Being strong

Yesterday I went swimming for the first time in months, and managed half a kilometre before work. Tomorrow I’m planning to go and attempt to work out in a hot room, for an hour and a half, at my first bikram yoga class. I’m looking forward to it. This is new to me.

I have not been strong for long. I came late to the idea of exercise as something you might do because you enjoy it, rather than because someone was forcing you to. I was a child more brain than body, more eyes than hands. Eczema played a part in my reticence to touch the world: when water can hurt you and your skin is always cracked and broken, roughing your hands in the dirt is something simply not done. I did not do handstands or climb trees. I read books instead.

Then in my teens, I weakened my own body in order to gather the mental fortitude I needed to fight the depression. First, for a time, my legs simply stopped working, as though the depression was starting at the bottom and working its way slowly upwards. By the time it took hold of my brain I was routinely tearing at myself in awful ways. I failed to eat enough to let myself grow after the age of 13. I walked dizzy with shock and blood loss, combined with lack of food. For years my body was a battleground: a warzone, an adversary and collateral damage, all at once. Perhaps if you take strength as a measure of what a body is capable of withstanding, rather than what it is capable of achieving, I have always been strong.

But this actual, physical ability is relatively new. 18 months ago, a little more, I decided at Christmas that I wanted to be a ninja. That I was fed up of hiding and of being incapable of moving, that I wanted not to be a different shape or size or weight but to be able to do different things with my body. To be less limited. Since I was young I have escaped into game worlds, taking particular pleasure in those that afforded me freedom of movement: Morrowind’s grand vistas and levitation spoke to me, but better were Assassin’s Creed and Prototype. To run up buildings and fly free. To be unlimited by flesh. I didn’t want to be full of virus or to knife people in the back, but to glide like a squirrel between tall towers or swan dive unharmed into haystacks.

I took up parkour for a while and was terrible at it, had to stop learning because of logistical problems, but carried on strength training at home. When I started I couldn’t do one push-up. Now I can knock them out without much effort. It has not been an overnight change, but it still feels sudden sometimes. I still cannot run up buildings. Today yoga, and perhaps next week I will try parkour again and see how bruised it leaves me.

I’ve spent a lot of life escaping from my body, seeing it as a limiting factor, hating its needs and changes, fighting it for control. Finally I’m coming to see it as me. I inhabit its corners now in a way I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. I will always be bookish, more eyes than hands, but now I am no longer afraid to touch.