by Christina Fisanick Greer, Ph.D.
The Optimistic Food Addict
My friends and I lived at the pool in the summers when I was a little girl. We get dropped off at the door right after lunch and get picked up, sun-baked and water-logged right before dinner. We went just about every sunny day, alternating between working on our tans while lying in the grass and splashing around in the shallow end, out of the way of volleyballs and divers. Some of the best days of my life were spent in a swim suit. One piece and red. Two piece and Bengal striped. If we compared our bodies, then, it wasn’t out of hatred or disgust, but maybe out of admiration or wonder. And yet by the sixth grade–age 11–I was too embarrassed by my body to go to my grade school swimming party. No, wait, I went, but I sat on a bench, feigning illness, rather than risk being made fun of by classmates when they saw me in my bathing suit.
I stopped going swimming altogether by the end of seventh grade. A place that once held so much joy for me had become one of torture and certain humiliation. I didn’t put on a bathing suit again until age 21. That’s the year I learned to swim.
My parent couldn’t swim (and still can’t), and even though my brother and I went to the pool for years as children, they never thought it was important that we learn, so I didn’t. Then, one summer afternoon, I was playing in warm creek water at a party near my friend’s house. A woman there, maybe ten years older than me, offered to teach me to swim. After an hour of study and practice, it worked! I could swim! And I swam. And I swam. And I swam. In fact, I swam for so long that I got the worst sunburn of my life. My skin peeled for weeks afterwards, but at the time I didn’t care. I could swim!
Despite this amazing new skill that I thought for certain I would never master, I was still too embarrassed to go swimming beyond the occasional dip out in the country with a small group of friends. Otherwise, I rejected all pool party invitations and spent hot summer days inside. Then, six years later I found myself hurting so badly that I thought nothing would heal my heart.
A few months after my son Nicholas died, I went to the ocean for the first time. I was 27 years old and nearing the completion of my doctoral program. Mostly, though, I was hallowed out by grief. I couldn’t remember a day since he died that I hadn’t cried or stared into space from numbness. I was anxious and depressed. I was frightened of being alone. Too scared to fall asleep. That the ocean would be the place I regained my traction no longer surprises me.
The vastness of the ocean stunned me as I looked out across its expanse and towards the horizon. My grief, which had seemed so big for so long, was swallowed up by the roar of those waves. I stood on the shoreline as the cool water nibbled at my toes with each pull of the tide. I wanted so badly to sink into its blue depths and never come back out.
I waded in, but could not go too far or I’d get my swimsuit cover up wet. But on that day at the ocean, my heart ripped open by loss, I tore off my coverup and threw it in the stand, thinking that no stranger’s cruel snicker or finger pointing could trump the agony I felt each time I took a breath. I played in the ocean for hours that day, learning its ways, feeling its power, allowing it to wash away my deepest sorrow.
After I returned home, I started swimming laps at the campus pool and felt more powerful each time I went. I’ve kept up that practice with sporadic lapses for the last 15 years. To this day, at a weight doctor’s would classify as morbidly obese, I feel most confident and comfortable at the pool. Swimsuit, goggles, swim cap. I am home there. Lap after endless lap. A half an hour, an hour, and then 90 minutes goes by. I emerge finally, feeling so relaxed and so powerful that I could take on the world.
If people stare at me or make fun of my body, I don’t notice. I am so in my zone strolling the pool deck and anticipating my swim that even if they did, I would probably laugh. No cruel words or dismissive stares can break the trance that swimming has on me. This is body love. Giving my body what it craves and letting it be itself. I hit the pool deck standing up straight, unashamed of what I might look like to others. I don’t stuff my body into a tight fitting or slimming-colored suit. I wear performance suits that increase my speed and reduce drag. I am all about the business–the joyful, delicious business–of swimming laps.
As for my cover up, it’s somewhere on the Jersey shore where I left it.
If you want to read more writing like this, please see my other books on the subject of food addiction: The Optimistic Food Addict’s Recovery Journal and Activity Workbook and The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.
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