Quarantine Diary Day 156: Slowdown

Running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I used to run a lot, five to six days a week, forty miles or more, plus strengthening and conditioning and cross training and prehab and rehab, all to support the running. Non-runners in my life probably thought I was sort of a freak how early I went out and how reliably, rain or snow or shine, how far I’d go on a weekend run, half marathons just for fun, how hard I worked to hit my paces on the track, 800 repeats for no reason, how far I drove to run up and down hills until I was just about to puke, again, all just because. There was usually no race on the horizon, and even if there was, I was never in line to take home any prize other than my own satisfaction. Here’s the thing non-runners didn’t get about the running, or about how it was for me. Running was easy. Running was fun. I don’t even really like to work out.

I’ve been a runner for twenty-three years. Almost a quarter century! In seventh grade it killed me that I had to wait until spring for track and field to start because I knew I was an athlete even after getting cut from volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter. I knew I could run. I knew it from how I finished the mile ahead of every kid in my classes in lower elementary, from how I was the only girl who didn’t walk. I knew it from how laps in P.E. never felt like a drag, never made me tired, from how suicides never felt like their name. It turned out I was right, too. I killed it in track and eventually cross country, earned a duffel bag full of medals and ribbons that I never hung on the wall, qualified for regionals and states, set a few school records, earned a spot on the varsity team my sophomore year.

I quit sports halfway through my junior year when I started drinking cough syrup and stealing pain pills but I never stopped running. I kept running even when I was suicidally depressed freshman year of college and listening to Elliott Smith in a bouncing discman. I kept running even when I was hacking up a lung from smoking a pack a day of unfiltered cigarettes. I kept running even when I was lying to campus health about a fake back injury to score more pills. I couldn’t run fast or far or with any frequency in those years but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt like the biggest most absolute piece of shit because running–unlike addiction and crippling depression and losing my religion–was easy.

Of course, running got a lot easier when I quit smoking and drinking and getting high. I ran my way through all nine months of pregnancy, well past the point when people stared at me with open alarm on the gym treadmill, when people commented that I must be due “any day now,” when people asked if I was carrying twins (nope, just one 9.5 lb baby). I ran my way through postpartum, past the stage when people kept asking if I was pregnant (nope, just a new mom), past the stage when I kept checking to see if my baby was still breathing in the night, past the stage when the depression and constant, soul-clenching anxiety could be attributed to hormones. I couldn’t run all that fast or far in those years either but hitting the road was something I could do when I felt scared or sad or trapped because running–unlike parenting and managing multiple mood disorders–was easy.

I ran my way through the good stuff too. I ran my way into to better apartments, better jobs, a healthier lifestyle. I ran my way through all the days of my marriage and my daughter’s childhood and all the golden moments that make up a life. The road wasn’t always easy–over the years, I’ve suffered my share of shin splints and stress fractures and tendonitis and bursitis and road rash and rolled ankles and run of the mill colds and flus and other illnesses–but the running was. Whenever I was laid up, I felt like that seventh grader chomping at the bit for the weather to turn so I could get on the track and prove myself. Life was hard; running was the easy part.

This summer, running doesn’t feel the way it used to. I got burned out from all the running and going nowhere back in the the early days of the pandemic and realized I needed to rest, so I did. Then, in June, I got sick and running hasn’t been the same since. It’s harder now. It’s hard to get myself out the door. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to get my legs to turn over. It’s hard to run far. I used to have to make myself stop as planned. I was always wanting to tack on an extra mile or two. Now I’m looking at my watch for the last half mile of every run asking, can I stop now? It’s hard to run, period. The first mile is hard and so is every mile after that. I’m having stomach issues for the first time in my life. I’m exhausted. I can’t get in any kind of zone.

The running isn’t the hardest part, though. The hardest thing is not knowing what changed.

Am I burned out from twenty-three years of the same sport?

Is the stress of living in a pandemic finally catching up?

Is the endless anxiety loop wearing me down?

Is the prospect that the next twelve months the will look and feel as bad as the last six starting to take a physical toll?

Is it too damn hot and humid outside?

Am I adjusting to the shift of running in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning?

Am I still getting over whatever illness I had back in June?

Do I have permanent lung and potentially other damage from undiagnosed COVID?

Am I just getting old?

