If you were following my social media around October of last year you might remember that I was fundraising and training hard for a marathon. And look! I did it. I did it despite being injured (and being on the first day of my period by the way!) Isn’t that awesome? Aren’t those cool pictures? Can’t you see the joy and triumph and pride and sense of satisfaction in my face? Yeah it was fleeting, Within probably 5 mins of those photos being taken I was spiraling down into a depression that would lead me to feel hopeless and self loathing and suicidal for weeks. My marathon triggered a major PTSD event. Isn’t that weird and unfortunate and unfair and irritatingly effed up? Isn’t that a downer? After all that work? To come away from doing something less than 1% of the world can say they accomplished, something that previously felt out of reach, something I often imagined I could never do feeling not only not feeling better about myself but actually feeling a lot worse?
Here’s the thing, it took me at least 2 weeks to be able to even look at these photos without feeling a sense of strong shame and disgust in myself.I never wanted to think about the marathon again and I felt such a sense of numbness and pervasive shame around the whole thing that beyond reporting on it via social media to all my incredibly generous sponsors and discussing it with a few close friends and family, I haven’t really revisited it since. But I’m revisiting it now. And I’m revisiting the whole messy experience now to report on what I did learn and what I did gain and now I’m celebrating that.
Running a marathon was not what I imagined it would look or feel like, but I gained great lessons and amazing nuggets of understanding regarding the damage I still needed to sort through by doing it. And I’m very proud of that. I’m proud that I’m still here. I’m proud that with each shitty round of this stuff, each time I go down into the darkest dungeons to meet my dragons, I emerge with another treasure of information I can use, I emerge that little bit wiser and stronger. Bruised, battered for sure but better for it. Grateful for the grace of all those who helped me along the way and eager to share what I’ve learned so that others can suffer less.
Here’s lesson number 1. And it dovetails beautifully with the collective consciousness this time of year. When people are preoccupied with goals and resolutions and even wanting to reinvent themselves in search of the elusive things we all crave: self acceptance, self respect, happiness, love, joy, PEACE.
“Happiness is an Inside Job”
Nobody doesn’t want to be happy or at peace. That’s a universal. Here’s where you won’t find those things I listed above:
Running a marathon (or a 5K or an Ultra or a bloody Iron Man either for that matter). Making a million dollars or getting out of your parent’s basement and finding a job.
Getting your degree, or your PhD, or a promotion or married or having a kid or another kid or five kids.
Losing 10lbs or 100lbs or becoming the hottest, skinniest most athletic tanned and toned version of yourself you can possibly be. (I’ve done that by the way and….nope, it actually took me in way the opposite direction to what I was looking for.)
Other goals that you might think are going to make you happy but never will: getting that guy or girl to finally notice you and/or fall in love with you or at least treat you half way decently. Getting your parents approval (if you don’t have it already, that’s actually not going to happen and you gotta move on with your life, it’s not you it’s them, building your dream house, owning your dream car, buying a boat, buying anything. Moving to your dream destination, going on that exotic trip, having a certain number of followers or sway on social media, becoming “popular”, winner a title (of any kind), publishing a book, publishing a best seller, Getting that promotion,being at the pinnacle of your career path…All of this...all of these are totally hollow victories if you haven’t done the inner work.
Happiness, peace, self acceptance is, as they say, an inside job and much as I do so love a goal and as much as I so firmly believe in making them and working hard to achieve them and as much as I feel convinced that one must live one’s life consciously and with intention….that much more do I understand that not one single external accomplishment is ever going to complete you and please don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will or distract yourself with those things at the expense of solving the inner puzzle.
Because once you get the inner self in order (and each of us are tasked with that, and for some the puzzle is a 10 piece board puzzle and for others of us it’s a 5000 piece puzzle with missing pieces that have slid behind a bookshelf or under a rug and will take us years to find) but once that is mostly solved, everything else will come that much more easily and will be so much more enjoyable. Once you start to solve the puzzle of where your limiting beliefs come from you will be far better equipped to be able to stay in whichever moment you are in (which is all we have isn’t it?) and thoroughly savour it, learn from it, grow from it and then move on to the next.
