Running With Multiple Sclerosis

I was terrified, close to tears, and there were 12 miles left to go.                           

I followed the race trail and walked on, tormented, obsessing about all of the terrible things that could happen to me today and in the future. I had some big worries: the neurons in my brain that could get damaged, the possible memory and mobility problems. But I also had smaller, pettier worries: what I’d think of myself if I didn’t finish this course, or what other people might think of a long finish time.

Somewhere between miles eight and nine, cars slowly came down the course to clear the road, pushing the few of us half-marathon stragglers to the edges of the street. The race organizers had created a staggered schedule to fit several races on the same morning, so the cars were making room for the next race: an 8K. I was suddenly surrounded by people who had just started running, people who were talking and laughing and maintaining a healthy pace. They passed me. The critical voice in my head took it as another sign that I was failing.

As a clinical psychologist, I’ve had countless conversations with patients about internal critical voices: how much pain they cause, how distorted they can be, and how much they can hold us back. It does no good to listen when a cruel part of the psyche is being discouraging. It’s demoralizing. But knowing these things didn’t stop me from beating myself up.

Relief came when I found another voice in my head, one that was not a perfectionist, and I took some time to listen to it instead. It didn’t conjure a phantom audience who would jeer at me for taking more than three hours to finish a half-marathon, or an imaginary Future Me who can’t think anymore.

It knew what was important. My husband would be waiting for me at the finish line, whether I got there on foot or on some kind of sweeper van that picked up the people who couldn’t finish. And despite my fear that I would lose the abilities to walk and to think, at that moment I was both walking and thinking. I may not have been running, but I managed to put one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, rhythmically, and several miles were behind me.

It’s not easy for me to focus on what is important. I get lost. I ignore what I have now, for fear that I could lose it one day. I hope I’ll always have access to the part of me that knows that the important stuff is what I have in the present moment that precedes everything I can’t know.

So, on this rainy Canadian morning, my feet and my thoughts could still move forward, despite numbness and fear and lesions on my brain and spine. And if one day I find that I cannot put one foot in front of the other, I’ll trust that Future Me will still find a way to move forward.

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Cristalle Sese is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles.

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