How to re-associate with your body
The crunches. 200, 300, 400 crunches every morning. On a cold floor in a dark room. I knew that I wouldn’t stand for even one less rep.
I remember the morning dedication to the elliptical, the calorie number goal I would not stop until I reached. The way my quads burned, and the rest of my body went essentially unused. I remember hunching over, exhausted. Promising myself that if I just torched through a bit more of my body, I wouldn’t have to move for the rest of the day. Unless I ate too much, that was. Then I’d have to go through the whole process again in the afternoon.
I remember food phobias, so many food phobias. Fear of beans, fear of quinoa or avocados or sweets or nuts. Fear of oils. Fear of eating too much, and alternately, fear of not eating enough. I remember being afraid to have too much food with me, so packing very lightly and then I remember the gripping, panicked fear of a creeping hunger with nothing to sate it.
I remember, at some point, my body separating itself from the trauma that was occurring and sealing itself off. Shutting down connection with my physical form and pressing forward with whatever plan I had NO. MATTER. WHAT. I remember the day I started checking out completely whenever I stepped into the gym or the kitchen, and I remember how I was happy to be leaving my body at those times because I didn’t feel safe in it anymore.
Then, I remember that I stopped checking out on purpose, and it became a reflex.
It has been years since I participated in the above mentioned eating disorder behaviors, but disassociation lingered. Sometimes I would overeat (as most people do) and panic, hating the feeling in my stomach so much that I would leave my body completely. Sometimes I would reach to write about the specifics of certain moments and I would excavate my brain for information and find a resounding pile of nothing. Sometimes I gave talks to huge rooms of people about positive body image and self-esteem and how to get more of both. After, my partner would ask me how my talk went, and I will reply with a furtive “…okay, I think?”.
I simply couldn’t remember. Every time things got a little too real, I peaced the fuck out of my body as preservation, even when whatever was going on was, objectively, not that big of a deal. I knew this was leftover from the trauma of my ED, that I didn’t need the tool anymore, but I also didn’t know how to stop doing it.
So I searched. I asked friends who were survivors of trauma how the re-associated with themselves, and I experimented. Here are the tactics I used that actually seemed to work:
1. Try one mindful breath. When I asked people how to re-associate with my body after years of actively checking out of it, almost everyone said mindfulness was the key. I know meditation is great for me, but I consistently set myself up for failure with a 20-minutes-a-day-seven-days-a-week goal. Meditation (and mindfulness) are really challenging for me with such a background of trauma and- just like with lifting!- I needed to work up to the heavy stuff.
By giving myself permission to take one mindful breath, multiple times a day, I set myself up for constant success. My one-mindful-breath-a-day challenge added up quickly, and became the fastest way to check back in with my body. One mindful breath acknowledges that I am indeed *here*, standing in the middle of the world, and taking in air. One mindful breath is a perfect set up for building self-satisfaction and self-esteem, too, because I usually remember to do it at least once a day, and often more.
2. Wake yourself up with something you love. You know what brings me back to my body? Listening to queer fronted punk bands. Knitting tiny stitches to make up whole hats and scarves and sweaters. Writing letters. Singing in my own punk bands. Masturbating. Taking a long shower. Getting a massage. Wrapping myself in a blanket like a burrito.
Incidentally, these are all things that I think of as safe, warm, comfortable, or just plain nice. Different sorts of trauma will cause disassociation around different things, and what you do to feel good and get back to yourself will undoubtedly be different than what I do. That’s okay! You do you, I’ll just be over here with my records and my knitting needles and my vibrator.
3. Go outside in the cold. This works particularly well if you’re in a place that is experiencing the dawn of winter.
So, little known fact, my best friend, Koji, is my first love and also a buddhist monk. Him and his partner, Michaela, own Mid-City Zen of New Orleans, and are wonderful incredible people, that are literally chock full of wisdom and good vibez. Once, in the very early moments of my recovery, I was talking to Koji about my depression and how it made recovering from my eating disorder feel almost impossible. I felt a complex and pervasive sadness no matter what the fuck I did, and it was hard to find the point of getting physically healthy when my brain just didn’t feel well. In response, he suggested I try to get cold.
When one is outside, cold, a host of physical things happen. Our fingers and toes go numb. Our eyes tear. Our skin changes color, A simple warm hand on the back of a neck suddenly feels amazing. Essentially, the physical reminder that one is alive snaps us to, brings us out of our feelings and into our bodies.
I use this tactic constantly, even though it has been nearly TEN YEARS since the conversation (Koji, do you even remember suggesting this?). Point is, it works. There is even an extra bonus in the ecstacy of warming up after the cold.
4. Practice. When the mind disassociates it is protecting us from some shit that is almost certainly completely terrible. I am grateful that I don’t remember all the details of my various traumas. What I *do* recall is just plain sad and I honestly don’t like to focus on it too much. BUT! I am aware that I got very, very good at disassociation with practice, and now I will need to practice staying right here in my body to get good at not doing it.
When I find myself disassociating, I practice trying to stay put instead. I say nice things to myself. I thank my body and I thank my mind for serving me as they have and I challenge myself to stay present, just a little bit longer. I practice being present all throughout the day, so that in moments when I feel triggered I am well versed in the art of sitting with it. I give myself props, daily, for all the times when I stay right there with myself.
I go for progress, not perfection. Because I think it is worthwhile to be awake for my life, and I trust that doing the best I can do is bound to be good enough.