This time last year I was trapped inside of my own body. The fear was immobilizing, irrational panic had me backed into a corner inside myself. My second baby was four months old.
My anxiety became so aggressive in my life that the fear that my children were starving felt so real that I thought I was watching them die right in front of me. Yet, it was so crippling that feeding them seemed like the only thing I was capable of. I was always convinced that I wasn’t doing enough, but I didn’t have it in me to do any more than I already was. I couldn’t drive a car. Walking anywhere felt impossible too. I didn’t believe it was safe to be alone with my children. I was going crazy with cabin fever. I was sick with worry.
What if I leave the house and something bad happens? What if I can’t handle it? What if my arms are too full to keep the kids protected? What if they cry the whole time?
Even if the worries weren’t specific, the inadequacy, discontent, and static draped over me like a weighted blanket that I wasn’t strong enough to move.
My best friend tried to save me with most pure and selfless love I have ever known. I will never forget how he would carry me out of bed when I couldn’t convince my own legs to move, and he knew I needed sunlight. He would cook over easy eggs and toast, and turn the shower on for me while he watched over our babies, when he knew I needed sustenance and hot water. My feet felt heavy, and he made them feel lighter. But he couldn’t take care of me forever. This wasn’t his battle to fight, and he had a job to do. His responsibilities included spending thirteen hours a day working to provide for our family.
The memories of being alone with my girls, at first, are blurry, but the feeling of overwhelm, and being engulfed by the small moments of each day will never leave me. My oldest was regressing in toilet training and I was having to sanitize the carpet while a newborn was attached to my breast several times a day. There were tantrums and messes and so much noise. I needed an escape - a reset - and I tried to find it every night motionless on the couch watching Netflix. I tried to distract myself from the clatter in my head with different sound. But sitting still didn’t give me the peace that I needed. I was a like a stagnant river, unaware of the ways my mental illness was growing louder inside an incubator of inactivity.
My third trimester stomach clung to me for months after my daughter was born. It was soft and hung low over my legging’s tight waistband. I was comfortable with it. I wasn’t ashamed of it. It had my permission to stay, but it was proof that I wasn’t caring for myself. It was a tangible reminder that my brain was spinning on a hamster wheel and running out of air. That I wasn’t eating well or moving enough. I started experiencing chest pains as a result of the stress. I told my doctor I probably had a heart condition, and he told me I was anxious. He talked about the relief exercise might bring to me, but I just wasn’t ready to commit to changing anything. Deep down, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.
Three months after speaking with my doctor, I found the courage to try something. Despite my legitimate inability to run, the fact that my children made sure I was never properly rested, and my instinctual and perpetual laziness - I decided to do the 2016, millennial mom version of aerobic VHS's and download an exercise app on my iPhone. It wasn’t the perfect time. I started slowly, at a reluctant speed toward health. I modified a lot, and groaned through each repetition. I wasn’t good at exercise, my body complained with each and every move, but I could feel the knots in my brain start to detangle.
A few months into the program, after adding strength to my Bambi legs - I even started to run.
And, at the risk of sounding dramatic, exercise changed my life.
And maybe, even, it saved my life, too. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t really want to live either. Not like that anyway.
I had no idea how much rest could be found in movement.
Today, I wake up and without arguing with myself, I lace up my shoes and I run in silence for a consecutive 30 minutes in the 40 degree air. 28 weeks of fighting for myself each individual day has changed everything.
I could show you the transformation pictures. The way my stomach evaporated into who knows what. How my stretch marks made a slow crawl from my sides to the front of my stomach as my skin shrunk. The way my arms and legs look different, and how everything has shifted around. My whole figure is rearranged. I fit back into those jeans. And yes, there is a number that is 60 less than it used to be.
But none of that matters. I mean, of course (in some scientific way) it means something, but what I’ve lost will never speak as loudly as what I have gained.
I am alive. I am alive in a way that I’ve never known before. I have learned how to take care of myself. I move in and out of the house on my own terms. I am not tethered by worry. I have tasted oxygen in full inhales of desperately appreciated air. I have spent a lot of time getting to know myself and earth, and I have had a reason to be outside with my daughters and witness the seasons change first hand.
My brain is free, and confident, and happy, and clear. I know that my children are safe within my arm's reach. I know, now, that I can handle whatever comes our way, even if it is uncomfortable or even if it hurts. I am a better mother because now there is room for their noise and their touch. I am responsible to create that space. And to do this we need time away from one another. We both deserve it.
This run isn’t easy, it never is, but it is strong in the ways that matter. And isn’t that what life's all about? Realizing that true joy and strength isn’t found in the easy, or even in the rejection of sadness or pain? True joy is sitting right there in the in between, where you are forced to feel all of it. To look at everything in front of you and acknowledge its presence and to just breathe and let it be. Living is not only found in perfect happiness, it is found where everything exists all at once — living exists in wholeness — and for me, I found that in a life where I never stop moving.
All I hear is my feet meeting the pavement as I relax my mind and let my body do the work. I feel the oxygen bleed into the places that my anxiety usually plagues.
There is no space for that here.
Words and photo by N'tima Preusser.