If you have only one spoon today, I’m honored that you’re using it to read this. If you are fortunate enough not to know what “spoons” refer to, I’ll briefly explain that it’s a subjective unit of measure for people with chronic pain and fatigue issues, or other hidden illnesses. I’d like to share some thoughts that came up when I recently got some reader mail thanking me for writing about my experience beating fibromyalgia. (I see you! <3)
It puzzles me that virtually all of the online presence for invisible illnesses seems to be about emotional support and painstakingly tutoring “well” people in the details of our diagnoses. Aren’t we... trying to feel better? Shouldn’t we see a disease as an opponent, not a roommate or a spouse? Shouldn’t we be trying to GET MORE SPOONS??? Stop sleeping with the enemy and tell it to pack its bags because it is out of here.
First off, the concept of chronic illness drives me crazy. I believe that it is unscientific for a doctor or anyone else in the medical community to describe something as “incurable.” Just because nobody has cured it YET doesn’t mean it will never happen. Isn’t your entire job to try to cure and treat illnesses?
I’m pro-science. Let’s not get confused about that. I always get my flu shot and I’ll promote vaccinations to anyone who will listen. If a doctor gives me a prescription for antibiotics, I fill it and I take the full course. If I get a printout of instructions to do physical therapy exercises, or anything else, I follow those instructions. I’m obedient and open to input. This is why it upsets me so much when I’m treated with condescension by doctors.
The doctor who patted me on the shoulder and assured me that there were in fact zero ways I could modify my diet, exercise, or lifestyle to impact my thyroid disease. - FALSE
The doctor who told me he doesn’t “believe in germ theory” - UHHHH....
The doctor who told me I must have been misdiagnosed because “people don’t get better from fibromyalgia” and she knew, because her sister-in-law has it. She told me not to mention that diagnosis to doctors, because they would “automatically write you off.” Then she tried to prescribe me an anti-depressant, although I am not depressed. - HUH?
The point I’m trying to make is that just because you waited forty minutes for a fifteen-minute time slot with one overworked, obtuse physician who wasn’t able to help you, does not then mean that you are beyond help. Just because you’ve suffered for many years doesn’t mean you always will. Just because your pain is extreme does not mean it will always be that way, or that it will get worse. There are no reasons to believe that a physical illness will remain permanent and debilitating until the end of time.
I always felt that if I had to suffer, then let it be toward a purpose. Take notes on my condition and track my metrics. Record everything I tried on my search for relief and wellness. Use these notes to build a better treatment plan for the next generation of sufferers.
Then I take that attitude to my primary care physician, who invalidates my position. I’m game, try me! How many people like me constitute “anecdotal evidence” that is 100% disregarded by the medical community? How many more are laboring under false stories of sickness because this information is withheld from them?
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 23. I also had a thyroid nodule that disappeared without treatment. I suffered debilitating migraines for about ten years. I would say that I actively manage sleep issues that began 35 years ago, and I’m successful now about 90% of the time. Since then I’ve run a marathon, completed a mud run, and gone on several multi-day expeditions carrying a 40+ pound backpack. Now I’m studying the martial arts of Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. Four hours a week I repeatedly catch kicks, punches, and shoves, get thrown onto the ground, and do a full circuit-training workout. If I can think of any more extreme sport that demonstrates how fully I beat fibromyalgia, I might try it.
I’m a middle-aged woman with a history of multiple chronic illnesses. I crushed them.
I’m a formerly obese woman who fully recovered from thyroid disease. Now I wear a size XS.
How is it possible for someone of my age bracket and health history to be in better shape than I was twenty years ago?
How is it possible, when my doctors told me it wasn’t? How is it possible, when my doctors brushed off and invalidated my experiences? How is it possible, when I never took medication or had surgery?
There are three reasons.
First, I didn’t have a choice. My ex-husband divorced me when he realized how sick I was. I didn’t even have health insurance, much less another human who could help me get out of bed or fill in for tasks I couldn’t do. I had to get up and take care of myself because I was the only one I had.
Second, most of my insights and epiphanies and realizations and hypotheses came from TOTAL ACCIDENTS and coincidences. I would notice something that didn’t seem to make sense, and as it caught my attention, I would start to track more details while I tried to figure it out.
Third, being told that something is impossible is something that deeply annoys me. It’s stupid! It’s a wrong thought. It is unscientific, if I might be pardoned for repeating myself. I’ll trust a doctor who tells me to get a tetanus shot or change bandages or take eye drops. I’ll never, ever trust a doctor who tells me I’m stuck with some health condition for the rest of my life.
Nobody needs to run an obstacle course or go backpacking or start taking karate classes. That’s a high bar. All I’m asking is that we question this chronic illness paradigm. I ask that we allow for the possibility that we may one day be free. What if we’ve been misdiagnosed? What if we become “anecdotal” and have a spontaneous remission? What if we age out, as it often happens with migraines, because our hormone levels change over time? What if new research leads to new treatments, new medications, or new understanding of root cause?
Please stop sleeping with the enemy. Illness is not your body part. Illness is not one of your internal organs. Illness is not your heritage. Perfect health is your birthright. Track your metrics and keep asking questions until you have all the spoons you could ever want.
I am a creature of appetite. I always want to max out on experiences, engage in multiple conversations, stay up too late, use three electronic devices at once, read absolutely everything, fill every moment, and, of course, eat all the things. Learning to be an endurance athlete, adventurer, and martial artist has taught me a lot about physical appetite, which I will share with you as soon as I finish licking my fingers.
The main thing to understand is that food is not optional. I mean, duh, it’s not optional for living organisms. For endurance sports, if you don’t eat enough, you bonk. (To be distinguished from ‘boink’ which is not something you generally want to do when your blood sugar crashes). Bonking is what happens when the glycogen stores from your muscles are depleted. It feels really, really bad. Most people are probably acquainted with the feeling of being hangry, which is basically being hungry enough to be irritable and start verbally abusing people. Bonking leads toward total physical collapse. You’re out of gas and you’re stranded at the side of the road until you fill your tank.
