I hate running; running is my last hope. I will learn to love running because that will prove I can change. In my loftier moments this becomes a testament to the human capacity for change. It’s a mental health thing, the running. I’m not sleeping. I tell myself that if I have not solved certain problems by midnight, 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m., day after day, the solution is probably not imminent. Seriously, I tell my mind, give up and go to sleep. My mind doesn’t listen. Sleeping pills do nothing or leave me foggy the next day. Pills for the things that keep me up at night—I’ve tried that.
I’m trying to beat the list. “Have you tried—” followed by some combination of therapy, medication, meditation, positive thinking, nutrition, cardio. The list does not always come up, per se, but I know it’s there. I have devoted myself at various points in my life to all but one item: enough cardio to satisfy the scientific recommendations for treating depression. In a best-case scenario, the running will help. If not, I can cross the last item off of the list. I can say I have “done the work,” I have tried everything.
Runners are great advertisements for running with their intense training schedules, Type A personalities, and 26.2 bumper stickers. My husband is a lapsed runner and his long legs are still lean, his calves still rhomboid after years of not-running. I love it when he wears shorts. I search the internet and discover groups where runners run together. I’m determined to join their club. And then there’s the mystique of the runner’s high. The fantasy of tricking my body or mind, whichever is at fault, out of depression for a few minutes. Even a few minutes sounds like a miracle. I sign up for a 5k and put the date on my calendar: August 8, 2019. It’s on.
My first run is not technically a run. I stay in my neighborhood, seek out streets with no sidewalk and uneven pavement, the most unappealing routes. I am hiding my slow origins from the running community. I begin with an interval of walking. The gardens are notable: dogwoods with constellations of star-pointed flowers, tulips with fiery red and yellow cups, pink camellias peeking through wood-slat fences. I try to multitask, engage in positive thinking while I walk. I tell myself to be grateful for my neighbors’ gardening. The time comes for the first interval of running. I force my legs to move faster and it is impossible to escape the reasons why I hate running. I never really notice my lungs—why would I? But running, they inflate painfully, deflate desperately, try and fail to send oxygen to my extremities. My leg muscles are confused and my body feels claustrophobic. The effort required to keep running mutes thought. My mind is a mere recipient of my body’s impressions, and the impressions are not good.
I try again, every day. I increase the time-intervals of running gradually: three minutes, four minutes, five at a time. My body has been waiting to communicate with me and I have finally given it a forum. The more I drink the night before, the more painful it is to run. I can feel poor sleep and fried food in my running intervals and my walking intervals give me time to think about everything I’ve done wrong.
Now and then I’m deluded into believing I can discover the cause of my depression. I review theories crisply clinical—chemical imbalance, trauma—and fuzzier, harder to define—accurate perception of the world, bad attitude. There is no chemical test for depression, so I excavate my history. Is there a primary origin that could guide my treatment? Trauma is a yes, but I wonder whether a past that falls further away each year could really persist undimmed by time. I’ve expended so much energy on the content of my trauma that I focus on its form now, what it has evolved into, how it makes itself known, what it does to me, what it wants from me. I used to remember things that happened; now I manage ghosts that haunt my body. I’m still reconciling “accurate perception of the world” versus “bad attitude.” How to see the world for what it is and sustain the energy to engage with it, to determine what should come after bearing witness, but that’s just the human condition—or at least, the condition of humans who are paying attention. I can’t find the ur-problem, the vantage point from which everything appears as a logical sequence of events.
I get restless working alone at home, so I explore further. One neighborhood over I discover a pond protected by a brambly thicket. In the brush I find the bodies of two opossums snout to snout, long claws out, slashing at each other’s throats in perpetuum. The flattened bodies must have been preserved under a blanket of snow; they’re as striking as cave paintings. I return to the pond now and then to visit them. It’s inspiring, their conviction to fight for something to the death. The summer heat and humidity rise and the opossums’ flesh slowly withers. They stink of rot. Their lips shrink to leather strips, exposing twin rows of tiny sharp teeth. One day, I find my opossums’ teeth scattered around their mouths. A dog has disturbed their corpses, I think. When I get closer, I see that the teeth are arranged in an arc, an orderly progression from smallest to largest. All day, I ask myself what sort of person could have done this.
