psy·chot·ic leop·ard sīˈkädik/ˈlepərd/ noun · anything that is funky, interesting, beautiful, niche, useful, and grabs one's attention

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What Gets Us Through: Trauma and the Importance of Physical Strength in Healing

Posted by Lisa Johnson on

After nearly eighteen years of a fairly stable relationship, I learned that my husband had begun an affair with a girl thirty years his junior.  Stunning for anyone, yes, but more so was that my partner, whose judgment I had always respected, confessed that he and the girl had actually never met.  Several sites linking her to German porn made no difference; he was convinced she was his soulmate and promised to marry her within two weeks of their email correspondence.  

A few months into the rocky navigation of all attempts to save a doomed marriage, my son's best friend shot himself in the head after a decade of bullying, and we were thrust into a media storm.  I had to to be publicly articulate about how this tragedy could possibly have been prevented, while having to sweep my own trauma aside, and then gather all reserves to deal with my deeply grieving teenager as well as his sister.  With what felt like a tangible ball of pain in my stomach for months, several hours a day also got eaten up trying to comprehend how my smart husband could have become so delusional.  No amount of therapy, specialists, or addiction support groups could sway his judgment, which he alone considered rock solid.

Perhaps it was the effects of stress which then threw out my back, and forced me into physical therapy for the first time in my life.  This made it nearly impossible to work, as a large part of my job involved lifting lots of heavy books.

Life was a disaster.  I could barely hold it together in front of the kids.  I stopped eating for a week, and sleep become a luxury, as panic and angst haunted my every moment.  Keeping the marital issues a huge secret from everyone but a couple of trusted friends, I found my own methods to cope:  watching a steady diet of "Catfish" episodes, reading everything I could on addiction, and beachcombing on Long Island Sound.

I was never a gym rat.  Growing up, I had been an avid gymnast through elementary school, practicing for hours daily, but in the decades since, stayed in shape through scattered yoga classes, or taking occasional runs around the block.  The general lugging which came with running a book sale kept my arms in excellent shape, but the back injury had halted everything, including taekwondo classes with my son.  I had a wonderful physical therapist, but that only lasted a few weeks, so I decided to finally take advantage of the family Y membership.  

Using the machines that the therapist had shown me, I dutifully went through the exercises three times a week at the gym, and very slowly started to physically feel better.  One day, on the way to the workout area, I heard a blast of loud hip hop music.  Peeking into a gymnasium window, I saw a gang of about forty people punching, kicking, and laughing.

In my twenties, there had been about a year of being solidly single while working in Manhattan.  A work event turned into a weekly ritual of going out dancing in clubs. Occasionally, I would meet colleagues or friends from the train, but I enjoyed going more than they did, so would often drive into the upper east side on Friday nights alone, go to my favorite hangout, occasionally hook up, and head back home.  

Though being a shy person at heart, I had always loved dancing; it allowed me to momentarily lose myself.  But in nearly twenty years of marriage, I had not made the opportunity to dance.  My husband hated it, and my self-consciousness would overtake me even at weddings, where I found myself choosing to stay seated the entire time instead of getting out on the dance floor.

"What class is that?" I asked, as someone jogged out to get a drink of water.   

"Turbo sweat!" she replied breathlessly.  "It's amazing!"

It was, as I soon found out.  Two days later, I was told not to worry if I couldn't keep up - no one could for the first few months.  The teacher, Brandon, a gorgeous, muscled young man from Ghana was a  former competitive weightlifter and boxer.  Somehow he'd ended up in the states teaching a huge group of mostly middle-aged white people how to be sexy while getting in shape.

He spun the music himself and moved like liquid at the front of the room, and though it was only 8:15 in the morning, I was back in my club days, music blasting, blood coursing through my body, red cheeked and sweating.  It was awesome.  For that one hour, I could completely forget the rest of my life.  The physical strength I had built up from childhood had made me flexible and strong, and during class, I often imagined that I was kicking away anything that agitated me, instead of just air.  The thing was, most of my anger usually dissipated within the first ten minutes of class, as that energy was necessary to stay focused on the routines.  

Brandon also taught a night dance class which I began attending, when we didn't have couples or other therapy, which felt way more like a party than exercise. For a few months, I barely said more than a hello to anyone, still in the midst of my trauma.  But gradually, I began opening up, and soon amassed a large social circle from the classes.  We would plan barbecues, restaurant gatherings, and even go out to concerts.  My husband refused to attend, calling them my "stupid jock friends" and it was for the best:  a couple of months thereafter, I pulled enough strength together to get him out for good.  It was one of the best decisions I ever made - for myself, and for my children.

I am so grateful for the trauma which occurred in my life, because it forced me to change not only my situation, but the physical nature of my body.   When bad things happen, people are apt to say, "Take care of yourself."  But drinking tea and meditating are sometimes just not enough. I had excellent psychological support; but I am convinced that it was brute physical stamina which really allowed me have the strength to make a serious life change.  

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