The Eternal Saturn Return Part 3: New Brunswick 2017

“A lot of us have maybe something in common.  And the thing that bonds my friends and us together usually is at one point we were probably pretty broken.  And sometimes people steer away from broken people, and those are usually the people who have never been broken.  There is nothing wrong with being broken. You can get fixed. You fix yourself. Things break, and then they get fixed.  Usually with the help of other people.

You know in China if like a vase breaks, they repair it and then they draw a line – they draw a gold leaf where the crack was.  They celebrate the cracks. We should celebrate what we’ve been through.”

– Eddie Vedder, October 19th, 2013

I was listening to this particular speech – from a Pearl Jam concert my girlfriend and I attended a few years earlier – during mile nine of the Rutgers Half Marathon in 2017.  The speech serves as an introduction to my favorite version of “Better Man” that I’ve seen live, so when I was constructing the playlist that I was going to listen to during the race, I had to include it.

As Vedder begins singing and strumming his guitar, I slurped down my final energy gel to give me the final boost I needed to finish.  I checked my pace on the running app on my cell phone. I think to myself, “Damn, I know the app is usually a little off, but I’m averaging seven minutes per mile.  How is this even possible? I could hardly walk just a month ago, and now there is a chance that I could finish in an hour and a half!”

I was absolutely shattering my expectations, going faster than I ever had during training – certainly at this distance anyway.  I was sustaining a pace that I had previously only been able to maintain for three – maybe four – miles.

I knew there would be a mix of emotions as I returned to the city and school that I called home for four years.  I knew I had a little extra to give. A little more of a reason to push myself. But never did I expect this.

It would be easy for me to continue the story from this point forward as I triumphantly raced towards the finish line that awaited on College Avenue.  But that would be the easy way out.

Because this story isn’t necessarily a story about triumph or determination.  It’s about a guy trying to do his best to atone for the mistakes and demons from his past.  To prove to himself and everyone else that he is a changed and better man. But knowing that no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, it won’t erase anything that has happened.   

I know the title of this chapter says “2017”, but to give you the full story, we have to start years before that.  New Brunswick, New Jersey. Eight years earlier.

~

Before I begin the tale, there is one thing that I would like to touch upon.  I hope it can provide context for my story and maybe help you reflect on the deeper aspects of your own.

As many of you know, I returned to social media a few weeks ago after being away from it for so long.  Even in college, the relationship status between social media and I would be an emphatic “it’s complicated.”  

I would go through phases where I would deactivate my accounts to disconnect and recharge.  Later on, I would reactivate them when I was feeling lonely and isolated. I would even go through phases where I would “unfriend” people, a practice my friends and I referred to as “bouncing zombies.”

As I scroll through the feed now and I see everyone’s smiling faces – sitting around the dinner table for Thanksgiving or going on a nature hike or surrounded by their closest friends with a round of drinks in their hands – a familiar thought creeps into my head.  I used to have the same thought in college as I would stare blankly at my laptop screen as I perused my news feed.

Social media allows us to cultivate the image that we want to portray to the world.  It is a carefully manicured version of our own lives; it represents a caricature – emphasizing only the positive moments that we choose to share.  Any negative moments must be properly vetted to ensure they are socially acceptable to post and does not tarnish our image. You are guilty of it. I am guilty of it.  

We artificially build our own narratives in order to make sense of our lives in our own heads.  It is the story we tell ourselves. There is the public mask that we click and share to the world.  And then there is the private, unspoken world that lies behind it. How much you choose to acknowledge the unmanifested is entirely up to you.  Many people dwell in the superficial, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

When I first got the idea of what I wanted to do with this series, I knew this chapter was going to be the most difficult to write.  Because at the root of this chapter, I have to grapple with a very real and pressing issue: how can I consciously make myself the villain without losing your interest in my narrative?

The only way I know how to combat that is by speaking my truth.  All of it. No holding back. No half measures. I have to merge both the story I have cultivated over the years, as well as the unspoken, hidden story.   

A blog is no different than social media.  We put out the version of the truth we want to put out.  For those of you who are reading this who might know some of these stories – as well as the many other untold stories – I just hope this sheds some light on my version.  Though it definitely isn’t the decisive retelling, it is a retelling nonetheless. And it is the one I am choosing to share after many years of reflection. Anything I don’t share is a stylistic choice – made more for the sake of brevity.  There is nothing for me to hide.

