Yes, that’s me in Rio at the gymnastic final doing a round off back handspring on the balance beam. Last night I stuffed a ball from the Australian team in beach volleyball and received a pat on my tiny rear by my teammate. Tonight I have to run the 100 meter finals in track and field. I really do—me– against the whole Jamaican team. In reality, I’m a 65-year-old child/woman who struggles with severe arthritis and frequent bouts of madness.
I’m such an Olympics fanatic, I make Leslie Jones appear demure. I walk the balance beam on the brown lines of my ceramic tile floor and the most energetic moves I manage are the fake salutes of the gymnasts at the beginning of their routine and the proud march from apparatus to apparatus or in my case from the couch to the fridge. Yet, in my mind, I’m there with my team. All the teams.
I have a gold medal in make-believe. I used this gift my entire life to escape from my chaotic childhood. It works better than other soothing techniques I’ve tried like eating my weight in potato chips and ice-cream or marrying every man who asked me—all four of them.
Making believe makes sense. I pretend I’m young and forget my aches and pains, I hardly notice when people are mean or hurtful and I live a wonderful life in my mind. And that’s what really counts anyway.
I always wrote stories in my head. I acted out scripts in front of dusty mirrors and while looking at my blurred image in front of dark televisions. I envisioned an exciting life I sometimes thought was real. I still do.
I never belonged anywhere. I was too much of this and not enough of that. My first grade teacher gave out lollipops ever day to the best reader and I accumulated a stash of sweetness, yet it all soured when Mrs. Edwards, who my mother called a sadist, screamed at me for my sloppy penmanship. At least she didn’t put me under her desk, and kick me like she did to the kids who couldn’t understand English.
I don’t know when my anxiety disorder emerged. As a child, everything and everyone scared me. I held many words inside but they rarely emerged. I can’t point to any one incident that pushed me over the edge to mental illness. Brenda Jackson shook her fist at me once, and after that, I hid my eyes under my mother’s arm when we entered Brenda’s side of the housing project. Her eyes promised a fate worse than death. Reading Grimm’s fairy tales nightly probably contributed to that misery.
Yet, parodoxidly I recited poems by heart to my mother’s friends and later on, sang and acted in school plays. As long as I wasn’t myself, I was fine. Or was I? There were days I used food, books and daydreaming to soothe my troubled soul.
But when I stopped caring what other people thought of my less than conventional behavior, I started taking chances and living life on its own terms no matter what. I didn’t care if some people treated me as an outcast. I only needed a few people who got me. And I found a few loyal friends who stood up for me during those hard days that leaving my house or bed proved impossible.
I was ten when the Olympics first aired on television in 1960. That year it was held in Rome, Italy and watching the Soviet Union and other Iron Curtain Countries collect gold medals while leaping, jumping, and belly flopping on the mat held me spellbound. That year, —Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia achieved the first gold medal by a Black African, running barefoot in the marathon. And Cassius Clay who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali won the gold medal in boxing. Perhaps most of all, Rome, itself in its historical splendor showcased the wonders of travel and fame. So, the Caracalla Thermal Baths were used to host the gymnastics events and the Basilica of Maxentius was the backdrop for wrestling. I was hooked.
Even when I was deep into a mean postpartum depression, aggravated by an impending divorce and living part-time in my walk-in closet, I came out for the Olympics. I ordered pizza, cut five rings out of cardboard, and for a while, I forgot my troubles. I cheered for the winners and cried with the losers. I discovered the Olympics rivaled reading, wine, and even Cinnabon for sheer distraction from stress. Yet, people warned me about the dangers of living in a dream world. They were wrong. My imagination and enthusiasm for sports, dancing and writing poetry saved me.
I slowly healed from severe anxiety and lived a full life of parenting, working and, traveling. I wrote a memoir and faced my past with humor and strength. But I never lost my childish awe of spectacles like the Olympics. So, yesterday, while watching gymnastics, I leaped into the air holding a soft medical weight I imagined was a rhythmic gymnastics ball. When I snapped back to reality, I found myself not in Rio, but in my house in Hawaii. I laughed and laughed, not caring I’d pulled a muscle in my leg and sprained my ankle. Nothing hurt because in my mind I was Simone Biles in Rio reaching for that final gold medal.