Too frequently, I forget that I am not actually in this alone. I forget that others have shared these experiences, these emotions. People I know are, right now, fighting the same fight I am struggling with. They are winning gracefully and embracing the new lives they have been gifted. Less than three years ago, at a climbing camp hosted by First Descents in Jackson, Wyoming, I met a group of young adult cancer survivors. I was utterly overwhelmed by the experience and by the other survivors themselves. They all seemed so well-adjusted to this survivorship thing; they all seemed like they had their lives back on track and were living every day happily and purposefully. And a few of them were regular and fairly serious runners. I was none of those things at the time, and I didn't understand how one could possibly reach that point.
I learned over the course of the week that my initial conceptions were not exactly right... We were all struggling with adjusting to being young-adult cancer survivors; not one of us quite knew what that even meant. There was still so much pain and resentment, still so many questions that none of us could answer. One woman, in particular, impressed me as someone I would like to strive to emulate. Again, over the course of these past few years, I have learned she is just as fragile as I am; her own cancer struggle was ruthless. Yet I still look up to her and am inspired by her wisdom and ability to verbalize pretty much exactly how I am feeling. She blogged the other day, and while her story is completely different from mine, her words hit home, hard:
"Recovery seemed to go on forever, in a kind of horrific slow motion.
Time stopped. During treatment, there are at least markers and
milestones to let you know you are moving toward something. Once it
ended, it often felt as if the limbo would never end. Life in the
immediate aftermath of cancer is suspended animation."
For me, it has been five years since my diagnosis and treatment, and all of those years I have spent suspended. Cancer took something from me that I have only recently been able to define. I used to have this deep, burning energy, this drive I could never really explain but innately knew as part of me. Those who have known me since cancer would probably say I am driven and full of energy, but I am talking about something a little deeper. This energy was almost a cosmic pull from the future, something hooked and taking me as fast as possible into an incredible and limitless future. I was going to be a singer! a journalist! I was going to travel the world, taking photos of sick children in Africa, making a difference! I lived my whole childhood and teenage years believing that everywhere I was going was taking me somewhere new, that everything would lead to something else, unknown and wonderful. So many years ahead, so much potential.
And then, when I was 20, I got sick. All of those feelings and beliefs and unconscious understandings were stripped away and I was left bare of everything but a day-to-day struggle to live, to remember to wake up and inhale. I lost my drive. I lost my belief in a limitless and spectacular future. And then when the cancer was finally gone, I think that drive was replaced by fear. I graduated from college but had no idea how to plan a future because I didn't truly believe I still had one. I spent a lot of time asking God and the Universe in general, "Where am I supposed to go from here? What am I supposed to do with this experience; surely there is a reason for my still being here...?"
I know a few people now who would say that First Descents marked a shift in their view of themselves as survivors, changed their lives. FD certainly changed my life, but I think my epic turning point started just about a year ago. Just about a year ago, something sparked in me, very quietly. Whatever that spark was, it brought me to Colorado. I still had no direction, but I was going to live directionless on my own. One year ago, I began treatment for immunogammaglobulinemia (basically no secondary immune systems. Chemo was too effective). Gradually, my quality of life increased to levels I hadn't experienced since I was 18. I literally hadn't felt healthy in over five years. And then I kept kind of getting sick, and it turns out I have celiac disease. And it turns out my bones are osteoporitic. And I have high cholesterol. And I ran the Boston Marathon this past year.
This past year... I made friends; I learned that I can actually support myself. I changed my diet, and I feel Incredible. And recently, within the past six months, the most important things have happened: I developed this crazy relationship with someone I actually want to have a future with. Really? Is that what it comes down to, this whole "love" thing? My heart is growing in directions I honestly didn't think were possible for me. But it is so much more! All of these things, the immune issues, the celiac, finishing the Boston Marathon, hiking up a mountain at 14,000 ft in the air, and now this blowing open of my heart and soul for another person - this year, I realized pretty much two days ago, has reignited my drive. This deep and growling fire in my chest was a feeling I thought was gone. I thought the antidepressants were stamping it out or cancer had killed it for good. But unimaginably, there it is. Finally, painfully, almost reluctantly, I am looking to the future once more, allowing myself to be pulled into it once more. I am still terrified of the unknown, the lingering threat of sickness, whether mine or someone else's, the fear of losing everything I've built up (again).
It does seem, though, that the most important thing a person can possibly do is define and face their greatest fears. It isn't easy, and when you're living in suspended animation, sometimes it is actually impossible to pull yourself from that state. Sometimes it takes a sea change of events to wash away our restraints: a beautiful, incredible, seemingly impossible baby (for my friend) and a family bursting with more love than seems possible but it is because of everything they have overcome. For me, it took allowing myself to fully entrust myself to another person, to being diagnosed with celiac, to finishing the Boston Marathon though totally untrained and consuming no gluten and to pretty much fully recovering in about three days... That stoked this ambition to go back to school for nutrition (?!). So I am going back to school for food science and human nutrition! It is going to be at least four or five years before I'll be finished with everything, and then everything Really gets exciting. But look: a plan. A long-term, long-distance, future-based plan. A plan based around healing myself and hopefully, ultimately, helping others heal (and walk and run and eat lots of kale).
And fear, still, but fear tempered by love. I don't know what will happen at any point down this line, but I know what I dream about; I certainly know what I am hoping for. And so, like my friend, I have to end with this, because it is a universal something we all seek: Hope. There is hope for a future and whatever it holds and whatever it throws at us. I know this is supposed to be a blog about running, but humor me this post about running headlong, finally, again, into whatever is coming my way. Running through the snow and the rain and the 95 degree days and the perfect, breezy spring mornings and running next to someone who won't leave me behind and loving it all just for the sake of being alive and moving and breathing and Oh My God, it's gorgeous outside today! There is so much, and life is still hard too often, but it is all so worth it. It really is nice to have Me back. I feel so fully complete now, now with a purpose, with some ambition, with this love guiding me forward.
Thank you for reading, if you've made it this far. Promise, more running and nutrition-related posts to come, just had to get all this out. Love you, love me, love life. It's all good. Now go live a little! And happy summer...