Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Long May You Run

2014 was a year of ups and downs for me. Once the reality of divorce started to set in, I found myself reeling from a unbelievable sense of loss. Loss of my wife, her family, our friends, our future, our past. It was psychologically devastating to me in ways that even my father's death and my transplant were not. I felt helpless and alone for the first time in many years. I missed her. I began to suffer panic attacks and was unable to sleep through the night for months, afraid that I would again see my wife or her disapproving parents somewhere in my nightly dreamscapes. My financial future changed overnight, and I no longer had the security of privilege that my wife's family afforded. All of a sudden, my world became very small. On a TV Producer's salary I figured that I could no longer afford to own a home or even stay in this insanely expensive town. The reality of divorce was like a waking nightmare for me. I was sure that somehow I would soon wake up and things would be back to what they were before, given that things are much rosier in retrospect. I'm fully aware that I'm talking about a lot of "first world" problems here, and yet my mind was still locked in this pattern nonetheless.

So, I began to panic. I began to scramble, looking for higher-paying job opportunities, for cheap housing to buy before rates went up again, for anything that would once again give me a feeling of stability and normalcy. Through all this, I was attempting to form a new relationship with someone whom I very much loved and admired. Needless to say, this was not the most peaceful headspace to be in to allow myself to be emotionally available to another.

My brain simply was not working in a way that I liked. After all that I had been through, had I not earned some levity from the karmic powers-that-be? Weren't things supposed to get easier after I had conquered death and all? Shouldn't this story have a happy ending?

I had decided that I really, really wanted a certain promotion here at work and I definitely deserved it. I figured this would be the answer to all my current stressors as I would soon have more money and more esteem, something that was long overdue at my age. In my mind, I suppose I have been playing catch-up for all the years spend ill, unable to advance in my career anymore than simply being happy that I was able to get out of bed and show up on any given day.

After an initial interview, I thought I had the new position in the bag. And then I waited. And waited. I was unable to enjoy much of anything for more than a month, constantly engaged in the mentally exhausting hamster wheel of money/job/real estate search. Winter break came and went, and everyone returned to the office. My anxiety increased as I waited even longer. All the answer to my problems seemed to hinge on this one point that I became myopically fixated upon.

Finally, I had a second interview. As I drove to the office that day, I prayed to God to give me what I needed. I reasoned that this would be the only answer to my many problems. I knew that my happiness was directly tied to me getting what I wanted. And then, the answer came: I didn't get it. And that was that.

A thousand new questions now added more static to my already-overloaded brain. What's next? How should I react? And when? Something had to give.

On the drive home I thought, "God, I really want a drink. I need a fucking drink." And many years ago, I would have done exactly that. I could point my car down the street, find the most suitable watering hole, and sit on a barstool until I was able to think of something else but my own trouble. And that would work until it didn't. Which, for me, was pretty much every time that I tried to convince myself that alcohol was a friend to me; that alcohol, in my own sick mentality at the time, would aid my genetic disease in speeding up the inevitable process of killing my liver. But instead of ever relieving my stress, alcohol only served to give me even more. I was not built like my friends who could drink. And somehow, I had become the worst drunk of them all. This is perhaps the hardest subject for me to write about, as my owns struggles with alcohol addiction are not too far behind in my rearview mirror. I did not like the person I had become, and I sought help when I no longer was able to make healthy choices on my own.

Thankfully, I'm a little wiser now (I'd like to think) and I knew now that I was simply caught within a mental loop filled with destructive energy. It was going to get out one was or another, and it was up to me to decide which way I would direct it.

I had been going to my new gym for a little over a week now. A foot injury earlier in the summer had sidelined me for doing much walking for the rest of 2014. As a result, I had grown chubby, tired and anxious. This was not where I wanted to be physically, especially after everything I had been through. I got on the treadmill and set the course for a "weight loss" program, and added an extra five pounds onto my own for good measure. I began moving. The first solid run up a hill was somewhat of a shock to my system: An expected one, but one that caused all those old voices to pop up in my head. What if I pass out? What if I embarrass myself in front of all these people? Then, I remembered that encountered pretty much every type of embarrassing scenario before, when I was really sick, and nothing that happened here today would ever compare. And a funny thing happened while I was working through all these thoughts: My legs just kept going. Faster and faster. Steeper and steeper. Still, I kept moving. As the pace increased, I felt the need to straighten my spine and relieve the stress of hunching over into the sullen position of defeat I had grown accustomed to. I laid back into my own frame and began to appreciate the easy grace of having a long torso and legs. The endorphins began to take over, wiping out any trace of unease that I had previously harbored about my own endurance. Had I so quickly forgotten that I'm the toughest motherfucker around? I may not be the strongest or fastest, by I truly don't know anyone who has endured more physical pain for a longer and more concentrated period of time than me. As I continued along, I felt a storm of mental energies come back with more force and focus than in many months, almost immediately making a clean sweep through the darkest and most oppressive thought patterns I held so tightly to.

