I think I’ve done a pretty good job of describing the life events that lead to this decision to sell our things, quit our jobs, uproot, and travel.
I realized recently, though, that I haven’t done much (if any) explaining of the life I lead before I moved to Oregon. I think that what I’m about to share is an important piece of the puzzle because, upon reflection, I can see that these experiences are what gave me the confidence to believe that I can create the kind of life that I want for myself.
I believe that I can become what I want to become because I’ve done it once before.
You can become who you want to be
In 2005 I started running. I vividly remember the first time I decided to attempt a lap around the track. Today, I will start running, I told myself. And I did.
I’d spent the previous year, 2004, in the gym. The year before that, 2003, I’d experienced a number of big events that greatly impacted my life.
First, in March of 2003, as my college roommates and I and a few other close friends drove to Florida to celebrate our senior year spring break, I’d watched as a semi truck ran the SUV that carried six of them off of the highway (we were caravaning in two cars), causing a severe accident. One of my friends was killed and the others badly injured. I, along with the friends in the unaffected car, were nearly first on the scene. It was a helpless and horrifying experience, as you can imagine.
Second, in June of 2003, three months after the accident, I graduated college. I imagine that even during normal circumstances this is a major shock to the system, but I was uniquely unprepared to cope as I’d spent the previous three months in a fog (and would spend a good many months into the future in the same fog). I was young and struggling to come to terms with the fragility of life. At 21, I’d thought I was invincible, but experiencing this horrible accident had taught me otherwise. I struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Third, in July of 2003, I’d started working full time as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. An overall good experience in retrospect, but I was dirt poor, earning a stipend of $750 a month (about $4.50 per hour). Likewise, working as an AmeriCorps volunteer was a stop-gap measure. I had no idea what I’d do with my life after my year of service ended.
To cope with the turmoil and stress in my life, I turned to food. AmeriCorps volunteers qualified for food stamps and food became my one luxury, the only thing that I could afford to indulge in. Also, I was supremely unhappy, and eating brought me joy, at least temporarily.
To make this long story a little bit shorter, let me get to the point. In the year between 2003 and 2004, I gained sixty pounds. I was unhealthy, extremely overweight, and unhappy. I was 22 years old.
By some miracle, over the course of the year that I was in AmeriCorps, I’d managed to secure a job once my AmeriCorps gig was up. The new job was located across the country in Portland, Oregon. In August of 2004, I embarked on my fourth major life change that year- taking a new job in a city that I had never been to and in which I knew not a single soul. Actually, I knew one soul, my new-ish boyfriend, Brian, who would make the journey with me.
I was quite a mess when I arrived in Portland. I was broke, overweight, and depressed. I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. One night I was sweeping the kitchen in our apartment with a miniature broom (they were cheaper than the normal sized brooms) and I threw out my back. At the hospital the doctor pulled me aside “Are you on drugs? Your heart rate is quite high.” I was not on drugs. But in that moment I’d wished that the answer was so simple. I felt a deep shame at his judgement of me.
The irony was that I had always considered myself an active person. I was an athlete growing up. I’d played soccer since the age of 5. In college, I took my first backpacking trip and I fell in love with the forest. I hiked whenever I got the chance. Yet here I was, living in a wild and beautiful part of the country, and I didn’t have the endurance to climb the mountains around me. I didn’t have the energy to set out on a hike through the forest.
Perhaps the worst part of it all was the huge discrepancy between who I felt that I was on the inside and who I appeared to be on the outside. On the inside, I was an energetic, active, outdoorsy person. I was an athlete. On the outside, I was an overweight smoker headed towards an early grave.
I resolved to change. I told myself that I would not give up until the person I was on the inside and the person I was on the outside were the same person.
So, in 2004, I joined the gym. I went every single day. Slowly, I began to lose weight. Two pounds a week, week after week, gone. I felt healthier, lighter, but I knew I could never be the person I was on the inside if I continued to smoke. I quit smoking.
By the summer of 2005, I’d lost sixty pounds. I’d always admired the fit, muscled runners I saw darting up the trails in the local park, so I decided to become one. By the time I ran my first marathon in 2006, I’d lost ten more pounds. By the time I ran my fourth marathon in 3 hours and 36 minutes- qualifying to run the Boston Marathon- I’d lost fifteen more on top of that.
The first mountain that I ever climbed was Saddle Mountain in Oregon’s coastal range. It’s a mountain that I can run up now, but at the time I huffed and puffed and stopped every few hundred yards to catch my breath. When I finally reached the top, Brian snapped my photo, and when I look at that picture today I can see in my eyes a tiny twinkle of pride.
I know now that the moment I reached the top of that mountain was the moment when I began to believe that I would one day be, on the outside, who I’d been all along on the inside.
Happy at the top of the mountain, 2004
At the top of Saddle Mountain, 2004
Mary Tyler Moore said: “You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.” I don’t necessary know if that’s true. What I do know is that emerging on the other side of this challenging time made me stronger. I know that suffering made me more compassionate. And I know that pulling myself out a dark place taught me how strong I am, how strong we all are.
That confidence has served me well as I chase this dream.
At the top of Dog Mountain, 2010