How running gave me the courage to heal

The fact is stark but surreal, and I often have to remind myself that it is actually true, that I was once involved in an abusive relationship.

The details are not important. What matters is that I was in the relationship for a very long time, that I was a teenager when the relationship started and a grown-up in my late 20s when it ended. What matters is that, had anyone else come to me and recounted the kinds of things I was enduring, I would have told them unequivocally that they needed to leave, get out, run far far away. Maybe what matters most of all is that I’m out.

But as difficult as walking away was, it was only the first step in the process of making myself whole.

A lot of attention is paid to the external injuries inflicted by abuse – the bruises, the broken bones, the concussions.  What often goes unremarked upon is the way abuse corrodes your insides, how it eats away at your confidence and your spirit until you are little more than a husk of your former self.

I sometimes think of my experience as stepping into quicksand.  The harder you fight, the deeper you go, until you are up to your neck in shifting sands and no way to get out.  Sometimes I think of it as being in a room with a fire that sucks up all of the oxygen, leaving me scrabbling for gasps of air that will let me survive.  The Beheld’s Autumn, when she guest-blogged at Feministe, described it as a fog:

The fog of abuse ensured that my emotions, instincts, and principles were muted; every ounce of energy I had went into my relationship and keeping up the general appearance of sanity. Had you somehow been able to land my healthy, normal status-quo self smack-dab into the worst of my relationship, I’d have gotten out immediately. That’s not how abuse works, of course. Abuse is gradual; abuse is systemic. Abuse changes you; abuse reduces you. Abuse took the me out of me.

It’s not easy for anyone, but it’s particularly difficult when you have staked much of your identity on your adamant belief that men and women are of equal worth as human beings.  How do you square that belief with your reality, which is that you have hitched your wagon to a man who believes asking questions is the same as disrespect, and that disrespect is a violation punishable by violence?

When I left, I was haunted by something that bears a strong resemblance to post-traumatic stress disorder.  I ground my teeth in my sleep and woke up with my jaw aching.  Several times a week, I slept, only to face nightmares of humiliation and pain.  My anxiety attacks subsided, but they were replaced by the certainty that I would come back to my apartment one day to find him hiding inside my shower.  Mundane household chores reminded me of things he said or did, and I’d find myself curled in a ball on the floor, screaming silently into my hands.

At first, I turned to the same things that had provided me with relief while in the relationship.  Alcohol, cigarettes, weed – all of these had reliably eased my nerves when I was in the midst of that emotional hurricane.  They smoothed over my jagged edges and helped me sleep.  But they wouldn’t do for the long term.  Not if I wanted to get past bare-knuckle survival and if I wanted to learn how to thrive, they wouldn’t.

So I went for my first run.  My boyfriend, who is now my husband, was a recovering alcoholic who had taken up marathons in his quest for wellness.  I wasn’t an alcoholic or an addict, just someone with some bad habits, but the parallels between our lives and the self-destructive choices we had made were unmistakable.  So when he spoke of the way running had transformed him, I listened.

One day, I laced up a pair of New Balance trainers, put on a pair of terry-cloth shorts and a cotton tank top, and I headed out for a short run with him.  I made it all of a block before my tar-clogged lungs and my weak calves started screaming for mercy.

It would have been easy to quit.  No one would have blamed me.

Instead, I kept trying.  Brian kept encouraging me to go a little further, to push myself a little harder.  Sometimes I felt wretched, all sweaty and sore and clumsy.  Sometimes I threw up.  Sometimes I put off my runs until the sun was high in the air, and then I used the heat as an excuse to stay inside my air-conditioned apartment.

But then, sometimes, against everything logical and reasonable in the universe, it felt wonderful.

I tried to remember that possible outcome, and not the vomiting or pain, as I prepared for my first 5K.  I had never run more than two miles at once, and a 5K was more than three miles long.  Yet I managed to push through the whole thing, never once stopping to walk until I crossed the finish line.  I finished somewhere in the bottom half of my age group, and I was elated, because I’d run the whole thing without walking.

Deep inside my heart, a tightly-closed rosebud began to unfurl.

Encouraged by this latest development, I started going out for runs on my own. I lived in a particularly beautiful part of downtown St. Petersburg, less than three blocks away from palm-lined paths that ran along Tampa Bay.  I stopped reaching for my cigarettes when I felt the flutters of anxiety descend on my chest, and started reaching for my running shoes.  The rhythmic pounding of feet against pavement forced my nerves into submission, starved them of all the energy they had once used to wreck havoc on me.  I soon learned I could count on running to leave me awash in unflappable calm.  My smokes had never once done that for me.

Over the next couple of years, I ran 5Ks whenever I could, sometimes shaving whole minutes off my time.  I ran the Gulf to Bay 12K and couldn’t believe it when I crossed t.  I ran the Ogden Half-Marathon, the Holiday Halfathon, the Gasparilla Half-Marathon, and each time I finished, I thanked the universe for second chances.

I began to rack up accomplishments on the road. They were relatively meager – I wasn’t winning awards or even finishing in the top quarter of my age group – but they were mine.  Slowly I began to see that I was capable of much more than I had ever given myself credit for. It occurred to me that if this was the case in something as new to me as running, then what could I do in realms less novel?

