Even as I begin to type this post, I can feel my palms getting sweaty and my heart starting to beat a little faster. Why? Because there’s less than a month left before I am due to run my first half marathon*. This might not be a big deal for many people, but for me it is huge. My official starter kit arrived today and I am hoping that it’s a good sign that two of my favourite/”lucky” digits are repeated twice in my bib number.
Bear with me, if you will, as I explain in a seemingly incredibly long-winded way (this is just the first part!) exactly why I want to do this and what it symbolises. Hopefully, by the time we reach the end of this tale, I will have convinced you (and myself) that I am aiming to take this challenge on for a far better cause than masochism.
MY EARLY HEALTH STORY
I was anything but an unfit child. Although naturally blessed with great health and good coordination, for some reason I only tended to participate in sports when coerced/forced. There were a couple of exceptions to this during certain periods in my youth where I was keen on swimming and tennis. I liked dancing too, though I was never particularly dedicated or consistent with my efforts.
As a tween/young teen, track and field was my nightmare PE class. No where to hide for the not-so-fast, not-so-sporty! Luckily I had an accomplice who was not averse to strategically faking asthma attacks in order to be pronounced exempt from athletics. She required a carer and companion during these episodes, of course, and I was more than willing to fulfil that role, sitting by the side of the track with her as others went huffing and puffing by. When I did join a gym as a teenager, it was a number on the scale, not fitness, that was my motivation.
I became a vegetarian in my mid-teens after being traumatised by a biology class viewing of a documentary about factory farming. Despite thoroughly enjoying cooking the couple of times I actually did it, I knew nothing about balancing meals and lacked even the most rudimentary kitchen skills. In my mid-teens, I would go to fast-food restaurants and order a burger “without the meat”, which would usually constitute a sugary burger bun with a slice of processed cheese and some ketchup. I was fortunate that my first flatmate introduced me to our local Hare Krishna restaurant, where I would go occasionally and eat decent, inexpensive vegetarian meals! I became adept at adding spices to a tin of baked beans, but that’s as far as my culinary prowess extended itself at that point.
It was my nonchalant attitude towards nutrition/my general health that led to the eventual demise of my vegetarianism a few years later.
Interestingly, even as a small child, I always maintained a quiet interest in herbs, natural healing, nutrition and cooking. I just didn’t take steps to truly nurture those aspects of myself. During infrequent moments of calm and solitude, I read about and daydreamed about such things. But I never really explored them. Eventually I pushed those interests away from me completely, in favour of pursuits I deemed to be cooler and far more exciting (in the eyes of others).
THINGS TOOK A NOSEDIVE FROM THERE
For a while, during and just after high school, I became a fully fledged “party girl”. I had a short stint playing in a band, worked as a nightclub promoter, lived for late nights out, slept the days away, fancied myself as a girl about town, ate poorly (and not nearly enough), smoked like a chimney and essentially did my body no favours at all during this time. Sadly, I seemed to revel in my lack of self-love, wearing my dysfunction like some warped badge of honour-cum-fashion statement.
I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog before that, on top of it all, I may have well been the world’s unhealthiest vegetarian, at times subsisting on half a bag of French fries, or one small packet of Lifesavers, or half a falafel roll per day when I first moved away from the family home. By the time I turned 18, I was living independently, couldn’t cook, did no deliberate/structured exercise and cared little for the consequences. A sad state of affairs**.
THANKFULLY, THAT UNHEALTHY, EXTREME PHASE DIDN’T LAST LONG
After hitting a series of rock bottoms, each slightly more spirit-crushing than the one preceding it, I came to my senses***, cut ties with the people I needed to let go of, packed in my lifestyle of self-loathing, put away my party girl mask and began a journey of recovery and self-(re)discovery. Amongst many other things wellbeing related, I attended free meditation classes at my local Sri Chinmoy Centre. I was introduced to yoga (Hatha) properly for the first time, though I can hardly claim I applied myself to it. I enrolled in belly dancing classes (which I adored), began doing pilates at home and developed an interest in essential oils and aromatherapy. I began to step into the kitchen and had some of my first tentative and somewhat shaky cooking experiences, over which I was incredibly proud. I became determined to know more, to eat better… and to eat more!
Art school came along and gave me the gift of incredible focus for my creative passions. It also brought to my university the young Swedish exchange student who would one day become my husband.
He led an incredibly active, sporty kind of lifestyle and looked every bit the picture-perfect healthy, clean-living Scandinavian stereotype. He was “buff” and the girls in my class referred to him as “the guy with the shoulders”. And in true rom-com script fashion, I was initially rather rude and abrupt towards him, convinced that boys like him and girls like me simply did not like each other.
He may have looked the all-round healthy type, however the contents of his fridge on our first study “date” betrayed a chronic flaw. Frozen, generic brand hamburgers (the cheapest money could buy!) and plastic-y, processed cheese. Not even bread. Wowzers. And I had thought I’d been bad in the food department.
Luckily, I gave him a chance anyway. 😉
When we began to share an apartment, we began to cook together. We were still far from “foodie” at this point, but our mutual love of travel opened up other doors too, such as an interest in cuisines from other cultures. Every cent we earned during this period was saved and put towards traveling. We ate our way around Melbourne, Tasmania, New Zealand’s North Island and Fiji. I began to really fall in love with food.
