I used to exercise because I had an unhealthy obsession – an eating disorder. I was obsessed with burning calories, even before I had taken any in. After I recovered a bit and my weight stabilized, exercise seemed a dangerous proposition to me. It seemed risky, like the edge of cliff I might fall off of. So for several years I avoided exercise.
Then I became a mother. Nursing my baby wasn’t enough to burn off all the pregnancy weight, so I started walking. Later when I progressed to more strenuous exercise, I discovered I liked the way I felt after a hard cardio workout. I began to crave exercise for the calm and relaxed feeling it gave me.
I’ve been exercising regularly or semi-regularly since my first child was about six months old — mostly to keep in good physical condition, but also to add structure to my stay-at-home life. It wasn’t until after I moved overseas, however, that I realized my mind also needs exercise.
And here is where the problem starts: I don’t actually want to exercise in Cambodia. I have to force myself to exercise. I’m tired, and I’m hot, and I would much rather sleep . . . or watch Call the Midwife. Over time, though, I’ve noticed that when I skip exercise for too many days in a row, I am not a very nice person. And by “too many days in a row,” I mean approximately “four.” That’s not a very long time, but I know that if I don’t exercise often enough, I turn into Elizabeth the Grouch. So I try not to go more than four days without endorphin-inducing exercise.
Objectively speaking, I know I have a wonderful life. But I still have days when I feel I’m about to lose my mind, and I don’t even know why. I can’t pinpoint what is the matter; I only know I feel anxious and unhappy. Exercise is what I need most on the days I least want it. And not just any leisurely activity will do – only high-intensity exercise will erase my bad attitudes. When I exercise hard, something magical and miraculous happens in my mind and my body. I no longer feel I’m losing my mind. What was bothering me before, no longer bothers me. I feel good again.
Sometimes, though, this strategy only works temporarily. Sometimes I wake up the next day, still upset, still agitated, still anxious. I am back at the beginning, and I must fight the storm clouds all over again. Some weeks, some months, some seasons are more difficult than others. I am more critical, and my mood is darker. Sometimes I know the reasons why; sometimes I don’t. And it’s not necessarily related to issues of the female kind, either. Oh no — I can be unhappy and unkind all on my own.
I actually use a number of strategies to combat this gloom of mine. I have to exercise regularly, yes. But I also go up to my roof and soak in the living green oasis of my neighbors’ palm and banana trees. Sometimes I watch funny YouTube videos with my husband — the laughter really helps. Or I’ll sing and pray. An hour of hymns at the piano can lift my spirits and greatly alleviate my discouragement. But much to my disappointment, my irritability may still be present the next morning.
All these strategies help — temporarily. But when the dark clouds return to my mind, I have to fight them again. Exercise and other self-care measures are good for me. They help me stay sane. So what’s my problem with them? My problem is, I wish I didn’t need them. I wish I were strong, all on my own. I wish the effects of self-care lasted longer than a day or two, and that I didn’t need to repeat my efforts.
I wish I weren’t so weak and my mind so fragile. I wish I didn’t need regular infusions of happy chemicals to feel good in life. I wish I were fine, all by myself. But I am this weak, and I am this fragile. If I want to be a pleasant wife, a loving mom, and a good friend (and I do), then I have to take constant care of my body, my mind, and my soul. I must do these things, for both myself, and for the people I live with — and only I can do them.
So I will.