Today I have a very special guest poster, my friend Molly Merson. She is here to talk to you a bit more about her personal experience with the power of rest days (in her case, three weeks of rest days post surgery.) She is wonderful, articulate, and clearly strong as hell. Here is her demonstrating that statement with a 200 lb. backsquat:
If that doesn’t get you pumped up, I don’t know what will. Without further ado, here’s Molly!
On Saturday, I finally hit that PR (personal record, in case you’re not as obsessed with CrossFit as I am) I’d been training for over the last four months: a 200 lb. back squat. It took a while that morning– I cried, I hyperventilated, I felt the familiar butterflies of a panic attack tickle my chest and the bottom of my throat . I knew could do 185 lbs., but 200?? That was insane and huge and I’d never get it. My usual mantra of “just go down, then go up!” didn’t seem to be soothing me anymore.
After pacing in circles and a lot of encouragement from my coach, and figuring that even if I broke my back I was going to be in the hospital on Monday anyway, I went for it. And I made it. It was fucking awesome.
Two days later, at 8:15am, the anesthesiologist placed a mask over my face, and I went under for surgery.
Three hours passed before I woke up one hairy, toothy, ovarian cyst lighter- and was thrilled about my skilled and beautiful doctor having been able to keep both of my ovaries intact. (My back was fine, by the way.) She had warned me a month before the procedure that she might have to remove the ovary, and she might have to incise my abdominal muscles, rendering me unable to lift for six months. The anesthetic process (including the steroids they gave me to wake me) plus the good news—I have my ovary! I can lift again!—made me uncharacteristically ecstatic, even as I was knowingly staring down three weeks of very limited movement.
Leading up to the surgery, I did CrossFit three times a week, and was working on my second Hatch squat program twice a week. I was also offering personal training sessions to help make some extra cash and to help me gain skills and experience in what it was like to train someone. My gym had invited me to participate in their coaching intern program, and I was starting to build a second life out of movement. I considered this to be a “healthy” relationship with exercise, because I had learned to base my identity in part on what my body could do instead of how much it weighed or whether I had a belly pooch (I did) or whether my arms and shoulders could fit inside standard shirtsleeves (they couldn’t). It became ok for my body to just exist as it was, because I knew my pull-up numbers and how much I could power clean. I was using CrossFit as a way to regulate my punitive and disordered eating patterns, and it was fucking beautiful. I’d never been happier and more peaceful in my body.
The cyst was discovered in April, diagnosed as a dermoid (thankfully not cancerous- I have a family history of ovarian cancer, and that’s why I asked for the ultrasound in the first place) in May, and I went in for the surgery the last day of June. I had a month and a half to think about all of this, and what it could do to my life to suddenly not be able to lift heavy weights. That’s when I started realizing that I’ve still been actively dancing with my self-destruction around food and exercise.
Even though I thought we’d broken the relationship off, apparently we’d been Facebook-stalking each other, because here I was right back in the mindset of: “If I don’t work out, everything I eat is going to hurt me and make me feel bad. Other people will see I am bad. I won’t be able to do any of the things I want to do in my life and everyone will see what a shitty, lazy, horrible person I am.” As soon as I could identify that voice in my head, I realized I needed more than what I’d been giving myself. I’d simply assumed that because it was working for me to pay attention to my workouts and my body: taking real rest days where I lazed about in bed and barely even walked the dog; never ever pushing myself into the “red” zone in my workouts, always noticing my heart rate and breathing as a place to come back to mindfully; eating what I wanted when I wanted to (because food is fuel! And delicious! And not a punitive thing anymore!!); focusing more on getting strong than on metcons—all of this made me believe that I was Recovered from my disordered eating and body punishment. But what happens when what I do does not involve remarkable feats of strength? What if what I do is RECOVER from INVASIVE SURGERY? Isn’t that what this all is, anyway? Recovering from invasive and destructive messages about my self-worth, what belongs and what doesn’t belong, who I am and who I’m not?
