Obsession as symptom, cause, and cure.
Illustration by Erin Perfect.
I could tell you what it felt like, that first race, running. I was young for my grade, small for my age, tiny—but, as a runner, as a female, my tininess made me a threat.
I could tell you what it felt like, right after the University threatened to kick me out or commit me, to put on shoes and socks, tights and a large sweatshirt, feeling heavy, thick, and almost hopeless, to try to give myself a chance to breathe again.
I could tell you about the first marathon, after all those years of thinking I wasn’t capable of walking down the stairs to take a shower, those years of not quite feeling, then the feeling of finally, maybe for a while, breaking free.
I could offer you clinical studies about endorphins and serotonin, the same articles I showed my husband, when he was still my boyfriend, when I told him I was going off the meds. I could tell you how the doctor kept on calling and saying that I shouldn’t; that my brain without help was a danger to myself and maybe others. I could tell you about all the times, in spans that sometimes lasted hours and sometimes months, that I felt the doctor was not wrong.
But those moments by themselves would fall short in demonstrating to you what it is like now, as a person who is old and formed enough, to choose daily—whether the alarm goes off or doesn’t, when my body wakes me up at five, itching, desperate—to choose to run.
I want to show how running has both destroyed and saved me. How it has both let me get outside of life and helped me find my way back in. How even now, running reminds me of my inadequacies, my fragility and failure. How it also reminds me of my power and my strength.
In the grand tradition of what it is to be a woman with a body, I ran for a long time without it ever feeling as though my body might belong to me.
When I was thirteen, a friend of mine, whose single mom was always traveling, had a ferret that they let run free in their apartment. Boys we hung out with used to try to get it stoned off whatever bong they’d manufactured from an apple or a can. They’d laugh and watch as it ran circles around my friend’s living room, bumping into things and squealing; they put it in the dryer once.
Before I started running, and even after, when I wasn’t running, when I was still trying to be a person off the track, this ferret reminded me of what I felt like day to day. Like I could not ever quite get hold of anything; like somewhere, right next to me, around the corner, another person might be coming at me, another threat I had not foreseen.
In the grand tradition of what it is to be a woman with a body, I ran for a long time without it ever feeling as though my body might belong to me. Before running was the subject of my obsession, it was—I was—the object of other people’s obsession. I was fast and becoming faster. I won and people looked; I was a thing to be admired, a thing for strangers, parents, and coaches to hold up, proof of their own worth.
To be an object was both gratifying and always, terrifyingly, about to be withheld. As object, I had power, but my power was limited; at any moment, I might (and would) prove to be less than worthy of this devotion.
I thought that if I just kept winning, if I declared myself as worthy, then the world might let me keep on being, wanting, feeling. What it felt like then to understand that I was fast, but not that fast. That there was no such thing as fast enough.
The first time I quit running, I was fifteen. It was a year after a friend of mine, who went to another school and was faster than I was, had started burning the bottoms of her feet. I had friends who stopped eating completely, who lived off of water and winning until they were in college and their bones began to turn to chalk. I had friends who were simply better, who could keep eating, not train as hard, and just keep winning, who got to love it and be loved for it still. But I was too afraid to pull this off. Take your pick: I couldn’t stomach losing; I couldn’t take the pressure; I wasn’t fast or thin or strong enough.
At fifteen and ninety pounds, the fastest runner at my high school and afraid sometimes to eat more in a day than two oranges and skim milk, I quit running and I began to eat. With all-conference, all-district, all-state patches on the silly jacket the school gave me, with articles still running in the local paper signaling my promise, I ate and ate and ate. I gained half my body weight in a few months. I still ran at first, but it was embarrassing for everyone. My school-issue short shorts and singlet no longer fit.
I planned this eating in the same way I used to plan my running: two runs a day, one hill, one track, weight lifting, swimming at 5 a.m. three days a week was replaced by a chicken parm sub every afternoon after school, ice cream, candy wrappers hidden everywhere, under mattresses, in couch cushions, in the pockets of the sweatpants that I wore, even though it was too hot.
