It all started at my annual physical last fall. My doctor has this gentle, fatherly way with me. He looks at my file, nods and just says it, as if he’s gazing inquisitively into a petri dish: “So, you’ve gained 10 pounds since this time last year.”
And the translator in my brain heard, “So, you’ve pretty much given up on life and have decided to be a Lunk. A Lardass. A Pud. The Doughman. The kind of guy who gets out of breath bringing in groceries from the car. A Nostalgia Ninny who thinks “working out” is looking at old photo albums of his basketball career. You’ve taken loss, hurt and disappointment and disguised all that with fear, cowardice and inertia, all of which you present to the world as “busy.” OK, Mr. Pudge Bucket … seriously? You’re done?”
“Are you exercising?” Doc asks.
“Not regularly,” I say.
“Is that the same as not at all?” he asks, scribbling notes, not looking up.
“Yes,” I confess obediently. “The ‘none’ amount of exercise. Though I do sometimes set out my gym clothes, wake up, stare briefly at the clothes, and remember running.”
He doesn’t laugh. He hands me a prescription. Tells me to fill it immediately. It says, “Find a trainer. Don’t give up.” Tears of shame and appreciation fill my eyes. My therapist once said to me, “I think people don’t know how you suffer or when you are suffering,” so I’m always impressed when anyone manages to figure out that I’m not OK. You have to ask just the right question, and often more than once before I myself realize I’m not OK. Let alone before I’ll tell you.
So, I ask around about trainers. I do phone interviews with eight of them. I’m looking for that intuitive “click” I’ve learned to trust in myself. And I find Phillip. And Phillip knows his schiz. I’m telling you: In hell they do lunges with kettle bells.
In two sessions Phillip figures me out: “You work hard. You bring a ton of energy to sports and physical fitness, but you tend to scatter energy rather than to focus it. You’re a very emotional guy.”
Hmm. Why do I feel so vulnerable? I wonder if he’s figured out that, for me, resuming respect for my body is a portal through which I resume respect and care for my soul?
I wonder if he knows that this is my penance for the past two years of feeling sorry for myself and not giving a damn. That I seek, want and need the discomfort, the pain, the surreal exhaustion he so blithely administers to me because I believe I deserve it.
In his own way and in his own language, I think Phillip has figured everything out.
My spiritual director once pointed out that my type/temperament, despite its well-deserved reputation for hedonism, didn’t spend enough time “in my body.” In short, when I abandon the discipline of physical fitness, I lose my center.
Phillip insists I breathe with intention. He admonishes me to stop my dramatic vocalizations. (Oh, you’re no fun. I’ve paid for the right to grunt, groan, moan and otherwise share my misery with the entire gym!) He even demands I take the ricture of grimace out of my face and jaw. He says all of this is a waste of energy. Focus, focus, focus.
But the coolest thing he ever said — I’m serious, it should be on a poster — is when I looked up at him with eyes begging for mercy, help and rescue, shaking my head. And he said, like Gandhi would have said it, “You know what this feels like. You’ve felt it before.”
And the translator in my brain heard, “Steven, it’s just pain. Mobilizing incredulity, horror, victimhood, shock, surprise, helplessness, or any other of your never-ending repertoire for exaggerating experience through dramatization isn’t useful here. Or necessary. This is your pain. The pain you’ve chosen. The pain you wanted to feel. So, settle down. And feel it. Give thanks for it. Admire yourself for ‘hitting the wall.’ For literally giving your all.”
I told Phillip right then he was going to end up in the column. And I’m thinking more and more that I’ll commission somebody to make a cool, hip, framed poster to hang forever in my office: “You know what this feels like. You’ve felt it before.” It will say, simply, “Phillip,” on the bottom.
When people say, “Who’s Phillip,” what will I say?
“Oh, that’s my personal trainer. He channels Gandhi.”
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.