A Girl, A Truck, A Surfboard and A Search For Something More. Melanie is a creature of challenge. Some challenges she chose. Others were chosen for her. All of them combined conspired to forge an indomitable will and ignite a spirit of adventure and discovery. She is currently out there in the world, where she spends her days surfing, writing and trying to learn what life has for her.
Since experiencing major disk damage in my spine last January I’ve had to learn to be in conversation with my body at a new level.
Each morning I communicate with my body. Mostly I listen and let it talk. I take 15 minutes every morning just to breath, use my massage tools, and check in. What aches? Has the pain shifted? Increased or decreased? How’s my energy?
And it’s starting to spill over into everything. Half way through a meal I’m catching myself checking in with my hunger. I’m starting to recognize the moment anxiety arrieses by the way it feels in my body. I can feel myself resisting a test. I can feel authenticity in my interactions with other people.
Currently my rehab includes swimming and riding the exercise bike a few times per week, light weights on the machines and PT. I’ve been surfing about once per week. I really don’t know how much is too much. So I constantly have to check in. I’m starting to understand my body in a whole new way.
The surf conditions were epic. The weather was hot, as only “Mexican hot” can be. The walk from the shade, across the beach to enter the ocean, was so dehydrating that I actually brought a little water bottle with me out to the line up. I tied the bottle to my bikini strings and stuffed it inside the back of my bottoms. Cute.
The wind blew straight from the shore into the faces of the waves, causing them to stay open and hollow. When the wind blows in the wrong direction, it causes the waves to collapse too soon, ending the ride and often smashing the rider. But that day, the wind was perfect. The swell size was not too big that I was terrified, but just big enough to push me out of my comfort zone. I had left Puerto Escondido for a few days to surf one of the point breaks a couple of hours south. I wanted to put in more wave time, in less crowded and less challenging conditions, trying to improve my technique as my coach suggested.
That day, the vibe in the water was amazing. We hooted each other into waves and cheered as we watched each other get pitted inside barrels. The swell direction hit a finger of land that jutted into the ocean just perfectly. The waves wrapped around the pointed landmass to create rides of up to a third of a mile. By the time I finished a wave, my legs would be burning. By the time I paddled my board all the way back to the place I had started, my arms would be burning. I never wanted to sit up on my board and wait too long for my next wave, because my skin would be burning. When the wind and the swell and the tide and the sand bar and the crowd vibe all come together to create optimal conditions, surfers anoint the day with the word “epic”. When all the conditions align to form an Epic Day, you have to surf. These are the days for which you call in sick to work. Surfers spend hours, weeks on end, logging time in crappy, sloppy, stormy, way-too-small and way-too-huge days, rehearsing for a day of perfect peaks and barrels.
I surfed as much as my body could take that day. Then I forced myself to surf some more. I was there to improve my technique, and with each ride I could feel something clicking into place. Each time I caught a wave, I would say “One more!”. One more lasted for hours. I came in to take a break to eat, power nap in a hammock and hydrate.Then I went right back out. My body begged for a break, but I had to take advantage of the conditions. I did this three times: surf, eat, nap, repeat. I surfed 8 hours that day.
The next day, the waves were equally good, but many people were tired from the day before. That meant even more waves to myself. Others listened to their tired bodies and slept in. I was equally tired, but I had a goal; they were just surfing for fun. I repeated the entire day: Surf, eat, nap, repeat. I surfed 7 hours that day.
I took a couple of heavy falls and landed hard on my board after kicking out of a couple of waves. But it wasn’t difficult to ignore the pain when I was making so much progress. In addition, a photographer whom I knew was patrolling the beach, and he promised to give me photos after the session. After each ride, I fought the current, paddling back out with a huge grin on my face. The “stoke” (the surf term for excitement/love/passion/vibrance/aliveness) filled my heart. By the evening of the second day, I could feel a couple of those falls in my rib cage. Once or twice, I had sailed ten feet above the surface of the ocean–as high as my leash would let me–and landed hard on the board beneath me. Taking to my bed that night, I noticed that it hurt to take a deep breath. Too exhausted to care, I slept hard despite the pain.
