Throughout my life I was never really into health and wellness. And never thought I’d be on this journey. In fact, just 9 years ago, if you asked me, I’d never have thought I’d be where I am today. I choose to share my story because stories are how we connect as humans. They are how we gain hope, insight, learn and know that we are not alone. I feel that sharing like this is valuable in a society that now hides behind social media and highlights only the highs while covering up the behind the scenes story.
You might be reading this, thinking, “I’m not into wellness” or feeling like there’s no hope for a turn around in your health status or your wellness journey, but there always is. If cats have 9 lives, I am likely on 7 or 8… If there’s hope for me, there’s also hope for you.
So, when I began this journey, I was working at the Community Health Center here in Duluth, MN where I had already worked for several years as a supervisor for the Health Care Access Office. In my office, we provided assistance and advocacy in helping our clients access public health care programs and other government benefits. I was married and had a house, 2 dogs and things were looking pretty good. It all kind of fit into the standard “American Dream” picture in many ways.
Things were going fairly well, except that I would come home from work, put on my pajamas, sit in front of the T.V., eat pizza, chocolate and drink beer until it was bedtime. This was my usual routine. Being a social worker is stressful outside of just being a human on this planet. I had tried being physically active at times, but like so many others out there, I just found that nothing really worked. I wasn’t motivated to stick with it and never saw any changes that were worth the effort.
Going back to my childhood…
I was fairly active as a younger child, doing gymnastics, dance and playing tennis until I was about 10-years-old. When I was 10, I broke my arm on the uneven bars at gymnastics and wasn’t able to get over my fear after that so didn’t go back to gymnastics.
When I was 11 1/2, my grandmother died from pancreatic cancer. This event changed my whole world! I was in the 6th grade and my grandma, who was like my 2nd mom, died of cancer very quickly. She was diagnosed in January and within 10 months, passed away. Upon her death, it’s like I blacked out for 6 months and I don’t remember any of that time. Next thing I know, it was the end of May and 6th grade was over. My family moved to a different house, I changed groups of friends. It was a place of a major change in my life. Going from elementary school in 6th grade to Jr. High in 7th grade was a big enough change as it was, but within the next year, my sister also graduated from high school and moved away and my grandpa moved in with us.
It was when I was 11 that my “survival guide” came out to help me grieve the loss of my grandma and keep me moving through life as an almost teenager. (I call my alter ego, my survival guide. She’s the one that knows how to deal with life in survival mode.) Through junior high, high school and some of my college years, I would experiment with drugs, alcohol and use sex, carving into my skin and other self-destructive behaviors to fill the void left inside me. See, I didn’t have the tools I needed to grieve the loss of my grandma, so I started using everything I could to numb myself. I wanted to feel different than I was feeling, no matter what that feeling was, I didn’t want to be in my body and feel the real feelings. These behaviors became my shield, my survival guide.
I kept up my survival guide persona into college, though I tamed down slightly and quit using harder drugs and quit carving things into my skin. I still kept her around. By then, my survival guide was all I knew. I no longer knew the girl I had been before and I just thought my survival guide was me. I’d tell friends who I met in college some of my stories from home and they’d make comments like, “oh my god…it’s like a crime scene show or something…” And I’d react to their comment like, “what? …that’s not normal?” No! In high school, they were playing basketball, in dance and maybe tried a cigarette or a beer, but nothing like what I had experienced. This was my first clue that my life had been a bit different than most others. Throughout all of my school years, I always got good grades. This was my cover up. Everything must be ok because I had good grades.
I graduated from college at St. Cloud State with my degree in Social Work and minor in Human Relations. Somehow I graduated despite way too much partying, but I began to have my first taste of what it was like to deal with anxiety.
After graduation I moved to Duluth with my fiance at the time and got a job working at the Community Health Center, working under Sister Rita (yes, she’s a Catholic nun) in the Health Care Access Office. That was all good, except I was still smoking weed and drinking most days. It was like functional chemical dependency, but it was still my regular habit. The problem was that I didn’t know anyone in Duluth to buy weed from and was worried that whoever I might find would likely end up being my client and it was the first time in my life that there was an incentive to quit smoking every day as I had been for years.
Something that seems to be overlooked even with functional chemical dependency, is that after years of use, you don’t just get sober. Once you get sober, you have to deal with all the things you’ve been covering up with your use and sober feelings are difficult when you’re not used to actually dealing.
It was during this time, shortly after we moved to Duluth that my anxiety came out in full effect! I was short of breath, getting pains in my chest, a racing heart, racing thoughts and felt like I was going to die. I kept going to the doctor and they did all the tests with no findings. One of the docs I saw was like, you should go talk to someone… I about lost my shit. I thought, he thought I was making up all these things and that I was crazy! I was pissed. The only thing that would calm me was to go to sleep because when I was sleeping I couldn’t think about how I was breathing and for a time, my breathing would reset itself and I’d feel better.
