The air moving into my lungs burned as it moved in and out, but I felt my chest starting to open for the first time in 6 weeks. “Something must be working”, I thought as I took gulps of the clean mountain air, my lungs burning from illness and from being at 9,000 feet elevation after 10 years of living at sea level. I was running on one of my favorite trails, in one of my favorite places in the world, and my mind was grappling with a distorted sense of time and place. I’d left for a decade and yet, being back here, the twists and turns of the trail I knew so well, came back to me in one fell swoop, as if I’d never left. I was on my second round of hard antibiotics, steroids, various inhalers and nothing had worked. I cancelled the chest x-ray I had had scheduled in NYC, instead quitting my job in midtown Manhattan and booking a one-way ticket back to the Jemez mountains of Northern New Mexico, where I had grown up – an extraordinary upheaval of my life in only a matter of days. 6 weeks of a chest infection and a recurring sinus infection and nothing had worked, and yet one (very slow) run in the mountains and I felt my body begin to heal itself.
My sister’s recently adopted rescue dog, whom I had brought along with me for company, eagerly ran ahead, making the hill climbs look effortless while I slogged along. My legs ached, I felt clumsy, tripping repeatedly since I’d lost so much strength during my years away, years where I had lost my identity of “athlete”, as other aspects of my life had taken priority.
During the period that was previously the most challenging time of my life, in my mid-20s, I remember thinking to myself: “wow, every time I think I cannot get lower, life taps me on the shoulder and I fall just a little further down”, as if life likes to challenge us and test us to the point of (what we think is) our absolute limit, and then push us down further.
As I plodded along, every joint and muscle screaming, I felt hopeful that, certainly, the worst had to be over. This had to be the bottom, right? I had uprooted my life and moved 2,000 miles across the country in a few days’ notice. I’d gotten the hard part over with. Sure, this was not in my plan. It was not my plan to move back home, to quit my job, to leave the city I’d called home. It was not my plan to have to pick up all the pieces, again, and begin to figure out what I had to do in order to move forward, to try to re-understand (and re-invent?) what my purpose was. It was not my plan, 2 weeks before my 29th birthday, to find myself lose every sense of my identity – the world as I knew it, shattered. But the worst had to be over, now I could start to pick up the pieces and move forward.
The fall was that much harder because the last year of my life in NYC I had felt like I was finally “getting it”. I was well into my master’s degree, something I had toyed with for 5 years before finally taking that leap, and, for the first year in my adult life I was not worried about money to the point of what felt like obsession. I was in a long-term and committed relationship. Everything was finally working for me, finally getting “easy”. Surely, 29 would be the year the chips would fall into place, I was ready to start my next “phase” of life.
The nightmares started before I got sick. Vivid, convoluted imagery that woke me up covered in sweat and gasping for breath. I could not understand why I was having these haunting dreams every night when I didn’t “feel” particularly stressed. It was as if my subconscious and my body knew something I did not yet know…
Then he stopped coming home. He was unreachable. Confused, and trying not to worry unnecessarily, I did what I always do. I worked harder. I acted happier. Fake it ’til you make it. I made new goals, grasping at anything to give me a sense of control, to assuage my fears.
Finally, I demanded answers. Demanded an explanation for the sudden change, the absence, the unreturned calls and texts.
“You should leave before I hurt you further” is what finally came out. Disoriented, confused, shattered in a way that brought a visceral pain alongside the emotional ache in my chest, a pain that was so acute, so enveloping, I thought it might swallow me whole. A devastation so heavy I couldn’t imagine the weight ever lifting. I don’t know how to pick up the pieces again, I told one girlfriend.
I quickly began making moves. Again, I manage pain by taking as much control as I can. I changed the round trip ticket I had to Seattle for a friend’s wedding that week to a one-way ticket to New Mexico, sobbing so hard the kind woman at Southwest had to continually wait patiently for me. She didn’t need to question why the change, a ticket changed to one-way (and an entirely different location) days before the scheduled trip can only mean bad news. I quit my job the next day. Humiliated, terrified, and broken, I simply told my boss and coworkers that I had a “personal emergency”. The truth, as, at the time I saw nothing when I saw my future. Everything was gone. Darkness enveloped everything I knew, blackened it out until I saw nothing but the dark.
I closed my gym accounts, bank accounts, and tried to say goodbye to as many people as I could, giving as little explanation for my sudden departure as I could. “You’re an extraordinary failure” was the resounding accusal in my mind.
5:55pm. The scheduled time of my flight leaving NYC on an icy, windy day in late October. In numerology, the number “5” represents new beginnings. “I don’t want a new beginning, I want my life back, the one I’d worked so hard to build and make mine”, I thought to myself as I rested my head on the seat in front of me, silently sobbing as I watched the glowing night skyline of the city I knew as home, the city where I thought I would continue to build my life, the city that I thought was my life. Flying over Central Park, one of my favorite spots – to run, to write, to just BE – was too much to take, I turned my head away and let the pain wash over me…