Why I Run, and Other Stories

Why I Run, and Other Stories

First, listen.

To start, I was never very good at running. I could run from homeplate to first sometimes second base pretty quickly when I played softball as a kid. I never ran quickly or effortlessly enough to play any sort of offensive position in lacrosse. I collapsed mid-court on a quick break during a PAL basketball game. I had to drop out of running track because of a stress fracture in my shin. My high school fitness test required running a mile and I think it took me a cool 20 minutes to walk the mile.

Running, at first, was a workout I could do for free. I didn’t need a gym membership. This was ideal for a 20-something paying Williamsburg rent.

Then, about three years ago, it became something more. Suddenly, I (along with Amanda teehee) was paying to run races. I became obsessed with the idea of medals. I wanted to live like Scrooge McDuck, diving into a huge pile of my running medals. (In hindsight, a huge pile of gold is a way, waaaay better goal.)

5k

5 miler

10k

Half-Marathon

I always knew I wanted to run a marathon at some point, I just never knew when. To jump back to the first paragraph, I was never very good at running. But in the midst of a conversation with a guy I liked, talking about a marathon he ran, I thought, I can do that, too. And I wanted to run in New York, so I quickly signed up with a charity that means something to me.

Anyway, you know this story if you looked at my fundraising page for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, so I won’t bore you with it here. The point is, I was so excited to run my first marathon. I like structure, I like to have a plan, I like lists and to-dos and being able to check items off as done. So I had a run plan and I ordered a whiteboard calendar to hang next to my bed and it was primed and ready for the first month of my running plan.

For the first two weeks of training, my feet were in excruciating pain. To the point where my runs cut short and I had to walk back to my car. Dr. Google is my first stop on the medical train, and so I was consulting with the internet and finding that maybe I had Plantar Fasciitis. And maybe my gait was messed up. And maybe I had shin splints. And maybe I needed new sneakers. And maybe I should just quit while I’m ahead.

I was struggling physically, feeling like my body wasn’t quite cooperating with me and my plans. A little voice in the back of my head was waving a Rascal Scooter flag at me saying, Remind you of anyone? My grandfather suffered with Parkinson’s Disease for almost the entire time I knew him, when he passed away 11 years ago. Before Parkinson’s, he bowled, he swam, he danced, he drove. For the first 10 or so years of my life, he was still doing some of these things. But then he couldn’t anymore. The tremors, the uncooperative nature of the way he walked, his need for a cane, a walker, a Rascal Scooter became too much.

And here I am, 30 years old, wondering why an 8 mile run feels like the end of the world.

But, let’s flash forward.

It’s November 1st. In the last 4 months, I: left my job, totaled my car, moved 1600 miles across the country from Denver back to Long Island, max out at only 14 miles, have an ongoing battle with curved hips and a tight IT band on my left side, have a muscle strain in my thigh (from stepping over a doggy gate on Halloween night, damn it Scout), have been personally attacked by Miley Cyrus and “The Climb” playing on the radio causing me to ugly cry.

See, the thing is, running became therapy for me over the years. People think I’m weird for running to podcasts and audiobooks, but to me it’s the most freeing thing in the world. And for the majority of August and September, I was debilitated by a dark and gloomy cloud. It had been years since I’d dealt with a depression so heavy. I’d sleep til 10 or 11am, which is incredibly late for me, and I’d be meant to go for a short run. I’d turn over, look at my sneakers, and burst into tears. It had become a bit of a quandary: running was therapy, running made me feel better, I was extremely depressed, I should go running to feel better, the last thing I wanted to do was go running, I continued to feel terrible.

Whenever I was able to lace up my sneakers and head out for a run, I always felt so much lighter. I’d call my dad to check in and he’d note that I sounded better. And I’d say, “Oh, I feel better.” And I wasn’t lying. I really did. But just like a 20 mile run can feel great and the next day a 5k can feel impossible, I never knew if I’d wake up ready for a run or stay coccooned in my blankets.

