Strength Training

I have been lifting weights again and strength training for exactly two months. Although this has nothing to do with autism, when I started my blog, I decided not to put constraints on myself regarding what I needed to think about or write about. This blog tends to be a space where I can simply mull over and express some of the many thoughts and experiences that confuse, frustrate, excite, scare, or otherwise impact me. As mentioned, strength training also has been a big bear I wanted to retackle, after going cold turkey post-attack for a couple years. Once a huge part of my identity and an integral source of joy in my life, it became one of many things I could no longer face. Except for running, I became a voyeur of the fitness world, as the mere thought of strength training made my stomach flip.

Not anymore. I’ve been training. I wouldn’t necessarily classify this training by tacking on any adjectives like “hard” or “serious,” because I’ve tried to take a low-key approach (and I have a broken foot!), but I would say my practice has been dedicated, courageous, and empowering. And fun. For as much as I’ve been trying to hold my ground above the depression abyss, any little source of happiness must be coveted like prized possession. Plus, it’s been effective. I’m actually back up to all of my old benchmarks and lifting at least as much—and in some cases even more—weight than in my prime strength training days in NYC as a full-time trainer. I never thought I’d get my body back up to that level of physical strength because it just hasn’t seemed as resilient anymore and I’ve had so many health problems, not to mention I was basically working out all day then through my job. 

It’s interesting because I have also mentioned that I avoid looking in the mirror. While I’ve gotten better and continue my daily practice of positive self-talk, this is just to the reflection of my face. My body is a different story: I don’t look at it. Until very recently, the weather had been cold enough that I was always bundled up anyway, so I never even really “accidentally” saw it. Sometimes I feel like this is actually healthier than it sounds for me personally, because I’ve hated my body unwaveringly for so long that it can be more beneficial to ignore its appearance altogether than risk critiquing it and hating it. I hope this is not the case for most people. I even shower in the dark. 

With all that said, I’ve looked at my arms lately. In fact, I not only looked casually at them, I decided to flex them. Boy there’s a lot of muscle trapped in a little arm! My scrawny atrophied arms of the past couple of years have reverted back to my healthy and muscular arms of my younger twenties. I’m not sure how it makes me feel, maybe surprised, maybe partly (ashamedly) nervous that my attacker’s words will ring true (that having muscles and a strong body made me attractive, and thus a target). Most of the time, my logical brain assures me this is not true, but I still have to fend off the occasional worries. The good news is that I’m not repulsed by my changing appearance, so that’s a start. I hope that confidence finds her way to quietly seep in, gathering a groundswell presence while I’m busy focusing on other things, until one day, she is big and loud enough for me to notice her secure hold in my mind. From there, she can slowly open the gates for the self-hatred, fear, and trauma to begin to recede and my mind, heart, and body will start finding more peace.

Lifting

This is a tough one for me to write so I’m not sure if I will stay on topic or even get through it because I’ve started and abandoned it several times over the last few weeks. I think my best bet is just to try to remain direct and speak straight from the heart. Someday, hopefully, I’ll look back on these entries with little to no critical lens and just be glad that I documented some of my thoughts, challenges, and triumphs.

I’m putting the meat of this entry into that last bucket: I’ve finally started lifting weights again. It’s only been a couple of weeks so far, but I’m confident that I’m back into a habit that will stick. For anyone that knew me as a young adult, this probably comes as a shock. I’ve always loved working out, especially running. While I certainly have not abandoned the running and it continues to be a big part of my life, strength training has completely ceased for about 3 years. I can’t think of something more ironic (and shameful!) than a personal trainer refusing to lift or spend time in a gym. In fact, my previous blog was entirely fitness-based and a place where I shared exercise tips, information, and motivation for my clients and friends. Removing my content and deleting my site was just surface stuff; I also stopped my fitness routine outside of quite a few weekly road miles.

Why?

I don’t have a reason that likely makes sense to anyone but myself (and in hindsight, it makes little sense to me too) but it’s my reason so I’m going to own it and share it: I felt like strength training played a role in my attack and I thought that by stopping such activity, I would be safer and avoid another rape. My opinion is that some sexual assaults or violent traumas make us do things that don’t make much logical sense and that have certain faulty thought patterns and decision-making processes behind them. Trauma seems to aim its tranquilizing dart at some sort of rational thinking center in our brains, muting their normally helpful messages. Things that may make sense to a healthy person or even to that same person pre-trauma, no longer seem like the best course of action and instead, “fear-brain” is born and all she does is recognize rather noxious stimuli as anxiety-riddled situations and the only message she gives, she screams, and that is that everything is scary and you are hurting, you are broken, and you are at fault. Therapy alone doesn’t tame her. Support from family and friends can quiet, but not silence, her wrath. Time and unduly caution can take her dictatorship down a peg, but doesn’t get her to abdicate the throne. I can’t speak with authority on what does; unfortunately, I’m not there yet.

She still breathes when I breathe, she still regularly plays violent flashbacks of that morning no matter how many new memories I create, she still makes my heartbeat triple when I hear someone at the door and makes my ears ring as I fight passing out when someone surprises me from behind. And she still does her best with her domineering nature to prevent me from feeling “normal” and free.

As incorrect as the logic may be, I became afraid to work out because I didn’t want to get raped again. I knew the man that attacked me. In fact, I’ve heard this is often the case and in one survivor support group I was in, all but one of us did. How creepy is that? I think at least some of those other women didn’t choose to let that person into their life initially. It’s not their fault at all. It may have been a family member, a babysitter, a parent’s boyfriend, etc. Me? It was my choice. This person was someone I talked to at the gym, someone I worked out with, someone I gave fitness advice to, someone who told me I was attractive because I was strong and lifted. And there you have it.

While I thought nothing of that comment at the time and completely dismissed it, it clearly worked its grubby little hands into my subconscious. Once the acute aftermath of the trauma had subsided and I was pretending to go on about my life, that little message would not stand to be silenced. All of these months later, I still have been heeding to her crippling advice. I have not lifted a weight, not done a push-up, and denied myself from the strength training I enjoy in the hopes that my weakness will make me ugly (I should say uglier since I’ve never felt pretty), and protect me in the ways my muscles and strength did not the day I was so horrifically attacked. I think that’s another reason that lifting (and even personal training) has been so unappealing to me since that day. I felt like a fraud. I had this self-image that I was a strong, fit young woman certainly able to defend her body. But I wasn’t. When I needed to call upon my strength, it failed me. He did pull a knife on me, so “logical brain” says I couldn’t have defended myself because I couldn’t try, but “trauma brain” tells me I did try and I failed hard. I can’t say that she’s right because I couldn’t fight back, either from paralyzingly fear, shock, or the drawn knife blade but part of me still listens to her and hates my body for letting me down. That part has gotten its time in the sun for too long. And so, I choose to be courageous. I choose to lift.

While my emotional and mental strength has grown since that day, my body has weakened. I am nowhere near my old benchmarks, which is humbling and somewhat humiliating, to say the least, but I’m doing it, I’m loving it, and I’m taking back control.

I wish I could say that conquering this milestone has put evil “trauma brain” to rest and extinguished her fire. It hasn’t. It’s barely just the start. I’ve been working hard in therapy for a couple of years now to shake her but she’s clinging on. Hopefully, this step is one of many and someday, she’ll fade out like the last candle on the cake that stubbornly keeps flickering back up with each blow, finally ceasing in a silent little curl of gray smoke, carried upward and blending into the clouds like a tiny whisper of powerless vapor.