Devin Kelly | Longreads | February, 2021 | 24 minutes (6,376 words)
It wasn’t the pain on the lateral side of my right knee in March. I kept running through that. It wasn’t the throbbing of my right shin in July. I kept running through that. It was one morning, waking up, when I couldn’t bend my right leg at all. If I could’ve run, I would’ve. I just couldn’t.
I should tell you before I say anything more that I am writing this from a place of injury, not recovery. There will be no conquering here, no overcoming. Nothing will be fixed by this essay’s end. Not long ago, I was diagnosed with an osteochondral lesion in my right knee. This, after multiple office visits and an MRI. This, after a year spent running over two thousand miles. After another year spent running over two thousand miles. After another year spent running over two thousand miles. And so on. And so on. And so on, and on.
An osteochondral lesion is a break in the cartilage that spreads itself over a bone. In this case, the fracture is in the cartilage covering the base of my femur. That cartilage does so much. It is, essentially, like a bone being fractured. The diagnosis is uncertain. I can walk fine. I present well. I do push-ups in the morning instead of going out for my usual run. I pace the apartment like a jaguar. I spend a whole day wishing I was someone else. They say I can’t run for months. They say something about surgery, maybe. They say don’t think about it yet. I stay up in bed and wonder if I will ever be the same.
The list of injuries I have suffered over the course of nearly a lifetime spent running is long. I have had sciatica in my right leg as a result of a strained piriformis muscle, an injury that forced me, while in college, to pull my jeans onto my body while still in my bed. I could not balance on one leg. I have had a stress fracture in my right femur. I have had many iterations of shin splints, have slept with my foot in a boot because of plantar fasciitis, which is just a fancy way of saying that the bottom of your foot really fucking hurts. I have had runner’s knee, IT band syndrome, lost toenails. I have had injuries that have had nothing to do with my legs but everything to do with running. Headaches pulsing between the eyes, gastrointestinal mishaps, an hour spent in a port-a-potty after the Boston Marathon. My brother has a screw forever in his foot as a result of a running-related fracture. My father has two new hips. I watched the old ones wear away as a kid, his body looping around me in circles on the local high school track. Even though he was going the same speed, I didn’t know he was slowing down.
I should tell you before I say anything more that I am writing this from a place of injury, not recovery. There will be no conquering here, no overcoming. Nothing will be fixed by this essay’s end.
A known fact about most distance running injuries is that they most often fall into the bucket known as repetitive stress injuries. These injuries don’t appear suddenly. Perhaps the pain does. But the pain is the result of a long time spent doing something with one part of your body — whether it has to do with your stride length, your shoes, or your footstrike — in such a way that another part of your body has to compensate for the action. Repeat this enough, and you have a tight glute, a weakened bone, a foot that aches in the morning. What is interesting about running is that you engage with pain so frequently that the early warning signs of a serious injury often seem like regular pain, the usual, the old ordinary aches of a morning spent logging miles around a park. Most of my serious running injuries have been the result of ignoring the ways in which my body was signaling stress until some fateful morning when I woke up and realized it was too late to ignore the pain, that I’d have to honor it, and sit out for a week, a month, or more.
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In 2015, I suffered a stress fracture high up in my right femur while I was training for the New York City Marathon. I was almost certainly in the best shape of my life, and had been logging weeks of 80 miles and more as I attempted to break two hours and 40 minutes in the marathon, a coveted personal goal. The pain arrived simply and casually, like an old friend coming by to say hello. And so I let it say hello, over and over again, for weeks, until one morning I woke up and found I couldn’t run more than two steps without that hello turning into a scream. A few doctor’s visits and an MRI later, and I was diagnosed with a stress fracture and told to stay away from running for months. I remember being struck by a very particular kind of sorrow that befalls runners in this scenario, runners who have spent months dealing with a daily, ordinary pain in order to access some extraordinary moment. I remember saying I wish I had stopped running sooner, then it would have been nothing. I remember hating my past self, wishing I did better. The injury was not a singular decision, not a moment. It was a string of decisions. It was a litany of many moments.