For the first time I skipped practice: for three years, I had never once come home right after school. I had not ever, in those three years, thought that I might stop. I came home and I sat on the couch. I watched TV and I ate Honey Nut Chex out of a plastic cup. I had rarely, in those three years, consumed that many calories in the middle of an afternoon. When I did, it felt extraordinary. It felt nice and right and good.
I often think of this part as me at my weakest: the eating; this is the part where I enact the greatest violence upon myself. But I see now this isn’t true; that maybe, actually, the opposite is true. The eating did not turn out well. It was violent, awful. I was often very ill and very sad. But seeing that girl now, seventeen years later, I am proud of her. I could have just kept running, kept everybody happy. Instead I said fuck that, and I stopped.
But I was new to having wants and needs at that point. I said fuck that to everybody else, but in the process, I said fuck you to me: I shoved food into my body without any space to enjoy it, without any understanding of the food as food. I was obsessed with food but also with my anger, with the idea that I could do enough damage that no one would find me worthy of obsession anymore. I was obsessed with the power that came from enacting this violence upon myself.
I was sick, everyone kept saying, as soon as I stopped running. Instead of running, I was getting alcohol poisoning, crashing my car, skipping months of school. I was doing all of this long before I stopped running; it was just that in not running, eating; in presenting myself so aggressively as not-at-all-what-anyone-had-hoped-I’d-be; sick felt like everybody’s greatest hope for what I’d be instead.
Once I got to college, I walked around the bone-cold 2 a.m. of Boston; I did not go to class. The University threatened to kick me out my second year because one of the few friends I’d made, who was then my roommate, reported me to the Dean for what she thought was dangerous behavior and asked to be moved out of our shared room. I got a phone call and a request to come to a dean’s office. I sat still, clad in my sweatpants, and listened as concerns were raised and appointments with the thrice-weekly decreed therapist were set.
I took Wellbutrin, Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft, all inconsistently. I’m leaving some out, I’m sure. I took the drugs then with the same consistency that I went running. On days I felt so bad I didn’t think I’d make it to the morning, I’d pop a pill, I’d put on shoes, I’d run ten miles in the middle of the night.
In all the forms obsession has taken in my life—and it is always there—I’m not sure there is a drug strong enough to make it go away. It is always two things at once: it is something over which I do not always feel I have control, and it is often the only space in which I feel I have a right to want or need or be.
There’s a moment in Beyond Good and Evil, it’s one small paragraph that I read when I was nineteen that I can still see clearly. First, Nietzsche says, he said “yes” to everything, but then, he realized this was youth. Next, feeling he had grown sufficiently, he said “no.” It took longer for him to realize this was also youth. I read this and felt sure that all of my life so far could fit inside this paragraph. Choosing, Nietzsche said, was what might eventually work to make one grown. Around the time I read this quote, I chose to run.
What running was when it began to belong to me: because there was muscle memory, maybe; because there had been those days by myself and barefoot on the beach; running the three miles to the therapists at 6 a.m. I ran without a watch for the first time; I ran without anybody caring if I ran or not. I began inhabiting this foreign thing that I had so deeply hated, had wanted so desperately to destroy. My body felt like mine.
Within a year I’d trained for a marathon, ran it, and stopped running again. I only stopped for a couple months that time; I ran more marathons, quit less often, I took the pills for a consistent stretch, then stopped taking them for years.
Choosing, obsessing, growing up, acting; it was, still is, for me, much messier and more complicated than Nietzsche’s paragraph suggested it might be.
By the time I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was running almost daily, but then I got sciatica and was laid up for months. There was an hour, when I sat in a chair in our OB’s office, both my legs shaking, staring at the globe of my belly, crying, begging her to just figure out a way to force my body to be able to run.
