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My Fitness Journey, Part 1: Arrested Development.

When I was a child

I caught a fleeting glimpse Out of the corner of my eye

I turned to look but it was gone I cannot put my finger on it now The child is grown The dream is gone I have become comfortably numb

— Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb

I grew up in what I considered to be a normal family, as do most children. My parents, like most parents, did their best to provide me with all they thought I needed; in fact, they provided me with a lot more than what they themselves had been provided with — and this is a fact worth remembering always…

But I grew up alone.

While outwardly things are going well for me — I was excellent in most of my primary school studies and, apart from the PE classes, I passed all the tests with very high grades — my inner world was full of unanswered questions and hidden suffering...hidden even from myself, most of the time. 

Even though I have always loved wild animals and nature for as long as I can remember, I feared life and I feared the world — the human part of it anyway.

I was between three- and four years old when I first became aware of my fear of other boys. I remember a dream I had at that time, of a boy from my kindergarten group — a boisterous Roma-Gypsy lad with dominating, aggressive personality, whom I deeply feared. In my dream, I tried to pacify him and make him feel like I wanted him to be my friend by calling him not by his proper name, ‘Todor’ but instead using the more tender diminutive ‘Toshko’. In reality, I did not like Todor; I was scared and intimidated by him.

The world of boys was itself scary to me — the physical aspects of it anyway — and I 'naturally' gravitated around those who were more like me: the boys who preferred books to physical activities and hid from others in the same places I did — deep inside their own souls.

My father was the main reason for that, of course — it is the father who invites the boy into the world of men, and so it is the father alone who as the role of connecting the boy to his own dormant masculinity; and until that budding sprout of masculinity is fully developed in all its great, uniqueness, and takes its place in the world like a strong tree in the forest, it is up to the father to enable, affirm, and facilitate that growth.

But things were quite different between me and my father…but my father-wound is not the subject of this story — or at least not the main one: this story will look at the outward, physical expression of my inner world.

And so, let us continue:

The school I went to for the first eight years of my life, was, literally, a hundred meters from our house; our village had a bit more than a thousand inhabitants, so most of us knew each other and so, no real bullying existed at our school...

The primary school of Botevo. Source:

Even though, being after all located in the dark Balkan countryside, there were sometimes conflicts between adults (mostly after heavy drinking in the weekend), I do not remember hearing about serious altercations between children at school. The ‘real’ bullying we occasionally heard about took place in the town of Yambol, or the big cities — but not in the old, forgotten (but idyllic, at least to me) place called Botevo, Yambol province.


A few years later, in high-school, I would indeed get the chance to experience some of that 'real' bullying, and get my pocket money taken from me quite often; but that was still in the future then, in those golden but sorrowful years of my transition between childhood and adolescence.

Even though I was a boy who was liked by his peers, I was never accepted as one of the ‘real’ boys. The reason for this was my clumsiness and inability to be good at sports, and also — largely confirmed by that, but stemming from a broken, fear-ridden relationship with my aggressive, naturally athletic, father — my inability to stand up for myself and confront another boy when confrontation was called for…

‘You don’t really like football, do you?’ my father would ask me, trying in vain to hide his disappointment; and how could I like football, when the man who represented football was so cold, so scary and so distant from me — as if I was made from material that wasn’t even remotely close to what he was made of; how could I like football when I could never bring myself to even try kicking a ball in the presence of that man, who I perceived, rightly of wrongly, to judge every move I made; how could I like football when every time the ball was mercifully sent in my direction on the playground, my feet tangled and I either tripped over it or failed to kick it properly; and finally — how could I like football when I knew, as deeply as I knew anything, that I had none of the skill, endurance, speed and most of all, the sharp reflexes and the fearless abandon needed to be good at it?

Having forgotten — or actually, repressed — all of that for most of my life, I went through my later years thinking that I simply disliked the game of football; yet I can now see clearly that, much like the fox in Aesop's fable, I had rejected it as ‘sour grapes’. And this applied to everything else that, like football, required speed, agility, toughness, and, last but not least, a competitive spirit. 

