Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault
I was never sporty. I got out of running the mile in gym class every year with a note from my allergist. I wrote essays on the benefits of exercise in the library instead. I didn’t see the point of sports, or dance, or playing outside at recess. I was much more interested in reading.
Reading was an escape for me, a fantasy land that left me in a dream-state, a place to run to when things were difficult at home. I especially liked books about love. Love seemed like something I’d really like to have.
The first time I really moved my body was with boys. With kissing, with snaking hands on skin, with grinding jeans against jeans, with breathy adrenaline coursing through fumbling limbs. I liked these things as much as any other hormonal teenager does, but for me, the physical exploration wasn’t the important part. That was only a means to an end. The end being love.
I think, maybe, if I had hoola-hooped or after-school sport-sed or piked (?) a volleyball or two, I may have had some more mind-body conversations. I may have exhausted my relentless mind long enough to press pause on the fantasies. I may have enjoyed the kissing and the hands a bit more, a bit longer, let an organic progression unfold and asked myself if I was really ready for anything more.
But my body had never contemplated having a conversation with my mind.
So I had sex instead.
Boyfriend, check. Condoms, check. Porn as instructional material that in no way prepared me for the reality of what was to come, check.
Losing my virginity? Awful.
The guy wasn’t awful. The story of it wasn’t awful. Actually, the story is pretty funny (his arm in a cast, Mr. Bean on the television, his mom coming home ten minutes in).
But what my body was telling me was that it was awful. Because I wasn’t ready. But I had no idea my body could tell me things, no idea why I was suddenly revolted at the sight of my boyfriend in the weeks after, why I was sick to my stomach, why I was relieved every time my parents said I had to stay home and study.
My brain short-circuited. The books I was reading made no mention of this. My brain told my body to shut up, because we were going to try again. We were going to fix this. We were going to have more sex, we were going to win love.
So I had more sex. And it was more awful. And my brain turned into one of those wind up cars and hit a wall over, and over, and over again. So much so that I decided to swap books with Svedka, and sneak into the city on weekends, and wear pants two sizes too small. There began to be a lot of weekends where neither my body or my mind was talking, let alone to each other. And somewhere in there, on a hot summer night, there came some hours I do not remember. When I awoke the next morning, I felt the most vile feeling coursing through my entire body. I ignored that feeling for seven years.
I believe that most people who have grown up in western culture are not in their bodies. Not in a way that isn’t motivated by fitness goals or competition. The exception to this are children, who truly move their bodies for total enjoyment. But that comes with a time-stamp, a limit, because the second societal brainwash grips, movement becomes exercise and the joy of moving takes a backseat.
There isn’t a lot of language around us being animals, about how our capacity for movement is something the majority of able-bodied humans are born with. But it’s not enough to want to move for movement’s sake, there has to be an incentive attached. Even if the incentive is a last-ditch effort to prevent disease or risk of death.
I wanted to look skinny in my prom dress. For the first time in my life, I joined a gym and began working out. It felt really good. To sweat, to release, to breathe hard and feel that rush of endorphins. But I attached those good feelings to a goal, which was to be skinnier, and so there was no moment of appreciating feeling better and stronger, because it was all in service of my pursuit of thinness.
I lost weight, I looked skinny in my prom dress, and it didn’t stop there.
Fast forward to my freshman year of college: at the gym every day, a calorie counting app, a brief stint with veganism, and running miles and miles on hard Boston concrete.
But then there was movement class.
I was in an acting conservatory. My movement teacher was a spritely, tiny woman in her sixties, who would pop up into a handstand when she felt she needed an energy boost. The class was meant to teach us how to use our bodies well, keep them healthy, and integrate movement into our performances.
This was not an exercise class, nor was it fitness motivated. Instead, I had to dance and roll around and learn to fold myself over another actor’s back so they could carry me for long periods of time. I was mortified. I felt so clumsy and resistant, I couldn’t fathom how any of this would help me in my life or career.
We had a couple-week unit on ballet, and as I stood by a makeshift ballerina barre, my teacher kept coming over to me to remind me to outstretch my crumpled fingers. And each time I did, I was filled with fury, and eventually I burst into tears. No one blinks an eye in acting school when you cry, which is another essay in itself - but I certainly noticed. This was not like my experience working out, there was no control in this.