Don’t think for a second that all of the untold moments – the missing photographs and status updates we all choose not to share – are simply cast aside, never to be thought of again.  I did some monstrous things over this time period and if anything is omitted, it is not because I am trying to skirt responsibilities. I relive and replay these moments over and over again in my head.  And every single one was ever present with me during the half marathon. You can see it clearly on my face.

The race photos captured of me during this race aren’t carefully manicured for social media.  I want you to see the raw pain. The regret. The hurt. The heartache. As well as the fire that burns inside of me.  I want you to see it all, because that is the only thing that can give you the full picture. All the things that lurk just underneath the surface, hidden from everybody else.  The story behind the story.

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~

I started working at the student radio station – WRSU – September of my freshman year at Rutgers.  Most of my friends in college I either knew already from high school or I met at the radio station.  I worked primarily in the sports department; as a sports fanatic, I was surrounded by like minded people, so making friends was easy.  

Every year, we would organize a tackle football game against the student newspaper – The Daily Targum.  One year in particular – when I was a junior – there was more hype than usual surrounding the game. Most of my friends were seniors and were graduating that year, so they wanted to ride off into the sunset with a win in the big game.  We held an inordinate amount of practices, ordered jerseys, and made customized hoodies. It became quite the production.

The game itself was also especially memorable because of how badly we dismantled the overmatched team of journalists.  Led by our tall, strong-armed quarterback who also served as head coach, it seemed like everyone on the team made at least one big play in the game.  

We celebrated that night at a house party hosted by one of the guys from the radio station; I would live in this house the following year along with two other members of the station and two other mutual friends.

The next year, since our coach and most of our key players had graduated, there was no one to take the helm as far as organizing the game and practices.  Since I was now a senior – along with my roommates who I became very close with in this time – I decided to step up and take on the roles of both quarterback and coach.  

Because I was much shorter than our previous quarterback and didn’t have a strong arm, I tailored the offense to play more to my strengths.  The offense consisted of a lot of short passes and crossing patterns. We were at a tremendous size disadvantage, because the newspaper had recruited ringers to help them out.  So we wanted to use our conditioning to push the pace and tire out the defense rather than rely on long passes as we had done the year prior.

I was in the best shape of my life during this time.  I was addicted to weightlifting, and even though I had never been particularly strong, I had progressed to the point that I was bench pressing well over my own weight and squatting well over double that.  And my cardio was nothing to scoff at either (though admittedly it can’t hold a candle to my current state). I also quit drinking and doing drugs during this time, even though it wasn’t particularly affecting my ordinary GPA.

I did all of this – getting sober and fit – to try and impress a girl: one of my non-station roommates.  We had all become friends the year prior, and it was no secret among all of us that I was very interested in her.  That interest was reciprocated for a short while, but my subsequent pursuit scared her off. I know it comes as a shock to those of you who read my writing, but I can come off as pretty intense.  

She ghosted me after that, leaving me with no explanation as to why.  I would’ve been fine with just being friends if we actually sat down and talked about it.  But instead, she maintained a distance, even though we were all in the same group of friends.  She started hanging out with other people, and it seemed like she didn’t want to maintain any sort of relationship at all.    

I took this as a personal affront. I didn’t just burn this particular bridge; I napalmed it.  If she didn’t want anything to do with me at all, I’d make her regret it. I would turn my life completely around just to spite her.  And while she was passively ignoring me, I went on the offensive and launched an antagonistic attack. During the time of the football game, we were still embroiled in this cold war.  

Speaking of the game, let’s get back to it.  But keep this aside in mind, as it will be revisited later on in the story.

Because there were a lot of complicated routes to the offense, our success relied heavily on communication.  Understanding where everyone needed to be was paramount on every play in order to maximize the offense’s effectiveness.  We had a system to implement the hurry-up offense that we installed – a system that was fully equipped with a handful of audibles and signals.

The first time we had the ball, I dropped back and was immediately blitzed. I was taken down for a loss before I had a chance to do anything.  Our offensive line was overwhelmed.

This was going to be a struggle.

Before the next play, I told one of my roommates to run into the flat, and I would throw him a quick pass.  There was no way I was going to have enough time to look further downfield.

After the ball was “snapped”, I rolled right because of the rush up the middle and threw him the football.  There was nobody within ten yards, but I threw it a little behind him. Even though he got his hands on the ball, he couldn’t reel it in.