Once, my father told me it was okay to ask for help. I was 15. I didn’t know what that meant. I have a hard time knowing now.
Help is a funny word. My first interactions with it were almost always ones of violence. A character in a movie cried for help. Someone was hurt, always. They needed help. They needed help now. The way they needed help was obvious. They were trapped under metal. They were physically crushed. A bone was broken. Blood was on their clothes. If help didn’t arrive soon, then the help would arrive too late. And then there were tears. And there was no helping those.
My father has two new hips. I watched the old ones wear away as a kid, his body looping around me in circles on the local high school track. Even though he was going the same speed, I didn’t know he was slowing down.
I went to my first therapist when I was a little older than 16. My mother had left my father years before. I had spent a childhood hiding bottles from her, finding them in the back seats of cars, thinking addiction was little more than a game that could be won. I never won it. I wanted to ask for help then, but I didn’t know how. Years later, I remember walking through my high school’s halls, feeling like the pit of my stomach was cleaning the floors. I spent each class writing poems on the back pages of my notebooks. I made promises I could never keep. I said I will love the people I love forever. I said I will never break my family in two. I wasn’t asking for help. I was saying I didn’t need it.
After school, I ran with my cross country team. I ran as hard as I could. I wanted to reach a point where the suffering I created from my body matched the suffering I felt inside my body. I wanted them to be the same suffering. When they reached the same point, it felt like pure equilibrium. It felt like home. On weekends when we didn’t have races, I cradled my Walkman and ran miles around my neighborhood. I don’t know if I thought the running would bring relief or make me feel satisfied without relief, but either way I finished as a heaving, sweating mess, and I thought of nothing but finding myself again. And then I found myself, and I was sad at the slightest touch. A can of beer on the television was enough to send my throat to my gut. My eyesight felt grayed around the edges.
I don’t know if you would have noticed that in me. Help is a funny word, because we don’t often say it. I’m going to say it now. I needed help. I need help. I don’t remember much about that first therapist. I remember that he was old, and kind. I remember taking the DC Metro there, out of the city where I lived and into Rockville, because I wanted to do it on my own. I remember not knowing what to say. I remember thinking I was broken. I remember wanting to be fixed. I remember thinking of it that way: that there was broken, and there was fixed. I remember leaving, and walking to the train. I remember highways and the singular anonymity of office buildings. I remember the way the world felt like the world does: too big. I remember the way I felt like I do: so small. I remember wanting an ending, thinking an ending would come. Some kind of feeling. Some sense of overcoming. It didn’t come.
Once, years ago, my father asked me to bend down to tie his shoes. I didn’t think much of it.
So much of our collective conception of the right kind of narrative has to do with ability. Most consumed stories of success have to do with setback and accomplishment. There is an arc to every conventional narrative. The setback — be it an injury, a fight, a loss — throws a wrench into the arc. But then the protagonist is reminded of their ability, and the arc resumes. It’s hard to find a widely-consumed narrative that does not fit this mold, a mold that labels injury as abnormality, aberrance, technical difficulty. Hello. Hi. Yes, you there. Is your life like this? Are you always soaring toward the top? Is injury just a small blip on the scope of your accomplishment? You don’t always feel like something is hurting? Really?
I wonder if our collective relationship and acknowledgement of injury is skewed because of the way mass-consumed sport is interwoven with trauma. The history of sport is a history of violence. Many nights of my own childhood were defined by the sound of Chris Berman’s voice on ESPN’s Sunday Night Football, going over the biggest tackles, hits, and sacks of the day. I ingested that without thought, relishing the amplified crunch of one human destroying another. Injuries in popular sports like football or basketball happen at once, suddenly, amid violence that ranges from a casual nudge to a visceral tackle. And though the consistent violence is a kind of trauma, the injuries are more acutely traumatic. A torn ACL. A concussion. A fracture. There are, in these sports, injuries that are “life-threatening,” “career-ending,” and “bone-breaking.” If these are the injuries we collectively witness, do they make us ignore the smaller, more ordinary injuries we walk around with on a daily basis? Sometimes I feel like I can’t admit my hurt.