All this is to say I didn’t train as thoroughly as I had wanted to. And so, this is the progression of my marathon goals over time:

4.5 hours

5.5 hours

5.5-6 hours

BEAT AL ROKER (7.5ish hours)

Just finish

Everyone I had talked to about running the New York City marathon spoke the truth when they said this was a marathon unlike any other. New York City and all of its boroughs were amazing. AMAZING. I cried and cried and cried from the second I stepped into the expo to the moment I crossed the finish line (and for a few hours after, if I’m honest).

I met a crew of amazing people who were also running with Team Fox who really took my nerves away. By the time we reached the starting line, I had no nerves at all. And this is after multiple nights of anxiety dreams including but not limited to: being cast as Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway production and not remembering ANY OF THE WORDS. I’d also spent a number of nights listening to sleep meditations, and prayed (I do not pray) to my grandfather, explaining, “Hey Gramps, listen, I know you’re not a fairy grandfather or anything, but…” and I proceeded to ask him to just give me strength when I needed it most.

So the cannon booms and we take off across the Verrazzano Bridge. And everyone said to take it slow. And I did. I DID, I swear I did. At mile 2, the tape with my name across my chest flies off. Oh, whatever. (But in retrospect, A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME?!) In Bay Ridge, I round a corner into a residential area and they’re blasting “Born to Run” by Springsteen. Do I cry? Of course I cry. I’m comfortable, nothing hurts, my breathing is on point, I’m basking in the awesomeness of this experience.

Mile 9 comes along and suddenly I put pressure on my right knee and I get a sick feeling in my stomach. So I slow down and it’s pounding and pinching and it feels like my knee is about to just evaporate from my leg. But I can keep running and I’m so close to seeing my brother and Megan in our old neighborhood so I truck on. I run. And then I realize I missed them. Simultaneously, I realize that I cannot run on my right knee anymore. I’m not even out of Brooklyn yet and I can’t run anymore. This is when I intermittently cry for the rest of the marathon. But it’s most important to note what I don’t do: I don’t quit.

From mile 9 to 26.2, aside from a couple of attempts at running again, I walk. I walk, when all my brain wants to do is run, when I see everyone passing me by, when the cameras are on me and I know I really just want some fucking pictures of me running this marathon. By the time I got to the upper east side, I cried into my best friends arms (sorry Erin and Kerri, and also Allie and Lauren), was surprised to see an old friend and her husband (thank you Janine and Brian), and visited a medic tent. At this point, I was blasting Hanson on my Spotify to keep my spirits up. It worked. But, Hanson always works.

Again, I’m reminded of why I’m running: for Parkinson’s Disease, a tireless disease that takes away a person’s autonomy. I know my grandfather was, specifically, trapped in his body and would have done anything to fix it. And I kept thinking of quitting. Once I reached the park, I kept looking out at the rolling green hills of Central Park, thinking about perhaps just walking into the grass, laying face down and dying of shame there. It’d be easier than THIS. This painful limpy walk. And just when I needed it, at mile 24, I saw another friendly face and a dog. Once again, I threw my arms around Caitlin and burst into tears. “I’m in so much pain,” I told her. And she effortlessly combatted me with words of kindness and encouragement. (There’s a youtube somewhere of our encounter, because it brought a stranger to tears and I guess I’m his hero now.)

If you’ve never run a marathon, let me tell you this: there is nothing longer than the 800 meter distance to the finish line. Especially when your knee feels like it might bend the wrong way and you might fall on your face.

Luckily, around mile 26 I had another face to comfort me. Raising her sign over her head, screaming her face off with a bunch of strangers in the dark evening streets of Columbus Circle: Allie. My date, my roommate, my mom for the weekend. I hugged her so tight, I cried one more time (jk I cried a bunch of other times after this, ok), and told her I’d see her after the finish line.

I trudged on. Hiding my crying eyes behind sunglasses.

The last friendly face I would see is my cousin Dorrian, a police officer on duty right before the bend to the finish line. “BRUNO!” she screamed, and I looked over and threw my arms up and screamed. It was less out of excitement and more the scream of a mad woman who just needed to cross the finish.

Time: 6 hours 34 minutes.

Average mile pace: 15min.

