Running Away from Surgery - A Tale of Runner's High
Do you know the feeling you get when you run? The harsh pounding of the wind against your chest, your legs jolted by the bounce on the pavement, the endless expanse of clouds swallowing up every other thought in the world? The feeling that nothing else exists? In that moment, nothing matters but the feeling of flight.
I’m not a runner by any means. In fact, I hate running. But I have run away from many things – emotions, feelings, and circumstances that have made me feel uncomfortable. It was how I thought I was surviving fine, when really I was merely getting through.
I’ve never run – or wanted to run in – a marathon, but I have been through a marathon of surgeries – 27 to be exact. Surgeons fondly call me a “surgical disaster” or compare my intestines to “a glob of boiled spaghetti.” These amazing surgeons ingeniously created a digestive system for me after organ failure and a gastrectomy my senior year of high school. A blood clot had caused both my lungs to collapse and most of my intestines had to be removed after I went sepsis. Now the job was “hooking me back up” – a surgical reconstruction. What I learned after I was readmitted, reconstructed, re-operated on and “fixed up” several times, is that no surgery is a guarantee.
Because there had never been a case like mine, there were no promises made, and nobody was sure what could last. The day of my 21st birthday, I was able to try my first bite of food in three years after 13 surgeries – a frozen waffle, at my request. After being so grateful I could finally eat and drink again after three years of playing with empty water bottles, I could have never anticipated the 14 surgeries that would follow, each one an attempt to fix a wound that had ruptured or stitch that had burst loose.
Every time I had a medical setback, doctors advised me to just “stop eating and drinking for now”. I was put back on IV’s, and suddenly I had to switch to “machine mode.” Food was suddenly declared a fatal danger, and no intravenous nutrition was the only way to “save” my system. The day I received this “clinical advice”, I had literally just had breakfast and now I was to stop experiencing all human instincts, not feel hungry and cut myself off any oral intake until “things healed.” As the obedient patient, I did this for several years. It was an odd mix of staying numb, isolated and distracted, as well as crying with my mother and amazing support system.
Being “numb” to my circumstances was probably the easiest way to deal with them. I didn’t have to think, feel, or be aware of reality. I numbed myself through locking myself in my room and typing for hours. When I became desperate to “feel”, I started cooking for my family as an attempt to experience the human sensations of hunger without actually feeding myself. I could smell my minestrone soup simmering, feel the flour work its way into the pizza dough, and it made me feel alive in the small ways that were available to me. I was hungry for food, for life and for the emotions that come with humanity – emotions which I had to temporarily put “on hold.” I either felt numb or painfully sad, and there didn’t seem to be an opportunity for any new feelings to grow. If I wasn’t numb, then I’d start crying, getting anxious and tense – and immediately think back to my surgeries, to my life before surgery, and a hate for the path my life had taken.
But part of feeling human is feeling angry. Part of feeling human is becoming frustrated at, worried and anxious about circumstances beyond our control. Part of feeling human is becoming overwhelmed with the agonizing question, “Why Me?” as we shake our fist to the sky, wondering why life can be so unfair.
In April 2011, I had just been told to stop eating and drinking, once again, in order to heal a fistula. Unfortunately, I knew this routine all too well because I had had several fistulas develop from previous surgeries. I tried to distract myself, numb myself, and get from day to day as diligently as possible.
One morning, I woke up with such a fire in my gut, an anger that was so overwhelming that the energy frightened me. I didn’t know what to do with it and the emotions were too overpowering to try to numb them. My thoughts and feelings were threatening to swallow me whole.
With not a rational thought in my head, I ran out the door and just started running. I didn’t know where, for how long or why, but it was the adrenaline of panic – I felt “unsafe” in my situation and wanted to get as far away from it as I could. I had never felt an energy like this before, a red-hot high through my legs, tingling in my chest, tears caught in my eye-sockets that I hoped the wind bashing across my face might dry up.
I kept running and running, as far away from my life as I could. I was too scared to kill myself, and I didn’t think I wanted to either. I wanted a middle ground – just to exist in another world, and if I ran long enough, I’d get there, somehow, somewhere.
I ran for three hours before I found a highway, and without thinking, I started running onto the shoulder of the it. I thought, “the farther I go, the further this will all be behind me.” Of course, of all days I decide to run for my life, it starts to rain…and thunder. Suddenly, the highway was flooded, I was drenched, and I had cars beeping at me, wondering what a frail little girl in a T-shirt was doing running on the shoulder of the highway.
It was only a matter of time before a police car pulled up to me and asked me to get inside. I was shaking, angry, confused, embarrassed and nervous – like I had just gotten my first detention in school. He said, “I’ve gotten about 30 calls in the past 20 minutes saying this 80-pound-girl is running on the shoulder of the highway. Where did you think you were going?”
I was upset that my escape had been halted, and suddenly very ashamed. Wiping away tears, I stammered, “To the mall.”
“You thought you could get to the mall on the shoulder of the highway?”
He turned around and looked at me for a brief pause and said, “I can drive you to the mall.”
I refused to look at him, pressed my elbows into my sides, and barely whispered, “No, I’ll go home.”
