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My career was in ruins. My OCD spiked and I was deeply depressed. I spent hours a day on the internet, obsessively searching for philosophical and scientific reassurance that consciousness is not an illusion.  My teeth were ground away—some to the root—by my counting ritual that unlocked my jaw hundreds of times a day, but only after I reached an illusory month, day, and year when my anxiety would magically cease.

The only peace I could find was in a fantasy.

Every time I ran–from a mile to a marathon-I imagined myself making an escape from a hostage situation in a foreign country, running hard to cross the border. I escaped from imprisonment after a violent hand to hand encounter with unspecified gangs of drug dealers and terrorists, sometimes in the Middle East, other times in Central America.  Oftentimes I imagined that I escaped from several gangs and places during the same run.

The fantasy was triggered by long-distance running.  My daily runs became so important to me that I published a story about how running changed my life. My award-winning essay concluded as follows:

Running demands no chase, no flight, no goal. Isolation becomes solitude; identity becomes awareness. Silence prevails. Somewhere deep within me, I discover a passage out of time—a brief glimpse into eternity. (P.17, How Running Changed My Life)

Running did change my life. It gave me a daily respite from anxiety for many years. But the “Runner’s High” ended each day when my feet stopped moving, and the calorie burn was eventually overcome by the diet demanded by my increased appetite. Running, as I wrote, helped me discover a place deep within– running helped me escape from reality.

OCD wages battle on the boundary between mind and body, exchanging obsessive thoughts for a ransom of compulsive rituals. Running became my means of paying that ransom for many years–until the price suddenly got higher. “Did your heart just skip a beat?” my OCD brain asked one day. “What if you have a heart attack while you’re running?”

This thought froze my running career–at least until I went to the doctor to undergo a cardiac test. The event also provided a conclusion to my longest and most difficult essay, a piece that required 15 years of effort, and enabled me to publish it in the NYU School of Medicine’s literary journal in 2005:

I’ve had my heart checked dozens of times over the course of nearly twenty years. My doctors have done EKGs and echocardiograms. There is nothing wrong with my heart. But the devil whispered while I was running one day.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder is my devil (P. 126. Belleview Literary Review, Vol. 5)

The crisis has passed; I can run freely again. I can enter a world of peace through a doorway deep within. I know that peace won’t last forever. The devil seems to whisper more softly, however, when I’m busy doing something gives me a sense of power.

(P. 133. Bellevue Literary Review, Vol. 5)

Excerpts from “The Devil and a Pocketful of Glass.”

That “sense of power,” however, had metastasized over the years into an obsession.  My primary reason for running was to engage in this obsession. Hidden within it was the fear of sudden death camouflaged better than the softest whisper.  It worked so well that eventually, I couldn’t stop running even though my intensity on the treadmill occasionally made me urinate blood.

It required both memory and logic to find the root of my obsession.

Back when I was 19, having mixed beer and vodka for the first time, I wandered away from the party and got lost along a gravel road in the woods. In the morning, when I found myself walking alone down the shoulder of an unfamiliar highway, my eyes black, my jaw swollen, gravel embedded in my back and scalp, all I remembered was falling out of a car. I also remembered running. “I must have been in a fight with a bunch of guys,” I presumed, pulling my hand through my long, bloody hair. “They must have pushed me out of that car.”

For many years, I just left it at that—a vague memory that seemed unrelated to my daily running fantasy.  Finally, after some deep reflection coupled with a bit of critical thinking, I concluded that my obsessive fantasy was an illusion: a coded secret, trying to emerge. Running triggered the memory.

The Central American/Middle Eastern prison was really a car on a dark, gravel road. The drug dealers/terrorists represented the driver of that car who offered me a ride. After recognizing the man’s intentions and after a violent encounter, I escaped by jumping out of that moving car, as evidenced by the gravel embedded in my back and in the back of my head.  By comparing the moving road to a moving treadmill, I deduced what must have happened. Had I been pushed from the car, I would have fallen forward, the direction I was facing. If I’d jumped out in an attempt to flee toward the rear of the car, I would have fallen backward—which I did.  If there had been more than one attacker in the car, I would not have gotten away.

My obsession disappeared.

I chose a new one.  My new obsession, however, was a little different.  It was a workout that united my mind and body, sharpened my focus, and transformed my body: resistance training. Rather than a mere daily respite from anxiety, the constant sensation of muscle recovery gave me an ongoing reprieve. It was the beginning of my transformation.

Transformation begins with destruction. Lifting weights creates micro-tears in the muscle fibers. The second step in the transformation cycle is recovery: intervals of rest allow the body to repair the micro-tears in the muscle fibers. The magic happens because body’s repair job adds an extra measure. Therefore, the muscle becomes a little bit stronger after each cycle.

Now, I am a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer.  My internet obsession ended, and my counting compulsion waned.  I still run, but for shorter distances and fantasy-free. The feeling of mild soreness while my muscles repair themselves has substituted for my daily fantasy.  My depression lifted. My body transformed.

And I discovered a new pathway to fitness.