What I did not understand then was this: to extend my fingertips as far as they could stretch was to take up space in my body, all five foot nine inches of it, for the first time. And it eviscerated me, it soured my belly and ached my chest, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I had left my body so long ago, since those lonely days in my childhood house, since the boys and the Svedka and city-sneaking, and those hours I do not remember when I was sixteen. I found myself confused and very vulnerable, I had no idea that my body was begging for me to listen to the secrets it had been keeping.
But now there was no option for a note from my allergist. I had to keep going back to class. About halfway through the year, something strange started happening. I started to feel better after class. A few yoga poses, some bizarre leg swingy things, the occasional somersault. Somehow they made me feel better in my skin. I would walk into class annoyed, closed off, my limbs cold and my head buzzing with an unnecessary third cup of coffee, but once my body started moving my brain became quieter. I liked the way I could breathe into all of my joints, how in only 45 minutes my mood could completely change.
Movement classes and my obsessive exercise routine were in direct conflict with each other. In class, my body was teaching me to listen, yearning to finally tap into so much of the trauma that was being stored inside, my nervous system essentially having clenched its jaw since puberty. I was exhausted, and yet I pushed myself to keep going. I was in the middle of the most life-altering years, in such a competitive program that demanded so much emotionally, but I never let myself take a break. The control that I could wield over my body was my way of keeping my shit together.
Towards the end of my freshman year, I was so burnt out that I ended up resurrecting a dormant case of mono. The doctor told me that I had to take a break from exercise.
Cue my first major depression. Why? Because the thing that was keeping me together, the obsessiveness of what I now know was a flirtation with an eating disorder, was no longer an option.
I did not deal with my depression. It would take many months before I actually admitted what was really going on.
My sophomore year was a blur of tequila shots and low-grade depression. There was a smaller emphasis on movement training, so I kept my body still. In the spring there was a bombing during the Boston marathon. The world felt very dark. I finally made the decision to call my mother and tell her what was going on. I began therapy.
Pretty soon into our sessions, my therapist encouraged me to resume as a tool for coping with my depression. My body had grown soft and my limbs felt like wet noodles. I had lost touch with my body and was scared to find it again.
A friend was a personal trainer. We would run together along the Charles river, and he taught me how to properly lift weights. At first I was incredibly embarrassed to let him see me pant and sweat, struggle with new exercises, cramp up on mile three. But being with another human allowed me to push through my mental blockages, helped me feel lighter in my bones, and made exercise something entirely new. It just felt good to move.
I entered my junior year of college craving movement more than ever. Soon enough it was time to apply for study abroad, and I did a thing that I never thought I would. I applied to a physical theater program in Italy, where I would study dance, clowning, and commedia dell'arte - an entirely movement based performance style. I don’t know who was more shocked, me, or my movement teacher.
In Italy I moved my body from sun-up to sun-down. Classes were held in a vast studio space, with hard wooden floors that caught light through an open window. I had never talked less in a classroom setting in my life. I broke into a sweat before 9am every day, found myself crawling on the floor before lunchtime, and by 7pm I was attempting handstands and cartwheels (things I had never tried as a kid). I had never known my body like this. Never felt a pulse in my right pinky finger or the warmth of my outstretched calf. For the first time every muscle and ligament in my body became something I tangibly understood, could sense every ache or pain or shift in my mood or temperature, noticed what food made me feel good and what made me feel sick, and when I wrapped my arms around myself sitting in a patch of warm grass, I could feel my breath under my skin and the quiet hum of my heart. I was at peace in my body. I was, at twenty years old, embodied. It was a high like I had never experienced before. And I swore to myself I would never go back.
I found yoga in Italy. It was part of the daily curriculum. There had never been any form of exercise I wanted to do out of it purely feeling good, but once I got the basic understanding of how to flow, I couldn’t stop. A switch flipped, and as if it was the most natural thing in the world, I started a daily yoga practice. Six years later, I can hardly imagine there was ever a time I didn’t own a yoga mat.
A year or so after my semester in Italy, still practicing every day, I found myself at a local yoga studio in Boston. In the middle of class, the teacher said something that really surprised me. “Sometimes you will hate yoga.” I wanted to laugh. How could I possibly ever hate yoga? Yoga was the best thing that had ever happened to me.