The next play, the offensive line held.  I had some space to see over the middle of the field and found one of my other roommates open over the middle of the field.  I threw a spiral over the heads of defenders. It hit him in the chest – but it bounced off.

I started cursing to myself in frustration, and one of my teammates tried calming me down.  I knew I had to compose myself for the upcoming fourth and final down.

As soon as I dropped back, I was again met with heavy pressure and a closing pocket.  I tried to scramble, but nobody was open. I chucked the ball downfield in the general direction of a receiver out of desperation.  I could hardly bring myself to watch the outcome of the play.

The ball was easily intercepted by the other team.  I had made a promise that I would not throw a pick in the game.  And I had broken that promise during the first drive.

After we gave up a touchdown to the Targum while on defense, it was our turn on offense once again.  

We were backed up well into enemy territory when again I was met with a fierce pass rush.  Though I was able to evade defenders on the previous drive, this was too much to handle. I was in their clutches and on my way to the ground.  I tried to secure the ball and throw it away in order to avoid losing yardage on a sack, but I lost control of the ball and feebly shoveled it forward.  

Everyone ruled it a fumble before I had a chance to protest that it should have been considered a forward pass.  The Targum scooped it up and scored an easy touchdown on the recovery.

Targum 14.  WRSU 0.

The rest of the first half was a back and forth affair with no scoring.  But we had one final chance right before halftime to change that.

The drive started, and we slowly got into a rhythm.  We started working in the audibles we had worked on. We were finally moving the ball.    

During one particular play, I rolled to my right and found the sports director of the radio station streaking across the field as well.  I flung a sidearm toss – emulating one of my childhood idols Rich Gannon – and he caught it on the run and started to head upfield.

Because it was a short pass, I was able to hustle up the field as well to try and block for him.  I was right behind him about to overtake him and act as his lead blocker, when suddenly a defender grabbed him by the waist and spun him backwards into me.

The back of his head hit me square in the eye socket, so I felt the blow both on my forehead and cheek.  I saw a white flash, I wobbled, and then fell to the ground.

I don’t remember the next few minutes, but when I regained awareness I was on the side of the field.  I was bleeding from my cheek. Some of the people who came to watch the game were trying to tend to the wound.

Recognizing my own ineffectiveness as a quarterback, I told the sports director to take over the reins of the offense.  The gash on my face and probable concussion was the excuse I needed. I would still play in the game as a receiver and try to tough it out, but my plan was mostly to act as a decoy.

But in the second half, I wasn’t a decoy.  I was thrown to. A lot. And I caught them all.

The switch had ignited a fire in me and in the team.  The more blood that trickled down my face, the more it pumped me up.  And though I had originally switched out of the quarterback position in order to avoid getting hit, every time a defender tried to take me down, it fueled the fire even more.

We held the newspaper to those two touchdowns for the rest of the game.  And we were even able to score one ourselves.

But that is what ended up being the final score.  Our second half effort came up short. Targum 14. WRSU 7.

The coach from the year prior – who had come to watch the game and provide support – complimented us on our toughness and heart.  Especially me, for staying in the game and giving it my all.

After the game, I decided it would be a good idea to head to the nearby emergency room to get checked out.  Though it was stupid of me to keep playing in a relatively meaningless game, the game meant something to me.  I wanted to show myself that I was good enough. That I was good enough for the station. Good enough for my friends.  Good enough for the girl.

I don’t know if it was because of the concussion, but I was feeling overly sentimental on the walk over.  I thought of how I had failed in my quest to be good enough. Not just in this moment, but throughout my life.  This moment was a microcosm for every time that I didn’t quite make it. That no matter how hard I tried, I was never good enough.  I sobbed the entire way to the hospital.

Once I got to the hospital, they stitched up the cut and diagnosed me with a mild concussion (how any concussion can be considered minor is beyond me).  

It was true that I battled through the injury to valiantly finish the game and help my team.  But I knew that this marked the end of my career at the radio station. There was no coming back from this.  I had enough fortitude to fight through being knocked down, but I didn’t have the mental toughness to continue moving forward.  I didn’t generate enough momentum to keep going. The voices in my head convinced me to give up and lay down.

Because after the game, when I was only assigned smaller roles in unimportant broadcasts – even though I now had seniority at the station – instead of talking to the sports director about why I was getting slighted, I stopped showing up.  My firing became official after the board voted on it during one of their monthly meetings.

