My body and I have had an interesting relationship over the years. When I was little, I was similar to my son, constantly running, bumping into things, picking up grazes and occasionally getting a stitch or wearing myself out. As a teenager, I joined school teams and loved PE lessons. When I hit my post-school days, I didn’t exercise as much as I would have liked, I missed organised sport and there weren’t any women’s football teams for me to join. At University, I had a pretty good balance, running about with like-minded people who enjoyed exercise but didn’t take it in an all-consuming way. After that, I got fat and happy in relationships, the odd game of squash or trip out cycling alongside a lot of indulgent meals. Then I got controlling and obsessive, living with body-conscious beauties in a beach city of bared skin, fake tan and glamorous nightlife. That was the one which my body couldn’t handle: a constant pressure of exercise on a diet of very little.
At my worst, I took a small Tupperware box of grapes to eat for lunch, with a nutrigrain bar in my drawer in case of emergencies. I spent a day teaching children, often covering other classes for PE lessons, coached the school football team and spent a few days on an FA coaching course, playing football all day. Before going to football training for the local women’s team, on a small meal of pasta and pesto. That was incidentally during the time I had already torn a ligament in my leg playing football with some friends in the evening. If I was lucky, I’d get to bed around 2am after finishing planning, preparation and marking, before waking at 7am to get to work. Now I’m writing it all out, I’m beginning to realise how badly I was treating my body. And that’s before I mention the evening runs I went for, just to get out of the house and feel the fresh air and push myself even further.
Inevitably, my body broke down, and my life did too. Hospitalised at 26, unemployed at 27 and back at my childhood home, I was in the thick of a physical crash. Doctors eventually diagnosed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, after MRIs and the threat of a lumbar puncture and my losing the ability to walk, make cohesive sentences or concentrate for any length of time. I was crushed. And horrified at my weakness, suffering from an illness I had never even believed really existed before. I remember talking to a trained counsellor friend who had a long-term diagnosis of ME, wailing that I felt I would never get my life back, I would never get back who I was. It was a shock to me when she asked, “Do you really want to?”
No. No, I didn’t want that relentless pressure I had put upon myself. I didn’t want to deny the obvious pain and uselessness of my body any more. I didn’t have it in me to fight the diagnosis or whatever people would think of me. And, slowly, very slowly, I started to rebuild my life. I never believed that my body would improve, but to my astonishment, as I started listening to it, it started co-operating. I met someone who accepted my weakness far more readily than I did, someone who simply offered to call a taxi when my legs failed me on a romantic seaside walk. I understood that my family were prepared to make allowances for me far more easily than I granted them of myself. And I learned to resist the urge to control my physical condition, rather more to enable it to be the best it could be. At times, that wasn’t much at all, but it was improving.
Having my son changed everything, seemingly in a permanent way. I was lucky to have a midwife who had personal experience of ME, I took hypnobirthing classes and found it easy to focus on a healthy diet and exercise balance for the sake of the little life growing inside me. And my boy, who is the most incredible bundle of energy and life and spirit, raised my metabolism back up to a point I’ve never had before, where the weight melted off and my stamina held up. The second pregnancy and having two children has been exhausting, but I’m still miles better than I could ever have dreamed about eight years ago.
So, what have I learned? I’ve learned that exercise is good, but not too much. Decadent food is a treat. Eat too much fatty, sugary food and I feel sluggish and low, eat healthily and I feel nourished and confident. And I’ve learned about the importance of sleep, how it allows my body to rest, process the day and rebuild itself. It’s taken me 34 years, but finally I’ve caught on to the basics. Living a more accepting life has also led me to realise that self-worth can come from not just being attractive and in peak physical condition, it can come from trying to be a good person. I feel better when I offer my time or help to someone in need than I ever did during my self-obsessed diet and exercise frenzy. I do still slip, find myself putting too much of my self-esteem in how I look and feeling the pressure, but I’m determined to be body wise these days and concentrate my efforts on giving it what it needs – decent food, moderate exercise, and sleep. Well, as much of that as I can manage with my funny, lovely little ones. As the mighty Meatloaf once said, two out of three ain’t bad… — BWG