Boy, was I wrong. I was infatuated with yoga, I was in the honeymoon period. I couldn’t get enough chaturangas, couldn’t wait to roll out my mat in the morning, counted down the minutes til my next class. I just felt so good. My body was breathing like it never had before, I felt light and airy, my head was clear, I felt happy and grateful and like I was walking on a cloud.
This did not last. This was layer one. This was my body being so greedy, lapping up each hour of practice, making up lost time for all the ways I had treated it like shit. Layer one was puppy love, it was new and it was easy, it was the thrill of a hobby and new sense of identity. I was a yogi! I was high on namastes and oms and one million failed attempts at pincha pose. I was doing yoga in the airport. This was the new Haley, and she was zen as shit.
But here’s the thing about yoga. The power of it, the secret of it, is that it teaches your body how to feel safe. And the safer your body feels, the more it begins to let go. Stress begins to leave the body, which is wonderful and the whole fucking point. But here is what no one tells you: the deeper you dive into your practice, the deeper your body digs to find stress that has not been released. Dig deep enough and you hit gold. It’s called trauma.
There is a downside of being in your body. And that is that you have to be willing to fully embrace, and feel, every trauma inflicted on it. And there is a monumental braveness in that, one that is not discussed in exercise culture. Sure, there are television shows like The Biggest Loser or Revenge Body which are about encountering your demons and fighting to move past them. But those shows, and much of the culture surrounding movement, are goal oriented. It touches on inner transformation, but the catch-22 is that the profound feat of overcoming means nothing if the scale can’t vouch for it.
About two years into my consistent yoga practice, the tears came. Then, a leaden feeling in my body. Then, anger. I did not know why I felt that way. Instead of that blissed out feeling I usually got leaving class, I would be filled with absolute rage, or sadness, or panic. My body was unleashing things it never had before, old things, old wounds, but my brain had not caught up to what they were. Through my work in therapy, I started to unwind my pain. I didn’t stray away from my practice, I kept at it despite the discomfort of so many fluctuating emotions. I knew now that my body was trying to tell me something.
When I moved to New York I joined a storytelling salon where writers shared stories about intimacy. I was asked to submit a piece. After being given the prompt I received one instruction: I was to record myself for 15 minutes speaking my story aloud before transcribing the words and editing. I was a little insulted, having deemed myself a professional writer by then. Wasn’t this cheating? I gave it a shot.
I recorded myself telling a story about a night in high school I could hardly remember. I took my time, allowed myself to fumble over words without self-editing, and by the end of my fifteen minutes I was surprised at how helpful the exercise had been, how free it had allowed me to be. I wrote down my words, tweaked a few sentences, and waited to share at the next salon.
I read my story aloud. I was not nervous. It was a story I had told many times before, a story of a really drunken night and a confusing encounter. But even though I had told the story before, as I started to speak out loud, I realized something about this piece was different. I felt unsettled in my body, something that by now I knew indicated something was wrong.
After the reading I was approached by a young woman. She asked me a question that changed the trajectory of my life.
“Your story was about rape, right?”
I was silent. I was shocked. What was she talking about? It was most certainly not about rape. I don’t remember what I said to her. I found my friend who I had come to the reading with and we left. I told him what she said.
“I’ve heard you tell that story before,” he said.
“But I’ve never heard you tell it like that.”
A few days later I was in therapy, and I told my therapist what had happened. The room was quiet as I finished speaking. I paused, and then asked her the question that hadn’t left my mind since the reading:
“Do you think, um, if I wanted to. Do you think I could call what happened rape?”
My therapist looked at me with soft eyes and slowly nodded.
“Yes, Haley, I think you can.”
It took me seven years to acknowledge what had transpired that night. It took seven years for my body to undo the amount of coping and protecting it had built up since I was sixteen years old. For it to feel safe enough to finally, finally let go of this information that it had buried so deep. For it to be brave enough to let my mind know what had happened to me.
When I recorded myself speaking, I allowed the words to come from a deeper part of myself that I had only been able to access since I came back into my body. There was no control, no guard, just a free-flowing connection between my body and mind. This was the gift that movement had given me.
At last I knew the truth, and though the years since have been difficult as I continue to peel apart a memory so painful, for the first time in my life, my body has become my own.