The summer of my 16th birthday, I escaped the psych hospital, made too little money on Hollywood Boulevard for a pimp, spent nights in hotel rooms with bands, watched my best friend become a junkie and wound up back in the Valley at my parents' house with my stepfather, the sexual abuser.
Living there was possibly the worst thing that could happen to me in a life of worst things that could happen. Then I got the idea of joining a gym to use the shower and put on my makeup without barricading myself in a bathroom and listening to my stepfather pick the flimsy lock.
This was 1973 and gyms were not block-long mega-complexes yet. The only one I knew was a storefront on Ventura Boulevard in a good area of the Valley, kind of far from my home. The gym was named, appealingly, World for Women, and had an 18 and older policy. I used my fake ID.
I went to the gym straight from wherever I was the night before, with my bag of toiletries and clean clothes. At first I felt self-conscious, like a scruffy rat slinking among the Valley mothers (and Mrs. Krieger, my high school math teacher, naked in the locker room!), but when I realized that no one paid attention to who's in the gym, I became a little bolder and went in the swimming pool.
The cold water washed away the night's detritus, the caked-on makeup, the hazy drug hangover, the pungent smell of sweat and the remnants of sex. I started swimming laps and felt my body getting stronger, like when I was a little girl who won school ribbons for handball and the rings.
Venturing into the room with exercise machines that hardly anyone used, I got stronger still. Exercising was my secret. It didn't exactly mesh with the groupie/rock star image, where being scrawny, sluggish and sickly pale was the norm.
In 1978, after I returned from London, gave up my punk style because I needed a job and found an apartment in the Valley with a roommate, I joined the YMCA 5 a.m. running and drill exercises class. Our leader, a Vietnam vet, who was a hippie or Buddhist or whatever was going on at the time, put us softies through military moves, while giving us words of wisdom such as, "If you don't like your job — QUIT!" I wrote in a diary from then: "My body is a machine. No one will get in. I'm impenetrable."
A couple of years later, at 22, I became a dedicated bodybuilder. Every afternoon, without fail, I left work and drove to The Sports Connection in Santa Monica. Celebrity bodybuilders went there and I went as much for the workout tips as for the equipment. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger helped me do squats and gave me a ride on his motorcycle. (Had I known he was a Republican!) My weight went from 115 lbs to 140 lbs. It was all muscle. I was formidable; a fortress. No one could get through my gates.
What changed my workout habits completely were two things: pregnancy and age.
By the time I became pregnant at 29, I was more into body-sculpting than bodybuilding. It wasn't bulk I was after but definition — being "cut" and "ripped" as they say in bodybuilder lingo. I liked manipulating my own body, having that kind of power over it. I thought of my body as something separate from me, but whose shape I was intimately engaged in, like clay to a potter. I got lots of compliments about my physique and became a personal trainer by accident (before it was a profession), because I knew so much about how to reshape a body.
So you'd think that I'd freak out about being pregnant: the loss of control, the physical vulnerability. But I loved it. It felt like the first time my body was useful in a way I wanted it to be and doing just what it was intended to do. Like when I was a child doing gymnastics at school, before my abusive stepfather taught me that my body belonged not to me, but to them.
When I was pregnant, I studied the scant material about exercise during pregnancy and did the right thing, although I still trained my clients until the day before I went into labor. It was after my second child was born that I hit the gym. It was around that time, in my late 30s, that I went to school as an undergraduate and didn't stop going to school until I almost got a PhD, and also starting running, fast. I ran through my 40s and into my 50s. I ran through divorces, mortgages and moves across states.
After I turned 50 and hit menopause, I had to workout much harder to get the same results, but at the same time, I was losing stamina. Not terribly at first, but the thought of taking the stairs in twos to the 10th floor of a building, just because, didn't provide a fun challenge as much as it made me feel weary. At the same time my brain felt sharper, my writing got better, I read more quickly.
Until last year, I was running hard, lifting the same amount of weight as when I was 40 and took up yoga. I looked and felt great for 56 years old. Then I developed life-transforming, soul-crushing, brain-deadening sciatica. It made childbirth seem a breeze. I had never been in so much pain. My doctor and chiropractor told me I had to completely overhaul my workout. I had to stop running.
We worked together on a rigorous plan and I still exercise hard, but my body is aging. At first I was annoyed as hell by the extra flesh: the softening behind my arms; the skin on my belly hanging when I'm in plank position; grab-and-hold inner thighs; and worse, my ass heading south.
This year I was given the OK to start running again, on a soft track at a college. I'm not looking to reverse the effects of aging, because, after all. my body is doing what it is supposed to do, but I've realized that long ago I took my body back and exercise is my way to stay connected to it.