I remember the way I felt like I do: so small. I remember wanting an ending, thinking an ending would come. Some kind of feeling. Some sense of overcoming. It didn’t come.
So many of my childhood memories of sport have to do with injury, often violent, sometimes even fatal. I can still recall the game where, while I was a catcher on my high school baseball team, an opposing team’s batter caught his cleat in a divot, tried to swing, and ended up forcing his kneecap out of its normal place until it wound up floating somewhere up in his thigh. I remember holding his shoulders as he squirmed. I remember Kevin Ware, the University of Louisville guard, and the stark white of his bone breaking through his skin. I’ve seen the countless replays of Bo Jackson’s career-ending hip injury and Joe Theismann’s broken leg. I spent many a night watching Mike Tyson knock people out. Sadly, I can’t erase the image of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal car crash, the hood flimsy and broken, like it was made of silk, not metal. And I’ve wound and rewound the footage of Derek Redmond’s father running out onto the Olympic track to help his son finish a 400-meter race after his hamstring gave out on international television.
As such, for a long time, I thought injury only happened one way: the crunch of one body against another. I thought injury had to make a sound. And I thought that sound had to be loud. In high school, I told the story of tripping over another runner’s heels during a cross country race and falling headlong into a root, suffering a concussion. I relished telling my friends who said running was not a “contact sport” about all the ways the metal on the bottom of a track spike could bloody a shin, all the bony elbows that would bruise ribs as people vie for position at the start of a crowded race.
Injury can happen in the constant, repeated, hushed footfall of a sneaker against a park road in the predawn light, before a city knows it’s awake. Injury can happen in the words we say or don’t say, in all the little things we do. In his novel End Zone, Don DeLillo writes: “This is the custom among men who have failed to be heroes; their sons must prove that the seed was not impoverished.” The violence of sport allows for society, particularly men, to continually enact and reenact the process of achieving heroic status, and traumatic injuries allow for a kind of seriousness. Injury’s mythic status justifies risk. It allows for risk, and risk’s potential reward to exist as necessities on the pathway to success. But what do we ignore because of this? What do we live with as a result of this endless pursuit through, not away from, violence and stress?
Once, almost two decades ago, my father stood with me and my brother in an airport as we waited for my mother to come home from rehab. And then, a few years later, once more, too.
My osteochondral lesion is a repetitive stress injury. It is not the result of some traumatic force. There was no singular moment when my cartilage fractured, and my body collapsed to the ground. It was the result of the everyday. Every day I woke up into an impending fracture. Every day I ran toward it. It was not violent until it was. It was lived-with. It was tolerated. I ran myself, as they say, into the ground. Why?
Is there a word for being scared of the fact that you can no longer do what you do when you’re scared, and yet, you’re still scared all of the time?
For my whole life, running served as my way to relieve myself of the stress of living in this world, a world that made me feel like not enough — or too much — at all times, a world that kept me in the in-between of who I was and who I thought I needed to be. I ran to feel in control of a life that sometimes never felt like my own. I ran to bring my parents back together. I ran to show my brother I loved him when there were years we hardly said a word to one another. I ran to lose weight when the world made me feel fat. I ran to feel loved. I ran to tell others that I wanted to be loved. I ran so far. I ran so fucking far. I have run around the world. And for what, for what, for what? Now, after all that running, I’m still here. And I cannot run at all. Where is the place for that in this world? Is there a word for being scared of the fact that you can no longer do what you do when you’re scared, and yet, you’re still scared all of the time?
One of the reasons running serves as such a stark and powerful metaphor is that there are so many things to run away from. I think of the worried and dreamy narrator in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, and how he says: “It is one thing to run from unhappiness; it is another to take action to realize those qualities of dignity and well-being that are the true standards of the human spirit.” And I think, too, of how he asks: “If inner peace is the true objective, would I win it in exile?” So often, the contrast in this life is between inner happiness, or peace, and a life of stress and misery. We run from stress into a life of joy, somewhere, wherever it is. But what if we can’t? And what if that’s not a rhetorical question?