Crossing the finish line was extremely bittersweet. I wanted to run across, even if it was just for .001 miles. But I couldn’t even do that. I crossed the line with my peace signs thrown up, like I was feeling way cooler than I was. I received my medal, I held it tightly, I took a few pictures, and then I did the death march to my poncho.

I finished. I beat Al Roker. I had a phone flooded with messages from everyone I saw along the route, the family and friends following along on the app, fellow runners. I’d compare my emotional state to coming out of anesthesia when I had my wisdom teeth removed: hysterical laughing to hysterical crying in the matter of seconds. I was extremely fragile.

Hours earlier, after my knee went bad, I had vowed that I’d be running the marathon again next year. You can hold me to it.

Advertisements

Me, Too.

Me, Too.
Warning: this post refers to sexual assault, I want to make sure anyone who might be triggered by such content is aware.

Hi.

I feel a funny mixture of I should have written this ages ago and should I be writing this right now? But I choose to move forward.

What we learned from something like the #metoo movement is that most women (though of course it is not limited to just cis-women) have experienced some level of sexual harassment, assault, or worse. I am no different. I have had experiences bouncing around in my own head that range from a strange man putting his hands on me in public without my consent (pretending he didn’t mean to on a crowded subway or at a concert) to a date gone terribly awry.

I think about the lesson most women learn as they venture out into their social elements. If a man comes up to you and starts hitting on you, it’s best to say you have a boyfriend. Simply being uninterested in his advances isn’t enough. But they will respect the unseen man that may or may not actually exist.

I know this to be a relatively accurate reality. Some men, some drunk men, become aggressive when you don’t want to talk to them. Some drunk men force you to make up lies because you don’t want to dance with them and you don’t want their hands on your hips. Some drunk men get angry even when you tell them you’re a lesbian, not romantically interested in men at all, and there with your girlfriend. (I’ll take this moment to remind you that men usually respect “I have a boyfriend” as a response, but they do not respect “I have a girlfriend” which is a whole ‘nother level of what the fuck.)

I was lying and was, in fact, there with my brother’s girlfriend. But we were trying to get each other out of a bad spot. And even though we were giggling through the lie, we were clinging to one another out of our fear and discomfort from the angry man before us.

Go on and kiss, then.” He angrily sneered, standing too close to us.  Prove it.

From there, it gets a bit blurry. I know we forced our way through a crowd to our group and told our friend behind the bar to stop serving the guy and kick him out, which luckily happened. And I remember feeling defeated, trying to retell the story to some of our male friends, who just couldn’t understand how in danger we felt.

And so why do women hold on to their pain? Why do women hold on to their assault? For fear of punishment, belittlement, judgment, blame.

I remember being 26, retelling a date where I invited the man into my home, into my room, and he forced himself on me, aggressively undressing himself and trying to undress me, touching me and leading me to touch him in ways I wasn’t comfortable with. I didn’t know what to do except try my best to get through it as quickly as possible. The man then became angry that I wasn’t “into it,” and “it” was his naked body on top of my nearly fully-clothed body, as he tried to get himself off. I feigned that I was tired and he quickly (and, yep, angrily) got his clothes back on and left.

When I retold this story, after feeling quite embarrassed and dirty and… weird, I was surprised at the responses I got. It was a pre-cursor to some of these white male republicans, as someone told me “You were asking for it” and, “what did you expect? You invited him into your room.” Some of these responses came (I’m sorry, but unsurprisingly) from a frat guy and others (very surprisingly) from a female friend. I was made to feel at fault, I was made to feel like some sort of tease, like I should have had sex with him, and that maybe it might help my case if I apologize.

The worst part? A part of me kept thinking they were right. So I apologized to him in text, and luckily we never planned to meet up again.

But a few months later, I walked out of my usual subway and nearly walked right into him, and I’ve never felt a colder sweat than the one that covered my entire body in that moment. I didn’t walk, but ran all the way back to my apartment, locked myself in my room, sat on my bed and just… thought about it. Thought and thought and thought. And realized, those people who heard the story, who told me I was asking for it, they were wrong.