I STARTED TO CHALLENGE MYSELF
After graduating from university and backpacking around China, Mongolia and Russia, we arrived in Scandinavia. The winter was not kind to me. I developed surprisingly debilitating Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD (a suitably pathetic acronym) and a nasty, painful chest infection. Both of these things led me to believe that I could no longer get away with a half-hearted approach to my health. I started training in my parents-in-laws’ home gym and, slowly but surely, my fitness improved further. I started to take more of an interest in home cooking, providence of ingredients, organics and so on. My husband and I attended a couple of cooking workshops together, which where both fun and enlightening. We joined our local gym where we both trained regularly. I started to see a local Chinese doctor for acupuncture… which I hated, but I was open to trying anything that may have positive effects on my overall health.
I started to scour magazines for recipes and began to catalogue a kind of cooking bucket list. I was becoming more determined to teach myself how to cook.
I ran for the first time. Poorly. And Painfully. I had discovered a new form of torture and I questioned the sanity of anyone who had ever told me running made them feel great. Somehow I managed to build up my meagre 5 minutes of straining, hating, panting and feeling nauseous to 60 minutes (10 kilometres) of feeling not exactly great, but not totally crap. I ran Midnattsloppet (a famous annual 10km race held in Stockholm at night) once. And, challenge met, I hung up my running shoes.
I PUT MY FOOT DOWN (EVENTUALLY)
Somehow, around this time, I found myself in a toxic job situation. Despite working in a field I loved (as a graphic designer), my particular situation was causing me damage, physically, mentally and emotionally. I would often be the first person to arrive at the office and the last to leave (sometimes at 6am). I worked weekends, nights and from home. I skipped lunch more times than I ate it that year, just so I could continue to work uninterrupted. I got paid a small fraction of what I was worth and was refused a proper contract, thus lived with all the responsibilities of my position and none of the rights.
I was witness to aggressive and occasionally violent outbursts from coworkers (not directed at me, thankfully… but still…), who were also weighed down by the pressure and tension I felt, but didn’t allow themselves to cry… as I did… often. I was becoming a wreck and was afraid that I would be robbed of the joy of creating altogether if I kept it up.
During a snow flurry on a freezing, dark December afternoon, I stepped outside the office with my boss, I cried and I resigned. Despite feeling beyond miserable about where I had ended up, I was simultaneously plagued with feelings of guilt for “letting the team down” and tormented by my crazy “good girl” sense of loyalty. But I told myself that it was one thing for me to compromise my own principles and quite another for someone else to do it on my behalf. I decided that if I had to eat baked beans on toast for a year, I was ok with that, as long as I didn’t have to deal with daily anxiety attacks on the way to work.
I decided that I was ok with whatever the future held, as long as I was ok with me.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
So, I walked out of that office, sold my computer (a traumatic reminder of my desktop slavery) and went to India, seeking a spiritual experience. And I knew I would have a spiritual experience in India because, well, doesn’t everyone?
My vision of that experience played out like a tourism campaign ad in my head. Me, on a beach, walking in slow motion, looking fit, tanned, healthy and serene. Me, on a roof top practising yoga during the sunrise. Me, eating the freshest, healthiest food in a relaxed, tranquil, enviably exotic location. Me, being pampered with massages and beautifying treatments at an Ayurvedic health spa. Me, returning to Stockholm with a flexible body, glowing skin and an even more glowing aura. Spiritual Me.
On my first day in India, I contracted a nasty bug after inadvertently (of course) swallowing contaminated water. I was given antibiotics by a local doctor. I had a swift and severe anaphylactic reaction to those antibiotics, first feeling as though my body was on fire, then losing my vision, followed by my ability to walk… followed by my ability to breathe.
I could have died in India.
There was me, in the back of a taxi having a conversation in my head with God (“So… this is it. I didn’t think it was going to end like this…”). Me, being carried from that taxi, semi-conscious, yet somehow knowing help was at hand. Me, in a windowless, one-toilet (broken and overflowing) shack of a hospital, being pumped so full of the medications that saved me that I began projectile vomiting. Me, on my hospital bed, drip in arm, sight recovered, staring at cracks in the wall and watching tiny spiders crawl around me. Me, being brought clean water by the hospital cleaning lady, who would kiss my hands and say kind (but not understood) things to me in Malayalam. Me, lying quietly as my husband read Eat, Pray, Love out loud by my bedside, tears rolling down my cheeks. Me, knowing that if this incident had occurred anywhere other than India, I would have been a whining, complaining, self-pitying little so-and-so.
Me, being truly grateful for the care I’d been given because of -not in spite of- its modesty… and humbled by the kindness I’d been shown by the hospital staff, my husband and local people alike.
And there was my spiritual experience.
PART 2 COMING SOON…
(assuming I don’t regret posting Part 1!)
*At the time of the writing of this post, the longest distance I have run is 16 kilometres, which I managed last Saturday. I told myself before the run that if I could make it to 16, I would be able to make it to 21+ at the time of the half marathon. Here’s hoping I can keep that promise to myself!
**In spookily timely fashion, in the middle of writing this post, I had a rather spontaneous catch-up chat with my former flatmate from this very period in my life, who to this day is one of my closest friends despite living on the opposite side of the planet. She reminded me of my pathetic attempts to make a packet of the cheapest brand of spaghetti and the cheapest brand of pasta sauce last an entire week. I also recalled borrowing “Buns of Steel” from her, which I watched and followed a couple of times… and which probably constituted the only deliberate exercise I did that year.
*** I think this is what is known as a spiritual awakening in the form of a rude awakening.