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Pain & the Power of Storytelling

If the mass of runners share any one thing it is an astute ability to tolerate physical pain. Pain is an acquired taste, like beer or cigars or pickled herring. But once you tap into the reservoirs of tolerance, once you discover just how much you really can handle, tolerating physical pain becomes intoxicating. I know with utter certainty that running hard and long-engaging in a painful physical activity-has increased my tolerance for other types of pain: mental, emotional, etc. I know too, that physical pain can easily become a scapegoat for mental or emotional trauma. The correlation is not difficult to draw.

Sometimes, running is not even necessary. Physical movement of any kind can be a release. Just moving, leaving the house, walking somewhere, can cleanse the soul a bit, help to dull any mental or emotional trauma. It may not be entirely functional to rely on physical pain to numb other pain, but it works. It is a coping mechanism and there are *much* worse ways to cope.

I was 10 the first time I felt rejected by my peers, and 12 when I discovered the magic, healing balm of a good, hard run. Since then, I’ve turned to running many times over when my emotions run awry, when I’m mentally taxed, when I feel rejected, or like I’d just rather not be here.

When my great grandmother died, I ran, hard. She laid in a hospital bed for days on end hooked up to a breathing machine, our family gathered around her, waiting for her to die. I ran every day. Sat next to her bed. Held her clammy hand. Wet her mouth with a sponge a nurse gave me.

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I ran, hard. It was early spring, and the cold air cut my throat and threatened to freeze the tears running down my cheeks. I enjoyed how the air squeezed by lungs, making it harder and harder to breathe.

When a boyfriend cheated on me, I traded a pair of heels for running shoes and ran, hard. It was an angry run, full of disdain for his cowardice and self-loathing for allowing myself to care. I ran from my college campus, downtown to the river, to the edge of the city and back, trying to make sense of love without knowing what real love truly felt like.

When my eating disorder planted itself firmly in my chest, I ran, hard. I ran to forget the burning sensation in my esophagus, the rancid taste of vomit, the isolation and fear and shame. I ran to feel light and free from my demons. I ran away from all the things that could, or would, or might hurt me. I ran, because I didn’t know what else to do.

Then, I injured my hip and couldn’t run for months, and I was lost. My salve, the thing I used to numb my pain, was gone. And instead of inflicting some other type of physical pain on myself, I turned to my computer. I wrote poems, and short stories, and funny dialogues between characters who only existed in my head. I created art. I rewrote my own traumas and made them beautiful, and that was ultimately the one thing that saved me. I learned that I could save myself, through stories. I learned to appreciate and understand others through their stories, too. And I learned, above all, that our stories are powerful beyond belief.

Religious people live and die and go to war for their stories. Governments tell us stories about other people who are, more or less, just like us. Our governments tell us who deserves to die, and why, and which of us should die to uphold the story we hold so close. We tell our children stories about the world and the lives we construct for them, in part to protect them and in part because we know no other stories. We re-frame our memories to suit our current needs, and soon the past becomes one enormous, ever-evolving story.

My grandmother often tells the same stories about her childhood or family members who passed before I could know them. I've heard her stories many times over, rolling my bratty eyes, “Yes Grandma, you told me this already.” What I didn’t realize was that she was colloquializing her life, making sure I knew where I came from, making sure the stories stuck. Whether or not she knew it, she was teaching me that we are nothing if not our stories.

Perhaps the greatest act of self-love is storytelling; making sure the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, are good and full and honest. Making sure we create the time and space for other people to tell their stories, too. And above all, loving ourselves and our stories deeply and completely. Telling them without shame, and listening without judgement.


Sarah Rose

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