I think it was in 2008 that I took a class called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at Essentia Health. During the first class we learned how to breath and immediately I thought, “Huh!…I don’t think I’ve been breathing…” This was my first glimpse into the mind body connection. I didn’t realize how intertwined our mind and body actually were.
Around that time, or maybe shortly after I would have a day of the month where I would cry…a lot…like cry all day and need to call in for work. I figured out that it corresponded with exactly 1 week before my menstrual cycle started. (Which I have found actually happens to many women). It would usually be something small that would set me off. Something someone said, did, or didn’t do and I would become an inconsolable mess. To the point where there were many times at I wanted to check myself into the psych ward. I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me and would think, who is this other person that comes out on this day? Usually I’m pretty put together, rational and calm, but I ended up seeing a therapist, which was a big step for me, because as I noted in my paragraph above, I thought this would mean I’m crazy and clearly I was not, or was I? Ugh… This was just another insight into how my body and mind work together.
I had never considered that my monthly cycle was related to how I wanted to interact with the outer world during different times of the month. She shared that women are typically more social during ovulation (the body wants to make babies) and that we need to come into ourselves more as we get closer to menstruation. Getting quiet enough to listen to these cues can be the most difficult when there’s so many demands in a busy world. Who slows down enough to check their calendar and say, oh…take some time and come back into yourself this week. (I actually do now. I’m a nicer person and everyone benefits.)
In October 2009, my partner came out to me as transgender and let me know she would like to transition. This came at the same time that my grandfather who had lived with my family for many years was going through some health issues and ended up passing away a few weeks later.
I was coming home from work, sitting on the couch, eating junk and drinking beers until bedtime and was starting to notice that I was gaining weight. As my 30th birthday was quickly approaching, I was thinking to myself, this isn’t working for me like it used to. I mean, I had been doing this throughout my teenage years and I was never very active, but it started catching up to me.
I was sad, angry and all the feelings about Nat transitioning. I didn’t want to lose my husband and my marriage as I knew it. I kept all my feelings inside and would lay in the bathtub every night for long periods of time and read Eat, Pray, Love and sob. I hadn’t told my friends or family and had only confided in one person who I was friends with at work.
As Nathalie’s transition unfolded, I kept stuffing my feelings and for months I was just trying to hold it all together. Trying to be supportive of her, trying to show up for the staff I was supervising, trying to show up for my clients who were going through more trauma and shit than I was. I actually thought during this time that maybe I should quit my social work job because I felt like, how can I support all these patients/clients in all the things they are going through and I can’t even be supportive of my spouse to transition. What a crappy social worker I am….a fraud.
In early January 2010, I decided to do something! I went and took a kickboxing class at Progressive Martial Arts. A few of the women I worked with were going there and they loved it. I wanted what they had found! They could see and feel the difference in their bodies. Not just these useless workouts where the effort never met the reward.
Prior to this, I had only sporadically been to a few fitness classes in my life and really didn’t like the world of “jocks”. It was against my whole life philosophy growing up and I’d never have identified with any sort of sports activity growing up because my “stoner” friends probably would’ve disowned me. I was really crossing into uncharted territory, but I figured kickboxing seemed bad ass enough that it was ok.
On a random day in January 2010, I showed up for class and it was really awkward. I didn’t know how to move my body in this way, but I knew after that first class that it felt amazing to hit and kick things in a safe way. I had never hit or kicked anything in my life…except maybe punching my locker in the 7th grade. I barely talked to anyone when I would go to class. I just wanted to workout. It felt like I was going to lose my marriage and after all, I was hiding this from the world. It was at PMA that I met some of my closest friends today.
Shortly after starting PMA and about 6 months of daily crying in the bathtub, I went in for a physical (which I almost skipped) and was diagnosed with a thyroid nodule (a lump in my throat). I was still thinking my body and mind were separate. How could they be so connected? I had an ultrasound and a biopsy and found that the nodule was benign. (whew!) They could take it out or leave it and watch it. I opted at that time to leave it and watch it because my thyroid levels were “normal” and I didn’t want to have surgery. I had no idea how important the thyroid is to our bodies at that time. I was just told there is nothing that can be done except to wait and see if it grew, but eventually they would need to remove it.