All this not knowing has me pretty sure I know why we humans like our gods to be omniscient. All my powerlessness over how I’ll feel tomorrow, what will happen with school in the fall, when I’ll see my family again has me pretty sure I know why we made them omnipotent too (though as a woman raised under patriarchy, I always had an easier time with all-knowing than all powerful; just give me the answers please and I’ll be fine, a girl like me wouldn’t know what to do with the power to fix things anyway).

You might think the hardest part of this shift would be losing something that reliably brought me purpose and joy for over two decades. I’m doing alright, though. I’m still running, for exercise if not for pleasure, and hoping this will pass. I don’t run as fast or as far as I used to, but I don’t miss it. Now that it’s not easy, I don’t really want to run at all.

In the time I used to give to running, I’m finding new ways to start the day, and new ways to play. I bought a standup paddleboard, for one thing, and I’m living for the challenge of just trying to stay upright, speed and even forward motion be damned. Running got me through a lot of things, but it’s not going to get me through this.

Need Versus Want Versus Deserve

One of my first big steps toward recovery was making an appointment with a counselor. Initially, I tried to find somebody whose experience spoke directly to my very special and unique circumstances. My first run at sobriety through a twelve-step program left me convinced that I was different (better) than the folks who needed God and daily meetings and inane “literature” to keep clean. In reaction to this, and in a simultaneous act of desperation and ego, I sent my first inquiry out to a woman who advertised herself as specializing in working with “high functioning” individuals seeking to address career-related anxiety. I considered it a bonus that she specialized in career transitions as I was convinced that the bulk of my problems emanated from my insanely high pressure job. I pretended that I liked the fact that she was herself in the process of transitioning from counselor to bona fide life coach, even though that struck me as if not a red flag, then at least a pink one.

I also searched for counselors That specialized in substance abuse, but not, like, serious substance abuse. I was only drinking except for that one time in February when I took what was left of the hydrocodone from my c-section because I was annoyed at my husband and spent the next day ransacking medicine cabinets until I broke down and realized I needed to get myself a dealer, a prescription, or into an NA meeting (they are right when they say you don’t realize you are an addict until the drugs run out). I pretended not to notice that many of the addiction counselors that I found online specialized in something called “harm reduction,” which is the clinical term for “drinking less, but still drinking (thank God).” I pretended not to notice the crawling in my arms, the way my insides lurched in anticipation when I read those words, which I took as permission. Nothing red about those flags flapping furiously in the wake of my denial.

In the end, the high end life coach didn’t have any openings and the addiction specialists worked across town and I ended up going with the first local counselor who saw clients late into the evening, because as a full-time working parent of a young child, that was the only time I had. I made the call from the back porch, whispering into the phone because I didn’t want my neighbors to overhear. I told her I was anxious all the time and afraid of falling back into old, dangerous habits. She told me she could help. I booked five days out and cried with relief into the cool autumn air.

By the time I made it to the appointment I was high out of my mind and couldn’t look the counselor in the eye. At her suggestion, we walked up and down Lake Michigan and I told her, in halting, unemotional tones, what was going on. I told her about my long hours and my toxic co-workers and my dead dog and my oppressive religion and my transgressive marriage to a non-Mormon and my clingy toddler. I told her about my expectation that I would be perfect in all aspects my life, explaining that it was not as unreasonable as it sounded because I’d pulled it off pretty well for 30 years. I told her how the anxiety started in my head and worked its way into my chest until I was on the verge of panic. I told her how the depression started in my chest and worked its way into my head until I was on the verge of tears. I told her I didn’t know what to do.

When I finished unloading, the counselor said a few things that stuck. She said that she was not surprised that I got high. She said that I was burning the candle at both ends for my family and my job but that I wasn’t doing anything for me. She told me I needed some new coping mechanisms. Together, we came up with an action plan that looked something like this:

  1. Go to bed early.
  2. Stop looking at my phone before bed.
  3. Exercise.
  4. Join a mom’s basketball league.
  5. Meditate.
  6. Start a blog.

That’s right. I paid a counselor $150 an hour to fix my brain and came out with a list of New Year’s resolutions.

As with any list of resolutions, this one needed a bit of tweaking. I never could muster the nerve to play basketball with a group of stranger moms, particularly since I had it on good authority that at least one of the moms was a former collegiate player, so I decided to train for a race instead. I never made it past the first meditation session using the Headspace app, so I ditched developing a regular meditation practice in favor occasionally reminding myself to breathe.