The day after my two-day, perfect-wave whirlwind, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. My entire body felt compressed. I woke up convinced I was suffocating. I tried breathing deeply, but sharp pain shot through my rib cage. I tried rolling to my side, but the same hot pain stabbed my lungs. I managed to get myself to a seated position on the edge of my bed. I perched there for a moment, allowing the pain to subside, taking short shallow breaths. I made my way to the mirror and lifted my shirt. Something was poking out of my lower left rib cage. You’ve got to be kidding me! I twisted my torso slowly, the pain causing hot tears to pool in my eyes as I tried to pop the bone back in. It felt like a sharp knife was slicing my flesh when I twisted. But I’m here to improve…I have to surf!
Slowly and gingerly, I gathered my board and my beach bag. With slow steady, breaths, I hoisted myself into my car. When I pulled up to the beach, I saw that the waves were still pumping. I dragged my board down to the water. The moment I laid on my board, pain shot through my entire body. I thought if I just warmed up and worked through it, the pain might correct itself. I thought I was just being lazy. I thought that surrendering to pain meant I wasn’t committed to my goal.
As I tried a pop-up, my body rebelled completely, crumpling under its own weight. The wave swallowed me and spit me out the other side. I paddled back to shore, dragged my board back to the car, drove back up the hill, got back in bed, and cried–more out of despair than pain. My goal had just taken a major setback. More than two months would pass before I would surf again.
T-Minus 3 years
“Inhale, step or hop your feet to the front of your mat. Exhale as you surrender your strength in a forward fold. Inhale, engage your core on and lift halfway…”
I instructed my yoga class while physically demonstrating the proper positions. At 9:00 am, it was my second class of the day. It was my fifth class of the week, and it was only Tuesday. Coaching my class to use their cores to lift their backs, I lifted my own back. But I was too focused on the words I was saying, too tuckered out from the intense class schedule and my own workouts, and too distracted by a separate, full-time job and a messed up marriage. I forgot to use my muscles and, instead, simply relied on my flexible spine to do what it had always done. Suddenly, something felt hot.
I attempted to stand tall and something popped. Sharp pain shot through my lower back, into my hips and down my legs. Emitting a yelp, I collapsed to the floor. My students jumped from their mats to help. I was incredibly embarrassed and refused to stop the class. I caught my breath and gingerly made my way to my feet. Through gritted teeth, I taught for another forty minutes.
After class, when the last student had left, I laid down on the studio floor and cried. The movement while teaching had prevented the pain from setting in all the way, but it assailed me completely now. I remained still for a few minutes, after which my back locked up completely. I was unable to raise myself from the floor. I crawled to my phone to call Kurt. He was working and didn’t answer. I didn’t feel like bothering anyone else. On the floor, unable to move, I cried. My tears flowed more from facing the fact that I would have to slow down than than from the physical pain. It would be weeks before I would practise yoga again.
T minus 8 months
It was a beautiful, sunny day in Ocean Beach, San Diego. The waves were knee-to-waist high and perfect for longboarding. I finished teaching my two Saturday morning yoga classes, rushed everyone out the door and jetted home to grab my surfboard. All I wanted to do was surf. I was so burnt out on teaching, and my body craved the ocean. The water temperature was only in the upper 60s, but the sun was shining so I opted to “bareback”, or surf without a wetsuit. I put on my most colorful bikini–the one that matched my surfboard. I power-walked toward the ocean, strutting my stuff along the five blocks to the beach. I made sure to walk along Abbott Avenue, knowing it would be busy with lowriders, Harleys and muscle cars out for a Saturday afternoon beach cruise. I reveled in the honks, engine revs and head turns.
Once my feet hit the sand, I sprinted to the water, jumped on the board (landing on my knees) and stylishly knee paddled through breaking whitewater with the balance of a cat. Arriving at the deepest part of the line up, the spot where the best surfers sit, a set came instantly my way. I whipped around, caught the wave and danced to the nose of the board. A crowd of male surfers looked over their shoulders in unison to watch me. As a nice, sweet finish, I spun the nose of the board back toward the line up, delicately landed on my belly and began to paddle back out.
