Editor’s Note: This article speaks about eating disorders and may be triggering for some folks.
Pain is relative. Emotional, physical, past or present; it doesn’t discriminate. It’s the common denominator between all of us. The events behind the reasons we keep moving forward, and the literal images that grip our thoughts. What continues to surprise me is how quickly a “most pain” moment can be replaced by one that’s worse. The accumulation of these moments over a lifetime is how we gather both grit and grace. I’ll share personal examples with the hope that it will allow you to examine your own pain. And that when examined, it fuels the heck out of you. To run faster, race harder, sit still when needed, and help others along the way.
I had severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a child. It was awful. Kids made fun of me. I spent hours alone in my room doing behavioral therapy to cease the compulsions. It was torture, but I got through it. The therapy required sitting still in the feeling of urge, and letting it consume me. It was the most pain I’d ever felt. Until it wasn’t.
I had bulimia nervosa and exercise addiction for over 20 years of my life. There was at least one fracture to show for each year: multiple in both hips, femoral necks, and femur. I had amenhorhea, osteopenia, and my hormone levels were of a prepubescent girl. There were multiple hospitalizations, treatment plans, and a collection of professionals to guide recovery.
The physical pain from binging and purging, broken bones, and the aftermath was excruciating. The emotional pain of the toll taken on my family, the underlying depression, the races peaked for and missed, the devastation of life passing without memory was agony. But the pain of sitting still in that urge feeling and waiting for it to pass, now that was worse than the OCD. And just like that, it became the “most pain” I’d ever felt. Until it wasn’t.
Six years into recovery, I’d abstained from binging and purging, used nutrition and weight gain to reverse the osteopenia, regain my period, and normalized my hormone levels. I met my soon to be husband and not only was he nonjudgmental about my past, he used love and humor to challenge my lingering eating disorder and exercise addiction behaviors.
I tipped my hat to myself, and for years called on all of this grit gathering to get through difficult life events, trying workouts, hill climbs, races, etc. The idea being that no run could ever bring as much physical pain as I had felt emotionally, or vise-versa, and therefore, I could endure more. I was naive to think I was done. Had reached my pinnacle of pain. Turns out, all I had been through was merely preparing me for what was to come.
I hadn’t run in two years due to hip surgery and a femoral neck fracture. Didn’t know if I could get pregnant because of my past. So when we found out we were pregnant, it was a true gift. Our daughter was born in May, 2020. An induced labor caused the most physically and mentally demanding pain I’d ever experienced. This new “most pain” moment was obvious.
But our baby was born blue and not breathing. No cries, no cutting of the umbilical cord, no “it’s a girl” moment we had waited so long for. There was concern of a brain injury and my husband and I spent the longest hours of our lives waiting to know if she was alive or if she would be okay. And just like that, in one moment, it’s as if the pain of labor vanished: quickly replaced by the emotional pain and fear for our daughter. After a few nights in the NICU, we were very grateful to find out she would be okay. But those hours in the unknown were now at the top of my “most pain” list.
We got pregnant with a second girl 8 months after our daughter was born. I would be forty-two years old with two girls under two! This time I was able to run through my entire pregnancy and it was pure heaven – something I never thought I’d experience. New to our town and desperate to meet other women who could relate to this phase of life, I joined a local mama trail running group (moms who run on trails with their kids in jogging strollers!? Sign me up.) These women welcomed us with open arms. Our first run together consisted of birth stories, fears, joys, and all the tips and tricks for balancing two babies. The best part of trail running: starting as strangers, pouring our hearts out, returning friends for life.
The look on our 17 month old daughter’s face when we brought the baby home from the hospital will always be one of my favorite moments of life. Her joy impossible to contain, she squealed and hugged and kissed her new sister endlessly. She ran back and forth from her to us with a “is it real” look on her face. Our family felt complete and solidified.
Less than 48 hours after being home from the hospital, while breastfeeding the baby on the floor of my older daughter’s room, she had (what we found out later) a seizure. Her eyes rolled back in her head, her neck went limp, and she turned blue. Thinking she had possibly choked, I propped her against my shoulder and tried to burp her. It didn’t help. I gave her to my husband trusting he could fix it, that all would be okay, and I called 911. He did back blows and began CPR. All of my training to be calm went out the window and seeing her body laying across our kitchen table, blue, and still limp, I lost it. I started screaming uncontrollably as 911 was trying to get an address out of me.
I wanted to shield my older daughter from witnessing what I feared would destroy her the rest of her life. It felt like a nightmare, spinning out of control, happening so fast, pure primal survival mode from everyone in the room. Our squad. My husband was able to get her color to return, and the police and paramedics arrived promptly.