As I look back on that day, the lesson I take from it is that even though we might be tough enough to get back up after we are knocked down, if we are not tough enough to withstand any other subsequent punches – that will be our undoing.  It is all about how much you are willing to take while still moving forward.

The football game acts as a tool to introduce you to my mind state at the time.  This next section really hammers home that point.

Because I didn’t always have the mental toughness required to run 26.2 miles.  This next section chronicles probably the lowest moment of my entire life. A moment I have never shared fully with anyone up until now.

~

A month after the game, my female roommate and I – who were now friendly with each other thanks to one of our friends who acted as a mediator – went to a bar from some drinks.  I wasn’t drinking at all at the time, but if anyone could convince me to drink, it would be her. We were the only ones in the house, so we decided that after our evening classes we would go downtown.    

She drove to the bar, but I walked and met her there after class.  Once we sat down, we started alternating between beers, shots, and cocktails.  Even though I was barely going to classes that semester, I rationalized that I needed to unwind a bit.  I had earned this brief respite.

I don’t remember much about our time at the bar.  I remember we discussed a plan I was bouncing around in my head to take a semester off from school.  I felt like the pressure and stress I was feeling was too much; one semester to recoup might be exactly what I needed.  My parents and I weren’t talking because of a big fight between my dad and I. My grandpa had suffered a heart attack. I was fired from the radio station, a job I worked so hard at for my entire college career.  I was working a full-time job at a restaurant to pay the bills. I tried to keep up with schoolwork, but to no avail.

Plus, I was living in the same house as the girl I had been head over heels for.  The girl that stopped giving me the time of day for the most part but would occasionally dangle a carrot in front of me.  So I gave her a vague excuse of why I might take the spring semester off, though I knew the real reason deep down.

What I do remember clearly though is everything that follows.

Towards the end of our stay at the bar – both of us are now unbelievably intoxicated – she began to get handsy.  And I began to reciprocate. I took this as a sign that it was time to close out our tab and make our way back to the house to see what happened.  I viewed this as my big opportunity. Even though we were both incredibly inebriated, I wanted to make sure we got back as quickly as possible before she changed her mind.  

There was no way she was going to be able to drive.  Even though I definitely shouldn’t have been driving either, I made the insanely stupid decision to get behind the wheel that night.  I miraculously made it home and parked in the driveway. We stumbled our way into my bedroom.

As many of you have probably noted, I am very open in my writing.  Some would argue too open. But that is who I am. In order to be an effective writer, we need to be true to ourselves.  We go through our lives holding back and bottling up everything; writing gives me the freedom and release to let it all out.  

However, I am not a man to kiss and tell.  I like to keep these kind of encounters private. Alas, this particular situation seemingly would put me in a bind.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have to compromise my morals.  To the shock of most people reading this: absolutely nothing happened.

It’s certainly disappointing after the build up, and especially after I painted myself as a villain earlier.  I was already envisioning the angry mob of the Me Too movement descending upon me like a SWAT team as I type this in my living room.  But unfortunately, the story does not end here.

Even now, I remember everything from the moment we got back.  It was a moment I was looking forward to for so long, I forced myself to remember everything once we both entered the threshold of my bedroom.  Even though she woke up next to me the next morning with her shirt off, I know for a fact that nothing happened that night.

I know this, because I had never been with a girl up to and including that moment.

I was very sheltered when I was a kid when it came to that kind of stuff.  I learned as I went, but felt as if I was well behind everyone else. Sure, I had experiences with girls.  But I never really had a true girlfriend.

I also had no understanding of all the nuances that existed.  Before I even understood the term demisexual or any other shade that existed along the spectrum of sexuality was, I knew though that I wanted and needed a deep, emotional attachment before any relationship became physical.  

Just how deep you ask?

Well, have you read my blog?

This obviously became incredibly infuriating.  Even though I had plenty of suitors throughout my time in college, this was the first girl that clicked with me for some reason.  Couple this with the fact that I was operating under the false pretense that every human being must only have romantic and intimate feelings for one person and one person only – it created a time bomb of pent-up frustration.  

The part where I messed up wasn’t that I took advantage of her when we were both in an altered state.  I already admitted – with my tail between my proverbial legs – that nothing happened. The part where I messed up was when we sat down to talk about it.

At first she didn’t want to talk about it.  She wanted to pretend the night never existed.  Whereas I wanted to come clean. I wanted to explain everything, so she could feel at ease and so she could trust me.  You see, even though I had originally viewed it as my opportunity, I only really wanted the first time to be with her when I was sober.  

