In preparation for summer this year, I am cutting back on my workouts and the time I spend in the gym. It probably sounds counterintuitive, but I am recovering from anorexia and bulimia and still working to overcome compulsive exercise. For someone like myself, resisting the lure of “Get Beach Ready” bootcamp and other similarly themed fitness classes is a necessary and conscious strategy for healing.
For a long time, exercise has been my method of coping, the crutch that I have used when I am feeling anxious, stressed, worried, sad, frustrated, angry, or overwhelmed.
So often I have thought of exercise as the one thing that can relieve my anxiety.
Yet, lately, as I have grown to better understand this compulsion, I see it is as much a catalyst for my anxiety as it is a means to alleviate it.
As with any addiction, the more I do it, the more I want to do it and the more it preoccupies my thinking.
On days when I am feeling particularly anxious and vulnerable and unable to resist its consumptive power, over-exercising does just that. It consumes me wholesale: body, energy, spirit, and mind. It monopolizes my time to the point where there is little left for the people and things I love in my life. A numbing agent, it dulls my mind and emotions and sucks my capacity to think and work and be creative.
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Yet, with summer approaching, and as the pace of life naturally slows down, I realize that I not only want but also actually need time away from the gym – to write and read and spend time with people, and maybe, on some days, to do nothing at all.
If there is one goal that I want to set for myself these next few months, it is to learn to give myself permission to take a break and, thus, truly find out what it means to go on vacation.
Maybe it sounds crazy, but right now, in the weeks leading up to my real vacation, I am practicing, taking time here and there to learn what being on vacation feels like. Thus, I am trying out the odd cozy morning lounging in bed with hot coffee and a juicy paperback novel, dog-eared and soft in my hands.
I am enjoying the occasional lunch on a patio in the warm sun with friends and I am indulging in long walks on the beach in the salty evening air with my husband.
I am learning how to slow the frenetic pace of my life, to relax and breathe while I nourish my mind, body, and spirit.
Lastly, I am also learning that I can enjoy these activities without berating myself afterward for being unproductive and lazy. I’m learning I don’t have to frantically hit the treadmill for hours to make up for the time I spend working and exploring other interests. I’m learning taking a vacation means giving myself permission to break away from my normal routine and finding enjoyment without suffering from feelings of guilt and anxiety.
It means changing my focus and finding pleasure in being in a new or different place, (re)connecting with friends and family, seeing sights, and discovering things.
It means sampling and eating what I want – not just for the nutritional content of different foods but because they seem and are delicious. It means knowing and trusting that it is possible to indulge while still maintaining a healthy regard for myself and a kind, gentle, and compassionate way of being with my body.
It means living in the moment and not anticipating stepping on the scale and falling back into restricting behaviours the minute that I return home – or ever.
All of this is what taking a vacation means to me in theory, and yet, I know it will be in the coming weeks, when I really do go on vacation, that will test whether or not I can hold fast to these ideas and put them into practice day to day.
For the first time ever, when my husband and I go to visit Toronto this June, we will not be staying at a hotel with a fitness centre but rather at a friend’s place where there isn’t a single dumbbell or piece of cardio equipment to be found. This may sound insignificant, but for me it is a huge deal. A year ago I wouldn’t have even considered it, having not yet developed the skills to cope for even a day without exercise.
This summer, though, feels different and full of promise somehow.
That’s not to say that I won’t still be faced with anxiety, but I’ve learned new ways of dealing with it and am at a place, finally, where I have the courage to practice it.