I’m giving you this as a series of little stories.
I sometimes joke that swimming is kind of like cutting yourself. Swim as fast as you can, and then push even harder. You arrive at a point where all you can think about is how much it hurts, from there, push a little harder, and the magic happens; any thoughts or recognition of pain fades as the intensity of your physical state overwhelms your capacity to think or process or feel.
It’s beautiful to have this kind of control, to know that at anytime, you can push harder and escape to a world that consists of nothing but pain–a pain that you have total power and dominion over, because, after all, you’re the one who created it.
So, I’m actually trying to finish a final right now but I can’t. It’s not that the final is hard, it’s more just that everything else here is hard. I mean, don’t get me wrong, school work is hard, but that’s never the actual problem. Still, it’s easy to stuff all that other stuff away, to bottle your life problems up into the essay you have to turn in, the readings you didn’t do, whatever. If swimming was how I avoided my problems in high school, redirecting my problems into complaints about school work is definitely what I do here.
My first night at Middlebury I cried myself to sleep, hoping my roommate wouldn’t hear. There’s been a lot of nights at Middlebury when I cry myself to sleep, the last one was less than a week ago, but you wouldn’t know, I’m good at being strong. Or, even if I’m not good at it, it’s frequently the only thing I really know how to do. Maybe that’s why I can succeeded at a place as crazy and insane as Middlebury, you get good at putting your feelings on hold and fighting through anyways. Most of the time it works.
After the end of my first week at Middlebury freshman year, my dad was diagnosed with having a brain tumor. A few weeks later a friend from home died along with 5 other people in a head on car crash, a few days after I learned that it’d been a homicide/suicide on his part. A few days later I read some online news report that hinted that the cause of the homicide had been another friend of mine breaking up with him.
I didn’t feel sad when any of those things happened. That sensitive me who had cried myself to sleep my first night at Middlebury disappeared. It’s not that I didn’t know something wasn’t right. Sometimes, I’d go out on weekend nights, and all of a sudden find myself hating everything about who I was. I’d leave whatever party I was at, and run to the middle of the field by the organic garden. I’d lay there in the cold, waiting to cry. But the tears never came. Instead of the pain I’d so craved in high school, I taught myself to feel nothing. To carry on. To endure.
I am good at enduring.
I never learned how to study in high school. Any mentally engaging activity I ever partook in within the doors of Lander High School, was some sort of effort to convince the teacher to give us the answers, assign more extra credit, or to, behind their backs go photocopy test answer sheets to pass out to the class to study with. It’s not that the school work was hard… rather the only way an assignment could become at all challenging or worthwhile was to turn it into a game of how I could avoid wasting any real time doing it.
Anyways, the point is, coming to Middlebury, I was completely overwhelmed with school work. If you didn’t know me freshman year, it’s probably because I never did anything but study. But, I didn’t do it well. I’d get frustrated at not being perfect, and as a result, I’d give more and more time to studying… cutting sleep, meals, exercising, friends. Whatever. Whereas it had been easy to control my life with swimming in high school, trying to do the same with studying at Middlebury didn’t work so well.
By the spring of sophomore year, I stopped even trying to make it work. Instead of putting effort into school, I’d start playing games with it. How close to a deadline could I start a paper? It wasn’t procrastination, it was intentional disregard. I’d start 10 page research papers 10 hours before they were due, and then take naps and go for long meals in the middle of trying to write them. My grades weren’t great, but I’d tell myself it wasn’t because I was bad… only because I had decided I didn’t care.
Eventually, I stopped doing even that. If it weren’t for a nice professor, a convenient open book test, and repeated usage of a friend’s ADHD medicine, I wouldn’t have finished that spring semester.
That same semester I started to write, here’s a little bit of it:
The simplest things in life have become difficult. I’ve tried to put it all off as many things: maybe I have ADHD, or depression… but I can’t help but think there is something more to life that I am missing. Some other way I might put a story to my life and give it some meaning.
Life has started to feel a lot like running recently.
I hate running.
Yet some drive for the adrenaline, the pain, the competition, the endorphins…
Something there keeps me coming back. Or at least putting my shoes on and walking out the door.
It’s only when I really get to the heart of the run that I start hating it.
The start is exhilarating, but soon, the initial energy begins to fade.
I slow down to a walk and distract myself with the thoughts in my head.
And so my pace continues:
bursts of enthusiastic running, and
the moments when, at the slightest taste of exhaustion I realize the run is pointless.
My destination, where I started.
My goals, none.
The effort? Not worth it.
So I find myself in the same cycle of my life. Bursts of speed, and moments when the run is just not worth it.
Sometimes I struggle to keep going.
My attitude on life has a lot to do with my obsession with the dining halls. I show up all the time, hoping for the satisfaction of filling my stomach, but upon getting there, I wander around, look at different options, and realize that I’m not hungry.
I sit here and suffer, wondering what more my life needs. Knowing and dreading that there is another story, trapped inside of me, its incarceration in my body just holding me back.
I feel claustrophobic. Trapped… something is not right.
I feel like shit.
I want someone to tell me it will be alright.
One day, I got to the point where I started asking myself… “Why are you doing this?”
And I couldn’t think of a convincing lie why.
So I stopped.
I left Middlebury, and, for along time couldn’t come up with any reason to go back.
I went home and I babysat, I worked minimum wage jobs. I swam and climbed. For a while, it was good, but then the emptiness came back. Disliking my life, and on a total whim, I did the scariest thing I could; I bought a plane ticket to Guatemala and in three weeks time stepped on a plane. I had no official plan and nowhere to stay past the first night.
I was terrified.
But, I was also finally forced into feeling something.
Over the next year I spent nearly 10 months Latin America. I got scared shitless lonely, I curled up under blankets and cried for entire days, I frequently didn’t have friends. I lost control and things didn’t go my way. Sometimes I flirted and got with guys when I felt alone. I broke the heart of someone who wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. Later someone broke my own heart. I got confused and people took advantage of my body, I felt lost and I learned to ask for help. I made friends, I learned, I played, and I laughed. I started to feel, and I felt a lot of things. A lot of those feelings weren’t great.
It hurts to feel sad, and lonely, and scared, and mad, and weak.
But then, what hurts even more, is to feel happy, and to realize how many years it’s been since you genuinely felt that way.
I carried a pen and paper with me, and I wrote. Instead of controlling or hiding myself, I started writing–saturating myself with every event and emotion–living the chaos and drama of my own life.
Eventually, I stopped feeling empty.
In the end, the only real meaning you can ever find, is in the stories that you create to believe in. And while it’s easy to endure, to always be strong, to try and control, to run your life at perfect, none of that really creates a story worth believing in.
So, I’ll cry and scream and be lonely and scared, but through it all, at least be alive. Because, then I’ll be able to feel the good moments too. I’ll laugh, and smile, and love, and at the end of the day, my story won’t be one of endurance, but one of resilience.
There is no one hard moment in my life; there have, and will be, millions. Yet, in all of them, the hardest thing I will ever have to do is pick up a pen, write, and trust in the story I give to my life.
But, that’s all just my series of little stories.
Yours are the ones that matter.