Coming Home

Coming Home

Nine months ago, my psychologist recommended I go on antidepressants.

I was numb. Detached. Passively watching the world fade in and out of focus. I lived in the spaces between panic attacks, and my disordered behaviors around food and training intensified. I was claustrophobic, trapped inside a version of myself I no longer recognized.

Since that appointment, I’ve made some major life changes. I quit my job and co-founded a nonprofit. I admitted to myself, and the world, that I have an eating disorder. I prioritized my health and wellbeing above my professional endeavors. I stopped asking for permission. I allowed myself to dream again.

I also booked a month-long trip to Colorado.

Impulsive? Maybe. Unnecessary? Perhaps. But nine months ago, I wanted to run away. I wanted an escape. Now, sitting at 10,000 feet with the Sawatch Range lining the horizon, I know that even surrounded by mountains, I can’t escape myself. And I no longer want to.

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Over the last few years, I lost my sense of self. I grew a layer of skin that was not my own. It scratched and chafed, leaving me raw and insecure. It was a mask, affixed to my being in an attempt to please others’ expectations – and my own. I tried desperately to shed this skin, to reveal the raw flesh – my flesh – lying underneath, waiting to breathe the cool, fresh air. But my fear and anxiety forced me to cling to this tattered skin, to the sense of safety and familiarity, to what I felt was expected of me. To the woman I no longer recognize.

Over the course of this trip, I’ve shed that layer of skin. I am uncomfortable and anxious. Challenged and in awe. I am vulnerable and dependent on others’ kindness and generosity. I am asking for help and grappling with my ego. I depend on others’ advice and know-how. I am trusting others, and, in that process, learning to trust myself. I am struggling, growing, and achieving. And yet, I am finally sitting still, at peace with my current self.

Prior to this trip, I was anxious. Taking this time felt selfish and unnecessary. Unproductive and lackluster. I should be climbing a corporate ladder, or at least working on my grad school applications. Instead, I’m climbing mountains. And I’m okay with that.

After weeks of running trails, reading and writing, and eating Puffins Cereal in trailhead parking lots, I feel an unfamiliar sense of ease. A strange sense of calm and acceptance. I’ve stopped tugging at my shirt, attempting to hide parts of my appearance. I’ve lost my mascara and worn the same dirty running skirt three times. I am not mentally cluttered or emotionally burdened. I am tired, yet rested. Humbled, yet empowered. I am here – within the mountains, but also within myself.

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This trip reframed my perspective. It exposed my limitations and strengths. It led me to a mountain ridge, gasping for air. It allowed me to camp miles from civilization, free from obligations and expectations. It created new relationships and strengthened old ones. It forced me to trust and depend on others – and to trust and depend on myself. It taught me that home is not a location, it is the people you chose to surround yourself with, including yourself.

The mountains have a time and place, and I am grateful that time is now and place is here. And while I am ready and excited to return home from this adventure, the mountains’ rugged and unassuming beauty will always compel me. The mountains will always bring me home.

I am an active woman. At any weight.

I am an active woman. At any weight.

I am an active woman. At any weight.

HGTV hummed in the background and a stack of gossip magazines were lazily stacked on the table next to me. My hands rested on my lap, tightly woven together. Thumbs anxiously pressed against each other, I hummed to myself. A combination of Beyoncé and Sylvan Esso circulated through my head – my pump up music driving to the office. I was nervous.

The room had that typical waiting room sense of calm and fatigue – a damp heaviness reminiscent of a summer evening in DC. I wrung my fingers and trapped them under my thighs, hoping to ease my nervous energy. Thirty seconds later they were back on my lap, twisted into an anxious knot.

I was at the doctor’s office, waiting for a routine check-up and exam. Typically a mundane way to spend the afternoon, but this was different. The nurse called my name and pointed me toward the first room on the right – I saw the scale in the corner. She took my blood pressure and attempted light conversation. Her voice was in a tunnel, and I just laughed and nodded when the time seemed right. She gestured to the scale, and, not wanting to make a scene, I stepped on. The burden of years of anxiety, restriction, and inadequacy weighed heavily on my shoulders. With that same dry tone she used to say hello, she announced the number and scribbled it on her clipboard.

In college, I weighed myself regularly. Every visit to the campus rec center involved stepping on the scale two, maybe three times a day. Miles and reps were added to workouts if the number was deemed too high; meals skipped even if it remained the same. The scale had a hypnotic power over me. An allure I could not deny. For years, the scale determined my attitude, appetite, and confidence. It honed my ability to control my cravings and cut off all communication with my body, physically and emotionally. My sense of worth and empowerment was transient, and the scale provided a clean and easy means of measuring my value to the world. The ritual was sacred.