After about a week, she decided she was ready to talk about it.  But I panicked and froze. I couldn’t admit to her that nothing happened.  After all, what kind of “man” would I be if I did nothing? I would lose my standing in the grand scheme of things.  I couldn’t be the nice guy. She wasn’t attracted to nice guys.

Even though when we talked she made it clear that she was pretty sure nothing serious happened, I wanted to plant the seed of doubt in her head.  I told her I only remembered brief moments, but they pointed to maybe something happening. But I wasn’t too sure.

I originally wanted to be open with each other, just so that there was no more miscommunication between us.  So she would know where I was coming from. Once I saw she wasn’t giving me much to work with, I changed my approach.  In my deluded mind, maybe if she could picture herself in that situation, maybe something could actually happen between us at some point in the future.

Not even a week after the conversation, I was lying in bed when I heard the door of her bedroom close.  But instead of the one set of footsteps, there seemed to be two. It was around two in the morning, and I had gotten home a little while ago from my job at the restaurant.  I was tired, so maybe I was simply mistaken.

I heard the two set of footsteps mill around for awhile – and then stop.  

I started playing Boards of Canada quietly from my laptop to help me fall asleep and take my mind off of the creaky floorboards, in case my greatest fear was soon going to be realized.  

When my walls started shaking, there definitely was no mistaking that.

As the thumping grew louder and more rhythmic, the terror inside me grew.  Like on that football field, this felt like another snowball rolling down a hill that I could not control.  I couldn’t keep moving forward anymore.

Thump.  Thump. Thump.

I am losing my mind.

Thump.  Thump. Thump.

I haven’t talked to my dad in months.

Thump.  Thump. Thump.

I’m failing multiple classes.

Thump.  Thump. Thump.

My grandpa almost died of a heart attack.

Thump.  Thump. Thump.

I got fired from the radio station.

Thump.  Thump. Thump.

I’ve chased away some of the closest friends I’ve ever made.

Thump.  Thump. Thump.

The girl I wanted to desperately be with wanted nothing to do with me.  

Nothing was going my way.  I was confronted with a barrage of blows, and I was too weak the withstand the force.  I was too weak to pick myself up this time. I had been sober for months and ironically felt the worst I’ve ever felt before in my life.

(Note: If you are squeamish or easily triggered, skip to the next section.)

Every vibration of my bedroom heightened the overwhelming pain inside of me.  I was a balloon, just slowly inflating with absolute dread.

When I finally could not take it anymore, I went into the kitchen and grabbed the sharpest knife I could find.  

What the hell am I doing?  I can’t really be serious, can I?  It’s just a girl. Don’t do this for a girl.

But it was more than that.  It was the feeling of never being good enough.  Everything was unraveling before me. I definitely couldn’t control it.  And I also couldn’t take it anymore.

I put on “Lateralus” by Tool.  That song in particular had helped me in the past navigate through the murky waters of psychedelic drugs.  It was the lighthouse that always brought me back home. Maybe it would help now.

It doesn’t help.  As the song intensifies and the feelings inside me intensify in perfect rhythm to the thump, thump, thumping, I took the knife to my arm.

There was no method.  No precision. I was an untrained butcher, hacking away indiscriminately.  Maybe I would die before the song was over. Or maybe I could sit and relish in the pain that I caused myself – the pain I now controlled for once.  

I stayed awake for most of the rest of that night.  I wasn’t dead, but I didn’t feel alive. I sat outside of my window on the porch, smoking cigarettes and putting them out on one arm, while feeling the pain pulsing and radiating from my other arm.  

It was a grizzly scene that I hadn’t thought of in detail until just now I as type this out on this blank document.  It feels like this memory was lifetimes ago, even though the faded scars on my arm are evidence that this did indeed happen.  And I did it to myself.

~       

I hope I made it clear in the previous section just how much of a pathetic husk of a person I was at the time.  I wrestled with myself about whether or not to go as fully in depth as I did, but in order to fully appreciate what follows, I decided that I should put it all on the table.  No half measures.

The next morning after the mania wore off, I realized I would have a problem on my hands: my roommates were going to notice.

And I worked in a restaurant.  The customers would notice. Definitely one way to ruin the mood if you have to make tableside guacamole for guests.

