To Beat the Devil

I woke up for what must have been the eighth time, relieved to see it was finally 5:45. I could hear the wind picking up, but there was a glimmer of star shine visible through the window. A good omen, I hoped. My running clothes were where I had left them on the kitchen table. I slid as silently as I could through the house, trying not to wake my three-year-old son or his Mom. I ate a banana, checked my phone for the temperature, and pulled on my clothes. I’m superstitious about my socks. These things are ancient, the elastic barely there. I hand wash them now, knowing that they should be thrown out, what with my little toe, broken and healed so many times that it barely resembles a toe at all, hanging out of the once-white fabric. I lace up my shoes, broken in properly for once, wiggling my heel back into the shoe, a remnant movement, long since immortalized in my muscle memory from my brief track career as a walk on in college. I drink three pints of water, counting them. I pick up my keys, check to make sure my chip is laced into the shoes once more, like it could have gone anywhere, consciously kiss the stones on my necklace, and slide into the dark morning.

I don’t know where I am. My brain shrieks at me in fury, my heart slamming into my ribs. My thoughts jumble around one another, tangle into an undecipherable mess and then break, slumping into my brain like spaghetti into a bowl. My body is shrieking along with my brain now, my hands shaking uncontrollably. Cold sweat rolls down the side of my face and the bedclothes twisted around me are drenched. All I can think of is that I am dying. Without a doubt. I’m dying, and I have no idea where I am. It’s a hospitable of sorts, that much I can see. My eyelids do little to block out the residual light streaming in through the barred window from the streetlight outside. Shadows dance across the wall behind me and a crucifix, complete with mostly-naked Savior, fixes it’s unblinking, judgmental gaze on my pain.

The truck starts. I almost wish it wouldn’t for a moment. I’m nervous, my stomach is in knots and I feel the old familiar drum of increased blood pressure thrum against my forehead, where the skin feels suddenly tight and thin. I clear my head as best I can, and swing out onto the deserted road just as first light brightens the eastern sky. My mood elevates, and I suddenly grin at myself, the old familiar half-smile that always springs to my weathered face when I greet the sun in the morning. It’s a fine time, early morning. There’s always that feeling of things to do, places to go, adventures to be had. It all stretches out in front of you in the early morning. The anxiety over a half marathon suddenly slips away, replaced by a heightened sense of excitement about the day to come.

A sound from the other side of the room alerts me to the presence of another. A snort, sort of a muffled cough, then snoring. I realize I’m not alone and my howling brain, anxious for some diversion, fixates on identifying my sleeping roommate. I don’t know him. I feel relieved for some reason, knowing perhaps that I won’t be beholden to small talk when he wakes. I wish I could sleep again, and I trace the I.V. in my hand back to the bag by the bed. I try to read the contents held within the plastic, but my eyesight seems sorely unsuited for the task at hand. I try to lift one hand and discover my restraints. Canvas straps are secured around my torso and hands, which are trembling visibly. My legs are likewise bound to the bed, and by the looks of the remnants of my clothing, it appears I was not restrained willingly. I dizzily remember signing a waiver, my fingers willful and stubborn against my brains’ instruction to print legibly. I remember my name then, suddenly, where I am and why I am here. “Nolan” I whisper to myself. I have a son. His name is Nolan.

I sit with my back to the block YMCA building, watching, judging my competition. I know better than to think I will do anything but run this race, but a childhood spent in motocross, football, boxing, track and testing myself against others has molded me into the person I am today. In sobriety, I have rediscovered the relentless urge to push myself, to benchmark my performance. I notice that the runners are hard, lean, with restless eyes. There isn’t much conversation. Two women banter loudly and “Eye of the Tiger” beats mindlessly over the loudspeakers, too loud for this early hour. I fall back into myself, allowing my mind and body to just be still. I remember too little of the past decade. What memories I do carry are unpleasant at times, loud drumming of mistakes and fallacies.

The doctors have cautiously met with me. I realized by day two in this final stay in rehab that I was one of those for whom the caregivers had no hope. The meetings were perfunctory, quick. I could tell they were only going through the motions. They mistook my silence for sullenness, my lack of participation for resentment. I was trying with all my might to hold the center, to keep my core intact while the outer edges dissipated into the mist. It took all of me to hold that little bit of me, that tiny place that was still recognizable to me, intact. I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not stop shaking. I could not manage more than a sip of water. I could not remember where I was, or my home phone number. My wife came to visit, without Nolan. She was white and furious, cold and distant. I tried to hold her hand and she ripped it away. I could not understand why she was so angry with me. I tried to remember what I had done to make her hate me so, and I could not. She left, and I returned to my room, free of the restraints, but a prisoner nonetheless. The iron grip of addiction was not relinquishing its hold on my body and brain. By the end of day two, I am firmly in the grips of Delirium Tremens.

