I used to run. Okay, maybe jog is a better description. (I really don’t like the word jog as it reminds me of the 80s when everyone wore jogging suits, but nobody jogged. When I hear the word I picture a rotund Al Sharpton with too many gold chains around his neck). Regardless of my pace, though, I did run on a regular basis. At first, it started as a way for me to conserve time. If I could walk for an hour, couldn’t I get the same benefit from running for thirty minutes? It made sense to me. So I undertook the Couch to 5K plan running on my treadmill. Every afternoon I would come home from teaching, exhausted from having run around all day with a hectic schedule teaching English to High School students, and get my workout in.
As I would enter the house, I’d throw my school bag on the floor, just like my own kids did years before, change into my workout clothes and head to the basement. I tried not to think about what I had to do that evening: what I was making for dinner, how much grading or lesson planning I needed to accomplish, or anything that would prevent me from taking the time I needed to jump on that treadmill. I needed this time for myself. The Couch to 5k plan starts off with mostly walking with short bursts of running. Little by little the running time increases and the walking time decreases and within four to six weeks you are running the entire workout! Before you know it, I was pounding that treadmill full speed–well my full speed. I was even ready to venture outdoors without being embarrassed.
I needed to exercise for several reasons, not the least of which was my overwhelming anxiety. I had always been prone to general anxiety as well as full-blown panic attacks, but my hectic life, along with a troubled teenage daughter, was really beginning to wear me down. You see, my daughter experienced a trauma at 13 and never recovered emotionally. In addition to the emotional issues (or perhaps because of them) she started to use drugs as a way of escape. Her story is not unique–millions of you deal with this everyday. I tried everything I could to save this child. When I discovered the initial trauma, I immediately found her a therapist she was comfortable with. When I learned she was cutting, I went along with what the therapist said-let her practice clean, safe cutting until we could get her beyond it. Imagine what it is like having to go out and replace a knife you threw away, knowing its only purpose will be to slice your baby’s skin. When she finally confessed her drug problem, I got her into the best rehab I could find–when she relapsed, I did it again. But then one day she broke me: she chose to leave home and live with her boyfriend. She was 18 years-old now and a Senior in High School (the same one I taught at) and she simply decided to leave home.
Something broke inside me the day she left, some might say it’s a broken heart, but it feels like more than that–it feels as if my entire being is broken–is it possible to have a broken soul?
Somehow, pounding on that treadmill every day helped relieve some of my despair. I felt that the more I ran, the stronger I became, and the stronger I became, the better I could deal with this emotional apocalypse. I would actually say to myself as I was running, “I’m not going to let her kill me.”
In time, I was able to regain some semblance of my previous self, and looked forward to my afternoon runs. While I was still anxious, I learned how to manage it with drugs and exercise. I really was becoming a master at hiding it from my loved ones. Eventually my daughter came home–for a while, but she continued to have serious problems and began the pattern of going in and out of rehab for many years.
Then there was another tragic development in my life of which I had absolutely no control: my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. The uncertainty and fear that a cancer diagnosis comes with was suddenly upon me. Immediately my siblings and I went into action, researching options, encouraging her to get second opinions, and to shop around for doctors and treatments we were all comfortable with. But still, as much as one attempts to take control of a situation like this, the reality is that most of what happens is out of our hands. Once again, I found myself on the treadmill pounding the anxiety, the fear and the heartache away. My thought process now was that if I improved my health, I could improve hers. As silly as it sounds, all I could think while running was, “breathe for her.”
I continued running and imagining myself breathing for my mother for another year until I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. Yes, that’s correct, not an editing error. Lung cancer. And so, my running days were over as I faced the monumental task of fighting for my life. Chemo, radiation, two lung surgeries, a brain metastasis requiring neurosurgery and more radiation. I’ve done well– six years later and I’m still here! I don’t run anymore, but I have vivid dreams in which I am running, breathing in deeply, fully emptying my lungs as I exhale, heart pounding and it feels awesome.