The thing about endurance sports is that it gradually conditions your body, training your muscles to store more glycogen. This is handy when you want to walk, bike, run, or hike somewhere while carrying heavy gear. It’s not so convenient when you quit feeling hunger signals in the way that you once did. You have to learn how to eat when you’re not hungry, just like you have to learn to hydrate when you’re not thirsty. If you ever actually feel thirsty, like your mouth is dry, then you’re well into a state of dehydration. It’s the same with food. On a fifteen-mile hike or a twenty-six-mile run, you’re not just traveling on your breakfast, you’re traveling on your dinner from the night before.
This is where ox hunger and wolf hunger come in.
These terms come from Ancient Greece. We talked about it one day while I was studying Classics. Those of us who did not grow up in an agricultural area often have to have these things explained. Ox hunger was considered more desperate than wolf hunger, because a wolf snarfs its food down quickly, while an ox ruminates, grazing and chewing all day long. From a human perspective, the ox can never get enough to eat. It never feels full, even as it reaches a massive size.
This is actually turning into a weird metaphor for me, because I identify with the herbivorous diet of the ox, while still wanting to point to a shift in how I structure my meals.
When I was obese, I felt hungry all the time. I always cleared every last morsel off my plate. I regularly drank 40 ounces of cola or more every day. It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat an entire can of Pringles while writing a paper. I’m 5’4” and I’ve been known to eat half an extra-large pizza in one sitting. My activity level was basically nil, because I had a lot of issues, from chronic pain to migraines to a full catalog of sleep disorders. I felt like a mess.
Now I’m 15-20 years older. I probably eat about the same amount of total calories, although it would be hard to say because I wouldn’t have kept a food log back then for a thousand dollars. Right now I’m at twenty push-ups and a five-mile running route. Since my top weight, I’ve lost about fifty pounds of fat and I’ve put on about fifteen pounds of muscle. I’m hoping for another fifteen. The difference between being a middle-aged fit person and a young fat person is 90% food and 10% activity, mainly because you can never find the energy to do anything physical until you learn something about appetite.
Everything is upside down and backward, and that’s due to timing.
The typical food pattern of an adult with a full-time job goes like this. Oversleep, rush to work with little to no breakfast, slam some coffee and something sugary. Eat a cruddy lunch over your keyboard or your seatbelt, maybe even something terrible like a bag of microwave popcorn with a diet soda, or a candy bar. Perhaps graze on office snacks like cookies or candy. Run a bunch of errands and wait to figure out dinner until you’re practically faint with hunger. Eat the dinner. Then eat something sweet like a bowl of cereal or ice cream right before bedtime. Add sweetened, caffeinated beverages or energy drinks throughout the day just to make it harder to get any decent rest.
This food pattern is the perfect plan IF you want the maximum emotional volatility, lowest energy levels, most sleep issues, and an eventual case of pre-diabetes.
As an athlete, my biggest annoyance is crashing, which is what I call the stage right before bonking. I get really moody, slow, and dumb. On a hike, for instance, I’ll take my pack off to get my lunch and then forget what I was doing. I’ll start unzipping different compartments of my pack, staring at my blow-up lantern or something, feeling all weepy and pathetic, until I finally remember: FOOD! If I don’t eat enough for breakfast before my kickboxing class, suddenly I can barely do my jump squats, much less kick anything properly. It feels like it shaves off half of my strength, speed, stamina, prowess, mental focus, emotional equanimity... and IQ.
This is how I eat if I want to have a fun day.
Drink a glass of water as soon as I wake up. Eat a big bowl of porridge with oats, quinoa, extra dried fruit, nuts, and coconut marmalade. Also eat a protein bar. Walk two miles to martial arts class and crunch out something like fifty push-ups, fifty sit-ups, fifty jump squats, three minutes of jumping rope, fifteen minutes of circuit training, and round out the hour with a couple of hundred kicks and punches plus some wrestling. Drink more water. Leave class and eat a snack. Walk two miles home. Immediately eat a huge lunch and drink more water. Work. Eat afternoon snack. Work. Eat dinner by 7 PM at the latest so I can go to bed around 10. Stop eating for the day. Drink last water at 8 PM.
Timing is everything. Learning to plan WHEN I eat has helped me to get ahead of the hunger curve, so I’m fueling the next few hours rather than catching up on the last few. It helps that the 500 calories of soda I used to drink every day is now represented by real, solid breakfast food instead.
What I’ve found is that the bigger my breakfast, the stronger and faster I am during my workout. Part of the appetite for this big breakfast comes from closing the kitchen after dinner, which I do because it’s how I manage my parasomnia disorder. I’ve eaten 80% of my calories for the day before dinnertime anyway. I can get a full, restful night of sleep and start over ready to kick butt the next day. I’m no longer the ox, large and slow and stationary, chewing and chewing all day long. Whether I’ll ever be a lean, fast, and scary wolf-girl remains to be seen.
I set my first PR this year, completely by accident. (That means ‘personal record,’ which I didn’t know when I first started running). I hadn’t been training. It’s worse than that. Not only had I not done anything special to train for my race, I hadn’t even been running all year! I went out literally once in 2018, a few days before my trip, to see if I could even cover an 8k distance. My big worry wasn’t speed, it was embarrassing myself by having to walk what used to be my easy day workout.
I was a non-athlete until I turned 35. Last picked for every team. One of the smallest, slowest, weakest, least coordinated kids in every group. The idea of physical exertion filled me with dread. I’m not competitive by nature, either, which is why I never earned any ribbons or trophies. Even if I’d had the unfathomable desire to pick up a sport, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to train for it or improve my performance. I think I would have felt attacked by the very concept. Can’t I just run?
