Ever fantasize that, one day, you will have that perfect body, and along with the body comes a great life. All your vices will disappear the moment you are granted that body; suddenly you’ll be the woman everyone wants – the ideal sister, daughter, girlfriend, wife, mother, lover. A lot of the time I feel like I’m waiting to be perfect, like I’m practising for what comes later. Yet, in all the practice, the waiting, the agonizing over my life’s direction, I pay little heed to how some of my current decisions may compromise my future.
Instant gratification pervades today’s society. We are always connected; if someone doesn’t reply to us instantly we are offended. We expect everything to happen immediately. This is surely part of the reasons that humans fall for scams all the time – losing 5 kilograms in 2 weeks through an ancient herb from the mountains of Peru, or winning money from a mysterious Nigerian good Samaritan. All of these offers appeal because they are instant and easy.
Instead of making short-term sacrifices for the sake of our long term goals, we have another slice of cake, another beer, or purchase the must-have, latest fashions. Gym memberships go unused. People text while they are driving. We put off quitting smoking for another week. We assume that there will be a moment in the future when we will find the time, the self-control, or the motivation; even when putting something off may mean we have to grapple with a much larger problem in the future.
Despite our inability to make purely rational decisions for the benefit of our future, humans are the only animals that think about the future; but thinking about the future is different from actually living it. It’s hard to imagine yourself in the future. Our minds always tell us that we will beat the odds; bad things happen to other people, never to us. That is, until they do.
The body functions without us having to think about it. The tough part is that we don’t realise this is the case until it breaks down. A heart attack at 50 is a reminder that over-indulgence, alcohol, stress, and cigarettes take their toll. For some of us, that reminder comes a lot earlier in our stories. As a type 1 diabetic, I spend my life trying to imitate the intricate, delicate balance that comes naturally to everyone else. Ten years since diagnosis; years in which I’ve had depression, competed in triathlons, had my heart broken, broken hearts myself, and worked in rural Cambodia; I still haven’t decided whether I’m lucky or not. I’m still trying to define myself in this world, and fighting against diabetes defining me.
Diabetes is the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me. I never want anyone that I love to know what it is like to live with diabetes. I do want the people I love to know that they are not like me. They don’t live with a fear of an annual retinal exam; wondering if this will be the year that they find something, whether this will be the year that they tell me that I’m going blind. Diabetes is scary. Will I ever be able to have children? Will I go blind? Will I need a kidney transplant? Will I have to have a foot, or even a whole leg, amputated? Will I pass it on to my children? Will I have a critical hypo that I don’t wake up from? Will I end up on dialysis? Unless I make hard, disciplined decisions today, my future may entail a myriad of health problems.
There are days when I get angry that the other runners out there aren’t diabetic; that their run isn’t a rollercoaster of trying to balance sugar levels. That some days they don’t have to abandon a run because their body is unpredictable and it’s too dangerous to push it. They are not like me, they are not the same. Yet, we all face our own demons. We all know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviours. We all battle against ourselves, fighting to be mature, to be better, to treat our bodies and ourselves with the respect they deserve. But visualising the future is hard; seeing even a generation into the future is blurry. Perhaps that’s why out planet is in such an awful state already – if we can’t imagine ourselves in 50 years, how can we possibly imagine the consequences of carbon emissions on our children’s children?
So, I no longer want to wake up with the perfect body and be fabulously thin. I want to be strong; strong enough to make the hard decisions. As someone once told me ‘if you be easy on yourself life is hard, if you be hard on yourself life is easy’. Maybe today is the day to start being hard on yourself, your future may just thank you for it.
My house has running water; cold, undrinkable, straight from the Mekong River. I have been wearing the same weeks’ worth of clothes for 9 months now, which I hand-wash in a bucket. Electricity is intermittent. The toilet must be flushed manually. The average temperature most days is 40°C, and my house has a single fan. Bats, geckos, and spiders call my kitchen home. There are no shopping malls, no cinemas, no gyms, and no swimming pools (unless you count the Mekong, with the parasites and sewage that call it home). There isn’t even a supermarket.
Believe it or not though, my house in town is luxury compared to our digs in the field. I sleep in a hammock under the stars. There is no running water. No toilet. No plumbing. No sanitation. No electricity. Chickens, buffalo, and children meander around these rubbish-strewn villages. Breakfast is fish and rice. Lunch is rice and fish. Dinner is, surprise surprise, fish and rice.
