Thursday, January 10, 2008

Body Memories

Every once in a while I experience something that triggers powerful, unexpected emotions. It could be a smell, or a sound, or a skin sensation, or the way light filters through the window shades. The feelings seem to flow up seemingly from nowhere: profound sadness, or fear, or happiness, or security, but without conscious understanding of where the feelings come from. I've heard people talk about "body memories," almost as if we retain certain memories not in our brains but at the cellular level in our muscles and guts and skin. Our bodies remember how we felt when we experienced a certain sensation; and the same sensation triggers those old feelings.

Today I was swimming at the YMCA, doing my laps. There were other guys swimming in the pool as well. I was using a stroke I don't usually use, and wanted to try to swim two-thirds of a mile in less than 25 minutes. As I pushed myself to swim harder, I was starting to feel a bit fatigued. And then suddenly I felt vulnerable and frightened and insecure and depressed.

I was trying to figure out where those feelings came from, and then I remembered swimming lessons as a little kid. I was maybe about ten when my dad used to take me and my brother to the local high school for Saturday afternoon swimming lessons.

I was nervous about having to get undressed in a public locker room in front of other kids. And our swimming lessons took place just as the high school football team was finishing its practice, so there were always older, high-school-age guys in the locker room as well. I remember sometimes, just as my brother and I were changing into our swim suits, they would be heading toward the showers, the coach in the lead, marching them all in single file as though it were some kind of military procession, except that they were completely naked. I would see their mature, muscular bodies, hair growing in places it wasn't growing on my body yet, and I would get an instant, full erection every time. I was completely mortified, and completely helpless to stop it. I was worried what my dad would think, though he never seem to pay any attention. One time I think a couple of the guys noticed, and one snarled at me: "What are you staring at?" It terrified me.

Then there were the swim lessons themselves. I never felt particularly physically adept in comparison to others. I had asthma, which was triggered by physical exertion, and then, if that wasn't bad enough, swimming face down invoked fear of drowning. One of the body memories I had this afternoon as I was feeling fatigued and pushing myself to swim faster, was memories, as a kid, of feeling like I was at the end of my rope, like I just wasn't going to make it to the end of the lap, my muscles aching, and feeling like I was suffocating and going to sink, and feeling desperate and afraid.

And then I realized what I hadn't realized as a kid: how demoralizing it had been for me, how defeated I had always felt after those swimming lessons. In the locker room I had been confronted with powerful, out-of-control longings and anxieties I felt powerless to manage; I was betrayed by my own body. And then again in the pool, being overwhelmed by physical demands that seemed beyond me; I was failed by my body.

The feelings were like a bad dream. Realizing where the feelings came from was like waking up. It dawned on me that I am an adult now, competent in every way I had once felt completely incompetent as a kid; having come to terms with my sexual feelings and found ways to manage them and channel them and find joy in them in appropriate contexts; having developed physically, and having become a strong swimmer in spite of my asthma. (I managed to surpass my goal and swam three-quarters of a mile in 25 minutes!) Those feelings of vulnerability and sadness had been dislodged by the physical sensation of swimming, and the sight of other men in the pool, and for a moment they engulfed me. And then when I remembered and understood, they were replaced by a growing, profound sense of happiness.

I'm not that frightened little boy any more.

10 comments:

Beck said...

I'm still that frightened little boy, particularly in a public swimming pool surrounded by other men.

J G-W said...

Beck - You won't always be.

Bill McA said...

We HAVE a pool in our backyard and just the smell of chlorine still can invoke all the same memories in me, some pleasant some not so pleasant....

Jadon said...

Funny--strong chlorine gives me flashbacks of the baptistry in the Jordan River Temple--warm, safe, sleepy--just before heading off to class.

Clark said...

WOW. Sports and locker rooms. AMEN to all that this post says. I remember once when I was about 12 I was finishing a diving practice and the entire college football team came into the open shower area and all stood around me and showered. It pretty much changed my life in ways I just can't even begin to describe.

It is so unexpected to have such strong memories and insecurities creep up on us because of certain smells or certain physical sensations. What I think is SO COOL about this post is the way you were able to handle these feelings. When we are small and afraid and vulnerable, we learn certain lessons from our experiences-- many of which my be erroneous but nevertheless SO SHAPE the way we feel about ourselves. As adults we have the power to literally change the past-- reprocess those feelings and alter the lessons we learned that may have been holding us back. Then we can learn lessons that are more true-- that we are powerful, whole and amazing-- not substandard, weak and out of control. Thanks for sharing this episode of your life!

Original Mohomie said...

Thanks for this, very hopeful, very insightful.

Bill McA said...

John,

I know you and I had several gym classes together in middle school, but I never remember your reaction being as you've described here. If I had noticed it, I'm not sure that I would have been able to control my own reaction, but all I remember is hating having to wear those skimpy speedos for swimming in gym.

Bill

Romulus said...

What an insightful post. Thanks.

J G-W said...

Bill - By the time I got to junior high, I'd learned to make quick changes, and had my external responses more or less under control... Though gym class was always still a trial!

Romulus - Thanks!

Bill McA said...

I'm sure there are millions of boys out there who go through what we did and think they are totally alone.... Kind of sad really.