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All in My Head

Last month, as I toweled sweat from my eyes and the back of my neck, I crossed into the free weights area at the Central YMCA. For most of my adult life, my territory at the gym has included treadmills, Stairmasters, and the stretching room. I returned to the weight room after a decade hiatus because my physical therapist determined that my weak butt might be a trigger for headaches.

She explained to me that the musculoskeletal structure of the human body is complex and interdependent. Tweak and fail to engage one muscle and begin a gradual reaction of compensation that, over time, may initiate a myriad of other problems. I already knew this. I have dealt with chronic injuries before. I did find it odd, however, that although I entered the weight room to use the reclined squat machine, I was really there to heal my head.

Upon crossing over to the weight room, I found the barbell of the reclined squat machine was already stacked with multiple hundred pound weights on each side. When I worked out with the cross-country team in high school and track team in college, athletes were trained to remove the weights after they finished their sets. To me, it’s a common courtesy, such as putting the toilet seat down or wiping off the tiny sink in an airplane bathroom.

I knew that I could lift the hundred pound weights off the barbell. I had done it years ago. I also knew that I’ve had two major back injuries, one that resulted in surgery and another that forced me to drop out of college for a semester in order to heal. I inflicted the second injury on myself while trying to single-handedly rearrange the furniture in my dorm room. My roommate would not arrive until the next day, and I wanted to set up my desk under the window.

My physical therapist offered the kind of help I have been socialized to accept: professional, billed by the hour, with clear outcomes. I scheduled an appointment, described my symptoms, showed her my progress, and went home with an updated list of exercises. Our interaction, though personal, was also private. Only my PT could see how I trembled when standing up out of a chair. Her office was a safe space. However, the thought of asking someone at the gym for help with moving the weights grated against my self-concept. The gym was very public, a place where people went to work out and to be seen working out. Seen getting better. Seen strong. It would be hard to go off script.

I scanned the room and realized that it was honestly, albeit stereotypically, filled with only men. Some grunted while others puffed air forcefully from their mouths as they reached the top of their extensions. Everyone faced the mirrors so they could monitor their form or bulging veins. I decided to ask the only guy who was not wearing headphones help me move the weights from the barbell. I asked him because I hoped he would hear me the first time and that I would not have to ask twice. He brushed aside my suggestion that we work together and pulled them off easily. I said thanks. He smiled. We both continued with our workouts. No spotlight. No megaphone. No humiliation. I don’t think anyone else noticed and, if they did, they wouldn’t remember it now.

When I arrived home that night, I was no longer feeling self-conscious about asking a guy for help. However, I was perplexed by this: The man who helped me with the weights was only the third person I had spoken to since joining the gym four months ago. I spent my evenings after work with those folks, the time that many people spend with their families. I too wore headphones and walked directly to each machine without looking up. In those four months, I had only learned one new person’s name. Of course, I was not the only one who behaved like this. Unless working out with high school friends or a significant other, most people at the gym were on-task and quiet.

I’m not sure how it got this way—how the gym became a space where people bounce from machine to machine and avoid talking to each other. Somehow, we have been conditioned to behave like this. Don’t bother people. Keep to yourself.

I quit the gym after daylight savings because I prefer running outside, doing squats with just my body weight, and getting out into the mountains. But I will be thinking about ways to engage next winter in a space dominated by mirrors and headphones. Perhaps asking for help is one of those ways. Perhaps letting people see me in the process of becoming strong, rather than keeping to myself until I am strong, is another way to create space for more human-to-human engagement. Most often, it is my perception of what people might think of me that keeps me from connecting.

Of course, I already knew this. As I said before, I entered to the weight to work on my butt, when I was really there to work on my head.

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