I can invite you into my bedroom and not expect you to forcefully try to engage in sexual acts, especially when it’s clear I don’t want it. If I say no, accept that as my answer, don’t try to convince me otherwise. If I’m not interested in you, you don’t have the right to get angry. I can wear a short skirt, I can get a little too drunk, that doesn’t mean you can put your hands on me or have sex with me.

I’ve read the transcripts of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony against Brett Kavanaugh (I don’t have TV) and it gutted me, it made me sick, it made me feel cold chills reminiscent of that day outside of the subway station on Bushwick Avenue. I believe her, I believe survivors, I understand the fear that comes with wanting to tell someone what has happened to you, because you don’t want to be blamed for it because your skirt was too short or you were sorta maybe kinda drunk, and you know what someone might say to that: you were asking for it.

I’m someone’s granddaughter, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s cousin, someone’s best friend, someone’s dog sitter. And I’ve been wondering, why does that have to be introduced into the narrative for sexual assault to matter?

I hope one day the world can see it objectively: a person doing a terrible thing and the victim of that terrible thing.

And we believe the victim. And we care.

Thoughts On My Journey Westward

Thoughts On My Journey Westward

First, a song.

I told a story a little over five months ago about my Lyft ride to Denver International Airport. It was at the end of my ten day trip to Colorado that involved a lot of hiking, margaritas, cousin time, dog-walking, fresh air, slowed lifestyle, mountain ranges, live music, and solo exploration. The story is simply this: at the conclusion of my adventures in Colorado, I was overwhelmed. I was holding back tears until I wasn’t. Until the tears were leaking down my face in the backseat of the car, as I tried to hide the sobs that were bubbling up at the back of my throat. My driver was looking at me in his rearview mirror, likely wondering what kind of person he had picked up that afternoon.

So, when people ask me Why Denver? That’s where I usually begin.

If you want me to go further, I can do that, too.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The fact that I was drinking a can of beer in the parking lot before a show at Red Rocks and saw a fucking deer just hanging around. The stranger on the light rail who stopped to have a ten minute conversation with me about Alexander Hamilton because I was reading his biography. The light rail in general. The short distance to a real hike. Hiking above treeline. Hiking above 10,000 feet elevation. The effort it took for me to breathe properly even just walking around the city (sounds terrible, kind of was). Wash Park and the paddle boats and the massive pack of ducks I watched descend out of the water and walk across my foot path. Illegal Pete’s and their $4 margaritas and the punch they pack (hoo boy). The 16th street mall and its free bus ride. The friendliness of every one of my Uber/Lyft drivers. Breweries. Dispensaries (and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t even smoke pot). The amazing view of mountains you get from sitting in the nosebleeds at Coors Field. When it shows rain in the forecast but that just means it will drizzle for 15 minutes and then be perfectly sunny and reasonable again.

After ten days, I had all of those reasons. After ten days, I came back with a plan. I was going back for good. The first course of action? Telling everyone I knew. The tough part of the plan was that I had done this before. I’d wanted to move to Ireland (for a boy), I wanted to move to Virginia (for a friend), you could say that I might have cried wolf a few times but I always meant it in the moment. In past scenarios, I went so far as job and apartment hunting, renewing my passport. But there was something very real and tangible about the decision I made when I got back from Denver. It wasn’t that anyone believed me any more this time around than they had in the past, but perhaps all it took was for me to finally believe in myself.

I kept subtle reminders laced into my every day so I never lost sight. There was the Colorado keychain that I looked at every time I unlocked my door or went to the gym. There were the turquoise earrings I bought on my trip that I have barely taken out of my ears except for (some) special occasions and cleanings that reminded me every time I looked in the mirror that I had somewhere else to be. And over my desk at work were three polaroids of my time in the mountains, because I needed the ambition, the reminder that change is scary but often times worth it.

On the eve of my departure, none of this feels real, and I’m not sure when it will. I’ve already signed a lease for an apartment and my truck is packed and ready to make the drive and I’m about 3.5 hours away from needing to wake up and be ready to go. I’ve cried and cried and cried saying my goodbyes to friends and family and pets alike but it still feels fake. It feels like something I’d never do. Because I’ve always been a planner and not all of this is exactly planned. Spontaneity was interesting to me, and seemed like a good time, but I’d much rather get my ducks in a row before it all blows up in my face because there’s always a good chance it will blow up in my face.

