Monday, May 19, 2014

Running for Suicide Prevention: How Running Helped me

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I've heard a lot of talk recently about removing the "D" from PTSD. I think it needs to happen. If something traumatic happens to someone, and it causes them stress, it isn't a disorder. It's normal. Despite all the training one might go through to become mentally and physically stronger, to be able to stay calm and collected under pressure, there are some things in this world that no one should have to experience or see.

It isn't we who are disordered, but our world. It seems terribly wrong that when we are having trouble conforming or coping with a dysfunctional world, our society tells us that the problem is something that is rooted in our own minds, and not in our environment. It puts all of the blame on us, we who are already suffering…and the institutions and infrastructures that comprise our reality get off the hook completely. Until we have the resources and the energy to fix these problems, we must find better ways to cope. 

When I started learning about what many veterans go through-- the anxiety, the depression, the insomnia-- I related. Maybe part of the reason why I chose this cause is because I empathize so deeply with those who are also trying to fight these demons. I reached out to veterans in my community, made friends with them, and listened to their experiences. My empathy deepened even further. Like I said, I'm not a veteran. I've never been in combat, I've never had to watch my friends die. I've never been shot at or bombed. And I've never been diagnosed by a medical professional with PTSD. But, terrible things occur outside of the battlefield, and I've seen my fair share. 

It's hard to write this, because so much of what I've gone through I've kept hidden from those that I love in order to protect them from the trauma that has already consumed so much time and energy. For over a decade, I was always afraid. I thought I was getting better as the years went by, but really I simply got better at compartmentalizing the things that haunted me. The only way I knew how to cope was to stop caring about myself, stop caring about what would happen to me, making myself okay with any outcome. I both looked forward to sleep and dreaded it, anticipating of the escape that sleep provided and the nightmares that made my escape impossible. I was depressed, feeling powerless and alienated from those around me. I judged those who were well-adjusted and felt that their happiness was rooted in blissful ignorance of how the world really was.  

For a long time, I was unable to connect with others because the face I presented to the world was a mask whose sole purpose was to hide the brutality and mess that laid just beneath the surface. If someone said they loved me, I couldn't believe them. The person that they loved wasn't me, because I had become an actress. And most my life, while I attempted to hide my fear and shame, I was desperately looking for a solution to my unhappiness.  I've been trying to simply survive. Because of this, I've read more books on metaphysics, meditation, and mindfulness than I can count. I've tried everything. 

All of the books on spiritual healing, and psychotherapy, and mindfulness say that meditation will help. Here was the problem that I encountered with meditation. I could not silence my mind. I could not turn off the feeling that I was constantly being chased, hunted and targeted.

So, I started running. I heard it could help. If I felt like I was being chased, and sitting in one spot made me feel anxious and increasingly more jittery and disturbed, then maybe running was exactly what I needed.

I started doing it at night, when the rest of the world was sleeping. I wasn't a very good runner, and I felt embarrassed about my lack of ability. I didn't want anyone to see, as silly as it sounds. I'm not your typical athlete by any stretch of the imagination. But I kept at it. I knew that if I didn't find a solution that my life would be one bout of self-destruction after another.

First I went a few blocks, then a few miles, then a few more. I got stronger, and I eventually could start running long distances. I noticed something happen. I started to feel relief . Finally that jumpiness, irritability, anxiety started to wear off. I had tried everything to get rid of it before-- alcohol, weed, self-deprivation, love affairs, workaholism. It worked in the moment, but I always woke up the next morning to the sobering fact that I was farther from happiness than the day before. And there was time. Time, that motherfucker. Always feeling like you are playing catch up in a world that has their shit together, feeling powerless because of the chatter going on in your head. The chatter that says you have bad luck, that you don't have a fighting chance, that there is no use in trying.

I have to mention something if you are relating to anything that I've written here. If you use alcohol, weed, psychotropic medications, or any other substance to help deal with whatever is going on inside you, I don't think it's realistic to think you can quit cold turkey and become the picture of health overnight. More than once I've gone to bed after a few beers with the thought in my head, "Tomorrow, I will wake up at 6 am, go running, make kale juice, paint for 8 hours, return all my e-mails, learn how to build an iPhone app, and volunteer at the homeless shelter." Then I sleep in until 8:30, and give up.

The belief that everyone around us has it all together is not only false-- it's dangerous. It's unfortunate that the role models in the media and those that we look up to also feel that they must present a flawless facade to the world. It creates a schism, makes us feel like actors and frauds, and allows the darkest parts of ourselves to fester and grow. The idea that perfection is attainable only causes us to feel increasingly more isolated from those around us. And because we hold ourselves to an unrealistic standard, we tend to hold the people that we love to the same standard. We are so hard on each other. We all have our vices, our demons, our kryptonite, and will always be presented during our lives with new challenges to overcome and new battles to fight. Thinking that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow disordered because we encounter suffering, is dangerous.

Yes, the goal is to be healthy, happy, and fulfilled. But the battles that we encounter and the suffering that we endure is what makes us strong.