About a year into being at PMA, I started lifting kettlebells which was a love hate relationship. It was a new challenge to get the right movement down. It was like trying to fly a space ship…seriously the weirdest thing to swing a weight like we do. It was a total mental challenge. It took me about 4 months to really figure it out and even at that it was a bit of a struggle. Two of my gym friends (Kara and Kelly) came to me and were like, “Hey, we’re signing up for this thing called the Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) and you should sign up too!” Looking at the requirements for this 3 day kettlebell “boot camp”, I was thinking, “yeah…there’s no way I can pass that…and it really costs a ton of money to go.” The RKC is a kettlebell instructor certification course that is totally bad-ass. At that time is was still under Pavel Tsatsouline, the man who brought kettlebells from Russia to the US. After thinking it over and a little peer pressure, I enrolled. Seems like it’s too difficult to pass? Sign me up! We trained hard and my body hated me because until pretty recently I had been sitting on the couch drinking beer and eating cookies for most of my life. I had taken a 20 year hiatus from physical activity!
After enrolling in the RKC, the owner of PMA (Chris) offered for me to start teaching 1 class a week. Saturday kettlebells. I knew nothing… I had no background in exercise or anatomy and each class was a complete struggle. I kept thinking, what am I doing? Talk about imposter syndrome…holy crap! I had no thought of even becoming an instructor prior to this. Even signing up for the RKC, I just wanted to do it because it would be a challenge for me personally, not because I thought I wanted to teach.
Still during this time, I was working through Nathalie’s transition, working at a job that was no longer what I wanted to be doing, still drinking quite a bit and emotionally eating. It was a roller coaster of fitness/wellness and dissatisfaction with life. On again, off again… But I thought if I could get in enough workouts, then I should be doing well because it was such a bump up from where I had been that it seemed ok to counteract my workouts with beer and pizza. Not so much…
After 4 years of transitioning with Nathalie, we decided our relationship was not working and we needed to separate for good. We had tried what we felt was our hardest to work through our issues and it just came to a point where we said, “I love you, now go and live your life.”
As much as a relief as this was, I felt like I lost my life. We’d been together for over 12 years. Almost 1/3 of my life and this was the person who helped pull me out of the grief I felt over my grandmother dying. Now they were also leaving me. I relied on Nathalie to complete me and to give me happiness.
When we finally decided to part ways, it was at that time when I realized I had to find happiness in myself before I would ever find happiness in a long term relationship again. I actually realized this pretty much as soon as Nathalie moved out. It was not someone else’s job to make me happy, but was on me to love myself and really be happy within myself. I would have to “save myself” in this next life. Damn damn damn…
I did a ton of journaling during what I call “the dark days” after our separating. I listed the things that I wanted in my new life. All the things that were important to me. Needs vs. wants.
Needs: employment, housing for me and the dogs, healthy food, sun, warm weather, friends, sleep, exercise, acupuncture, simplicity in life, healthy stable relationships.
Wants: A job as a fitness instructor/personal trainer, companionship from someone who allows me to grow as an individual and in the relationship ~ someone who helps me to be better in life, time for creativity and pleasure, fun, work 40 hours or less/week, be debt free and travel.
I felt like I had just lost everything, so why not start building a foundation with the things that I wanted. I didn’t necessarily believe at that time that this was possible, but I had to start some place with building a foundation for my new life.
After a short time, I moved out of the house we had bought together and into a small apartment. I paid off all my debt (credit cards, student loans and car). I switched jobs within the clinic, dropped my hours, quit the gym I had been working at, started traveling in the winter and just started stripping away pieces that didn’t work and adding in more of what I wanted. It wasn’t a beautiful transition or anything. It’s been gradual and pretty messy from my insider’s view. (We miss that in people’s story – the darkness to get to the light).
My survival guide had come back to help me during the dark days, as she should. While I was making some good changes, I was back to those numbing behaviors I was doing earlier in life. It was all I could do to get through that time without totally losing my shit. Drinking lots of tequila at Burrito Union until bar close on work nights, sleeping 3 hours a night and getting up to teach 6am kettlebells, work at the clinic and teach again before going back to the bar. Nathalie and I splitting up literally threw me back in time to the time when we met. Back to my 21 year old self, but now at age 33.
After about a year and a half of living in survival mode, there was one morning I woke up with yet another hangover from alcohol, lack of sleep and another night of bad decisions in an unhealthy relationship and I thought to myself, I feel like I’m dying. My life force felt like it was being sucked out of me. I had no energy left. I knew I needed to make some major life changes in order to continue doing the work I was doing.
My biggest challenge in life is to let go of things that clearly aren’t working even when I know they aren’t working and that they don’t serve me. Still the temptation to hang on feels more comfortably uncomfortable than the uncharted territory of letting it all go. If I were to be charged with a crime, it would be hanging on too long… to everything. If only my heart had majored in logic in college, maybe then…