For the last month or so, I have taken the time to marvel at the life I have built in New York. I was born and raised on Long Island, I went to college in the Bronx, and I’ve lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn respectively. I’ve built a strong foundation on the shoulders of amazing people, who have been able to lift me up and challenge me to be a better person than I was yesterday. I have spent so much time reflecting on the people I have known over the last 29 years that I had a few moments where I questioned why the hell I was leaving in the first place. But I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who gently nudged me in the right direction, knowing too well that this move is something that I’ve needed to do.

And just because others say things far better than I ever could, take it from Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

(YYyyyyeah, that just happened.)

Hey, New York? I love you. I’ll see you soon.

12×3

12×3

First, listen.

It seems unfair that anything concerning you should be so easy for me to remember. Had it been another month, another day, another year, I can guarantee it would not have stuck to the walls of my brain the way it has. But as it so happens, we both showed up late for dinner on a Wednesday, a date that made the entire evening electric similar in the way that kismet might, if you choose to believe in that sort of thing. And here’s where I’ll let you in on a little secret: I choose to believe in that sort of thing. I’m something akin to the Grinch when it comes to romance. But put on a romantic comedy and my heart grows three sizes every time. As does the goofy grin on my face as I watch the inevitable and probably cliche meet-cute unfold before me.

So perhaps I had set myself up for failure from the outset. Perhaps the cards had been stacked against you from the moment we agreed to have dinner on December 12th, 2012. Who can stand up to destiny and meet-cutes and kisses set to the perfect song? Who did I think you were, after all? Someone who made me laugh, who fawned over Springsteen the same way I did, who had my ideal balance of controlled mess, and a dog, too? These were all things I had learned to be true about you before the 12th of December, of course. They were the things flying around my brain in the interim between our first and second date. They were also the things that remained in my brain as the little pieces that continued to endear me to you long after you had ceased to deserve any endearment from me at all.

You met me at a strange time in my life. I was a late-blooming 25 year old, and at 25, I had no idea how to fall for someone. So I began making charts and diagrams in my head. A breakdown of our dates, their locations, the lighting, tracking the hours we spent together, who texted first, the songs you hummed along to in the car, how many times you said my name, the jittery feeling in my stomach when our hands touched, if we spent the night together and where we had breakfast the next morning. It might sound crazy to you (and it sounds crazy to me, too) but for however literary- and creative-minded I am, I am quite a fan of being able to break down and analyze things, too. I thought I had been helping myself, drawing out a topographic map of our relationship for all its mountaintop highs and valley lows, giving me something to measure the current against. But in the end, it only constructed a detailed history of flickering giddiness, glimmers of love, and omnipresent self-doubt.

The difference between today and two, three years ago, is the feeling. The feeling of the day as a whole. In the past, I felt as if I’d failed at something, I felt a loss. But I could never name the loss, I never quite knew what it was. It has been a while now that I’ve been able to look at the situation objectively, to realize there was nothing for me there. All right, that might be overstating things. There was something. It was a sapling of something that was ill-advised and planted in the throes of the frosty winter months. It never stood a chance. But from that sapling, I learned what it was to fall for someone. I mean, to be smitten with someone. And I learned what it was to be blinded by feelings of love and intimacy. I learned that my radar for bullshit should always be trusted and I also learned that letting my guard down and running the risk of hurting myself is worth it, sometimes. Because the hurt can go away. And it has.

It’s no longer about the romance, or the feelings I once had. They’ve gone and disappeared with the bar we first met at, which no longer exists as the place it once was. To me, the marvellous thing about the situation is how two people who crammed so much something into so little time can look back after four years and find nothing at all.

Header photo by Anders Røkkum

On The Street Where I Live(d)

On The Street Where I Live(d)

First, listen.

This morning I walked down a dawn-lit sidewalk on the street where I’ve lived. This is both past and present tense in the strangest and most marvellous of ways.