I learned this lesson running through the desert, watching life thrive under seemingly intolerable conditions. The cactus, the shrubs, the plants, patiently wait out the long hours of the relentless heat and sun and drought. They learn to survive with less, and the stress of their environment makes them more resilient. When the rain comes (and it always comes), they explode into green and begin to blossom with indescribable vitality and resilience. The scars that cover our bodies and hearts are testaments to our indomitable will and our ability to overcome.

Your "shortcomings" do not somehow override all of your strengths or make you unworthy of love. You are deserving of life, of freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. It doesn't matter if you are ridden with guilt, or are an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or feel like you haven't done much of anything at all. These things are incidental to who you really are, and only get in the way of your progress when you identify with them. It is not easy to change, especially if you feel trapped in a life and identity that no longer makes sense to you. But change is possible. Without the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we should be, the present moment comes into full bloom. Focus entirely on action.

Wake up.

Go outside.


It's so much better to take smaller steps.

Sometimes we have to use crutches because we don't believe that we can walk without them. If it is impossible to give up your crutches, then be gentle with yourself. We have a long time to fix the problems inside us and around us and the process of healing and empowerment is a journey. Don't be afraid to take it a little bit slower, and don't compare yourself to people who seem to have it all together. Either they haven't met their demons yet, or they are just better at hiding them. It took a long time of running almost every day to realize that I no longer needed the crutches I was leaning on, and that it was time to see what I was capable of without them. 

And running when I was slightly asthmatic and carrying around a few extra pounds wasn't easy. It was incredibly uncomfortable at first, and I literally had to push myself every single step (and still do, sometimes).

I started meditating.

I didn't know I was meditating, I was just counting. I counted my exhalations, and synchronized them with the sound of my feet hitting the pavement. I would say to myself, "I'm not going to stop until I count to 500," and I would start. If I lost count, I would start over at the beginning. This taught me concentration, and it gave me something to focus on other than how my body felt or how bored I was, or how much longer I had to go. When I reached 500, I would repeat the exercise, except this time I would go to 600, and so on. 

I did this until my mind and body became strong. I started running longer and longer. The first 20 mile run I did was the first time I had an epiphany. This is something that naturally happens I think when you spend a lot of time by yourself, focusing on your breath, and focusing on the present. I started having moments of bright clarity, where I was able to see situations and people in a light of both truth and compassion. I started learning how to forgive others, and how to forgive myself. The feeling of being locked in a cage started to disappear. So did my anger. My fear is still there, but instead of it ruling me, it feels like an unwanted guest at a party, that I can ignore if I simply turn my back.

The transformation from me at my darkest place (only two years ago) to now is so profound that I can't help but believe that other people will benefit if they imitate my methods. I went from being completely jaded, unable to create artwork, working as a waitress, and spending my free time destroying my body and my mind…to going after my dreams, feeling courageous, and finding beauty and love in the smallest of things. I no longer feel that life is ultimately meaningless.

Since I've been on this trip, I spend countless hours running alone. Sometimes my body is in excruciating pain. It was only 4 days into my journey when I realized that I would have to start focusing more on controlling my mind if I wanted to finish the run.When my body is in pain, my mind will go to a dark place if I am not careful. Meditating became a necessity when I realized that being out on the road by myself caused me to start thinking about things that have been buried deep, deep beneath the surface. When I find a thought enter my mind that I know will not benefit me or the ones I love--I'm talking about the paranoid, the absurd, the self-deprecating, the angry thoughts that I've spent years of my life burying-- that is when I have to meditate.

I have mantras that help. My favorite, given to me by a very dear friend, is "I can, I will, I am." This grounds me in the moment. I can do it. I will do it. I am doing it. When you say this mantra (out loud or in our mind), it is like magic. As long as you keep pushing forward, the mantra works. If you believe it when you say it, it works.

The epiphanies come in like rushes of water, and often with tears of love, forgiveness, and happiness. It's a good thing I have to run so far every day-- so when I have an ordeal like this, I have time to freak out, calm myself down, figure out what is really going on, cry about it for a while and recover from the entire ordeal-- all before I get back to the RV.

I think that running and meditation could really help everyone, especially survivors of trauma, rape and abuse. And since PTS is so prevalent in the veteran population, I really think that running and meditating will help many veterans to overcome their challenges, if they try it. I think it's a good place to start.

That's why I believe so much in Team RWB. The power of the organization and the heart of it is in it's members. It creates a place where veterans can come together and support each other both physically  and emotionally. It also creates a place where civilians and athletes can come to learn from the men and women who have been trained to not give up, to push past their limits, and support each other. It is inspiring. Team RWB has found a way to bring us together so that we can both learn from each other and support each other in a totally nonjudgmental environment.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that I know that not all veterans can run. So many have grievous injuries and running isn't a possibility. A lot of veterans out there are older and their bodies cannot handle the stress. For those veterans, there is a lot of help out there-- more than you think. I wish that I had all the answers, but I don't. I only know what has worked for me. Maybe raising awareness about the necessity for more answers will bring them from people who are better educated and more knowledgeable than me.

