“Don’t talk to me,” I told my husband as we waited for the elevator on the fourth floor. “Don’t talk to me because if you do I will cry, and I don’t want to cry where people can see me.”
So we rode down the elevator, walked through the doctor’s office and the hospital, up the stairs of the parking garage tower, in silence.
We sat in our car, overlooking the beautiful red Mt. Olympus, in silence.
Until I thought I could talk around the lump in my throat. I could barely get enough air through to make a sound, just enough to say what was pounding in my heart and brain and psyche. “I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t include running. I don’t want to be alive if I can’t run.”
Perhaps that is overly dramatic. If I think about all of the surgeries my husband has had, yes. If I think about people who are blind, deaf, or physically altered, who have lost limbs or control of their bodies, yes. Who have cancer or diabetes or failing kidneys or asthma or a stroke—where does my frayed patellar cartilage rank in those comparisons?
Fairly low, I know. I know there are millions of people who have had worse things happen to them, and who don’t fall into despair. Knowing that makes me feel worse, actually.
But please: Allow me to wallow for a bit. Let me be selfish for a minute. Let me tell you how this conversation with an orthopedist pushed me so far back into the dark that I could say, out loud to my husband who has almost died more than once, that I didn’t want to be alive anymore.
A little over a month ago, I hurt my knee while I was doing a scramble on a trail at Rocky Mountain National Park. (I thought I would’ve written about this experience before now. Somehow, I haven’t. Somehow I don’t want to look at it too closely.) There was a crackle somewhere deep in the joint, but no pain until I stopped moving, and then my knee just wouldn’t work at all. While driving to the Denver airport, I called the orthopedic doctor recommended by the surgeons who operated on Kendell’s knee and hips. I started physical therapy, I had an appointment with the ortho doc, I got (after much back-and-forth with the insurance company) an MRI. I continued with PT, I went back to the ortho to discuss the results of my MRI. He explained that I have a tear on my femoral condyle, which is the cartilage at the end of the femur, but he thought it wasn’t a new injury. Instead, he thought the stiffness and general my-knee-feels-wrong feeling was being caused by some thinning of the cartilage under my kneecap.
He suggested I do a month of physical therapy and come back to talk to him.
So yesterday I did. This was the essence of our conversation: He thinks I should stop running.
This time, he said that the thinning was “severe” and the cartilage almost entirely worn away in one spot.
When I protested and said that I don’t want to stop running, he said “well, that’s like someone with diabetes saying they don’t want to have to take insulin. You can want or not want, but that doesn’t change the reality that your knee cartilage is starting to wear out.”
He went on to explain how women who continue running into their 50s, 60s, and beyond are “freaks of nature.” And that I should feel pretty grateful I got to run until I was 46. And to tell me a story about how all of his friends who were serious runners left the sport in their 40s.
“But I literally can’t imagine my life without running,” I said. “And if you have friends who are runners, you have to understand the runner’s psyche.”
“Oh yeah, ‘no pain, no gain’ right? Take up swimming. Or biking. You can get your endorphins somewhere else.”
And I just stopped talking. Because I could tell he’d already decided for me, and that he wouldn’t actually listen, or offer any suggestions other than “stop running.”
Clearly he doesn’t understand the runner’s psyche in the least.
That was likely not the best drive home from a doctor’s appointment my husband has ever had. Because he got to listen to me rage and wail, spew despair and ugly, ugly thoughts that haunt me:
How I’ve failed at basically everything in life. How I failed my children in the worst ways, with my own blindness. How our marriage is difficult and full of strife. How damaged my relationship with my mother is. And with God, not to mention religion.
But it’s not like I have something else to compensate for all of those relationship failures. I don’t have success in the world, either. Sure: I have a job I love and that is the perfect fit for me. But I can only work at the library because of Kendell’s job. I could never support a household on my salary. (Even if I worked full time.) So instead of doing a job I don’t love but that pays more, I selfishly work a job that brings me happiness but doesn’t help my family much.
I didn’t accomplish my goals. I’m not a university English professor like I wanted to be. I’m not a famous writer. I wasn’t a good enough mother or wife or daughter.
But running gave me something.
