The Power of Attitude

As a young child, I was remarkably upbeat, happy, optimistic, and hopeful about my future and that of the world. Anything seemed possible and I had wholehearted confidence in my ability to transpire my dreams into my reality. Mostly, I credit my parents for fostering this attitude of wonder and self-assurance; they provided me with ample opportunities to explore the world and my capabilities and never set boundaries or limitations on what I was capable of, even if they had their own (realistic) doubts. I certainly had my fair share of physical and emotional falls and fails, but they never seemed to set me back with much permanent or lasting impact. I had a lot of behavioral problems, particularly in my first years of school and in social situations that my older sisters never displayed, and to say that I presented more of a parenting challenge throughout my entire childhood is a gross understatement. In hindsight, it’s clear that much of my misbehavior, rambunctiousness, and hair-pulling frustrating confusion was a product of my undiagnosed autism and sensory processing disorder. At the time, my hyperactivity, finicky-ness, and even “bratty and immature” behavior was attributed to ADHD and my position as the youngest of three girls. Needless to say, the routine misdemeanors, punishment, timeouts at school, less-than-stellar report card marks for behavior (and penmanship) did little to curtail my mojo and I remained a spunky, relentlessly positive kid.

Something began to shift in the months before my tenth birthday. As if double-digits inherently ushered in the cessation of innocence, verve, and faith in oneself and the world, my mindset and affect began to dramatically shift. In the manner in which a windup toy peters out as the duration of its chatter and clatter lengthens after the initial spinning charge, my zest, vigor, and sunny outlook faded in favor of a restrained, timid demeanor.* Doubt replaced hope, worry and anxiety trumped my carefree nature, pessimism extinguished optimism, and my self-esteem plummeted. Within a few months, depression clouded out the very happiness and joy that had previously bestowed upon me the nickname “the happiest girl in the world,” used lovingly, but earnestly, by my dad. A switch had been flipped and my internal world, which colored my external one, changed.

As with most things which are rarely black or white, solely good or bad, some changes brought on by this metamorphosis were beneficial: my behavior, now so reserved, no longer landed me at the back table or time-out position at school, instead, teachers remarked that I was well-behaved. The more I restrained my body and physical hyperactivity and conformed to the expectations and qualities of a mature and “good” student, the more wildly and feverishly my brain ran. There was a constant barrage of anxieties, questions, troubles, fears, and even panic. Sure, there were also hopes and constructive thoughts, mulling over things learned in school, observations made out and about, and intellectual curiosities much like those that characterized my kid brain, but it became harder to hear these over the sheer volume and strength of the pessimistic thought reel. Little did teachers know that as I sat there studiously at my desk, the littlest one in the class with a big brain and bright responses to assignments, I was filled with internal angst, confusion, and sadness. My “proper” behavior was actually just paralysis induced by depression devouring my energy and ubiquitous pensive concerns. Shortly after, I developed an eating disorder that proved to be a formidable foe for the next eight years. The depression and anxiety fueled the anorexia, which in turn, sunk me into more severe depression and calamitous anxiety.

I wish I could say that some other momentous birthday or other occasion caused the same radical about-face in my outlook as did turning ten, but truthfully, nothing had been as exorbitantly formative in changing me. With that said, particularly in recent years, I have found a better balance and allowed some of that positivity, hope, and verve to weasel its way back into my psyche and shine through the constant cacophony of worries, bleak and dispirited thoughts, and emotional pain. My inner strength and confidence have mounted as I’ve triumphed over difficulties and become a curious and dedicated student of myself. For me, self-awareness has had an instrumental role in increasing self-compassion. I’ve even surprised myself in the authenticity of my mental fortitude and strong drive to seek and recognize the silver linings in spite of some tremendous adversities I’ve faced in recent years. I’m proud of things that I’ve overcome and the resilience of my positive attitude when it would be so understandable to completely crumble.

Some days, in accordance with the idiom “fake it ’til you make it,” the optimism and emotional fortitude is somewhat of an act, a tiring attempt to feign stability and tenacity. Although exhausting, there does seem to be some payback from this practice, but thankfully, sometimes the attitude is genuine. My foot injury is an example of the former turning into the latter. After it seems like surgery was in evitable, I experienced slight improvement in the pain and swelling after weeks of nonexistent progress. I have long heard that having a good attitude through illness and injury is scientifically proven to improve healing and perhaps my desire to avoid surgery was so primal and deep that I truly convinced myself that my foot was healing. It’s not. I have objective evidence from imaging studies that fail to demonstrate an iota of progress; it’s exactly the same as it was four months ago. At first, I couldn’t believe the results; I was so assured it was physically healing because my conviction in maiming a positive outlook became so powerful. I cancelled the postponed surgery date in favor for the conservative route.

Once the initial shock delivered by the MRI’s report on the stagnant state of my foot, I sat with my feelings. In the quiet of the predawn hours where all my clearest thoughts reside, my pride and optimism stripped away, I felt the throbbing pain, the familiar ache from the initial months of injury. The pain had not just returned, it had never really gone away. I had just become committed to silencing it in hopes of encouraging my body to actually resolve it. It looks like I will need the surgery after all.

Of course, I am very disappointed I will have to have the surgery and because I have medical anxiety, I am certainly anxious for that day. However, although I was mad at myself a couple of days ago for my inability to honestly assess the pain and progress of my foot, I choose to remain proud. It’s not easy to be hopeful and positive in the face of a bad injury, let alone the larger obstacles I have faced. As the sands of hopefulness and confidence ran out of the hourglass that ushered in age ten, I lost so much more than just the innocence of childhood. It’s taken two decades to build back some of what I’ve lost and so I will honor and admire all of the positive attitude triumphs, enthusiasm, and growth mindset moments that I can cultivate.

 

*The reason that turning ten served as an impetus for such change is complicated and I’m not sure I fully understand it, but I will attempt to evaluate it at a subsequent time.

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.