Gymnastics gave me a lot in the way of confidence, but there’s always a flip side. (Haha- get it?) My brother used to say that there was an awful lot of Patty going on when we were growing up. To my siblings, there seemed to be more energy devoted to my gymnastics than anything else. At the same time, I was also the family’s banner carrier. I was the proof that everything was going fine at the Johnson’s.
I was bulimic, I was drinking, I had a boyfriend who was far too old for me, but as long as my
face was in the paper, we were doing okay. Every family has some level of dysfunction, but ours was significant. You can’t pick your family, even if you’re adopted, which seems strange.
I remember when I was in middle school; my friend and I were the best math students in the
whole school. My friend Bret and I would finish our work ahead of the whole class and start
chattering away. Once, Bret and I started joking around with each other in the back of the room and our teacher marched up to us while everyone else in the class was quietly working. He leaned over and in a hushed, but severe voice, he started scolding us for fooling around.
“Well, this stuff is so easy, what else am I supposed to do?” I whined.
“Listen, it’s not easy for everyone else here,” he said. I remember that being my first epiphany that there were other people learning and maybe I ought to be quiet for them. My sister, my parents’ biological daughter, was never a good student. She had a closer connection to them than I did. Whenever the opportunity arose, my parents always managed to find some way to put me down. I was always reminded of some inadequacy. So I adapted to my parents’ view. I played the ditzy girl despite having near straight A’s throughout the eighth grade. In high school, I expended most of my energy on gymnastics. I got home from practice as late as 11:00 at night. I didn’t party when I had gymnastics, but when I could go out and drink, I did. I had this psychology teacher who told me how smart I was and I brushed it off. He was persistent and asked me what my GPA was and I told him that I had a 3.4.
“Where’d you go wrong?” He asked. “You’re definitely smart enough to have a 3.8” “I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t know how else to respond. He called me out on it and just wouldn’t let it go. He went on to tell me that he knew I was acting dumber than I was because boys were intimidated of smart girls. I remember feeling like I couldn’t get away with it anymore and he reassured me that it would be alright if I dropped my act. I did well enough to eventually get an academic scholarship, but I’m sure I could have done better. I was so worn down by that point, between my home life and my commitment to gymnastics, I was just trying to cope.
Lacking self-confidence somehow fed into my daredevil personality that my dad antagonized by belittling me constantly. It wasn’t personal. He belittled everyone in our family. My brother Brad was a gifted athlete at a child. He was a big kid and good at everything he tried. He played baseball, basketball and football as a kid. My dad was a little guy with short man’s disease. He was jealous that my brother had the size to be a great athlete but just didn’t care that much about sports. He may have been great but my dad harassed him about his performances in baseball ever since I could remember. My brother broke his leg in football when he was 15 and quit sports entirely. I think my brother just didn’t want another thing for my dad to yell at him about. This certainly took the heat off of me. I don’t think my dad ever considered my accomplishments important because I was a girl. In this way, I benefitted because neither one of my parents ever criticized my gymnastics. Not even once. They were great sports parents for me. They were supportive and got me where I needed to go but they didn’t really care that much about my gymnastics. This allowed me to do whatever I wanted. It kind of hurt my feelings that it wasn’t overly important to them but I knew it was better than them caring too much.
I always had incredibly intense focus when I was a kid. (I still do.) If I were watching TV I could block everything out and not hear what people around me were saying. For this my dad nicknamed me “Head in Butt.” It was also because I would make stupid mistakes and didn’t have a lot of common sense, or so I was told. I’m not sure if this developed because I didn’t want to hear the garbage that my dad was saying or because I was born like this, but either way it helped me in gymnastics, especially on the balance beam. I could block all noises out and concentrate intensely on the task at hand. “Head in Butt” is an incredibly cruel name to call a kid but I suppose in some weird way, it made me a better athlete, which eventually made me a stronger person.
If you were home when my dad was around, he would just start laying into you. When I came back from gymnastics at 10 o’clock at night or later, I’d be starving. I’d get out of bowl of cereal and my dad would be there, making fun of me for how I ate my cereal. If I poured a bowl and leveled it off, he’d mock me for that. If nothing else, he would find anything to use. He would say, “Hey, is that a zit? Is that a zit on your face,” trying antagonizing you into a fight.
When my father started on you, my brother would appear from his room and he would manage to diffuse the situation. My father turned his attention onto my brother. My brother towered over my father and though he never lifted a hand to our dad, he allowed our dad to hit him. When it was over, my brother would leave and punch you in the arm on the way out. In his quiet cavalier way, he protected my sister and me because he knew he was too big for our dad to take him on.
It was a terrible, scary way to be raised, fearing for your physical safety everyday. This fear was lessened only due to my brother and his selfless protection of us when he was only a young teenager. Don’t get me wrong, my brother beat the crap out of my sister and I growing up but you were never afraid he was just going to lose it on you. He had control and I don’t think what he did to us was any worse than most brothers do to their sisters. The fear of my father though was deep and intense. It made me strong physically and eventually emotionally. I dealt with it at the time by obsessing about food, my body and drinking to excess. In other words, I didn’t deal with it but I really didn’t know what my options were when I was living under their roof. I just escaped and was out of the house as much as possible.
I broke my wrist towards the end of the gymnastics season of my sophomore year. I had a
mediocre year and I was growing tired of gymnastics. After our team got second at the state
championships that year, my club coach was busted for embezzling money. All his girls at
Moline, including me, were forced to quit. I took 3 months completely off from gymnastics and all physical activity. Then the gymnasts I carpooled with found a new, better gym, the only downside, it was a full 2 hours away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I went from training 0 hours a week for 3 months (which was normally 16 hours per week before then) to 25 hours a week. We were in there from 9:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon with an hour off for lunch.
After Day 4 of that first week, I had never been so sore in my life, either before or since. We drove out there together, and on the drive back, I stayed the night at a teammate’s house in DeWitt. I was so sore I couldn’t even breathe. I was lying on the floor trying to fall asleep and if I moved, it felt like someone jabbed a knife into each of my muscles. I was lying on the floor crying because I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I survived another 3 weeks at the gym during which time I had a small, young 20 something male assistant tell me “my weight was up and my strength was down.” He was spotting me on some elevated push ups on the parallel bars and had to hold me. Granted, I was just bigger than him at 5’9″and 150 and he had just spotted some normal sized gymnast that was 5’2″ and 100 pounds. If I had of been my adult self I probably would’ve just teased him about being so little (I think he was about 5’4″) that he couldn’t hold me, but I was 15 and struggling everywhere. I took it to heart. He started “counseling” me on nutrition despite the fact he had no nutritional background or training. The take away for me then was that I was a big, fat, giant hog-beast. I was sore and dejected. I quit. I hated gymnastics and was finished forever. I quit!
*Portions of this text written with the assistance of Pauline Shypula