Excerpt from "The Grief Muscle"

On my first day back at the gym, I was still pretty depressed and distraught about my break-up. Exercise seemed to me to solve two major problems: it gave me something constructive to do since I couldn’t sleep and I felt like I could punish something—in this case, my own body—for causing me pain. Because I couldn’t take it out on anyone else—and truly, although I was hurt by my boyfriend’s message, I wasn’t angry and I still loved him—I would make the pain I felt internally something I could feel in every muscle of my body. And also, something that would, after a few days, fade away the way I hoped my sadness would.

I walked in, feeling out of touch with the gym after my two-month absence. But right away I saw Green Shorts Guy pedaling away on an exercise bike and the husky couple wrapping up their cardio on the ellipticals. Cute Gay Guy was there too, with his friend, and he’d gotten a new haircut—and it looked good! I walked on by my early morning comrades and approached the bicep curl machine, my typical starting place.

I sat down, unstrapped my iPod from its shoulder holster, and popped the buds into my ears. I hadn’t listened to my workout mix in ages—I wasn’t even sure what I would hear. Loud music filled my head and drowned out the gym’s pathetic excuse for “radio.” All the talking around me disappeared. I gripped the handles of the machine and started curling. I did about ten reps without much effort, but thought I was being too easy on myself. I increased the weight by twenty pounds and did it again. And again. And again.

Freud—that old bastion of mental health—wrote about the experience of grief in his 1917 book Mourning and Melancholia. In the discussion, Freud postulated that persons who are grieving must constantly confront the reality of their loss in order to reconcile their former reality (like being in love) to the new reality (being out of love). Among his other works, Freud frequently touched on love and intimacy, describing the way we become connected to other people as a process of internalizing them into our psyche. This is never more obvious than in romantic relationships, where couples move from two distinct “I”s into a collective “we.” That destruction of the “we,” in which the lover becomes so invested, is traumatizing.

To constantly confront the reality of the loss is no easy task. In my early stages of grief, mourning the relationship feels much like losing an arm—and truly, investing ourselves, our identity in another person can become as critical to us as a limb. This is probably why many people start at denial—this isn’t happening; I am still whole—because no one wants to be an emotional amputee.

In his consideration of traumatic events, such as the shock of a sudden loss, Freud says the mind turns toward repetition—reliving the loss again and again until it is understood and mastered. By “mastery,” Freud implies that the ego overcomes the loss, works around the loss or through it, and no longer suffers the pain of losing.

In exercise, repetition (or “reps”) leads to physical mastery. Because it is generally not possible to make one’s self experience an actual break-up over and over again, maybe the repetition becomes displaced—we turn to repetitive behavior because, in the end, we’ll feel like we mastered something. In grief, people may say the same phrases over and over again, might put on a familiar music album and listen to the same tracks on repeat—or they go to the gym, forcing their body to work through the same motions again and again until their bodies have mastered the physical burden that is a metaphor for their emotional loss.

There are pockets of early morning work out folks who band together at the gym. Women generally tend to work out with a friend or group of friends, while men congregate around the more advanced weightlifting devices, like the flat bench and the machines that use the enormous flat plates. Typically, in groups larger than just two, one man will spot another man while he does his reps; the others look on and chide him or encourage him or just tell each other jokes. This was the case with the group of men in front of me as I sat at the bicep machine lifting the most weight I’ve ever lifted (also known as “grief weight”) to offset the greatest level of grief I’d ever experienced. I held the curls for a few seconds at the height of the curl to increase the amount of damage—and ultimate repair—they’d make to my muscles. I thought about my boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—and shrouded myself in grief.

Even after two months away from the gym, my body—and my mind—were ready to work. What used to feel like an insurmountable amount of weight to lift was, today, sort of boring. I had actually lost eight pounds in my time away from the gym due to stress and poor eating habits, but my muscles seemed undiminished. A vein appeared in my right bicep, crooked, meandering its way around my arm and disappearing underneath. My hands, which used to develop callouses from gripping weight bars, were soft and still painless. I stared straight ahead and watched myself, blurred, in the mirror on the far wall. I felt resolve. I felt productive.

The grief was a great motivator. With grief comes both self-pity and self-loathing, for as the grieving party feels sadness and disappointment, there, for me, is also the frustration of having out-of-control emotions. But feelings were sneaking up on me even there at the gym, tapping me on the shoulder, and jumping into my head. The song on my iPod switched to Dannii Minogue’s “I Begin to Wonder,” a song I picked up after hearing it at my boyfriend’s place one weekend, and I clenched my curl just a little tighter. Yet another unfortunate trait of grief is that it causes you to locate deep and existential meaning in pop song lyrics:

And every time I think I’m breaking free
These thoughts return to trouble me
Hanging on to love has left me empty
You’re a sinner but you told me you’re a saint
Too fast I tripped and lost my way
Can’t believe what’s happened to me lately

I pressed the “skip” button on my iPod and moved on.

The group of men in front of me seemed to have a leader, a forties-ish man with yellow-blond hair who walked with a bit of a hunch. It was probably from working out his chest muscles too much and his back muscles not at all, I thought to myself, and reminded myself that the next day I’d have to give equal time to my lats. I gathered up my water bottle, towel, and car keys, and walked over to the chest press machines. They come in three varieties—decline, incline, and bench—and supposedly give your chest a full range of workout motion. The big group of men, about five of them, all of varying sizes and shapes, were working at a flat bench. One of the men was large and round. I thought he was just overweight until I saw him bench press six 45-pound plates at once, bouncing the bar off his chest at the sternum with each lift. I realized I had a lot of work to do.

It was only a few weeks ago that I was at this machine, doing these chest presses, when I saw a man I very briefly dated during the summer months. We’d gotten along great and I enjoyed his company, but there was something off about it. At the time, I was going on dates with several men, trying to see if I could be the kind of person who just went on dates. I’ve never been good at dating; I’ve been good—despite my track record described here—at having relationships. Dating seemed torturous, almost cruel, in its repetitiveness. Anyway this guy, let’s call him Rick (also blond, I might add), went away for a week to visit his family in California. While he was gone, I got a single text message from him, which was nice, but in the meantime I’d met and started hanging out with another guy who said he wasn’t keen on me seeing other people.

Except that I never got a chance to tell Rick that I couldn’t see him anymore. Before I could call him, he walked into the restaurant where the new guy and I were having drinks, looked right at me, and kept walking. The other guy’s arm was around me and I’m sure it was pretty clear what it all meant. Guilt stung me and I yelled at myself for not being more proactive. Rick was followed into the restaurant by a friend who, as they vanished behind a nearby wall, turned and gave me a shocked and offended expression. It was done.

On the day I saw him, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. For about ten minutes, I just thought I saw him—or someone sized and shaped very similarly to him, so I pretended not to notice. He and his friends moved to a weight bench closer to me and from that distance, even I couldn’t mistake him. He looked much the same—a bit smaller than I remembered, but generally like the Rick from last summer. I felt like he and his friends were circling me like emotional vultures, waiting for my discomfort to peak so they could dive in and pick away the tightening muscles I was working so hard to develop.

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