In her book The Unreality of Memory, Elisa Gabbert poses the thought: “I think sometimes that sadness, pain, and even suffering are part of happiness, that sadness and happiness are somehow alike.” If that is the case, which I think it is, how can we live with that? How can we not run away?
Once, years ago, my father walked up a flight of stairs by stepping two feet to every step, instead of one. I didn’t think much of it.
In May of 2010, Chris Solinsky, a muscular, powerful distance runner, ran 26:59 for 10,000 meters, breaking the American record in his first attempt at the distance. I was a freshman in college at the time. I wound and rewound that video. I watched it with my brother. We were astounded. Solinsky instantly became a star. That same year, Track & Field News interviewed him. When they asked, “How have you stayed injury free,” Solinsky said: “I’d say luck has a bit to do with it because I’ve trained pretty stupidly in the past, like I’ve just tried to push the limit as far as possible.” He continued: “Even when I tore my PCL last year the muscles around my knee were strong enough to hold it where my PCL almost wasn’t doing any work anyway. So even if I do get injured—knock on wood—it seems the body can compensate and help me keep training.”
A year later, after nearly three months of running weeks that totaled 120 or more cumulative miles, Solinsky tripped over his dog while walking down the stairs. Ninety percent of his hamstring tore right off his pelvic bone. He was never the same. In 2016, after years of trying to get back to the same Olympic-caliber shape of those previous years, Solinsky retired from track and field for good.
After my MRI, my physical therapist watched me squat. She felt me push my leg against her hand. She pushed down on my ankle as I pushed up. She said your hamstring isn’t firing. She said your entire posterior chain is weak. She said you’ve been compensating too much. She said your quad is working more than it ever should. She said your knee is being thrown this way and that.
It is compensation that causes a repetitive stress injury. The ways my body was trying to alleviate pain were the reasons why my femur, step after step, rammed itself hard against the top of my tibia until it fractured the cartilage meant to protect that impact. So many links built along the chain of protection, and so many links broken. My quads, without my permission or knowledge, became the dominant force of my upper legs. They overfired. They pushed and pulled my knee this way and that. They tried to do too much, to carry the whole load. They failed. They couldn’t do it anymore. They had to stop. They were a steam engine burnt out, smoke fogging up the tracks. It was compensation that ended Chris Solinsky’s career.
In what ways are you, reading this, compensating right now? Are you gritting your teeth? How tight is your jaw? Have you thought about your shoulders? Are they by your ears? Are you walking as you read this? How hard is the grip of your hand around your phone? Are you on the train? Are you squeezing your legs together because you’d rather be invisible? When was the last time you breathed? Did you just breathe out? How did it feel, to be aware of that? Don’t worry. I’ve held my breath for the entirety of writing this paragraph. It is this act of compensation that allows us to walk, still, even though our backs are bent from all we carry in this world.
Sometimes, in therapy, my therapist will ask me a question that makes my eyes well up with tears. He’ll say what do you wish you could say to yourself as a child, and I won’t know the answer, even though I know that it will have something to do with love. When I had my first physical therapy session, my PT lodged her hand into my hip flexor. I felt like she was rooting around for my appendix. When she found my psoas — a little known but very important muscle that connects the spine to the hip — she gasped. So did I. You’re wound tighter than anyone I’ve ever worked on, she said. You must feel terrible.
Once, pushing 70, my father drove four hours to run a half-mile race on a track in New York City. He didn’t tell a soul.
Why do we celebrate our ability to persist through stress? And how does such an ability endanger us to the consequences of stress, or keep us forever unwary of the risk such persistence continually places us within? I’m thinking not just of running, or of sport, but of the dogged persistence that is America’s hubris, a persistence that leaves us not just at risk of hurting our own individual selves, but also at risk of the disasters of climate change, the urgency of consumerism, and endless other fears. It is the failure to admit a small defeat so that we can prepare to fend off a bigger one. Oh, we are scared of retreat. I apologize for using the collective we. Maybe you are not. But I am.
In what ways are you, reading this, compensating right now? Are you gritting your teeth? How tight is your jaw? Have you thought about your shoulders? Are they by your ears?