I learned to love running, but I had to quit when I overtrained for my marathon and sustained an ankle injury. Two MRIs, months of ice baths and physical therapy, no real improvement, finally they just cut me off. I fell out of the habit. I still identified as “a runner” even though I no longer had a running behavior.
I paid for a race. In my experience, deadlines are very motivating, and so are cash deposits. I have never once missed a race I’ve paid to enter. I convinced my brothers to sign up with me, including my brother’s girlfriend, who is training for her sixth marathon. Pressure on.
My family knows I’ve been out of commission. It’s not like I would have been disinherited for not running, or like they would have driven off without me if I fell behind and had to walk the last mile or two. I had only my own pride hanging in the balance.
I kept meaning to train, to get out there and start running at least five or ten miles a week. It didn’t sound like a big deal. The dog would have loved it. I just... did other things instead.
What I did was to sign up for martial arts lessons. I’m still so tired after workouts that I often go home after class and sleep for two hours. All these great plans I had to “jog home from the gym” never materialized.
This is where my accidental running improvement apparently kicked in.
Distance runners who do nothing but run tend to develop predictable issues. We’re comparatively weak in the quadriceps and glutes, which would be the front of the thighs and those famously flat runner’s butts. The reason my trainer gave for my persistent ankle problems was hip instability. I also trained to muscle failure in my left hip flexor, and if you’ve never experienced muscle failure, it’s when you send an order to a body part and it refuses to obey. I couldn’t even lift my foot over the one-inch threshold into my parents’ shower. I had to pick up my thigh with my hands and lift my own leg up. For all the thousands of miles I had run, all I really had to show for it was lean legs and sweaty shorts.
Martial arts training is the exact opposite of distance running in many ways. For starters, we warm up with HIIT workouts, which is high-intensity interval training. It’s anaerobic instead of aerobic. We use body weight resistance to build strength. I wasn’t getting the endorphin rush that I get from cardio workouts; in fact, I would just feel trudgingly, bag-draggingly tired afterward. I was slowly but surely adding muscle mass. Kickboxing works the muscle groups that are neglected in the running habit. Hundreds of training kicks were building my hip flexors, my glutes, my quads. Instead of racking up the miles, I was building new super-legs.
Something weird happened. I was running for the bus one morning. There’s a park next to my apartment that has a fairly steep uphill climb, but it’s the shortest route to the closest bus stop. Suddenly it felt like I wasn’t running, I was just a human-shaped streak cruising up the sidewalk. I know I’ve never sprinted so fast in all my life. It was effortless. I didn’t even feel like I was doing anything, just magically moving along the pavement. I didn’t even lose my breath.
Then something else weird happened. My husband and I were going to the movies, and there are some steep staircases where we’ve always made a game of racing each other to the top. He has always beaten me, probably because he has over forty years of sports training in the bag. This time, I floated up two steps at a time and made it to the top before he was halfway up. Huh? How did that even happen? I felt like a video game character. It was almost too confusing to gloat.
I ran my 8k race with one single five-mile training run behind me in the previous three months. I ran with my brother. The last time I had run this particular race was six years earlier, at a time when I ran several days a week and thought about little else. Somehow, in spite of the intervening years, the ankle injury, and the total lack of training, I shaved over four minutes off my time.
This is my argument in favor of cross-training. I still love running, and I still get an incredible analgesic response from distance runs. Nothing will get you high, help you sleep, improve your mood, and help to overcome chronic pain and fatigue like a long cardio workout. Ah, but the almost instant improvement I saw in my running performance from HIIT training and kickboxing has me convinced. Run less and train more at something else. Maybe it’s dancing, maybe it’s weight training, maybe it’s martial arts like I’ve been doing. Avoid overuse injuries (and try shiatsu massage if that’s an issue). Explore something that fills in the gaps, builds muscle mass, and has an anaerobic component. Then sign up for a race and see what it does for your running time.
I’ve always known myself to be a tightly wound, restless, easily bored person. I’ve had chronic sleep problems since I was seven. These are all subjective states. Now it turns out that there’s actually an objective metric that corresponds with these feelings. True to my alpha nature, my first instinct is to go after this metric with the full force of my competitive drive. Blast it! Chase after it! Force it to submit!
Considering that the metric in question is “resting heart rate,” I’m willing to consider the possibility that this project will require a different approach.
What happened? My husband went in for a routine physical. I asked to see his lab results, and he cordially agreed, because he has reason to be smug. He just turned fifty, but his blood work would be on track for an 18-year-old. His doctor asked what medications he was taking. Answer: None. Among all the other numbers, one stood out to me. My husband’s resting heart rate is 55 beats per minute. That is considered athletic at any age. Nice work, babe!
I looked at a chart showing target heart rates for various age brackets. Because I wear a smart watch, I had easy access to my own health metrics, dating back a couple of years. I was distressed to see that my own resting heart rate averages about 77 beats per minute. While my husband’s data put him in the Athletic category, mine is... Below Average for someone over age 65.
Part of what is funny about this is that we do have a chronological age difference, and it works in my favor. I’m seven years younger, and it looks like more. People are still routinely surprised to find that I’m in my early forties, rather than my early thirties, while my hubby is more, um, distinguished. From some of the looks we get, I suspect people think I’m more like twenty years younger than he is. If these casual bystanders were looking at our medical records instead, they’d probably think I was his mom.
Or his grandma!
The difference between us is that my hubby started in athletics as a preschooler. His mom put him on the swim team when he was just four. The picture of him in his tiny little trunks crushes my heart. He kept swimming until he was old enough to make the football team, which he continued through junior college. As an adult, he switched to roller hockey, followed by ice hockey, followed by armored combat. In between, there was basketball and wrestling and who knows what else. While he was doing all of that, I was, well, I was reading. Sitting on my butt and reading, unless I was lying on my side and reading. He was already winning before I even knew there was a game.
