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Running in Boston

Picture of me trying to smile while wet and cold after my run

So cold I couldn't even look into the camera!

I started running on the 20th of September in 2016, and I have done so every single day for the past 90 days since then (not yet including my run tonight). I’ve ran: in bitterly cold, pouring rain; on every holiday, including only a few hours after eating Thanksgiving dinner (really should’ve waited longer); the afternoons before nights out with friends and the afternoons the next day, alongside the pounding hangovers; while nauseated with a stomach bug; and after slamming my fists into concrete slabs until they were bloody and my spirit drained of all hope for the future.

It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that running saved my life.

You see, my ex-girlfriend had finally worked up the little courage required to tell me over the phone that we were finally over, and that she didn’t want to see or talk to me ever again. Don't be mistaken into thinking that the breakup was the cause of all my anguish, though; it merely precipitated what had been boiling inside me since high school. After my period of deep clinical depression back then, I thought I was free of the turmoil and psychoses associated with that experience. However, I soon learned that this isn't something one is "cured" of. Instead, it sits dormant inside of you, like a tumor which has gone into remission, licking its wounds until it's time to wreak havoc again. And the pot boiled over once more.

This was on the 18th. That evening, I self-harmed for the second time in two weeks by burning myself with cigarettes. I would find a quiet place at night on Ohio State’s campus beside some dumpsters near the 18th Avenue library, and sit there pressing the glowing cinder into my abdomen. I had done this once before, but had only dabbed myself with the cigarettes, like the quick knocks on the knee one gets when they go in for a regular checkup. This second time, however, I wanted to feel the pain as much as possible. I pressed the damn things into my stomach, immediately to the right of my belly-button, until they went out. Then, they’d be re-lit and the process continued until only the butt remained. Needless to say, I was left with burn marks the size of pennies that later swelled into bulbous blisters, of which had no parallel with burns I’d seen in my time as a Boy Scout.

That next afternoon, the 19th, I voluntarily checked myself into the Wexner’s emergency psychiatric ward. This being the second time, I knew the drill: disrobe and don a pink smock with bright yellow, sticky-footed socks and sit inside a bland white room with cameras and doors cleaved at the top for our monitoring. Once someone has been in a situation like that, they become hyperconscious of not only their own condition, but that of the broader mental illnesses of their fellows. Despite the unconditional and attentive care of the ER nurses, the experience is fundamentally dehumanizing and it’s one that I will fight against re-experiencing for the rest of my life.

The toxic relationship I was in was merely a catalyst for the same shitstorm of problems I had lived through since high school: incredible self-loathing and suicidal ideation bordering on Mayan doomsday worship. I had thought afterwards that the issues were resolved, and I was more-or-less treated. How wrong I was. The tapeworm inside my skull was only injured, not killed. It just played for the long con, slowly consuming my mind until I was suddenly thrown overboard into the deep, dark, cold reality of my condition.

Not only was it depression, but the depression itself was principally fueled by my own affliction with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Ever since I was in early elementary school, I remember having these inane, burning sensations that manifested inside my cranium and which I feverously had to expel. The very first of my rituals began innocently enough: upon closing the door to a room, I had to touch the whole of the doorknob’s surface area with both my hands.

I’m generally a mistrustful person, always acutely aware of others’ own inner motivations and intents. This predisposition can in retrospect be attributed to overly enthusiastic readings of Nietzsche as a brooding teenager, but no matter the cause, my daily experiences have been saddled with a keen paranoia. So, after the end of this year-and-a-half long relationship, I was left in a position where my girlfriend had completely abandoned me in my own time of distress. This betrayal was especially piercing because I had helped her address her own mental illness that had been with her since high school as well, and that she was in great denial about and totally refused to address until that point. Being a guarded person, having somebody expose their true colors to you in that way, even after all the seemingly genuine “I love you”s, was sickening. It only further spiraled me deeper into despair, and my obsessive-compulsive disorder only served to exacerbate the distress. In addition to my daily routines collectively requiring hours of my time and attention, my brain then chose to sit me down inside my room and force my internal memory backups to replay every single moment and interaction I had had with her. It created scenarios that I believed to be total reality of out thin air that were based solely in persecutory paranoia and a blatant psychosis.

