How High School Gym (and Jocks) Almost Made Me Hate Fitness

*the following story, I’m sure, will not be unfamiliar to most. That gives me the kind of solace that I hope this post gives back to you.

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If you knew me in high school, you knew I was no athlete.

My right-brained noggin found its comfort in the arts…I was highly involved in the school plays, choir, and marching band, and was totally content and happy there. Most of my physical activity took place either on the field during band camp, walking up 5 flights of stairs in the 2 minutes provided for us to transition to class (the struggle), or, horrifically, in gym class.

Before I dive into the dark underbelly of what it was like to attend a public school and NOT be involved in any kind of designated sport, it’s worth noting that I did encounter a handful of amazing, supportive, compassionate gym teachers, and yes, even some jocks. Like all of my posts, this is not to be viewed as a sweeping assumption of high school athletics in any way (can’t wait till I’m confident enough to not have to make that disclaimer).

However, it can’t be denied that 80% of those I encountered in the world of high school athletics seemed to make it a priority to make my life a little bit worse in whatever way they could. Like most public high schools, mine was dominated by sports…if you weren’t a part of improving the school’s sports status, you didn’t HAVE status. I thank the Lord every day for the music department, actually, because if it weren’t for me finding my value in the very thing that I was bullied for, I doubt my already melancholy, pre-pubescent self would have found value anywhere {shout out to everyone in there who impacted me. Y’all RULE}.

I can’t stress enough how much gym class actually ~negatively~ affected my day. I have a plethora of graphic and clear memories of high school which are slowly drifting closer and closer toward my subconscious now that I’m already working on one year out of college… but when they hit, they do so in one of two ways: warm and reminiscent, or freaking terrifying. When they hit, I experience every single feeling that raced through my body when the event actually happened, as if it had happened 6 seconds ago rather than 6 years. The one that drove me to write this post (spoiler: a bad one) happened in gym class.

If you’ve been following some of my life updates, you know that I am seriously into running. During these past few months, I’ve noticed such a change in the way that my body interacts with itself since becoming more of a health and fitness junky, and running is probably the most rewarding of all the daily exercises I do. When I run, I feel so strong, powerful, and able. There are also times when it brings me back to some significant high school trauma.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment, sophomore year, when we were running the mile in gym (gloat break: funny to think that I couldn’t even run a mile back then without stopping to dry heave: now I’m working toward 6.00 and feel amazing. Anyway…) and I accidentally cut a corner coming around the side of the field. Prior to this seriously heinous offense, I was feeling pretty good about my run (it was rare that I EVER felt good in gym class, being the awkward, skinny, out of shape band geek that never looked quite right in her gym shorts) and was prepared to finish strong. I honestly hadn’t even realized that my right foot landed in front of the cone set in the corner of the field, as I was so focused on finishing with as little discomfort as possible, until I heard a loud, angry voice boom in my right ear:

“NO CUTTING THE GODDAMN CORNERS, GO BACK AND DO IT AGAIN!”

{and under his breath}

“goddamn lazy kid.”

This is how this gym teacher spoke to us (can you guess what his favorite word was?), and this is what we were used to hearing. Back then, it didn’t feel outrageous because it was normal. But it still felt terrible. I totally understand that plenty of teens have had MUCH worse experiences than I have. I’m not writing this to trivialize their struggles…rather, I’m making a conscientious attempt to legitimize them.

A few months back, I couldn’t cut a corner while ice-skating with my boyfriend because it just doesn’t feel like an okay thing to do now. That’s kind of silly. What isn’t quite as silly, though, is how much that second statement has affected me through the years…the one calling me lazy. The one assuming that, because my face was not familiar in the realm of high school sports, I MUST have been lazy. I wasn’t worth a warm smile or the attempt at remembering my name (many gym teachers had a tough time remembering my name) because I wasn’t involved in their circle. At the time, my 16-year-old self ceased to realize that this incident was never actually about the cone in the corner of the field. It was about a kid like me only being visible when someone was in need of a punching bag.

I’ve already stated how happy I was in the activities that I belonged to in high school. I have absolutely no regrets about the social circle in which I chose to plant myself. Nonetheless, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments where I wished I was one of “those” athletes. The ones who got invited to parties, who never had to worry about the jockey boy who sat in front of them in class turning around and heckling them every single day to the point where it made them physically ill to even think about showing up; the ones who got to wear sports jerseys on dress down days instead of band tee shirts that plastered them with a “make fun of me” sign…the ones who were greeted with chummy conversation by the gym teachers instead of the alternative. Being a teen in my situation, who wouldn’t occasionally lust for that life?