We spent the next two weeks in pure hell. I will leave out most of the details, because frankly, it’s too much. We watched her seize repeatedly, NICU stays, hospital transfers, tests beyond tests beyond tests. No sleep. No recovery from labor. No time as a family to bond. Sadness from missing our oldest and a deep guttural longing to heal the pain she felt — the confusion and fear for the sister just introduced to her being taken away. And a deep guttural pain of hearing our baby scream during multiple spinal tap attempts, IV insertions, etc. Was she able to understand what was going on? Was she scared? Did she think this is what her life would consist of? It was too much to comprehend.
I did not know that this level of pain existed. To say this was the new “most pain” would not do it justice. It was so much more. It felt like my insides had been ripped from me, that my heart and body were deflated and exploding at the same time, that my head was streaked with bright light and a fog that kept me from focusing. It felt primal and raw. My husband and I gripped each other and sobbed. We held both daughters tight and with purpose and with a deep need to protect and heal them.
One night I broke. I fell to the floor crying and begging out loud for something to please give me strength to be able to handle all of this. I needed to be strong for my family, I needed to survive, and at that moment didn’t know how I would even stand up. It was dark and terrifying, and I was consumed with so much emotional and physical pain.
But something happened. And something shifted. And a new perspective emerged.
The doctor told us that our baby, at 4 days old, during her multiple spinal taps and horrific screaming pain, that amongst that, she fought. Fought off four grown adults. Knowing nothing but a life of pain, she fought and endured and opened her eyes to look deeply into ours, telling us to trust her. Her old soul yearned for a place in this world and through her grit, she exuded pure light and grace.
The pain she felt was far greater than mine. The fear my 17 month old felt was greater than mine. All of this life collecting memories of pain, and it took a newborn, a 17 month old, and the strongest man I know, to put it into perspective. Their actions are lessons in how to handle pain; how to use it to help and to help and inspire others. Thinking of them in their darkest moments, with all of the innocence they exude, that is my current “most pain.”
So what do you do with all of this? How do you use it? Make note of the feeling that arrives in your body when you reflect on your “most pain” moment. Find an image that is viscerally attached to that memory. Become intimate with it. Store it away so it’s readily available when you need it. And use it: in a race, when your body is screaming and everything inside of you wants to give up, or an insane hill stares down at you, or another is going through something so much worse than what you even have context for, or when you’re faced with a moment so difficult you don’t know how it will unfold. Call on that pain.
Here’s an example: There is no physical pain worse than my darkest day of depression. Visualize all of the details from that day, and get the feeling in your body: frozen, heavy, deflated, blurred. Recall where you were on that day and the thoughts that raced through your head. This is your gift of grit, so use it how you best see fit. A superpower in a way. We run and race by choice. It’s a luxury.
So use your past pain to test yourself. Share it with another when they are weak. Use it when you are faced with a new “most pain” moment, and know that you are prepared for it because you’ve spent a lifetime stacking moments. And remind yourself, when you’re at breaking, and you think you’re out of strength with nothing left to give, trust that it will come.
Running looks very different for me now. I have not been on a trail in months for fear of being too far away from home. I loop the neighborhood out of necessity, becoming intimate with the details of each home on the dark early mornings, running just enough to restore my postpartum body, nowhere near training. I miss the peace of mountain escapes, the adventure, the pushing to new physical limits, and the clarity of thoughts that are birthed there. I miss racing and pushing my body to the brink. But this is temporary, it’s a necessity, and it’s not about me. And when I am granted the luxury to feel such pain by choice, I look forward to testing out my theory.
We learned that our babe, now 5 months old, has a genetic seizure disorder. She should outgrow it by the age of two, and as of now is developing normally and fantastically. She giggles like crazy and has become obsessed with her older sister, who is now her greatest protector. There was a relapse in seizures when her initial medication was no longer effective, and each call to the paramedics, each visit to the ER for seizures that didn’t break, each look on her face that seemed a bit off, brought the feeling of pain immediately back into my body. But we know how lucky we are. How much worse it could be. And we do not take that lightly. We are grateful beyond words. The love and support from our family, friends, and the newfound community of trail running mamas, was a saving grace. It does take a village.
And no matter what, after each episode, our daughter’s smile emerges and she continues to be an example of resilience and grace. My oldest daughter now cheers on the fire department and paramedics when they arrive. That’s how I want to face fear and pain. Feel it, learn from it, and then welcome the hell out of it with cheers and open arms.
Thank you for sharing your story and this perspective on pain in such an open, honest, and soulful way. I look forward to reading more from you.
Thank you so much Stephanie, that means a lot to me!