Standing in the middle of a house burning down all around me, while the doors to the house are locked from the outside: That’s the best way I know how to describe what it has felt like trying to navigate life amid COVID-19, most of last year until the present.
As we’ve now surpassed a full year of living within this pandemic, I’m certain I’m not the only one who has been forced to undergo some serious means of reconstruction. While COVID-19’s entry into my life wasn’t what I would call “welcome,” in hindsight I can admit that the interruption of much of what had become “normal” for me prior to COVID was necessary. In some ways, I’m more present and aware of what’s really important, including expressing gratitude, establishing boundaries, and nurturing and honoring myself more than I was before the onset of the pandemic. But many of the battles I’ve undergone within these last 11 months have been hard-fought.
As someone who has lived and walked with body-image issues all my life, I’ve come to accept them as the gifts that just keep on giving. Since childhood, I’ve been haunted by feelings of inadequacy, growing up as a chubby kid who was on more than one occasion mistakenly identified as being a girl. By the time I entered adolescence, I began to experience mild anxiety attacks whenever my “shortcomings” were brought to light. I was afraid to take off my clothes in front of other boys my age in middle-school locker rooms. I hated the image of my 16-year-old, overweight, naked body staring back at me in the mirror. I felt something was wrong with my body, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Subsequently, with each phase of my young adult life lived and experienced, the body-image issues increased.
As a Black gay man, the fact that I’ve found myself further marginalized by some in the Black gay community was just one more plot twist I couldn’t have possibly seen coming—until it did. By my early 20s, as I was being introduced to “the life,” I knew that the body-image issues would continue. Constantly reading and hearing, “No Fats, No Femmes,” or, “Athletic, in-shape, slim builds only,” (for example) was a blunt reminder of all the things I was not.
Over time, living with negative thoughts about my body had become a fact of life. But with the onset of COVID, that changed. My usual routine for keeping the body shame at bay was no longer useful to me. I had leaned heavily on going to the gyms. But come March 2020, when they began to close in the Washington, D.C., area, I couldn’t go there anymore. It was a bitter pill I wasn’t prepared to swallow.
I wasn’t fully prepared to deal with the coming blow to my mental and emotional health. To that end, my focus over the next three months became survival—literally and figuratively. While worries about being laid off from my main job and indefinitely losing all potential income from freelance and artistic work took precedence, something else was also going on. I did a lot more “emotional eating” as a result of the daily adversity and uncertainty. I was subject to more frequent and prolonged episodes of depression. At the same time, a nagging voice in my head told me I wasn’t doing enough. This was the same voice always reminding me that it was never “OK” to just be still or to allow my body to rest whenever I’d get sick.
As the pandemic continued to unfold and warm weather came, I created a new routine. This meant taking daily walks at a nearby park and working out at home with a set of resistance bands a close friend had given me almost a year earlier. While all of this was somewhat helpful in improving my mood most days, it all just felt like a Band-Aid. It paled in comparison to working out at a gym, doing cardio, and offsetting some of the additional, unwanted pounds I was quickly beginning to pack on.
By June, as some restrictions lifted in D.C. and gyms reopened with new guidelines, I felt hopeful, almost as if what felt like a nightmare was finally over. I was beyond excited for a fresh, new start. I joined a new, more affordable gym within walking distance from my home, which enabled me to burn even more calories and “course correct.” I started working out again just two weeks after restrictions were lifted, which heightened my fear of contracting the virus.
In a manner of speaking, COVID-19 became an equalizer for me. COVID-19 is no gift, but it did present me with some valuable opportunities. As unrelenting as this virus and all of its subsequent devastation has been, fortunately for me as a Black gay man living with HIV who is also an artist, this wasn’t my first time “staring down the barrel of a gun.” If there’s a silver lining to be found for me in all of this, it’s the acknowledgment that I’m still here, surviving.
It’s not my intention to glaze over any of the complicated, ugly parts of my story. The “mixed bag” of feelings about my body and self-worth are still complicated. For me, addressing the root of an issue is imperative when attempting to move through any situation. Regardless of how often I lied to myself, what I had been doing, carrying, and thinking about myself prior to all of this was not working. An interruption was necessary, which sometimes is the only way radical change can take place.
In the eight months since returning to the gym, there has been more weight gain. There are still occasional emotional eating episodes. There are times when I hit the gym hard, eat right, and sometimes I still don’t feel good enough, or worthy, or anywhere close to desirable or sexy, and sometimes I feel all those things right alongside pandemic fatigue, frustration, fear, and a million and one other things. Then there are other days when I can allow myself to be still, take a rest day, and eat whatever the hell I want without one ounce of guilt, shame, or any need to beat up on myself.
I’ve had to make some major adjustments in order to “make it all work.” I don’t have a pretty, shiny bow to put on top of this narrative. At this point, my goal is to ensure that even after that house around me has indeed burned to the ground, I’m the one constant who still remains standing, albeit forever changed.