And so there was no enjoyment for me in the games of basketball or handball; there was little besides humiliation and embarrassment in every team sport; there was nothing but terror in the closeness of another male body, when those rowdy ones would try to playfully wrestle us, the quiet ones, to the ground, to further establish the hierarchy and affirm their own insecurities.


Since very little of the childhood feelings that I had within me — the desires, the potential, the dreams of being a certain kind of man — could only begin to be embodied and externalised through the activities I was feeling drawn to, I grew only in body, but remained little inside.

Very little of what I could truly be as a man — my innate masculine potential — had been brought out, nurtured and trained into the adult life of purpose, passion, and character, that I desired.


And what of the other activities?

Well, I could not run. Or at least so I thought, at the time. Whenever we ran at school, I was always the last to arrive at the goal destination and the first to give up. Even though I was not overweight, I felt as though I was: there was always the overwhelming feeling of being hot, slow, and smothered within my own self — as if the self of the boy who I wanted to be was trapped in the body of the boy I actually was.

I had no father by my side, to gently lead and push me through this; I had no warm, loving and strong man to train me and teach to overcome the limitations of mind and body. Thus, for decades, running was hateful to me.

I did a little bit of cycling, but not enough and mostly in my younger years; my clumsiness prevented me from using a bicycle in public…

And this is what is really interesting, and so I cannot leave it out of this narrative: as I write this, a thought comes to me, a glimpse of a life I could have had while living in Varna during my last years in Bulgaria...

I see the long stretch of trees, plants, fountains and coffee shops along the sea — the 'Sea Garden' of the city— and I see myself cycling under the warm sun, uninhibited, free from care, too busy enjoying the world and its beauty to care about anything else…

But that life was not permitted me; it was stolen from me by the dark, oppressive heaviness in my soul.


And, speaking of the sea — what about swimming?

I feared the water, just like my father did, and never learned to swim, believing I simply could not. Until a few years ago, that is, but this story has already been told here.

And what of boxing, wrestling and other combat sports?

They were simply out of the question. I feared physical confrontation of any kind, even in 'peaceful' sports like football; I knew I was 'soft', fearful, and weak, and nothing could change that. I just knew it. 


Looking back now, after a decade of working through my inner story, I am realising how games like football and activities like swimming and cycling would have provided me with the joy and the freedom to ‘grow into’ my body, to develop and strengthen the mind-body connection, to hone and sharpen the reflexes, and find ease within myself.

I am also seeing how a form of combat training would have built up and affirmed my strength, would have served to 'bring out' my courage and warrior-spirit, and 'bring in' the inner peace of knowing that I could indeed handle dangerous situations if I needed to.

I know now that the total lack of any development in this area was indeed a tragedy, and it was that unrealised tragedy which had, for so long, been keeping a part of my inner self locked in a very dark place…

What then, is left for a boy who is so cut off from all the things he would have wanted to do?

Not much, at least not in terms of sports and physical activities. But the lack of those things was not itself the problem.

The biggest problem was the thing which that lack deprived me of: becoming the man who I always wanted to be — a man who was as physical as he was soulful; a man who was as nimble-footed as he was intelligent; a man whose tenderness and vulnerability could be displayed to those he loved, and his firmness and strength evident to those whom he was entrusted to protect. 

‘Genius’, said the great poet Coleridge, ‘is the power of carrying the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood.’

And, since very little of the childhood feelings that I had within me — the desires, the potential, the dreams of being a certain kind of man — could only begin to be embodied and externalised through the activities I was feeling drawn to, I grew only in body, but remained little inside.

Very little of what I could truly be as a man — my innate masculine potential — had been brought out, nurtured and trained into the adult life of purpose, passion, and character, that I desired.

And so, for most of my adolescence, I lived a solitary life, at least internally. In order to stay happy — as happy as my limited, suffering existence would allow me to be — I simply avoided everything which had once exposed me to ridicule and shame; and so I stayed well within my comfort zone, safe in the belief that I was simply ‘this way’.

It was one unfortunate incident — a dark moment of humiliation, emasculation and deep pain — that drove me to weightlifting at the age of fifteen...

End of Part One.


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