Right then, a bigger wave broke right in front of me. My instinct told me the wave was too big for paddling over the top, that I should roll myself under the board, completing a maneuver called a “turtle roll”. But my arrogance told me that if I pulled off the longboard version of the duck dive maneuver, sending my board flying above the whitewash, I would be pretty badass. And I would still have dry hair even after riding a wave–a badge of honor. So I charged straight ahead toward the crashing wave, shoved the front of the board down into the white wash with all my might, and hopped on the back of the board with my feet, forming a down dog shape with my body. But I misjudged the speed, power and strength of the wave. More accurately, I misjudged my own speed, power and strength. The nose of the board flew up to meet my face, the smack sending searing pain into my nose and mouth. Not wearing a leash that day (because I was too good to need one, only kooks wear leashes on small days, everyone knows that), my board was swept into the beach and I was forced to swim. As I came up from under the water, I put my hand over my face. My nose was flat…it felt like my nose wasn’t there at all. Blood, a lot of it, covered my hand, chest and belly, staining my favorite bikini.
I kept my hand over my face as I went hunting for my board. It had washed a hundred yards down the very well-attended, Saturday afternoon beach. I kept my hand over my face as I walked to the lifeguard station. I removed my hand only long enough for the lifeguard to say I would need “a stitch or two” and I should go to urgent care. I replaced my hand on my face as I walked five blocks home, avoiding eye contact with all the head-turners. I kept my hand on my face as I drove my 1971, cherry red convertible. I’d been planning to drive it around town that afternoon to make some heads turn, but instead of cruising the beach, I drove to the urgent care. I was turned away from urgent care and told to go to the ER, because I would need to see a plastic surgeon. I replaced my hand on my face and cried my way to the hospital.
I waited for the doctor to make thirteen stitches in my torn up lip. My teeth had ripped through. The doctor set my nose at straight as it would get. I wanted to call Kurt. I wanted him there with me. But we had separated months ago, and I knew that any communication would make matters worse. I cried, not from the pain in my face, but from the absurdity of being a starved-for-attention idiot, alone in an ER.
After I injured my rib, I was forced to take a two month break from surfing to heal. During that time, I focused on maintaining my fitness. I did one hour of yoga, one hour at the gym and I ran. I began to challenge myself with the length of time I could run per day. By the end of the two months, I was running two hours per day on the beach. I was fitter than ever before. I had an additional fifteen pounds of muscle on my body, gained when I had first fired the food police, but an extra fifteen pounds of fat had mostly melted away. After two months of training, photographing waves and working on my breath-holding, getting back in the water felt better than ever before. After a few days back, I had some success on some respectable sized waves.
The thing about surfing at the Mexican Pipeline is that it is completely dependent on the wind. Every morning, the wind descends the mountain and causes otherwise unreadable, closeout waves to stay open and hollow, forming tubes into which you can wedge yourself and hopefully emerge before they swallow you. By late morning, the winds switch and nearly all of the more than a hundred surfers clear out. The waves are so powerful that you don’t want to get caught by those monsters when they don’t have good form. There are always a few guys in their late teens and early twenties, machine-like humans in the prime of their physicality, who surf in these life-threatening conditions. Occasionally we’d get a LAGO, a Late Afternoon Glass Off, in which the winds revert to offshore late in the day. When this happened, I could watch from my upstairs window as the streets flooded with people carrying surfboards, rushing toward the ocean. I had read some research showing that, in order to become an expert at anything, all ones needs to do is log about 10,000 hours of practice. I estimated that, if I surfed everyday for as long as the wind allowed, then I would be a pro by the time I was 45. I was desperate for faster progress.
One afternoon, a 23-year-old male friend of mine said he was going surfing and invited me to join. I asked if the wind was okay and he said yes, that it would be fun. Anxious for more wave time, I grabbed my board and walked to the beach. I saw him out in the water already, throwing airs and hacking turns. There were only a handful of other people out, not the normal afternoon crowds in good conditions. It felt like poor wind to me. But he was getting waves and so were the other guys; why shouldn’t I be able to as well? After all, I was in awesome shape and surfing really well…and I really did need to log as many hours as possible to improve as quickly as possible. So, I listened to The Voice that urged a rush to be successful, and I paddled out.