The reality, though, was that I wasn’t one of those kids. Fitness wasn’t something that earned me adoration, friends, and feelings of accomplishment…it was a cruel punishment with the sole purpose of humiliating me even more than that of which I was already enduring on a daily basis. This is where gym class fails kids. Scratch that…this is where high school fails kids. Through this disappointing trend, too many teenagers are being taught that fitness is a punishment, not a reward.

“INSTEAD OF PASS/FAIL, KIDS SHOULD BE TESTED ON THEIR ABILITY TO RECOGNIZE THEIR POTENTIAL AND EMBRACE WHERE THEY ARE ON THE SPECTRUM OF PHYSICAL FITNESS, VIEWING IT AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO GROW RATHER THAN A DISAPPOINTMENT.”

The pacer test, physical fitness test, and other “pass/fail” testing methods utilized in gym classes across the country teach kids that there is a normal” level of strenuousness that their body should be able to endure at their age, height, weight, etc., and that falling short of that standard indicates literal failure. When I started running longer distances and becoming more concerned with my time, I became worried about whether my pace could be considered “normal” in the world of athletics. While speaking with a coworker (who also happens to be an avid runner) I said something along the lines of:

“I’m concerned about the fact that it took me 52 minutes to run a 5-mile loop last night. Is that a normal pace?”

Her answer, while seemingly obvious, hadn’t even crossed my mind prior to this conversation. “There is no ‘normal.’” She said. “You need to listen to your body and decide what YOUR ‘normal’ is, and grow from there.” (Remember that post I wrote about listening to your body? Clearly I need to practice taking my own advice.)

These words were such a revelation to me. Without even realizing it, I had allowed myself to grow into adulthood with the same outlook on health and physical fitness that had been planted in my mind in high school. In fact, the reason that I just started taking care of myself this year is due to the fact that I had never thought of myself as an athlete, or even being worthy of the title “athletic.” That was for cool kids, to which I was not one. To be able to live up to that lifestyle, I would need to fit the mold in so many ways that I just couldn’t manage to fit. Again, this followed me until I was almost 23 years old.

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While there’s little that can be done about the ever-present bullying issue that plagues our schools (I mean, we should all DEFINITELY continue to combat it, and it’s a worthy fight, but the reality is that kids will continue to bully as long as current trends keep up), the mentality and language surrounding fitness in schools could stand to endure some serious reform. Instead of pass/fail, kids should be tested on their ability to recognize their potential and embrace where they are on the spectrum of physical fitness, viewing it as an opportunity to grow rather than a disappointment. We need more gym teachers who are in it for the betterment of the health and wellness of the next generation; not to socialize, hold biases, and relive their own high school glory days.

Sometimes, I wish the guy who heckled me in class every day because I was an easy target could see how active and fit I am now. I wish the girls who dropped me from their friend group and went on to bully me once they realized I wasn’t like them in terms of mutual interests could see me when I run, lift, and crunch, and finally accept me as a real, worthy, living specimen. I wish that gym teacher could see me take three hours to meal prep after my insanely long Saturday morning run, for him to know that I do care about myself and know that I AM NOT GODDAMN LAZY. Most of the time, though, I appreciate the reality that at this point in my life, I’m doing it for me, not for anyone’s approval.

High school almost made me hate fitness, but it failed. Kind of like I failed that pacer test.

Be strong, former nerds. And embrace your normal. 

-B. 

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Depression and Joblessness

Let me tell you how my day started.

 

I woke up, begrudgingly rolled out of bed, and made my way to the bathroom. After completing my usual morning activities (shower, coffee, meager breakfast, more coffee…) I brought myself to the bathroom mirror to start my makeup (because when you have a date with the dentist’s chair and a rendezvous with a cavity, you need to look your ABSOLUTE best). As I was moving through the routine, setting aside various brushes, creams, and powders that had had their turn, I felt a tickle of hair touching my face, right next to my left eye. Instinctively, and because I’m a human, I proceeded to move the offending strand of hair away from my makeup canvas (I was an artist at work) with a plan to complete my facial transformation. However, much to my dismay, the offending strand of hair had gotten caught on an eyelash that was donned with not-yet-dried mascara, leaving a nice, thin black line of mascara going across my cheekbone and up my temple from when I had moved the strand.

 

I burst into tears.