In his ProPublica article, “Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration,” Abrahm Lustgarten writes of pending mass migration due to climate change. Talking personally about rising sea levels in California, he writes: “The facts [of climate change] were clear and increasingly foreboding. Yet there were so many intangibles — a love of nature, the busy pace of life, the high cost of moving — that conspired to keep us from leaving. Nobody wants to migrate away from home, even when an inexorable danger is inching ever closer. They do it when there is no longer any other choice.” Earlier in the piece, he writes about California’s 2019 power blackouts, the moment he awoke to the dangers of not just climate change, but “imminent climate risk.” He writes: “When power was interrupted six more times in three weeks, we stopped trying to keep [our refrigerator] stocked. All around us, small fires burned. Thick smoke produced fits of coughing.” This is not a metaphor.
One fact I know: There is certainly a future where there is, as Lustgarten writes, “no longer any other choice.” For the most vulnerable populations of the world, this is already the case. There are already climate refugees. There are prisoners fighting forest fires. When is the moment of collective realization of the ways in which our current compensations are only portending a future of something we cannot fix? Will it come? I am talking not just of climate change, but of human grace, of what it could mean to live in a world that resists the urgency of blame, of consumption, of solution-making. What could it mean to live in a world where we learn to recognize the ways in which we are individually hurting and then say: If I am hurting, you must be hurting too?
In The Unreality of Memory, Gabbert writes that “only past disasters look 100 percent preventable.” She goes on to write: “Overreliance on the explanatory power of hubris is itself a form of hubris, a meta-hubris.” Similarly, in his book The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy closes one chapter with a long, at times hopeful, but ultimately sorrow-filled story about the failed attempt to return salmon to the historically polluted Thames. “The lessons, for me,” he writes, “are about our limits,” before concluding: “We can sometimes damage the natural world too severely for it to be repaired.” While reading these works about technological failure and natural disasters, climate change, and human hubris, I thought of those days, pain-ridden and groggy, when I got out of bed and said it’s alright, I can gut myself through another run, and I thought of the days, post-MRI and sore, when I hated that past self for its egotism, its impatience, its inability to admit my own vulnerability to injury.
What could it mean to live in a world where we learn to recognize the ways in which we are individually hurting and then say: If I am hurting, you must be hurting too?
Now, I look at both selves and feel a deep sympathy. I wonder about the relentless drive in that first self, about the refusal to listen to pain, about how it equated rest with defeat. I think of how, in his poem “On Metal,” Jamaal May writes: “No one is happy to learn what an afternoon of chafed / knuckles, metal on skin, no longer solves.” I know how hard it is to sit down, to take a day off, to take — dare I say — a week. I know how much harder it is when the day off is a day of counted calories, a day of mirror images, a day of wishing you lived in a different, less vulnerable body. I hated those days. I would have rather been running through the pain. I’d have rather been limping. I’d have rather thrown every muscle into compensating, just so I could be in pursuit of something — whatever it was — than to be sitting in the stillness that I’d have to define, and, by defining, justify. I want to treat myself with more grace. I want the same for this world.
Once, my father seized up in pain for what seemed like no reason. He said it was nothing.
Twice a week now, I go to physical therapy in the evening. My body is prodded and my spine is bent and cracked. Fingers lodge into muscles, old wooden knots. I stand up and do small exercises to strengthen the muscles that stabilize my knee. I hold the smallest kettlebell in the world and rotate it around my torso as I balance on one leg. I wobble nonstop. Sometimes I fall, and my physical therapist catches me. I catch my own self in the mirror. I think I’ve gained weight. I imagine myself older, so old, impossibly old. I have some vague, undefined phrase in my head: I wish I was better, I wish I had been better, I wish I was, I wish I was. Everything I do now, I should’ve done, should’ve been doing, should have started and never stopped.
One cruelty of this world is the way so many of the things we do to spare us from the cruelty of this world are also things that cause us harm. Our compensations relieve us from one form of injury but then cause another. How Sisyphean, I think. How cruel. And yet, if our bodies are to be used as metaphors, they will only be useful when we collectively listen to the lessons they are teaching us about the way we treat each other, or the earth, or anything remotely close to living. In what ways have I pushed my relationship with myself to the brink of it saying it’s too late? In what ways have we pushed the world to the same place? How many fractures must occur?