I struggled to make it out of the white water. There was no deep water channel to paddle through, so I had to duck dive my board over and over, each time getting pushed backward toward shore. It must have taken me twenty minutes to make it out. By the time I finally made it, I knew that I shouldn’t be out there. The Voice tricked me, sounding like it was on my side for once, But you need to learn to take beatings, that’s all part of it, you can handle whatever the ocean dishes out. You can do anything those boys can do. Or are you too weak and lazy?”
It didn’t take long for a set to line up. I put my head down and paddled hard, committing myself, feeling the fear and moving toward it. I dropped in left, on my back side, grabbed my outside rail, forcing the inside rail of the board deeper into the face of the wave so I could continue going left rather than straight. But the wave didn’t open up and let me into its cavern like the morning waves did. Insead it smacked me with its lip and plunged me so deep I hit the sand on the bottom. I bounced off the sand and started to come up when the force of the wave caught my leashed ankle and yanked my leg. I felt a pop in my knee, I swear I even heard it underwater. I knew instantly that I had torn my MCL.
When I came up, I rode the board on my belly. Hobbling back to my apartment a block away, I passed by a board repair shop. A bunch of guys I knew were standing out front, drinking afternoon beers. They saw me limping. When they realized that I was hurt–but not severely– they all started to laugh. Oscar, the local big wave surfer who originally gave me his stamp of approval to surf big, said, “Why you gunna surf when the waves is shitty? You need to learn to tranquila.”
Luckily, the tear was minor. Only two weeks of absolute boredom and depression were required before I could return to progressing toward my goal. When I got home, I closed all the blinds, turned on the fans, put ice on my knee, propped it up on a pillow, laid in my bed and cried. More from self-hatred than from pain.
Sipping black coffee, I trudged through early morning snow on my way to my 8:00 am Physics Lab. My stomach growled.
“Hunger is the feeling of Skinny. You love this feeling.” I whispered it aloud.
It quickly became a mantra. I would repeat it hundreds of times over the next decade.
I became addicted to the feeling of being without oxygen. It is a euphoria, only experienced when one pushes past the limits of what seems humanly possible. Everything goes numb. You lift out of your body. Your mind goes to a still place. You want to give up, your body convulses, but your mind pays no heed. In this state, you learn who is boss. You learn that your mind can and will override your body, if you train it.
I was feeling that familiar high the first time I forced myself to blackout. It felt like refusing food when I was starving. It felt like stepping on the scale and seeing a lower number. It felt like putting on clothes that had become too big on me.
I could feel the blackout approaching before it actually hit. There was a moment in which I chose to move toward it rather than away from it. Feeling my body slipping away, I embraced the fear of what might come next. I have no idea for how long I was out, but my guess is only a few seconds. When I came back, the first thing I noticed was vibration. The entire universe was vibrating. My ears were ringing and my surroundings were in black and white. Slowly, the ringing stopped, color returned and the vibrations around me stilled. But my body still buzzed. Nearly three minutes elapsed before I was even aware that I could move again.
Breath-holding became a regular part of my big wave training. Molding my mind and body into that of a big wave surfer became an obsession. Up until that point in Mexico, I paid nearly zero attention to nutrition, I had finally fired the food police, and it felt amazing. I was eating cereal for two meals a day and snacking on packages of cookies in between. Because carbs had been totally off limits for years, it now felt amazing not to give a crap. Some days, I ate four bowls of cereal for breakfast and felt absolutely no guilt. Eating without guilt was so fun. I could have ice cream at any time of the day, twice a day if I wanted. It was like going off to college for the first time after having lived under my parents’ strict rules. It was like never having a curfew. It was like being old enough to get into the club. It was like sex after marriage; guilt-free. Yes, I was definitely a little flabby, but my surfing kept me healthy and I really didn’t care about ten to fifteen pounds of extra fat if it meant I didn’t need to think about food. Men didn’t seem to care, and if they did, screw ‘em! With all the male attention I could handle from the machismo Latino culture, I didn’t have to think twice about slathering a little peanut butter on my gluten-filled toast. For the first time in my life, I was confident in my own skin.