A series of injuries and a shift from collegiate triathlon to amateur cycling forced me away from the gym. Away from the scale. The ritual became more infrequent and, eventually, nonexistent. Pathways opened, and I began the process of healing – of learning to listen to my body and isolate my worth from metrics.

But the familiar comfort, the sacred nature of the scale, continues to taunt me.

When I stepped on that scale two weeks ago, I was terrified. It wasn’t the number that scared me so much as myself. Diminished self-worth seemed imminent, and stepping on that scale felt as though I was opening the door for my eating disorder, welcoming it into my home, and inviting it to stay a while. It brought me eye-to-eye with my past struggles and pains. And yet, in that split moment, as I registered the number on the screen, I felt nothing. No remorse. No pain. No rejection. I felt the exact same as I did before I knew the number. I opened the door, and no one was there.

I finished up the appointment and walked into that stagnant waiting room elated. I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride for my body, for its health and resilience. Its strength and curves. Being a woman no longer seems like a burden, and being an active woman no longer seems so well-defined. I am an active woman. At any weight.

I have a newfound sense of ownership and gratitude. This is mine. Every pound. Every curve. Every muscle. It’s me. It’s unapologetically me. An athlete, a friend, an advocate, a woman.

—-

This was originally published for the Lane 9 Project here.

Lighting the Flame

Lighting the Flame

My first-ever run was on a hot summer afternoon at sixth grade cross-country practice. I hated it. Every afternoon I purposely ran on roots, sticks, and uneven ground hoping I would trip, fall, break an ankle, and never have to run again. I quit the team within two weeks.

Three months later, I was watching a video my science teacher had created about his mini-marathon training program. His classroom was adorned with race bibs and finisher medals, and he had an infectious endorphin-fueled outlook on life. In the dimly lit halls of my middle school, this teacher was a ray of light. Every year he coordinated a program for students to train and race the Indianapolis Mini Marathon together. It was a daunting challenge, especially considering I had declared my hatred for the sport, but with encouragement from my teacher and pressure from my peers, I signed up. My parents doubted me, and for good reason, I couldn’t finish a three-kilometer race — but I was determined.

Training began in February. We ran laps inside the middle school, and by “ran,” I mean we sprinted down hallways, giggled at boys, and walked until we had to run and hide from our pre-pubescent emotions again. It was fun.

As we shifted our training to the outdoors in the spring, my dad decided to join me. Twice a week we ran, together. Slowly, deliberately, gleefully. While it wasn’t quite as “cool” to be running with my dad, I cherished these miles. My father taught me the mantra, “slow and steady wins the race,” which became the soundtrack of my journey as a runner. Miles ticked by as I vented to him about the tribulations of being a twelve-year-old girl. He listened as I lamented about cliques, classes, and life’s lack of fairness. He provided insight and wisdom, laughter and inspiration. He taught me confidence, self-belief, and humility. He believed in me when I didn’t know how. He could see a soft flame flickering within me, waiting to be ignited.

Middle school Samantha racing the Indianapolis Mini Marathon

We ran my first half-marathon together, stride for stride, without walking a single step. It took three hours, and most of my peers beat me. But I finished my first race, with my best friend and greatest training partner, and it was exhilarating.

I kept running.

Over the next three years I ran multiple half marathons, each faster than the last. There was no more chasing boys, just miles. My dad continued to be my trusted training partner, and I started to run with my mom as well. She became my sounding board for life’s conflicts, failures, frustrations, and victories. We shared laughter, tears, wisdom, and love on the pavement. My parents were so much more than training partners; they became trusted confidants and mentors. They taught me to run, and eventually, like a child riding without training wheels for the first time, they let me run without them.

It was in this solitude that I found myself.

Every footfall, mile, and race was an opportunity to discover another layer within myself, to dig deep into my adolescent mind and find so much more than a mess of hormones. I unraveled every layer, finding my relentless drive, deep anxiety, and enduring tenacity; I found my need for acceptance, longing for validation, and hunger for a challenge. I continue to peel away these layers today. The solitude of a quiet run pulls back each layer revealing my vulnerable, raw, and unearthed remains, building this intricate account of myself I aspire to know.

Running is my sanctuary. It is where the push and pull of my muscles brings stillness and calm to my mind. It is where the comforting rhythm of my breathing reminds me that I’m alive. It is where I find myself — broken, grateful, whole, and yet never complete. One footfall after another, running is where my story begins.


This story was originally published with the Lane 9 Project here.