As I walked by each house that has colored my childhood, I realized that not much has changed except for the occupants of some. When I still lived here as a child, I had memorized every window, every shingle, every front door and the cement path that led up to it. I memorized every tree, every fence that (sometimes successfully, often times not) held in a friendly barking dog, every bump in the cement where I’d tripped and skinned my knee or bumped over with my rollerblades. And the big tree that stood like a faerie castle where most of us always ran to hide during manhunt, because if you could get in through the bottom level, the other branches above created a sort of natural fortress. If you were brave enough, you would climb to the highest limb and feel like the king or queen of the block.

I have vivid memories of the older kids camp-out on the patch of grass between my house and the house next door. It involved a massive tent and a co-ed sleepover and stories that became engrained in our memory as blocklore; someone licking a firefly and saying it tasted like peanut butter and the swirling tales of who had kissed who, something that I couldn’t fathom at the innocent and precious age of five. But I remembered it well, mostly because I was both mystified and disgusted by the idea of the prettiest girl on the block wanting to kiss my terrible brother.

I walked by the patch of grass where there had once been a massive tree trunk that seemed carved as a seat, for any runaway kid on the block. I remember trekking 100 feet from my front door to this very spot, feeling as if I had crossed the Sahara desert on what was a very hot August midday. The sun was at its peak and I had packed my backpack with all the essentials: a juicebox, my favorite doll, a packet of Smartees, and a chapstick. And with that, I was out the door. Why? Could have been anything. Mom wanted to brush out my tangled mess of hair (a big LB no-no) or I wasn’t allowed to have a playdate with my best friends or I was in trouble for not eating all of my lunch that day. These were cardinal sins against my five year old existence. Commit them and Hasta la vista, mis padres! 

When my name was yelled out the door for dinner, I decided my parents had learned their lesson. Tough love, man. It’s the name of the game. But I always ended up back home.

Home. Home was the tiniest house on the block. In all of my years of passing it by, I’d never seen it. It was only on this early morning as I walked by in quiet but constant acknowledgement of the house I had spent an important handful of years in that I looked to it, then to the house directly next door: big. The one across the street: huge. All around me, these houses seemed to rise up like they never had before. Big, big, bigger. I laughed because I realized I had never noticed it before. See, we had the big backyard. We had the most grass footage, and the long, strangely-shaped driveway that led back to a garage we never used and a patio we lived on, where we hosted block-wide barbecues and where the summer babies blew out their birthday candles. We had so much backyard, my dad had built a bunny run where we, a family inexperienced in the bunny world, ended up with a wayward brood of fuzzy creatures when our two “female” pets ended up mating. There in the yard, we even had a long clothesline that my mom used. The sheets would blow in the cool breeze of the day, and we’d play among the dancing sheets until we were told to stop, for fear of dirtying them up again. Because we were always covered in some tree sap, or maybe dirt, but definitely grass stains. We had a wall of morning glories that greeted us each new day with their purple faces, so beautiful I had as difficult a time as ever not picking them off the vine to mash into my “perfumes” (a recipe as simple as squashed up flowers and a dash of water from the hose).

Moving away from that house, we moved into a much bigger house. My brothers no longer had to share a room, there were one and a half bathrooms, a kitchen and a dining room, a basement and an attic. But there was nothing sadder than leaving our tiny house on our block. Because it had become our block, us kids, from different families and different backgrounds, who met in the street with the common goal of finding a way to have fun until dinnertime. When you’re young, you don’t notice if you’ve got the smallest house on the block, if you’re poor, or even if you’re rich. You just go on playing and living and laughing and crying. And if you’re lucky, you’re surrounded by others who don’t notice it, either.

I silently acknowledge the little white house whenever I pass by, seeing light through the windows and the latest occupants going about living within. I give a little smile in thanks, for giving me and my brothers the chance to have a carefree childhood, surrounded by other carefree kids causing trouble, breaking bones, having impromptu Frank Zappa dance parties; for irrational fears of the Mad Jogger, first kisses, and the “car, car, C-A-R” chant because without it, we would have all gotten hit by at least one car during a game of Spud.

