Dark Tiny Spirals - Queer Girl Running Chapter 7
With only one week to go before Eugene, I feel more ready to race than ever. My Boston run fam all crossed the finish line, and their return- with their stories of pain, exhaustion, joy, and triumph- has me just as proud and happy for them and our shared journey as ever. Seattle has burst into spring, with blossoms and leaves suddenly turning the still-cool mornings into a perfumed wonderland. The light has steadily been returning. But I've been thinking a lot about darkness.
It's been a long winter for the Pacific Northwest, and our training cycle has seen many more dark runs than light. Running in actual darkness is its own special challenge; it involves extra gear for visibility, extra effort to get out of bed, extra time to warm up and a specific kind of exhaustion that I attribute to lack of vitamin D. But over the past couple of weeks, as the morning light has made a comeback, my own inner light seems dimmer.
I am a person who has battled anxiety and depression in waves since I was a teenager. Most of the time these feelings are embedded in extremely low self-esteem and sense of self-worth. I know I'm only one of many, many humans who internally experiences this. In fact I tend to feel guilty for these emotions because I tell myself it's ridiculous to have them at all. My life is pretty wonderful. I enjoy a ton of privilege that so many don't. I don't want to take up space with my sadness because there are people whose suffering is much more immediate who need that space more. Needless to say, this pervasive guilt circles back on itself and feeds the depression/anxiety cycle, so objectively it does no one any good at all.
When I get into what my therapist likes to call a "funk," I know the things I need to do in order to help myself out of it. The problem is, I often can't do them. I build a brick wall in myself that feels like an actual physical barrier to getting on with my life. I go to work but I spend the whole time thinking about going home. If I get myself outside for a short walk, or listen to a guided meditation, or call a friend, sometimes I feel better; sometimes I just feel more frustrated with my inability to get over myself.
One thing I know I can do no matter what (barring injury, which is why injury is one of my greatest fears) is run. I know I can get myself out of bed at what to most humans is an incredibly stupid hour to wake up, go down to the lake and run with an entire group of people who I adore. I love the sport and the people who do it with me so much, and I always feel happier and more alive.
But there's a caveat: that one consistent light-giving activity has also become my excuse for letting all of my other inner work and self care slide.
Marathon training is exhausting. I am tired almost all the time. And when I'm tired, I don't want to try hard at anything else. I try hard in training; nothing else matters. Except it does. Because my life is more than this sport. I'm already a socially anxious person and I really dislike that about myself; training and the fatigue that comes with it has become yet another reason to stay home at night and on weekends. I've gotten to the point where being out somewhere with people after 7pm is really stressful for me to think about, not only because of my base anxiety and tiredness, but because my morning run is my priority, and my anxiety tells me I can't do more. It latches onto routine like a leech. It sends my mind into tiny spirals, telling me that what I really need to do is what I always do: eat dinner as early as possible, catch up on TV and reading and Instagram, take a shower, set my alarm, wake up 2 hours before I need to be at the morning run meetup, spend a bunch of time on my PT exercises and rolling out, eat breakfast at least an hour before I start running in order to make sure my ever-irritated gut has enough time to sort itself out before I leave the house. While some of these things are physically healthy (PT for preventing injury, prioritizing nutrition for a body that experiences a lot of stress), the routine keeps me in my comfort zone, which exacerbates anxiety around leaving it. The little spirals fold in on themselves and get dense, heavy. Suddenly they feel extremely important. More important than anything else.
I am used to dealing with this kind of mind fuck. It worries me because it feels easy and comfortable at the same time that it feels unbearably hard. I go through chapters of life in which I tip the scales toward better coping with it, and chapters in which I don't. None of the chapters are exactly the same; there is no consistent length to them and there can be several in one day. The darker ones usually have in common a protagonist who does not make an effort to be a good friend or let other people be a good friend to her. A character who doesn't feel much of the world and stays inside her head and her apartment, eating popcorn. Occasionally she laughs and get excited and loves her brain. Sometimes she tries a guided meditation and cries. Sometimes she goes out with friends and has a great time but still leaves early and feels a crushing sense of guilt and failure for days afterward. She spends a lot of time wondering what's wrong with her and being quiet.
Running is both my way out of this and an enabler. Training for a marathon has me running much more than I ever have, which magnifies my conflicted relationship with it. The highs are very high and the lows are very low. Or maybe it's better described as, the light is very bright and the darkness is blinding. (I'm a gemini, can you tell?)
I find a lot of support and friendship within the running family, and I try to give it back too. One of the brightest spots is that people who run together tell each other a lot, including about their own mental health journeys. I would not be writing this gaping, raw exposure of some scary parts of my brain without having had those conversations and knowing, despite how much I beat myself up for what I still tell myself is weakness on the mental health front, that feeling this way does not make me a bad person and I'm not alone. That is what I would say to a friend, and I would believe it about them. I have to battle my own heavy coils with heavier weapons than those words. But my heart believes that my friends who struggle with their own helixes of self-doubt, anxiety and depression are worthy of self-forgiveness, confidence and empowerment to break those swirling bonds; this makes it slightly easier to believe that about myself, too.
As for the race, this is taper week, which is contributing to some inner emotional havoc that I am assured is very normal. As part of coping with this, I am writing down non-running goals for after the race that I hope will help shift the balance of my mental health work to be more evenly distributed between running and more challenging social endeavors. I have some travel coming up over the next several months, which is something that always helps me untwist myself a little. (The change in physical space to somewhere from which I can't easily go home can be a good perspective shift, loosening the spirals). Summer is on the doorstep (probably), and pride month is coming up. In the meantime, at the very least, I'm breathing.
This journey has been long and deep, and much bigger than I expected it to be. Perhaps the greatest surprise has been that the mental and emotional work of training is an even larger part of training than the physical work. It's actually been very illuminating. Running doesn't make my struggles with myself disappear, but I can't say it hasn't helped me learn more about them.
A week from today, I'll be at the start line of my first full marathon with people who have become family. That is amazing, and my joy around this fact is not tempered. Despite my anxiety, this thought feels like sunshine. I can't wait.