In those months when I couldn’t run when I was pregnant, I went to the gym by our apartment at 5 a.m. in summer months, even when I had nothing to do besides write. I was satisfied and loved in my relationship; I had great friends. I was being paid to attend graduate school to write. I went to the gym and rode the elliptical for an hour every morning at 5 a.m., because at 5 a.m., at this specific gym on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, there was a large strong man who used to scream expletives at himself as he upped the resistance more and more on his elliptical machine. I pretended he was screaming at me too.
I have run until my feet or chest or ankles bled.
I have yelled at myself when I run; awful, angry things. I have run until I vomited. I have run until my feet or chest or ankles bled.
The day I sold my novel, after calling a handful of friends and hugging my husband and our babies, after calling my agent a third time to make sure that it was real, still not knowing what or how to feel, it was only running, seven miles in with three more to go, that I let myself imagine our then-two-year-old, holding the book I had written in her hands.
I know every place I’ve ever lived or visited because of running. I know where neighborhoods change style, feel, where and how to cross bodies of water; which blocks are lighted, which are not, the places one can sneak in to use the restroom; where to find hills, parks, long straight lines, what each neighborhood smells like at different times of the morning, day, and night; which routes to run in order that I finish at the foot of a bookstore. When I ran to far away places, the sensation was the same. I saw so much, the world, everybody said when I came home.
Florida: thirteen, fourteen, when I wasn’t running on a track or a cross-country field. When I wasn’t trying to beat somebody, prove my value; when I wasn’t crying somewhere, in a bathroom, in my bedroom, hiding in a corner at a party, hiding in the backseat of a car, upstairs at the house where I grew up and hiding, I ran barefoot on the beach for miles and miles.
At fifteen I ran still reeking of the rum I drank the night before, not having slept, thinking dully of the boy whose name I didn’t know who’d taken off my shirt, changing in the boy’s car into my lucky black-and-white-striped sports bra and my singlet, running, winning, puking in the bushes right before a medal was placed around my neck.
At college, in Boston, I did a fifteen-mile loop, often in the morning, often before sunrise. I’d run from my attic room, down Mass Ave; along the river, straight past Cambridge, over the bridge at MIT. Running to the therapist who said if you can just make it to the morning. Staring in the mirror, thinking, why bother with the making and the trying. Not running. Going back to sleep.
In New York, the first time, running from Boston, running from college, running to New York because it felt like the only place I might make sense, I’d run along the east side, through the projects next to my apartment, over the pedestrian bridge, into the park, the baseball fields with music blaring, the barbecues, the parties and games of which I did not then have any part.
In Taipei—from New York because I was so tired and so lonely, to my dear friend who had a room in her apartment. I ran through the thick humidity and fog around Da’an park, a loop and then another loop because it was too small. I spoke not a word of Mandarin, but still let myself get lost. I’d run alleys for hours, buying street food, cash and keys slipped in the tiny pocket of my shorts, somehow, always, inexplicably, perhaps sometimes regrettably, finding my way back.
Back to Florida again, because in all that running, I’d run out of money, because it was the only place I knew to go, the beach again and barefoot, calluses on my feet so hard that sometimes when I was done I would find shells stuck in my heel that I hadn’t even noticed as I ran.
New Orleans, now married, and both of us from Florida, both of us wanting that you-only-get-from-running-feeling of starting life anew; I looped the same blocks to add up miles, ran on the highway to get out to City Park, through the not-yet reconstructed swaths of swamps and fallen, mangled post-Katrina trees.
In New York again: the sentence that came into my brain on Flatbush in downtown Brooklyn that would start my novel, five miles in, four miles to the house. Sprinting too fast to get home, before the cadence left me, I fell, palms down and bloodied on the street.
“Racing” a man, legs twice as long as mine, in Prospect Park before dawn without my contacts, tripping on a root, getting up when he stopped to ask if I was okay and taking off again. In the elevator with the old Orthodox woman who lived above us, knees and hands scraped and bloody, dirt on my chin and down my arms straight to my elbows, grinning at her, not realizing until my husband showed me, why she looked afraid.
