The weather was so perfect today that I went out for a run right at rush hour. The first half-mile was along a very busy street, so the air was full of traffic noise and the smell of exhaust. Jogging slowly up the initial hill, I was off in my own little world, feeling my body adjust to the incline and the pace, letting my breathing settle into an even rhythm. I wasn’t running fast, or even trying to, just letting my body go through its paces, seeing what it felt like doing.
I was completely unprepared when the young man shouted at me, “Fatty! Hey, Fatty!” For a split second I didn’t realized it was aimed at me; I snapped my head to the right to see what was going on, looking for the poor soul who had just been publicly humiliated. And then I realized it was me. I felt the breath go out of me as if I’d been punched in the gut. I staggered off balance for a step or two;. I kept looking at the guy, who was leaning out of the open driver’s side window of his shiny black sedan as it cruised slowly by, watched his head turn to watch my discomfort, then swivel around as soon as traffic sped up. A bead of sweat trickled down my back, oddly cold.
Running didn’t feel as good after that. My legs felt heavy, achy, awkward. My breathing refused to sync. The roar of traffic stopped feeling warm and enveloping and began to feel intrusive, annoying. The wind was too cold, the sun was too warm, my shoes were too heavy, my tank top was too floppy, my sunglasses were too bouncy on my nose. The original purpose of going out in the first place—to wallow in the weather and gently work out the kinks of a day spent driving and in meetings—was completely lost. The air on my skin made me feel vulnerable and exposed instead of free and present in the moment. My legs—strong enough to run a marathon and shapely enough to justify heels and short skirts—looked flabby and thick to my own eyes as they carried me along. If I hadn’t had an audience of several hundred commuters, I would have cried.
I didn’t cry, of course. I reached the top of the hill, looked ahead at the intersection where 20 lanes of traffic converged, and ducked instead into a quiet residential street that I knew would loop back and down the hill toward my starting point. It was lovely and quiet, with well-kept homes and children shooting baskets while their parent carried out the trash and dug in flower beds. I ran on the sidewalk, listening to the quiet, and regained enough equilibrium to look at how I was feeling. What a mess. There was anger there, viperous and full of acid, fully-formed into words and sentences to fling at the stranger who had seen fit to shatter my peace. It was a thin sort of anger, though, spread too thin to be convincing. The raw, glistening flesh of pain was too close to the surface to be hidden, even by reflexive, defensive rage.
Ow, is what I saw inside myself, Ow and Oh No and Why? The old familiar monkeys all took wing at once, fluttering wildly in my head as I sought to regain my inner balance. “You were a fool to be out running.” they said, “Of course he called you fat—you ARE fat!” “Don’t run any more, and you won’t have to endure that again.” “See, you’re still the same fat girl you always were, running or not.” The words spun into my consciousness, one after another, the same old enemies that I’ve spent years trying first to calm and then to befriend. In the serene, suburban quiet, one footstep after another, I listened to myself re-create the bitter, lethal words that lurk just below the surface when confidence fails or circumstances conspire to weaken or subvert one’s inner defenses. I let them flow, letting the rhythmic, meditative stride show me my own inner landscape without clutching or judging. For another half-hour those thoughts roiled and clashed in my head, for another half-hour I ran that loop, trying not to stop running or cry or panic. It worked. The monkeys got bored and went back to sleep, the endorphins kicked in, the legs moved more easily and the breathing began keeping its old appointed time with my footfalls. The sun still shone, and the breeze still blew crisp and cool on my skin.
You know the feeling of dodging a bullet? Of realizing that you have just skirted your way around a crisis or been spared an assault whose scope and lethality you well know? That’s what happened to me this afternoon. Nastiness from a stranger awakened old ghosts and stirred up old memories; my insecurities were all tripped at once, causing a domino effect of shame and fear and self-loathing. In an instant I was brought low—from a successful, happy, self-fulfilled woman to a bewildered, miserable child, with no way to barricade my peace and keep it safe. I was violated, forced to confront my own old wounds without my consent and with no recourse. But I didn’t panic, I didn’t collapse, I didn’t fall apart. I’ve finally been around long enough to know that random awfulness is not worth all that, that my peace can be disrupted by outside forces, but that it can’t be destroyed unless I allow it. I know to go ahead and feel my feelings, especially the ugly ones, and to soothe the resulting pain with good things—sunshine, quiet, endorphins. That guy caused me a truly miserable half hour, but that’s all he’s getting. The monkeys are entitled to come out and play, but they re not allowed to rampage around my mental space any time they please. I am finally a better judge of my own worth than some twirp I’ve never met.
I got lucky today, and I know it. People are shamed all the time, attacked because of their race, their gender, or their religion. There are people I know personally who endure these attacks on a daily basis. As I feel myself restored to peace but still shaken, my heart goes out to those who endure so much more than I and fight back so hard. I saw today just how fragile the leash that controls my inner monkeys truly is; I am indescribably glad that my suffering was short, but I don’t regret it happening. I was a little less wise when I set out into the sunshine and I’m a little sadder now. But I’ll be running tomorrow, and not even the fact that the world is full of idiots is going to stop me.
©Mary Braden 2015