THIS HAS BEEN IN MY DRAFTS FOR AGES here’s a thing from about a month or more ago! (It might have been from even before that weird heatwave week, so it feels like a different planet ago)
I have been wanting to write about exercising for ages but there are just so many elements to what I want to output that it seemed such a task… it’s like each small story is full of smaller stories and each smaller stories is a ghost-Big story, full of tiny stories, and sometimes the tiny story is a big story dressed up as a tiny story, etc etc etc. I know I don’t constantly have to explain myself, but doing so helps me to see things that hide from me in my own mind. That is why I write in the first place. Writing therapy is writing therapy because of that, and I must continue to engage in that process, particularly right now when I seem to be spending such little time in the presence of people.
This took me so many days of coming back to writing this (because it was kind of difficult, and also my attention span and energy levels haven’t been the greatest)…
Today [*Edit not Today, this was whenever I first started writing this – this is about the tenth time I’m coming back to finish this!] I tried to run outside for the first time since I last tried to run outside, which must have been over a year ago. I couldn’t run outside that time, and I couldn’t this time either. It was a massive confidence un-boost. I knew I hadn’t been great at running this week due to an unusual and annoying amount of fatigue, but I had been used to running indoors on a treadmill, not outside where the ground doesn’t move under your feet. I felt like a liar and like I couldn’t do anything – and my brain being my brain quickly span out of control and applied this thought-tunnel to all aspects of my life, not just exercising.
Despite the impression my play-doh marshmallow-cushion bodymask may give, I like to exercise 4 or 5 times a week. It is surprising for someone like me to say that I like doing this, as my relationship with the gym and my relationship with exercising has changed a lot throughout my life. I was a fairly active child – small-child me did loads of swimming and enjoyed after-school netball club – but ‘small’-child me was a chubby child and stuff like running was not easy (which I was sad about because I wanted to do the Fun Run and get a badge, but I couldn’t really run)… and then I turned into a fat teenager who was terrible at sport (apart from swimming), and so I hated most sport because I was terrible at it and embarrassed by my terrible-at-it-ness. I always had to do some sort of exercise, though, because if I didn’t I put on weight super-fast and also apparently it’d help my supposed hormone imbalance related stuff and other brain stuff etc etc etc – but I did not like running at all.
College-me was still fat and terrible at running, but also I no longer wanted to go swimming anymore because of becoming really aware of the fat thing… and then late-teens/early adult (I’m not an adult) me would sneak out early in the morning to try and attempt to run, because I was so embarrassed at not being able to run properly and didn’t want people to know I was exercising for some reason. Due to my sneaky slow metabolism interfering with my thought patterns, I eventually taught my brain to focus on the narrative that I was exercising to maintain my weight – to not get bigger (and to manage mysterious chemically things inside me) as opposed to exercising to lose weight – that it was just something I had to do – because otherwise, I’d get caught up in the frustration-loop of body-image-related hell. I began to get more comfortable talking about exercising, instead of feeling anxious about people knowing it was something I tried to do, which was really helpful. I still didn’t enjoy it though (although I enjoyed it afterwards… endorphins-dolphins or something like that). (Oh, apart from one night out where me and my housemate decided to run everywhere, I enjoyed that – I think Plymouth was freezing cold at the time, and it seemed the best way to get from each pub to the next)
Fast-forward about 7 years of trying-to-sort-my-life-out brain-mess…
A couple of years ago was the first time I actually ENJOYED running (running at the gym, on a machine, but I try to tell myself it’s not cheating even when I definitely feel like it is). I don’t know how or why, but everything about it seemed different. Before each run I would need to install these different voices into my head just to get me there, which would play out during the run (this was something I had to do to counter the awful voices that would constantly interfere with my mind). I was still terrible at running, but the progress I made through adding my own voices to the voice-mess inside my head was rewarding, exciting and quite unbelievable as I never saw myself as someone who would be able to actually enjoy the running part of running, as opposed to just the bit after. (I also never thought I’d be able to DO the running part, let alone the enjoying part!)
I began to really think about how it was so different or what had changed, and how I even knew to add my own voices, and what it was about them that were powerful enough to counteract the other voices which still existed within me. I realised that I kind of had to do the opposite of what I did before or to what I guess that most people do when they motivate themselves with sport. Those voices used to be really pushing me to go further, to do better. Keep going, go faster. Do more – which seem positive, but when these are naturally accompanied by the things that tell you how bad you are if you don’t then they suddenly become less helpful. ‘Keep going, or something bad will happen’ (often something irrational and specific) ‘go faster because they’ll come to get you if you don’t’ ‘do more because you don’t do enough’, all accompanied by feeling-flavours of worthlessness and disgust and just all the things you don’t really need in your mind aout yourself ever. I would be running with fear, running with self-hate, running with ANGER (a lot of anger) – no wonder I hated it so much – and being terrible at it made me hate it more; I would push myself until I was being sick, yet I would never have gone as far enough as I wanted or what they wanted – it was an unachievable end goal because the voices were always there to tell me that I had not done enough, the voices were always there to tell me what I should have done and what I could not do and what I did not do.
When I started again a few years ago, after a bit of an unintentional break from exercise for various reasons, I really felt like I was starting from the bottom – I felt really unfit, and like I had nothing to lose (other than the weight I had gained from the various-reasons break). I was fighting a lot of anxiety and mood imbalances and I needed to sort myself out with regular exercise again. I also just really wanted to be able to run. I kept seeing people running and it really made me want to be able to do that, as I like the idea of Things that you can just do anywhere without needing Things (or, without needing Many things – stuff you can take anywhere, like drawing, or yoyoing, or skipping, etc). I read some stuff online about the ‘Couch to 5k’ thing where people had gone from not running at all to eventually being able to run 5km – and though the thought of me ever being able to run 5km at once seemed laughable, I felt inspired to give it a go. (Of course, me being me, I was too stubborn and impatient to follow the programme, and ended up making my own goals up instead as I went along). That’s how I started, anyway, my gym-game completely changed at the end of last year and is not focused on the same thing now – but this post is about this running thing so I am rewinding and talking about that.
