A few years ago I discovered one of my biggest weaknesses as a runner. And no it isn’t hills or being afraid to compete or anything like that (which are all weaknesses of mine, just not my biggest weakness by far). My biggest weakness is my fear of pain. I’m afraid to hurt. If I see pain coming my instinct is to make it go away. I’m not sure it would be obvious to anyone who knows me. I think people think I’m strong and tough, but deep down I’m a mega-wuss. But there’s a reason for it.
There’s a bike path I like to run on. It’s mostly flat, it’s quiet and not too far away. On a typical run there I park my car in the parking lot and run up a few rolling hills to the main path. I pass a mile marker and then in a mile and a half I remember something I always seem to forget when I’m not there. I see the sign. I feel a heaviness come over me. I’m about to enter the township where my dad drove his car over 25 years ago and shot himself. Ouch. Typing that hurts.
Back when I originally discovered my fear of pain, I don’t think I’d ever run on that path again once I saw that sign. But since then a lot’s changed: I’ve learned to confront that which threatens me. As I pass the sign and enter the township I always say, “hi dad” out loud. Instead of avoiding him I visit him and allow myself to miss him and feel the pain. It’s taken me a long time to get here.
He died when I was 11, almost 12. It was a long time coming and I knew that. He had struggled with crippling depression for most of my life. I remember the very early years when he was better and played with me a lot. I actually remember those years better than the years that came after. Children have a way of protecting themselves.
I think worse for me than the actual suicide was the way my family reacted and the effect their reaction had on me. I do not blame anyone for anything and I understand everyone had the best intentions, but for me my family’s insistence on stoically moving forward as if nothing ever happened denied me a chance to grieve. For years, until my early 30’s, I did not grieve my father. When my family pretended it didn’t happen and refused to acknowledge my feelings of pain I internalized it all and ended up believing something was wrong with me. I was flawed because this happened. I was the problem because I couldn’t move past it like everyone else. I would remember things like his tropical fish dead in the basement because everyone ignored them after he died and I’d feel incredible shame and guilt. I’d remember hearing him crying and talking about killing himself when I was home from school one afternoon and he didn’t hear me come in the door and wishing I would have gone downstairs and told him how much I loved and needed him. I’d remember hitting my sister because she wouldn’t listen to me when I was trying to parent her at 12 years old and completely incapable of functioning myself and feeling like I totally failed her.
So I’d push the memories away. If my dad popped into my mind I’d think of something else. When things reminded me of his absence I’d hate those things: stupid dad-celebrating sitcoms and father’s day come to mind. I carried incredible pain deep in my heart but in my refusal to dive into it and deal with it weighed me down and made me angry, so so angry.
This deep unresolved pain hurt me enough, but the loss of my dad that no one seemed to acknowledge caused so much more heartache in my life than just the loss itself. As my mom worked full time and tried to get on with her own life, I was on my own for most of my adolescence and had very little in the way of life-training. How I longed for a dad to teach me things like how to balance a checkbook, make decisions about college, and pick quality boyfriends. These are just a sample of the many many things I’ve had to figure out on my own and I’ll tell you, without an adult walking you through these things you tend to make bad decisions!
After each bad decision I’d figure out something new and I slowly slowly learned how to cope. I struggled through my 20’s but just as they came to a close I met my now husband and things started to change for me. I saw a therapist who helped me become strong enough to face my pain and at the age of 32 as I planned my wedding and dealt with the gaping lack of a dad–seriously, planning a wedding is very tough when you don’t have a dad! Any time my wedding called for my dad to play a role I left a hole. I walked myself down the aisle. I didn’t have a dance with anyone other than my new husband at the reception. But to get to the point that I could do this I had to face what I’d been running from for over 20 years.
I went to the cemetery and I had a talk with my dad. I let myself acknowledge all that I missed about not having a dad. I imagined what life would be like with a dad. I let him and the pain into my life. And it was much easier and hurt way less than I thought it would. After the initial OUCH it really felt good to go there. And now when I miss having a dad or am reminded of my dad I picture him with me and what he might say and really explore what I’m missing and in doing that it feels better. It’s true.
Running from the pain of my father’s death was worse than his actual death. Not entering those feelings of pain, not accepting them and reveling in them caused me years of needless anguish. And now as I think about that I think about running and racing and how the feeling of pain of putting it all out there pales in comparison to the pain of wussing out and wondering what could have been. Sure dead dads and racing are totally apples and oranges, but there is a major parallel here: I trained myself to be an expert pain avoider and now I must retrain myself to be a pain seeker if I want to even approach my potential, both as a person and in this sport I love.
And just like letting the pain of the loss of my dad into my life wasn’t nearly as ouchy as I feared (and in fact felt good), going to the wall and really hurting in races is the same way. Last fall I went for my sub-3 marathon goal even though I felt pretty crappy from the start. I had faith in myself and my training and I wasn’t afraid of the pain this time. I ended up bonking and having a miserable jog of shame to the finish and it hurt. It hurt bad. But, it hurt way less than the hurt I would have felt if I wussed out and avoided the pain.
It’s definitely a process. It’s going to take practice, but I’m excited to see where this new path takes me.
I would like to thank my sister, Cinnamon for being the best friend I could ever have and for being there all these years and forgiving me for being a terrible 12 year-old surrogate parent (especially for how I did your hair for your second grade class picture!)
I would also like to thank Ginger for giving me the courage to share my own dad story. Thanks, girl!
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