I used to be so much older than I am today.
War aged me prematurely. That is not uncommon. Turning 25 years old in Iraq marked what I knew would be the oldest I could ever be in my life no matter how many years passed afterwards. The aging that occurred once my time in the desert was over was just quite simply different, and far less romantic to the casual observer.
The transition out of active duty military service itself is as abrupt and shocking as the transition out of an actual combat zone. My ability to react and respond to changes seemed to slow and almost halt completely. Civilian life was strange, terrifying, and empty. A gunman killed five people and then himself during my first semester at Northern Illinois University in February, 2008. It took me a year to react. It took me nearly two years to leave my wife once I was aware she was cheating on me. By then she was onto her second affair. I was haunted by past experiences, but it was my everyday life that was the true nightmare.
For years I spend my every waking hour sitting in front of a computer screen upstairs in the back of my house. It would be easy to say I was not doing anything, but that is not entirely true. I was busy hiding. I was hiding from the world. I was hiding from my reflection in the mirror. I was hiding from my wife. I was hiding from anything I thought was going to hurt me. Likewise, I was hiding from anything that could offer me any joy. Any at all.
But I’ll be goddamned if I didn’t have excuses. Not only did I have them in great numbers, I had really good ones. My friends were dead. More were dying by the day. My wife was no longer in love with me. I was essentially an unremarkable, anonymous future corpse pumping blood with no destination nor discernible purpose. My physical health was deteriorating rapidly. At this point I weighed in at 299.5 lbs. Bear in mind that I am not quite 5 feet, 8 inches tall. I wheezed and crackled painfully when I breathed. Vacuuming the house caused me to sweat profusely and necessitated rest breaks throughout. Insomnia and nightmares tormented my nights and made my days hazy. I developed sleep apnea — a condition where I would periodically stop breathing in my sleep — due to my rapid weight gain. Every night I had to wear a mask connected via hose to a machine that would force air into my lungs in an attempt to provide me with more rest and lessen my chances of suddenly dying in my sleep. I was more than content to lay the entirety of the blame for these new developments in my life on the medications I was taking in an attempt to treat my PTSD and major depression. It was true, but that truth was not beneficial to me in any way whatsoever. It was my placeholder in lieu of taking any action on my own behalf in order to improve my quality of life.
I am not entirely sure what changed for me. I don’t know what made one day different from the day before. All I know is that I started making different choices. They were not always the easiest paths. In fact, they almost all seemed to be the most difficult options I had at the time. They were not even always the right decisions. But at some point I made up my mind that my life as I had chosen to live was no longer the life I wanted to live. So, one day I stood up. Instead of barricading myself behind a computer screen I stood up. I walked out my front door. I stepped through it. And then I kept walking.
It was fucking awful. There was no sense of accomplishment. There were no commendations or medals or plaques with my name on them. There wasn’t a commemorative moisture-wicking technical t-shirt. There was no celebratory lovemaking or even so much as a pat on the back. There was only me standing in exactly the same spot as I had started the day. I weighted exactly as much as I did when I woke up that morning. The only immediate difference was a few hundred yards I had wheezed my way through completely uncelebrated.
The next day I was sore. I was in actual pain. My doctors had been telling me for years that I would benefit greatly and instantly from some form of exercise. I knew the truth. I would reap no reward whatsoever. I would feel pain. I would ache throughout my body. I would be cruelly reminded of how far I had fallen from the shape I had once been in during my time in the military. I would have to face the fact that I was not who I used to be and if I wanted to proud of who I was once again I would have to make myself into something I was proud of and not simply reference a past version of myself who just no longer existed. I did not know who I was if I was not in Iraq. I did not know who I was if I wasn’t in the uniform. I didn’t know who I was if I was not married. The fact that those things had become destructive forces in my life didn’t seem to matter at all. Those things were killing me, but at least they let me know who I was. Or so I thought.
I had gotten so caught up in horrors of combat and the shootings at NIU and my wife cheating on me that I had completely lost track of the fact that I had survived those things. Nothing in the world will change the events of my past. Nothing will alter the experiences that I have been through. They happened. That’s it. My point of view, however, is what changes my status from victim to survivor. And this, for me, changes everything.
This is a never-ending process. The first and most formative step is a matter of deciding on what I will choose to focus. I choose not to focus on the pain in my left ankle and both knees. Instead I choose to focus on the high that only comes from logging multiple miles. Every single time I start a run my body tells me to stop. Every. Single. Time. Every time I step in front of a mirror my mind points out everything I don’t like about myself. Every. Single. Time. As I type this my knees and ankles hurt. I ignore them. I make a deliberate effort to celebrate what I am instead of mourning what I am not. There is another thought that comes to me when the miles are making my legs scream: one day I will no longer be able to do this. There will be a day when I have permanently run my last and final mile. I press further and smile because I know that day is not today.
To date I have lost over 100 pounds. I no longer have sleep apnea. I have taken up hiking, kayaking, cycling, and rock climbing. Last month I ran my first half marathon. In October I will run my first full marathon. I still have PTSD and major depression. In all likelihood I always will, but I am stronger today than I was yesterday because of the choices and the efforts I am making. I will choose to be stronger yet tomorrow.
Before I publish this post that voice inside me will tell me not to bother. It will tell me that this is meaningless drivel. It will tell me I am full of shit. It will tell me that nothing I write is of any benefit to anyone. It will tell me to delete this draft.
Tell me; did I listen?