Something started to shift when I owned the fact that I could indeed surf bigger waves if I wanted to. I started noticing that, after a heavy meal, I felt slow and sluggish; it affected my workout motivation. There was no room for slow and sluggish when dropping in on a twenty foot wave. For the first time in my life, I wanted to eat more fresh and living food. And it had nothing to do with the way I looked in a bathing suit. I started looking at cookies and sweets as roadblocks to big wave surfing. I lost the taste for them. Never, ever, ever in my life had I looked at a cookie and not wanted it. But, little by little, willpower was being replaced with want-power.
I had to deal with fears I didn’t even know I had. I kept getting myself in perfect position for a nice wave, but fear would block me at the last second. Fear can prevent you from taking the last stroke, and you miss the wave altogether. But after the commitment has been made it can be worse to back out. Fear can make you second guess your skill, and give you the worst beat down of your life.
When you are taking a wave, there is a moment in which you must commit 100%. There is a point of no return. If you are not beyond certain that you are going to take this wave, then you will do something to prevent yourself from going for it. For me, that moment of self-sabotage is when I look over my shoulder to see if anyone else is going deeper. That one look is all it takes to slow my paddle speed by a split second and prevent me from getting the wave. It is an excuse. It is a reason to not pull the trigger. In big wave surfing, the consequences of this minute pause can be fatal. If the surfer backs off just a split second too late, the wave picks her up and throws her over the lip into the worst possible position. The hapless surfer enters “The Impact Zone”, where waves crash like bombs. And even if you do pull off early, the rest of the line up gets pissed at you for wasting a wave.
So, I decided to go hunting for fear, any place I could find it. To muster courage in situations with big consequences for messing up, I felt I most certainly needed to master myself in matters of little consequence.
I hated fish. I once threw up after taking a big bite of clam chowder which I mistook for corn chowder. The truth is that I feared fish. I didn’t grow up eating much of it, and thought it was pretty weird.
I had already encountered “pescado entero” or whole fish. A fish, fried in oil, with nothing but the guts removed, served on a plate with the head and tail still intact. I was shocked when a head appeared on my plate, eyeballs gazing up at me in silent accusation. I was further shocked when I later discovered that the head, brain and eyeballs were considered the best part of the fish, traditionally reserved for the head of the household.
“Just eat it. Eat one eye. What’s it going to hurt?” The guy at my table pushed the fish head toward me.
“No way! I’ve had enough to eat. What’s it going to get me?” I challenged.
He replied simply. “Balls.”
He had a point. I used my fingers to scoop out an eye. I chewed exactly once. It didn’t pop as much as I expected it to. But neither did I. Something clicked. If I wanted to do scary stuff that could kill me, I needed mental strength. Over the next few weeks, pig brains, bovine testicles, raw reptile eggs and grasshoppers would become part of my big wave training program.
Crunching on grasshoppers or holding my breath until I passed out was one thing. Getting pitched over the lip of a wave as big as a house with enough force to break my back was another. But surfers did it, all the time. It was doable and I knew it. People take wipeouts, big, gnarly, heavy wipeouts, and they survive them without injury. I knew what I had to do, I had to take some of those wipeouts.
It all started innocently enough, the slipping-back into control mode. I wanted to surf better, so I began training harder. Little by little, want-power reverted into a familiar control high.
I started running sprints on the beach. I hate running on soft sand. I also hate sprinting. To make it worse, I would sprint and then hold my breath at the end of the sprint while I continued to walk, simulating riding a wave and taking a big wipeout. My body would feel the most intense discomfort of my life during these breath-holding bouts. It was as if my cells were shutting down. Nothing but pure big wave lust drove my movement. Lactic acid filled every muscle, and I felt as if I was being burned at the stake. Rest. Breathe. Repeat. I have put myself through some grueling workouts, but nothing comes close to this type of training.
“Hunger is the feeling of being Skinny” got replaced with a subconscious mantra, “Choking for air is the feeling of surfing big waves”
In the past, my motivation for completing an awful workout had always been how I would look when it was over. I would imagine myself feeling confident as I strolled the beach in my bikini. Now, for the first time ever, I pushed my body to its limit for reasons that had nothing to do with aesthetics. I felt proud of myself for this. Instead, I imagined myself getting held down by wave after wave, effortlessly getting myself to safety with the calm of a warrior.