One cruelty of this world is the way so many of the things we do to spare us from the cruelty of this world are also things that cause us harm. Our compensations relieve us from one form of injury but then cause another.
In another one of his poems, “Respiration,” Jamaal May writes: “So many of us are breathless, / you know, like me / kneeling to collect the pottery shards / of a house plant my elbow has nudged / into oblivion.” I think of those lines when I stub a toe, when something so small — a dropped fork — renders me almost on the verge of tears. There is a weight I am holding in that renders me breathless. It is the weight of the responsibility of work. The weight of miles I wish I had run. The weight of appearance, wealth, want, desire. I wish it were, always, the other way around. I wish I were breathless at the thought of the beauty of this world. I am sometimes. But I have to work at it.
Once, my father ran laps around my body for what seemed like years at a time, and, I imagined, years before that.
When I run, I don’t feel scared. I feel both in the world and out of it. I feel at once like I am apologizing and forgiving myself at the same time. I feel battered into freedom. Once, I left my grandmother’s house for a run along the shore of Lake Ontario. It was December, and the wind coming off the lake scattered what birds remained and chilled the air to something approaching zero. I wore shorts and ran along the side of Lake Shore Boulevard, where the snow warmed by the tires of cars collected, and started to freeze again. By the end of the run, the sides of my shoes were jagged with shards of ice that sliced and cut my calves with each stride. I know it is wrong to seek comfort in that kind of pain, but I seek comfort in that kind of pain. I don’t know what to do without it. I don’t just compensate when I run; I run as a compensation for my own life. I run because I am scared. I run because sometimes, in the morning, I wake up and don’t know how to live. When I run, at least, I know something about myself, for just a short time.
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In therapy last week, I began the session by going on and on about my knee. I hadn’t told anyone else how angry it made me, how sad. I didn’t want people to think I was complaining about — what — not being able to run for a few months? I felt like Linus without his blanket. As I write this, I am worried about losing my preferred form of coping to deal with the stress that comes simply with being alive. The stress so many people face, not just of living, but of working to live, and not just of working to live, but of working to live in a year plagued by pandemic, a year where I ride the subway to the school where I teach and look differently at each passenger, wondering if I am safe, if they are, if we are, collectively. I used to watch people’s faces. Now I can only watch people’s eyes. They are almost always looking down.
During that session, my therapist nodded and let me speak. By the time I was done, I wasn’t talking about my knee. I was talking about my mom, who left my family after years of struggling with addiction. I said: When I think about my mom now, I think about how often I centered myself and my family as a victim of her addiction. I said: We felt helpless. But then I said: I wish I had thought about how sad she must have been. This is the kernel of pain that everything in my life comes back to. This is the injury of my life. I imagine, perhaps, that you have one too.
Part of being alive in this world is becoming aware of a specific kind of sadness. It is why I am drawn to Gabbert’s quote that “sadness and happiness are somehow alike.” In Marilynne Robinson’s Home, there is a moment when Old Boughton — the father of the wayward, prodigal Jack — says to Jack: “I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavyheartedness.” He is talking to Jack about his behavior as a child, someone who would always run away, leave home without saying goodbye, until one day he ran away and didn’t return for 20 years. His father says, a few sentences later: “I should have known how to help you with it.”
Earlier in the novel, Jack’s sister Glory looks at him and thinks: “He was so practiced at reciting what he was also practiced at rejecting.” I think of that line often now — both when I consider myself and when I consider the world. For all I have written about addiction, I still have a pack of cigarettes hidden inside a coat pocket in my closet. For all I have written about self-love, I still hold my gut between my index finger and my thumb.
What does it mean, to ask for help? Where does it come from, this dogged, so American persistence? Sometimes, if I want to cry, I put on this forlorn outtake of The Band’s song, “Twilight,” sung by Richard Manuel, a man overcome and felled by addiction with a voice straight out of some unpublished Bible. “Don’t leave me alone in the twilight,” he sings, “twilight is the loneliest time of day.”
