Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ode To My Lower Back. And A Bit About Fear.

O back
Do thy job
And hold my sorry ass up
O wait
I mean ass: down
Rest of me: up
You get the picture

Sorry for the silence-- I had no runs to report for a few days, and houseguests as well, and neglected to let you know what was going on.

My lower back is a menace and has been giving me trouble.  Doctor appointment next week.  I've had years of chiropractic manhandling and it still pops in and out of alignment on a whim.  There are days when I feel like I have the mobility of an 80 year-old woman, which is a terrifying thought since I am not yet out of my 30s.  It's not going to get any easier.  This road slopes sharply downhill.

When I was 19, I was in a pretty crazy high-speed, head-on collision with a drunk driver who came around a blind corner on my side of the road.  I was going about 50mph, she was going about 70.  No time to brake. 

Her Honda Civic hit my little '71 Volkswagen Beetle (named Iris; how I miss her!) dead center, and forced the end of a big, wishbone-shaped tow bar that I kept in my trunk (in the front on old Bugs) up through the steel dashboard, where it stopped right behind my steering wheel.  I flew forward with the impact, pressed my knees two full inches into that same dashboard steel, broke the steering wheel with my face, and hit the end of the tow bar with my forehead.  

It popped a silver dollar-sized hole in the front of my skull and came less than 1/4 inch from pushing right into my brain.  I was saved by the flimsy, after-market shoulder strap that I wore only occasionally and happened to have on that night.

Wear your seatbelts, kids.  They really do save lives.

My recovery from that accident was both short and endless.  On the surface, it looked great.  Physically, I was healed up and back on my feet within a few weeks. I had some very minor brain damage from the impact that was like the affects of a mild stroke-- I had trouble remembering certain words, but my circuits rewired themselves over the next year or two and this went away. 

Mentally, I was surprisingly composed and overcame fears of driving within a few months.  Life went back to something like normal, and I got some money from the accident and got a new car and a cool stereo and could afford to pay for a fancy private college.

But there was plenty that stayed with me, and remains with me to this day.  Because of optical nerve damage, my vision has never been the same.  I have a Harry Potter-like scar in the middle of my forehead and another on my chin.  My knees are still numb-- they never regained feeling.  And my neck and my back have plagued me ever since and will never be completely free of trouble.

That's the physical.  It's not a great picture.  And the mental stuff was a little scary too-- PTSD is a real problem for survivors of traumatic events, and this was one for me.  I eventually began to suffer flashbacks, strange associations between everyday actions and the night of the accident, panic attacks and survivor guilt... stuff that lasted for years. 

But it's the emotional part that has done the real damage, I think, over the years.  It's the emotional part that I think I still need to face, on some level, even after all this time.

That night on the highway, I lost a lot more than my car and the feeling in my knees.  I was 19 years old, at the height of my youthful immortality; unstoppable, idealistic, innocent.  I lost all of those things, in a very real sense.  I learned that things can happen to you without your participation or consent. Big, terrible, life-changing things.  Things that come to define you, although you never chose them.  Things that force you to be a different person than you were before, without the gradual life experience that usually makes such transitions feel earned.

A lot of this stuff seems almost silly, now.  Looking back on it from the other side of the divide between youth and adulthood, I know these things to be true, now, just as surely as I didn't know then as my 19 year-old self.  But to lose those illusions in the space of single, violating second is like a boulder thrown into a still pond, sending waves, then surges, then ripples out in invisible rings through your life for a long, long time.  Maybe forever.  I don't know.  

It's been almost 20 years, and they haven't stopped yet.

So what does this have to do with running, you might be asking yourself.  Well, aside from the obvious-- I've got a trick back and need to be careful or my running career will end before it really starts-- I think that one of the ripples from that long-ago night has been a low, steady undercurrent of fear in my life.  Fear of risk, fear of injury, fear of the unknown, fear of the unexpected, fear of a lack or a loss of control.  

Fear of this sort is a funny little demon.  It's not of a "Step back from the ledge--you might fall!" variety, prompted by real circumstance and a legitimate reaction to an actual threat.  It's more insidious than that... it's the tiny, clear voice that keeps you from going near the ledge in the first place. And not just that, but anywhere that MIGHT have a ledge.  and not just that, but anywhere where people might TALK about places they've been that have ledges. 

It's the kind of fear that feels like nothing more than the desire to stay home, or to walk on the paved path, or to order the same thing you ordered last time, or to do the thing you know how to do well, instead of the thing you've never tried.

It's the worst kind of fear there is, I think.  It's the kind that seems like it's just who you are.

I'm not saying I haven't lived, now.  I'm not saying there haven't been risks here and there, adventures now and then, the occasional pushing of the envelope or leap of faith.  But I often wonder what my life would be like if those moments weren't tempered by paralyzing anxiety, or if every step forward weren't a struggle against the four steps backward I had to take to get up the nerve to move. I wonder how many more of those moments there might otherwise have been.

