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When an Accident Opened My Eyes to the Real Reason I Ran

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Nearly five years ago (July of 2011), I was in an accident at the age of 16. From a legal standpoint, it was not my fault. From the point of views of multiple witnesses, it was my fault. I also feel this way.

I stood at the crosswalk, music blasting through my headphones and into my ears. Sweat dripped down my forehead, the sun’s rays relentless.  I watched the traffic go by, car after car after car. I tapped my foot onto the concrete, the sweat feeling as though it were dripping increasingly faster down my face with each second that passed. My heart bobbed up and down inside my chest, trying to escape.

“I need to go, I need to go,” I whispered aloud to myself, staring at each driver that passed, hoping they would stop for me.  Words tumbled through my mind, snowballing and building up into an avalanche: I’ve only run a mile and a half and I need to get to three miles today I need to get to three miles today and I’ve already stopped running and three miles isn’t even that much but today I’m doing three miles so I need to do it I’ve been waiting forever and if I keep waiting like this will the run ever happen I mean a good runner never stops running I have to keep running because running makes me a good person running makes me healthy and thin I can’t keep waiting like this I cannot keep waiting like this.

I continuously repeated words and phrases to myself, my obsessive-compulsive nature acting up — it was always strongest during a run.

The traffic hadn’t eased up. The music started to feel louder, the sweat thicker, my heart jumpier. I put one foot into the brick crosswalk. I looked both ways quickly. It seemed like there was enough space to go. Even if it were a little tight, legally the car would have to stop for me, right?

Legally, yes. But I didn’t give the car enough time.

I sprinted with all my might, the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I loved the adrenaline — I embraced its high. Until I was forced, quite literally, to come crashing down.

Oh crap, I screamed internally as I saw the car coming my way. I almost made it to the other side. I saw the vehicle come very close to me. Then my memory cut off.

I woke up on the ground, confused. My skull was pounding. I saw a stream of pretty colors intertwining before my eyes. I heard muffled sounds at first, sounds that quickly turned into words: “You were hit by a car.”

“Girl needs medical attention. Concussion, contusion.”

“She was unconscious, but look, she’s waking up.”

As I found myself in a scene that seemed unreal, all I could think was, am I not able to run anymore?

Panic flooded all facets of my body and mind.

I wasn’t sure what was scarier — that I could have a serious injury, or that I could never be able to run again. Never be able to feel my feet hitting the pavement, to never be able to breathe the fresh air, to never see the world the way I saw it when I was “high” on running. I couldn’t stand the thought of no longer having constant access to these natural shifts. I already had a drastically shifting mood, and I hated when I hit the lows. Running kept me away from the low moods, and prolonged my energized, creative periods. Running satisfied my, what I believed to be, OCD. Running satisfied my need to be perfect, to maintain thinness. Only it never did, because no amount of miles had ever felt like enough. I tried to stand up, with my eyes squeezed shut in order to avoid the light that attempted to drill into my head like a jackhammer.

Paramedics immediately held me back down, laying a blanket or towel — I wasn’t sure which — over my body.

While all of these feelings swirled around me, my bleeding head once again stuck against
the pavement, I experienced cognitive dissonance: a tiny worm of relief wriggled around within me. I could be off the hook. Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to worry about running. I could be freed of the chains that held me back so often.

Four years later, I reflect back to this event often. More often than I’d like, the flashbacks
causing me to twitch with anxiety each time I cross a street, a constant reminder of a time that was clouded by shadows of obsession, doubt, confusion and sadness. It was a time when I made efforts to fill an emptiness inside of me with something else: miles run, smaller numbers on the scale, numbers numbers numbers. It was an event that, although not immediately apparent to my family and friends, gave me a sharper awareness of the struggles I had been silently battling for years. The obsessions and compulsions regarding running, weight and perfection — an eating disorder, an addiction in its own right, but also the other anxiety-filled, intrusive thoughts and compulsive actions that guided my days, along with a need to escape depression and maintain my bipolar highs. My illnesses are complicated, and I had used running to so intricately cover them up, all the while pushing them further in a way that was deemed socially acceptable by those around me.

Running disguised my sicknesses while becoming a larger part of them — the greatest contradiction of all. I tried to make it look like I wasn’t constantly tortured by my thoughts and feelings, but that instead I was simply a dedicated athlete, someone to be admired, not someone who was sick. Not someone who felt anorexia and running was their only way to escape her horrible OCD thoughts and depressive moods, while the reality was the eating disorder was an additional manifestation of the obsessive-compulsive disorder in it of itself. The running and restricting, and later on purging (when the running was no longer enough), had lifted my natural highs so far, that when I came crashing down my depression was deeper than it had ever been. It always seemed inescapable in those moments, until I laced my sneakers up for the next run. In the end, I had only harmed myself more by trying to hide. I had only hurt myself more by sprinting across the road that day, instead of waiting for a car to slow down.

Keyword: waiting. I wasn’t able to handle being alone with my thoughts, standing still. I had to keep moving. Waiting just hadn’t seemed possible.