Granted, I’m competitive. I always want that A grade. Not only that, I want extra credit, I want to test into the advanced class, I want to be on the Dean’s List, and I want some sort of award at the end of the year. That’s just as true of my health metrics as it is of anything else in my life, from the amount of my retirement savings to how low I can get my electric bill. The first thing I do when I’m confronted with poor test results is to research. These days I think they call it a “rubric.” What does it take to get that A grade in this class? What are the inputs that make a difference? Can I debunk it or, rather, replace it with a more valuable metric?
For my thyroid disease, I found that the key was strenuous exercise. For my parasomnia disorder, I found that the key variable was blood sugar, particularly how late I ate before bedtime. For migraines, I found that the two main factors were my body weight and micronutrient consumption. I’ve beat health issues that were far more pernicious than a high resting heart rate, and I’m fully confident that I can make measurable progress here, too.
What am I going after?
According to mainstream information, which is where I always start, because I believe in a measurable empirical reality, I’ll be best off if I focus on:
When I still suffered from an Unfit Mindset, I would have locked onto that ‘stress’ item and completely ignored everything else on the list. Well, at least I don’t smoke, but that’s because I’m a cheapskate and I’d rather spend that money on vacations. To be honest, I don’t believe in “stress” as a concept. I don’t think stress causes things, I think stress is a byproduct of underlying physical conditions. I think this for two reasons; one, I’ve felt it as I’ve improved my own baseline state of health, and two, I’ve observed that the three most laid-back people I’ve ever met were a Zen Buddhist monk, a competitive all-natural body builder, and a CrossFit dude. I met two of the three when they were just regular people, before they committed to their chosen sports, and the difference was quite noticeable. They... blink less than other people. They seem to exist in this permanent state of slow-mo, where they could plausibly catch a housefly with chopsticks, or dodge bullets, or pause time and prevent automobile collisions.
I want that for myself.
Going back to the inputs that I can control, I already know that losing weight and exercising are effective. My resting heart rate used to be even worse, if you can believe that, in the low eighties. I remember a big wake-up call for me at age 29, when I walked up a single flight of stairs and started seeing black spots. I knew there were people in their sixties and seventies who were more fit than I was, because I’d met them. I even worked with a few every day. I’m much more fit now than I was as a teenager, which is partly very sad and partly really exciting and hopeful. I don’t have much weight to lose, as far as that goes, so I’ll focus on trying to add muscle. For a restless alpha type, I need to have something tangible, a target, so I don’t simply pace a path into my carpet.
Being a stress case is not fun. It’s not fun under the hood, but it’s also not fun for other people. I’m not good at things like relaxing, having fun, taking naps, sitting through a two-hour movie, or, honestly, even sitting at all. I feel constantly driven to be up and doing something. Accomplishing something. Finishing something. Getting completion on something. Now that I’m looking at these tables of resting heart rates, I’m starting to realize that maybe that endlessly restless feeling comes from my high heart rate. I’ve never had much success in talking myself into a different mindset. Maybe I can go at it from the other angle, and see what happens as a result of physical change.
As a nerdy, awkward, book-oriented person, I have to use a certain amount of strategy to convince myself to do physical things. For my personal challenge this year, I’ve taken on martial arts, because it was the scariest and most demanding thing I could imagine. It didn’t occur to me that there’s a built-in gamification aspect. Every time you level up, you get a different color of belt, which is amazing because I love rainbows. In between color upgrades, there are also stripes. I’ve earned one stripe each on two belts, one in Muay Thai kickboxing and the other in Krav Maga. It’s like a badge that actually means something. These stripes represent not just extremely hard work, but also real-world skills. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything were that clear and simple?
The reason we wear belts is just like why chefs wear weird hats. Anyone in the room can tell at a glance how much you know and what you’re there to do. It’s not like it wouldn’t be immediately obvious how uncoordinated and clueless I am as a newbie. It protects me somewhat, though, in case I somehow accidentally look more experienced for a few seconds. Going the other direction, it helps me when I look at other students. If someone wearing an orange belt corrects my position, I can swallow my irritation at being told what to do and recognize that this person has advanced knowledge compared to me. I have to show the same respect that I would wish to have.
People talk a lot about how “kids these days” get trophies and ribbons just for participating. That was after my time. I’ve still never won a trophy to this day. I don’t have any plaques either. I do have two race medals, and I’m stupidly proud of them, because I didn’t make an attempt at athletics until I was 35. I know precisely how much work went into the acquisition of these symbols, as measured in sweat, blisters, bruises, and tears. I’m only competing against myself.
When I first walked into my martial arts academy, I was a bit petrified. I was committing to something specifically because I wanted to work more on humility and self-discipline. I wanted to choose something I was bad at, maybe even so bad that people would question what on earth I was even doing there. Well, I chose well. I’m almost always last in class. We do a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, and jump squats, and everyone is supposed to do the same amount. We don’t move on to the next drill until everyone is done. Imagine jumping up and down alone in the middle of the room and that’s me. At least everyone has plenty of time to get a drink of water while they wait!
The thing about fitness that unfit people like myself often don’t understand is that most or all of the fitter people in the room... STARTED OUT WHERE WE ARE. They WERE us. We look at them and see lean muscle definition. It’s not like they’re going to get custom t-shirts printed with their ‘before’ photos, right? Almost all the athletes that I have met are genuinely happy and proud when beginners commit and start to make progress. (The others are just more focused on other stuff). It’s exciting in the same way it’s exciting to teach a little kid to ride a bike. You did it! Good for you!