But to be honest, I’d also imagine seeing myself in an epic photo, surfing a massive wave. My motivation was mostly intrinsic. I wanted to see what I was capable of at the edge of human existence. But that element of validating myself as a human by my performance had not yet been smashed within me.
I quit letting myself enjoy afternoons “wasted” in hammocks with my friends. Instead, I’d go home to study surfing clips. I stopped going out dancing at night–as is popular in Puerto–so I could get to bed earlier. I began turning down invitations for dates rather than looking for them. And, to be honest, I grew quite lonely. But I was satisfied with the trade-off.
I controlled as many variables as I could. My fitness was on point. I was running, doing yoga, bodyweight exercises and surfing everyday. My breathwork was superb. My confidence was abundant. But I still lacked one thing: actual skill on a surfboard. So, I set out to control that factor as well. The words of my high school basketball coach rang in my ears: “If you want to get good at shooting free throws, you have to shoot a lot of free throws.” I wanted to get good at surfing. I needed to surf a lot of waves.
On one of those extra-large days, I sat on the beach at MexPipe, watching the pros paddle out. It was so big that specialized equipment was necessary for survival. The pros used huge, pointy boards called “guns” that they used to generate more speed to get into the waves. They wore floatation suits that made them look like sumo wrestlers. They had special leashes made extra thick, with quick-release pins just in case they went “over the falls” and their board dragged them under water. These men were going to war. They were athletes of the first class. Their minds and bodies were prepared for the battlefield. I was at the beach early because the force of the waves was shaking my apartment and woke me before dawn.
When the ocean has that much energy, the entire town does as well. The surf paparazzi already gathered on the beach. Drones equipped with cameras filled the sky, a buzzing, voyeuristic flock. I laid out my towel and snapped a larger lens onto my camera. Looking through the zoom, I spied a pink surfboard in the line up. That’s funny. In big wave surfing, the pros like to use colorful boards so they show up better in photos. Apparently, some guy wanted to stand out badly enough that he surrendered to the idea of a pink board. A few minutes later, the pink board and its rider took off on a massive barreling wave. The surfer looked like a rock climber on the edge of a massive sheer cliff. Snap snap snap, I shot about twenty frames. I touched the camera’s display screen, hitting the zoom button to admire the wave.
“What!” I said it out loud even though no one was around. The pink-boarded surfer was a woman. I looked back to the other surfers in the line up. I looked back down at my camera. I looked up at the sky. Holy crap! Women can do that too!
I drew a quick breath. Anxiety fired in my sternum. Something inside me snapped, and in that moment any excuse I had for living small was obliterated. It was like a little monster had just cracked out of its shell, deep within by belly. The anxiety spread, threatening to crush my lungs. For years, I had been fooled into believing I was damaged. Suddenly, seeing that woman blasting through barriers, I saw the truth. My greatest fear was confirmed: I was more powerful than I had ever imagined. My heart swelled. My head went wild. You can do that too. My mother’s words flashed through my mind: “You can do anything you set your mind to.” I was empowered…and terrified.
Offering a way out, The Voice quickly enumerated a list or reasons why I couldn’t do it:
I am female. Well, I guess that reason was now invalid.
I am too old. Actually, I remembered, most of the big wave surfers I had met were older, simply because of the mental maturity required to play the game at that level.
I haven’t been surfing since I was a child. But research is showing that adults actually learn at the same rate as children, if they can clear their minds of learned patterns. Neuroplasticity supports the training, and I was witnessing it in myself as I lived in a new culture and learned a new language.
My body is too big. Big wave surfers are often bigger than your average surfer. Most of the pros on the World Surf League tour have gymnast body types. Such bodies can throw airs and make huge turns. But big wave surfers don’t do those maneuvers. They need brute force to be able to paddle into mountains and survive beatings.
My heart reminded The Voice of some pertinent facts: In high school I played soccer. I was the starting goalie, a position requiring fearlessness to dive head first for the ball, sacrificing my body with every play. I also played basketball. I was the center, a position in which a big body and brute strength dominated. After high school, I played linebacker in the National Women’s Football Association, a full-contact, semi-pro football league for women. Again, a position of fearlessness, aggression and power.
