I use running as a metaphor for a lot of things. So I’ll start here with another one.
For some reason it was on my list of things to do to run a marathon. Not sure where I got this idea or why. I think that it might have been a thought along the lines of proving that I have grit. It isn’t enough that I was a Marine, nor deployed, nor done a lot of things… being a typical man and falling into the trap that masculinity is something that must be earned everyday, I signed up for a marathon when I was 39. I wanted to do it before I was 40. I trained and trained and it was rough going, the learning curve and growing stronger. Before then I was not a runner. I hated it. I got bored. I only ran over a 5 miles a handful of times ever. Only three or so 10K’s ever. I wasn’t a runner.
Training required me to schedule time to do the running. To be honest, there were times when, overcoming a year-long ankle injury one one foot, and a two-year old injury on the other ankle, where a mile was too much and I’d have to quit. But I did what I could, didn’t berate myself, understood that more important than ‘all or nothing’ as the approach of ‘consistent effort’. I was plugging into the mindset of growth.
I did my first and it hurt, but I was hooked. I did another, then another, and another, and so on. One year I did two, the next year I did three marathons and four half marathons. This year I have run 1 marathon already, have 2 more to go, have run a 1/2 marathon, am going to do a Spartan race, and have signed up for a grueling ‘soul crushing’ 13 mile run up a mountain, the second biggest incline race in the US behinc Pikes Peak. It took me a couple of marathons and a few hundred miles to finally think of myself as one. Somewhere I transistioned from ‘training so I don’t hurt’ with only one way to run (a sloppy energy wasting run) to running for fun (most days) and a better, tighter, energy conserving glide. I’ve changed my approach, my pace, my training, my mindset, everything. After over 2000 plus miles, I would hope that I’ve learned something about running.
Now to the heart. For a variety of reasons I entered puberty and young adulthood with a low sense of esteem in relationships, a clingy dependancy, constant worry and self doubt, and so on. Self esteem is not global, it can be specific. I have great confidence in my abilities in many areas, but romance is not one of them. Go back a few years on this journal and the weight of the immature emotions, the raw insecurity, conclusions that are quick and simple, are stunning to me. Though I repeatedly found myself in the same cycles in every relationship, I had enough sense to realize that I wasn’t dating clones, I was bringing the same issue to every relationship. In a Stephen Covey book I came up a phrase that stuck with me for years;
The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.
John Foster Dulles .
Former Secretary of State
I noticed a pattern of clingy neediness that was poison to every relationship that I was in. I could see the pattern and the quote showed me it was about me, not them. I didn’t know why I was so clingy, but I knew I had to get over it.
Flash forward to deployment to Iraq. This, naturally, threw a HUGE monkey wrench in my relationships. Before Iraq I had the longest relationship ever with one of the great loves of my life. After Iraq, I was emotionally volatile and barren. I’ve given many talks where I’ve been as upfront and honest about this as possible. I tried dating many people afterward and each one was highly problematic. I wasn’t present with them, I was 100% involved and then I shut them out completely and was distant. I began to see another pattern… the six month ending. 1-2 months were bliss. 2-4 months were okay, with good and blah. 4 months the wheels were coming off and I tried holding on until around month 6 I could take it no more and would end it, if she didn’t end it first. I would fear the same pattern the next partner and the pattern would repeat again.
Lets take a side step for a moment. I used to be a goofball. Total goofball. I was always happy. Sure I could be moody, but usually I was loving life. Five years ago, or more, I was birdwatching and it struck me that it was the first time since Iraq that I felt absorded in watching the bird (a common Robin) instead of the feeling of angst. In other words, I was comfortable being in the world. The realization of that moment was a gift. Every year since then I would note how ‘well’ I was, that I was ‘better’ than the year before. I was calmer, easier to get along with, and so on. The facial twitches and muscle spasms were less and less common, the ringing in my ears less and less, the headaches less and less, the tired feeling everywhere in my body less and less. Soon I felt… good. And every year I felt more good. I did the work. I kept running, I picked up meditation semi-regularly. I read a lot on the concepts of resilience and awareness and growth and so on. I worked every Tuesday night as a co-facilitator for a veteran PTSD domestic violence batter intervention group, teaching them the lessons that I was still working on, and learning a lot from them. It is not uncommon for me to call an ex-girlfriend I had dated since Iraq and tell her how much I appreciated her kindness while we dated, how I’m sorry I wasn’t as present as I could have been, and how were they doing in their life, or ask about what was their good news for the day? The next year I felt not only more good… I actually felt I could call myself healthy for once. I felt that the word ‘flourishing’ applied to me. The next year was even better. Today I am in my best shape ever in my life, in no small part to a much lower stress response and constant CrossFit and running and eating healthy. Today I was driving down the road, singing like a goofball with the top down, and it occurred to me how at ease I was… in traffic. Doing the work has paid off.
Three weeks ago I was able to go to Arkansas for a week-long conference. While there my Dad came to see me. We had a short talk one night and he told me how happy he was to see me doing well. He looked at Mom and asked her ‘do you remember what my first words were when he (me) first came home from Iraq?’. She said “yes… you said ‘my son didn’t come home. That’s not my boy’.” What he meant was that the happy-go-luck optimist was replaced by a different person, a dour pessimist quick to react with aggression. Finally that optimist is back.
Just like I learned new running strides, footfalls, leg postures, center of gravity positions, for running, and what my tempo and pace are for different times and places of a race, I am learning more and more of my emotional landscape again. Recently, while feeling great bouts of pure joy and happiness I was struck with other feelings of… negative (?), what I have surmised to be the piggybacking of emotion. This is not uncommon with veterans who’ve learned to supress emotions and once they start letting them out again suddenly find that random emotions pop up in clusters. Faced with the growing melancholy I reached out to some of my best friends, all of whom have been women that I’ve dated. That didn’t strike me as too strange at the time, yet what occurs to me now is that 3 of the 4 are women that I didn’t date until after Iraq. This simple fact gives me great hope.
So it is that I train on my running with the hope of getting a better and smoother stride and a faster pace. Likewise, seeing that I have grown in physical health, spiritual and emotional health, and that several women that I’ve dated when I was struggling to return from deployment I am able to call my dearest friends, who love and support me, is proof to me that I’ve come a long way. Perhaps I am not able to call myself a romantic partner… but I can call myself friend.
So here is my hope for the future. Aside from the negative iceberg belief that I am still trying to root out of my core beliefs, that I am unworthy of love (it is deeply entrenched), I have a hope that seems possible now, when it didn’t seem so a couple of years ago… that I can actually love someone. Knowing the people that I’ve dated since Iraq, who’ve I’ve treated poorly and yet still love and support me, gives me confidence that others are strong, that I can not hold myself to impossible heights of responsibility for breaking their heart, which is a factor in my isolation. There is hope for the future.
This is worth lacing up the shoes and hitting the trail for