I went for my second weekend BBQ run yesterday, slowing getting back to an exercise routine, after a lengthy training break. Just like good BBQ, these are low and slow runs: low perceived effort and running 3–4 min/mile slower than my (aspirational!) race pace. I try to gauge my effort based on heart rate and walk when my HR spikes above 180, which did a handful of times yesterday, usually in the first few steps of the hilly trail sections near our house. I’m an amateur triathlete and IRONMAN finisher. Did I not mention that?
This is my favorite time of year to run here in Northern California. The triple digits are gone (fingers crossed!); the sun is gentler, warming rather than searing your skin. There’s just enough dew in the mornings to keep the trail dust from rising in the choking clouds we’re fighting all summer.
Most runners I know value the mental and emotional benefit of running as much (or more) than the physical aspect of it. No matter what challenges I was facing at various times in my life — cancer, divorce, loss — I’ve always found running emotionally and spiritually therapeutic.
Yesterday was no different.
Within the first mile, before my legs and breath had found their rhythm, my mind was a maelstrom.
Dozens of vitriolic, hateful, judgmental, petty self-narratives bubbled up into my consciousness; a catabolic surge powerful enough to make me gasp and choke mid-stride. I choose not to write exactly what I thought in those first few minutes. I choose not to give those stories power. I’m a competitive, driven woman with perfectionist tendencies who tied a significant portion of her ego-value to being super fit and racing triathlons. A woman who is now badly out of shape. I don’t need to connect the dots for you. Suffice to say, it was shockingly destructive. If I’d directed any of those narratives towards friends or colleagues, I would find myself friendless and unemployed, and for good reason.
By mile two, my legs and lungs were working in improved if imperfect harmony. I realized I’d somehow become the observer to this tirade.
I was the runner, the observer and the woman having a total self-flagellating meltdown simultaneously, a triad I seem to only achieve (or achieve more readily) when I’m in motion.
My breath steadied as the acid of those catabolic thoughts was neutralized by the growing objectivity, distancing myself from the maelstrom.
She’s scared, I thought, referring to my inner critic. She’s terrified. The negative voice hushed, like someone hitting mute on a noisy TV commercial. I could feel that part of my psyche slump forward in relief. I had understood her. I had seen her correctly. Instead of brushing her off, or struggling to silence her, or fighting to prove her wrong as I had for so many years, I’d finally got it. All she needed was to be heard.
I could feel my eyes prickling tears. My feet strode on, climbing a small hill, and turning right to follow a favorite wooded trail that circles a broad, grassy meadow. The trees are still green with only the slightest hint that seasons might be changing, a nearly imperceptible tinge of yellow or light green along the leaf edges. The meadow is the white-gold not green; all the grass dead and bowed.
Mile 3. I chanted to myself: breathe, stride, breathe. Head up, light footfall, shoulders relaxed, arms moving in sync, core engaged. I tried to remember all my running cues as a small group of high school cross-country kids sped past me. My muscle memory was starting to emerge. I marveled at how far I’d let my fitness slip over the past few years. I thought this with curiosity and without rancor (which in and of itself was remarkable!).
Without warning, a thought burst into my mind, not unlike a confused bird flying suddenly through an open window, wings beating against the air, frantic and determined.
What if I’m addicted to rock-bottom?
If you were to draw my life journey as an elevation map, it would resemble the trail I was running. Long rolling hills, a few flat stretches, with nadirs and apexes in regular intervals. This may be true for many others. The realization that burst into my mind was not that these undulations were present but that I needed to hit the low point to achieve the summit.
I couldn’t just finish an IRONMAN. I had to gain 60lbs and become a couch potato before starting my training. I couldn’t just prioritize on my health, I had to wait until a tumor appeared, threatening my survival. I couldn’t just live my values, I had to get arrested for violating them before I realized their importance in guiding my life. I couldn’t just be financially responsible when I made a good salary, I had to blow through it all, just to motivate me to dig myself out of the money pit. I couldn’t just find the love of my life, I had to go through a divorce first to reinvent myself. I couldn’t admit that I want to leave a relationship, I withheld love and let someone mistreat me until leaving became the brave thing, not just a choice. I couldn’t just admit that I wanted a break from work, a sabbatical, I allowed myself to get so depressed and fractured that I had no choice but to escape it.
