I laced up my sneakers and headed out the door. It was the early eighties, and I beat Forrest Gump to the punch by more than a decade before he ran cross-country in the iconic eponymous film. Forrest (Tom Hanks) had just consummated his love with Jenny (Robin Wright) the night before, only to discover she had left him in the morning.
Announcing that he was going on “a little run,” I can only presume to deal with his conflicting emotions, Forrest traveled the U.S. for more than three years. I, on the other hand, stayed closer to home but ran for over 10.
The thing is no matter how fast and how far I went, I couldn’t outrun my problems, and neither could Forrest, who, eventually, just stopped one day. In a voiceover, Forrest tells the audience, “My mama always said, ‘You got to put the past behind you before you can move on. And I think that’s what my running was all about.’”
Of course (spoiler alert), he couldn’t put anything behind him until he confronted Jenny in person. It was the entire reason why he was sitting on that famous park bench, waiting for the bus that would take him to her, to begin with. And why I was waiting for someone to rescue me from my running and my grief, which began a few months after my fourteenth birthday when my mother left my father, brother, and me.
Like Forrest, I discovered running after being hurt emotionally. At first, I ran after school. I couldn’t bear to be home, either by myself, unsupervised with an older brother who picked on me, or with a checked-out dad who returned home from work intoxicated and angry. It was too much to bear, and I soon discovered running put me into a trance during which I felt nothing.
Running became the perfect escape, and I ran more and more just to keep that numbness going especially as my life changed further. As I eventually learned, my mother didn’t just leave us; she left us for another man. She moved in with that man, into his house, with his kids, and got married.
My dad began to date to fill the void my mother left and met a woman. He sold the home where we lived as a family and moved us all into her home. Shuffled back and forth between my parents’ respective new residences, every door I opened was a new one, and the only relief I felt was when I closed one of those doors behind me on my way out for a run.
I wanted my parents to notice my anguish, but neither of them did. They were working hard to re-establish themselves in their new lives and were too distracted or too tired to care. As long as I was going to school, doing my homework at night, and not bothering anyone, I was fine.
In their defense, why would they think anything different? In the beginning, I looked great. With all the running, my body began to change. I lost a few pounds and became more toned, which fueled me to run more. My father’s new girlfriend, who became his wife not long after they met, was extremely thin, and now I was, too.
I ran harder and ate less. With every run, I took control of my body and, I believed, my life. If I didn’t like what was going on around me at either of their houses, I exchanged them for the pavement. When I left for college a few years later, my exercise and eating regime was established. Between classes and running, I had little time for anything else, including a social life.
That was fine with me; relationships only meant another opportunity to be hurt. I had seen that firsthand with my dad, and later as my mother’s destination relationship became troubled. I didn’t want any of that for myself. If a guy asked me for coffee or to go on a date, I politely declined and went for a run instead. When running wasn’t enough to fill my time, I added swimming and bicycling, too.
The added physical activity, coupled with a further reduction in my food intake, finally caused the people who were around me most to take notice. The few friends and acquaintances I had began to question my appearance and my health. It was with good reason too; my exercise addiction had grown into anorexia and bulimia, too.
Negativity, however, breeds negativity, and often people who are in a good place don’t want to be around those in a bad one. Instead of a rescuer emerging from the darkness, those who initially expressed concern retreated back into the light, leaving me to languish in my deteriorating mental and physical state.
My world shrank further until all I could do was focus on my body. During my sophomore year in college, my grades started to slip. I failed a class and could barely pass the rest. It was the wake-up call I needed. The last shred of my old identity told me I had to stop running, figuratively and literally, and face my problems, beginning with my nutrition.
I began to read about how I could nourish my body, so much so that I decided to switch majors. I went from working toward a business degree to becoming a registered dietitian. That way, I could help myself and one day, I hoped, others.
With every class I took and every morsel of food I ate, I took back the power I had lost over my life to create one I liked. I confronted my dad, my brother, and my mom to tell them how I felt about their actions during my teenage years. Slowly, I began to rebuild a relationship with each of them, new ones, and eventually I forgave them.
More than three decades later, I still love to run. It clears my head and, in the right amount, keeps me fit. But when I do run, it’s toward something I want instead of away from what I don’t.
This article was previously published in Mantra Wellness, Volume 36, Summer 2021.
Tonyah Dee has studied the Bible and wisdom traditions of the world for the last 30 years and teaches about finding ways to increase inner strength, stability, and confidence through practicing spiritual disciplines and healthy habits daily. Tonyah is a nutritionist, registered dietitian (R.D.), and earned her B.S. from Loma Linda University. She also holds certifications in Christ-centered life coaching, equine therapy, and meditation. Tonyah has been published in Scary Mommy, MSN, The Mighty, Mantra Wellness, CoveyClub, Thrive Global. Follow Tonyah on her blog, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Medium.