I fixate on the idea of running a marathon. If a marathon won’t improve my state of mind, at least it will take many months of training to find that out. If I can make myself believe something will help, maybe it will. Self-fulfilling prophecy, self-con.
It’s a pet peeve of mine, the phrase “do the work.” I always have some mental health scheme going. What is the work, the work that justifies the definite article? I’m trying to bankrupt my trauma, to evict and starve it. To run it out of town. It doesn’t seem to need anything I’m in a position to withhold. I never manage to stop believing in it. It’s the truth, after all. If my compulsion to scam myself is a problem, if I should pursue honest work instead—what’s an honest way to minimize my awareness of the truth? I’m suspicious of what is called “dealing with” things. I was talking in circles in talk therapy when I decided to try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. I was skeptical of the “desensitization” aspect, so the therapist suggested starting with something less fraught than what brought me there. Getting comfortable with the process. We began with a car crash. I would describe the crash while listening to a recording of beats in alternating ears, or tapping my hands. It was supposed to stimulate my brain to reprocess the event. It did lessen my fear of driving, and I became suspicious of the treatment. Driving is an insane thing to do—speeding around in a hulk of metal in a death-ballet with strangers doing the exact same reckless thing. The trust inherent in driving—what an irrational thing to be comfortable with. I couldn’t continue the treatment. I was afraid of telling the other stories over and over, afraid I wasn’t strong enough. I was afraid EMDR wouldn’t help, but I was also afraid of the opposite outcome: that it might erase the knowledge trapped in my body. Maybe I fail to get better because my heart isn’t in it. If there is any treatment that could possibly help, is it cruel not to try it? Unfair to my husband, my family, my friends, my community? At what point does this become unethical?
I go interval-running every day. The burning sensation in my brain starts up again, the mysterious one that appeared before each of my mental breakdowns. As I understand it, some faction of my mind adopted that sensation as a means of communication. A ring of fire ignites around the top of my head when I push myself too hard. To continue to think is to walk into the fire. I stop thinking, step away. Two mental breakdowns are more than enough.
I decide to augment my regimen, to diversify. I look for something small and manageable. I listen to a Buddhist podcast about the psychic benefits of domestic labor and get excited about household tasks. I begin with cooking, which I enjoy, and laundry, which I tolerate. I prepare complicated gourmet dinners and eat them on the deck with my husband. I fill the crisper with vegetables and fresh herbs. It’s a game, a challenge, using everything before anything rots. I’m always running small loads of laundry. The drying rack in the office wafts laundry soap all over the house, and I feel like a good wife.
The July heat brings all sorts of animals out into the road to die. I swear it draws them, fever-delirious, right into traffic. Raccoons, squirrels, birds, bunnies, and one day a disc with brown fur striped down the middle, eyes up top and a tiny tail down the back. A perfect circle. I walk into the road for a closer look. It is a chipmunk, flattened so neatly that it looks like a cutesy greeting card. I think about the plasticity of the body. We take comfort in its solidity, its continuity of identity, which is destroyed so easily. I think about this for a while, and then I get out of the road.
The neighborhood is besieged by Swallow-wort, an invasive relative of milkweed also known as “dog-strangling vine.” It crowds out other plants, stealing their water and blocking the sun, and it’s toxic to the larvae of monarch butterflies. A neighbor posts a bulletin begging everyone to curb its spread before it destroys our ecosystem. My husband and I put on our gardening gloves and fill our yard waste bin with tangles of Swallow-wort. The vines are tentacular. The roots snap at the base when pulled, so it’s not a very satisfying kind of weeding. But we take some comfort in removing the swollen scimitar-shaped seed pods before they crack open and spread. The vines seem to sprout in every patch of earth in the neighborhood. On the running path, Swallow-wort entwines itself around the border hedge. When it has woven itself through every obstacle, it reaches its vine-tips straight out over the path. The vines have enough tensile strength to stretch tendrils unsupported for two feet. No drooping. It’s like gravity doesn’t apply to this weed. I stay close to the road-side of the path. If I stand still the vines could reach for me, twist around my body, pull me into the hedge.