I was an athlete. I had always been. In that moment, I embraced it. My body and my mind were made for big wave surfing.
I told no one about what I had seen that day. I was terrified that my ego was out of control. The truth was that I was still very much a beginning surfer. I worried that people would laugh, that I would be forced to face some unfaceable reality. But, the little fire that had started in my belly was growing bigger each day. I started to let myself believe that it was possible for me to do what I had seen that woman do. Though I couldn’t admit it to anyone else, I started to create my own reality.
A few days passed. Still, I remained silent. One day, I ate lunch with a group of very competent surfers from Peru and one local professional big wave surfer. We chatted about the training required to surf big. The local pro, a guy who was actually living it, a guy who had seen me surf on multiple occasions, looked at the other guys and said something I will never forget:
“Melanie should surf big. She gots the body for it and she not afraid.”
I flashed back to Mr. Hilbert’s words, “You have some ability in Math,”
I heard Kurt’s voice, “You are so smart,. You can start any business you want.”
In that moment, the baby monster exploded in my chest. That was the only thing missing. In my own head, I was struggling to hear the difference between The Voice and my truth, but validation from an outside source who has actually been where I wanted to go was exactly the confirmation I needed. With a casual comment, the pro confirmed that my reality was real enough. I couldn’t keep silent any more.
“I want to surf big!” I blurted out.
“Then do it.” He gave me the permission.
It was one of those days that forever demarcates a Before and an After
Controlling My Body, on a Whole New Level.
T-minus 1 year
Submitting to my hunger sucked.
I slowly began to admit to myself that I did, indeed, as the therapist had told me, have an eating disorder. After eight years of starving myself, three years of compulsive exercise and restrictive dieting, followed by a few years of bulimia, I finally accepted it.
I was starting to develop a deep sense that my body needed to feel safe. It needed an abundance mentality about food. My body was fighting for survival. I understood this meant eating as much as I wanted, of whatever I wanted, until my body was persuaded that it could get what it needed, when it needed it. But, releasing control and giving into desire isn’t easy. Not when you’ve grown up believing the body is flawed from birth and should be kept under tight reins at all times, lest its sinful passions be allowed to consume you.
I toyed with the idea of trusting my body. The Voice kept reminding me of my inescapably sinful nature. From birth, I was a disgrace before God. Intellectually, I knew these ideas were wrong. Unlearning them would be a process. At my core, i knew I was good. I understood that my body and my desires were not things to be controlled, kept under lock and key, but rather friends who would help me to live my best life. Yet, acting on on this belief was incredibly difficult. Releasing control would mean gaining weight, I just couldn’t go there.
There was a famous hamburger joint in Ocean Beach with the best milkshakes on earth. During one of his visits, my Dad let me have a sip of his own milkshake. That memory of sweet, cold cream on my lips, running down my throat, kept me up at night. In a book by Geneen Roth, I’d read that in order to recover fully from disordered eating patterns, you need to eat when hungry, but only eat what you are truly hungry for. I decided that, next time I was hungry, I would trust my desires and allow myself the indulgence of a milkshake. This would break pretty much every rule I’d ever had about food: no dairy, no sugar, no carbs, no bad fat.
It took a few weeks before I was both hungry and hungry-for-a-milkshake–at the same time. When the day arrived, I grabbed my phone with excitement to order the milkshake to go. On the other end, a woman picked up, and I could hear in the background the telltale clanking and chatter of a restaurant.
“Hodads. How can I help you?” She sounded like a fat lady.
“I would like one strawberry milkshake, please.” I was surprised that my voice didn’t crack. My hands were definitely shaking
“Alrighty, that $5.17 and I’ll have that ready in about ten minutes.”
WAIT! That was it? I’m not sure what I expected her to say, but something a little more judgmental would have been appropriate. I mean, what kind of gross slob orders just a milkshake at two in the afternoon? Where was her surprise? Where was her shock? No scolding?
I jumped on my bike and sped to the burger joint to pick up my sin. I walked up to the counter, sunglasses still on. I knew a lot of people in that little town. What if someone saw me?