Staring down three weeks of zero-to-limited movement reminded me that eating disorder and self/body-hatred recovery is a process, one that is very much life-long. While these parts of me may be lying dormant, they’re still very much living parts of me. They are of course here to protect me in their fucked up and toxic ways (for example, this part of me—so young!—still believes that I need to be small and easily overlooked in order to survive). But these messages are hurtful to the part of me that is learning to love myself. And yet, there is information here. When this internalized shame and oppression rears its head and starts to attack me, I know it’s time to dive into the parts of me that are feeling scared, lost, alone, and overwhelmed. Those parts are easy to overlook because they’re uncomfortable, and they can feel so expansive and make me feel so small and powerless. Like the child I used to be—small and powerless. Except that I wasn’t wrong to believe that all the work I’ve been doing—years of therapy, CrossFit, self-love and forgiveness work, and becoming a psychotherapist myself—is actually helping me. It is. It’s just that sometimes the things I used to do aren’t soothing in the same way anymore, and I need to pay a little more attention than usual to loving myself.
While I was in the first week of my surgery recovery, my sweet dog stayed close by my side, showing her fuzzy belly and reminding me to relax. I was surrounded with people who love me and want me to heal. People brought food, stayed overnight with me, cooked me meals and attended to me when I needed my pillows adjusted. They helped me pick things up and put them down again. They became my feats of strength.
I also picked up the book The Artist’s Way. It’s something I’d been meaning to read for years, and never found “the right time” to do it. Sitting on my bum in bed all day long seemed like as good a time as any. I started the practices outlined in the book, and already can feel my intuition and self-love growing. I also continued to process all of my feelings in my own personal therapy. And it hit me, again, this power I have: To touch the part of myself that feels powerless, and remind myself: I’m not alone.
That’s better than any PR, any day of the week: To know even while feeling deep into my fear, my sadness, my anxiety, and my shame: I am right here with me, able and capable of bringing love into the anger, and vulnerability—like my little dog’s belly—into the fire of self-hatred.
Molly Merson, MA, MFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Berkeley, CA. She provides compassionate and thoughtful psychotherapy for people who are struggling with learning how to love themselves. You can find more about her at www.mollymerson.com. She is also an avid CrossFitter and is learning how to be a CrossFit coach. She loves movement, nature, gardening, walking meditation, her community, her puppy, and writing. She thinks Lacy is the bee’s knees, and that her blog and business provides a much-needed service to the world.
I have never been what you might call a graceful person.
I love running, cycling, dancing, and yoga, but it takes some amount of effort for me to not fall on my ass when doing these things. (Also, there seems to be a direct correlation between how much I run and how often I’m injured. Anyone want to help me with that? SURE YOU DO.)
Despite spending years exercising until there wasn’t a single ounce of joy left in my workouts, I chronically hated my body. Some days, I donned my 24 Hour Fitness steed and thought “Am I going to have to do this every day for the rest of my life?” and the thought made me bawl. My body wasn’t “improving” the way I wanted it to, and I wasn’t getting that excited mental rush either. It seemed to me that I was the one person immune to the effects of exercise.
Luckily, my friend Ramsey started talking about CrossFit and I started Googling strength training. Before I ever lifted a barbell, I had something I hadn’t had in a long time: hope.
Strength training was the key to unlocking a lot for me. It unlocked a tangible way to measure my improvement as an athlete. (No matter how much I ran, I never really got any faster, so the mile PR was more of a mockery than a goal in my case.) It unlocked a new way to think about food and how it fueled me. It unlocked my body’s potential, both physically and aesthetically, and it unlocked something I had never had with other forms of exercise: natural talent. My big booty is built to lift.
A year into my weight training journey my body had drastically changed, and not in a way that I enjoyed. It grew and grew and grew and grew until I barely recognized myself anymore and it both startled and embarrassed me. I wanted to quit because I hated what seemed to be happening to my body as a result of weight training, but for whatever reason I decided I would wait another year. “If two years into doing this I still hate my CrossFit body, I’ll quit” I told myself, and then I kept lifting.
I am just now approaching that two-year mark and God, am I glad I waited. I love my body these days, like 96% of the time, and for a person that literally wanted to die at the thought of weight gain five years ago, I would say that is a tremendous and miraculous change. I know that this is from the result of a perspective shift (this work to reclaim a positive body image and raise my self esteem has been relentless and it has paid off) but also there’s science there. Let me explain.
I came to weight training from a background of exercise, but I actually had very little muscle (except in my calves, which have always been tremendously ripped for no apparent reason) and a fair amount of body fat. Once I started putting on muscle mass, I kind of just grew, without seeing any more definition for quite some time.