Three months in a new home

Three months in a new home

 

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No Service read across the top of my phone screen. I looked up to see speckles of sunlight peer through the leaves. A chorus of cicadas echoed, and a subtle, unassuming creek flowed in the background. The soft, humid air enveloped me, and each breath was matched with sweet, fresh relief. The stillness was intoxicating.

It has been three months since I landed in Washington, D.C. Three months of wrestling with my anxieties; of swallowing my insecurities and tripping every other time I try to put my best foot forward. Three months of continuously seeking the courage to show up, say yes, and make vulnerability my greatest ally. Three months ago I was surrounded by cardboard boxes in a foreign city with a job I felt deeply unqualified for, feeling profoundly, terrifyingly alone. Three months ago I sought solace in isolation – running from the fear, the anxiety, and the loneliness, only to realize I had nowhere to go. Three months ago, I wanted to be anywhere but here.

The sun set over the horizon, and stars gazed through the canopy of leaves. I craned my neck, hoping to meet their gaze. The night sky came into focus, and I felt incredibly small. The burden of the last ten weeks loosened its grip. I paused, neck still craning toward the sky, and noticed the newfound empty space within me. I was fulfilled.

Today, this city still feels big and overwhelming, but it also feels like home. The Potomac no longer mocks me, reminding me of the 600 miles between myself and my family. I am finding confidence in my work – challenging myself without the incentive of a grade or professor’s praise. I am building a community and finding solace not in isolation, but in shared experiences; in those moments where you look someone in the eye and say “You too?! I thought I was the only one.” What was once a strange and foreign city has not only become home – it has become my home.

The creek whispered in the background, and the sky was showing the first signs of daylight. The air felt thick with dew, and I turned onto my back, silently marveling at the stillness. I looked to my right and couldn’t help but smile. My soul swelled with satisfaction.

Planting my life in new soil has been tricky. Initial stubbornness led to reluctance, reluctance to surrender, and surrender to realizing my own self-forced starvation. Out of desperation, I finally allowed just one drop of this foreign soil’s nutrients to be absorbed into my decaying roots. My roots dug a little deeper, and desperation became acceptance. Life reclaimed its vibrancy. My leaves stopped craning toward the Indiana sunlight. Washington D.C. is bright enough for me.

I stepped out of the tent and inhaled the damp morning air. I waited for the familiar sound of a plane overhead or a siren down the road; instead I was greeted with the unfamiliar sound of silence. Time slowed to a soothing clip, and each movement developed a sense of purpose. I stood, motionless, watching this small corner of the world come to life. The present became enough.

 

A few weeks ago, I went camping. As in legitimate, pee-in-the-woods, sleep-in-a-tent, look-out-for-bears camping. I managed to forage all of the necessary gear from some friends (thank you, friends), and stumbled out of the city and into the wilderness. You could say my camping history is spotty at best – the last time I went camping we had showers, air mattresses, and parent chaperones grilling burgers every night. I was not a fan of camping back then – in fact I swore against it. Never again would I sleep on the ground in a tent in the woods. And yet, there I was. On the ground, in a tent, in the woods. And I loved every minute of it.

It’s funny how things change.

I remain the same Samantha, and yet my perspective is constantly shifting. I recently spent some time back home, in Indiana. During my stay, I found myself yearning for D.C. – for what has become my home. This was confusing. My Midwestern soil, while still providing the irreplaceable nourishment of family and familiarity, became stagnant. I was no longer comfortable there – or, perhaps, I was too comfortable. I thrive at the balance of security and uncertainty – finding the space where I feel grounded enough to act courageously. In the last three months I’ve realized that too much comfort makes me uncomfortable. Indiana is safe, but it is also easy. The path was paved for me and the concept of home is wrapped around memories beginning with others’ actions, decisions, and theories. While this foundation of love, family, and support has been pivotal to my development as a young woman, it is also why my roots now crave this foreign soil. Because it is here that I have the opportunity to make what was foreign, familiar. For the first time I get to craft home from scratch. I define its boundaries and routines. I welcome its guests. I choose what to surround myself with and with whom to share experiences and build memories. As I open myself up to the relationships, and opportunities my new home has to offer, I feel my roots dig deeper and deeper, building this home into a mosaic of challenge and opportunity, of comfort and adventure.

I rested my heavy head into my hand, dirt lingering under my fingernails. The soft hum of the radio filled the air-conditioned car. In the empty space between sleep and consciousness, I felt myself smile. I opened my eyes, and a wave of contentment flowed through me. I made eye contact with the only other person awake in the car and laughed. “What’s so funny?” He asked. “Nothing,” I replied, returning my head to my hand, resuming my semi-conscious slumber.

