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The committee in my head

As part of my midlife makeover, I decided to stop being such a slug. I spend a lot of time applying ass to chair, which is how Dorothy Parker described the art of writing. Part of my excuse for not exercising more has been that I was in a car accident years ago that caused all sorts of havoc with my body, and even though I’ve healed a lot, I’m still not sure what my limitations are. I go to a yoga class once a week, making a lot of modifications. For instance, until recently my tree pose involved using both of my legs to form the trunk. I just stood there, arms raised, heart open.

So I jumped at the chance to work with a life coach, which is to say I remained seated and hit “Reply” to the email invitation. From the start she helped me realize that even though it’s been 19 years since the car accident, I still haven’t quite figured out what it means to be physically active in this body, the post-accident body. She also introduced me to the idea of “gremlins”—the voices in your head that tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I’ve always referred to my voices as my "committee," but hadn’t really thought of them as a recurring cast of characters. My coach explained that while a gremlin may have served a good purpose in the past, he/she may not be doing me any favors now. It’s best to acknowledge them, see if they're serving me well. Apparently my committee liked that, because pretty quickly several members stood up and demanded to be counted.

I met the first one right away, when my coach asked about barriers to my goal of exercising a couple times a day. “I’m far too important to others to possibly take any time for myself,” I said, pretending to be joking but I kind of meant it. I mean, my day job is an unending series of writing deadlines that must be met. I need to take time for my own writing, and through my freelance editing, I’m making the world safe from the misuse of “myriad,” improper hyphenation, and exclamation points run amok. Plus I’m busy fretting about how my son’s doing away at college, how my teenage daughter is navigating high school, and how my fiercely independent but frail mother is doing across town. If I stop worrying, who knows what chaos will ensue.

“All I’m suggesting is I could take a walk around the block or a bike ride a couple times a day,” I told this committee member, who knows as well as I that sitting for hours at a time can take years off your life. I write about it all the time. Studies show that regular exercise reduces the risk of illness and actually makes you more effective at work and at home. “This is like the time I wrote an article about the importance of taking a break for lunch away from one’s desk—while eating lunch at my desk,” I added. It felt so empowering to talk back to the voices in my head.

I convinced myself, and for the last couple weeks I’ve exercised every day, if only for 20 minutes or a half hour. I take walks, bike when I can, and do yoga. As the weather gets colder, I worry about what else I can do. We have a gym at work, but I haven’t used fitness equipment in maybe 25 years. My previous workplace had a treadmill, and I never got the hang of the buttons. (They also had a windowless room with a La-Z-Boy, and I took to taking cat naps there instead.) So last week, I took a glimpse inside the workplace gym, just to see if I could imagine myself there. And that’s when I met the Cry Baby.

“This looks hard. How do the machines work? I don’t know which buttons to push or in what order. What if I start using one and have to stop because it hurts my Humpty Dumpty ankle or my Humpty Dumpty wrist? Everyone will look at me. I don’t have any cute workout clothes, not even a pair of shorts. The TV’s too loud. All these people are jocks. My co-workers will judge me. I can’t do it.”

I don’t know if all the people were really jocks, because the only person I focused on in those ten seconds was a pregnant woman on a treadmill. She was wearing ear buds, holding a water bottle in one hand, and going at a clip that seemed too ambitious for me, and I’m not pregnant.

The next day on my walk, I thought about Cry Baby. I realized that she often works in the service of another committee member, “I Don’t Want To.” If I don’t want to do something, I just tap Cry Baby’s shoulder and let her do my bidding. The danger is that when something I really want is difficult, Cry Baby is always at the ready. In many cases, I can ignore Cry Baby and forge on, even succeed at doing the difficult thing, if I really want to.

But I look back at all the times Cry Baby convinced me to quit: in high school math, in a college radio class, in getting a book published. Stupid Cry Baby. Look what you made me not do. But at least now I can ask myself if “I Don’t Want To” is authentically representing my feelings, or if Cry Baby’s just doing her usual whining.
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