To Jefferson Avenue, with love.

Fear and Loathing in Breast Exams

Fear and Loathing in Breast Exams
Note: I have been meaning to write about my personal experience for Breast Cancer Awareness Month for a while now and, well, I’ve finally gone and done it. Take care of yourself.

First, listen. (It fits, promise.)

I’ve had a fear of my own chest since I hit puberty.

From the age of 14, I had to deal with… breasts. I’d like to start off with saying that the idea of becoming a woman did not excite me, like it did some of the other girls I went to school with. I grew up trying to fit in with older brothers and their friends, so the notion of having cleavage and wearing a bra disgusted me. To put it more simply, I was more of a Roberta than a Teeny. I hid when changing for lacrosse practice and always wore high neck shirts (luckily, turtle necks were so in, thank u 90s/00s). And I never let anyone tell me that maybe I needed a real bra instead of the at-this-point-way-too-small cotton training bra I had been wearing in hopes that it might force my chest to regress back to flatness, the way I liked it.

Being a woman was scary, this was something I was aware of even at 14 years old. Every time something happened to me where I was maturing away from being a girl, I was struck with panic. Maybe it had something to do with being raised by my dad and not quite knowing how to start the conversation of buying a bra or maxi pads (author’s note: both were so awkward), but the whole idea of any of it scared the hell out of me and I would have taken a hard pass if it were at all possible.

Still, the gynecologist’s office opened up doors for me. Here was a lady who just knew things I wanted to know. Like information about birth control (can I get some?) and STDs (how does one keep from getting one?) and sex (what even?), all of these things that, by age 17, I’d heard of but never had before (thank goodness, amirite, dad?). Though this new woman in my life had become a beacon of hope and information, all of my appointments are riddled with anxiety and nerves.

Years later, I learn that my aunt (my mother’s twin sister) has fought and survived breast cancer. Suddenly, my breast exams leave me even more tense than before. I wait in agony as my doctor feels around, for her to inevitably feel the lump in my breast that I always assume is there, just waiting to be discovered. I plead with the universe, I never wanted these things, anyway!

Then, my mother is diagnosed with and survives ovarian cancer. My cancer riskometer (not a thing), rises exponentially. I’m in college and when a guy feels me up, I worry about him finding a lump that the doctor may have missed.

“Are you performing breast exams on yourself regularly?” Doctor Kathy asks me, routinely.

“Yes,” I lie, routinely.

I sit in my paper gown with sweaty palms during every appointment, unsure of whether Doctor Kathy could ever understand that I can’t feel my own breasts for lumps because I harbor so much fear of finding what I’m looking for.

Finally, it is suggested that I should get genetic testing. (And not just me, but my brothers, as well. Because the BRCA-1 and -2 gene can be passed through men but it also increases the risk of testicular and prostate cancer.) I sit on this information for yearsYears and years. (Fine, I’ll tell you. Eight years.) I spend hours breaking down in tears over the idea of it. As a teenager, I was so sure that naivety was the way to go. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. But man, that doesn’t work with cancer. It just doesn’t. The fear of my chest, that I have dealt with since I was a teenager, forced me into realizing that knowledge = power. Also, knowledge = health insurance covering more frequent screenings for women at risk for these vicious female cancers.

I made an appointment for what felt like lightyears away and began filling out paperwork with information I have just about memorized by heart — Mother: ovarian cancer at 47, BRCA-2 pos. Maternal Aunt: breast cancer at 45, BRCA-2 pos. Maternal Grandmother: breast cancer at 44. And there are other far-flung familial relations that I’d never met or even heard of who lived in the wake of this genetic material climbing its way through our family tree.

When the day finally came, it was as cloudy and gray as my headspace had been. It really only involved giving blood and playing the waiting game. And I waited in a kind of daze because 95% of me had resigned to the fact that I had this mutation in me. But it was the other 5% of me hoping to beat the odds that was left just a little bit devastated when the results came back:

POSITIVE FOR A DELETERIOUS MUTATION

deleterious
[del-i-teer-ee-uh s]
adjective
injurious to health

 

The word has stuck with me ever since I first read it. It’s just so fucking ugly. And yet, I found a strange amount of clarity in seeing it in my test results. I felt lucky that it’s not the more aggressive strain BRCA-1, lucky that I now know what I’m looking for (sorta), lucky that now my health coverage would allow me to be more vigilant. Because having the gene doesn’t mean you will get cancer, and not having the gene doesn’t mean you won’t get cancer.