As a rank beginner, I’m terrible at a lot of things. With one stripe, I know what several of them are, but I’m still so new that I know I’m not even aware of some of my failings. On my first day in class, I couldn’t really do one sit-up. I had to sort of grab my thigh and pull myself up. By the time I had done ten jump squats, I thought I might fall over. I thought I was reasonably fit, because I walk an average of six miles a day, I can carry a fifty-pound backpack, I’m pretty competent at yoga, and I consider myself fairly active. I didn’t realize just how much I was missing by not doing HIIT workouts or resistance training. It was just something I planned to get around to one day. (That day: 1/5/2018). Not testing my physical limits meant I could maintain this unrealistically positive image and protect my ego. Once I understood how unfit I really am in this area, I knew I could only recover my pride by working hard to improve.
I’m not very good at watching what someone is doing and then physically copying it. I’m a pretty good mimic, and I can do voice impressions and sound effects, but none of that seems to transfer when it’s time to imitate someone’s motions.
I have trouble telling my left from my right.
I’m having a really hard time untraining all the body memory from ballroom dancing and marching band, two things that have basically nothing in common with martial arts. The center of gravity is different, neutral stance is different, balance is different. For the first several weeks I would consistently want to move backward when I was supposed to move forward, or keep my feet together when they’re supposed to be apart.
I struggle with remembering what I’m supposed to do with all of my limbs at the same time. Say I’m being reminded to keep my hands up to protect my face while I practice a new kick. I will then totally forget that I’m supposed to step forward with my foot at an angle instead of straight. When I correct my foot position, I drop my hands. Suddenly I feel like I have eight arms and legs.
Now that I have my first stripes, all of this is gradually starting to come together. I’m still comparatively weak and slow and clumsy, sure. That’s why I’m there. If I’d wanted to feel like the top of my class, I would have signed up for water aerobics. Being last and worst means that I’m genuinely challenged. It also means that when I eventually start to catch up with the more experienced people in class, I’ll appreciate how much it means.
When I get my next stripe, when I finally level up and get a new belt in a new color, I’ll wear it with justifiable pride. I’ll keep going, knowing I have it within me to work hard, to learn, and to accept the struggle.
Then I’ll probably have to pick something else that I’m bad at.
It’s our regular morning get-together. You know, you need a little pick-me-up to start the day off right. Something hot and steamy for just us girls. Us girls and a heavy bag, that is.
By “heavy bag,” I don’t mean that giant tote with the powder compact and the travel-sized flat iron. I mean that big ol’ thing suspended from the ceiling, the kind you see in boxing movies. It’s for punching. And kicking. And generally being on the receiving end of chaos and mayhem.
You see it all, down here in the dojo. French braids. Fuchsia pedicures. Nose rings. Double pigtails. A variety of chemistry-enhanced shades of red hair. Yoga pants, called by that name only because ‘kickboxing pants’ has too many syllables. The only thing you don’t really see down here is acrylic fingernails. They don’t go as well with the boxing gloves.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are male students at our school. They’re even in class with us. It’s just that they tend to partner off with each other, and that means that for our purposes, they fade into the background. Sometimes there are half a dozen of us and only one of them, or rather, him.
It’s a brave man who walks into a room of women fighters and ragebeasts all on his lonesome.
If you haven’t trained with the competitive variety of female, then you haven’t seen competition. Remember that in any given yoga, spin, or Pilates class, at least some of the women have probably given birth. Once you’ve done that, you can do anything. Women are built for endurance and pain tolerance; otherwise, our species never would have made it. It’s a basic survival trait.
Never get between a mama and her cubs. That’s a law of nature. Certainly it’s at least as true for a woman as for an animal mother. Mess with her kids and any woman will end you. In fact, most of the parents I’ve met at my school have enrolled all their children, too. Give them a fighting chance, but let Mom get in the first lick.
We’re zero-sum competitors about other things, some of which would never occur to a man. Generally they don’t worry about whether they’re the prettiest or the cutest. I live at the beach, and it’s readily apparent that most men just put on swim trunks, shrug, and enjoy themselves being at the beach. They’re not going around giving each other side-eye and playing Who Wore It Best with their big ol’ khaki cargo shorts. They’re not making their own lives more difficult by trying to walk in four-inch strappy heels. When men compete with one another, it’s more likely about who’s the “biggest” or who earns the most money. Not who has more finesse with liquid eyeliner.
Not that there isn’t a place for the perfect cat-eye. One would simply have to reapply after practice.
We know pain. We’ve walked in the heels. We’ve worn the underwires. We’ve gone to work with cramps. We’ve tried all the crash diets. We’ve had various sensitive parts of our faces waxed or threaded, and someone explain to me the difference in sensation between having your upper lip threaded and being electrocuted. We know a heck of a lot more about the world of pain than we often realize, and if you test us, you can have a chance to find out, too.
I often practice with another gal, a single mom who’s a few years older. If she clears five feet or a hundred pounds, I’d be surprised. I mean, I’m small but she’s just little. I’m pretty sure she wears a size double zero. Kicks like a mule. It takes everything I have to hold the foam targets steady for her. More than once, I’ve failed and the target has popped me in the mouth. It just goes to show that you can’t always judge by appearances.
There are only two or three students in my school who look visibly menacing. One is a huge guy with a beard thick enough to hide a hand grenade. Who knows what he has going on. The other is ripped and has a crew cut, and you can see the whites of his eyes all the way around. He’s a beginner, even newer to class than I am. The one I’d be afraid of is the slender young blonde with the pink hair band. Or her friend, the one who takes conference calls during training without breaking her concentration.
Beware the multi-tasking woman. She can plan a wedding and kick you back into an alley without even adjusting her headset.
We’re so busy right now that we can’t even, so don’t start with us, okay?
