I recently hurt (sprained?) my ankle while on a run. After sensing the initial discomfort in my right foot, I kept on running until I couldn’t anymore. Then, a week later, still in pain, I ran again.
For four miles. It was a terrible idea.
I told myself the pain wasn’t that bad, that a little ache wasn’t going to hold me back. Was I supposed to wait around for the pain to go away?
In truth, I probably should have. As I climbed out of bed the next morning, the pain almost immobilized me. There was no visible swelling, but my heel felt like a billiard ball. During my run the evening before, I was mindful of my speed and tried not to bear down on the ailing foot. Yet, I knew I pushed my limits too far.
Running is the activity I turn to when I am distressed, sad, or restless. I’m sure much of its solace comes from the endorphin kick, but it’s more than that. I love the process of physical exertion, feeling my skin warm up under a damp T-shirt, pushing my legs to carry me another half mile, taking deeper breaths to accommodate the velocity. I love the feeling of my pulse catching up with me when I slow down to a walk. I love pushing myself to extremes, to a place past exhaustion or soreness, or, in this case, pain.
I want to be stronger than pain.
Once in a deep bout of sadness, I ran a longer distance than I ever did before. I wanted to push beyond my limits. I wanted to force myself out of the sting of my mental state, as though I could purge the sadness out of my body with sweat and body pain.
This self-pushing has always been rewarding for me. Rarely do I have a run that I regret. I am grateful to have a balance between my body and mind. Yet, it is because of my pushing and exertion that I cannot run now (and am therefore thinking about it so much).
My habit of pushing myself (a.k.a. exhausting myself) isn’t limited to running; I practice this self-pushing in other aspects of my health and well-being in not-so-healthy ways. I force myself into exhaustion because 1) I am used to it, and 2) if I don’t, I believe I’m not doing “enough” or not experiencing something in its purest, truest form.
Right now, for instance, I am literally forcing myself into exhaustion. I haven’t slept well in almost two months, always telling myself tonight will be the night I get more than six hours of sleep, but not following through. Now, six hours is the norm. But the effects aren’t just physical; I am mentally strained. I ignore my need to sit in silence with myself, or journal frequently enough not to lose an emotion before I can think about it, or read, or write, or do anything that doesn’t fall under the typical “productivity” umbrella.
I am tired. I don’t give myself the basic necessity of directing my mental space where I want it. And the billiard ball in my heel made this awareness even more evident.
When I was in college, I worked myself into burnout. My computer was always in my orbit as I wrote essays, studied, and worked. By the time I realized I was using my energy at capacity, it was already too late and there was no time to create a new habit or lifestyle. My mental health took the back-burner. If it didn’t, who else would do the work? Who else would check all the boxes off of the impossible to-do list?
I see now there is another question: Who else is going to take care of my well-being?
I am the only one who can decide when to put the work away, when to go to sleep, when to acknowledge my needs, and when to decide my foot pain is enough to stop running.
I know this and still I need a reminder. In this case, a physical reminder is one I can’t ignore as well as my mental alarms.
But exertion and exhaustion don’t have to be synonymous. If I can create enough room for earnest self-care, I believe it will be possible for me to attain a more satisfying sense of release and accomplishment. Maybe I will create a healthier foundation for exertion to take place. Maybe there can be push without pain.