Between recent knee surgery and the usual holiday/winter sloth, I fell off the workout wagon a little. But in the two weeks before a recent West Coast trip, I exercised almost daily. Not only that, I made ample use of my stationary bike – an investment I feared might collect more real cobwebs than virtual miles in my garage. So I was feeling newly fit, riding the bike and using the “calories burned” as a benchmark a gauge I like not because I think it’s accurate or I’m counting calories, but because it incorporates resistance, speed, etc. all into one measure. It gives me a sense of holistic stationary bike accomplishment.
I didn’t exercise on the trip, but I’m willing to rationalize walking San Francisco hills as replacement activity, even if the food I ate there dwarfed my activity in magnitude and intensity. When we returned, I just wanted to pick up the momentum again. The feeling of getting ahead of something was amazing. I don’t know if it’s the grieving process in particular, or adulting in general, but I often feel that with any battle I pitch, the very act of standing my ground prefigures my imminent capitulation.
The morning after we returned I set my alarm, woke up before seven (a victory in itself, even if it was done in the mistaken belief that Benny had school…DERP!), and got back on the bike. I expected a slog after the layoff, but the ride was unexpectedly easy. It was so easy that I paused to make sure the bike was working. Sure enough, when I lifted the lid, there was something caught between the wheel and the resistance arm – there was no resistance being applied at all. In a flash of recognition, I realized that this had been true before I’d left, too. It just took being away and coming back to the bike for it to sink in. All my progress had been illusory.
More startling was how I’d felt so great about my workouts and never realized they were a mirage. I was high on false accomplishment. I was so greedy for progress that I managed to ignore the fact that I wasn’t accomplishing my goals. There’s no disappointment like being disappointed in yourself. I fixed the resistance mechanism and finished my workout, but felt deflated. Exercise has become not only a goal for fitness and health, but a coping mechanism and part of my toolkit for steadying my way through grief. What did it say about me that I was self-deluding so powerfully?
The same day, I got my annual renewal letter from AAA, which I realized was still in both my name and Nina’s. I thought I had already dealt with all that almost two years ago: the bank accounts, memberships, and other jointly held things, removing Nina’s name, diminishing the amount of ghost junk mail grief triggers. Then I remembered I had tried last year to take her off the account, but AAA was so busy with inclement weather issues getting an operator to answer was too much for me and I gave up.
Every grieving person has triggers, and I suspect none of us get to choose what they are. Maybe they aren’t even the same from day to day, or year to year. This week mine was a joint membership to AAA. It doesn’t get any more prosaic than that. AAA had zero emotional cathexis for me or Nina. Yet as I looked at her name on the card, I felt like curling up in a Crying Game posture at the bottom of my shower. It’s not the mere fact of being triggered that surprised me, but the intensity of the grief reaction. I guess I thought I’d come farther, made more progress, built up a bigger tolerance to this sort of everyday reminder of Nina’s absence.
But grieving is a lot like riding a stationary bicycle. No matter how intensely I go at it, grief doesn’t actually go anywhere. It may give more or less resistance, depending on how much denial or defense I offer in response, and the benefits of challenging myself to tackle it are real. But at the end of the day I can’t pedal away from any of it.
Today I got back on the bike and did a full workout with the resistance in working order. I didn’t go as fast or “burn as many calories” as I’d thought I was doing, but it felt good. Better, anyhow. Then I remembered right after my knee surgery the surgeon told me that I should start using the bike with zero resistance, “just the weight of the wheel is enough” he said, to give me some aerobic benefit and strengthen my knee. He had me gradually introduce resistance, up to the point where I was doing full workouts (or so I thought, not sure exactly when the resistance issue arose?). I followed that regimen principally to rehab my knee, but it’s also in retrospect what got me going on such a good workout schedule. Even though the workouts began at a low intensity, they helped me build a routine and do more regular exercise than I’d done in months.
The same is true for the grief trigger reaction. It was strong, and I lost a few should-have-been functional hours to simply trying not to crater, hours that I could have spent doing other things – time with the kids, reading, shrinking the to-do list. But it was ONLY a few hours, not several days, which isn’t maybe a life goal, but it’s a heck of a lot better space than I’ve inhabited at times past. I don’t know how else to measure resilience to grief. But I value and desperately need whatever functionality I have, so snapping back more rapidly is huge.
So my progress wasn’t a total illusion. That sits a little better with me and feels more clear-eyed and less self-flagellaty (not an actual word). But, sadly, my physique was 100% illusory: I really thought I was getting in great shape! I was almost sure I’d become much firmer and more strapping torso-wise (though I’ve been generally avoiding mirrors and scales, so…). What had appeared to my self-deluded eyes as unyielding robustness has reverted sheepishly to sub-dadbod, post-holiday, angst-eating gut. Alas. Maybe 2019 will be svelter and more resilient, or at least leave more of my delusions intact.