It gave me an identity. And, I confess: It gave me something to be proud about. Even though I’m not fast and will never win a race, I still felt proud of my running accomplishments. Running gives me a goal, a way to accomplish something measurable. A way to feel like I succeeded at something.
And no: it isn’t about “no pain, no gain.” Or the endorphins, really.
It’s about moving my body outside in the world. Moving to somewhere, not just in endless strides on an elliptical in the stinky rec center.
It’s that when I am sad, angry, frustrated, I can put on my running shoes and let the miles give me time and oxygen to work through it.
When I start to get stuck in an anxiety loop, when I worry about something and then my cortisol starts spiking through my body and then that makes me worry more, I can take a deep breath. I can get dressed in running clothes and then just run, and the cortisol dissipates, filters through my skin and evaporates as sweat and I am peaceful again.
Running is the only thing I have in my life where the eternal loop of negative self-talk finally stops. It is the space that demands I be kind, encouraging, and gentle with myself, where I find something good about myself.
It’s that where ever I go, I find myself thinking “I wish I could stop the car and run here.”
It’s that every vision of my future includes running. I want my grandkids, if I have any, to think of me as their grandma who runs. When I travel, I don’t just want to see a place. I want to run in the place. Or, say I did accomplish my writing goals—you know what I’d do when I was out on book promo trips, right? I’d go running, where ever I found myself.
Long ago, more than a decade ago, I set myself the goal to be the old woman at races, the slow but determined one who is, I now know, a freak of nature.
I don’t know how to imagine a future or live a life that doesn’t include running.
I found myself thinking about the time, five or six months after I left gymnastics, when I was spiraling and lost in darkness and my mom put me in therapy. The first thing the therapist asked me was “who are you?” and I said “I’m a gymnast.” And then I paused and ate my words. “No, I’m not.” And that was terrifying to realize that my identity was gone. But I was sixteen and I still had my whole life to figure things out. I still had plenty of time to make a new identity.
So I did that. I found the things that helped me cope with my depression. I worked through the loneliness of being a mother while not feeling supported by my own mother, and I turned that into an appreciation for solitude. I made peace with not having tons of friends, or fitting in when I tried to join running groups.
It was not just OK to run alone, it was glorious. It gave me joy and goodness; it took away some of the relentless shame and the disappointment in myself that I feel at almost all other times.
And now the universe wants to take away running, too?
(In the same damn week that politicians took away my belief in the democracy of our nation, the integrity of men, and any faith in the future?)
Today, I went back to my physical therapist. I told her what the doctor said, I said the F word, I had to apologize for getting upset and saying the F word. (I love my physical therapist but she is very, very Mormon.) I said the F word because the only way to not start crying again is to be a harsh and say the F word. She forgave me and tried to talk me down. She was kind and gentle and she said “doctors say ‘don’t run’ all the time. It doesn’t usually prove true. Yes: you’re probably not going to be the runner who runs five or six marathons a year. Yes: you need to cross train. Yes: we need to get everything calmed down and working as smoothly as possible. But you can run again.”
And I felt a little glimmer of hope.
But I don’t know how to get that doctor’s voice out of my head. I don’t know how to reclaim running from his negativity.
I know not everyone understands this. I know I sound overly dramatic and possibly hysterical and definitely pathetic. But that appointment with that doctor? Not just what he said but how he said it, with a sense of incredulity that I wouldn’t just accept what he said. It was just like the crackle in my knee. It was an injury, except an invisible. A tear in my psyche, just like the one on my condyle.
So for the next while—maybe even six months, I don’t know—I think there will be no running. I will hike, of course. Walk. Maybe trying a spin class or two.
But I think if I try to run and I can’t, if it’s still painful or it makes things swell and stiffen and ache again, then I will be overcome with discouragement, and I’m not sure I can climb out again.
So I will let my knees heal and I will let my psyche heal, and hopefully over the winter I won’t gain 50 pounds, and in the spring. In the spring when the world is green and hopeful again—maybe by then I’ll have forgotten the derision in his voice, and the surety of his pronouncement. Maybe the glimmer of hope will grow to an actual light source, and I will run again.
In the absence of running I will only be able to hold on to the hope of running.