Trigger Warning: It is imperative for the reader to understand that this piece involves anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Please do not progress further into this writing if you are uncomfortable with the specific topic.
If this was the 1970s I would have a typewriter set up in a room with a musty, yellowish lightbulb humming above my head. A lit cigarette with fading embers resting along the ashtray that I swiped from a hotel I once visited, and a glass with a few final thoughts of cheap whiskey washing around three cubes of ice. Truly, the stage would be set for a masterpiece to be written.
Instead, I find myself sipping on carbonated water with a Nuun tablet dissolving in it, swishing around inside a Blender Bottle filled to the brim with ice. LED lights hang over the dinner table, and the only scent of any smoke comes from the candle burning along the mantel; sage, mesquite, and Mezcal permeate the room. Light music plays in the background, my wife asleep, and the world outside spinning in chaos. Afterall, as we all know by now, 1970 has nothing on 2020.
I have spent several months compiling thoughts and styles to go along with this writing. It is not a swan song by any accounts, but at the same time it does not flow along the usual strands of humor that I so frequently cling to in relief and escape. Instead, this is just honesty, openness, and an opportunity to reach for my own, flawed humanity.
“Hey, I’m on the side of the interstate. I want to kill myself, and I have a plan. I think I need your help.”
In October of 2019 I attempted to make a run at the Sky Peaks 50K in Flagstaff, Arizona. Make no mistake; I barely make it through most races, but in the end, I am like that old, beat up truck…somehow it will still make it past the finish line before collapsing into a pile of bolts and bits. Unfortunately, the streak of stubbornness came a crashing halt three miles into the race. Head spinning, legs shaking, and constantly sliding down the side of a mountain; there was no way I was going to finish that race. 17 miles into the 32 mile trek; I dropped out. Beaten, bruised, and numb to realization that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I flew home with a facade of optimism and progress; masking the troubling fuse that had been lit, a small smolder of a raging inferno yet to come.
Two weeks later, somewhat healed up and believing in the way of onward and upward; I volunteered with one of my all time favorite groups of trail runners; the Greater Omaha Area Trail Runnerz (G.O.A.T.z). A group that had seen me nearly explode on a gravel road, smack my face on the dirt along the shoreline of a course along a lake, and also had more photos with my head cut off from them than I could recall. Basically, they are my northern family. Through the windy, cloudy, cool day I cheered on runners that passed through, talked to archers sighting in bows along the road, and a mingled with few area farmers to make the hours pass by. Upon the end of the race, I chose to jog down from my spot on course to the start/finish line to say hello and to get a few miles of my own in for the day.
While on the road heading in, my heart skipped a beat. A notoriously common issue that had developed a few years prior. Part anxiety, part heart injury of the past, and full-on fear of my current existence. Every time it happened it scared me, it created this sensation, this fear of “this is it” for the split second that I could not breathe. Eventually, along that lonely road near Omaha, the sensation finally pushed me over the edge. The thought of just being finished began to manifest within my head.
Driving home from Omaha that evening, ten miles into Missouri along the interstate, I pulled over and sent a text to my therapist. I was transparent, and terrified, and nearly on the cusp of hysterics. Simply put, the mind can be a terrifying weapon, and with a few key strokes I made my confession known to the first soul on this planet; I wanted to kill myself.
We made a pact while sitting on the side of the road. If these thoughts came back; I would contact my therapist, if I could not reach them I would contact my wife, and if I could not contact either I would check myself into the closest emergency room (typing that out is one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever done). Though the moment had passed; I had no idea that this journey, this race, this test of endurance…was just beginning.
By November, I had learned that the clothing company that I loved to support closed up shop. When December came, our local trail running store closed its doors permanently. Nearly biweekly I was getting treatment for an ankle that would not stop swelling, and my blood pressure was through the roof, even with my medication. My running had dropped off considerably, one of my favorite annual races, the Back 40, was a pain filled, pity party of 20 miles. Truly, it felt as if everything was falling apart. I was in therapy twice a week, while the days grew darker, just to keep me moving through time.
At the beginning of winter break I started to cough. A lot. I lost feeling in all of my fingers and toes, and would cough myself to sleep at night. I would wake up nearly every 45 minutes wheezing with a new round of coughing; recklessly falling asleep with cough drops in my mouth. Two days before Christmas I was in the doctor’s office; a place I had never been before due to illness. New Year’s Eve I was back in their office with a 103 degree fever, chills, uncontrollable shaking, with a dry, hard cough that would give me migraines immediately from the strain on my neck. January 2, 2020 I went for a light jog/walk, thinking that I was on the mend from whatever this illness was (flu had already been ruled out). My wife had to pick me a half mile from home with her car because I could not catch my breath.
Most of the month of January was spent at work and in bed. Being forced to eat because I had no appetite (or smell…or taste…). My therapist was checking up on me daily through the phone. My wife and I had a hard conversation about my mental state, dating back to October. I placed the keys to our gun safe in her hands and asked her to ensure that I could not locate them. In a brief highlight; I read an article by Rob Krar about his struggles and tools to working with depression. I did not realize it at the time, but it was a small sliver of light in the darkness. A stepping stone in which I did not know I would need until much later.
