Do you know the feeling you can get when you run? The harsh pounding of the wind against your chest, your legs jolted by the bounce on the pavement, the endless expanse of clouds swallowing up every other thought in the world? The feeling that nothing else exists? In that moment, nothing matters but the feeling of flight.
I’m not a runner by any means. In fact, I hate running. But I have run away from many things – emotions, feelings and circumstances that have made me feel uncomfortable. It was how I thought I was surviving fine, when really I was merely getting through.
I’ve never run — or wanted to run in — a marathon, but I have been through a marathon of surgeries — 27 to be exact. Surgeons fondly call me a “surgical disaster” or compare my intestines to “a glob of boiled spaghetti.” These amazing surgeons ingeniously created a digestive system for me after organ failure and a gastrectomy my senior year of high school.
Because there had never been a case like mine, there were no promises made. The day of my 21st birthday, I was able to try my first bite of food in three years after 13 surgeries — a frozen waffle, at my request. After being so grateful I could finally eat and drink again after three years of playing with empty water bottles, I could have never anticipated the 14 surgeries that would follow, each one an attempt to fix a wound that had ruptured or stitch that had burst loose.
Every time I had a medical setback, doctors advised me to just “stop eating and drinking for now.” I was put back on IV’s, and suddenly I had to switch to “machine mode.” As the obedient patient, I did this for several years. It was an odd mix of staying numb, isolated and distracted, as well as crying with my mother and amazing support system.
Being “numb” to my circumstances was probably the easiest way to deal with them. I didn’t have to think, feel or be aware of the reality I numbed myself through by locking myself in my room and typing for hours. When I became desperate to “feel,” I started cooking for my family as an attempt to experience the human sensations of hunger without actually feeding myself. I was hungry for food, for life and for the emotions that come with humanity – emotions which I had to temporarily put “on hold.” I either felt numb or painfully sad, and there didn’t seem to be an opportunity for any new feelings to grow. If I wasn’t numb, then I’d start crying, getting anxious and tense — and immediately think back to my surgeries, to my life before surgery, and a hate for the path my life had taken.
But part of feeling human is feeling angry. Part of feeling human is becoming frustrated at, worried and anxious about circumstances beyond our control. Part of feeling human is becoming overwhelmed with the agonizing question, “Why me?” as we shake our fist to the sky, wondering why life can be so unfair.
In April 2011, I had just been told to stop eating and drinking, once again, in order to heal a fistula. Unfortunately, I knew this routine all too well because I had had several fistulas develop from previous surgeries. I tried to distract myself, numb myself and get from day to day as diligently as possible.
One morning, I woke up with such a fire in my gut, an anger that was so overwhelming that the energy frightened me. I didn’t know what to do with it and the emotions were too overpowering to try to numb them. My thoughts and feelings were threatening to swallow me whole.
With not a rational thought in my head, I ran out the door and just started running. I didn’t know where, for how long or why, but it was the adrenaline of panic — I felt “unsafe” in my situation and wanted to get as far away from it as I could. I had never felt an energy like this before, a red-hot high through my legs, tingling in my chest, tears caught in my eye-sockets that I hoped the wind bashing across my face might dry up.
I kept running and running, as far away from my life as I could. I was too scared to kill myself, and I didn’t think I wanted to, either. I wanted a middle ground – just to exist in another world, and if I ran long enough, I’d get there, somehow, somewhere.
I ran for three hours before I found a highway, and without thinking, I started running onto the shoulder of the it. I thought, “The farther I go, the further this will all be behind me.” Of course, of all days I decide to run for my life, it starts to rain…and thunder. Suddenly, the highway was flooded, I was drenched and I had cars beeping at me, wondering what a frail little girl in a T-shirt was doing running on the shoulder of the highway.
It was only a matter of time before a police car pulled up to me and asked me to get inside. I was shaking, angry, confused, embarrassed and nervous — like I had just gotten my first detention in school. He said, “I’ve gotten about 30 calls in the past 20 minutes saying this 80-pound-girl is running on the shoulder of the highway. Where did you think you were going?”
I was upset that my escape had been halted, and suddenly very ashamed. Wiping away tears, I stammered, “To the mall.”
“You thought you could get to the mall on the shoulder of the highway?”
He turned around and looked at me for a brief pause and said, “I can drive you to the mall.”
I refused to look at him, pressed my elbows into my sides and barely whispered, “No, I’ll go home.”
He called my worried parents our way home, saying I was OK and we were on our way home. My mother, after recovering from her concerned rage, asked me what on Earth I thought I was doing. I told her simply that I was trying to escape. I didn’t want to deal with this anymore. I was frustrated with my body and I couldn’t take living under these circumstances for an “indefinite” amount of time.
All she said was, “But you took your body with you.”
I knew that running on the shoulder of the highway is illegal and there are much easier ways to get to the mall. But what I really wanted was others to know I was having such a hard time — that even with my numbness, discipline and “indomitable” spirit, I needed support. I needed someone to realize I was suffering and talk to me, even if they couldn’t fix it for me. I needed someone to remind me why I should still love life.
I didn’t want to kill myself because in my heart, I knew how much I adored life. But I needed a break. I wanted life to get easier. I was sick of living in fear, wading in uncertainty and reflecting on a former life that I was never able to get back before my coma at the age of 18 — a time when life is supposed to open infinitesimal doors.
Then I remembered times in my life that I was happy. I tried to remember what the circumstances were, what I was thinking, who was around me, what I was doing. And they were small moments.
Then I realized, it wasn’t feeling “happy” I was chasing after, it was feeling “alive.” I remembered crying over my grandmother’s death and missing her delicate, wrinkly fingers tightly gripped around mine. I remembered waking up in the hospital after my coma and feeling sadness, but also a sense of wonderment, like I was rediscovering the world and seeing nature for the first time. Those were “life-shock” moments — moments infused with humanity, rather than the numb disconnected feeling of estrangement that now seemed to torment every second. They were moments I felt connected.
When I finally got home that rainy April day, I wanted to see how much I still cared. I also wanted to remember why I had fought so hard for so long to still be here, and why giving up at this point would cheat me out of any feelings of aliveness that may exist in my future. I had no proof that things would get better, but I did have a few solid things at that moment that I could stand on and anchor myself to, just to get me through.
In that very moment:
I had my mother who was worried sick about me, and my whole family for that matter.
I had my body with a heart that was beating strongly, boldly, proudly and alive.
I had the rain on my skin and the feeling of being wet, of feeling sensations on this earth.
I had a single tear finally emerge from the numbness, from the anger, a tear that reminded me how much I really do love life, even though it may be hard right now.
I had hope. Even if for now it was just a silly lie I could tell myself. It’s OK to make silly lies. It’s a creative start to cultivating hope.
I had life. Whatever it was, I had in my hands — a thing called “life.” An entity that was way too huge for me to make any final decisions about now.
Learn more bout Amy’s college mental health advocacy program here.
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.