There is hope.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Part One: Waking Up, Facing the Road

The alarm goes off. I bend my knees and flex the arches of my feet, feeling bones and ligaments tighten and grind. My muscles are strings that stretch across the neck of a guitar, ready to snap with a resounding twand if they are tuned just a little bit higher. When I curl my toes, they feel like the gnarled, leathery claw of an eagle, roughened by wind and rock and sun. 

My legs and my feet are always the first to wake up. When the calloused pad of my foot meets the carpet inside the R,  I always tilt, stumble, fall into a wall, and yelp. The RV is usually parked on a tilt, so sometimes my awkwardness is due to what we refer to as "life on a slant". Somehow, I never remember this before I step out of bed, and so it happens every morning.

I am usually tired, and always sore. This has become my new baseline, my new normal. It isn't that bad. When I learned to stop complaining in my own mind about things that I have
e absolutely no control over, I stopped feeling like a victim. And the tiredness--the clenching and aching--has become a mark of pride, a physical reminder of what I have accomplished in the previous days. The topography of the land I run across leaves an impression deep within my muscles and bones, an intricate cave painting that describes rolling hills and endless expanses of flat road. It is a physical memory.

At some point in the morning, I come to terms with what is in front of me. The road. The truth is, I am always scared of it. It doesn't seem to matter if the day before was a breeze, or if it was a challenge to finish. The voice of fear comes in clear as a bell. It is my job to ignore it.

It is a dragon in a cage, manipulating and cajoling me to feed it. One would think that when you feed this dragon, it would stop screeching, that the voice of fear would become satiated, silenced. This is not the case. If you feed this dragon, he will not stop crying out for food. Instead he will become louder, demanding more. I have found the best thing to do when confronted one is to starve him, and become deaf to his pleas. Over time, the dragon becomes emaciated and weak, eventually unable even to approach the bars of the cage, his throat too dry to utter a sound. 

Of course, there's more than one dragon. Sometimes there is an army of them, gathering comrades together in a fleet to make their chorus for attention more piercing. Fears from the past meet with fears about the future.  I can only tackle them one at a time, starving some and telling myself I need others  to stay safe (Because, I tell myself, my fear protects me). At the end of the day, I know it is my still my business to defeat all of these these monsters, because it is their business to take away my right to live with love in my heart and a lightness in my step. 

It's the difference between saying "I have to run 35 miles today," and saying, "I get to run 35 miles today." 

Our thought and words are what create our perception.

As I was running through West Texas this morning, I became completely consumed with the natural masterpiece that extended in every direction. The huge sun that rose to ignite the cold earth, drenching the entire landscape in gold. The verdant treetops sculpted into shapes of windblown tsunamis. The falling-apart whitewashed houses that interrupted the otherwise flat horizon. 

I wonder if I could appreciate any of this if my reality was shrouded in negative thought or fear. Probably not. If I let the past or the future become too much a part of my present moment, I am too stuck in my own head to notice what is going on outside of it. The past usually brings up guilt, the future creates anxiety. Both of these emotions can be teachers, but I have found that generally they are completely useless. The only thing that has ever mattered is action, however small, done right here, in this very moment. We have absolutely nothing else.

This is what gets me to put one foot in front of the other: constantly making the shift from acting out of fear to acting out of love. When I wake up and I choose to dread the road that is laid out before me, when I listen to the pain in my calves and thighs and feet, and I let the voice of fear become the loudest, that is when I miss out on the beauty surrounds me. I am stuck in my head, counting my miles, checking my pace. When I catch myself doing this (this happens more than a couple times a day), I stop where I am, look down at my feet, and remind myself why I am running: 

1. Because I get to. 
2. Because I am blessed. 
3. Because I have an opportunity to make a difference in the world, and that is worth than more than all the gold in the world. 
4. Because more veterans and service members are taking their lives every day, and the cause of this epidemic needs to be recognized and understood and addressed.
5. Because there are so many in this country who watch the news daily and believe that we live in a dangerous place, full of hate and crime and ignorance. I want them to know that this is not the case. This country is insanely beautiful and we, the people, are good.
6. Because I want people (and veterans) to know that if they feel anxiety, depression, restlessness, powerlessness, misery--that there is absolutely nothing *wrong* with them. It does not mean that you are broken. Do not judge yourself. There is hope. Running, meditation, or taking time away from the madness of every day life will help, a lot. It's not the only solution, but it is a good one, and one that will stand the test of time. 
7. Because there is too much beauty in the world, and not enough beholders. 
8. Because I want to help others see that their power as an individual is limitless. If a cocktail waitress from Orange County can run across America, I think just about anything is possible.
9. Because nothing has ever made more sense to me in my life.
10. Because Robot needs a person to stick in her beautiful photos, and I suspect she needs me as much as I need her (even if she is the stronger one). If nothing else, being there for Robot is enough reason for me to run every day. 

11. Because I have committed to putting others before myself, always.
12. Because it's really, REALLY fun.