Permission to Stop Running

Essay

I was not anticipating the wave of loneliness and sadness that consumed me as I finished my first run in months. I should have been exhilarated and happy from the exertion, but I was not. I’d felt this sadness after a run before, but never this powerfully. Never before had I questioned my reasons for running as I did in that moment. Maybe, I thought, it was ok to not run anymore.

It was the 70-degree weather on November 11, 2020–the wanting a quick fix for the softness around my middle and my inner voice telling me I should be running–that propelled me out the door. I told myself that it would be another form of mediation. I would not keep time, I would not worry about my pace or the distance covered, I would not listen to music, I would just move in the moment. As I took my first steps, I was already looking away from the moment and into the future, scheming that if I could do a simple run a few times a week then I could certainly continue to run through the winter (something I’ve never done), solving the soft middle dilemma (maybe I should stop sneaking M&Ms).and securing what my inner voice was telling me was my lynchpin to happiness. 

It was in 2012 that I started running to cope with my depression, and the death of my father. Then it was needed and it was wonderful, but now, perhaps it was time to find a new “medicine”? In 2014 I did Running Down Cancer. In the summer of 2018, I ran nearly every day because the previous winter I had gone off my antidepressants and after returning from a trip from Utah realized I desperately need to get myself out of the hole I was in and never go off my medication again. By the summer of 2019 while walking on the beach in Michigan I realized that I did not need to run to cope. But I didn’t give myself permission to stop and thus kept “shoulding” (I should be doing this, I should be doing that) myself about how I needed to run to stay on an even keel.

In the early spring of 2020, I ran regularly to deal with being cooped up due to the pandemic. But by June running just seemed like too much–another thing that needed to get done so that I didn’t slip into the darkness. Over the past eight years, I had convinced myself that I needed to run to survive, ignoring the fact that since I’d changed medications and I’d changed my therapist, there was no reason why I could not change my physical activity. The reality was that I had never run just for fun. I’d done it to cope, to put on a mask of who I thought I wanted to be so that I could be happy. But relying on outside forces for joy is simply not sustainable. 

Two days after my less than invigorating run on November 11th, as I walked briskly up the Summit Trail of Mount Philo State Park with our dog Jedi, I realized that walking this mountain was just as exhilarating as running it. I was seeing far more than I had all those hundreds of times I’d run the trail in the past. I was putting my mindfulness practice to work and approaching other people with compassion rather than thinking about myself and wondering if the “mask” of who I thought I should be was showing forth as I imagined it was. This compassion flooded me with joy and at that moment I gave myself permission to stop running to cope.

A Moment of Despair

Essay

The waves come slowly but quickly gain strength and power. I know what is coming but I am powerless to move. When the largest crashes over me I am held down, gasping for air and wondering if I will survive.

Outward appearances and surface assumptions mask the dark ocean of despair and self-loathing that holds me under in the depths of depression. Instead, many see the blessed life I am fully aware that I have. A beautiful supportive wife and two healthy boys, I am in good health and doing what God has called me to do. It is my family that keeps me fighting for my life. I will not allow the boys to grow up fatherless. But can I survive once they are grown? Focus on the now, you just need to make it through today, I tell myself. Start again tomorrow. Tomorrow could be better. Each day could be better. My family needs me.

I’ve seen death from many angles, and know firsthand the hole and pain it leaves. I have come to understand why people choose suicide but I still feel it is selfish. But right now, I’m not sure how much more I can take. There is relief in the thought, of the torture finally ending, but also the terror of leaving my family. I break into sobs; an awkward sputtering sound escapes my lips. For even here, alone, I hold back. The tears stream down my face but the release is not a complete one.

I spend the rest of the day in a painful funk, doing my best to mask my turmoil from the world. This leaves me exhausted, but one step closer to the end of the day. Then I can escape into my book and then into sleep. With this, there is the promise that tomorrow just might be betterif only a little.

To Feel Even Keel

Essay

Melancholy fills my mind in the quiet hours when the house is empty. The cycle of self analyzation and the worry that my own brain is what is making it all worse beings anew. Is it something I am doing? Because then I could stop it. Midwinter is an unpleasant time to be in my mind. The grayness takes its toll, even though the days are growing longer. Even though this year I am able to find the beauty in the gloomiest of days, the darkness still comes. How I long for a day to feel normal. Though it has been so long I am not sure if I was ever normal. Just oblivious, self medicated and busy with a job that kept my mind occupied.

I want to jump out of my skin! Run away from my body, my mind, life. Is it really the weather? Or is it because I feel bad for focusing on putting physical activity back into my routine and now feel I have less time for cleaning the floors, bathrooms, doing the dishes? Why can’t I just feel normal? Not spectacular, not elated, just even keel. Why can’t I add something into my life without feeling as if I’m going to lose my mind? Last year was a dark tunnel, this year I’m on a daily rollercoaster of emotional turmoil overwhelmed, then fine, then the blackness rushes back in. Am I the one causing this, with my self analyzing? I need to get out of the house and out of my head. But I don’t want to move. I certainly don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t believe I can muster the strength to put on the face of someone who is ok. Of someone who is not fighting for their life at every turn. I don’t go out, instead I pace, I try to occupy my mind, I ride the rollercoaster, until it is time to crawl into the safe cocoon of our bed.

But within all this there is a sliver of hope and despite the darkness I know God has a plan and He is always there for me. I hold fast to that and each day I wake up with the thought that today could be a good day.

Trail Love

Essay

Before I knew about mountain biking or the term singletrack, when BMX was all the rage and I wanted the skills of the kids in RAD, I was building bike trails in the small wooded sections on our property. The trails were short no more than a couple hundred feet in length, and I would connect them by riding across the yard or the road. Building the trail involved little more than raking, clipping and hand sawing, perhaps moving a rock or two. I’d ride laps dreaming I was on a grand adventure or racing around a track.

The mid-July sun beats down on our backs—we are dressed for battle in full military fatigues crawling on our forearms and knees through the field, moving our arms like the feet of an old windup toy to pack down trails in the tall grass. We are creating a labyrinth that will become our base for a week or so before the farmer comes to hay.

A few decades on, I am past Army costumes and my tools now have engines, but I still love to build trails. Which is why, back in 2012, freshly returned to Vermont from the urban west, Erin often found me under my large-brimmed straw hat pushing our mower through the high grass of the field of our rental property or clipping branches in the woods. I was building trails for the boys, I’d tell her. Though perhaps I was just grasping at childhood memories, trying to dull the pain of my father’s death.

For me, building a trail is a creative release. It is a meditation that has meaning beyond the dopamine hit of physical exertion. The creativity and feeling of accomplishment is another way for me to lead the tango with my depression. It is a way to give me something tangible that can break the cycle of the negative self talk.

My favorite trails are narrow and meandering, leading through forests of any kind. The journey is far more important than the destinationa horrid cliché, I know. Trails bring me peace, comfort and challenge; they spark that bottomless wonder that we have as children but seem to lose as we gain in agesociety having subtly beaten it out of us. Each footfall on a trail is a new experience, a chance to reveal something, a mystery to be solved, a new sight to see, an old relic to find, a burbling stream to sit beside or an enchanted land to discover. Trails are all the stories and dreams of my childhood stretching out before me. Here the world comes into sharper focus, thoughts clear, a bird serenades me as I come to the conclusion of a problem, an interesting mushroom or the most brilliant fallen leaf, stopping me mid-stride. On days when the darkness wallops me and on the days when everything is good, a saunter on the meandering trails near our home clears my mind and helps me refocus, allowing me to see what the Lord has given us, a place filled with beauty and wonder–if only we take the time to see it.