Until recently, maybe within the past year, I never realized that I was a runner. Not the kind of Runner who is fit and wears running shoes and keeps a water bottle and ear buds with them all the time. No, I’m not athletic. I’m an emotional runner. When painful things happen to me, I run away from them as fast as I can.
To some extent this is a normal reaction. Our bodies are designed to have two basic responses to stressors: fight or flight. Fighting is for people who face things head on, consequences be damned. They figure out how they feel about things, they grieve, and they move on. Not me. I see a problem coming and I approach it clinically. How can this be fixed? What are the logical next steps? Is there something I can do to help? And then I put on my brave face, the one reserved for work when I have to go in a see a patient who is probably not going to make it but if you panic then your patient panics so you suck it up. That’s the face I use to get through all of my own problems.
Then I convince myself that I must be stronger than I thought because that problem wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. I go on about my day, or maybe my week, or maybe even a month. Until something else happens and I repeat the cycle. This is very effective until my ability to compartmentalize has become exhausted, my mind looking like a hoarder’s garage, or the back of my car after a trip to Hobby Lobby, and I have no more room for new compartments. It is at this point that the running begins.
I don’t physically run because, obesity and sweat and inability to breathe if I do more than walk fast. Usually I jump in the Jeep. I wander nowhere and everywhere, top rolled back and windows down, music or audiobook loud enough to drown out my subconscious, until I reach a body of water to stare at and inevitably turn off the distractions and try to organize my thoughts.
Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I just sit. Almost always I end up taking pictures of something, like a bird perched on a handicap sign, or some stranger’s boat that looks almost poetic in its still waters. Sometimes I write. I don’t know what it is about running away to somewhere else that I think will make things better. The problem I started with is the same problem I’m dealing with later.
Sure, I get the wind in my hair, and the sun on my face, and the music blasting all around me, but there’s still a problem. And there are still conversations to have, and plans to make, and emotions to feel. But somehow, if I’m running, I think I feel like I’m more in control. Maybe I can’t control whatever horrible thing is happening, but I can control when I get to face it. Does that make sense, or am I just crazy? Maybe both.
After my grandpa got diagnosed with a brain tumor, all he wanted to do was ride around in the car all the time. For hours he would want to go down open roads in the country, and he would become frustrated when he had to stay at home. I used to think it was strange. But now, I think I get it.
When I’m backed into a corner and forced to confront something I’m not ready to deal with, I end up yelling horrible things that maybe I mean, or maybe I don’t. And sometimes during these screaming fits I discover things about myself that even I didn’t know. Like when Other Half asked me why I couldn’t just let him help me and I yelled back, “Because no one can help me! Because everyone I love dies so I’m basically all alone, it’s only a matter of time!” There’s something for my therapist to unpack. And I didn’t even know I felt that way until I yelled it.
Or when I was told over and over again that I should let someone else stay at the hospital with a family member so I could get some rest and I blurted out, “I can’t leave! Last time I left mom died!” Maybe I’ll schedule an extended session. And maybe Papaw needed to be able to run too. Family members took turns driving him anywhere and everywhere, and he was happy.
It’s sort of like going for a drive in the Low Country. I love driving over the bridges, looking at the streams and marshes everywhere. One of my favorite things about Isle of Palms is that to get there, we cross the Isle of Palms Connector Bridge, and there are twisting pathways of water everywhere. Sometimes the marsh looks just barely muddy, and sometimes there are streams prominent and powerful. There are patches of tall grass, and I can imagine that there are snakes and alligators and all sorts of scary things living there, and there are also beautiful birds and sunsets. And the water just runs wherever it will, as open and free and as unstoppable as I wish I was, refusing to face the alligators and snakes and instead rushing out into the open sea.
After all the running is done, I come back home to a family who loves me, and whom I love more than anything. I feel a little more ready to take on whatever needs to be addressed, The problem is still there, and I have made no progress. I have been running, but I’ve also been standing still. And I’m learning maybe that’s OK, because I have somewhere to come back to. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to unpack all those boxes. But until then, I’m going to enjoy the ride.