When my running intervals hit 24 minutes, I cross a threshold. I begin to feel more fit, more energetic. My body recognizes itself as a runner’s body. I notice new definition in my calves. My clothes fit looser. I begin to believe I will actually complete my first 5k, 3.1 miles, further than I have ever run without stopping. My husband signs up with me in solidarity. After years of not-running, he bounces back quickly. He starts running respectable race times within his first week of training. He gives me a fitness tracker that matches his, a sleek black display-face on a silicone band. The tracker buzzes on my wrist at each completed mile, flashing my average pace. The race mentality introduces a new set of numbers. Not just minutes, also distance and speed. Running becomes optimizable. Immediately, I plateau. I notice, though, that my waist is shrinking. Desperate for a win, I weigh myself and the numbers confirm that I am starting to lose weight.
When I check in for the 5k the attendant hands me a race bib: number 309. I safety-pin it to my tank top. The riverside loop trail is hot and dusty and I fantasize about giving up, diving into the cool water. Finally I pass the finish line. The race photographer takes my picture and I imagine how I must look: sweaty, flushed, doughy. My time comes in a few seconds slower than my personal record. I am determined to try again, do better. For the first time, I wonder if I might be a real runner. My husband’s time is much faster than I can imagine running; he is dissatisfied with it. We go to the designated post-race bar, where the race officials announce the winners for each category while the local running clubs trade congratulations. I am so far from being part of this scene. The nachos are delicious, but I am dirty and disgusting and I want a shower. I feel like throwing up.
Before I started running, I was on a blissful streak of innumerate living. I’d stopped weighing myself years ago. During my second mental breakdown I gained weight and embraced the feminist conviction that fixating on weight is not only dehumanizing—it’s also boring. Gaining weight is one kind of failure, and focusing on weight is another. I gained more weight when I started working from home. I focused on my career. I took the ideology so seriously that I didn’t even bother to lose weight for my wedding. I was proud of freeing myself from the tyranny of pounds. Some days, the ideology falters. I see the wedding photo on the mantel and think—I am a woman who did not have the self-control to lose weight for her own wedding. It’s the principle of the thing. I’m a good enough feminist that there’s barely a delay, only a few seconds, before I hate myself for thinking it.
If I’m honest with myself, I don’t feel any mental health benefits from running. I keep running so that if nothing else, I can definitively cross cardio off of the list. But I do evaluate other options.
I find the dusty black box in the closet and fasten the black bracelet around my wrist. “Listen to your body” is conventional wisdom these days. A few years ago I asked myself, how does my body get my attention? What tools does it use to change my behavior? The answer was obvious once I thought about it: pain. The more I considered it, the more sense it made to harness pain as a resource. Pain is available 24 hours a day, for free. The logistics are challenging. I worried about damaging my market value as a woman. I was hesitant to leave marks, and the risk/reward equation was difficult to solve. I couldn’t think of anything that would cause a motivating quantity of pain without leaving evidence. I get migraines. That sets the pain threshold high. I was attracted to the idea of electric shocks. One day, on a whim, I googled “electric shock bracelet.” What-can-you-not-buy-online-these-days but still, I was surprised by the transparency, the legitimacy of the product. It was manufactured and advertised quite professionally. The marketing materials promised mild electric shocks working via aversion therapy to eliminate bad habits such as smoking, nail-biting, negative thinking, food cravings, skipping the gym, oversleeping. I ordered one.
A stylish black box with a yellow cartoon lightning bolt arrived in the mail. Inside was a device with a metal plate that rests directly on the skin for conductivity. It delivers shocks when the wearer presses the light-up lightning bolt on top or an icon in the smartphone app. The first time I strapped it around my wrist, I began with level one out of ten. I felt a tiny buzz, only slightly uncomfortable. Two was hardly better, three still mild, so I set it to ten. That was painful enough to make my hand flinch. Still, it didn’t make much of an impression. I tried to summon a feeling of aversion. The device looks like an off-brand Fitbit, something you could wear to the office. I did wear it to the office. I was not disciplined about the behaviors I targeted; oversleeping, gym-skipping, negative thinking. I shocked myself haphazardly. If I had focused on one behavior, maybe I would have seen results. Even now, years later, as I give myself a level-ten shock to see if anything has changed, I feel no alarm.