Most of the people I see in training four mornings a week do not look like practitioners of the martial arts. It’s been my experience that elite fighters, and athletes in general, have left any sense of needing to prove themselves behind long ago. There’s no question in their minds about their relative rank or competence, so why should there be in yours? Did you really need to go there? It’s better this way, better to be placid and serene in your physical confidence. Stealthily chill. Here I am, minding my own, all on my loney. Checking my manicure. Don’t make me mess it up.
Here we are, every morning, lining up in our bright colors and our sweet smiles and our candy-pink boxing gloves. Eyebrows on fleek. Punching targets until sweat starts visibly flying across the room. Showing each other our pressure cuts and skinned knuckles. You thought we were fierce, and that was before you knew that we are in fact ferocious.
A cocktail dress makes a certain impression, and never so much as when you wear it in the mat room at the gym. We’re having a special training week at my martial arts academy, when we’re encouraged to wear street clothes and practice fighting in real-world conditions. I take this seriously. It’s when I’m wearing evening clothes that I feel the most vulnerable. Exposed skin, tight skirts, and truly stupid shoes: this is stuff I only really feel safe wearing in the company of a group. I figure it will be good for me to train in something a little less comfortable.
Glamor is silly. It’s never ceased to amaze me that people fall for the trick where the plain girl takes off her glasses, shakes out her hair, and suddenly looks gorgeous. Can’t you see her? This is just a costume change. She’s still the same person under all that. Do people really only see cosmetics, clothes, and coiffures? Apparently so. I train with these particular people every day, barefoot, in yoga pants and a t-shirt. I walk in wearing a Lycra dress and a bib necklace, having spent five minutes flat-ironing my hair, and suddenly everyone is flustered. Rather than feeling nervous and constrained by this get-up, I start to feel more confident and stronger.
I’m new at Krav Maga, see. I’m used to being the slowest, clumsiest, and least experienced. Standing in the mat room in my workout clothes, I’m below average. Standing there in my Vegas clothes, I’m elevated into some kind of sultry Bond villain.
We train. Our warmup is twice as long as usual. I do pushups, my necklace clattering on the floor. I do sit-ups, my bike shorts doing exactly what they’d do if I wore them with a shirt instead of a dress. I jog around the room. I jump rope. A large rhinestone flies off. I stuff it down my top, to the consternation of the instructor.
“Or that’ll work,” he says.
What I realize, as I look around the room, is that I’m having an easier time than the students who wore jeans. Men and women both are constantly yanking at their waistlines. Jeans tend to be tight in some places and loose in others, yet not in any ways that are compatible with much jogging, kicking, or rolling around on the floor.
I get a male partner. I feel privileged by this, because we usually self-sort by gender. I’m in the room to learn not to be flustered or triggered by full-body contact, specifically from males. My partner shows his respect by treating me exactly like any other opponent. We straddle each other in full mount and take turns throwing each other around. “Now if you get attacked by anyone who weighs a buck and a quarter, you’ll be prepared.”
Training with men is great, actually. I’ve found it the same in the weight room, on the trail, and now in martial arts. The vast majority of male athletes are delighted to train with women.
I wish my mom
I wish my sister
I hope my daughter
Many men carry a ‘white knight’ image deep inside themselves. They’ve been waiting their entire lives to come to the rescue of a woman in peril. The idea of another man inflicting physical violence on a female is one of the worst things they can think of, something that fills them with intense loathing and disgust. This is why they’re so pleased when we train to defend ourselves. (I’m just as interested in defending myself against an attack from a wild animal, but). When we train together it’s a mutual triumph.
This is part of why I wasn’t surprised when I talked to my husband about my training. I asked him how he felt about me studying martial arts. “Relieved,” he said. RELIEVED. He travels on business, and every time, he worries about me sleeping alone. We practiced together a little, and it was funny to see how he lit up when he realized how quickly I’m improving, especially when I almost kicked him in the forehead. “That was a good one.” I’m just barely good enough that I aimed to miss, and missed. If he’d caught me a week earlier it might not have gone so well.
It’s already working. I’m learning that I can skin my knuckles and not feel it all that much. I’m learning that I can be tossed on the ground and jump back up, giggling and ready for more. I’m learning to stand still and hold the foam targets and brace myself against dozens of kicks and punches. I’m learning to boil away the part of me that freezes in fear. I’m learning to walk tall, knowing that the element of surprise is on my side. Already, if someone comes for me, I’ll have at least a few seconds to create a different destiny for myself. Not today, buddy, not today.
The next time I walk down the street in this particular cocktail dress, I’ll remember how I wore it today. Fifty snap kicks, a hundred palm strikes. Inside the dress I’ll know I still have full range of motion. Now all I have to do is reattach a few rhinestones.
“Fall down seven times, get up eight.” That’s a Japanese adage that I always found meaningful, in the symbolic sense. It wasn’t until I started martial arts training that I realized how very practical and physical this advice is. Learning to fall properly is an emotional skill, something that builds resilience and mental toughness. It’s also a literal, physical thing that we do with our bodies. I don’t just “learn to fall,” I commit my actual body and throw myself on the ground. Dozens of times. Per class.
This is something I’ve quickly come to enjoy.
As an unfit person, I wouldn’t even have stood by as a spectator to watch this sort of thing. I would have felt total disinterest, or possibly something closer to scorn or annoyance. THAT’S STUPID. This is the biggest block to overcome when learning to inhabit the body. We’re in a weird cultural moment when millions of people genuinely believe that “I” is something separate and distinct from “my body.” “My body” can “want” different things than “I” can and “my body” has different interests and desires than “I” do. Physical conditioning is the fastest way to resolve that bizarre fracture.
It isn’t necessary to integrate body and spirit, because they are one and the same. What’s necessary is to discipline the ego to accept the physical limitations that come from pretending the mind is superior to the body.
