As a child, I learned very early and very well that I would never do anything well enough. My mother’s criticisms were strict and constant. If I drew a picture of a person with mitten-like hands, she asked me why my Crayola creation didn’t have all 10 fingers and 10 toes. For kindergarten class, our teacher asked us to cut out pictures from magazines beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Before I could begin to cut, my mom made directed me to use a ruler to outline my images in perfect boxes, sitting by my elbow to make sure I did it correctly. Only once I excised the photographs from the pages with surgical precision could I apply precisely 5 drops of glue to affix them to the paper assignment sheet. My brother and I always won ribbons in the reading and art contests at the public library. Such success was expected of us, and it was nearly guaranteed given our brilliance, talent, hard work, and my mother’s diligent, unwavering “guidance.”
As I grew up, I recognized that there was no sense in vacuuming my room if I didn’t move all the furniture and dust around the baseboards. I internalized that B’s were entirely unacceptable on report cards. An A- was tolerable in isolation, but it remained less than ideal. Handwriting that wasn’t as neat as a typewriter revealed laziness and weakness of character. If I wasn’t in the advanced placement math classes, then why bother showing up to school at all? Math was the subject where I struggled the most. Numbers, equations, and formulas left me feeling stupid and hopelessly incapable. In eighth grade, my teacher advised that I step down to “college prep,” which was level 3 out of 4. My mother was adamantly set against it, and I struggled through advanced math until I completed AP calculus as a high school senior. I earned an A, but I repeated calculus again over the course of two semesters in college. It was one of my first opportunities to choose for myself. I was also able to (finally!) quit the Spanish classes that I hated. When I was 11 years old and begged her to let me study French, my pleading fell on deaf ears. Spanish was more useful, she told me. When I was in college, I chose Latin.
My sense of worthlessness was cemented at a young age, and I came to believe that I would never be able to change. I would grow from an awkward, unattractive, isolated girl into an awkward, unattractive, isolated woman, and nobody would ever love me. It was who I was. It was who I was made to be. I hated myself. For most of my 32 years, I was a slave to my academic and professional success, straining to earn my self-worth through accomplishment. It wasn’t until I finally sought mental health treatment that I began to unravel my distorted thoughts and false reality. With the help of my cognitive behavioral therapist, I started to understand that my way of interpreting the world and my core beliefs were inaccurate. Long before I entered therapy, though, I found a new way to earn my worth that wasn’t tied to scholarship or job performance. I discovered that I was excellent at running. Over distances from a mile to 10K, I was fast! As I became more serious about running, I liked the changes that I observed in my body. I felt strong, sleek, and swift. Capable. Of course, I was never good enough at running to consider myself a runner. No matter how many races I entered, no matter how times I placed in my age group, I continued to worry that someone would uncover the truth about me – that I was an imposter. My training was too inconsistent, and my weekly mileage was too low. I was a phony.
In recovery from my eating disorder, I gave up on running. I was sidelined by injuries and illness nearly two years before I ever entered ED treatment, but through my therapy, I finally jettisoned the notion that my identity or worth came from something extrinsic. I fully expected that running would be an activity to which I would never return, and I found new ways to exercise in moderation and with balance. I distanced myself from work, allowing myself to be just average at my job for the first time, ever. Meeting expectations and requirements was sufficient. Needing time and space to explore what truly brought meaning to my life, I withdrew from anything extraneous. As I progressed in therapy, I gradually took on more professional and personal challenges. Without necessarily realizing what was happening, I slowly stretched beyond the careful boundaries I once erected to protect my nascent self. I set my professional aim a bit higher, comfortable that I knew how to right myself if the balanced tipped too far in one direction. I committed to a twice-monthly volunteer role at a local eating disorder treatment center. I booked a flight to Paris! Still, I continued to avoid running.
“Could you reclaim running and build a healthy relationship with it?” my therapist asked me. I wasn’t sure of the answer. Even walking for the sole purpose of walking stirred some inner resistance. Yet, I made a few, staggering starts. Last spring, I went out for a couple of walk-runs. Hesitantly, with great trepidation, I would walk for a few minutes, jog for 30 seconds, walk for a few minutes, and repeat. It never amounted to much, and I never built my intervals beyond a minute or so of running. I abandoned the effort until this autumn, when something inexplicable overcame me. Perhaps, it was simply the right time to try again, or perhaps it was something more.
“…October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”
~ Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain
One day, I very matter-of-factly decided that with all of the biking and swimming and yoga and dashing about on one errand or the next, I was certainly strong. There could be no argument about it. I drove to the squishy, rubberized track a few miles from my house, felt the bounce under the soles of my shoes, and started walking. After a few minutes, my stride broke open, and I was jogging. My legs felt strange and unnatural as I summoned the ligaments and muscles to work in ways at once familiar and not. It was a long time ago that I made this particular demand of them. For three-quarters of a mile, they carried me on, and then, just as plainly, I walked again.
The brief trot remained my solitary attempt through the length of the holiday season. There were more pressing matters to divert my attention. However, as December came to a close, my sights fixed more steadily on Paris, and I resolved to make walking a top priority in preparation for my trip. “Do you think that emphasizing walking will help you to address running, as well?” my therapist asked. I nodded affirmatively, but deferred the additional challenge until after my vacation. It was too risky. I could get hurt.
Or… maybe, I wouldn’t. Maybe, I would be fine, especially if I added distance slowly and maintained the balance of my other activities. One afternoon, I laced up my shoes, but instead of setting off at a tourist pace around the neighborhood, I climbed a set of stairs to the short, indoor track circling the basketball courts and free weight machines at the gym where I work. “I just want to see,” I told myself. “I just want to see what it’s like. I just want to see how it feels.”
It felt fine! It felt like next to nothing at all! It felt very measured and plodding, and also hopeful and foundational. It felt like a comeback – the slowest comeback ever. I felt like the tortoise overtaking the hare. I went back again the next week, keeping my distance between half and two-thirds of a mile. Slow and steady. Bit by bit. Eventually.
Friday was sunny, and a few blinding rays sliced through the large, dirty windows each time I crossed the west side of the oval. On one straightway, I could gaze across the flat landscape to the smudgy line of trees on the distant horizon, and on the other, I could glance down at the pickup games of basketball and volleyball that were underway. I counted my breaths and let my arms swing loosely at my side, conscious of driving my elbows straight back with each stroke. Between breaths, I ticked off the laps. 1…2…3… The tiny track was 1/9 of a mile. 4…5…6… I surpassed my distance from the previous week. My core muscles were tight and contracted, and I could feel my glutes powering each step. I imagined my whole body cooperating to move me along. It was a well-nourished, well-rested body in good health, both mentally and physically. I never ran under those conditions before. I never ran without anything to prove. 7…8… It occurred to me that I was about to mark a new milestone, both literally and metaphorically. 9. I finished the lap and slowed to a walk, continuing to circle until my twitching legs relaxed. A little smile creased my face. I didn’t know what would come next, but I knew that I was already enough.
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
~ JRR Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring