//Oh my heart it breaks every step that I take, but I’m open at the gates they’ll tell me that you’re mine.// I feel you, Lana. This fall, I ran my first, and only marathon, also my first race and competition ever and simultaneously closed what seemed like an unending chapter in my life. For the first time in seven years, I took on a goal that I knew was beyond my abilities while setting it, and went about making possible the impossible in my life. I know it sounds trite to declare a marathon (which was completed by 4000 other people on the same day) as the single greatest achievement in my life but the race was merely the final paragraph in what seemed like an endless story of realness, irony and (re)assessment. The historian in me recognizes my desire to create a narrative arch and make literary what is more often than not serendipitous but if I don’t write my own story, it will be written or at least interpreted for me by others and frankly we surrender our agency too often in this life.
Reflecting on how running salvaged my life, I have realized the significant relationship between my mental and physical health. In my darkest moments, I felt so dissociated from my body. Not only did I feel emotionally detached from my corporal well-being but my mind was also at odds with what my own health would look like. Critical of normative notions of physical health, due in part to my participation and subscription to radical body politics, I had foolishly though understandably reasoned that physical fitness equated a submission to the hegemony of normative body types. I rejected the idea that as a man, I should be strong and viewed this as supportive of what society demanded of my body. This was not only developed by my social relationships within my community but also my exclusion and consequent resentment of the cult of masculinity throughout my life. My relationship with my body could be described as a tension between my desire to be attractive and my rejection of the strength and physicality associated with masculinity. Seroconversion brought to the fore the damage that this tension inflicted on my body, mind a spirit. The subjection of my body to medicine, tests, examinations and its assault by the virus brought about a surrendering of myself to weakness; I came to view myself as diseased, even fantasizing my own pathetic demise. Through years of drug abuse and alcoholism preceding (and intensifying with) my seroconversion, my mind too began to betray me. The relegation of body to a mere vessel, one that had so often betrayed me, brought about long periods of darkness in my memory.
I could no longer recall conversations, evenings and entire weeks; my commitments to myself and to my friends were lost, and I considered them to be collateral damage in the shitstorm that I assumed would be my end. Confronted last summer with one of many horrible, embarrassing and hazy nights, which culminated in the worst version of myself surfacing, I knew that I needed to reclaim what was mine alone. I altered course, changed pace, and realized the value of small steps in my own recovery.
A bit of background first.
My first encounter with running was as a child (a younger child) being forced into soccer. That lasted 6 years until I hit puberty and decided I didn’t feel like running around a field while suburban moms drank long island iced teas in lawnchairs cheering for their babies and forcing sliced oranges down their kids throats at half time. So sticky, so messy. I believe my exact words to my father were “take a good look at me in this uniform, cause it’s the last time you’ll see me in one.” He took it well, so I applied similar tactics to cubs and hockey and cross country and was finally rid of weeknight practices and could spend my time on important matters such as playing Nancy Drew computer games, writing thriller novels inspired by the Pelican Brief (which is still my favorite Julia Roberts movie) and watching the X-Files with my mom.
My first uncomfortable encounter with so-called “physical health” was, as with many baby queers, also my first encounter with shame, guilt and eventual resentment of the wolfpacks of childhood (that so often color the adult lives of the heteronormative monolith). Fortunately my family was not quite as American Beauty-crazy as that of many around me and my mom was perfectly content to have me all to herself.
My parents got really into running around the same time the rest of the white middle class suburbia did… sooo, 1998? Fortunately for me they would go for their long runs together on Sundays, leaving me alone with the computer. To this day, the smell of cut grass reminds me of looking for naked pictures of Brad Pitt on the Internet. As my parents explored the opportunities presented by long strides and heavy perspiration, I entered the world of the hyper-telephoto lens and deep voyeurism, and I retain trace levels of these heady days when my heart rate doubles at the sight of screen captures of celebrity skin. Also falling into this category is the highly coveted adolescent glimpse of teenaged Adonises, localized versions of celebrity worship, found in your very own racket club change room. Through the enviously and covetously charged post-workout sightings, I built an image of that which I lacked, that which would always reject me.
In turning away from physicality, I turned toward pursuits for my mind, initially exceeding in school, I soon came to tire of the self control demanded of me by my own desire to be the best and set about ways of coming undone at the seams. I graduated high school with boyfriend and a new desire to get fucked up all the time. Moving away to school I made myself one of the stoners I have always found so sexy. Having found a crowd I thought liked me, I was happy for the first time in a long time, not realizing that they liked a built version of myself, armed against the pain which openness had brought me so often in the year before. And while I was away from the restraints of home, Victoria, BC, was not (for me) a place to stretch my gaybie wings. Having colossally fucked up my academic year, lost all my friends (in what seemed like a self-fulfilling prophesy and a story for another time) and with my heart in shreds from my first love lost, I moved home with my sights set on Montreal for the next year.