I was able to hide the marks from the public eye for a time.  But after a few days, I was caught off guard by one of my roommates when I was going to the bathroom.  We start to chat, but I saw his eyes drift over to my arm. He asked me what the marks were.

I felt so stupid that I didn’t even attempt an excuse.  I mumbled something to the effect of, “It’s nothing.”

I kept skipping classes.  I started drinking alcohol again.  Heavily. Much more than before. We would host parties where I would get self-destructive.  Sometimes I would take off all of my clothes. Sometimes I would hurl myself down a flight of stairs.  Sometimes I would become violent and friends would have to put me in bed. It was a complete turnaround from the quiet stoner who dabbled in psychedelics that I was during my first few years in college.  The snowball that was rolling down the hill was turning into a full-blown avalanche

It became painfully obvious to anyone who spent any amount of time with me.  To say my friends were worried was an understatement.

There seemed to be two different trains of thought going around among my social circles.

On one hand, some of my friends took a more direct approach.  They would confront me about my actions, and we would have lengthy conversations where they would stress how much they cared about me.  Mental health was always a taboo subject in my household, so getting outside help seemed like a foreign concept to me. One of my roommates – noticing the various warning signs – took it upon himself and made an appointment for me to go to a psychologist.  They did everything in their power to help me.

And I did everything in my power to resist and fight back.  I became combative and argumentative. I wanted help and knew I needed it, but it was tough for me to accept how bad it actually  was. I was hostile and pushed back.

It got so bad that most of my roommates gave up on the cause and left me to my own devices.  One of them even moved back home and preferred to commute to school. We spent the last few months in a deafening silence that I very often would provoke with loud music and other forms of passive-aggressive behavior.  

On the other hand, some of my friends were with me every step of the way.  It wasn’t like they weren’t aware of the situation and they certainly didn’t enable me.  In fact, it was quite the contrary. They were in the trenches with me for the hardest moments, but would be the voice of reason right when things looked like they would get out of hand.  I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult of a job this must have been.

They were all in a situation where the easiest thing to do was nothing.  Yet, everybody did something. I can’t begin to express how much I appreciate each and every one of them.  The friends I still talk to. And the friends that stopped talking to me.

In order to fully heal – in order to be the person that I am today – I think I needed both.  The tough love and the unconditional support. One side helped balance the other.

Without even realizing it, many of our families are constructed in a similar fashion.  Good cop, bad cop. The lightness, the darkness. The seen and unseen. The difference is that family has no choice but to stick by you.  You are born into it. There is an inherent obligation involved.

There are no obligations in a friendship. They all did something, and I probably would not be here today if they hadn’t.   

So many years later, I don’t think about a girl.  It was never about a girl. It was about my friends and the pain that I caused them all in various ways.  Because while I felt that everything was spiraling out of control and I could not take any more of the blows that life was throwing at me, I was blind to the one positive thing in my life: my friends.     

I can never take back the things that I did.  The difficult moments I put them all through. I live with that heaviness in my heart everyday of my life.  It was hard to look at myself in the mirror for a very long time after that, knowing that there are some mistakes you can’t just simply gloss over and bury on your news feed.

No.  I couldn’t change the past.  But maybe I could prove something to myself.  Maybe I could still prove to myself and everyone else that there is some good in me, buried deep beneath the ash and filth.

It wouldn’t be a story about triumph or determination.  I don’t deserve that. It’s a story about a guy trying to do his best to atone for the mistakes and demons from his past.  To prove to himself and everyone else that he is a changed and better man.

There was only one thing I can do.

~

After I ran the half marathon in Brooklyn, we all decided to run another.  We looked for races that were scheduled in April – six months later – to give us enough time to recover and prepare.  

The Rutgers Half Marathon.  Almost six months exactly from the race in Brooklyn.  The perfect way to close out this chapter of my life.

It would once again be my girlfriend, my friend, and I – but we also convinced my girlfriend’s sister, who I had become close with, to run as well.  

A spring race meant that we would have to train during the bitter cold Jersey winter, but I reasoned that this would make me mentally tougher.  

I was done feeling sorry for myself.  I was done making excuses. I was done with not getting up and moving forward every time life threw anything at me.  Running in the winter would harden me. Iron sharpens iron.

I didn’t want to just complete the half marathon; I wanted to shatter my original time.  I would train harder. I would log more miles. Rain, snow, sleet – it didn’t matter. I was out there.  It was going to be a small, symbolic, meaningless victory. But I yearned for it all the same.