I don’t know how much longer I can stand this relentless low so I provoke my emotions. I go for a run and listen to a recording of the first opera I ever saw performed, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. A non-obvious choice for a mental health boost—it’s a tragedy—but the music is full of joy. It supports a brisk pace on the trail. I’m pleased when I check my fitness tracker. Someone who didn’t know the story going in might expect a happy ending. There are hints, though. In an early scene, the string section supports Lucia’s melodic line with climbing step-wise motion, building a staircase that propels her upward. In this recording, Diana Damrau allows her vibrato to swing dangerously wide as she ascends, testing the boundaries of the chromatic scale. Her voice poses a question: must what goes up come down? I listen to the rest of the opera while I cook dinner. The funny thing about the famous “mad scene” aria is that Lucia sounds so happy at first. The ecstasy shines in the recording, removed from the traditional staging: Lucia descending a grand staircase in a bloodstained wedding gown, hallucinating, singing a duet with a glass harmonica only she can hear. The aria ends on an E-flat beyond most sopranos’ vocal range. I remember sitting in the dark of the theater at twelve years old, the thrill when bloody Lucia’s voice came to rest on a spectral high note before she fell down the stairs.
My schedule is hectic and my training plateaus. Some days, I skip lunch. Breakfast, too. It’s thrilling to function for so long without eating, to be fine without it, to do so much and then go home to cook an elaborate dinner. Each day I am two different women, one who doesn’t eat and another who eats like a queen. The logic slips back in. Control. Self-control. The kind of discipline I could use in other areas of my life. The narrative of diminution is powerful. If I’m worthless, it’s better to take up less space. If I’m suffering, it’s better if there is less of me to suffer.
My body looks better and it feels better, too. I’m still sleep-deprived but not because I can’t fall asleep; now it’s because I’m busy, staying up late doing work. On my next run, I beat my personal 5k record by 36 seconds. The next day I’m even faster. When the stats flash across my wrist on the tracking device I am ecstatic. I search for upcoming races and choose one a month away. A real runner, I tell myself. I tell myself things will be different now, though I cannot yet imagine how.
I sleep for three hours that night. The next day, I skip breakfast and lunch. I go out drinking with my friends and I am grateful for everything, everything. The fourth drink hits me harder than a fourth drink should. I take a cab home.
When I wake up, it is morning and my husband is sitting next to me on the edge of the bed. My head is all pain.
“How do you feel?” he asks me. “Do you think you hurt yourself?”
“You don’t remember?”
I don’t, so he tells me.
“You kept falling over, but you insisted on making eggs. You poured too much oil and you just stood there for a while pushing it around.”
At first I don’t remember this, but a snapshot surfaces. I am standing over four eggs fused together in the frying pan, a white sky with four suns.
“I went looking for you later. I found you downstairs, trying to climb into the washing machine. The top half of your body was all the way in. I pulled you out of there and asked what the hell you were doing. You said you wanted to understand how it really worked.”
I remember my desire for the yolks to set to the consistency of softened butter, to flip them straight from the pan into a huge Tupperware of microwaved leftovers and squiggle everything with sriracha. I was all hunger. I try to remember what came next; it feels important. When I close my eyes, I feel the shame. I feel myself opening the top of the washing machine and staring into the pristine silver void, my body tipping over the lip of the machine, my belly pressed flat against the front, dangling my head, arms, and torso into the cool metal barrel, hanging, waiting for the water to gush over me.
Lisa Allen (she/her) is an MFA candidate in fiction at UMass Boston. She is also a freelance journalist covering topics ranging from finance to science. Her prose is published and forthcoming in Ghost City Review, Kestrel, Response, Ghost Parachute, Levee Magazine, and Construction Literary Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @LisaAllenNY.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.