This wasn’t the story I thought I would be telling.
You see, I used to be fast.
Though hardly Olympic caliber, I raced mountain bikes at an elite level and was making consistent progress toward my goal to race in World Cups when a non-racing back injury derailed my plans and put me on the injured (and struggling) reserve for over two years. I was barely able to sit for more than ten minutes, let alone train. I made it through those years somehow. My grad school professors allowed me to take classes standing or lying down (yay physical therapy school!), but I found myself crying myself to sleep more nights than not, believing that I would never be able to train again and be a part of the outdoor community that had meant so much to me.
So, when I made a breakthrough in my treatment and started to slowly climb back up the ladder to fitness through trail running, I thought that was going to be my story, my contribution to the sports narrative. I missed the writing I did during my bike racing days and wanted to let others know that chronic pain wasn’t a terminal condition. I started scripting outlines for my first few posts. But, then I noticed a trend in some conversations I had with people close to me and I realized my narrative had to change.
In seemingly harmless conversations at work, I would mention how hard it is for me with my social anxiety to go to parties and make new friends outside of work. Without fail, the responses were some combination of “you’re not shy!” or “but you should just try harder” or “just put yourself out there!” These were comments from people who are my friends, who interact with me every day and care about me. I tried to clarify, to explain how much this has impacted my life, but never really felt like I got my point across.
Because, in reality, social phobia (also known as social anxiety) has had a crippling effect on my life. I can’t remember a time when it didn’t play a central role for me, when it didn’t keep me from doing things I wanted: going to parties, saying hi to people who seemed like fun, taking language classes, or joining groups and teams. I’ve lived for so long in a world where even the most casual social interaction is like an interview for your dream job and every time you make eye contact like walking in to a blind date. I can’t call up to order a pizza (thank heavens for grubhub!) or ask a salesperson at a store for help. I know my friends and coworkers meant well, but, the knowledge of what it’s like to live with this disorder isn’t common knowledge.
So, instead, this is the story I will tell:
I didn’t know what I was going through was different when I was in high school. I just thought of myself as shy, thought I would be better if my family didn’t have a habit of moving every few years. I had friends. I played sports. But I was always anxious, except when I was in my comfort zone, surrounded by a few closer friends and tucked in a corner. I figured it was growing pains and side-effects of dealing with struggles within my immediate family with mental health, divorce, and major injuries/illnesses. Who wouldn’t be a little stressed out and have a hard time coping?
College was where things came to a head. I was living in Montreal, a city which I love more than anything, with amazing classmates and challenging classes. But, as I neared graduation, things kept getting harder. What began with skipping parties and backing out last minute with plans with friends escalated quickly into being fundamentally unable to leave the apartment that I shared with my cousin. I was passing my classes (thanks to McGill not paying all that much attention to attendance), but I wasn’t functioning. When I got to the point where I wasn’t even leaving my room, I called my father and told him I needed help. I dropped out of undergrad one semester away from graduation and moved back to NY.
During all those years, through high school and college and once back in NY, I struggled with feeling nearly constantly lonely. You see, social anxiety makes me function as an introvert, but I’m an extrovert at heart. I love people and the things that make me happiest are when I can help other people, be part of a group, or of a team trying to reach a goal. But, I couldn’t take the first steps to get out there, to meet new people, or even to just go to parties and dance.
In keeping with my theme, I was 24 when I had my first real boyfriend. Again, not because I didn’t want to be dating, but I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to date someone as awkward as me. I don’t pick up on social signals in that realm, which is ironic since that’s one of my strengths in social situations when I’m not part of the picture.
It took a long time, but, with the support of my family and friends, I was able to finally get out of the house, get back to work, and finish my bachelors with Skidmore College’s University Without Walls Program over ten years after I started at McGill.
During those years, I found bike racing and the community surrounding the sport. For the first time in a long time, I felt at home. It took years to build my way up to pro level, but I made friends easily while rolling along country roads or twisting through some sweet single track trails. I started working at a shop, kept moving up the racing ranks, and started coaching new racers. I began seriously dating a fellow racer and I thought my anxiety was finally under check.
So it was demoralizing when a back injury took that all away. I had weathered the previous year when my then boyfriend experienced a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle crash. I had kept everyone in the loop with his recovery, earned my pro license, and was planning on a run on the 2014 World Cup season. With a week of overtraining and some ill-advised recovery techniques, my coping mechanism was gone. It would be two years and a million sleepless minutes before I would start feeling like me again.
And here I am now, it’s been 4 years since I hurt my back. I have worked my way up from just being able to walk without pain to a 5K and then a 10K and then a trail half-marathon and, finally, last October, I ran (well mostly ran!) my first 50K ultra. I graduated with my doctorate from physical therapy school and am working a job that brings me more satisfaction that I ever imagined.
And I am telling a much different story than I first planned. Because I’m not the only one who struggles with social phobia. Because being open and honest is the first step in creating change. It’s the first step towards improving understanding and awareness.
And, because, more than anything, I want people to know how freeing it feels to run in single file down a beautiful wooded trail and just be with each other. Everyone taking in the smells of the woods, the sounds of a branch crack, squirrel chatter, a bird call. Breath coming quicker from effort, not anxiety. Your thoughts can move away from whether you fit in, whether you’re fast enough, if you’re wearing the right shoes, if anyone noticed you sweating in the parking lot because you were more nervous about saying hello than the run ahead.
This is running and it can set you free.