2. Your Inner Critic Will Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Oh no it won’t. Oh no it WILL NOT until you do the work.
If you have been abused, neglected, undermined or otherwise traumatized in your childhood, the voices of that trauma becomes your Asshole Inner Critic and although I had done a lot of work to silence mine and to deem myself worthy of going after goals that other people were “allowed to have” such as running a marathon, my inner critic had different ideas. As the marathon drew closer I felt confident and at peace and the critic was feeling lost and without purpose. Cue my injury. It was a useful and very convenient weapon for the arsenal of my Inner Critic which had just been sitting around waiting to be called up for duty. (He’s committed to showing up every time I’m about to do something big.)
“LOOK WHAT YA DID YOU LITTLE JERK”
My Inner Critic had arrived to tell me that now that I was injured this whole marathon thing was a super terrible idea and that no matter how much I wanted to do it I probably couldn’t. Or shouldn’t. And that even wanting to was selfish.
The night before I was due to leave for the marathon I had a terrible dream where I was driving a sports-car with Ella on my lap into the crowded parking lot of the woods (where I did almost all of my training). I couldn’t reach the brakes and imminent doom awaited me, Ella and the crowd of people in my path. The symbolism was embarrassingly obvious. I knew from therapy that more often than not Ella featuring in my dreams represented my inner child. In the dream someone from my past who had been in somewhat of the habit of undermining me, particularly when it came to running, reached through the window to pull the safety brake at the last moment and then mercilessly berated me, “Kirsty what the hell are you doing? You don’t know how to drive this car! You don’t know what you are doing! This would have been have been a disaster if I wasn’t here!” This dream shook me. It felt one hair away from being real and I knew it was an accurate portrayal of the hectic and exhausting drama going on in my psyche.
It turns out that there was no way for me to win an argument against The Asshole Inner Critic. He had set me up to lose. If I ran the race I was irresponsible and would probably jeopardize my ability to run long-term (which would in turn be catastrophic to my mental health and even put my physical health in danger by being on my feet and in a state of dehydration for too long). If I didn’t run the race, I was letting down everyone who had sponsored me with funds for the children’s hospital as well as everyone who had so kindly supported and patiently encouraged me throughout my training, my family who had sacrificed to give me all that time to train and of course myself by not completing what I had set out to do. Either way I sucked. And he wanted me to be very clear about that.
Inner Critics, the mean one’s who show up with the harsh and damaging voices from your childhood Are Relentless and you just can’t negotiate with a terrorist. You have to tie them up, muzzle them and put them in the trunk of the car if you want to anything done at all. And that’s what I ended up having to do.
Up until 4am on the morning of my race, Inner Asshole Critic was still working overtime, whispering ugly and undermining things in my ear all damn day and night. But on 4am on race day my Inner Parent finally broke through and took charge. It was at this point that I was to drown out the Critical Asshole by way of listening to a guided meditation. Meditation I have found, is a powerful weapon against practically every toxic force. I chose one on trusting my body and somehow the Asshole slunk away and was silenced. In almost imperceptible but powerful shift I has a small epiphany, I remembered my soul’s power and I remembered my body’s brilliance and adaptability.
Something whispered to me that all would be well if I proceeded. That my most recent injury would give way to the original one. That I had trained sufficiently enough with to get through this thing (I know that makes no sense but it was a comforting and affirming thought and that’s more or less what happened in the end.) I finally felt a back to the version of me I had gained over the summer and felt a sense of peaceful calm mixed with happy anticipation and pure excitement.