The gun sounds, and we all start running. There are so few of us on this cold, windy, rainy morning that there is no particular order to our grouping. The fastest runners line up first, and rapidly draw away from the main body of the pack. This is my first half marathon, so I’m a bit unsure of myself. I’m amused for the first three miles by the press of bodies, passing people and listening to conversations around me. The runners, mostly silent pre-race, have bunched into conversational packs, talking amongst themselves, clearly having a good time despite the weather. I fall into a semi-comfortable pace somewhere around the middle, neither passing or being passed by anyone. The miles start to fall away. The wind and rain tears my eyes, and I find myself running at times with them closed, blinking away the water. I allow my mind to fall away once more, free to roam about, only nudging it in pleasant directions. Or at least I try to. Unbidden, a scene from one of those dark corners, unrehearsed and unwelcome, springs to the forefront.

I’m screaming, but the sound is distant, like the caterwauling of a lost and frenzied puma, calling out to its mate over the dregs or what was once it’s natural habitat, now destroyed by mountain top mining. The streams run red with acid mine drainage, the sandstone rocks rusty and brown in the murky water. I’m not even for sure it is me. The only thing I know for certain is that I must get out. I must escape from this terrible place, this iron prison of sand and death. My tortured brain no longer obeys my feeble attempts to place my sanity in the center, and once again the center begins to pull apart. I watch the whirlwind of dust descend behind my closed eyelids, and I swear on a thousand alien suns that I will not go into the darkness, that I will not leave my family, that I will not desert my son, still so tiny, so helpless, so dependent on his mother and so abandoned by me. An image of him, just born, still misshapen from the womb and so full of life, slides fleetingly by and I grab it and hold to it, firmly grasp it in my minds two hands, willing myself away from the abyss, where insanity and worse lurk, waiting for me, hungry with their need shame and failure and tortured souls like mine.

I snap back to reality, and I find myself crying as I run. Miles eight and nine have passed, and my legs are screaming with the pace I have subconsciously set. I am punishing myself now. I welcome the pain in my broken rib, the throbbing in my reconstructed ankle, the shock of my functionless liver dumping rapidly metabolizing adrenaline and damaged cells and metabolic waste straight into my brain stem. I fight through a moment of oblivion, when my brain re-routes memories and conscious thought into a new pattern, recognizable again in only a few seconds. Those seconds seem an eternity as I temporarily forget everything, and I grimly panic, then remember! My mother’s voice, distant on the phone a few weeks before: “I know why you run. I have seen it in my dreams. You run to beat the devil.” She is so right. Now, that is what I do. I am no longer running for me, or for enjoyment, or to beat anyone else. I am running for sorrow, for the pain my addiction has caused, for the family I let down, for the friends I disappointed, for the lost decade, ten entire years that I spent in the grips of alcoholism. More than anything, I am running for my son. I choke back tears, and channel the rage and fury and anger and pain and sorrow into the rest of me and I run like hell itself is after me.

I awake in a pool of water on the floor of my cell. My roommate is snoring, loudly enough to cause me some concern. I am still shaking, my shoulder throbbing from contact with the cold cement floor. I try to strip off the wet clothing, but I am too weak to attempt it. My hands shake uncontrollably, and my brain does not seem to function, but I know who I am. I climb back into bed and wait for morning. The doctors give me their prognosis: Certain death. Thirty to ninety days. If I stop drinking. I can tell from their tone of voice that they have no hope that I will do such a thing. From somewhere deep within, I find the strength to grin at them. “Don’t bet against me, doc.” He looks at me for a long moment. “Maybe so….I’ve seen stranger things.”

I see my son’s blonde head as I round the last turn into the grassy area by the YMCA. Another race is starting, so I know I’ve beaten my goal of a two-hour half marathon. I find out at the finish line that I did even better than I expected. My family is there, my wife grinning at me like I won the thing. I grab my son and pick him up, sweaty, cold and soaked to the bone. “I don’t even care,” I think, “if I won the thing or not. It’s enough to finish. To know that I ran every step.”

I think of my ancestors as I leave the rehabilitation center for the fight of my life. For my life. I think of the Native Americans, the Cherokee and Cree; and the Scottish Immigrants, all of whom had fought for their freedom and existence on this land. I wait for my wife to pull the car around. The cold rain falls and I realize with a jolt that it is nearly fall. I dare hope for a moment that it is not my last.

I’m winded and I enjoy the quiet of the house, the dark coffee, my son’s close company. It is nearly three years since that last fateful day in rehab and I am still alive. I attribute a great deal of that to running. It’s not just the physical act and mental benefits of the exercise. It’s the mentality that goes with it. I’m not just living. Not anymore.

I’m beating the devil.

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