I followed an actual training plan this time around.  As many beginners do, I followed one of Hal Higdon’s training plans.  But I didn’t follow a half marathon plan. I followed his novice marathon training plan.  But instead of running the full marathon I would just run a half. In theory, I would run a faster half marathon this way.  And it would serve another purpose: I would also test myself and see if training for a marathon was something my body could handle.  Because, well, just in case.

I followed most of the plan to perfection.  Along the way, I developed my own system for fueling during my run, as well as an arsenal of mental tricks to get me through tough moments.  I bought actual running clothes and equipment, and I fully immersed myself in the hobby. If I was going to do this, I had to do it right.

And I actually started going faster too.  On short runs, it wasn’t so rare for me to achieve a pace of under seven minutes per mile.  Longer runs were a little slower than that but not by much.

Though I was smarter than before about increasing the mileage (since this time I was following a proper training plan), I was still running at maximum effort for most of the training.  I would let my emotions get the better of me oftentimes and would push myself to the absolute limit. I knew why I was running, and it was very difficult channeling all of those feelings while I trained.  

I made it to the plan’s “peak week”, which featured a twenty mile run.  The furthest distance I ever ran in my life.

The Saturday of that particular week, I ran for twenty miles at a comfortable pace of eight minutes per mile.  There was no doubt about it: I was ready. Suddenly, a marathon didn’t seem too intimidating. And I was ready to crush the Rutgers half.

But life was ready to throw me another test to see how I would react.  I developed a sharp pain in my knee that I couldn’t ignore. It hurt like hell and severely altered my gait.  After some reading, I diagnosed myself with IT band syndrome, but this was just an amateurish guess.

I tried foam rolling and stretching, and it would help an occasion.  But more often than not, running on it was inconvenient at best and downright painful at worst.

One evening, I remember doing the dishes after I got back home from an aborted training run. I was trying to put pressure on my leg – trying to stand –  but my knee couldn’t support me. It was just buckling under my weight.

I began to weep uncontrollably.  All of what I worked for was lost.  I had trained so hard and improved so much and now – just a few short weeks away from the race – I could barely stand.  

But then a thought popped into my head.  What would I have done in college? Why was I even running this race in the first place?  What kind of person would I be if I let this define me? What would I have done differently all those years ago?  And what was I going to do about it now?

The next day instead of running, I went to the local swimming pool.  I haven’t been to a lap pool since I was a kid, but I had to do something to maintain my stamina while not putting pressure on my knee.  So I decided to give it a try.

For the next few weeks, I went to the pool – as inconvenient as it was.  I worked just as hard at it as I had with running. Though the weather was getting nicer and I would certainly have more company outside running now than I did during the winter months, I was forced to train indoors.  

The irony fueled me.  Though it was frustrating, nothing was going to get in my way this time.  I was going to keep moving forward.

While training for this race, I learned two valuable lessons: don’t go too hard during training runs (a lesson that wouldn’t really sink in until much later) and don’t underestimate the value of cross-training.  Swimming and machines like an exercise bike can be such great tools not only to maintain fitness, but in recovery as well. I had skipped most of the cross-training sessions that were scheduled into the training plan.  It’s possible that by incorporating more cross-training, I could’ve avoided whatever it was that plagued my knee.

Just to be safe, in order to provide more support and stability since my knee still wasn’t 100%, I bought a sleeve the week before the race and tested it out a few times.  Armed with the knee sleeve and after running a few shorter, slower runs to boost my confidence, it was time to run the half marathon.

~

As I entered mile twelve of the half marathon – the part of the course that takes runners into Buccleuch Park – my knee began to throb.  The race day adrenaline was making me go much faster than I was used to and was also masking the pain I felt. But now as I approached the end of the race, it started wearing off.  I was fading.

But unlike the race in Brooklyn, my friend and I did not run together.  I had pulled ahead early on and never let up, because I wanted to give it all I had.  I didn’t want to hold back. I wanted to leave it all on the course that day. No half measures.  But without him, I had no one to keep me from stopping.

As I ran in the park – the site of the football game against the newspaper all those years ago – I thought back to the game.  I thought about the faint scar on my cheek from when the back of the sports director’s head cracked open a gash right under my eye.  I thought about my knee, that was now beginning to REALLY hurt. I thought about the marks you can still see if you look hard enough in between the hair follicles on my arm.  I thought about all of the invisibles wounds as well. The ones that have never quite healed.

