If I’m not a (fill in the blank), what am I?
More than a month ago, I started to feel a dull ache in my left heel. Slowly, over the course of about a month, the ache turned into a sharp, stabbing pain that hurt every time I brought my foot to the ground. I knew it was plantar fasciitis because I’d had the condition once before, but I didn’t want to believe it was back.
Determined not to let pain slow me down, I kept running, wincing through each short run I took around town, suffering the consequences of aggravating an already aggravated foot. To ameliorate the pain, I moved my running to the track—softer and more even ground than I usually travel. But that alteration in my practice didn’t help. Each day, no matter that I stretched and iced and massaged and took ibuprofen, the pain in my foot increased. And then one evening, I got up from the sofa where I’d been watching TV, and I nearly collapsed when I put my left foot down and pain seared through my foot with an intensity I couldn’t have imagined possible.
For two days, I could hardly walk.
I made an appointment with a runner-friendly health practitioner in town hoping she would have a magic cure, but guess what she told me? You got it: “Stop running for awhile.”
“Stop running?” I cried. But how will I get any exercise? How will I clear my mental cobwebs? How will I socialize? How will I get the fresh air that keeps my depression at bay? “For how long?” I asked.
“Well, let’s start with a week and we’ll see how it goes.” I think she could see the panic in my eyes and didn’t want to tell me this healing could take months.
During several consecutive gorgeous days (rain would have made staying off my feet easier) following that conversation, as I sat on the stationary bike in the gym, lamenting my bad luck, I kept catastrophizing in my mind, imagining I might never run again. The thought kept coming to me: Who am I if I’m not a runner?
For better or for worse, being “a runner” is an essential part of my identity. My writing, my friends, my weekend activities, and my vacations are planned around running. My marriage is based, at least in part, on a mutual love of and commitment to running. The idea that I might have to organize my life around some other central identifying factor makes me feel disoriented.
As I was trying to wrap my mind around how to draw on other aspects of my personhood to anchor myself (I am, after all, more than a runner—I’m a good friend, a dog-lover, a reader, a deep thinker, etc.), a friend of mine was heading into a crisis.
One day last week, I got a call from “Ted,” telling me his divorce, a long time coming, was final. Ted, someone I love like a brother, said, “I’m so devastated I don’t know what to do with myself. We were kids when we met. If I’m not her husband, who the hell am I?” And I recognized the question immediately. Ted’s question, based on a life change quite a bit more profound than my temporary loss of running, is still the same question.
Who are we when something (or someone) central to our sense of well-being and identity is removed, summarily taken away?
I listened with empathy as Ted told me how he felt like he was literally out in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight to mark his whereabouts. “I’m lost,” he said.
“I know,” I replied. And I do know. When I went through my divorce, I felt for almost a year that there was no solid ground beneath me, nothing to reach for or hold onto. My heart broke thinking of Ted treading water for months to come. “It’ll take some time—maybe a lot of time.”
For some losses, time is the only thing that heals. Though we do everything we can (go to therapy, work through self-help books, meditate, exercise), one cannot rush healing.
If and when you lose something or someone so crucial to your orientation in the world that you feel you’ve lost your very self, consider being especially kind to and gentle with your heart. This loss, whatever it may be for you right now, is major, life-changing, self-changing. And it must be treated with great respect and kindness. Your pain is a sacred pain; it deserves the patience and persistence a parent offers a child when teaching a new and foreign skill like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or tying one’s own shoes.
And although floating in deep emotional waters without your usual compass is scary as hell, there are a few things you can do to soothe yourself while you’re learning to navigate at night by the constellations in the sky.
- Regularly put your hand on your heart and remind yourself that you are still present, still real. You still matter—even though you are not who you think you should be right now.
- Let loved ones be your anchor. You only need one or two caring friends who can hold hope for you when you can’t hold it for yourself. Let them be solid when you are not.
- Take brief vacations from your pain when you allow yourself to think about who ELSE you are besides… fill in the blank (his mother, a runner, her wife, a six-figure earner—whatever your loss).
Not one of these things will take away your pain. Maybe even time won’t do that, but there will be a day when you wake up, climb out of bed, and feel like you know who you are—someone different from who you used to be perhaps, but still you.