“I have a to-go order,” I told the lady at the counter. She wasn’t fat. Clearly, she never ate the food at her place of employment. I assumed she would recognize me as the fat slob with whom she had just spoken and know instantly which order was mine.
“What was it for, hon?”
Oh, she didn’t know? I removed my sunglasses. I leaned in and practically whispered,
“A milkshake, a strawberry milkshake.”
“Is that it?” she asked, setting down in front of me a gleaming, white paper cup. She expected me to eat more?!
Salivating, I handed over the money. I grabbed the straw, purposely leaving it wrapped. I wanted to wait. I had planned to sit on the beach to savor the object of my desire. But the one block walk to the beach was simply too long, I couldn’t make it all the way. As soon as I was out the door, I plunged the straw to the bottom of the thick liquid, pursed my lips over the red straw and sucked hard.
Disappointment swept through my body. The shake wasn’t that good. Well okay, it was good in a way…but it was really, really sweet. Sweet and, well, not that good. I took another sip. Nope, not that good. I finished it off anyway, but the sexiness of the forbidden was gone, along with the desire ever to have a Hodad’s milkshake again.
“La Chica, La Chica!” The entire class was cheering for me to come up front. There were about thirty-five guys and five women in the class. Were were all in a twenty-hour course designed for big wave surfers and body boarders. The training focused on breath-holding to survive long hold-downs. We were nearing the end of the course, and the instructor was explaining that, as you hold your breath, your heart slows down to conserve energy. Being that I was a yoga instructor and in the best shape of my life, I had earned a reputation for being able to hold my breath for quite a long time. Of course, I loved attention, so I jumped up and mounted the stage when asked to give a breath-hold demonstration to the class. A heart rate monitor was placed on my middle finger. I laid down on a towel and started to slow my breathing. The entire class left their seats and gathered in a circle to watch the digital readout on the monitor.
Inhale…long slow exhale….inhale…long slow exhale….inhale belly, inhale ribs, inhale chest, inhale throat…hold. I closed my eyes and let space and time drift away. I was just a body. Time passed but I didn’t know it. I was focused on how my body was responding to the change in its physical state. I waited, completely calm, completely still. No one in the room made a sound. As time passed, my body grew uncomfortable and eventually started having minor convulsions, like hiccups without the breath. I knew this to be my halfway point. When this happens, my lungs feel panicked and desperate. My body is fighting for survival. But my brain knows better. My brain has a lot of practice in controlling my body. My brain understands that I’m only halfway there, and even if I push a little too hard, the worst case scenario is that I black out. In which case, I’ll involuntarily resume breathing with no long term negative consequence.
The convulsions continued and strengthened. I told myself to feel and enjoy them. I told myself that it is just sensation. I told myself to move into the sensation. For a brief second, I noticed my extremities were numb. My heart had stopped pumping blood to them in order to preserve blood flow for vital life functions. A wave of panic struck, feeling strangely like guilt. I felt like my sternum was burning in acid. I made no attempt to calm myself. I liked this feeling. I told myself to like this feeling.
I told myself to move into the fear, to feel it, to make friends with it. I became aware that the crowd of people above me had fallen utterly silent. I wondered if they were holding their breath too. The idea that this was a performance, that I would be applauded for my success, fueled me to move deeper into the sensation of my body slowly powering down. At some point I realized, I am not going to stop. I am not going to draw another breath. I felt utterly at peace with this. The sensation in my lungs was awful. My legs felt like I had been sitting on them for hours, but my mind was blank–no, better than blank. My mind was high. Convulsions shook my entire body. Every fiber of my being screamed for breath, but my mind was getting a control high.
I felt so proud of myself for being able to deny my needs that I actually loved the feeling of being without.
Eventually, the instructor tapped me on the shoulder and told me to stop. I remember that, as I came back, a young guy shouted “Treinta y tres! Treinta y tres!” My heart rate had slowed to 33 beats per minute, having started at 93 before the breath-hold. It had been four minutes and twenty-five seconds since my last breath. I had learned to control my body so well, I could control my heart rate.
*some names have been changed to protect privacy
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