It wasn’t a miracle. I wasn’t suddenly cured. The race was painful, my injury nagged and then screamed but I was well trained so I wasn’t too exhausted and truly, that goes a really long way in managing pain. The misery of having my period show up that day was more of an issue for most of the race to be honest, and I only wanted to amputate my one leg for about the last 8 miles. No big deal 😉
But really the vibe and atmosphere, the supporters and the fun of the crowd carried me really well. I had the rare and amazing experience of having a sense of pure connection with a sea of strangers of beautiful humanity. The tears of tragedy as people people who held up photographs in memory of their lost children, mingled with the sweat of those on their way to personal triumph as we grasped hands and looked into each others eyes in a brief moment of raw human connection. The whole thing was an incredible privilege and I was aware of that and buoyed by a great sense of gratitude. My son and his girlfriend had stationed themselves at one point of the course, and my husband at another and I felt renewed by their hugs and cheers just when I most needed it. I had my phone with me and I was well supported and entertained and encouraged by a friend who was following my progress and my children in some of my most painful tired moments. Basically the race was as good as an experience as one can have whilst injured with period pain. 😛
I was glad when it was over. I had been very conservative in the first half of the race knowing that my injury would hurt a lot more in the second, and I slowed down naturally from fatigue in the second half which led to a longer race than I had trained for. My fuel had run out, my stomach was a hot mess and by the point that I was done, I was pretty ready to be done. I ran for just over 5 hours. Twenty six point two was now my official claim. My face in the finish photos reflects both that strain and the relief and joy and satisfaction of being done with all of that. The joy you see in it felt genuine. But I only remembered that joy for a brief moment when I allowed myself to look back on the photos about 2 weeks later.
Before I had left the finishers arena, before I had even reunited with my husband my sense of happy satisfaction had given way to a sense of numbness with an undercurrent of gnawing shame. The Inner Critic had escaped the trunk of the car and boy was it mad about having been put there. It was back with a vengeance, more cruel more ugly than ever. Suddenly it made the shame all about my time. Wow would you look at that! What a shameful marathon time! Now it bears saying that up until that point my any interest in my race time had been solely to calculate how much fuel I would need and how to manage and administer enough salt in my hydration so I didn’t have issues with POTS. I had estimated I would be done in 4:30 before I ran into any issues and had planned for that. I wasn’t going after any type of speed goal, a time goal was non-existent and that 4:30 was used purely for logistics. Everyone knows your first marathon goal is supposed to be to finish your first marathon.
But I was suddenly so weirdly preoccupied with my time.It was bizarre. I could take no satisfaction had having crossed a finish line still running, injured to the extent that I wouldn’t be cleared again to run again for months and with a period. Because… MY TIME. What the?
I updated social media to let all the people who had so generously sponsored me know that I had fulfilled my obligations but other than that I really didn’t want to talk about it with people. I felt like a fraud. I felt like taking photos, showing off my medal all of the post race traditional hoopla was just me going through the motions. I was playing the part of “person who is happy to have completed her first marathon”. It felt hollow and empty and weird. More that just anti-climactic it felt shameful. When people marveled at the accomplishment I felt genuine confusion. What was the big deal? Was this a big deal? What like it’s hard? Then I would remember that yes it was hard but I couldn’t make that resonate with me. I still felt like a big fat phony failure. I didn’t want to look at the race photos, I didn’t want to look at the stats, I didn’t want to relive the glory because there was no glory. I felt the familiar numb precursor to a PTSD spiral. Sure enough within days I was in bed, fantasizing about ending my life in a way that wouldn’t cause others pain or trouble…there had to be a way and I just had to figure that out. I was back to the terrifying place I thought I had left behind forever. And running a marathon had brought me there. And there was shame in that too. I was irritated. I was exasperated. Couldn’t I Just Be A Normal Happy Person Who Didn’t ALWAYS have to have some damn drama going on. Seriously? SERIOUSLY????