When we had children there was the addition of the running stroller, three miles around the park six weeks after my C-section, husband warning, as I was leaving, just go easy, laughing at him, the stitches aching for days after that.
With our second kid came a running stroller big enough for both of them, the older one now two then three, screaming faster mommy faster, happy to oblige.
The morning before college graduation, the morning we got married, the first day of grad school, the day of my thesis defense, the day I almost left my husband when he was still my boyfriend, every time I was rejected from all the things I was rejected from: running.
I have been almost impossibly good at cutting ties. But no metaphor, I think, is strong if it does not also stand on its own as something: The running is also just running.
That feeling, right after the sort of run that rings you out, miles and miles, and you can settle for a moment into the fact that you have accomplished something solid, that it is not so wonderful or anything that anyone but you might notice, but it is exertion, undeniable, something no one can take away. Not thinking when all I do is think too much and it’s all too messy and too sticky. Thoughts stretching out clean and straight.
I have run out of relationships, from family members; I have left cities, countries, when I wanted to feel free. I have been almost impossibly good at cutting ties. But no metaphor, I think, is strong if it does not also stand on its own as something: The running is also just running.
Running is a sort of strength and knowledge building, but it is also a near certain way to stay separate. I never quite felt like I could hold the places that I ran and traveled, never quite felt like they were reaching through and into me. When I was nineteen, I met two older boys on a boat to Greece and spent a week with them in Corfu; I met two Hmong girls in Vietnam when I was twenty-two and trekked with them back to their village where I stayed for days before they took me back to town and I got on another train. I had the sort of half-relationships one has when one is young and not quite sure how to engage fully with other people, when one is fascinated by, overwhelmed with, feeling for the people in one’s orbit, but when one is still terrified of allowing any of that feeling to take hold.
The other day, I fought with my husband, as our three-year-old clung to me, crying, begging me to stay with her, as our kitchen was a mess and I had to be at work soon, as I still had to nurse our eighteen-month-old and grade four more papers before I left the house—I thought—how can I make them see how necessary it is for me to run?
A couple of weeks ago, my husband was out of town and I was alone with our daughters. It was cold out and we had been cooped up. I was about to start a new semester, teaching five classes I had to plan for. Our eighteen-month-old hasn’t been sleeping and our three-year-old was often waking before dawn. But I refused to hire a babysitter. It still seems like an indulgence. We can’t really afford it. I could lesson-plan at night, I told myself. Or while I held the baby. I could drink more coffee to keep myself awake.
Four days in, I called our sitter and asked her to come for three hours. I didn’t plan any lessons. I ran eighteen miles through Brooklyn and Manhattan. I ran over the Brooklyn bridge, across town, along the Westside of the island. I ran through the West Village and into the East. I went through Washington Square Park and then up four blocks to East Tenth Street, the street I lived when I was 22. I ran past my old apartment and over the pedestrian bridge I ran nearly everyday when I lived there. I ran past the same ball fields. I ran through Chinatown, over the Manhattan bridge. I passed so many of the lives I’ve lived in the decade since then, all the runs I’ve run.
I was allowed in those two and a half hours to just be alone and quiet. But I was going somewhere too.
This November I signed up for another marathon. I hadn’t run a full in years. I’d been feeling anxious, desperate, like there was very little in my life over which I had control. I started googling training plans: 50, 60 miles a week with mid-week speed workouts. I felt that prickle under my skin, that certain pull. I wrote out every workout in the planner that I have for work. On days when I was feeling anxious, nervous, I’d flip through it, relieved to see that I had set plans for at least an hour of everyday in all the weeks to come.
I ordered a new GPS watch. My runs at 5 a.m. became not just necessary mentally, but physically. I was in training, if I was nothing else, I could be that. I didn’t have to feel lazy for not going long enough, for not running even though I hadn’t not run in days or weeks. I didn’t have to worry if I was nuts for adding an extra ten miles that morning, for running for three hours instead of doing all the work I still had to do. I ran twenty miles in a torrential downpour. I ran in snow and ice, my knees broke down, my back began to ache. I packed snacks to bring with me to work and my husband packed me egg sandwiches for my commute. I was still always hungry. My clothes were all too big.
