“She is something to behold, elegant and bold. She is electricity running to my soul.” ~ Vance Joy, Georgia
“I can tell you’re a former athlete,” my Pilates instructor said after my first private lesson. “You have a lot of muscle memory. Your body is used to performance.”
I looked at her body, lithe, strong, stunning, and I wondered how she could see any semblance of strength in my own.
She was just my Pilates instructor then. Today, she’s my beloved friend, my confidant. We’ve spent numerous hours consuming oaky Cabernets and discussing the mind/body connection, our kids, our grandest ambitions, our lovers.
“It’s funny, though,” she said that first day. “You have a little issue with control. I’ve never had so much trouble moving someone’s feet into position.”
We laugh about it now, this resistance I didn’t even know I possessed. When Colleene needs to readjust me, she gives me ample warning.
“I’m going to move your feet now,” she laughs.
“Are you okay with that? Are you going to let me move them?”
As a young child, I was molested regularly. When he asked me to kiss him down there, when he showed me what to do with my small lips and hands, when he gave me beer to numb the experience, I acquiesced. I knew it wasn’t really a kiss. I had just turned double digits. I was compliant. I was a good Catholic girl, unwilling to say no, barely cognizant of the notion that I could. And when he and I were together, I simply rose from my body like a Phoenix, suspended in the damp and fetid air above us.
My mind focused on other things—the tangled hair of my Crissy doll, Kraft macaroni and cheese, the Ranger Rick Club, my new softball glove, the most recent bag of hand-me-downs from my cousins.
Some of the dresses still had tags on them.
In high school, I was a three-sport athlete, pushing my body beyond every reasonable limit. I ran until I threw up, shot free throws until my fingers were numb, exercised too many hours a day. When I felt the need to lose weight, I stuck my fingers down my throat. I took laxatives to make sure the job was complete. I stole Dexatrim from Hook’s Drugs when I could not afford to buy it.
My then-boyfriend, now-husband supported my fragile weight when I had damaged myself into submission. I did not yet trust his gentle hands. I leaned on him for balance, but I didn’t feel the sincerity in his skin, did not recognize it in his eyes.
I looked away.
Sometimes I still do.
Shortly before my 21st birthday, I was raped by a stringy-haired stranger. After a late night campus run, I unlocked the door to my apartment, and he caught it with his foot. Sweaty, spent and distracted, I didn’t even know he was there until the knife was on my throat, pressing with insistence.
“Don’t scream, Katrina,” he whispered in my ear. “Don’t try to run. I will kill you if you do.”
He knew my name, but I didn’t know him.
I didn’t scream. I didn’t run.
Suspended on the ceiling, I watched what was happening below. I glanced at the framed faces of my friends and family and silently begged them to look away. I focused on the Purple Passion carpet stain. I pondered whether or not Hedda Gabler was insane or just woefully unaccountable. When the phone rang and Chris’s voice echoed on my answering machine, I closed my eyes, pretended there was nothing of him in that violent night.
I tore and bled, but I did not feel any pain.
As a singer, it was always challenging for me to breathe diaphragmatically. My opera professor at Indiana University would push my fingers into her belly. “Do you feel what I’m doing there?” she’d ask, red hair spilling over tiny shoulders, tight abs bending to her will. “That’s what I want you to do.”
I could feel her breath, but not my own.
Songs sprang from my throat, beautiful but unsupported. The notes rained down on me, but I did not feel the power of them.
“What in the hell are you doing with your feet now?” Colleene laughs.
I laugh with her, but I can’t answer. My feet do what they want to. My hands, too. Sometimes it seems like they are not even attached to my limbs.
“You’re so cerebral,” she says. “I need you to get out of your head and feel what’s happening in your body.”
But my body has not yet proven itself to be a safe place.
Growing four babies inside my belly was a surreal experience. Sam kicked me from the inside, and it took my breath away. Not because he kicked so hard, but because I could feel him. Those tiny, forming feet, those starfish hands. I rested on my back and watched my stomach undulate with the movement of him.
I forgot to breathe as he swam inside me, somersaulting under my ribs.
“When I say inhale, I mean it,” Colleene laughs again. “And when I say exhale, I’d like you to go ahead and do that, too.” But until she spoke, I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath.
I’ve spent much of my life, I think, holding my breath. Waiting to exhale. Afraid for anyone to see my chest rise and fall with life, to claim my space in this world.
But Pilates—and my beautiful, passionate friend, Colleene—are teaching me how to inhabit myself again, to find awareness in my sinew, my bone, my essence.
I trust her to guide this journey.
As pounds melt away and my limbs stretch and lengthen, this shell of me feels foreign. Weight has been my sword and shield.
I’m not certain who I am underneath it all.
I’ve always felt deeply with my heart, but I’ve never felt my own heart.
There is still so much for me to learn, so much for me to surrender. But my muscle memory is strong.
This body—taken, battered, bruised, abused, and ultimately, sweetly and kindly loved and protected—has always known how to survive.
Tomorrow, I will let Colleene move my feet.
Author: Katrina Anne Willis
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Lien C. Lau/Flickr