I was twenty-one when I first moved away from home for a semester of college. It might seem late to some but for a young girl with no direction in life, depressed and suffering with anxiety and undiagnosed PTSD from childhood sexual abuse she had yet to disclose to anyone, this was a huge deal. I went to Illinois to attend BYU Nauvoo, a program that mixed normal college courses with additional study in LDS church history.
I had a difficult time in some regards, but the whole opportunity changed my life in many deep and profound ways; I made friends, deepened my personal belief in God, was able to face my anxiety at being away from home and overcome some of it, and other such experiences. One of those experiences happened in what was called the walk from Nauvoo to Carthage. The school had organized this twenty-four mile walk/run for any student who would like to participate, in memory of the path that the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith took when he rode from Nauvoo to Carthage, IL, in what would be his final journey before his martyrdom, his assassination.
Now, did you see the part where I said it was twenty-four miles?
Yeah. Um …….. listen ….
I find the idea of running, something that only happens if your life is in danger and the place you are running to would be a car, into a building to hide, or up a tree to wait for the animal to tire of wanting to kill you. As for walking for long distances? That is to be reserved for actors in any BBC miniseries that tell a story that takes place in the days of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
So, the idea of participating in this event, in any capacity, wasn’t top on my “to do” list. At that time I was also the heaviest I had ever been – 328 pounds. I was deeply insecure and embarrassed because I was the largest student and in general, I never wanted to exercise in front of people for fear of being bullied and ridiculed as I had been before. I already hated myself enough because of my weight, I didn’t need to know how others felt. However, I decided to go. They were going to have a van at the half way point to bring people back who only wanted to participate for thirteen miles and I knew that if I made it to that point, it would be a miracle.
I remember it being a beautiful fall morning and feeling anxious about the journey. For many of the other very fit, young college students this was nothing, something they had done before or could do without much thought. Many ran, others walked but I was definitely on the slower side. I spent much of my time alone, just willing myself to keep going. After four miles I was tired, hot, and wanting to give up. People were passing me like crazy and with those few that chose to walk with me for some stretch of it, I felt embarrassed because of my speed and relieved when I did become too slow for them and they moved on. I tried to not think about how far I still had to go and just focused on each step, thinking of my family and also what it might have been like for Joseph Smith to leave his loved ones behind and make his way towards Carthage jail, possibly knowing that he would be killed.
It was a difficult but beautiful walk for me. It took me over three and a half hours to complete the thirteen miles and I had never been more excited in my entire life to see a white van than when I finally arrived at the half way point. I was hot, tired, and my legs and feet were killing me. In talking to some students who were there and getting ready to get in the van, they mentioned some of the students had finished the whole journey already and to hear that filled me with shame that I was so slow, that I was so overweight and unfit. All I wanted to do was quit, go back to my dorm and hide. I got in the van with some people but as we waited to go, a battle began to wage within my mind.
The journey was the full twenty-four miles, how could I not complete it? But I was exhausted and in pain, mentally and physically, how could I continue? I thought, “it doesn’t matter if you stop now Mia, you’ve done more than anyone thought you could, it’s okay.” I then countered with, “but it’s not okay – it’s not finishing. What will your family think, the other students? It doesn’t matter what they think but you will know you didn’t finish, you have to at least try – get out of the van, Mia. Keep going.” Other thoughts continued to go back and forth for what felt like hours but was just a couple of minutes, and then, just as we were to pull away, I said, “Wait! Let me out. I’m going to keep going.”
I jumped out and stood on the side of the road as the van pulled away. The euphoria of that decision lasted about as long as it took the dust cloud – from the wonderfully fast and air conditioned van that sped back towards Nauvoo – to settle.
Crap. What had I done?
No one really had cell phones back then to call back the van or even better, to call a taxi to take me to just before the Carthage jail, so I could walk the last little bit and make it look like I had made it.
I was stuck. I was alone. The only direction I could go was forward. So, I took a step, and another, and another.
A march from my dad’s US Navy days, that he used to sing with us, when my brothers and I were kids and we were going for small walks around the neighborhood, came back to me and I began to sing it inside my head, “Left. Left. Left, right, left – you had a good home but you left, left, left, right left.” I continued on like that for some time. At various points I came in contact with others – including some crazies that had already ran it and were doing it a second time – but most of my time was alone again. I don’t remember now much of what I thought about, but I do know I just kept telling myself, “keep going, keep walking, don’t stop; you can do this.”
I remember the pain I felt with each step and how much I wanted to quit. But finally, after almost seven hours of walking, I saw Carthage, I saw my destination and I was filled with such a sense of accomplishment and a deep gratitude for not having given up; I had made it.
I hadn’t thought about this experience in years. However, over the last few months as I have continued to work through where I thought my life would be and where it is and have thought about wanting to quit, to give up, it has come back to me. I have thought about it a lot and there have been days when quitting my life is all I have wanted to do; but, when I get to that quitting point, I see myself in that hot, white van at the half way point and I can hear in my head the same words I heard then, “Get out of the van, Mia! Keep going.”
So, I try to get myself out of my head and into life, the present moment. It isn’t easy. I learned a long time ago how to hide away in my mind, how to run from how I’m feeling and thinking and just act like everything is fine.
But I’m not fine – I’m sad, lonely, frustrated, and angry.
There, I said it.
I hate that those are my feelings and I cringe at thinking what others think about me when they read those words but I know that hiding it doesn’t change it, it makes it worse. Knowing where I am pushes me to work through the uncomfortable feelings and towards acceptance. My resistance over these months has come from wanting to change what is unchangeable. I want to go back in time and change what happened to me at the age of eleven, the sexual abuse; I want to change how I coped with what happened to me, the binge eating and isolation; I want to change my lack of love and relationships; and lastly, I want to change the fact that I cannot have children.
But I can’t. Part of life is coming to understand that there are things that cannot be changed, no matter how much we wish we could. What that leaves us with is acceptance or denial of those events. I can continue to deny my inability to change my past and run this hamster wheel I have been on for so long or I can accept them as they are and what they have made my life into and keep going forward. Some days I choose acceptance and on others I chose denial. It is okay to have both feelings and the more that I acknowledge that, the easier it is to work through denial and into acceptance.
Life will continue to move forward for all of us. I wish I could tell myself and others that the loneliness, anger, pain, or sadness – whatever one is dealing with – will all go away but I know an absence of those emotions is unrealistic. There will be moments, days, weeks, months, and sometimes years when the fight to not give up will be more real than one might think they can bear, but that isn’t true, it can be borne. Giving up for me once meant suicide and if I’m really honest, I know that sometimes that thought still enters into my options for coping. It’s scary to think about that but it’s also freeing because acknowledging that reality allows me to face the darkness of a thought like that and realize if I have made it through before, I can make it through again.
So, what I hope to leave with myself and whomever is reading is that it’s okay to want to quit, it’s okay to want to give up but that we don’t have to, each of us has the strength to keep moving through the journey of life – I know that as firmly as I know I am sustained by the breath in my lungs. Trials of life don’t discriminate and will come to each person, however, they can be borne – please don’t give up. Get out of the van – keep moving forward; I’m out on this hot and dusty road as well and I need to know I’m not alone.