Have you ever been at a crossroad in life when you just did not know what was going to happen next? I clearly remember the summer of 1979, a time of change for me. As I look back at how I coped back then, I have realized I may have been on the brink of something very dangerous.
I had just returned home from finishing my dietetic internship in Nashville, Tennessee. I had been away at college for 4 years, and then a year away for my internship, and for once in my life, it did not feel right to be home with my parents and younger siblings. I couldn’t quite explain it, but pretty much everyone got on my nerves. I had applied for a few jobs, but in the mean time, I needed to find a way to cope with everything. As you may know from a post a few weeks ago, in college I had taken up jogging when I quit smoking, and it literally changed my life. I continued my running down in Nashville (it was hot!) but only did a 2-3 mile loop around the hospital grounds and Vanderbilt campus. This has always been just enough for me to relax and meditate, and easily fit into my life.
But when I came home that summer, something happened. For some reason, I felt like “challenging” myself. My younger sister Fran also was into jogging, and we had lots of fun running and talking. Our loop was only a few miles and was perfect. Being my little sister, who was very sweet and agreeable (she still is), well, it was easy to convince her to add on a mile. When we first ran 5 miles, I remember, we both felt pretty awesome. Wow, look how strong we were! I wonder how much longer we could run? Before you knew it, we were up to 7 miles. Then 8. Finally, only once in my life, I did 10. It was a drizzly day, I vaguely remember, and it took me a very long time. But at least now I could say “I ran 10 miles!”
Yes, it felt very cool, and we both felt proud of ourselves until something weird started to happen. It wasn’t enough. If for some reason we only had time to do 5 miles, I remember feeling a sense of guilt and inadequacy. I couldn’t understand what was happening, but somehow this running that started out as fun and good was turning into something that was, well, getting a nasty grip on me. And I did not feel like I could control it, yet I did not recognize what was going on. Thank goodness, that phone call finally came. I got a job! It was out of state, so I would have to move into my own place in Massachusetts. I was so relieved!
Then, the funniest thing happened. I found a place, found the local High School track, and after work went to jog. For some reason, I no longer had to compete with myself. Now, 3 miles was enough again. What happened? I felt content, proud of myself for getting a job, and excited about this new life I was entering.
Looking back, I now know what happened. I was using running as a distraction from my feelings of fear. It may have been fear of change, fear of failure, fear of rejection. Maybe I was not smart enough to get a job? Maybe nobody would want me! It was terrifying. But I did not feel that at all at the time. That is because I found a way to numb myself. I took something that was once a blessing in my life, something that made me feel good and helped me cope by relaxing me, something that was not harmful to me at all, and turned it into something that had the potential to destroy me.
To be clear, there are many people who are very stable, happy, and healthy, and who are marathon runners, but the difference is, it adds to their lives. This is not what I am talking about. Real athletes don’t feel guilty about taking a day off, and they aren’t trying to escape from their real feelings. It is only when something like running serves to distract someone from dealing with life that it can become unhealthy. When we don’t deal with our feelings and pretend all is good in our lives when it really isn’t, well, something eventually is gonna give. Day to day life is not very fun when all you think about is something that is getting you nowhere.
If you can relate to this story, or if you find yourself compelled to exercise for the wrong reasons, remember, the first step is realizing you have a problem. I was fortunate in that the dynamics in my life just happened to let me slip back into normal life. Once I left, my sister also went back to a normal lifestyle. This is not always the case. If you have been struggling with this issue, or find it hard to stop, seek help. Don’t let the years slip by. You are not alone, as our culture admires unhealthy behaviors such as exercise addiction, so getting out of something that is culturally acceptable takes some doing. I always recommend even just one visit to a therapist or psychologist to at least get a professional opinion if you think you might be using exercise to distract yourself from life. That way, at least you are taking a step. That one little step can be life changing……and get you farther in life than any marathon ever.