I wake up in the middle of the night, anxious again. Remnants of nightmares swirl through my head–something about my abuser and something about my boyfriend. Sleeping on a park bench. I don’t remember. My brain starts in on pointless one-sided conversations. I turn onto my side and try to calm down–I’m not breathing right again. My abdomen feels weird and gurgly. Great; now my digestive system isn’t working, either. I groan a little and hold the pillow tightly. I remind myself how comfortable this bed is. I remind myself how lucky I am to be staying in the lovely, clean and incredibly conveniently located home of my friend. While I still have nowhere of my own to live this is a great, sweet luxury.
I can feel how I’m not going back to sleep right now, so I get up to pee. Leave the phone alone, I tell myself. Don’t look. He won’t have said anything and it’s just going to hurt again. The phone is already in my hand and I’m taking it off airplane mode. Text from Margy. No email. I wail in frustration and remember, bitterly, him telling me the last thing he wants to do is hurt me. I resist the urge to throw my phone, curse a few times under my breath, and go back to bed where I flail around miserably for a long while but eventually sleep some more.
When my alarm goes off I lay there and whine. I’m tired, I’m sad and I’m scared. It’s cold. It’s Saturday morning. He hasn’t spoken with me since Tuesday. I try to get my shit together for my long run, thinking ruefully how I wish I had someone to run with. All my running bras are at Kevin’s*. Fucking hell. I put together an absurdly mismatched outfit that I’ll need to wash again before tomorrow.
In the cold morning air I flinch, noticing as I lock the door that I’m holding my breath again. I sigh and start my Garmin, taking off with deflated determination. For about a mile, I fiddle with the display on my watch which is mis-pacing me. I know what a 5:30 pace feels like and this is not it. I look down at the sidewalk where someone has written in the concrete; “you matter.” My face crumples and I cry out; it doesn’t feel like it. I feel painful confusion about my boyfriend, who has told me over and over that he loves me. He’s made plans with me. He’s emphatically and consistently indicated his devotion–but stopped talking to me while I was afraid and struggling to connect with him. Maybe not my boyfriend. Maybe he changed his mind. I’m afraid, and I don’t understand.
Finally my old Garmin cooperates. 9:36. That is not going to work for me. I push a little to pick up speed and feel a deep, painful twinge under my left ribs. I recognize it immediately; this is what happens when I’m so distressed I’m unable to breathe properly for days at a time. It’s diaphragmatic tension, and it hurts. The first time it happened I was running on a hot day during a particularly bad argument with my abuser. Chagrined, I tried to push through until it dropped me to my knees on the roadside gasping in panic for breath.
I slow down. 9:50. 9:56. I’m plodding along. I hate it. I’m 30 minutes into a 90 minute run, lamely ambling through Lakewood with no memory of what street I’m on. The pain under my ribs gets a little sharper. I gasp and then give in, pausing my Garmin to walk up a hill. I coax myself to breathe more deeply. I remind myself that my therapist observed I’m handling this well. I’m still going. I’m reaching out for support and getting it. I remind myself of my friend Donia taking me in at 7 am after my sleepless Tuesday night to make me breakfast and listen to me. Christian running beside me. Margy holding me, pausing her work to comfort me, planning to incorporate me into the weekend with her son. I matter to these people. I am safe with them. I am not alone.
I arrive at the top of the hill and start running again, but the pain is still there. Is it worth continuing when I’m slow and miserable and in pain? I don’t want to give up. I also don’t want to make things worse for myself. I see a little park and run through it, thinking that might perk me up. It’s a very small park; I do not perk, I scowl.
I continue on to whatever street, approaching a bridge over 147 and a busy intersection with a don’t walk sign. A man stands idly on the corner I approach. I instantly dislike him, and he looks toward me. I smash the button for the crosswalk. He’s facing me, and he’s too close. I eye the traffic, spot a very small break and sprint across flinching. I begin to see spots, but I keep running.
Suddenly, traffic sounds deafeningly loud and I cry out, whipping my head side to side to see what’s changed. I’m very frightened and my vision blurs white. I throw up my hands and scan for a place to hide. I have an impulse to hurl myself against a concrete barrier and curl into a ball. The highway is behind that barrier; stupid idea. I’m beginning to hyperventilate, and I’m right on the edge of a panic attack. A truck sounds its horn somewhere down the block. My body begins to speed up with no conscious input. I cry out involuntarily once, twice, three times. I blink back tears and look clearly at a building in the distance. Come on, Laura. Keep it together. Almost there, you can do this. I purse my lips and fight to keep moving. I absolutely cannot continue running on city streets when I’m this agitated; I will actually collapse. I turn onto a quieter street. My lip is quivering. My eyes are wide. Keep going, I urge myself. There is no traffic on my friend’s street. I reach into my back pocket for her house key, still running. I run straight up her yard, stopping only to walk up the four steps to her door. I unlock both bolts quickly, step in, close and lock the door behind me–and then I lose it.
I’ve cried a whole bunch of times this week, but not like this. I don’t even take my shoes off. I fall, folding myself into child’s pose in the corner behind the door, face in my gloved hands. I can’t see the room around me, can’t feel my body–just deep agonizing emotional pain screaming out of me. I wail, biting into my hands until my knees begin to hurt and then I fall onto my side, back against the door, completely defeated. My nose begins to run and I wipe it with the backs of my hands then become disgusted and gingerly peel off sweaty, snotty gloves which inexplicably horrify me through my tears. I drop them on the floor and my crying slows as I warily eye the gloves with trepidation.
Rather than sit and wonder what sinister thing I’m about to remember, I untie my shirt from my waist, blow my nose into it like some kind of savage, then peel off my shoes and stumble to the bathroom. I turn on the shower, get in, sit on the floor and let the water pour down on my head. Things felt incredibly hopeful and infinitely easier so recently, and I’m shocked to find myself back in hell with no clear explanation.
The water cascades down my nose and eyelashes. I was so happy and so hopeful. I’d been so cautious. I was so sure. I think of all the things we’d planned to do together and how comfortable and perfectly safe it felt to rest my head on his shoulder. The look of delight on his face waking up to see me in the morning. The pride and gratitude I felt last weekend, listening to him play the guitar. I was so sure, and now it looks like my new relationship might not work after all. The water runs in a torrent toward the drain and in my grief I wish I, too, could simply be washed away.
*Name has been changed.