The seen and the unseen.  Both shape us. They make us who we are.    

I’ve done many things in my life that I regret.  Many of those things occurred during my time living in New Brunswick.  

I have always had a hard time celebrating the cracks in my life.  But in this moment, if there was one thing I was going to celebrate it was this undeniable fact:

I’m still here.  

As the previous song on my playlist finishes, the all too familiar intro to “Lateralus” emerges from my cell phone’s speakers.  

I wasn’t sure what my finishing time would be, so I made sure that when I set the order of the songs on my playlist, the last few songs would all be able to serve as closing songs for the race.  “Harry Hood” by Phish preceded it, and would’ve made for a fine closer. But “Lateralus” coming on during the final mile of the race. It was pure synchronicity incarnate.

I finally turn onto College Avenue for the final home stretch.  I see the finish line in the distance.

The weight of the moment hit me like a sledgehammer in the chest.  The memories from college – both the good and the bad – all collided with me in that one instance.  It is so heavy that it is hard to pick them all apart from each other.

Except for one.   

I remember my graduation.

My graduation day was full of emotions.  My family was there, because – in spite of our rocky relationship – they had to be.  They helped me along the way to get there. Maybe they could’ve been there more for me during those last few years.  Maybe not. Maybe I just didn’t let them. After all, they didn’t know how bad things really were and when I tried telling them, I wasn’t exactly met with a warm reception.    

Regardless, the people that did help me those last few years were not there.  Some I still talked to. Others stopped talking to me. But each and every one of them got me there.  

When on stage, I didn’t want to be like everyone else.  Just smile, grab the diploma, and walk off. Just another mile marker on the highway of life.  

No.  I wanted that moment to truly mean something.  Because it was more than just a mile marker to me.  

I didn’t want to celebrate my cracks.  I wanted to celebrate the fact that I was still standing.  In spite of it all, I was still moving forward.

When I walked up to the stage, I raised my fist in the air with tears in my eyes.  Nobody inside the arena that day truly knew what I had been through and what I put others through.  Nobody knew what it meant to me. This wasn’t just going to be a footnote.

As they called my name out, I swung my fist downwards three times as if I were banging on a table and yelled.  It was all there. The raw pain. The regret. The hurt. The heartache. As well as the fire that burns inside of me.  

I felt alive.  

“Lateralus” intensifies as I keep running towards the finish line.  There is nobody I know there waiting for me.

Nobody on College Avenue that day truly knew what I had been through.  And I didn’t want to be like everyone else. Just trudge along, cross the finish line, and grab the medal.  

No.  I wanted that moment to truly mean something.  Because it was more than just a race to me.

I muster up whatever energy I had left and sprint towards the finish line as fast as my knee would take me.  No half measures this time. Whatever life had to throw my way – instead of lying down and taking the easy way out – I wanted to emphatically pound my chest and yell, “Is that all you got?”     

I didn’t change anything from my past that day.  I didn’t undo the hurt that I caused so many people.  I didn’t fix any of the relationships that I fractured.  But I did prove to myself that I can change. I can be better.  

This photograph isn’t fully manicured for social media.  I want you to see the raw pain. The regret. The hurt. The heartache.  As well as the fire that burns inside of me.

That fire is what helped me cross the finish line that day.  

And it is what helped me run my first marathon a year later.

It is the reason I am still standing here today, willing to take whatever life has to throw at me.  And still move forward.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 10.01.19 PM

I finished with an official time of 1:39:01, good for 17th in my age group.  It wasn’t quite the hour and a half I was approximating during the race because of the occasional inaccuracy of running apps.  In addition, I hadn’t yet learned about running the tangents during races in order to run the shortest possible distance, so I probably ran a little further than the 13.1 miles.

Which is something that I had better get used to.  Because the next step on my journey was clear the second I crossed the finish line that day: it was time to run a marathon.   

This chapter isn’t about triumph or determination.  It’s about a guy trying to do his best to atone for the mistakes and demons from his past.  To prove to himself and everyone else that he is a changed and better man. But knowing that no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, it won’t erase anything that has happened.

This chapter is dedicated to all of the people in my life during my time at Rutgers.  You were a second family to me when I didn’t deserve one.

From the bottom of my heart:

Thank you.

I’m sorry.  

I love you all.  

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 10.58.19 PM     

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can speak with someone by confidentially contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741741.  Both provide free anonymous support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    

     

Running

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