Two weeks before the race, I went to an urgent care center by the University where I work. I had a protuberance in my abdomen, which I’d been ignoring. The bump was especially prominent when I came back from a run. I could grind it with my thumb after a run and make it go away. For weeks, I tried not to pay attention to it. I obsessed over it in the shower. I could sometimes feel it through my shirt while I taught or played with our kids. I sat one day trying to grade papers at my office; I was wearing a loose button up shirt, but was certain, though it wasn’t, that the protuberance was peaking out from between the buttons of my shirt. I ran the eleven blocks in my work clothes to the urgent care center. I have a lump, I said to the woman who checked me in as my hands shook and I fumbled for my insurance card. I thought for sure that she could see it.
The doctor was kind and careful with me. He asked me about fevers, back pain, weight loss. I asked him to just find the thing that was most certainly killing me so that I might know finally for sure.
But he couldn’t find the bump, and he proved nothing. I had pushed it back in that morning. He said he thought it was a hernia, made me an appointment with a general surgeon. Have you undergone any strenuous activity in the past few months, he asked. I’m training for a marathon, I said to him. He nodded. I was in a paper gown at that point, my collarbone especially prominent. I held my hand up to my neck the way I do when I’m ashamed; I had on running socks and nothing else.
You’re so thin, he’d said, as he’d looked me over. I didn’t ask if this was proof of my illness or a compliment.
I walked out of the clinic, called my husband and asked him to please cancel the trip. I loved every mile of marathon training, but I didn’t want to run with people watching, after sunrise; I didn’t want to time myself. I didn’t run the marathon.
I’m a teacher now, a writer, a wife, a mother; so little of so many of our lives are actually ours and no one else’s. I was too afraid—have been shown why not—to give that up for even a few hours.
Three things I try every day to not be obsessed with are my husband and our daughters. They have all always been too fully formed for me to be properly obsessed. Obsession involves reduction; I want, instead, to allow the fullness of their humanness to be made manifest and not to feel betrayed by it; I want to experience and enjoy them, as best I can, only as they are.
My husband recently described to me the state my breasts are in now that they’ve spent three years nursing babies, now that I’m no longer the almost adolescent age I was when we met. Flat, he said, a little squished? He shrugged and smiled at me.
“Is this sad to you,” I said, thinking some part of love might be dying just then, some bit of passion, some feeling he’d perhaps once had.
“You’re you,” he said. “It’s just you now.”
And it was perfect. Because I am not this space that contains all his wants and needs, there’s much less pressure, because instead I am a real live human he loves.
Tomorrow morning, whichever morning that will be the morning after I finish writing this: I will go running. All sorts of things will have to give for me to run. I will get up even though I’ve only slept a few hours. A baby will be crying, maybe. My husband will pull me to him and ask me to just stay. But I’ll get up even though it’s cold out, even though it’s probably still dark. I will either choose or not to put in contacts. If it’s above forty degrees I’ll wear shorts; below forty, I’ll wear tights. I’ll wear two layers on top to mitigate the shock of those first steps outside our building. I’ll pull my sleeves down over my hands, a black fleece band around my head. If there’s time I’ll go down by the river; if there’s time I’ll go over the bridge. If I’ve gone too far the day before, I’ll loop the park more slowly, I’ll push hard when I hit the hill no matter how stiff or flat my legs feel. When I get home, if everyone is still asleep, I’ll take a shower. If everyone is still asleep after my shower, I’ll pull on a shirt and crawl back into bed; I will curl up to my husband; I will be still.
Lynn Steger Strong‘s first novel, Hold Still (Liveright), was released in March 2016. She teaches writing at Columbia and Pratt and lives in Brooklyn with her family.
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