 

Not like the subtle, pretty tears that you see on TV or that sometimes happen when you poke your eye (the ones where they just barely fall down your face, without much background noise or wailing). No, these tears were the equivalent of the ones I’d shed when I broke a bone two summers ago. Reminiscent of a biblical woman in mourning. Devastated. Completely devastated. Because I now had an unwanted black line on my cheek…one that wasn’t supposed to be there; one that interfered with my routine.

 

But why such a dramatic reaction? Why not just do what any makeup-wearing person (I refrain from saying “girl” here for a reason) would do, and just wet the corner of a towel, maybe mumble a few watered down curse words, scrub off the line, and move on? The answer, simply put (and not a secret to many of you), is because I have depression.

 

I know. I can hear your silent thoughts. They’re either saying “here we go again, another sob story from another sad person” or “OH MY GOSH, B, ARE YOU OKAY? DO YOU NEED HELP? IS THIS A CRY FOR HELP?” Both quite opposite sides of the concern spectrum…both of which I have an answer for. To the first: nope. Sorry. No sob story here. Just some information and awareness that you kind of obviously need. To the second: nope again. In fact, I can’t repeat it enough: this is NOT a cry for help, this is NOT a cry for help, this is NOT A CRY FOR HELP. I am fine. Things are fine. Please don’t call the treatment center and try to have me admitted again. I promise you, that while I appreciate your concern, that action is hardly necessary.

 

Let me try to read your mind again, I’ll bet I can come pretty close: now you’re thinking “Okay B, if you’re sooooo ‘fine,’ why are you sobbing over a little smudge of mascara on your face?” Wow, so glad you asked! I could jump right into the explanation, but I feel that it would be beneficial to cite a quote from a poem that one of my very talented Facebook friends wrote about her own struggle with mental illness. She writes:

 

“It’s like they give me pills and they act as a mop but it’s dry,

It’s a tool, but not everything is aligned,

It’s missing the soap and water… I’m missing the

Stability

So, I’m not exactly fine.”

 

…Damn, right?

 

(Bring your claps and snaps on over to Jessica Jean Podskoch for that one.)

 

This excerpt acts as a useful transition into the explanation for my behavior. Yes, I have pills. Yes, I take them. Often. However, like a dry mop, medication can only take away the most obvious, major stains of the disease, while leaving behind the smaller remnants of inconvenient obstacles that still affect day-to-day activity. With the help of my medication, I no longer lay in bed with the curtains drawn from 7am to midnight. I no longer need to be coerced out of bed or coerced into eating or drinking, and I don’t feel the need to resort to self-destructive behavior to numb the overwhelming sense of dread and sadness that plagued me for so much of my teenage and adult life. I do, however, find it difficult to manipulate my reactions to fit the severity of the event. Such as smearing my makeup. Or having dirty dishes in the sink. Or getting a little bleach stain on a pair of leggings that I like. These things suck for regular people. For those who suffer from depression, they’re downright tragedies.

 

By now you’re probably thinking (here I go, reading your mind again. Maybe I have a career in this business…) “If someone with depression reacts to all of these minor things as tragedies, how must they feel when faced with more serious matters?”

 

More serious matters. Like, for example, unemployment.

 

Here is where we (finally, sorry) get into the nitty-gritty of my very amateur, very novice post. This seems to be an appropriate time to also throw in a little disclaimer about me not being a doctor or licensed mental health professional; just someone who considers herself to be a part of the mental health community. Therefore, most of the content written here will come mainly from my own experiences and the experiences of those close to me who suffer with similar illnesses. This is NOT, under any circumstance, meant as a sweeping declaration of the experiences of all who suffer or have suffered with clinical depression. Depression affects everyone differently. It’s important to remember that.

So, depression and unemployment: how does joblessness, which no doubt totally STINKS for anyone going through it, affect a person with depression? The best (and most convenient) way to illustrate this dichotomy is through the following diagram:

 

Depressive Episode (hospital admittance, therapy program, intro of meds…)

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Recovery (moving on from episode, learning to live with meds, using strategies from therapy)

|

Stability (achieving a sense of purpose. Nothing spectacular, but you’re living.)

|

Unemployment (you graduate college, finish internship, lose current job, etc…)

|

Stagnation (you spend your days actively searching, but no jobs come up.)

|

Feelings of Worthlessness (you get rejected from that interview. You leave messages with no reply. You fail your certification test(s)…)

|

Lack of Motivation (you find it more and more difficult to get up, go online, and search for jobs. You know you’re on a time crunch, but yet the motivation is nonexistent).

|

Depressive Relapse (the goal is to NOT arrive at this stage).