Anyone with the tiniest bit of gym-fear or people-fear or going-into-the-outside-world-fear will know how scary it can be going into a gym. Starting anything new is scary. Add a lot of anxiety to the mix and it’s even worse. and if that’s autism-flavoured anxiety it’s just – well, if you’re autistic and gym-anxious you might know what I mean. There is a lot to be confused about and asking people about the confusion is often not an option. and what if someone uses the locker you always use, and why has someone gone on that machine when I was just on my way back with the cleaning spray to clean it, what do I do now – etc etc etc. (the correct answer is: you do a small panic-dance, then clean the one next to it that you didn’t even use, then laugh about it because – why did you do that, what are you doing?!, and then run away to dissolve into your own private universe-sphere)
Anyway, by the time I had even got INTO the gym when I restarted a few years ago, I had already defeated more anxiety-demons than anyone really knew. I was already energy-drained from all of those fights before I had even been on one machine – I felt physically and emotionally exhausted – but for the first time, my brain really let me fully acknowledge that… it just started saying these things, kind things, encouraging things, to let me know that I was doing well. Instead of pushing me over an already-over-pushed limit, telling me to work harder when I was already working harder, it was doing the opposite. ‘You’ve done really well to be here’ ‘Don’t worry if you need to slow down to a walk, you’ve achieved a lot just being here’ ‘Look after yourself, don’t overdo it’ ‘Be sensible, don’t make yourself ill’. This felt SO ALIEN TO ME – I didn’t really understand the feelings it was making me feel, but somehow it was making me work harder, to be better yet to also enjoy myself, perhaps because I wasn’t being swarmed by concentrated hate-voices. I didn’t even perceive it as a positive feeling at first, because it just felt different and strange. I thought, who do these things think I am, why are they trying to trick me into not working as hard. Why do they not want me to reach my goals? Why are they trying to make myself ‘give in’ – I didn’t know which voices to trust and was over-suspicious… but for the sake of trying to de-escalate anxiety, I began to tune away from processing the thoughts and deciphering the words, and tune more into the feelings – and that’s when I started to notice that those voices held some sort of sparkle-light which was too magnety to not listen to. and when I listened to those voices that ALLOWED me to have a break, that congratulated me and praised me just for being in the situation, before even reaching a single target, something different happened – and it helped me to listen to the positive things, to stop without feeling guilty yet to make much greater improvements and better progress. The feeling is a bit like having a really thin tingly layer emerging from the outside of the skin of your bodymask (for some reason it feels like loads of inspiring people who have died have arrived in the form of good vibes to say hello) which in that moment allows you to appreciate how much you have done, how hard you have worked and how well you are doing to be trying your best – and then it super-quickly rushes through your whole body and disappears. The memory of that feeling then becomes the energy-drive that battles the other feelings, defending me against annoying demon-monsters.
There is so much I could say about this topic and I will come back to writing about it, because it’s not just running I want to write about in the exercise-topic-realm – exercise is amazing to me because it really helps me to form an eating and sleeping routine – for someone with an often-disordered both of these things and a need for routines to function well, this is a great thing! but, to finish this thing I want to go back to why I started writing all this in the first place – I was writing about having been running outside for the first time in ages and being terrible at it and feeling disappointed. There I was, struggling to maintain a jog, on my second or third circuit of mostly walking with small intervals of ‘running’. It was quite busy in the park as it was sunny, and I was wearing shorts which I never usually do, so the combination of people everywhere, feeling body-anxious and generally just trying to run in very-public made my anxiety spin loudly. (This definitely did not help my running as it meant I couldn’t breathe properly, which was probably a main part of the not-being-able-to-run problem). Then, someone who was walking past – a friendly-faced stranger – signalled a thumbs up to me and said ‘Well done! You’re doing well!’ and disappeared… I was so surprised because, before I’d actually processed what was going on, my brain heard the words and took this as a signal to remember all of the positive stuff I used to feed my brain before I went running – and I suddenly realised I had forgotten to install these things into my mind. It didn’t suddenly make me be able to run for the rest of the lap, but after that, I definitely had a couple of moments where I remembered that actually, I was not doing as bad as I thought – I had left home, I was out in a busy park, I was wearing shorts, and I was attempting to run, despite a lot of anxiety. I WAS doing well, and I needed to remind myself. I’m so thankful to that person I didn’t know for those words – it was probably the only words physically spoken out loud to me that week and it really made such a difference.
The thing I thought about running outside instead of running on a treadmill, is that the ground doesn’t move under my feet when I run. The ground moves under my feet on a treadmill so I run or I get thrown off. but I’ve now realised that outside, the ground DOES move under my feet… It’s moving all the time. The ground is always changing. and when I choose to run, I am running knowing I will repetitively get thrown off – but the ground carries on moving… and it’s okay that it carries on moving when I’m not running on it, but it doesn’t stop. I must carry on at my own pace, whilst the ground moves at its own pace… and I must challenge my own pace, improve my own pace, improving the fast the slow the long the short – all of the paces must be given equal care in order to nurture the possibility of pushing potential… but just because I do not feel it moving, it does not mean I have been thrown off. It does not mean it isn’t going to throw me off either, just because I think I’ve stopped. Sometimes I need to realise I’m still running when I think I’ve stopped… and as much as I need to keep running, when I’m running, I also just as much need to allow myself to stop, when I stop.