Pool floaties and PTSD. My zero to seventy point three journey by Sara O’Byrne
My world in my 20s was school. My community, my life, my identity. I was an aspiring doctor. Who did everything with her med student friends, married another med student at age 25 (and divorced him at 27). But I was angry and stressed, constantly. (Marrying the wrong guy and med school will do that to you). So I started to run, alone and with my med school friends. Those memories became interwoven in my mind like how many people cannot smell peppermint without thinking of Christmas. I could not think about running without thinking of my med school life. I could not think of myself without medical school. It was woven into my everything. It was what I always wanted to be, what I loved.The places I went. The people I called family. It was all medical school and it was all me. What was I without that?
Then just two weeks before I was awarded the title of Doctor I was assaulted by a friend and colleague. And my whole world melted into what became a terrible case of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Everything was my career, everything was that community and everything became my community turning its back on me. In the most violent evil way. It wasn’t just the guy who did it. I was deleted and shunned from the community. The things that were said and done to me. No one, no one in the world deserves that.
My brain, to say the least, fried into a severe case of flashbacks, agoraphobia, and depression. I couldn’t trust the people I had trusted the most. It messes with your brain and your soul. I had a sticky feeling in my stomach that I was always in danger. It turned into crying, hiding inside, not eating and horrible flashbacks. Months later the guilty person plead guilty, but the damage was done. The action was done, the voice of the community had victim blamed me into a corner. In that time I lost 95% of my friends, my job, my apartment and I lost my boyfriend (he said “get happy or get out of my life” yea, real stellar guy right?) and his family subsequently. I lost my dog too. My poor little precious dog.
In an act of defiance at my now homeless, jobless, single, dog-less, agoraphobic, PTSD state (I could not recognize myself in the mirror anymore) I took the pitiful amount of money the court award me, paid a months rent at an AirBnB and signed up for the Portland Marathon. I’d done halfs before, the PDX marathon on my bucket list. I moved to another town, tried my hand at another job (it didn’t work out) lived in a broken down Winnebago on a bit of land owned by farmers growing “green pain management” (yup) and ran and ran and ran. I was afraid to go outside but I had to (can’t afford a gym membership let alone a treadmill, anyways where would I put it? The Winnebago was 127sq feet.) I started seeing this guy I met at the airBNB, but held him at a real distance. I mean on paper I don’t sound too great right now. And I hurt.
I also had an unexpected pregnancy, and lost it. And grieved. Hard.
Depression. Afraid to leave my Winnebago. I refused to drink or do drugs but a few times I took more Xanax then was prescribed to me.
I tried to kill myself. Failing at that felt like another failure.
But I ran. I ran and went to therapy and moved back to the city and ran and therapy and ran. Going outside was terrifying (it didn’t feel safe and nothing is safe anymore in my PTSD brain).
I started to feel better and moved to a safer place. But marathon weekend I became violently ill. I missed the marathon.I was beyond disappointed. And between puking trips to the bathroom I found TriEqual in a google search. I that little light of the real me flickered on. I thought..
I bet I could do that.
So I applied. And won free coaching! Me?!
I still struggled, severely with mundane things. Crowds. Leaving the apartment. Paying my bills. Riding the bus. Going to the ATM was a source of panic (because I’d been so broke) It was impossible for me to run in the old running places…it was intertwined with those old friends. Everything was a reminder, a trigger. Everything hurt but…
Armed with a 30lbs comfort bike and a swim cap with a dragon on it I bought for $10 (I needed that dragon!) I took on triathlon training like my life depended on it (and it really did).
I followed Charisa Wernick‘s training prescriptions to a T all winter long. Rarely did I falter, because I needed it. I needed a mission. In my mind if I crossed the finish line somehow I’d be absolved of the pain I’d been carrying around. I was saying “You are wrong. I am strong. Here is my finisher medal to prove it.”
I didn’t quite know what I was signing up for when I said “yeah I want to do a half iron distance – 70.3! Sure!”
My resume looked great, right?
The most swimming I’ve done in 20 years was “to the other side of the pool to grab a beer.”
I bike commute around town, sometimes, like 4 miles.
I run half marathons! Slowly! And oh yea I trained poorly for a marathon, never running more than 16 miles in my life.
Terrified to be clipped into my bike, so I bike in running shoes.
Terrified to put my face in the water, it feels like being choked.
Have no money for swim lessons, of a bike trainer or even bike shorts, a community pool pass, or a cheap sports watch, forget about a Garmin.
Ever tried to eat like a triathlete on food stamps? Hmm, yea not easy.
And I’m tired and my joints hurt all the time, what’s that about? (oh my doctor brain knows but I’m choosing to ignore it) but 2 months into training (and on my 30th birthday) I found out I have rheumatoid arthritis.
Once, in a group therapy session, a guy said after I blurted out my story in a diarrhea like fashion “if Sara wasn’t depressed there would be something very wrong with her”
That comforts me – a bit, in a weird way.
So here I was. No triathlon experience. Despite all my efforts can’t really do anything better than a sorta weird side stroke frog kick in the pool. I’m so scared to clip into my bike I have a panic attack when I’d look at my cycling shoes I got (at a garage sale, score!) but never used. And I have rheumatoid arthritis. A progressive autoimmune disease where your own body attacks your joints and organs and being a runner is the last thing someone with extreme joint pain wants to do, let alone can do.
I said, screw it.
I’m doing this triathlon.
HITS. Napa Valley. April 2016.
To absolve myself.
To forgive myself.
To say, hey I had a really really terrible two years, but I am strong.
To say, I didn’t give in to drugs and drinking and hiding inside when I was terrified to leave.
To give the middle finger to those haters.
Because I want to.
Because I can.
It was so hard. I was not prepared for the rolling hills of Napa. In Oregon we sorta have long forever slight inclines. Not this steep up and down. And I biked, of course, in running shoes. It rained. I was embarrassed how I felt crappy in the rain, because I live in Oregon. I trained all winter long outside in Oregon.
I almost gave up. I actually threw my bike on the ground and cried. Like a toddler. But I thought of everyone in TriEqual I met. I thought of my coach and my boyfriend (remember that guy I met at the Air BnB, yeah him. He drove me to Napa and bought me new running shoes for my birthday). I thought ‘This is not how this story ends. Crying on this hill.’ I found it in me to keep going, with blue lips, and a toot in my shorts I shouldn’t have trusted. (It happens). My hands so locked up from rheumatoid arthritis in the cold I couldn’t shift gears for the last 8 miles of the bike. With a calf cramp so severe I thought I had a deep vein thrombosis.
I never, ever, really understood the power of people cheering at a race until that day. The yells, and good jobs and high fives saved me. The community saved me. What I lost, I found in triathlon. People. People who loved and supported each other. A team. The TriEqual community from all over the continent were with me all day in my heart. In the big wide open hole that I carried so heavily, it was filled with all these amazing, powerful strong women. They lifted me up. The kept me moving forward all the way to the end.
And when I crossed the finish line, the cheers I received. I will never forget. I had that big shiny moment where I felt like a winner. I found a place I belonged again. I found myself. A triathlete. A 70.3 finisher. Someone who never gives up.