I couldn’t just admit that I wanted something in my life to change, I had to burn that current life down around me, to give myself permission to build a new existence.
Was I truly addicted to that contrast? Was I self-sabotaging to such an incredible extent that I manifested all of these “low points” simply so that I could demonstrate how strong, gritty, capable, loveable, worthy I am?
Is it possible that a highly intelligent woman with access to numerous resources and a presumed enhanced ability to navigate life would be creating these burn-and-build cycles, subconsciously, on purpose? Am I addicted to life as a phoenix?
This realization flooded into my consciousness as I climbed the biggest hill of yesterday’s trail circuit. My steps were calm and steady. I could feel my breath quicken on the steep slope; the summit invisible from the start of the climb.
It’s worth pointing out that I have a large phoenix tattoo covering my right shoulder. I recall joking about the choice when I showed it to the tattoo artist. I’m always rising from the ashes, I recall saying, handing over the tribal phoenix design. As I strode towards the summit, an image flashed through my mind: an impish version of myself tweaking fate, changing my choices, so that I plunged to those emotional depths, faced with the task of rebuilding my life, infusing that re-building with tales of courage, strength, resilience, reinforcing my need to believe that I was all of those things. Beliefs I couldn’t take at face value. Beliefs I needed to prove over and over again.
I summited the long hill and stood, panting, looking at the panoramic view of the valley below. A thick line of clouds and mist hung over the hills separating my valley from the ocean. I could almost taste the salt. Or maybe that was the sweat dripping across my lips.
I stood there, feeling the cool breeze washing over my face, chilling my arms. The realization that I had a hand in the extreme undulations of my life was sinking in, along with an eerie calmness. I’ve felt this sequence of maelstrom, insight, and peace before. That’s how I knew that I’d uncovered a quintessential part of me, that I’d finally learned a lesson my soul had been trying to teach me for decades.
I could see my house from that summit. One short mile stood between me and home. I took a few more deep breaths and set off jogging towards the finish. My mind was quiet now. No maelstrom. No visions. Calm and clear.
So, what now? I asked myself. In my coach training program, we were taught insight must be paired with action to see progress. What action will I take (or not take) as a result of this revelation?
Here’s what I came up with over that last mile:
1. Recognize the warning signs of self-sabotaging choices
What would this look like for me? I believe it would look like starting in one direction and then rapidly make choices that erode that choice, making it impossible to continue. This isn’t that same as re-evaluation and course correction. This is setting a goal and then engaging in fear-based decision making that walks away from that goal. The key difference is fear.
2. Examine the motives behind those choices
Once the red flags have gone up, pause. Dig into why I’m making those choices. What’s behind the decision? Is it fear? Will these choices get me to my goal faster or slower?
3. Consciously make choices that support me and my goals
If my examination reveals that the decisions are fear-based, designed to self-protect, explore what other choices are available? What choice would best support me? What would my ‘best self’ do?
4. Treat me with love, compassion, and kindness
Whatever I want to believe, that imp tweaking my choices in the background is still me, and an important part of me at that. That instinct to self-protect and play small was instilled in me for a reason. It’s only doing what it was created to do, make sure I’m safe. I need to love and value myself. I need to treat myself with compassion, in every situation. Finding myself at the low ebb of another burn-build cycle isn’t failure: not acknowledging that I have a role in that eventuality and refusing to forgive myself is.
I panted up the final hill to our house and collapsed on the front porch, the brick cool underneath my sweaty tights. I knew that the run would clear my mind. Physiologically, the endorphins we released during exercise are designed to drive mental clarity and focus. I hadn’t anticipated uncovering my addiction to phoenix life.
Some of you may bristle at my use of the term addiction. I mean, it’s not like I’m taking drugs or alcohol or gambling my life away, right? I disagree (and why does addiction have to be a competition?). I believe I have compulsively self-sabotaged to get that dopamine hit when I remake my life. I burned so I could build. I did it compulsively and unconsciously. In my mind, that is at minimum behavioral addiction and possibly biochemical addiction, although I don’t have the bloodwork to back it up.
No matter what label I give it, I saw my life patterns with exquisite clarity yesterday. I saw how I pulled the literal rug out from under myself.
And, perhaps most importantly, I saw how I can choose differently in the future.
The phoenix tattoo on my shoulder is forever; my phoenix lifestyle doesn’t have to be.