By March, I had slowly started to feel more normal, I was only wheezing at night before I would fall asleep. The national news outlets were covering some illness that had been in the Asia region of the world. While my students and I tracked it, by the time we hit spring break…we never went back to school.
Our gym closed.
The running groups scattered and faded away.
The racing world ceased to exist.
I went for training runs, for events that I did not know whether or not they would actually exist. In April I was hit by a vehicle, while running. No damage physically, but mentally it made me dislike my shoes that much more. The darkness of the previous October, the same taste in the back of the mind, started to take hold once again.
I stopped running.
I stopped training.
The weekends of April and May were primarily forgotten due to the never ending binge of alcohol I consumed during that time. Only looking back do I realize how absolutely self-destructive one can actually be. The routine was classic; work “online” Monday through Friday, become inebriated by Friday evening, hope to be sober for some sort of run by Sunday. I cannot express with the words the kind of guilt that would flood over me when thinking about the friends I would be texting late into the night; apologizing for no reason, crying for not being in control, and being ashamed of having a tainted soul that I tried to hide from everyone.
Through the drunken haze of what seemed to be never ending libations;I had marked my calendar for a “100K” in June on a more sobering evening. So, I had been back out in the woods, slowly trying to regain some humanity.
However, once destructive…always destructive.
I would purposely run during the hottest parts of the day, covering it as “I just wanted to sleep in”, when in reality it was, “Can I go until my body just stops? Is there a breaking point?” It is incredible how the mind allows us to be so deadly to ourselves in one medium or another; what may not seem as a direct threat, may in turn become that much deadlier.
By mid-June the alcohol consumption had subsided tremendously, and slowly I was gearing up for a multiday attempt at 62 miles; a ‘virtual race’ put on by the good people in charge of Destination Trail Runs. I thought I had weathered the worst of this mentally exhausting, endless cycle by the time this race rolled around. I had made it through October, through companies leaving, illness overtaking, and life being shut down to just a few hundred square feet for months.
The bottom did not drop out until the fourth day of this run. My wife came and physically guided me off of the paved trail. Feet blistered beyond belief, ankles a swollen mess, completely dehydrated, overheated, and not comprehending what she was saying. This during the peak heat of the day that dust from the Sahara Desert came to visit Missouri. I’ll say heat exhaustion…I’ll lean towards the onset of heat stroke.
Upon finishing, while still feeling like I had failed, it would be weeks before I could walk normal again. Toes were, in some ways, permanently disfigured, and layers of skin would take months to regrow. Each night for weeks was restless as phantom pains streaked through my nervous system, and seizing muscles jerked me awake. This was not because of a ‘race too hard’ or an ‘unknown situation’ or ‘persistance’. This was a man who was trying, in the most passive way possible, to destroy himself. Shut off from the world, disconnected from his peers, a person who had lost the life in his eyes, the guide to his feet, and purpose to his path. Even the things we love the most can easily become the tools that will result in our ultimate demise.
I’m writing this story to you now, not as a survivor, but as a messenger. This is not to say that “running saved my life”, or “running is my medication”. As my therapist and I discuss vehemently; any activity can easily turn into a mechanism of destruction, if one chooses for it to be.
In the end, it was just a trip to Colorado, and just old-time faith. Yes, as cliche as that sounds. In July, running out of time, patience, and hope already being kicked out the door; I packed up my Mazda for a short trip in July out to Mount Bierstadt. I had decided, directly after the abrupt*, tragic death of a family member, that I wanted to climb a 14,000 foot peak. I wanted to do it on my own. I did not want a shirt, a buckle, a pat on the back, anything…I wanted to remind myself of purpose on this planet. Almost a final shot, if one could think of such things.
Seven hours, a few random new friends, and a lot of water later, I stood atop Mount Bierstadt. My first 14,000 foot summit, completed on my own, for me, as evidence of purpose and existence. There was no holy light, there was no rededication at some random church building; it was just myself, God, and the notion of forward progress and knowing what one can perceive as loneliness….but how alone was I really?
I ran down the trail a bit faster, and a bit lighter. Laughing with strangers along the way, listening to stories, and feeling my feet touchdown on our planet again.
A few weeks later it would be running above the tree-line alone on the Continental Divide Trail; even if just for a few miles. Then it was journeying through the firs in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Each step felt slightly more rooted, slightly more connected, and a bit more real with each breath of air. The air temperature at home cooled down, the leaves changed, and my times started to get faster. Strength training was still anxiety inducing, but rewarding at the same time. Balance, literally, was found within yoga classes. New personal records were found in my ten mile runs, and even in mile splits. Downhill did not hurt, waking up was not painful, and falling asleep was not terrifying. My blood pressure had settled into a healthy range, and even though I now clock in at 300 pounds, I can finally move without pain.
Life has flavor.
Life has hope.
Finally, with the approval of my unwavering coaches, I signed up for what feels like my first race. A twenty mile jaunt in the Arizona desert next January.
In many ways, as I explained to my therapist last week, this is a celebration. This is not a cure, not even a form of medication. It is a milestone.
Toeing the line simply states the obvious, “I survived”.
I find humor in just about everything. However, there are some things that there is no point in laughing. If you or a loved one are dealing with suicidal tendencies; there is hope out there. Call 800-273-8255 to talk to a helping hand.
*I will let you read in between the lines on that one.