I live in a province in Cambodia that practically no one has heard of, which is about 4 hours from the capital. That is, if the mini-bus (which is supposed to seat 14 people but generally has at least 20 squeezed in) doesn’t break down. I’m a relatively easy-going girl; I rarely wear makeup, my dress sense could only ever be described as practical, I like camping, and the best compliment I ever received was from a colleague who once described me as ‘a good sport’. I never thought that I’d struggle to ‘go without’ over here, but then I never knew what it was that I would be missing out on.
Given cultural barriers (and my poor language skills) I have not been lucky enough to form close friendship with any locals. Sure, we chat, but it isn’t the same as having a real, meaningful conversation. There have been evenings when I’ve found myself starting at the ceiling, wishing I had someone to talk to. Loneliness is tough. I have gone days without having anyone to talk to, days in which I have driven myself crazy by being stuck inside my own head.
I miss home; but I don’t want to go home because life will be easier there. It isn’t the soy lattes, hot showers, or supermarkets that have me fantasizing about living back in Australia. It isn’t the visits to my hairdresser, or the option of buying a new dress. It isn’t the latest film or concert.
It is my friends. I can’t live without human contact. I can’t live without the sister who believes in me, even when I’ve given up on myself. Or the girlfriend who candidly tells me I’m insane for caring, but still listens when I talk about him. Or the mate I can always rely on to read my stories and talk about books. These are the people who keep my world spinning; give me friends over luxury any day.
Heart pounding. My feet hit the pavement in a regular rhythm that syncs with my breathing. The scenery passes by and I hardly notice it. I’m in a bubble that is all mine. Some runners may overtake me, I overtake others. I don’t really notice. Instead, I concentrate on the cool air as it passes into my nose, down my throat, into my lungs. I exhale warm air as I continue striding.
I only ‘learnt’ to run a few years ago. As a swimmer at school, with short legs and no natural ability, I had avoided running. I didn’t have a runners build. I was the weakest link on relay teams at school sports carnivals. So, thinking I wasn’t any good at it, I avoided running. I gave up on myself.
My sister is a triathlete and I always watched her in awe, wondering how she could do. Then one day I decided it was about time I gave it a go. I could swim, I could ride a bike, I just needed to learn to run; put one foot in front of the other, repeat quickly. How hard could it be?
I remember the first time I ran 2 kilometres. I had just joined a novice triathlon program and at our very first training session we did a 2 kilometre time trial. I wasn’t even sure that I could run 2 kilometres. We did a warm-up jog, stretches, some run-throughs, and then it was time for the actual run. I was tired already! I made the 2 kilometres, albeit slowly, and was stoked with myself. Maybe I could face this running business after all.
I’d always had visions of myself in a tracksuit, running around an oval in the evenings, like some sort of semi-professional athlete. Now I was actually doing that (except that it was summer so I had to scrap myself wearing a fetching Adidas tracksuit from the vision). I gradually built up my running skills until I was competing in sprint distance triathlons. Then I did a 10 kilometre run. Next a half-marathon. I couldn’t believe it – the non-runner had become just that, a runner.
It’s amazing what I learnt about myself by pushing my body to do things I had never believed it could. Suddenly, nothing seemed too daunting. If I could push my body to run 20 kilometres I could do anything.
I’m not fast and I’m not particularly dainty when I run. But I am happy. I run every day because it makes me feel good about myself (so good, in fact, that I have that sentence written down in my daily planner so that I can see it every time I open it). Running allows me to think. It allows me to escape reality. It allows me to have ‘me-time’; I have no obligation to anyone else while I’m running. Running has become one of my passions.
So maybe there is something that you’ve always wanted to try, something that perhaps you thought you couldn’t do, or something where you don’t fit the stereotypical mould. Whatever it is, I urge you to get out there and try it. Give it a go. If I hadn’t stepped outside of my comfort zone I would never have learnt that, without fail, running keeps me sane, it makes me believe just a little bit more in myself, it makes me happy.
Mel Rodgers is the woman you see running along smiling; the one who makes you wonder why she is smiling while gasping for air and sweating profusely.