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Looking Fear in the Face

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James

If I hadn’t felt so close to my dear camp friends – a comfort one can only feel around the group of people with which she eats, sleeps, plays, and lives (undresses in front of and showers next to) for eight weeks – I would have been much more embarrassed by my sweating issue. It wasn’t so much an “issue” as a consequence – of my morbid obesity. We spent our scorching hot and humid summer days playing sports outside in the sun, and I was always about twice the size as the rest of my bunkmates. That meant about twice, if not thrice, the amount of sweat. I knew I could and I often did blame the heat, but it always felt like the one and only thing calling attention to my size, a body I typically denied made me any different from my friends.

Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t just camp. It was everywhere.

I was once more than 50% body fat, so I experienced my entire life before weight loss wearing a thick, heavy, unwelcomed and very much resented, blanket of obesity. I could get myself up a flight of stairs, but I couldn’t stop myself from sweating at the top. I could write a really great paper, but my hands would sweat all over my keyboard. I could get wide shoes to fit, but I couldn’t keep them dry. I deeply enjoyed feeling gorgeous after my hair was blown or ironed into straight locks, but I knew it would always be a short-lived love affair, one inevitably destroyed by the sweat that always arrived. I was convinced I could do anything with my big body, but I knew almost all of those things would make me perspire to some extent.

For this reason, I hated sweat. I absolutely hated sweating.

When I was over 300 pounds and running a mile as fast as I could, I thought there could be no greater torture. I hated everything about physical activity, most of all the pools of sweat it never went without. Years later, I lost half my body weight. I shed a 150-pound blanket. I started leaving my house with a sweatshirt, just in case, remembering that I was no longer perpetually protected from the cold. I could drink tea and coffee. I enjoyed every single hot (or even moderately warm) day of college when I no longer had to depart ten minutes early from my apartment to make sure I had enough time to sit alone in a bathroom stall wiping my dripping face with toilet paper before class began. I didn’t sweat as much. I didn’t hate sweating as much. I began during this time, to my own great surprise, working out for pleasure. Sweat began to exist in my life like it did everybody else’s, in all the “normal”, appropriate, expected places, no longer just tormentingly dampening what should have been dry. It morphed into an entity tied almost exclusively to exercise. It became a sign of strength, power, endurance, speed, weight loss, transformation, and ability. Accomplishment.

I began to…love sweat. I welcomed it. I wanted it.

Granted, there is a time and place. I don’t even consider my workout started until I feel some small beads of salty moisture dripping down my face, but I still hate to ruin a head of straightened hair. I’ll proudly out-sweat you in the gym, but I happily forfeit the competition on a crowded city subway. Time and place.

***

When I struggled severely to recover both my mind and body from a diet that turned into a habit of dangerous undereating, I lived in a perpetual state of fear – fear of gaining weight, fear of calories, fear of food, fear of anything and everything uncertain. Having been introduced to the mental and emotional exhaustion of battling an eating disorder, I felt determined to conquer the unwanted voices in my head. I wanted my life back, so I promised myself I’d do whatever it took, including and especially all of the things I feared most, to get myself better. I relied constantly on the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt for help; “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” I promised myself day after day, forced meal after forced meal, skipped workout after skipped workout, that I would continue looking fear in the face. It was the only way out.

I didn’t want to eat more but I knew I should, so I grit my teeth and forced myself through the fear of doing so. Following the instructions to shorten or skip a workout felt like terrifying torture, but I knew I could never heal from within my comfort zone. I demanded better treatment of myself, from myself, because I knew and told myself that I deserved to get better. The fears previously living inside my imagination thankfully never became parts of my reality; my weight remained stable and the only outcomes of my new habits were a healthier body and a happier mind. I quickly realized that this experience was a powerful metaphor I could apply to everything unrelated to food and exercise. My goal was to repair my body from a state of starvation, I was afraid of everything I had to do in order to achieve it, I did anyway, and everything worked out for the better from the inside out. I began thinking a lot about what else I wanted in life. I know what to do, so why am I not doing it? Why I wasn’t going after it? It always came down to some form of fear: fear of not being good, smart, cool, funny, interesting, talented, rich, skinny, strong enough. Fear of disappointment. Fear of failure.

I examined the same phenomenon in almost everybody. We formulate a story in our heads based upon fear and decide to live by it, never knowing what could have been. So I created a rule for myself: If the only thing stopping me from doing something is fear, it means I have to do it. Fear is no longer something to avoid, it is something to embrace. Fear is not something to run away from, it is something to run toward. Fear is not something I want to ignore. Fear is something I want to look straight in the face. Before, the things I wanted lived behind a closed door labeled FEAR with a sign that read “KEEP OUT!” It didn’t happen overnight and it definitely still requires a conscious effort, but now my opportunities wait for me in an open room, the door now welcoming me to come inside and explore. If I am now full of fear, I know I am about to embark on a new journey. I know I am about to change, grow, and evolve. Fear is my new indication of potential and forward movement.

I just changed the meaning of the word.

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