He called my worried parents our way home, saying I was okay and we were on our way home. My mother, after recovering from her concerned rage, asked me what on earth I thought I was doing. I told her simply that I was trying to escape. I didn’t want to deal with this anymore. I was frustrated with my body and I couldn’t take living under these circumstances for an “indefinite” amount of time. All she said was, “But you took your body with you.”
I knew that running on the shoulder of the highway is illegal and there are by far, much easier ways to get to the mall. But what I really wanted, was others to know that I was having such a hard time – that even with my numbness, discipline, and “indomitable” spirit, I needed support. I needed someone to realize I was suffering and talk to me, even if they couldn’t fix it for me. I needed someone to remind me why I should still love life, after 27 disappointments.
I didn’t want to kill myself because in my heart, I knew how much I adored life. But I needed a break. I wanted life to get easier. I was sick of living in fear, wading in uncertainty and reflecting on a former life that I was never able to get back before my coma at the age of 18 – a time when life is supposed to open infinitesimal doors.
Then I remembered times in my life – post-coma – that I was happy. I tried to remember what the circumstances were, what I was thinking, who was around me, what I was doing. And they were small moments.
Then I realized, it wasn’t feeling “happy” I was chasing after, it was feeling “alive.” I remembered crying over my grandmother’s death and missing her delicate, wrinkly fingers tightly gripped around mine. I remembered waking up in the hospital after my coma and feeling sadness, but also a sense of wonderment, like I was rediscovering the world and seeing nature for the first time. Those were “life-shock” moments – moments infused with humanity, rather than the numb disconnected feeling of estrangement that now seemed to torment every second. They were moments I felt connected.
Feeling alive is very different than feeling happy, and perhaps much more fulfilling. I remember the first time I told my then-boyfriend that I had an ostomy bag, and holding him very closely, crying hysterically, to which he replied, “I think I’m taking this better than you are.” And on our wedding day, I remember my aliveness being colored with an amazing, euphoric feeling of love, life, legacy and…happiness.
As I ran on the shoulder of the highway that rainy April day, I laughed back at my circumstances. I scoffed, “I’ll show you, I’ll show my family, I’ll show the entire world that I don't care! I don't care anymore – it’s great that everyone thinks I’m such a trouper, but I don't even care about getting through anymore! I’m tough, I’m sick of this, and I’m done!” I ran and ran, feeling the wind against my legs, my shirt getting soaked, and the horns of concerned cars that passed me by.
When the police brought me home that day, I was furious. I spent the afternoon pacing around the kitchen screaming that I was going to take every knife in the house. I didn’t know what I meant by that, but I wanted a reaction – from others, but also from myself. I wanted to see how much I still cared. I also wanted to remember why I had fought so hard for so long to still be here, and why giving up at this point would cheat me out of any feelings of aliveness that may exist in my future. I had no proof that things would get better, but I did have a few solid things at that moment that I could stand on and anchor myself to, just to get me through.
In that very moment:
I started with that tear and realized that my tear was not a death-sentence of depression or everlasting sadness, it was a sign to start grieving and mourning my losses. I started putting my thoughts together through song, art, and words that, over time, I was able to share with those I loved.
The next day, I woke up and I ran outside again. But this time I knew where I was going. Instinctively, I ran outside to look at a tree, and as I realized what was important in the world, I felt my eyes enlarge and my frozen heart begin to expand. Suddenly, I felt aligned with earth, the world, with life, with the thousands of people who have com before me and have been tried and tested, some perhaps who had also given up hope – people like my grandmother, who had survived Auschwitz at 18 years old. I felt roots coming up through the earth, and I stopped thinking about a situation I felt trapped in, and started to think about what “values” I could trap myself in – values that could guide me through a very uncertain time. When life is shaky, your values keep you anchored. Then. any wobbly, impulsive emotions can’t toss you from side to side – or onto the shoulder of the highway.
By July 2009, my fistula still had not healed, and I was still unable to eat or drink, only supplemented nutritionally with IV’s. As much as I tried to soothe myself with nature, art and family, I still battled with feelings that I wanted to run away from.
One Sunday morning that July, I felt that rush of energy in my once again – the desire to flee, to pretend I could escape into a new reality, to just run and not know or care where I’d end up.
But I decided to sit down and write. Here is an excerpt:
“It just comes down to the desperate attempt to run away from myself, the fear of being present here in the moment right now – because it is a terrifying feeling not being able to feel at all.
I alternate every day between loving and knowing that I need to be here, hating it, accepting it, panicking here, being bored to death here, and having revelations here. It’s a good sign whenever you get into that niche of loving the moment you are in here, in this world. But I don't get that enough.
I think the only way to get through every agonizingly slow day is to take it moment by moment, but also to keep a grateful list, knowing that circumstances are far from ideal, but yet there are always things we can do or feel to make the most of it and appreciate what we do have. The only time I really feel is when I am singing, and I can tap into that place of feeling – even if it’s sad feelings, at least I’m feeling. In the end, I think I’d rather feel anything than nothing at all.”
And so I spent the day walking down my street singing to myself, noticing the cars that passed by, gazing down the path ahead, staying curious to see where it led.
That’s my new runner’s high. It may leave me winded, angry, frustrated, panicked, or overwhelmed with sadness, but it’s the high of being alive. And I’m so glad I stayed on track.
About the Author:
Amy is an actress, writer, speaker, survivor, and Detourist.
Amy is an actress, writer, speaker, survivor, and Detourist.