I sleep fitfully on the cot at my friend’s house. I dream that I am lying in bed with Kevin*, relaxed, my hand on his chest. Except rather than his solid, muscular body I’m feeling the thin frame of my abuser. Somehow I wake up annoyed–but unusually unruffled. I roll my eyes. Not today, motherfucker.
I find clothes from my suitcase in the morning darkness. When I’ve finished my preparations, I don’t drive to the trailhead–I run right out the door. I’m fast enough and steady enough alongside the morning traffic now. It is dark outside. I flinch against the occasional headlights but am otherwise okay with the cars next to me; my breathing is steady. My birthday was yesterday. Any day I wake up next to my sweet boyfriend feels like a good day; it was a good day.
Plodding along in the grass beside the road, I sift through memories calmly. They are not pummeling with ferocity as they often have before–rather, they drift into my consciousness where I look at them squarely.
I started my last birthday running with my old training partner who I clung to desperately. I remember that run and Scott, who I no longer talk to.
On the previous birthday I taught a morning class and then sobbed violently in my car all the way home to a spouse I did not trust and did not want to celebrate my birthday with. I could barely breathe. Choking, I pulled over on the way home and screamed at the top of my lungs until I stopped shaking.
On the birthday before that he took me to a restaurant I didn’t particularly like and then picked a fight with me. I probably cried myself to sleep.
I feel a little sad for myself and my years of suffering, but mostly I’m steady and calm, running at the roadside. The sky is purple as the sun begins ascending somewhere unseen beyond the trees.
I remember a run after leaving my abuser–one of the last solo runs I went on near roadways for a long time. I couldn’t focus, kept warily eyeing the cars beside me. Every odd engine noise threatened to send me over the edge, and I kept speeding up as though I might outrun the next panic attack.
I slow a little approaching a roadway. The light says “Don’t Walk.” I stand, poised for flight, waiting for the passage of a single car and then I look one more time and sprint across before the break in traffic closes. My heel strikes my ass as I leap onto the opposite sidewalk and I smile, pleased with the sensation of moving fast.
I remember the people I ran with while I was afraid to run alone. Doug and Elizabeth, Anna, John, Bobby, Sarah. I remember driving on Saturday mornings for long runs with the crew. I remember running miles and miles of sidewalk. I remember cruising out ahead of the group with Doug, discovering to my relief that he ran faster than the rest and didn’t want to talk that much. I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to run and not feel fear.
The sky is turning red-orange with the sunrise as I find a neighborhood trail into the woods. I reflexively speed up onto the single track, my feet pattering around the roots and rocks.
It hurts a little, remembering how I felt alienated from that group. They chattered about races and their families while we ran. They had career successes and homes while my life kept falling apart and I continued to live out of suitcases. They drove off on Saturday mornings to be with their partners while I sat in my car choking on my own loneliness. Eventually I calmed down just enough to tolerate running by myself sometimes, and I’d meet Scott at Umstead Park for Saturday morning long runs. He’d often spend the rest of the day with me, and I felt less lost and anxious. That was a long time ago. The disappointment once sufficiently agonizing to be physically painful feels diffuse now.
I remember sitting in the waiting room for physical therapy after my car accident, sunglasses on, listening to a live interview with Peter Levine. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to him explain how many recovered survivors express that if given a choice, they’d keep the trauma and all the pain they’d gone through for the growth it had provoked. I trembled with grief, misery, frustration and deep longing. I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. I didn’t want to resent my life. I was still deep in a pit of despair I couldn’t see the edge of.
Sometimes it still feels like that in moments. Often it hurts to be with my memories and nightmares and my oppressive nervous system. But this morning, with patches of Carolina blue sky peering between the trees, I understand too. I understand how my painful truth-telling has driven away friendships that weren’t strong enough for me to rely on. I understand how all the things that have fallen away, painful as those losses have been, are making room for my future. I understand how the bonds I am forming are stronger and more real. I am learning to trust that it isn’t having everything together which will open the door to freedom. Having the bravery and integrity to tell the painful truth has called forth possibilities I wouldn’t have dared to dream of before.
The sky is bright blue as I emerge from the woods. The work of physical therapy has me steadier on my feet as I land, over and over again, between bouts of flight. I feel both flight and steadiness, contemplating the possibility that one day soon I might bless my trauma and my suffering. I feel possibility. I feel hope. When my Garmin sounds the end of my run I throw up my arms, like a champion breaking tape at the end of a race. I can do this.
*Not his actual name