I wish I could say the days following my accident I had cried to my mother, telling her about how I thought so much it hurt and how it had been that way for years, but I was too ashamed. I wish I had taken a long break from running, but I felt I couldn’t — not if I wanted to stay thin, athletic and “happy.”

I wish I had talked about my depression and how my moods made me feel out of control, but I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I liked my identity as the runner, and so a week after the accident, despite the searing pain in my head and nausea bubbling in my stomach, I headed to the woods, my feet striking the dusty trail with its usual familiarity.

It wasn’t until a year ago that I addressed all of these problems and received psychiatric help. It wasn’t until then, when I sat with a psychiatrist to relay these issues, I felt that pang of vast regret, the memory stabbing me over and over. “Have you ever experienced any head trauma?” The doctor asked as he went down a list of my medical history. As I answered, I fell back inside myself, visualizing the fragmented scene: the anxiety that had dissipated through my body as my eyes darted back and forth, the brick crosswalk looming before me, the thoughts that screamed in circles in my psyche, the determination to be the best, to be perfect, the blood that glued my hair to my scalp, the sensation of the road underneath my finger tips, the ambulance ride with my mom who was in her pajamas, the horror on my father’s face when he relayed he was on his way to work when he saw my body on the street, the pain that felt like the sawing of nerves inside my skull.

My disorders had existed well before the car knocked me to the ground, but that was the moment I realized maybe I didn’t have to live my life quite like that. That was the moment I realized I needed help, but I hadn’t yet felt I deserved it. It took additional events, as well as going to college, for me to finally ask for that help, to finally expose my inner wounds that steadily became apparent to those on the outside. It took longer than it should’ve, but it was better late than never.

My parents, along with track coaches, extended family and friends, had said to me countless times, “You’re lucky you didn’t break any bones. You’re lucky you didn’t get more hurt.”  They were right, but what they didn’t see was that my biggest injuries were entirely internal. I would even go as far as to laugh, my smile uncomfortably wide, when others brought up the accident. I would tell my story as if it were a joke. This further disguised the injuries they couldn’t see. They couldn’t see the way my thoughts got stuck, as if sealed down in my psyche by super glue, with even more frequency than before the accident. They couldn’t see the way I repeated things over and over inside my head, the way that obsessions and compulsions walked me on a leash. And even the compulsions they did see, many viewed as “quirks.” They couldn’t always see the way my moods continued to jump and squirm all over the place, even more than they had before. They couldn’t see the way it took so much effort to talk and express myself on days when I was down, and when they did see my hypomanic self, they just laughed, assuming my pressured speech and tapping feet were just more of my “quirks.” However, what they could see was my dedication to running, that I was an athlete, an incredibly motivated individual.

It took being in a hospital for my mind to understand the magnitude of the accident I had self-imposed. Being wheeled into the ER to get stitches and an MRI at age 16 hadn’t been enough of a wake up call — only the beginning of one. I realized, sitting in the Eating Disorders Unit last September, unable to run, unable to engage in other eating disordered behaviors, what the worst part of the accident was. I was stripped of my addictions, left with nothing to do but sit alone with my thoughts in the hospital, surrounded by women and men of all ages who were also struggling with their own harmful behaviors surrounding food and exercise. This is where I began to piece together my puzzled feelings about that day:

The worst part was the fact that the accident allowed me to acknowledge my problems, all the while giving them additional strength, the concussion sending my thoughts and feelings into a deeper realm of mayhem.

The worst part was that I could’ve prevented this.

The worst part was that I didn’t ask for help until three years after being hit.

But, the best part? I’ll never dart across the road ever again.

I’ll do my best to never let my emotions and thoughts control me like that ever again.

I’ll never think for a second I deserve to live in silent pain ever again.

The best part is that I’ll never sacrifice my life for an addiction ever again.

I still go for runs these days. I still like the way exercise helps lift my mood when I’m sinking into depression.

But it’s different. As I stand at the crosswalk, my heart racing and my palms sweating, my thoughts trail a different path. If I were to stop this run right now, I think to myself, watching the cars as they pass, I wouldn’t care. I look down at my wrists to see that they’re bare — no running watches or semblance of any kind of distance tracker. As I patiently wait to step into the crosswalk near my university, I feel anxiety, flashbacks flooding my psyche, only this time the chains of addiction are broken. It’s not about numbers anymore: the flashing digits of the scale I stepped on every day from ages 8 through 19, the running watch that told me my distance and pace (a purchase made after the accident) and so on. I still have OCD in many facets of my life, but it’s bearable and I’m constantly working at it. I still have bipolar disorder, but medication helps, and so does talking it out, rather than trying to lift myself by hitting the pavement and trails for excess miles.

I’m able to run, but only because I went to the hospital where I was no longer allowed. I’m able to run, but only because I got treatment for everything that lay underneath the addiction. I’m able to run, but only because there’s more to me than the miles I log. I am not Kelly, the runner, but rather, Kelly, a person who is passionate about psychology, creative writing, art, languages, people, animals and who just so happens to run for exercise when she has the time.

Originally published: July 19, 2016
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