Last Sunday I found myself sitting on a bench for 25 minutes wearing only a damp and slightly-too-small towel. I was in a changing room surrounded by middle aged men who were trying hard not to look in my direction. I felt chilly, because I had just got showered and the tiled floor was cold on my feet. To pass the time I had dried my hair twice. After a while I just sat on the bench facing my locker, crossing and uncrossing my legs, trying to find a position that preserved my comfort and prevented me flashing those sharing the changing room. I stared at the locker. The closed padlock stared back at me, tauntingly.
I had locked myself out of my locker. In this changing room you have to bring your own padlock. My padlock uses a small set of keys. These keys were sitting comfortably in my coat pocket. My coat was hanging, neatly, in the generously proportioned locker. I had walked out of the shower, feeling both refreshed and loosened up, and then stopped dead in my tracks. I looked at the locked padlock and felt a sort of cold panic. The last time I had felt so bereft I had been staring at an exam paper of a subject that I’d done no revision for. I was meant to meet some friends just outside the gym in ten minutes. I spent the best part of half an hour sitting in that slightly chilly room, and so had time to reconsider my life and the events that led me to this odd moment.
I have had one or two setbacks in my life in recent weeks. I have missed out on PhD funding for a second consecutive year. A relationship of four years has ended. I still can’t find any low paying service jobs in Belfast. My life and general mood are still grand, but it’s been a rough patch.
To combat the sense of dis-empowerment, I’ve started going to the gym. The experience has been a modest success. I am now able to run 2k without wanting to pass out or vomit. I can complete the lowest intensity set of eight rotations on an air bike. I have avoided any major muscular injuries. I no longer get out of breath when walking up stairs. A suit I bought when I was eighteen fits me better now than it did then. While these are all small things, the sense of gradually improvement is nice.
In order to go to the gym I had to overcome my aversion to changing rooms. I’m not a particularly meek person nor do I have any body image issues but men’s changing rooms are not my happy place. The sheer preponderance of middle aged guys who feel comfortable wagging their junk around is enough to discourage me. Having to shower and change in front of strangers is just, difficult.
Last weekend I discovered that I become too comfortable. No longer afraid to enter a changing room, I had become so lax in my attitude that I was able to lock myself out of my locker, shower, cool down from my workout, and then walk back out to the changing room before noticing my error. I stood in my damp towel, holding a wet facecloth and felt as stupid as I ever have.
The obvious solution to this problem would be to go get a member of staff and ask them to help me extricate myself from this ridiculous problem. The issue was that the front desk, where the gym staff congregate, is in front of the entrance, and visible from every machine in the open-plan gym. I had already worked myself into a pique of embarrassment surrounded by unquestioning fellow changers. I might actually crumble if I had to walk out, still dripping, and ask a nice grown-up to pry open my locker so I could put some clothes on.
Without fully thinking through my actions I asked a helpful looking fellow gym goer if I could borrow his phone. Upon gaining it, I realized the only phone numbers I knew off by heart were my parents’ house phone and my own mobile number. Shedding what was left of my sense of independence, I called my mother and asked her if she drive down to the gym and hand in some clothes to the front desk. She laughed and explained that she’d do so but it would take a while. I appreciated the help and handed back the borrowed phone.
Sitting on my bench while trying not to gain the attention of any of the other denizens of the locker room, I had a rush of self-critical thoughts. I’ve got two university degrees and can’t use a padlock without causing a scene. I can’t get a job. No one wants to give me PhD funding. I will die alone in the world, locked out of my own hospital room after some elaborate mishap. I was genuinely flushed with embarrassment, and dreading the sight of a confused gym attendant bringing in a bag of clothes that my mother had dropped off for me.
Then something quite unexpected happened. I stopped worrying. I stopped feeling embarrassed and dialed back my hyperbolic self-criticism. I laughed inwardly. The situation was ridiculous. I was ridiculous. Why did I immediately think about having a master’s degree when thinking about my self-worth? Why did I feel that making my lovely mother laugh somehow undercut my independence? Why did I care so much about the anonymous glances of disinterested strangers? Why had a simple mistake caused me to assume I was a failure at life?
By the time that a bemused fitness instructor handed me a plastic bag of full of teenage clothes, I was smiling. I was no longer be-toweled when a jovial janitor walked in with a huge pair of wire cutters slung over his shoulder. We laughed and made jokes about my inability to keep a locker unlocked as he destroyed my padlock. I retrieved my possessions and went out to thank the gym staff.
I phoned my mum and we laughed and agreed things had worked out okay. I checked my phone to see a message from my friends telling me they’d be arriving late. They pulled into the car-park literally thirty seconds after I walked out of the front door. I got in and we laughed together about the strange delays we’d both experienced.
I’m not suggesting that you hang out in changing rooms and freak out everyone else, but it proved important to me. I feel less serious, less burdened by minor setbacks, and less vain. My padlock and my errant short term memory did me a service. I have an improved sense of humour as well as a combination lock. I feel I’ve come out of this experience in credit.