Ten minutes in, I began to think back to my prayers earlier that day. I think I was beginning to understand that what I wanted for my own ego and what God (my highest self) wanted for me may have been two very different things. I knew that I was still here for a purpose, and that purpose is to serve mankind in the way I know best. Would I best serve mankind by helping others through continued efforts in my non-profit foundation and through my writing, while adopting a Zen attitude about the daily work that I do to pay the bills? Or, would I best serve mankind by going down the hall to a new job with an entirely new set of responsibilities and stresses? The choice seemed pretty clear.

Thirteen minutes in, I began to understand that my brain had been stuck in a very unhealthy pattern of thinking lately. I began to realize that I've missed out on a lot of good things happening right in front of my face while I worry about the future. And in that moment, I made a conscious choice to turn the "happy" switch back on that had been missing for many months. I use the term "happy" as a substitute, in fact, for simply "being present in the moment." Being free from past and future anxiety, worry, guilt, regret, plans. Anything that did not have to do with being aware of my legs running beneath me did not concern me. Anything that was not entirely focused on breathing deeply as I ran harder was of no concern to me.

Seventeen minutes in, I used to think that my writing would only work if I were able to build to some point of epiphany, and then stop. I thought that when I received my transplant, and the subsequent enlightenment that followed, I would simply exist in a permanent state of bliss. I could write about all the wonderful wisdom and insights gleaned from my experience facing death, and living to tell about it. And I would simply pontificate this knowledge unto those needing of it. I realize now that this is complete and utter bullshit. While trying to remind myself that what I experienced is singular and important, I now understand that the real gift that I can give back is in processing the real struggles of daily life through my unique perspective.

Nineteen minutes in,  I began to feel loose, light, and childlike as a playful spring in my step began to sync with the music in my ears. I began to mediate on the concept of running: As children, our most basic instinct when we feel fear is to run away. As we grow older, this seems less like a solution to our problems and we seek other forms of stress relief; often very unhealthy ones. Whereas years ago I would have run to the nearest bar, I now felt in touch with a more pure, innocent, and primal instinct to simply run away until my anxiety was gone.

Thirty minutes in and my head was clear for the first time in months. I went back two days later and the same course seemed much more difficult. I remembered how much my father loved running. At about age 8 my dad would take me running with him in the evenings through the neighborhood near our home. I never could say that I really enjoyed it very much, but I could see that my dad really did. My dad also suffered from Polio as a kid and was unable to walk for awhile. He lost a muscle in his leg and spent the rest of his life compensating for the deficiency by becoming the most active, healthy guy out of all the Waco grown-ups that I knew.

I didn't get it until many years later, as I lay paralyzed from the waist down due to fluid buildup and internal hemorrhaging, I dreamed of having my legs back. I longed for the simple feeling of freedom that my long stride would deliver. I wanted to break away from this prison that my own body had confined me in, and run as far away from my world as I could.I could literally feel the surge of spirit rushing through my legs, looking for an outlet, with nowhere to escape.

As I ran the course for the second time that week, my legs seemed heavier. A million thoughts ran through my mind, and I realized that some strange feeling of fear was holding me back. I thought of my dad, running. I imagined myself as a child, running to him, unafraid and full of love. I remembered a time once, long ago: I believe we were at the Galleria in Houston, on the top floor. A balloon lingered atop the ceiling. My dad lifted me up to reach for it, but I began to scream in terror when I saw the people many floors below. He smiled. I could feel his strong hands around my small frame as he handed me over to mom. Then, he reached up and grabbed the balloon and handed it to me.

Just as this memory was crossing my mind and I was losing myself in the run I focused my vision once again ahead of me. There, at the end of the gym, was a black balloon, slowly bouncing up and down, tied to the end of an elliptical bike. I blinked to make sure it was really there. I focused intently on the object as I imagined myself as a child again, running across the green fields at home into my father's arms. All of a sudden, I felt safe for perhaps the first time in years within my own body.

Last night, I went again, and doubled my time, resulting in the longest run of my adult life. I think I'll keep it up.

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