It’s my ego that complains when I trip on the jump rope. It’s only my ego that complains when I get tired from doing twenty push-ups. It’s my pride that tries to talk me out of ten or fifteen minutes of high-intensity interval training. For my pride, even ten seconds of looking foolish or clumsy, feeling tired or weak, is far too much. I can only maintain my knee-jerk egotism by not jerking my knee. Ooh, I’m a cool cucumber, sitting in a chair at the sidelines with my arms crossed over my chest. My ego has me convinced that I’m much too smart for that folderol.
My ego isn’t going to help me, though, when I’m called by chaos. Crisis shows up whether you want it to or not. Sometimes, you find yourself in a collision or a natural disaster. Then what? “My body wants” to not freaking be here right now. If “I” am going to climb the stairs because the power is out and the escalator doesn’t work, then “I” am going to have to use “my body” to climb stairs. When it really matters, I don’t have the luxury of indulging in the metaphysical mental gymnastics. I’m committed.
This is even more true with aging. If longevity is the goal, the focus is trained on mobility and functional fitness. How old do I want to be the last time I sit on the floor? What day on the calendar is going to be the farewell anniversary of climbing stairs? Should I have a goodbye party for the last time I walk a mile? Do I decide I’m never going to lift a box onto a shelf again, do I try one last time and hurt myself when I can’t do it, or do I train so I can continue to do it safely whenever I please?
One of the huge advantages of physical training is that it gives you the opportunity to meet dozens of elderly people who kick serious butt. (Certainly including women). I’ve been passed by octogenarians on bicycles or running up hill. Just the other day, I was in the gym at my apartment complex when a guy older than my dad dropped to the floor and started cranking out push-ups, using hand weights for extra depth. I couldn’t have handled sixty seconds of this man’s workout and he has at least twenty-five years on me. “Teach me,” I thought, except I fear I’m not ready for everything he would have to say.
I also meet younger women all the time, women who either quit or never got started. They can barely handle bringing their groceries into the house or picking something up off the floor. This is the mindset that makes my current age, forty-two, sound “old.” Someone who is completely sedentary, one of the 40% of Americans with an activity level of zero, will feel physically old long before age forty. “Over the hill.” Yeah I’m over the hill! My martial arts academy is up a hill and I have to go over that hill three or four days a week. I’m not metaphorically over a hill, I’m physically up a hill, and down it again, so often that it barely registers in my mind.
I don’t train because of my body image, or at least not in the way that most people would understand it in our current cultural context. I train because I want to maintain my independence when I’m old. I always take the stairs because I want to be able to take the stairs. I carry my own bags and boxes and suitcases because I want to be able to keep doing it thirty or forty years from now. I sit on the floor because I still can. I throw myself backward over and over again, bouncing up into a jump squat if I’m so ordered, because I need to know how to fall. Falling is the death of independence when you’re frail and weak. The fall, the snapped hip, then the hospital stay, then the pneumonia. I look ahead and I want more for myself than that, than the common fate of so many older people who deserve better. I’m working now to give Old Me stronger bones and the ability to fall like a professional.
Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life. The older I get, the more I realize the truth of this. I make the hard choice of punishing my ego and forcing back my foolish pride, and I get the relatively easy life of having a strong, agile body. I make the hard choice of sacrificing my mornings and going to a difficult class, so I can have the easy life that comes through self-discipline. I make the hard choice of falling so I can have the easy life of being able to get back up again, as many times as it takes.
I broke my 415-day activity streak on my Apple Watch. By five calories. Why? I was distracted and didn’t notice the clock ticking toward midnight. Also, I was getting over the flu.
That blank space is all the different ways I tried to put into words the inchoate rage and bottomless disappointment I felt when I realized that there was no going back. My streak is gone and I can’t even pick it up again until March of 2019. No perfect week badge. No January 2018 badge. Two and a half years, and I still haven’t managed a perfect calendar year.
I feel significantly worse about this than I did earlier this month, when I realized I had paid nearly $40 for an online class that I didn’t need.
The work that goes into maintaining a 14-month streak. The focus. The dedication. The, shall I say it, obsession. I’ve maintained that streak when I was sick. I’ve maintained it when I was injured. I’ve maintained it while traveling across eight time zones. I’ve maintained it with house guests and on road trips. I even bought an extra $30 charger to keep from breaking the streak when I forgot to pack that key, irreplaceable item. On the way to a major family event.
It got really bad the first time I broke my streak, by one calorie, because I didn’t notice it was past midnight. I went out into the yard with my hammer and beat a foot-wide hole into our lawn. I’ve been less angry at being burglarized!
Why midnight? Why this arbitrary split second of a minute of an hour of a day?
Why can’t the user set when a “day” starts and ends?
Why isn’t there a reminder, like the stand-up reminder, to point out that the “day” is nearly over and you’re really close to closing your ring?
Why am I so susceptible to this digital brain-prodding?
Obviously, the reason to wear an activity tracker is to bring awareness to your activity level. This is great. Certainly the Apple Watch has done that for me. I can look and see that I walk an average of over six miles a day. I can see how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, literal stairs, because I skip escalators now. I can see my average heart rate and all that awesome stuff.
The problem comes in for me, and I suspect for a lot of other achievement-oriented alpha types, with the badges and the streaks.
My desire for a complete collection of rainbow-colored virtual badges knows no bounds. I know that other people have hacked and cheated by setting their goals artificially low, or coming up with some other method to trick their tracker. You could shake the old pedometers and get the step count to go up. Apparently you can dangle your arm from a chair and convince the Watch that you’ve stood up. The badges redirect the focus to badge-getting. Whether that’s through fair means or foul, we want to get those badges. It can be hard to distinguish one form of gamification from another, especially if the user is also playing other sorts of games that come with badges. OOH PRETTY.