Enough dawdling (obsessing?) over spilt milk and banal psych ward rooms. If you had known me in the months leading up to my breakdown, you’d be hard-pressed to believe any of what I’m about to tell you. I had eaten enough McDonald’s every day and drank enough Steel Reserve to kill a few small horses. The addition of an intermittent smoking habit since high school was nothing but additional spiteful frosting to round off this disgusting cake.

So, to finally decide in a spark of lucid – basically “fuck it” – brilliance in class on the 20th was nothing short of a personal miracle. My mother, who had picked me up after my second hospitalization and cared for me like a fledgling bluebird, drove with me to get a brand spanking new pair of Nikes. I had not owned a pair of “running shoes” since probably middle school, having gone with various pairs of my trusty slip-on Vans since.

That night, I went for a 3-mile run around my home neighborhood. It took me just over 50 minutes and cost a bucketful of sweat and pride. But-- upon my return I was in bliss, and for a few minutes afterwards whilst in the shower, had completely forgotten about the well of piss I had fallen into. I was hooked, and surprised everybody with my determination to keep with the habit: my parents; my roommate-cum-bestfriend; and above all, myself. The decision to start running was the best thing I have ever done for myself, and it’s something that the guy deep in my hippocampus, the one with all the levers and switches and keyboards connected to manifold monitors leading to Symbolics Lisp Machines and my own internal Cray-1, ought to be awarded a medal for.

My obsessive-compulsive nature had found, well, a natural outlet for its hyperawareness and debilitating anxiety. Instead of pacing around my bedroom, head locked in a catatonic, recursive loop, I just went out for a run and let the inputs melt away: the fiber optics of my internal wiring frayed and short-circuited, leaving me with a clear mind to muse on subjects that I loved to study, or to just enjoy the run.

After being in Boston (well, for the most part it's been the Cambridge area) I've quickly come accustom to my new running route. While at university back home, I take a specific trail along the Olentangy river that is parallel with OSU's west border. However, my Airbnb host Gabi (a Harvard Law student from my dad's home province of Alberta! the coincidence!) suggested a run along the river as that's what most locals do. I quickly sketched up a plan on Google Maps and got to running.

Google Maps screenshot of the route I took for my run

My run takes me just past the Trader Joe's to the corner of a Shell station

The first few days I was here, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. Clear opal sky, with a fresh breeze whilst being unseasonably warm for Boston in January. However, the perfect weather ran its course beginning yesterday afternoon. I had a particularly stupid day yesterday trying to get Anna-Rose working in Nick's FC Twin (more on that to come) so once I left the lab that evening, I was already in a bad mood. After walking the ~35 minutes from MIT back to Harvard, in the freezing rain without my raincoat, I was pretty well pissed off.

I took about thirty minutes to rest and enjoy an oatmeal bar before suiting up in my running gear and braving the elements. Now, I've run in far worse weather, such as in literal snowstorms whilst wearing boots. So this occasion wasn't particularly new. But, given my less-than-stellar frame of mind, it was tough not to take that "fuck it" mentality and turn it into an excuse to break my record.

But I didn't.

You see, I think what running has really given me is not just some sorely needed physical exercise or an outdoor hobby, but something far more necessary: a grounding in reality. Going on a run in the evening when the air is just right and you had a great day of productive work and the sky is so clear that you think God is using the stars for learning Braille -- those are the easy days. Much like life, running isn't always so easy.

It is trite and corny and covered in sloppy cream cheese, but the truth of the matter is you really learn the most about yourself in your toughest times. Choosing, despite every part of your lazy good-for-nothing nature saying otherwise, to go out for a four-and-a-half mile run in the freezing rain through a city you've only been in for less than a week, says a lot about your character. Your willpower, strength of mind - chutzpah, even - is an amalgamation of those times where everything went to shit but you could still find it somewhere in yourself (even if that's with the assistance of prescripiton anti-psychotics) to trudge on. Who cares if it's pitch black outside and you didn't see that hole in the sidewalk and stepped in it getting your foot so cold you perk up better than after a double shot of expresso then narrowly avoid eating pavement? You keep on running. You smile. You laugh so loudly in the cold Boston night that you awake John Adams' long passed spirit.

Running in Boston hasn't given me a "cure", surely, but it has gifted me with the opportunity to finally take hold of my own treatment, beyond gulping pills on schedule or showing up to therapy. My running is both the light at the end of the tunnel and the hot coals under my toes pushing me to get there.