Getting Over the “If Only”s

A post about running, that is actually about mental health.

A strange phenomenon has come over me in the last few weeks of training, and it is something that I can only describe as a lingering case of the “If Only”s. I am currently training for my ninth marathon. This means that in addition to working full time, being a full time student, a full time parent, and volunteering 10 hours a week- I also need to run, train, and think about running every single day. Actually, let me rephrase that: In addition to all of the vessels I fill with my love and energy each day, I also have the enormous fortune of running, training, and thinking about running. It truly is a fortune— I love the strategy, the planning, and the many hours I get to spend with myself on the run. There is really little replacement, for me, for the time spent regulating my mind, heart, and spirit — while also strengthening my body — when on the run. Some runs bring elation, creativity, and solution. Others — struggle, heartache, tears, and pain. Thus is life — navigating the ups and downs, and forging a path forward. I love it all.

So, what’s the problem?

The “If Only”s. You likely have met them before — perhaps, you also have endured a lingering battle with them. They sneak up on you when you least expect them to, and when you are likely feeling pretty good about yourself. They knock on the window that you’re staring longingly out of, gazing at a beautiful spring day, admiring the newly blooming oleanders. Once you’re aware of them, it becomes very challenging to think about anything else — as if a cloud had entered your perfect spring sky. The ‘If Only”s sound as follows:

“If only I hadn’t sent that email…”

“If only I hadn’t raised my voice...”

“If only I had listened to that advice…”

“If only I had taken that other job…”

“If only I had picked up the phone…”

“If only I had upheld my boundary…”

“If only I had known…”

They creep into your brain, and gnaw a path right through your grey matter into your past. They bring up your moments of inflection — those quiet choices you made that changed the path of your life forever. They elicit regret, make you feel vulnerable, and perhaps — even spiral you into shame. They bring back people that you’ve long left behind — naysayers and critics who wouldn’t venture into the arena with you today. They bring back the mistakes and misgivings of decisions made in the throes of adolescence and young adulthood. They linger, like an eerie fog, on your present day life.

My case of the “If Only”s has been most symptomatic when I run, and most often when I feel particularly good about a run. I will feel myself enter that state of flow — where I am one with the rhythm of the universe — and then, I’ll hear it:

“If only someone had told me to do this when I was young.

If only I had known that movement helps me heal my body.

If only I hadn’t lost 20 years to illness…”

The effect is pretty immediate — my abdomen starts to cramp up, my breathing becomes tense and shallow, and my shoulders creep up towards my ears. The story that I start telling myself is about time lost, opportunities squandered, and damage done. I start believing that the 20 years I spent diving into, battling, and eventually entering recovery from illness — all the while moving through my days as a surface-level functional human being — were a waste of time, energy, and life. The “If Only”s start to gnaw into my brain and chew at the neurons that I have worked so hard to carefully rewire into healing. The doubt creeps in, and I have a hard time focusing on my “Why” — for the run, for my work, and for my life.

I’m writing because I believe that I am not the only one dealing with the “If only”s — we all have our version of a life not lived, a train not taken, or a story not told. Yours might look like a life where you didn’t suffer abuse, where you had financial stability early on, or where you weren’t told “art isn’t a real job.” Maybe in your “if only” family emotional truths were always spoken freely, and you didn’t grow up to be an adult whose anxiety spikes at the thought of hard conversations. Maybe you didn’t suffer loss in your “if only” — maybe your parents were perfect, or your neighborhood was safe, or you were born into a different cultural identity. Maybe in your “if only” the one that got away, well…didn’t get away. Maybe your declared self was celebrated, rather than maligned. Or maybe you just traveled the world a little more before settling down, maybe you took the less paying, but more fulfilling job, maybe you did pick up the phone that one time. Whatever your “if only” is, it is a shiny boat that when you step on it, you realize is full of holes. While you might get it to sail, you are going to have to work very hard to keep the water from filling the bottom and your crew from drowning in the sea.

In my “If Only” scenario, my warning signs are taken seriously in my childhood and adolescence, and an angel sweeps down in the form of a caring adult and says, “hey I know you’re hurting, maybe you should try running — it helps.” Then, that caring adult hears my rebuttal of “I’m painfully slow and non-athletic, and also carry a glacier of existential, emotional, and physical pain and I can’t deal with it”, and says “I know. Just keep trying.” Then, my confused and broken adolescent self looks in the mirror, sees worth, and buys a pair of running shoes. Instead of this blog post that few will read, she’s sitting and working on her novel about an illustrious professional athletic career, having dodged two decades of mind-numbing erosion at the hands of a disease whose sole goal is to kill you. That is where my “if only” takes me if I let it run wild. It starts to add weight to my legs, slows down my stride, and I cry — mourning for a “could have been” that isn’t real.

Living life to its fullest is tiring; this is why we need to sleep at the end of the day. Our body, mind, heart, and spirit all need to recharge so that we can wake up, run, and do it all over again. Living life while simultaneously throwing buckets of water out of a sinking “if only” boat is impossible. The mere effort it takes to stay afloat is enough to drain you completely away from your own life, and current path. I’m not saying that the “if only”s aren’t real — if you’re experiencing them, then they’re real. What I’m saying is that we don’t have to get on the boat.

At first, my case of the “If Only”s was pretty serious. It started right around the time where recovery was taking a turn, and I found it a little bit easier to breathe. I could hold my head up, look around, and see the life I was building — and feel grounded in it. That might not sound like a lot to you, but I was entering my fourth decade of life, and I was feeling this for the very first time in it. Days of health became weeks, then months — then I would need to start over — but I would keep going. With retreating dis-ease came increasing space. Suddenly — If Only. I would find myself waist-deep in water wondering how I got there, and bereft of energy to get out. Over time though, I built immunity to it. I started contradicting the “If Only”s with “But Actually”s — while it had not yet gone through clinical trials yet — “But Actually” was starting to work.

When I heard: “If only someone had told me that running would help me, maybe I wouldn’t have had to suffer for so many years.”

I would say: “But actually, your pain and struggle has made you the empathetic, open, and generous person that you are.”

When I heard: “If only my warning signs had been spotted earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have been sick at all.”

I would say “But actually, now you know how to help so many others.”

When I heard “If only I had picked up the phone when my grandma called the day before she died.”

I would say “But Actually, then you wouldn’t have the message forever saved where she tells you she loves you.”

Whenever an “If Only” rears its ugly head -while I run, while I drive, while I cook, while I play with my kids — I immediately pull out a “But actually….” It’s not always easy to do. Sometimes, I get closer to the boat than I’d like to admit — so close that I can see the bottom filling with water. Sometimes, I — like I think we all do — daydream about a parallel life. The “But Actually” comes quickly though — and the “If Only” is subdued.

Sometimes I need to take a few “But Actually”s before the “If Only” symptoms fade- and that’s okay. Actually, it’s okay for you too. When your “If Only”s pop up, maybe you can try some “But Actually”s. Think about it: what are the many, many truths that exist in your life despite or because of who you have been that make you who you are? What are your “But Actually”s?

If only….

but actually…

Share with me, I’d love to hear.

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