Do you ever talk about your pain? Are you lonely? Which inner muscle of your heart is working too hard to compensate for the other muscles of your heart? Do you sometimes feel like you have to go all night? Are you running on empty? How much mileage lives in your fumes? Can you make it? Do you want to ask for help? Do you know how?
Once, my father held me in the middle of a marathon when I told him I didn’t think I could finish. He didn’t tell me to stop and didn’t tell me to continue. He just held me.
There is a sadness we are all dealing with. There is a heavyheartedness. And there is a part of us, I believe, that thinks it knows or should know how to help ourselves through it. The fact of injury is a kind of reckoning. Collectively, it is a kind of reckoning with what we have done to the world, and a reckoning with who is not given a choice to save themselves from suffering and who is privileged enough to cope. Personally, it is a reckoning with the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on running shoes and race entrance fees. A reckoning with the cumulative days logged on spin bikes and StairMasters in the time I’ve spent rehabbing from stress fractures and syndromes. A reckoning with what I don’t tell a soul, the pre-dawn walks when I can’t get a run in, the whiskey in the afternoon, the body I can’t escape.
I have no idea how to cope with this. How do you compensate when you can no longer do what you do to compensate? That’s why, perhaps, I am writing this from a place of injury. And even that act of writing is a kind of compensation, my own form of distancing, my own form of self-control.
This is the kernel of pain that everything in my life comes back to. This is the injury of my life. I imagine, perhaps, that you have one too.
In Home, Jack’s sister, Glory, frustrated at the end of the novel, says to Jack: “If you’d just let us help you.” By that point, you know enough about Jack to know that he won’t. There is, I imagine, a little bit of Jack in all of us. A little bit, in each of us, that thinks we can get it done on our own. A little bit, in each of us, that thinks the help of others is a smudge on our record. A little bit, in each of us, that wants, for whatever reason, to be distinct from those we see as being one of many in a crowd. When I go for a run, I feel like Jack: lonely but free, wholly my own self, just slightly distant from the rules of both physics and society.
When professional runners are injured, they often have access to tools that heighten their recovery. One popular tool is the AlterG treadmill, an anti-gravity treadmill that eliminates the stress and resistance of running in a world with gravity. When I was hurt in college, I would go into the pool with a floating device around my hip and run in place, treading water, for an hour at a time. I’ve watched countless videos of elite athletes rehabbing their repetitive stress injuries in a small, insulated chamber literally devoid of the stress of this world. I look, jealous and fixated, at their feet bounding. One of those treadmills can cost as much as $75,000. That much money, to create a place where your feet can run without the risk of re-injury. And how much for a life that can be lived stress free?
Perhaps there is no life that can be lived stress free. Perhaps we learn this from our bodies, which bear the burden of our stress more than we know. When my father, at the almost age of 74, had both of his hips replaced during the same surgery in the summer of 2018, I took off time from work and went down to be with him. For a week, I woke him up and held his hand on the walk to the bathroom. I scratched his legs and put his socks on in the morning. I felt like a disciple. I felt like I was doing something biblical with my work. But what I remember the most is seeing him in the hospital not long after the surgery. He was in the bed and he looked so old. I wanted to cry. I hated hospitals. I loved my father. I said: What’s next, dad? And he said: I have to get up soon, to walk. I did not believe it.
There is a part of me that wants to end the essay here, to hold this up as an example of persistence and resilience, to say he walked, and he was saved, but really I am growing tired of that metaphor. I wanted him to rest. He said: I have to, if I don’t, none of this will work. This was true for his body, which needed its new self to set into its old self. The truth is, my father needed two new hips because, for 74 years, he had been alive. The truth is, injury is not an exception to the narrative. Injury is, for each of us, the narrative. Sometimes survival is just surrender. Sometimes, there is a sadness we are each dealing with. A heavyheartedness. Perhaps you, like me, feel it in your bones. Perhaps you are hurt like I am. It’s okay.
I want to tell you again: It’s okay.
Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.
Editor: Krista Stevens