THE LIST, THE GYM, AN INTRODUCTION, BY: Clare Louise Harmon
Let me tell you a story about recovery.
It starts like this: six years ago, I lost everything. I lost my friends and I lost my romantic relationship. I lost my job; I very nearly lost my life. I spent my childhood, adolescence, and early twenties preparing for a career as a classical musician and just when it was within my grasp, I lost that, too. Six years ago, my lifelong battle with an eating disorder reached a frightening and costly zenith.
There, at the intersection of inevitable death and a last call for continued life, I chose the latter. I checked myself in to The Emily Program in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over the course of the subsequent year, I worked hard through hours of therapy, supported meals, and hospital stays. After 11 months at The Emily Program and with the blessing of my treatment team, I packed my things and moved to New Orleans to start a “vita nuova,” and, incidentally, my MFA in poetry.
Before I could even unpack the few belongings I brought with me, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my teeny tiny Bayou St. John apartment and made a list, The List: Things I Will Never Do Because to Do Them Would Compromise My Recovery. The List’s numbered items included things like go running and count calories and skip meals and join a gym. The List was a protective measure: my recovery was like a newborn. It lacked language and it was fragile and I was its caretaker and The List I made baby-proofed a world of temptations and their dangers.
Year after year went by. I referenced The List. I moved in and out of relationships. I referenced The List. I moved in and out of apartments. I referenced The List. I finished my MFA and spent a few months as ghost writer for a local celebrity. I referenced The List. I got jobs, quit jobs, and finally found fulfillment and a living wage in my current work. Recently, I referenced The List but somewhere along the line, it seemed, The List had diminished.
Every so often, I go for a run through Crescent Park. Sometimes, I get busy and forget to pack my lunch. Sometimes, I’m running late in the morning and don’t have time for breakfast. Sometimes, I balk at the number of calories in a package of yogurt-covered pretzels (regardless, they are delicious, y’all). Sometimes, I do all of these things and, six years into my recovery, I’m happy to tell you that they really no longer phase me. The List, such as it is, has but one remaining entry.
Join. A. Gym.
I never considered myself a “gym” person (in fairness, this is largely because I never had enough of a monthly income to even consider the extra expense of a membership). But, regardless of any fitness-forward self-identification I might have lacked, I simply never thought I would be able to join a gym. During my eating disorder’s most active years, I used exercise as a metric to determine how much and how often and even if I deserved to eat. So yes. “Join a gym” is on The List.
Maybe it was the heat and maybe it was the reverse S.A.D. to which New Orleanians succumb during the month of August (it has been so hot for so long when will it ever not be hot where is it not hot?!) but I decided I (and my living wage) would challenge the last entry on that damned List. I decided that I would both attend my terror at relapse while trusting my strength in recovery. I joined a gym.
That was a few weeks ago and it has been just fine. Worlds have not collapsed and I have not stopped eating. I have not been hospitalized and I do not use the amount of time I spend at the gym to determine how much I am allowed to eat when I get home. I still have my job and I have a happy hour date with a friend planned for this weekend. I wrote a poem yesterday and I’m meeting my boyfriend for dinner tonight. And, I go to the gym three or four days a week for yoga class and a few cycles on the elliptical machine.
To notice how little I have thought of The List in the last several years; to be able to challenge its remaining directive is to recognize how far I’ve come in my recovery. More than that, I hope it is a recognition of how far we can all come in the wake of a battle with an eating disorder or an addiction or destructive patterns of behavior.
Six years ago when I was in treatment at The Emily Program, I often attended the “recovery talks” given by former clients. With shades of rancor, I listened to their stories; I was bitter and longing and certain that I would never find a similar path to recovery. These women were healthy, they were beautiful, they were happy. These women had jobs and relationships and passions. These women may have had gym memberships because, when it is not an obsession or a function of self-destruction, maintaining physical fitness can actually make a person feel good. These women were so very much.