The Illiteracy of My Body

The Mayday Project — Day 167

Imagine someone you know, friend or acquaintance or coworker, reveals that he can’t read. You’ve known this person for years. You may have watched him struggle in different areas of his life, something just didn’t seem right, and this revelation puts everything in perspective. He doesn’t have a learning disability. He’s capable, but no one took the time to help him in school and as he progressed through middle school and high school the condition worsened. The situation brought so much shame, forcing him to keep it a secret, and other areas of his life, hiding his true self so no one would know his deficiency in an area where other excel. He doesn’t know the joy of reading, a life with less stress and shame, an average life.

What emotions does this evoke? Do you feel sorry for him, want to help him, reach out to him? Do you believe that this is his fault, he didn’t speak up, and now he has to live with the choices he made? Are you angry that school or society failed him? Is it a combination? I think most people would be sympathetic to this individual learning his story.

This is my story, except instead of not knowing how to read books, I don’t know how to read or enjoy my body.

I’ve started working out with a trainer, really working hard to get stronger. Most of the exercises are challenging though some are easier than others. I felt immense shame when I tried to perform an overhead press, taking dumbbells holding them perpendicular to my ears and pushing them above my head, until my arms are straight. My trainer started me at a relatively low weight, but I couldn’t perform the motion. He lowered the weight, and I still couldn’t lift the dumbbells. He decreased it over and over until I could lift two-pound weights above my head. I was embarrassed. I knew I was out of shape, but this was pitiful. It wasn’t that the motion was challenging, I couldn’t get my muscles to contract.

At first, I felt a considerable amount of shame. I thought a long time about this. How did I get here? I realized that I am illiterate in my own body. Simple motions and movements that others take for granted for which I don’t have mental pathways. I don’t have that mind-muscle connection in large parts of my body, the skills atrophying over so many years. It’s harder to make this mental association as I age.

In school, every few months we were required to run a mile to test our physical fitness. I wasn’t in shape, so I walked the whole mile, taking 15 to 20 minutes to go around the track four times. Other kids sprinted around the track in 6, 7, 8 minutes, yelling at me to finish so we could move on to another sport. Half of the class was waiting for me to finish, me alone, holding everyone up. I walked even slower out of spite.

When I was in my early 30s, I used the Couch to 5k (C25k) program to run a mile, very overweight, but slowly building stamina. I ran a mile, and it was exhilarating. The only difference was that my gym “teacher” never explained how the human body works, regular practice with incremental improvements can generate significant results. The human body is a miracle. No one told me that I could have run a mile if I just practice fifteen to twenty minutes a day. I don’t know if I would have kept it up, but I would have tried. I have worked hard in every aspect of my life, to save myself years of shame I would have made an effort.

I was left behind, in elementary school, in junior high, in high school, over and over again, never instructed, always shamed into quitting. I excelled in academics and waited while teachers helped the challenged students, but I never got extra attention, extra care in physical education. I was called a failure until I became physically illiterate until I stopped caring.

I’ve tried several exercise programs over the years, but it’s been challenging. In high school, my parents signed me up for a class at the community college where I learned to do exercise routines for the first time. When I studied abroad in France, I walked five miles to and from school every day, dropping forty pounds without watching what I ate. After college, I walked around my apartment complex at 11 p.m. trying to get in late night exercise. In law school, my friend Steve taught me how to lift weights and helped me build muscle. I have had help over the years, but it wasn’t enough to sustain physical fitness.

I’ve now realized that like many areas of my life, I have to start at the beginning, get back to basics. I’m starting small, but working hard, to become more fit. I’ve accepted that I might have to start with two-pound weights and keep learning form until I can move on to something weightier. It’s easy to cave in the burden of shame, but I’m treating myself gently. I’m focusing my mind on my body, and it’s invigorating.

And it’s working. At my last workout, I’m now up to fifteen repetitions of fifteen pounds, and I probably could have done twenty, but I didn’t want to hurt myself. I’ve increased my agility, my skill, my stamina, my strength, day-to-day, week-to-week. I have a long way to go, but I now have teachers, helpers, professionals teaching me the movements of my body. It’s the start of a whole new life.▪️


The Mayday Project is a personal, total wellness plan. These essays will track my progress and development of the plan. Please follow for tips, ideas, inspiration and what not to do when you’re changing your life.

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