A week later I dragged myself to a yoga class. After class I rolled up my mat as I chatted with a good friend of mine. She’s a psychologist and veteran of several marathons, including Boston which she ran very well. I expressed that I had no sense of pride or joy in the accomplishment and she told me that this was a pretty common phenomenon for people who deal with C-PTSD (something in which she specializes). In parting she said, “Kirsty I really wish you could feel proud of yourself. Of all the races I have run I take the most pride in the marathon I completed injured. It’s such a feat of sheer willpower and endurance.” For some reason the penny dropped at that moment, and I said, “but I’m ashamed that I was injured”. What a weird thing to say, huh? Who would be ashamed of getting injured? It’s practically expected that one would be injured at some point in the months of training for running 26.2 miles in one go. And then it all started making sense to me. I was ashamed because I had always been taught to be ashamed of being hurt. And I was al It was my fault that I had been hurt as a child. This message had always been implicitly or explicitly been communicated to me. I had brought my abuse upon myself. I could have stopped it. Somehow. My abuser was powerless in this. If I hadn’t been so much…me. Then he wouldn’t have done it. And my family could have been spared the shame and pain of the fact that he had. It wasn’t his fault it was my fault. I had been asking for it somehow. By being alive. By being a girl. By being alone asleep in my bedroom at night or sitting by myself doing my homework or walking around in the backyard or just passing him in the kitchen or the hallway. Or being in the bathroom when he walked in. It was my fault. And I had brought down an entire family in the process. Whenever I’m in pain there is shame. And I have nobody to blame but myself. There it was. There it was.
Well that took some time to work through. It was a major setback. At first I appeared to have entirely lost the wonderful progress of the summer. I became skittish and neurotic and terrified. I was back to being a little girl desperately trying to find safety and comfort and validation in the love and acceptance and attention of others. It’s an excruciating way to live, particularly when your adult self has been tied up and is sitting in the back seat witnessing your messed up inner child driving the car erratically and dangerously all over town. And it can be exhausting for those around you (which makes you feel even more ashamed and unworthy). But I had better tools this time. I had help. I had lost my amazing therapist but the universe offered up others to sit in my corner to patiently and kindly guide me through it. I had resources in the form of understanding the disorder better and the way it manifests itself. My brother introduced me to a magnificent manual by Pete Walker, “Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving which comes highly recommended by literally everyone I know who has read it.
3. Knowing the origins of the monster means being able to hunt it down, corner it in it’s lair and cut off it’s head. While my inner critic is still alive and well it is morphing from a destructive monster into a kind, affirming, wise guide. One which calls me to my highest purpose while fully accepting me as I am now. One which encourages me to loosen my grasp on the approval of others, to reject the notion that I have to lose or sell myself out for confusing or devastatingly inconsistent doses of kindness and connection. To become more sure and calm in the knowledge of what is real and good for me.
The critical inner voice I picked up in my childhood which up until very recently has led me to constantly question and doubt my feelings and my needs is slowly but very surely being replaced with one that reminds me that my feelings are real and that I am worthy of feeling comfortable and safe and confident in my choices and my relationships. That I should trust people and circumstances which feel safe and consistent, comforting and nurturing. And while I should never shy away from challenges which will help me to grow, when I have a choice, these things should feel exciting and invigorating and…right. That my gut is good and my inner wisdom is sound. To know that when people or circumstances leave me feeling confused, conflicted and insecure, they are not healthy for me. And that it doesn’t matter why they aren’t. It’s just enough to know that they are unhealthy and don’t deserve my energy or engagement. That’s progress yo! I would run and marathon to gain that sort of insight any time!
When I set out to run a marathon it was because I finally felt worthy of doing what other runners felt worthy to do. And when I finished it I had to learn to feel worthy of feeling proud of what other people feel proud of. That’s coming more slowly than even my marathon pace but it’s coming. I also set out to do it because I knew deep inside that it would be an opportunity to learn lots of things about what I was made of but I could not have guessed how deep that would go. I would recommend it to anyone.
To recap: here’s what I wouldn’t recommend. Don’t run a marathon or finish a degree or get married or lose weight or chase money or success or even relationships because you think they will make you happy. If you can’t figure out how to be happy without any or all of those things there is a good chance that the more you gain in wealth, accomplishments, popularity or accolades will only lead you to experience even more shame, self doubt and loathing. Don’t chase happiness in external things. Buckle down and face your demons and figure out what it is inside of you which is keeping you from being happy in your current circumstances, in your current incarnation, with yourself just exactly as you are now. That’s where the gold is. That’s worth all the time and energy you can muster. And if it takes a marathon to do it, it’s worth that too.
All my love to you on your quest brave warrior. You are worthy. You are loved. You can accomplish great things but you are already enough.