As a kid I was super shy. If you stuck me on the soccer field, I would run right back to the sidelines like a wind-up toy. I was reserved, quiet, and not very aggressive at all. When I was two years old, Timmy Lindberg took my toys and pinched me for a full afternoon before I quietly leaned over and bit his leg. Apparently, some sort of hardiness was in there; I just kept it way down deep.
When I discovered sports in earnest during college, an aggressive, tough, independent, “I can handle anything” side was unleashed. As a rower, long and grueling training was part of the deal, and one’s ability to tolerate discomfort was highly linked to one’s success in the sport. I trained through pulled hip flexors, strained intercostals, strep, bronchitus, sinus infections and minor surgeries. I rowed when my hands were so blistered and bloody I could hardly hold on to anything. I tried out for my first national team with a broken foot, and only when a high fever hit in 100-degree-plus weather, did I announce to my coach that I needed to sit a practice out. I would limit my calorie intake down to nothing for days, sweat off pounds before a race to ‘make weight’ for lightweight rowing competitions, and then give it my all. I thought all this meant I was tough, hardy, and that not much could bring me down.
I lived this attitude. The sport culture was all about having a strong body. After all, failing to be the strongest, fastest, or toughest meant failure, or at least second place. To be invincible we had to be, well, invincible. And I was good at playing the game.
But when not in athletic mode I was prone to a very different mentality. I could be a total baby, a complete wimp - particularly about bodily ailments. Often when I was sick I felt like the world was ending and I would never feel better. I feared that I would get some horrible complication and never recover. I wanted to find someone to fix me: some medication, some treatment, something to speed things up and reassure me. The remedy of time and rest and patience never felt like enough. I despised not feeling physically strong, which ironically revealed that deep down I did not feel very strong.
Having used my athletic identity and physicality for so many years to try to find security and garner love and attention, I had a hard time when my body didn’t respond the way I wanted. It was a signal that I wasn’t control. Nothing signified visceral vulnerability to me quite like these physical ailments. In my early recovery, this fear may have made me focus on feeling fat or out of shape. As I chipped away at my defensive coping, it was harder to avoid facing my fears. But this was a big fear for me. With physical ailments, the struggle inside was that something was wrong with my body, something could hurt me, and I needed to fix it or protect it or stop it, but usually I didn’t know how. And my first reaction was to pull away from life, to hunker down, lay low, isolate, pull the covers over my head, and worry. But this is another version of the eating disorder just slightly altered. The notion is still that I have to control my body; I have to rule it, and I should withdraw until I do - that is the old formula.
The new formula involves admitting to my vulnerability and being a better friend to it. I don’t have to deny it, push it down, or toughen it up. My job is to accept it, and do something useful with it. When I am sick, when I get this bodily notice that I am vulnerable, I need to stop and remember that vulnerability is not dangerous. I need to remind myself to stop reacting like it is.
I have respect for how hard it is to integrate vulnerability into the athletic mentality. However, I do wish that I had learned earlier that I can be a warrior, and have times being a confused, scared and needy human being. I think I would have been more powerful as an athlete if I didn’t have to use so much energy to try to control natural feelings of vulnerability.
The deal is that I can’t do anything to change the fact that I am human and vulnerable. I spent years of thinking I was being the tough girl and dealing with my fears by trying to control them or hide from them. It was truly fight or flight – and a lot of work. My goal now is to be good at being vulnerable - to embrace vulnerability, and the anxiety that goes with it, as part of me and my life. Vulnerability is as much a part of me as my joy, my focus, and my curiosity - all the other things that I live with on a daily basis. My vulnerability doesn’t need to be a dirty word; it is just part of being human.