I’m a fairly serious amateur athlete. I ran a marathon, I take martial arts classes four hours a week, I walk everywhere because we don’t have a car, I routinely go on backpacking expeditions. Someone who does not have a digital hook in their brain may believe that a real athlete would simply focus on the activity and ignore those dumb old badges. Sure. That person probably doesn’t need or wear an activity tracker.
I’m starting to think that I can’t do anything that involves tracking a streak. It... activates something inside of me. Something very dark and negative and unhelpful.
I want to rage-quit. I want to crush things. I want to throw something off my balcony. I actually had a flash of an image that involved me breaking our glass sliding door with a hammer, just to exorcise the demon of BROKEN STREAK somehow.
Only a few weeks ago, I spent no fewer than three hours at the Apple Store, while no fewer than three separate geniuses sat with me and helped me transfer my iPhone 6 to my new iPhone X. The specific reason was so that I could keep my activity streak on my Watch. Nobody knew how to do it. Finally the floor manager came over and figured it out. I guess I let down the team. Sorry, guys.
I’ve felt less bad when I’ve shattered my phone screen. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve spilled dinner on the floor. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve gone to purchase airplane tickets only to see that the price has increased before the transaction was complete.
This is an entirely contemporary, artificial emotion created by technology. Or, rather, by the designers of it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve developed a little problem with streak maintenance. I was trying out a meditation app. I completed the meditation at 12:00 AM, and didn’t get credit. I had meditated for seven days straight and the app was only showing a two-day streak. There was no way to turn the feature off, so I wound up deleting the app. It struck me that a meditation app that generates the competitive streak feeling was counterproductive.
I want a cute little enchanting reward for doing well. Sure, of course I do. I want a collection of pretty, sparkly rainbow stickers to show off. Look how hard I worked! Straight As! Isn’t there a way, though, to set up those badges and stickers so they still reward the user, even if the clock has ticked past 11:59 PM? Couldn’t the rewards come for reaching mileage goals, or resting heart rate goals? Could a monthly badge come from the average daily activity rate, rather than an unbroken 31-day streak? Couldn’t there be a skip, or a make-up function, or a freaking doctor’s note?
The cruelty of the digital god. Applehovah.
I’m wearing this thing that I call The Overlord, feeling despondent and thoroughly demoralized. Do I actually want to keep wearing it? If streak tracking is going to mess with my equilibrium this much, shouldn’t I be wary of it? Maybe take it off? I looked through the other apps and features, asking myself if the other use cases are worth setting myself up for this kind of digitally mandated despair.
Maybe it’s just the flu, and I should have spent the day in bed, rather than trying to close all my rings.
Maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that incentivizes people to stay active even when they’re ill.
I’m an active person now. I didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until my thirties that I stopped being almost 100% sedentary. Various digital displays have helped encourage and inspire me. I beat chronic illness and thyroid disease to become a marathon runner, and that’s saying something. What I want is a device that brings out the best in me. Not the beast in me.
This book is not for amateurs. Or, rather, an amateur who picks it up is in real danger of abandoning amateur status. Jocko Willink is not messing around. Discipline Equals Freedom has the makings of a cult classic, the sort of book that is handed down from person to person, possibly to inspire a series of tattoos. For the standard-issue procrastinator, it could be fun to explore this as poetry. Regard it as a peek into the mindset of a hardcore, never-quit action-oriented achiever.
Stoic philosophy lives and breathes. It’s really the only difference between a super-achiever and an ordinary person. Discipline Equals Freedom is an example of that. It’s a common fallacy to think that a muscular person is dumb, that bias toward action is a demonstration of lack of depth or strategy. That’s because most people don’t talk and act at the same time, at least not at an extreme level. Even the fittest elite athlete in the midst of the most strenuous training period is still resting at least part of the day. What are they thinking about? Now we get a chance to find out.
I freaking love this book. I love it so much that I bought a digital copy to keep on my phone. I’ve been following my husband around, demanding that he listen to sections of it.
“Is this what I want to be? This? Is this all I’ve got—is this everything I can give? Is this going to be my life? Do I accept that?”
We’re both huge fans of the movie Full Metal Jacket, and we often quote whole sections of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman going off about something or other. “A jelly donut?!” This is how I got through my first mud run. “Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?” If only I’d had Discipline Equals Freedom; I could have had so much more variety in my self-talk.
Discipline Equals Freedom is divided into sections. The philosophy section is Part One: Thoughts. Part Two: Actions has more philosophy, and then it’s divided into nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, and workouts. The nutrition section is based on the Paleo diet. While I dispute the premise of Paleo, I wouldn’t let that mess with my appreciation of the book overall. I agree with Jocko on a few important points, namely that sugar is poison, that we need to take sleep seriously, and that we should be as physically active as possible every day. I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-five years, and almost the entire cadre of instructors at my martial arts academy are completely plant-based. Both locations. Our paths are different, but we both agree that the Standard American Diet will kill you.
As for the workouts, even the Beginner level is quite tough. Jocko has modifications for those of us who can’t do a pull-up, a handstand, or a regular push-up. I’ve been there, and it works. If you really want to be able to do a pull-up badly enough, you can make it happen, even if, on the first day, all you can do is grab the bar and hang there with your arms straight. The first time your chin clears the bar is a feeling of childlike dazzling joy.
People constantly say, “I wish I had your willpower” or “If only I had the motivation.” These are core misunderstandings of what makes other people tick. It’s self-discipline. It’s the inner philosophical alignment that says I refuse to accept inferior results for myself. If I want a better life, more grit and determination, more education, better communications and relationships with other people, then I can’t accept anything less from my own behavior. Discipline Equals Freedom is an instruction manual that teaches the mindset of self-discipline. Now read it, and liberate yourself.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.