Evelyn Mousigian/TMD.

“Hey, welcome back. How has the past month been?”

The thing that most people might not understand about running is that the best and easiest part is the first minute. When your feet first bounce off the ground, you feel you’re on a pace higher than the rest of the world. Whatever music you chose pumps in your ears, egging you forward as you pace your steps in time with the beat. Of course, my runs always start with that throbbing sensation in my ankle.

“Can we zero in on that event? I think it’s important to discuss it a little more.”

Of course, after that first minute, you start to actually feel the exertion. Your lungs tighten, your pace slows and random, unexplained parts of your body start flaring up in pain. For me, it’s the back of my torso under my left arm. I have no idea if I’ve strained something there or if it’s from pumping my arms. My dad — a physical therapist and two-time marathon runner — says the random pains will eventually go away as I start getting back into running. I know precisely why the ankle is flaring up, of course.

“Do you think what happened there has something to do with what we discussed last session?”

Eventually, you know the pain is going to plateau, and then you can bear it. The fact is, however, you have to bear it the entire run. Then, when the pain is more annoying than distracting, you’re left with just your thoughts, thoughts that drag me back to the past while I’m trying to move forward. A lot of my aches arise from the fact that I haven’t run consistently since sophomore year — medical troubles being what took me out. Then, in the first week of my second-year fall semester of college, I landed myself on crutches for a couple months due to what was thankfully a minor injury — a grade three sprain on my right ankle with a small hairline fracture in my tibia. 

“Going further back, actually, you know we unpacked what happened earlier in your life. Do you think that this is also connected?”

The first time I ran was with my dad in elementary school. It was one of the worst physical sensations of my life, not helped by the fact that I was already chubby — the reason my dad had pushed me to run with him. In my freshman year of high school, I had to complete a two-mile run as part of a test to attain a black belt in taekwondo, marking the beginning of my consistent running – from track and cross-country seasons until I had to stop a year later.

“Of course, a lot of these issues were exacerbated by recent issues of the pandemic, hence your adjustment disorder. Traumatic events can make other trauma resurface.”

Well I’m running now, and with each step my ankle reminds me what I did to it — a dull throb that ripples out with every footfall. I was non-weight bearing for six weeks, then gradually weaned off of crutches for the next month or so. The crutches were swapped out for a cane and the cast boot for a lace brace. I’d keep doing rehab, courtesy of my physical therapist parents. Before I needed crutches, I only ever saw them as helpful — a necessary mobility aid for some and a recovery tool for others. But when I began to train my now atrophied right leg to walk again I realize to move on from this injury,  I needed to leave this source of help behind.

“I want you to know I’m proud of how you’ve been handling things. It seems like you might not need to have this routine check-in now.”

The length of my runs are dictated by when I turned around, making it to the halfway point of my mile goal and beginning my journey backward. For some reason — maybe it’s the brief pause in my run when rotating — everything in my body decides to hurt more. Despite this, I find myself needing to keep moving forward again, because it’s the second leg of my run and everything in my body is screaming at me to give up. My lungs are compressing the ribs around my heart, every unexplained pain in my body is flaring at me and I can feel the callouses burning at the ends of my now-healthy legs. 

“I need you to know it’s going to be okay. Feel what you need to feel — every ending comes with mourning. You’ve got to push through, even if it’s without these regular sessions. I’m just an email away if you need to check in again.”

I then do what I do to conclude every run — I break into a sprint. The end of my journey is in sight and I won’t let a single thing stop me. My body will feel the aftereffects when it’s over, but it will also feel relief. I’ve pushed myself to be better and succeeded. At the end of the day, that’s what matters — that I kept moving forward. I finally stop and catch my evasive breaths, letting the endorphins wash over me. I can keep running, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I limp back to my apartment.

The ankle needs ice, and I find myself back in my bedroom staring at the email thread I started, subject line: “Potential Appointment.” The way I think about the help I’ve received somewhat contradicts itself. I push myself through a temporary stretch of pain and discomfort to end up better for it in the end. However, these stretches were supported steps, support I had grown reliant on and found myself needing to leave behind. Each run I take feels like the individual sessions that I experienced on my road to recovery. But my overall journey with recovering my mental health felt like the supported steps I took with crutches that I had to leave behind — a frightening step to take on my own that sent jolts through my body like the first step I took with my atrophied right leg. The next steps I took toward maintaining my mental health required me to stand on my own. 

I had been in regular therapy for two years before I made my decision. It had been a long time coming, of course — biweekly appointments turning into monthly sessions to bimonthly check-ins as my schedule grew busier. I remember logging in for my last virtual appointment, and feeling this sense that I no longer needed to be there, that the issues I had started therapy for had largely been resolved. Both my therapist and I agreed that I had done enough of the work to be able to continue by myself. I could move forward without the crutch while still knowing that it had been necessary for me to walk again. But then again, sometimes we stumble. Sometimes I push myself too hard, icing my wounded parts and looking for the same help I’ve needed in the past, trying my hardest not to feel like it’s a step backward. It’s not though, because the journey I take to recovery is circular. I turn around and run it back.

The need to push myself to move forward faster has always been a struggle for me. Even when I was non-weight bearing, I found myself lunging forward on my crutches, using the momentum of my one-foot-supported body to vault forward and find myself running, even with crutches. When I entered therapy, I found my sessions to be tedious, slow and methodical. However, I learned that the pacing was vital, because even if I’m running, I’m not necessarily in a race. None of us are — the road to recovery is a journey we all share. We all take it at our own pace, experience our own bends and twists along the way, maybe staying with those aids if we have to. However — if it’s something that I can keep up with — I want to keep running toward my future. 

MiC Columnist Saarthak Johri can be reached at sjohri@umich.edu.