Kelly Sundberg

The Survivor

The Early Evenings Club

Exercise and friendship helped a survivor of domestic violence find peace.

Posted May 01, 2018

On a sunny afternoon a couple of years ago, I sat with my son at a table in my favorite bakery. Just as I reached over to steal a bite of my son’s grilled cheese, I caught a glimpse of someone glancing kindly at us—an older man I’d been seeing at the gym. His eyes were tender, had the look of someone who enjoyed the company of children. My son swatted my hand away, and my attention was drawn back to the table. After that, I noticed that man more at the gym. I began to say hello, and he would nod his head at me. I didn’t know him, but it felt good to be seen.

For too many years, I had been invisible.

I had started going to the gym a few years earlier when an acquaintance had been looking for a gym buddy. I had moved to the area after leaving an abusive marriage. I was lonely and knew that it would be good for me to exercise. My gym buddy and I soon discovered that we made good workout partners. Our abilities, or lack thereof, were matched, and we enjoyed chatting. Soon, we were talking in the car afterward or making excuses to go to the grocery store when we were finished. Our lives were in different places. She had a PhD from an Ivy League school and was in her first tenure-track position, and though I was older than her, I was a newly divorced PhD student with a child and a long history of physical and emotional abuse. What we shared, however, was the loneliness that so often accompanies reinvention, and our gym visits became a balm.

When my friend was busy, I continued frequenting the gym myself because I had discovered something unexpected, which was that I loved to exercise. I had always been too intimidated by gyms to go to them often, but this gym was different. It was a faculty and community gym, and there were people of all ages and body sizes happily working out alongside each other. I went in the early evenings, usually seeing the same group of people. They began to feel like friends, which was also unexpected.

Still, the most unexpected effect of my active lifestyle was that I was finding relief from my post-traumatic stress disorder. I had left my abusive husband after a particularly savage incident, which had resulted in his arrest. During the years of abuse, my body had not felt like my own. I put on weight. I developed high blood pressure. I had sleep issues. After leaving the abusive situation, the ghost of the abuse was always with me. Loud noises startled me into sudden shivers. I woke from sleep screaming. I either obsessed over memories or disassociated entirely. And though I knew that I had made the right decision in leaving, I grieved the end of my marriage and the loss of the man who had been both my abuser and my best friend

The nights were long, lonely, and dark.

When I started going to the gym in the evenings, I discovered that, if I got my heart rate high enough during a workout, I would leave feeling euphoric, which would last me through the night. I was happier and more present with my son. I started sleeping better. I didn’t wake up with nightmares, and I was no longer tormented by memories of the abuse. Aerobic exercise brought me into my body and took me out of the disassociation in a way that wasn’t painful. I was able to enjoy being me, and that, too, was wholly unexpected.

My gym buddy grew busy with the demands of her tenure-track job and couldn’t go to the gym with me as much. I didn’t want the loneliness to return, so I started reaching out to others who were kind to me there. A mutual friend had told me that the older man I had seen at the bakery was a faculty member and a widower, and I had this sense that perhaps his kindness, or my response to it, had come from a shared sense of grief, so I introduced myself to him. He knows my story now. He read an essay that I had written about my marriage, and recently, when I ran into him at that same bakery, we talked for a long time. I told him that I had still loved my husband when I left him, and this man said with such gentleness, “That was evident from the essay.” I felt sudden tears spring into eyes because nothing brings suffering into more acute focus than the kindness of others.

A couple of evenings later, I read a different essay—a more hopeful one—to a group of my friends and peers. My gym buddy was there with me, alongside many of the kind, new friends I had made at the gym. After the reading, I sat next to my gym buddy, and she said, “I want to tell you what I’m thinking, but I can’t because if I do, I’ll start crying.” I understood what she meant because a year or so earlier, she had grown teary and said to me, “You are not the same person that you were when I met you. You don’t even look the same. You are so much happier.

Another friend called it vitality.

One night, when one of my new friends from the gym had come to my house for dinner, she said to me, “There is something about the evening crowd at the gym. Maybe we’re all there because we don’t have someone to go home to.” She stayed at my house chatting long into the night as the sky turned from pink, to gray, to black. The next evening, when we saw each other at the gym, it was as though we were a part of a secret club. The early evenings club.