 

“But B, I lost my job and was DEVASTATED. It totally ruined my financial situation, tore my family apart, and can easily be classified as the worst time in my life. I don’t have depression. What makes you special because you do?” I hear you. I get you. As I stated earlier, unemployment is wildly unpleasant for EVERYONE. Not just those with a mental illness. However, this might clear up the difference:

 

For those with a healthy functioning brain and stellar serotonin levels, the stress of finding a job remains, largely, within that category: stress. No doubt the stress is severe, debilitating, and exhausting, but it remains in such a way that unemployment and identity remain in separate compartments. Your joblessness does not take away from your huge heart for others, or your talent in sports or art, or your awesome cooking skills, or your favorite TV show that you record on the daily. Your joblessness is only a small part of who you are, and you are determined to change that status as quickly and by any means possible. When you do find a job, your heart fills with the pride of having earned that gold medal of the salary and the sense of belonging that you WORKED for.

 

For people who suffer from depression, the cycle looks slightly different. The two are similar up until the “lack of motivation” stage. Arguably, those who are experiencing unemployment will experience many of the same emotions cited in the “unemployment” and “stagnation” stages…feelings of worthlessness may even creep their way into the healthy mind when faced with such a challenge. Furthermore, it is the lack of motivation (a common symptom of depression in general) that is perhaps the most telling of the differences between a healthy mind and an unhealthy mind when experiencing joblessness. It is also crucial to point out, too, that lack of motivation is the stage that is too often perceived as laziness on the part of the sufferer, and not well understood by the healthy mind. Why aren’t you at least LOOKING for a job? You had one interview and got turned down, big deal! It’s one interview! You apply other places and eventually someone will take you! Why would you give up after taking your cert test once? Plenty of people fail the first time! You have to keep trying or you’ll never get a job in your field! All familiar words to the irrational sufferer. My favorite though, is this: You say you’re so depressed because you’re jobless, yet you lay in bed and do absolutely nothing to change your situation. How does that make any sense?

 

You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. We know it doesn’t make sense.

 

All of those italicized statements are perfectly rational. They make sense. It’s what you have to do to get through this life. You get rejected from one position, you take it in stride and move on to the next. You fail your cert test once: yeah, it sucks, but you study harder and take it again. It happens. And it’s almost always going to turn out okay. As long as you put the work in…

 

That’s where we struggle. For depression sufferers, its difficult to reach that stage where you put the work in and everything turns out okay. Just as a smear of mascara on my face brought me to a place of total agony, so does being turned down from a job feel like the final and dramatic end of my world as I have known it. Failing my first attempt at my certification test adds to the horror of being a failure, of being worthless, of being an air hog, a waste of valuable space. In the face of these emotions, it is easiest to just crawl into bed, shut the blinds, and wallow in your worthlessness. After all, that institution rejected you because you suck, right? Your resume sucks, your transcripts suck, your interview sucked, and you suck. They aren’t going to hire a person who sucks, so why would anyone else? You can’t even pass a stupid test that you WENT TO SCHOOL TO PASS. Why even bother wasting your parent’s hard-earned moolah to just keep failing the test, just like you’re failing at life? In the end, it’s simple: you’re unemployed because you are a lazy, pathetic, sorry excuse for a person and you SUCK. (cue depressive relapse)

 

This is when unemployment and identity cease to remain separate.

 

Say any of the above to your neighbor. I dare you. Actually I don’t. Don’t do that. Not that you would, because you’re a decent person, and no decent person would talk like that to any other person. Yet that is the kind of language that depression forces us to inflict onto ourselves every single day. It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re constantly engaged in a battle with your mind, desperately trying to hold on to rationality while also attempting to throw a lasso around the thoughts that force you back into bed. Depression attempts to silence all forms of rationale, so trying to talk reason to a clinically depressed person may prove to be a bit of a challenge. Instead, try to see their situation for what it is, and understand that what is perceived as laziness actually might be something much more dangerous: a transition into a depressive episode.

 

As a pretty committed Christian, I feel like I can’t end this post without mentioning this pretty amazing verse that I have highlighted with a little heart next to it in my brand-spanking new Bible with the dandelion on the cover (shout out to Shane, thanks for the adorbs Christmas present love ;).

 

Luke 12:32 (this entire portion of Luke has just become my mantra) says:

 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

 

How comforting this is…to know that through my suffering and through my fear, Jesus is STILL pleased to include me in the Kingdom. How, then, can I be a waste? Worthless? A failure?

 

I think I’ll go push for that job now.

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