In my first months in Montréal, I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of cosmopolitan life that my desire for excitement was quelled and my loneliness was drowned out by the sensory rush that city life offered. But soon my old hunger for the validation that my earlier life lacked crept into my mind. Back into the rabbit hole, from which I could only surface long enough to know that conditions, my conditions, had yet to change. Recently I’ve been reading about the modern need for hyperconnectivity, conditioned by porn, drugs, television, film, advertising culture and fashion, converging to generate an oversaturated canvas against which our lives are compared, and by consequence seem unsatisfying. During this time, I wanted so badly for my life to be in Technicolor, and so I colored it in with as much living as I could find. I never missed a party, a joint, a bump, a line, a drink, a drink, a pill, a drink, a line, a line, a sunrise. And it was fun. I had a blast.
When I learned that I had seroconverted it was another moment that I had almost come to expect. I want to make clear that I did not chase after the virus nor did I view it as some tragic inevitability stemming from my lack of self control and devaluation of life because I think these are easy traps of the HIV/AIDS narrative created in negotiating the realities of serodiscordance by both poz and neg people. I similarly reject the idea that I was somehow victimized in seroconversion. Not only is victimization dehumanizing of the so-called perpetrator but it similarly dehumanizes the so-called victim. I think the most empowering thing we can do is own what is ours, our bodies and minds, our pasts and presents. I see this all so clearly now but that summer I still lacked the lens necessary to focus my situation.
What I will say about this moment is I began to shy from the over saturation of life and instead used my old tools to mute the colors that began to drown my view of the world. What I failed to recognize at the time was that I was beginning to find a group of people who I trusted and loved. In the year that followed I drank differently, partied differently, I felt alone and betrayed and trapped in a body that was dismantling itself. The loss of control over my person, my submission to the clinical structure, my dependence on pharmaceuticals to stay alive and powder, booze and pills to remain numb buttressed the wall between my mental and physical self. Blacking out nightly to the point that I could almost find it funny again, and to this day cannot remember large periods of nocturnal time; Morning after morning I was reminded of the former evening’s events by friends who withheld what would be too hurtful for me to know.
It is hard to say how exactly I decided to start running except to say I was a runner all along. Running from the traps of my body and the tricks of my mind. What running (in the literal sense) gives me is a reprieve from reality. I am moving through space faster than the one step-per-step we are allotted. What I needed was the mourning period I never permitted myself to have. I needed stillness and time to consider, reflect, feel pain, feel regret and allow myself to be as hurt as I was. Both in body and mind, I had endured the bitter licks of life, as so many others feel, and worse than I (I am aware), but I required a space in which I could be safe in my pain. Drugs, alcohol, parties and boys had failed to provide the comfort, which in that moment of change I realized was only mine to give.
So I ran up that hill everyday. I hacked the shit out of my smoke clogged lungs, my coke stuffed tubes, my shit filled bowels and my polluted veins. And everyday, as though I were baring offerings to a temple, some of the burden of my past was lifted. My heavy heart began to lighten. Physically the strain lessened, my muscles, though sore, were stronger. So too was my mind, and whatever version of spiritual being there is in me. It took nine months to regain the courage I once had to challenge myself, feeling like maybe the odds were stacked in favor of my ability to run toward. In May I decided I would run a marathon. Initially I had wanted to run the New York City marathon, I think now that fate was on my side (as that marathon was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy’s recent devastation), though at the time I discovered I was too late to register and settled begrudgingly for Montreal. I took charge of my schedule, my eating, my sleeping, my mental expenditures and told myself that my only certainty was September 21st, 8:00AM, I would be on that bridge. I think now, that I should have known this cheat in life, it is after all so obvious, but through focusing on one thing and one thing alone, I checked more boxes that I had been able to in years of struggling to check them all at once.
In accessing my own potential to change course, I realized the agency my body afforded in my narrative of physical and mental health tasting the first feelings of the freedom I had felt after seeking it blindly for so long. I not only embodied what I feel is the opposition to my biopolitical self, but I simultaneously was able to mentally wrestle my own image of myself and my health from those negative constructions I formed in the grungy change rooms of my high school gym. Running at last, keeping pace with myself. I know that this is not, nor could it be, nor would I want it to be, the narrative of health for everyone. People find health in happiness and happiness outside of conventions of health and personal existential freedom in all and any combination therein, but what I hope this stirs in at least a few, is the radical possibilities that accompany the struggle to access new trajectories and healthy strategies of balance, of mind and body, and more so, the journey toward reconciling the two.