Recently, I mentioned the results of the test to someone. Oh, I’m so sorry, they said, with a sorrowful click of their tongue. Don’t feel sorry for me, I wanted to tell them. If my body is a temple, then perhaps it can also be a fortress. In which case, I’ll need all the defensive intel and strategy I can get in order to keep these BRCA bastards at bay.

For more info on genetic testing and counseling: MSKCC
Header image is a gif from this video

On Sadness

On Sadness

First, listen.

Here’s the thing: sadness is crippling.

It doesn’t matter what kind of sadness you’ve got. It could be clinical depression, it could have come in with a colder season, it could be because of a nasty break-up. Whatever shape or size it comes in, it has the ability to cripple you, to force you onto a crutch, to curl you up into the shape of a fetus. Sadness has this insane ability to change everything about you; the way you hold yourself while riding the subway, whether or not you hug your jacket to your body, if you stare down at your feet, if you scowl or frown or pout or do nothing with your mouth. It brings down the number of true, genuine laughs in your day. Sometimes it can make the sound of your own amusement sound foreign, when it finally creeps out from the shadows.

Sadness has this way of hiding tears right there at the surface of your eyelids, skimming the top of your tear ducts, waiting to pour down the slope of your cheeks, to the chin, and (sometimes) onto the collar of a perfectly clean shirt. There’s that choking feeling in the back of the throat, that one that almost feels like a burn because the body is trying to fight off that crying yelp that one might be familiar with due to drunken nights in college, after that boy never texted or called and ignored you in the dining hall. You know the one. You know it exactly. And you fight it. You fight it because you’re sitting at your desk at work and someone says that one little thing, even if it’s comforting like ‘I want to call you and hear your voice, I miss you,’ but it’s that thing that’s going to make you cry. But you’re in public and none of these people have ever seen you cry. And they probably never should because your cry face is quite an ugly fucking thing. So you save it all. You stock it on the highest shelves in your mind, all that crying, all that sadness. You hide it behind your smile and the self-deprecating jokes and you file it away to remind yourself to figure out why you’re feeling sad in the first place. What that aching space in your chest is all about.

You go for more than 12 hours pushing the sadness to the back burner, even through the sad song on the subway that has you staring down at your folded hands, willing the tears to go away. But you’re almost home! Just a few minutes away! And you finally get in and it’s like you’ve got a full bladder, the way your foot is tapping, the way your hand fights to get the keys into the lock. Except, when you get inside and you drop your bag on the floor and you throw your jacket off to the side, you’re not releasing your pee. The tears start flowing, the breathing is labored. It’s more an hysterical hyperventilation than anything else.

You’ve held it in for so long that it’s almost hard to just let them all go, all those tears. They had become such permanent fixtures, gathering cobwebs on those high shelves somewhere in your mind. But they’re leaving, now. And the sobs are shaking you. And you hide under your covers and feel the eye make-up burning but you can’t stop. All while asking yourself why: Why am I sad? Why am I crying? Why do I want to stay under these covers for at least the next week? And maybe you don’t know the exact answer, maybe you are keenly aware that things aren’t terrible. Of course they’re not terrible! You have a job, you have a roof to live under, you have a bank account that (sort of!!!) has money in it. You could probably write a longer list of the things that are going well. Plenty to be happy about. The air in your lungs, an able body. Yes, you are equipped with all of your senses. But there’s a cloud. You don’t want to relate yourself to Eeyore so maybe it’s a fog.

You’ve been through this before feeling that nagging, terrible word: lonely. And with a little closer examination: Alone.  And you don’t want to go back there.

Suddenly, the intercom rings – a delivery guy – and you realize your roommate has been home the entire time you’ve had a panic attack by yourself in your room.