I get to create my own home. I get to change and yet remain the same. I get to laugh in the silence, because sometimes smiling just isn’t enough.

 

 

Taking Root

Taking Root

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There’s this tree on Roosevelt Island. Or at least there was. Toppled onto its side, roots and limbs exposed, trunk decaying – uprooted. I ran by this tree nearly every day during my first month here. Sometimes I wouldn’t notice it, other times I would stop and stare. At one point I stopped and took a picture of it, artfully crafting some Instagram caption detailing how I am this tree – I have been toppled onto my side, vulnerability and fears exposed, decaying – I am uprooted. But I never posted it. I continued on with my run, and my day, and my week, eventually forgetting about this tree. Eventually forgetting about my exposed limbs and vulnerability, my insecurity and uncertainty. I stopped trying so hard to take root here – to continuously dig into this foreign soil and force this raw and exposed version of myself into it. I set down the shovel and walked away.

 

It’s been weeks since I took that photo, and something has clicked. I’ve fallen in love with my job; I’m finally sleeping through the night; and I’ve connected with some fantastic people. I wake up, look out my window, and smile. I no longer feel like I’m just surviving, but I’m yearning to thrive. I’m yearning to take on the challenging assignments, to go to the Senate hearing without being asked, to talk to the stranger on the group run, to prioritize my health. Virginia and DC no longer feel like a strange, foreign land. It feels like home. I think I’ve taken root – A tiny, wisp of a root is settling into the soil here.

I’m reminded of freshman year of college, when I was unsure of what to call “home” – my dorm or my parent’s home. And while Indiana will always have my heart, I think, for right now, I’m home. Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. is home. I feel safe. I feel welcomed. The more I discover here the more I realize that I belong. I have learned that home is not bound by geographic lines or where you were raised or even how often you get lost trying to find Target, it’s the people. It’s the experience. I may be miles from my family and the only city I’ve ever known, but something tells me I’m home. Perhaps it’s the community I’m forming – finding a friend I can confide in and look up to, even if it’s on a 6 a.m. run; finding the courage to start a conversation with someone in the trailhead parking lot; finding solace and inspiration in work and my colleagues. I’m finding my people. There’s something to be said for having a community. For seeing familiar faces, faces you know you can trust. If I’ve learned anything the last seven weeks, it’s the importance of community. The people you surround yourself with – the roots with which you share the soil – that’s home.


Some photos from the last month of adventures, featuring the Shenandoah:

 

 

 

Part II: Lighting the Flame

Part II: Lighting the Flame

As promised, Part II of my journey as an athlete and woman begins with my first-ever run. This fateful run was on a hot summer afternoon at sixth grade cross-country practice. I hated it. Every afternoon I purposely ran on the roots, sticks and uneven ground hoping I would trip, fall, break an ankle and never have to run again. I quit the team within two weeks.

Three months later, I found myself watching a video my science teacher had created about his mini-marathon training program. His classroom was adorned with race bibs and finisher medals, and he had an infectious endorphin-fueled outlook on life. In the dimly lit halls of my middle school, this teacher was a ray of light. Every year he coordinated a program for students to train and race the Indianapolis Mini Marathon together. It was a daunting challenge, especially considering I had declared my hatred for the sport, but with encouragement from my teacher and pressure from my peers, I signed up. My parents doubted me, and for good reason – I couldn’t finish a three-kilometer race – but I was determined.

Training began in February. We ran laps inside of the middle school, and by “ran,” I mean we sprinted down hallways, giggled at boys, and walked until we had to run and hide from our pre-pubescent emotions again. It was fun.

As we shifted our training to the outdoors in the spring, my dad decided to join me. Twice a week we ran, together. Slowly, deliberately, gleefully. While it wasn’t quite as “cool” to be running with my dad instead of chasing boys, I cherished these miles. My father taught me the mantra, “slow and steady wins the race,” and this became the soundtrack of my journey to become a runner. Miles ticked by as I vented to him about the tribulations of being a twelve-year-old girl. He listened as I lamented about boys, cliques, classes, and the constant lack of fairness in the world. He provided insight and wisdom, laughter and inspiration. He taught me confidence, self-belief and humility. He believed in me when I didn’t know how. He could see a soft flame flickering within me, just waiting to be ignited.

We ran my first half-marathon together, stride for stride, without walking a single step. It took three hours, and most of my peers beat me. But I finished my first race, with my best friend and greatest training partner, and it was exhilarating.

I kept running.

