Thursday, August 18, 2005

Running from the Noon Day Demon

I just got back from a long workout at the Gym. I have been far too lax with my workout schedule this summer, and I am pretty sure I know why. I had back surgery in 2000, which has made it virtually impossible for me to do any of the physical activities that I love: Running, Running, and Running. In fact, running was the single-most therapeutic thing I did for myself every day for years. When I was in graduate school and first discovered that I suffered from depression, it was running that always pulled me out.

One summer I had foolishly agreed to give "psychoanalysis" a try, which meant I had to go to therapy three times a week. A lot of grad students were reading Lacan and Freud, and I got swept up with this rather linguistic approach to my depression. I thought if I sat on the couch, talked about my life, my fears, my dreams and my reaction to literature (?) I would be able to untangle whatever was pinning me down and feel better. Instead, I found the whole process to be demoralizing. I would drive 2 hours (roundtrip) for my appointments, and then I would basically have extremely theoretical conversations about identity or melancholia. Every once in awhile the analyst would try the whole transference process, which would kind of creep me out (there are no feelings in philosophy!) and I finally had to quit.

Luckily, I was about to head up to Vermont to study French that summer, so I had a natural break from him. While in Middlebury, I would take runs in the countryside, the cross-country course and the woods twice a day (between my two morning classes and then before dinner). Within two weeks, I was pulling myself out of the tunnel. I looked forward to every day, rather than find excuses to stay huddled under the covers.

By the end of the summer, I was fully alive (except my feet were pretty mashed up from long runs). I wrote a letter to my analyst: "I have decided to discontinue analysis because I discovered that running was the best antidote to my misery . . . ". My analyst tried to get me to come back to our sessions, probably because he was in training and needed the patients, but I refused. I started entering races, joined the New York Road Runners club and found any stretch of forest I could to run in.

All that stopped when my back fell apart during my second year of teaching. I tried to start running again after my surgery, but 8 mos. later I was losing feeling in my left leg again. So, now all that I can do is ride the stationary bike. It is so boring, totally uninspiring, although it keeps me in shape.

A colleague of mine was working out near me today. She is probably 10 years older than me and in the best shape of anyone that I know. She was doing a long run and I caught myself staring at her in total envy. Not only did she look like she was in that endorphin zone that is heaven to me, but she is in fantastic shape. She looks strong, capable, determined, and she glows.

Just as I was getting off my lame ole bike, one of the gym employees walked up to her and said: "Wow you are really working out hard these days. Are you trying to get in shape for a wedding or something?" I felt my face get flush with anger. Here was this godlike woman, doing what I wish I could do, and possessing all of the strength and centeredness from it that I wish I had, and butthead had to demean it.

I know, I know, you think I am overreacting. Perhaps I am. But, I thought more about my reaction before I wrote this down. What I really hated about that comment was how little insight this guy had into the immeasurable healing power of physical sport. Running, in particular, is like a spiritual activity to me, especially if you go out into the woods and do it (the gym really is a lame place to do it . . .). Feeling yourself to be that strong and powerful is also one of the best antidepressants. But, he turned it into a vanity thing. Worse, he turned it into a temporary vanity thing for a wedding--like she was doing this for someone else, so that someone else would find her a glowing bride.

You know what, maybe she is for all I know. Maybe she does run and push herself to those extremes so that she looks as gorgeous as she does for the male gaze. But, I sort of hope that isn't the only reason.