The year was 1998. It was a chilly, windy and overcast Pennsylvania fall day. It was all I could do to drag myself across campus to class. Staring at the teacher, not hearing a word he said I could not imagine how I would make it back home and back to bed where I wanted to be.
It had been like this for a while. My days revolved around going to class, going to work, and going to bed. When I was awake, I was a walking zombie. My waitress job wiped me out every night. Being the only one in my class who had to have a job during the school year, my main professor was used to giving me extensions on projects and assignments. It’s not that I didn’t have time, its that I couldn’t concentrate long enough to do the work. I was barely 19 and was not going to parties or even spending time with friends. My closest family member was a 3.5 hour drive away and had their own lives.
Leaving class that day, I just couldn’t do it. I made a slit-second decision to head to the college nurse’s office. I told her I was so tired, could I just lay down for a few minutes? She made me comfortable and gently started to ask me questions and examine me. After taking my blood pressure, she asked if I was dizzy. It was pretty low (90/50), even for me. She covered me with a blanket and left me be. After 20 or so minutes, I got up and gathered my things, thanking the nurse for letting me rest. She strongly suggested I get some rest (that’s all I have been doing!) and see my doctor. My childhood doctor was over an hour away and I had no idea how I’d find the energy to drive there. That was out of the question. As I walked home I racked my fuzzy brain- what in the past had cleared my mind and given me energy?
Although not what most would call athletic, I played and loved sports since elementary school. Running was a part of every one of those sports. So even if I couldn’t (or didn’t have the energy) find someone to play basketball or soccer with, I could always run. I always loved the buzz after a hard practice or game. I needed to do something. Maybe this was it.
The night after my senior prom, just 16 or so months before this cloudy, northeast day, my mom died. She had ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. She had been diagnosed when I was 16 and it was an outrageously quick progression of this disease plus preexisting mental illness that led her to somehow manage to swallow a bottle full of zanax even though she struggled with speech and tongue control. My father and I had been caretakers, splitting up duties depending on his factory work schedule and my school/athletics schedules. Although the end was near regardless of her actions, you are never prepared. I was not prepared for my father’s grief. My father was not prepared to care for a lost 17 year-old girl. Those few summer months before I got to go to school were the longest. I avoided my father like the plague. He needed me, but I truly had nothing to give. Move-in day at my first college could not come soon enough. One of my sisters accompanied dad and I that day. Dad never stepped foot in my dorm room, choosing to stay in our handicap/wheelchair van we no longer needed.
A college dorm full of girls who had no idea what the last year of my life had been like was exactly what I needed. Immersing myself in teenage girl drama was the best soother. Soon after I started class, my dad moved to a retirement community in Florida. He had retired just days before my mom’s fatal choice. I no longer could go “home” but figured my dorm was now home and that would do. That first school year progressed and spring came. A memo was slipped under our doors one day, letting us know what days the dorms would close. Yep, I was totally clueless. I had spent Christmas with my half sister and her mom (my dad’s second wife whom he was married to before my mom… my family is an odd assortment of halfs and wholes due to multiple divorces), it hadn’t registered that the dorms actually CLOSE on holidays. What would I do for Easter? SHIT- what would I do for the summer? Dad and my family never offered a place for me to stay for the summer. A number of college buddies offered to take me home with them. But I didn’t want to bring them down. I was aware how most people did not know how to handle my grief, and repeatedly I ended up comforting them while I struggled.
Thinking of what few options I had was overwhelming and I crashed back into depression. I just wanted my mom to be alive and I wanted to go home. The closest I could come in my mind was heading back upstate and transferring to a school about an hour from my hometown. This way I would be close to my high school friends. I could get an apartment in a town I was at least familiar with, a place I could live year round. I could go to a school where some of my high school classmates were enrolled.
The college fitness center was eerily empty on that Friday night. The florescent lights seemed to echo and bounce off the still equipment. It reminded me of an all-night grocery store at 2 am. Or an airport after the last inbound flight of the night. I dragged myself up on a treadmill and hit the quickstart button. I don’t remember how long or far I ran. But what I do remember is the surge of clarity. A few of the cobwebs got blown out. A little humming in my soul.
In the last 20 years I have run through grief and the associated waves of depression.
I have run through fear.
I have run as celebration.
I have run to remember.
I have run to feel alive.
I have run to forget.
Every major event since that day has been marked with a run. I am not fast. I normally do not go all that far.
It doesn’t matter. I’m not sure what would have happened to that college kid all those years ago if she hadn’t got on the treadmill and went for her first true “run”. But I’m sure glad she did.
I think I'll go for a run tonight.