For the next few months, I treated this list like a prescription, and the items on it like medicine, because that’s what they were. I dutifully turned off the TV after a single episode of Walking Dead and went upstairs at 10 PM. I stopped asking myself if I had time to go to the gym and just went. I submitted a proposal for a blog on women’s issues to a local collective and forced out content for content’s sake. If you’d asked me before I went to therapy whether I had time for myself, I would have laughed. Sure, if you count trying to see how much work I can cram into my 25 minute train rides to and from work and playing LEGO with my two-year-old as time for myself. I wanted to read fiction and write essays and play music and run along the lake, but somewhere along the line I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to do the things that made me come alive unless they were in the service of my employer or my family. I’d bought into the idea that women can’t have it all, that by having a good job and a happy family I was already taking too much, and that if I dared to ask for more I’d lose it all. By re-framing my dumb hobbies as mechanisms for coping with anxiety that was driving me to self-destruct, my counselor took want and deserve out of the equation. As she pointed out, I wouldn’t be able to do my big job or take care of my family if I went to rehab. I made time to read and write and run because I had to.

The other thing my counselor recommended is that I go to recovery meetings. She started with gentle suggestions, emailing me dates and times of meetings vouched for by her colleagues, meetings with professionals, other lawyers, women. After yet another lapse, one that left me so sick I was begging my husband to take me to the hospital and finally willing to do anything to stop ingesting poison, my counselor gave me the gift of telling me that it was time to get serious about finding a recovery community. I’d tried to stay sober myself and failed. I needed help.

I balked. I questioned whether I could call myself an alcoholic. I questioned whether I had time. When the memory of the last hangover receded into the distance, I questioned whether I still needed to go to what I perceived as the extreme lengths of taking time out of my busy schedule to sit in musty rooms listening drunks read from an outdated book, listening to drunks talk about their problems, holding hands with drunks, listening to drunks recite the Lord’s prayer. That’s how I described the experience of participating in AA when I was convincing myself I wasn’t sick enough to continue with the program. During these negotiations with myself, I discounted the way I felt every time I walked out of a meeting, which was always, inevitably, without fail, better than I felt going in. Meetings made me feel lighter, seen, renewed. The truth was that I liked stepping outside of my routine, which had become staid and soul-sucking. I liked listening to people work through their shit. I liked thinking about how to live a better life. I especially liked the drunks, who showed me that I was not insane, or at least that I was not alone in my particular brand of insanity. And oh how I envied people who dropped casual references to home group and who laughingly confessed to being kicked in the ass by a sponsor, which told me that I did want a recovery community, and badly.

As usual, as a woman, a Mormon, a mom, a martyr to the end, wanting it wasn’t enough. Want didn’t justify tucking my kid into bed early to make a 7:30 meeting for young people on Thursday night or losing an hour better spent billing to check in with a Monday nooners group. And, it turned out that need wasn’t enough either, at least not after a decade spent hiding from the truth, lying to myself about what it is that I really need.

A close call and a sobriety angel cleared things up. I posted a cry for help in an online group for women working toward sobriety. I owned up to needing an IRL community, and whined that I had no time to attend meetings. A serious wise woman weighed in.

First, she handed down some knowledge. She said, “For years, I used drinking to hold together an unsustainable life. Like duct tape. When I took alcohol out of the equation, something had to give.”

Next, she put me in my place. She said, “I have two kids and a high pressure job and I go to six meetings a week. Anybody that is not okay with me taking the hour a day I need to not drink myself to death can fuck off.”

In the end, she made me cry. She said, ” You deserve a life that isn’t killing you.”

She was right, of course. This is both obvious and revolutionary. Within days, I found a meeting that I loved, that I attend and look forward to as often as I can up to three times a week.

I deserve to take 30 minutes to run a few miles because I want to move my body, not because I need it to quell the anxiety that makes me slam doors and scream at my family.

I deserve a job that does not require me to sacrifice my sanity, my safety, and my health at the alter of the billable hour and client service.

I deserve an elevated life in which I deal in wants not needs, in which I do the things I like because I like them, not because I need them to cope.

I deserve to feel like I want to live instead of like I need to die. 

Anybody that is not okay with me doing what it takes to shape that life (including, mostly, myself) can take a seat.