When I started lifting I was also in a process of repairing a deeply damaged relationship with food. I had consistently under eaten for many years, and when I started lifting that didn’t feel like an option any more. Once I was eating a reasonable amount for a person of my height and activity level, my body clung to calories like my life depended on it- probably because it did.
After about sixteen months of eating the food and lifting the weights things began to shift for me physically. My body seemed to trust that I would give it enough food and stopped holding onto weight in the same clingy way. (For a freaked-out former anorexic, let’s just say it was a really difficult 16 months). My metabolism started to run more efficiently, and the constant digestive troubles that I had experienced began to fade.
They say that the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns on a regular basis. My experience is that this is true, but that it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Initially, I was building muscle without necessarily diminishing body fat. As I ate consistently and continued to lift heavy my metabolic engine revved and I started to burn more body fat throughout the day. Now, when I look in the mirror, I can see that. It feels great.
Weight training has taught me a lot about patience and a lot about trust.
I no longer feel like exercise doesn’t work for my body, and I no longer believe that my body is trying to betray me in some way. I have learned that I cannot lift heavier until I get my form correct. I have learned that I need to work hard, but that I don’t need to feel like I am going to die after every workout.
I learned that exercise should be about using my body for joy. I don’t do anything because I “have” to anymore. I do it because I want to, and that’s a gift to my body. The natural motivation that springs from that is my body’s gift to me.
When I started writing this article I wanted it to be a guide to strength training for beginners. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that my journey was very specific, with trainers that I trust 100% and who I go to for advice time and time and time again, even after two years. I think it’s a great idea to have a coach, or at least someone to check your form now and again (a trainer, a friend who also lifts, etc.) BUT! I understand that is not everyone’s style or within the realm of everyone’s financial scope. In the absence of trainers I highly recommend that beginners check out Nia Shanks’ website. She has workout plans, instructional videos, and LOTS of advice for people who want to start weight training. She is body positive, and super thorough. Beyond that, my trainers suggest Starting Strength by Mark Rippletoe, Stronglifts, and for Olympic lifting help (my favorite!) Catalyst Athletics has some good resources online. Get to it and good luck!
I am excited to tell you about this day of food, mostly because of my brunch. I have an ongoing, ever-present brunch date with one of my closest friends on Sundays, and I managed to document it this week for the first time ever.
But first, my smoothie: This baby is made of romaine lettuce, avocado, banana, cucumber, and raspberry. It is topped with Tasty Makes granola, because texture- it rules. A sprinkle of granola makes me feel a litttttttle less like I eat baby food on a daily basis. COOL.
After this I went to the gym and busted out five heavy sets of five back squats and a quick Tabata sprint. Do you do Tabatas? I absolutely love them, and I love the way doing them has changed the way I work out and my body. I used to run for probably an hour a day and never felt like I was looking any more toned or lean. Lifting heavy + four of the worst minutes of cardio possible changed everything.
Post Workout I had an almond milk and Vega Sport shake followed by this food at Grease Box (An All-gluten free diner!) This meal was green juice, avocado toast, salad, sauteed collard greens with gratuitous amounts of coffee and hot sauce. YUM.
Can we talk about the importance of social health? I live with my partner and also with some super tight homies, but beyond that, I work so much that my social health is often the first thing to go. If you’re having an event past 7PM, pretty much no matter how much I want to go to it, I am going to be too tired. HOW SAD IS THAT? Also, how often does that keep me from seeing my friends? Answer: a lot. And that is some bullshit, because my friends happen to be some of the most real, reflective and cool people I know. Things like this Sunday brunch date help keep me in check. Both my friend and I have super busy lives, so each week we skip the small talk and dive right in to the real deep down stuff that is happening in our lives. Basically, when I’m done I feel like I’ve had a therapy session, and that’s just about the free-est coolest and most fun way to do it. BRUNCH DATES FOR LIFE.
Dinner was tacos with kale and Beyond Meat Meatless Crumbles, plus home made heirloom tomato salsa, corn chips, and a bunch of carrots and peanut butter. This is no different from most days of life, because I’m on a taco kick lately, and I don’t expect it to go anywhere anytime soon.
Tell me about your life, your food, and your favorite taco recipe!