In my previous life, I shied away from public speaking.  In my new life, I accepted an invitation to speak on a panel about undergraduate research.  In my previous life, I didn’t think my work was anything worth praising.  In my new life, I agreed to speak to the chancellor about my thesis.  In my previous life, I went for low-hanging fruit.  In my new life, I applied for and got positions on the campus newspaper, the local alt-weekly, the local 24-hour cable news station.

Soon I found ways turn running into a metaphor for the rest of my life.  When my honors thesis overwhelmed me with its enormity and ambition, I reminded myself that every great accomplishment is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of baby steps.  When I went scuba diving, I silenced my fear long enough to get me to the ocean floor, where it was soon dwarfed by the awe I felt at the knowledge that I was standing on the ocean floor.  I took on big projects at work, stood up for myself against strangers, voiced my opinions in situations that would have once struck me dumb. 

Once, the words “I can’t” were among the most common in my vocabulary.  Now, though, I have a hard time remembering the last time I uttered those words.

This sea of courage was inside of me all along, an unused resource just waiting to be tapped.  Running gave me a safe, controlled way to do that.  I realized that I was stronger than I’d ever suspected, that I was more fearless than I’d ever imagined.  That knowledge has bled into every part of my life.

I still have a ways to go before I can say my wounds have completely healed, although the truth is, I doubt they ever will.  Maybe I’ll recover, only to find myself facing yet another tremendous challenge.  I think I’m okay with that.  I’ve learned that pain and hurt don’t have to be insurmountable obstacles in life, and that often the most beautiful, worthwhile things in life await those who can find a way to make it through.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Learn the signs, find out how you can help, and most importantly, know that fear and violence have no place in relationships.

10 responses to “How running gave me the courage to heal

  1. This was an amazing post, and thank you for sharing it with the world. I have been working with the Harbor House of Central Florida for the past few months creating content for their Purple Door Campaign. If someone is in the Central Florida area and needs help, please call the Harbor House or visit their website

  2. This is bringing up all kinds of emotions for me that I don’t care to probe too deeply. So I’m just going to say I like it. Thank you for writing. 🙂

  3. Hey, this reply is totally off topic, and your post was excellent and inspiring. Its very very easy to stay trapped in the cycle of abuse, so writing about this now is very brave.

    Im sure Im probably just being annoying posting this here.

    That being said I really need to get something off my chest and I don’t know where else to post this. I recall from some of your older posts that you are a fan of Collete Dowling’s “The Frailty Myth”, as am I.

    I don’t know why so many feminists seem unwilling to accept the frailty myth. They seem so unwilling to accept the fact that a large part of the discrepancy between male and female athletes’ performance in sports (where size is NOT an advantage) could be due to societal influences.

    As an athlete I know how important mindset is in performance. Athletes must think about POSSIBILITY, not current evidence. It saddens me that so many women don’t even want to think that women beating men at things could be a POSSIBILITY. Without faith in that idea, it can never become a reality.

    Well, sorry for hijacking your post, Im just really really frustrated right now :(.

    • Hey, I totally meant to respond to this earlier! Anyway, I wanted to say that yes, I am a huge fan of The Frailty Myth. I am lucky in that I haven’t run into many feminists who don’t understand the way social expectations play out on a person’s body. Like you said, your mindset is a HUGE part of athletics and strength, and if you are convinced of your own weakness and inadequacy before you even start, you’ll never, ever be successful. Ever. Period.

      I’m really sorry you are running into people who don’t understand this. I hope that you were at least able to talk to them about some of your experiences as an athlete, and maybe open their minds a little bit in the process.

  4. Caitlin, this post is wonderful. Thank you for writing it.

    My healing wasn’t like this, but it did have a parallel track. In my case it wound up getting a little sour–when I was gathering strength to leave my ex, I also went through a major shift in how I treated my body. At the time, I thought I was treating it right: I started eating a macrobiotic diet, and started running and getting more serious about lifting weights. And, you know, it *did* give me confidence. But years later, when I sought eating disorder treatment, I saw that the way I’d treated my body then was simply a way of transferring control from him back to myself. I didn’t exhibit many ED symptoms when I was in the abusive relationship, because all the chaos of my life was being funneled directly into that partnership. There was no room left to have an ED, ha! There’s a deep irony there, that the least disordered my eating has been was when I was so unhappy. In any case: When I was summoning up my inner resources to leave, controlling my body became a part of that. I *had* to feel in control of my life; I *had* to believe I could do something tremendously difficult, which was a dual plane of breaking up with my ex and lose weight I’d been putting on over years. (I certainly was an emotional eater during those years but wasn’t disordered–I didn’t binge or restrict.)

    In any case, it’s interesting to hear how fitness helped you heal. Body control did the same for me; it took a bad turn, but as they say in treatment, people develop EDs for a reason. And not all those reasons are bad ones. I wish I’d taken a more direct route to healing, but even at my most symptomatic I was far, far better off than I was when I was with my ex.

    And I’m sorry for what he did to you, and glad you’re out now.

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