I'm painting this in pretty broad strokes here, and I'm actually surprising myself by how true this feels, even in this extreme rendition.  This is true.  This happened to me.  It is still happening.  This is one of the stories of my life.  And today, I add this twist:  

It is still up to me-- as it always has been-- how central this story will be to who I am.

Running, for me, is a way to conquer fear.  Not all of it; maybe not even most.  But some.  More specifically, it's a way to prove to myself that I DO have control, over my body, my mind, my self.  I get a say.  I get to act.  I get to affect years of impacted pain and loss.  I get to alter the person I was, on my own terms, and become someone else through earned moments, conscious processes, deliberate acts of change.

I am now in charge. And I am not letting fear keep me from getting out there and running, no matter how crazy an idea it seems to be.  This is my decision: to transform myself in ways I never thought I could.  And running is only one of them.  And I will do it.

I am as shocked as you are by what I've written here (maybe more-- ha ha.  Some of you have a much higher opinion of my character than I do).  I didn't know this was in there.  I wonder what else I'll find down the road?



  1. Every now and then I catch my breath with the realization of the capacity we have to grow and rebirth and build upon ourselves. I have clear memories of times I felt I was on the verge or almost had the capacity to take back the control over my life that I was continually reminded I didn't naturally have. For me, running surpassed all other attempts. Running is not only for strength of body, but very quickly became my strength of mind. I still drive up a steep hill and remember the first time I conquered it, on my own two feet, of my own volition and my own determination. Determination being the hardest to master because of that very same little voice you wrote about. I try to explain this to my husband or my friends and I feel as if I always fall short.
    I haven't ran a marathon (yet) or do I even classify myself as a runner really. But I have logged hundreds of miles and achieved goals I never would have thought possible simply because of the person I thought I was. Mostly, I learned the definition of who I am will not remain static, no matter what I'm lead to believe. Fears will be conquered, physical limitations will be scoffed at and I will soar. I will show my children what a strong person is, what a whole and thriving person is. And even when I'm benched, I will hang onto the feeling of freedom running has given me until I can get back out there and greet it like the old friend I know it has become.
    Welcome to the club Kate. Your road has been long and windy and you know what, hopefully it will continue to be!

  2. I can so relate. As a 12 year old I got severe mono, and then at 19, I hurt my back and ended up with chronic pain and I don't think I had a good nights sleep for 7 years. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a person who had one of those 'immortal' bodies in their 20's. I know I pushed myself in ways I wouldn't now, but there is always the voice saying "Be careful; if something bad happens, how will you get home." I love that running has opened up this part of you, and I so love getting to know you in this way!

  3. Oh how the toad ahead offers mysterious inclines and turns. I love this blog Kate. You are amazing! I am so proud if you!

  4. Lisa Loeb Stanga30 July, 2010 21:03

    Kate, your introspection is really intense, and I really am loving reading your thoughts. It took me three tries to get through run#17 (10min run - 3 min walk - 10 min run) and six tries at run#18 (20run, no walk) without nailing it. Reading your blog is really helping me stay with it, thanks so much!

    Hmm. I'm recalling the run on which I said "I can't do this one, too hard, too many minutes without a break." During the run I remembered how you said I could do more than I thought I could (that's what I took from your words of wisdom), that I might be surprised. And then I did that friggin run. That moment keeps coming back to me, and helping me stay with it.

    Two things I'll never forget:
    1) that you are now the smiling running woman with the stroller (extra credit for twins in said stroller)
    2) the toad in the road


  5. “I learned that things can happen to you without your participation or consent. Big, terrible, life-changing things. Things that come to define you, although you never chose them.” - This part really sparked something in me. Sometimes, when things like these happen, it's better not to think overall of what the effect has been for a survivor like you. But as they say, things never happen without a reason. Your accident might have happened years ago, and there will always be lingering effects of what happened to you (such as your problem with your back), but I believe it changed you into a stronger, better person.

    Paulsen Law Group

    1. Hi Edith,

      Thanks for your comment! I haven't had any comments on this blog in years, so it was cool to see that it's still being read. In many ways, this blog was the seed of what was to come later.

      Which is why I'm replying to you: you work with car accident victims and have insight into the kinds of changes it can bring-- for better AND for worse, as strange as that sounds-- so you might be interested in my current blog (if you haven't already seen it) about my ongoing recovery from PTSD, caused by the car accident described above and only uncovered a couple of years ago.

      It's been a very challenging but fascinating journey, and I'm blogging about it in hopes that others like me can find resolution of their trauma, whether from accidents, abuse, or military service, and prevent it from controlling their lives.

      My new blog can be found here:

      Anyway, thanks for your kind words of encouragement. I appreciate you taking the time to write. :>