Monday, November 30, 2009

Testing Your Boundaries

I lay on my stomach on wrestling mats while a strong man pressed what felt like his fist or elbow, or maybe some other kind of blunt weapon, into my lower back, putting the full weight of his body behind it. I tried to focus on breathing, drawing in breaths as deep and regular as I could make them, because this hurt a lot. The spot he was pressing into felt like the precise origin of the nerve that had been cramping up my lower back, tightening my right hip, sending flashes of pain down my calf and into my ankle.

Despite the fact that I had been in almost constant pain for several months, this fist or elbow accessed extra-deep pain that I didn’t realize was hiding there, like the pea under the mattresses, a crippling vulnerability that I did not know I had.

“Hmph,” said the thai massage practitioner, releasing the elbow. “You’ve been testing your boundaries.”

Testing my boundaries? What do you mean?

“Have you been throwing roundhouse kicks?” he asked me.

Of course, I wanted to say, scandalized. I could feel my face conveying my horror. Please, please don’t tell me I can’t throw roundhouse kicks again.

When I had my first encounter with the sciatica, I couldn’t stand upright for a day, could barely walk for a week, couldn’t touch my toes or lift my leg more than two feet off the ground for two months. It was now a month and a half since I had started throwing roundhouse kicks again, and I didn’t know what I would do with myself if he told me I had to stop.

“Yes, but…” I said, about to explain how I was throwing them so carefully, light, not full-power.

“For someone coming off sciatica, it’s pretty risky to be throwing them at all,” he said. “That’s testing your boundaries. Seeing how much you can do before you get injured again.”

I started to protest, to justify my actions: No, no, I was being careful.

“It’s okay, everyone does it,” he said. “Everybody wants to test their boundaries. That’s why we do so much stuff that hurts us.”

I know lots of people who seem perfectly content within their boundaries, who don’t feel the compulsive drive towards self-destructive activities, whether they are "healthy" or "unhealthy." Still, I had to agree that for most people I know who are heavily involved in any athletic activity, there is an element of self-destructiveness driving them. This isn’t just true of martial artists, though the self-destructiveness is a bit more self-evident in their sport. But I’ve seen people pursue hobbies like spinning or Pilates with equal reckless abandon, working out through colds, flus, bad backs, sprained shoulders.

My friend Julian plays soccer with a compulsiveness that could easily be called an addiction. He continues to play through all sorts of injuries that should rightfully preclude him from athletic activity, not just a game here and there, but all-day marathons. His Facebook updates regularly look something like: Supposed to be resting my hurt knee. Playing three games today, two scheduled and one sub.

It’s an addiction, certainly. But at least it’s a healthy addiction, people tell me, usually after pointing out that running sprints in between two kickboxing classes might be seen as a bit compulsive.

One common definition of addiction is behavior that we cannot or will not stop, despite its negative consequences. Are our twisted knees and sprained ankles and wrenched backs and broken toes and fingers negative enough consequences to counteract all the positive outcomes of our training? Are our healthy addictions really so different than all of our other types of compulsive boundary testing?

My adorable punker student Miranda was complaining about one of her friends:

“I hate going out with Sammy because she just wants to get drunk. I keep trying to explain that I don’t do that,” Miranda says.

“You don’t drink at all?” I ask her.

“No, I don’t see the point,” she said. “Sammy is like, ‘Let’s get a bottle of chartreuse and drink the whole thing.’ And I say, ‘That’s going to make you throw up.’ And Sammy smiles and says, ‘That’s okay.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? That’s what you want? Really?’ I don’t get it.”

It’s good that she doesn’t get it, but I do, and there’s a good chance that you do, too. All too clearly, I remember that drive to drink myself half-unconscious, the weird unlikely pleasure of stumbling around like a half-witted idiot, of feeling poison in my body that was not quite enough to make me sick, but almost.

When I began doing martial arts, I suddenly lost all interest in drinking. The reason was not, as my friends presumed, because I needed to be rested and healthy for my workouts, although that was certainly a concern. Instead, the part of my psyche that had decided that semi-oblivious intoxication was a great idea was now sated. Throwing roundhouse kicks by the hundreds, continuous punches for minutes on end, running on a treadmill after class when I was so tired that even walking was difficult, getting punched in the face and kicked in the leg and slammed to the ground—these activities seemed to satisfy the same need for self-punishment and sickness that drinking previously had.

Miranda has approximately eight piercings in her face and ears, several tattoos, and is considering getting designs branded into her skin.

“Do you think your friend enjoys drinking the way you enjoy getting piercings?” I ask her.

She wrinkles her nose skeptically. “Maybe,” she says, indulging me.

She might disagree, but it seems to me that the negative consequences are part of the appeal of so much that we do. Why else do we work out until we’re sick and broken? Why do we poke holes through our bodies and inject ink under our skin? Why do we purposely cultivate unnaturally large muscles, drink poison for fun, eat chemicals that make us hallucinate, follow strangers home from the bar, work until 5 a.m., drive down country roads at 120 miles per hour, pick fights with people we care about, breathe in burning smoke to help us “relax,” fall in love with people who make us miserable? Why would we hurt ourselves if it didn’t make us feel good?

This illustration is a drawing I did during my first year of martial arts training, depicting my love-hate relationship with bruises.


Krystal said...

Nice - Oh how I can relate to this! There's an advice column I read religiously and i think you might enjoy the somewhat relevant latest entry:

Karin Spirn said...

Interesting, and kind of stressful, in a good way. I remember you sending me to a column of his many years ago, about a woman whose boyfriend wouldn't get his missing front teeth replaced.