Over the next three years I ran multiple half marathons, each faster than the last. There was no more chasing boys, just miles. My dad continued to be my trusted training partner, and I started to run with my mom as well. She became my sounding board for life’s conflicts, failures, frustrations, and victories. We shared laughter, tears, wisdom, and love on the pavement. My parents were so much more than training partners; they became trusted confidants, mentors, and my best friends. They taught me to run, and eventually, like a child riding without training wheels for the first time, they let me run without them.

It was in this solitude that I found myself. Every footfall, mile, and race was an opportunity to discover another layer within myself, to dig deep into my twelve-year-old mind and find so much more than a mess of raging hormones. I unraveled every layer, finding my relentless drive, deep anxiety, and enduring tenacity; I found my need for acceptance, longing for validation, and hunger for a challenge. I continue to peel away these layers today. The solitude of a quiet run or ride pulls back each layer revealing my vulnerable, raw and unearthed remains, building this intricate account of myself I aspire to know.

The pavement is my sanctuary. It is where I leave the rubble in search of peace. It is where the comforting rhythm of my breathing reminds me I’m alive. It is where I find myself – broken, blessed, whole, and yet never complete. The pavement is where my story begins.

Middle-school Samantha realizing running is about more than chasing boys down the hallway.
Middle-school Samantha realizing running is about more than chasing boys down the hallway.

I didn’t race a triathlon this year. And that’s okay.

I didn’t race a triathlon this year. And that’s okay.

I lost my goggles, and my racing flats are collecting dust. I haven’t updated my training log since July. I’ve started riding more miles on my road bike than my car. I only run on trails, without a watch, without mile splits, and without expectations. I’ve become my own coach, and my first order of business is to relax.

Since returning to Bloomington this fall, the first question I’m often asked isn’t how was your summer or what classes are you taking, but “how’s training going?” “How were your races this summer?”

At first, I considered lying – fabricating some great tale of why I didn’t race a single triathlon this year. I felt the need to explain myself, to mask a consuming sense of inadequacy. I wanted to reassure them that I’m still an elite amateur triathlete. I still dedicate more than 20 hours a week to training. I still dream of Kona starting lines and sponsorships.

But, the reality is, I don’t. Priorities shift. Passions evolve.

When I first explained this to a friend, I anticipated disappointment: Disappointment in my inability to fulfill the professional athlete persona my peers have grown accustomed to; disappointment in my comfortable lifestyle and lax training regimen. But instead the news was greeted with a smile. I didn’t need to explain myself. I didn’t need to cover my tracks. I didn’t race a triathlon this year, and that’s okay.

After years of letting coaches, doctors and training plans dictate my daily choices and activities, I’ve found the strength and confidence to let my body do the talking – and to listen. This realization didn’t come easy, but it did come with clarity. Two months into my latest running progression following a femoral neck stress fracture, I broke down in tears on a run. This was the third run to end in tears in two weeks. A combination of unanswerable lower leg pain, frustration, exhaustion and a yearning for answers finally broke me down. I was done. For the first time in nine years, I hated running. I threw my running shoes into the back of my closet and declared good riddance.

Coaches and physios were confident they could find the answer. I smiled and nodded, compliant with their plans and outward confidence, but deep down I wanted nothing to do with a comeback. I was done “coming back.” I had nowhere to come from.

I am no longer Samantha the triathlete, but I like to think I never was. I have experienced the dangers of identifying oneself through sport – I was once Samantha the varsity cross country runner, Samantha the half-marathoner, Samantha the swimmer, but predominantly, I have been Samantha the injured athlete. Countless times I have had these self-made identities taken away from me, leaving pain and disappointment to fill the void. Injuries, setbacks and regret have ripped these identities from my bare skin, leaving stinging bruises and the occasional scar in its place. I’m done being categorized. I’m done being labeled. I’m ready to just be Samantha, no qualifiers, no titles, no personas to satisfy.

The journey to this point of self-assurance has been rocky, unsettling and uncomfortable. But it has also been rewarding, enlightening and liberating. After years of depending on others’ training plans, guidance and validation, I am seeking comfort in my own assurance. For the first time in my athletic career, I am listening to my body without a workout, expectation or goal looming over me. For the first time I am not plotting a comeback. I am comfortable with where I am right now.

So where is that? Where am I today, right now? Answering this question requires more than one blog post, and thus I’m attempting to embark on a series of posts about this journey, beginning with my first run nine years ago and continuing through to today. There will be countless injuries, tears, redemption and doubt. There will be labels, judgments and self-blame. There will be fear, new experiences and countless friends. There will be joy, salvation and that little jittery feeling you get deep in your stomach mid-run when you realize all is right in the world. There is no ending, just a continuation of shifting priorities and evolving passions. We’ll see how this goes.