The Beginning of Freedom is to Call Things by their Right Names

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Cill Rialaig, photograph by Bill Miles

When I was still too young to have learned words to express what was happening within my inner life, there were times I felt myself to be absolutely trapped in a sense of utter terror, seemingly without warning or understanding and without the ability to ask for help. It took until I was almost 20 years old to finally learn that there was a name for experiences like these: panic attacks. They were debilitating and confusing and scary. As a child, these experiences made me feel as if my whole world were off kilter and the ground might open up and swallow me whole. Most times there was no specific fear that triggered them. They would simply sneak up on me unexpectedly and felt scarier than any monster hiding under my bed because (a) I could not see them coming and (b) I could not escape them. I remember one of the things I would do to try to lessen the sense of impending doom was to draw near to my parents. I would search for them in the house and stay close. This was the only semi-remedy that I recall could sustain me until the terror passed.

In early adolescence, I slowly began to figure out a repeating pattern as to when I could most definitely expect panic to pay me an unsolicited visit. It seemed to always coincide with overnight visits or vacations. Being in a new environment where everything looked unfamiliar made me feel as if I had entered a sort of twilight zone. It was as if I was no longer on the same plane as everyone else, but rather in a space in between. Nothing felt normal, nothing looked right, I didn’t feel as if I was inhabiting my usual body and soul and again, I lacked the words to describe the experience to anyone around me. Panic would crash upon my shores like an unexpected tsunami. I can only imagine this made me an entirely unpleasant travel companion.

In high school, my frequent encounters with panic were joined by other unpleasant emotions, including depression. Between the frequent attacks of anxiety and the depression that would follow, it was getting increasingly hard to live life. Finally in a moment of desperation, I reached out and asked for help. My parents responded lovingly and within the week I was sitting in the office of a man who still, to this day, serves as my trusty psychologist when he is most needed. For years, not once did he give me a label as to what was this thing that imprisoned me. He listened and indirectly taught me how to better cope with my symptoms and slowly helped me to feel better and stronger. But there was this one day, when I decided to the look at the receipt he handed me after every session to pass on to my parents. On it I found a code for my diagnosis and I decided to look it up.

There is an old Chinese Proverb which reads, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names”, but in my case, I would like to apologize to the wise Chinese and put a wee little Irish spin on this proverb (simply because I’m most proudly of Irish descent) and rephrase it to read, “The beginning of freedom is to call things by their right names.”

309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. 

Finally; my disconcerting experience of life as I knew it had a name. 309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. Kinda like a title, a first name, a middle name and a last name. Having a name meant it could be known and maybe even understood. It meant it didn’t only exist in my head, but it was real. It meant it was so real that it was identified with a list of common symptoms in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Practitioners of Mental Health.

In an article entitled,  The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming, Rabbi Andrew Davids brings clarity to this experience when he writes:

God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, the biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming.”

Humans may seek to bring order to our chaotic world…through the process of naming. Though throughout my life, I’ve met many people who would rather not “be labeled” by their specific diagnosis, the day I learned the name of my nemesis is the day it lost a whole lot of power and my journey of freedom began.

In the years that followed, I made it my life’s mission to rid myself from my role as the unsuspecting victim of an unknown maleficenceIn the pre-internet days I devoured every possible book I could get my hands on that would help me to learn the ins and outs of adjustment disorder and anxiety. In the early days of the internet I read of others’ experiences which sounded just like mine. Misery does love company because it teaches us there are others as miserable as us. We are not alone. We are not without understanding. Most importantly, it teaches us we are not without hope. Knowledge didn’t completely stop waves of panic from lapping upon the shores of my life. However, I learned to see it for what it was. I figured out some good ways to anchor myself in the sand, so that even though its cold and crashing waves might leave me worn out and tattered, they would not be able to carry me off into the sea where I could drown.

It has been nearly 30 years since my nemesis was named. Though I wouldn’t say we are on a first name basis, 309.28 and I have learned to co-exist, and on most days ours is a peaceful co-existence. The paradox is I know I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for its presence in my life. I will even go so far as to admit it prepared me well to be able to better respond to my own child who began experiencing her own panic attacks at an early age. By the time she was 10 years old she already knew its name and was well on her way on the path of liberation.

Definition of freedom (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):

1the quality or state of being free: such as 

athe absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action 

bliberation from restraint or from the power of another 

cthe quality or state of being released usually from something onerous”

When I consider the definition of freedom I must admit that although I am so much more liberated than I was before I learned the name of my nemesis, it still constrains me in two particular ways: (1) I have allowed it to hold be back from the desire to travel and experience new places, lands and cultures. (2) I have also allowed it to steal from me the experience of being comfortable being by myself, let alone traveling by myself, for fear that without loved ones near to save me, I might surely be swallowed into the earth or carried off into the sea–and that would be a terrible thing, especially while in a foreign country!

My admiration remains strong for my friends and family members who have collectively seen most of the world and are better and more interesting people for having done so. Some of them even ventured out on their own and they lived to tell about it! Traveling vicariously through their stories is as good as it gets for a girl who prefers to stay in one place for fear of re-entering the twilight zone. Yet I am happy to report that in recent years, a dream has been born in my heart to take back the reins and to face the greatest anxiety- provoking travel experiences of my childhood. The name of my dream is Cill Rialaig.

On the southwest coast of Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project rescued and restored a small pre-famine village, thus creating an artists retreat that has attracted artists from all over the world. It is a retreat for professional visual artists, writers, poets and composers who apply for a residency to live for a short time at the Cill Rialaig Retreat and work on their craft. Ireland is calling to me and to Cill Rialiag I desire to go, by myself, to work for a week on writing. Remembering from my youthful experience that good things can begin to happen when we reach out and ask for help, I contacted my friend Carlos, an editor of a locally published magazine. Within a short period of time, he had published my writing and continues to do so in hopes that I might meet the requirements to apply for the residency. Even now he remains one of my fiercest co-freedom fighters.

Although freedom is most certainly a process, one that takes at least an entire lifetime to attain and for all I know, probably some of eternity too, what I am certain about is that mine began the day I was emboldened to call things by their right name. Thank you 309.28!

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.