotel room door, and three fellow cadets were standing outside encouraging me to come on a run with them. I’d left my running gear at the college, but they were too enthusiastic to disappoint. So in my cop boots, jeans, and winter coat I set out with them for a long run through the snowy streets of Mt. Vernon, WA. The stars were twinkling in an inky black sky, and thick flakes fell heavily. My legs were stiff and cold for the entire run, but it was exhilarating and gorgeous and magical.

Holding my son
The massage moved to my hips. My recollection turned to giving birth to my son. As a young person I’d lived a very internal life, preferring an imaginative existence over one in the physical world. I was pretty out of touch with my physical self. Being in labor was the first time in my life that I was completely present. All of my physical self, all of my emotional self, all of my essence participated in this event - and everything was focused between my hips. I was jolted awake by this extraordinary happening and I was unable to hide from it. Many years later when Chris was a young teen my partner and I decided to have a child together. After months of hormone therapy and the very clinical experience of having sperm inserted via syringe at a doctor’s office, my pregnancy test finally showed a positive. With constant attention paid to every imagined physical change by those trying to conceive in this way, the emotional investment is enormous. Just as we approached the magical two months when we could start announcing our exciting news, I went into the bathroom one evening and found a smear on the toilet paper. I knew without a doubt that it was bad. In the coming days of cramps and wrenching tears, my body expelled from between my hips this person who was never to be.

My back ached as she started to massage it. Entering peri-menopause a few years ago, my menstrual cycle has shortened to three weeks and I was yet again on my period. Every three weeks: I wonder if my body is frantically kicking out eggs in a desperate attempt at creating new life, or if rather it is hurrying to get them out since clearly my time of giving birth is over. I thought next of all those sleep-overs as a child, sleeping on two bean bag chairs that would move apart during the night, leaving our middles on the floor while our upper bodies and legs were up high on the bags; or sleeping right on the floor, or on lumpy couches. Somehow the morning stiffness was both short-lived and inconsequential, a part of the adventure of experiencing friendship and growing up.

She started massaging my arms. When I began my fitness training to become a ranger, I went from noodle arms that could barely do one pushup to sturdy arms that could do over 50 (and I mean full pushups, not the kind with knees on the ground). I recall hiking along the Washington coast with a friend. We came to an outcropping of rock extending into the ocean, and climbed the rocks to get to the other side. As I grabbed the rock above me I vividly remember knowing with certainty, for the first time in my life, that my arms had the strength to pull me up. It was an exhilarating feeling! A few years ago when my beloved dog Jackie entered old age, many times my arms would have to carry her 20 pounds after her hips seized up during our evening walks. She would sit awkwardly in my arms, resting her chin on my shoulder and observing the world; my arms would ache as I paid tribute to our long friendship by carrying her as she had carried me emotionally so many times.

My masseuse worked on my neck and throat. The same elegant but spindly neck that a chiropractor once told me had a design prone to problems. My head held even slightly off-center would result in screaming neck pain that would trigger migraines. Oh, how I wished I had a sturdy neck! And my throat: as a child emoting silently, voicing frustrations and outrage only in my head or on paper; then as a mom learning to advocate for my child but not yet for myself; and gradually over the years learning to say what I needed to say. During academy some defensive tactics instructors seemed to think I wouldn’t succeed, that I didn’t have what it took. They kept telling me I needed to “get angry.” The pressure was building as our defensive tactics training was coming to an end and I was still struggling with the techniques. I was increasingly worried that I would not pass, would not graduate, and would lose my job as a ranger. I began to doubt myself, and alternated between defeat and determination that I would not let anyone else bring my dream to an end. (I reached out to my friends via email, and to this day have kept their amazing letters encouraging me, praising me for my accomplishments, and reassuring me that I had the right to be there.) Standing there with a bandana covering my hair and told to open my eyes wide, our academy commander sprayed my face full of pepper spray. Eyes burning, face burning, feeling shocked and overwhelmed and unable to breathe, suddenly a defensive tactics instructor wearing a padded blue bodysuit was in my space and trying to grab the baton out of my hands. Batting at him, doubling over in agony, him grabbing again at my weapon, all over me and unrelenting. All my anger at being judged and underestimated welled up inside me and I charged at him, putting all my strength into swinging my baton, kicking and punching him in a frenzy; and all my rage at every man who had ever taken possession of my body traveling up my body and erupting out through my throat as I roared, “GET THE FUCK OFF ME!”

I realize now that my body was not built for strenuous and continuous punishment; for me the rigors of rangering and law enforcement are not a sustainable choice. And I realize that my body is still recovering. For me to reclaim my physical self, I need to find a new way to be strong and confident and present in my body. Rather than dictating to my body and pushing it to meet my demands, I need to learn how to live life in partnership with my body, in symbiosis. Just as I am reframing my goals based on the new things I have learned about Life, I must reframe my goals based on the reality of this body I have. I don’t know what that will look like, or how I will accomplish it. But laying there with a caring person releasing knots of tension and emotion I was in awe of the incredible things my body has done over the decades. I have laughed about the times I pushed it too far, and been tantalized when it reached out for the touch of another, enthralled by the times it stormed the barricades, pulled me up over the rocks, and unleashed an unknown power and the voice to say NO! This body has its own story and it is marvelous! This body. My body. Me.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!


  1. Thanks for this beautiful love letter to your body. Though I know it arose in you spontaneously, it makes me think everyone should write a love letter to their own bodies. Because no matter how many times our body hasn't looked the way we'd like, or done the things we wanted, it has gotten us here, and done so with muscle and sinew and five senses that have enabled us to experience life as only we can. Thanks for the reminder, and the invitation.

    1. Thank you, Katrina. The "say loving things while looking in the mirror" approach has never worked for me. But this was remembering, as you say, how my body has enabled me to experience life. It filled me with awe and gratitude, and I agree that all of us can tune in to our miraculous bodies.