This is the beginning of my fifth week at the women’s gym. I try to attend six times out of seven but it doesn’t always happen. Because my life is irregular I go at different times every day; my schedule depends largely on what others expect of me.
There’s an unhappy woman. She has long blonde hair, often stretched into a ponytail. Her arms are inked and she exudes a suffering which feels familiar. I sense her effort to do well,
to be well,
as she courageously fights what she sees as a shameful relationship with failure, and a lack of faith in success.
I feel drawn to her.
I always hope she will be there when I am, but she usually isn’t.
At first I felt intimidated by her presence because I naturally shy away from those who interest me.
One day a couple of weeks ago as I was walking along a quiet alley, our paths crossed. She glanced at me, then quickly looked away. I wasn’t offended. I regularly ask myself why anybody would want to know me, suspecting that if they took the trouble they would only be disappointed.
Reclusiveness is a habit that is hard to break.
Today she was at the gym and something I said made her laugh. The humour put us in the same place and in that moment
shifted, just a little, and I knew we could be friends.
I felt her hunger, her ache, although, for what, was not yet clear. I only knew that I must hold on, I had to strengthen the connection.
After the session I was in the changing room talking to another member about children, chocolate cake, and how successfully exercise stimulates the endorphines. Just as she was leaving the woman with the tattoos walked in, catching the tail end of our conversation, and joining in with a comment or two.
I had an inspiration.
The way the conversation was going made it easy to tell her that exercising had negated my need for medication. As I named the drugs I had been prescribed I could feel her heartrate increase. She opened up and told me about her difficulties..
She blurted out her diagnosis in a rush, as if it was the only way she could find the courage to tell me. Just three words:
I saw how she regretted the telling. I saw her spirit shrink from me, her body recede, then, fearfully, she added
You probably don’t want to know me now.
I felt like holding her, rocking her in my arms
as if she was a child,
as if the cure was that simple,
but you don’t do that to a stranger when you’re standing half-naked in a changing room.
Instead I tried to reassure her, but she wasn’t convinced. She said that because of her condition, her friends had all deserted her. She said
Now you know about me I don’t suppose you’ll speak to me again.
What humiliations had she endured to make her believe such a thing? I felt like crying.
When she said I won’t hurt you, tears misted my eyes.
How must it feel to be terrified of the world, and at the same time to believe it fears and dispises you?
I know she is right; there are timid people out there who would be frightened of her, there are heartless bullies who like to victimise those at a disadvantage to themselves, and there are people who can’t be bothered with the complications of mental illness, but I am not one of them.
I can feel her worthiness, and I will get that knowledge across to her. I will even find out what her name is. For me, standing in front of someone and asking their name is a big step in a scary direction.
©Jane Paterson Basil