I need to go for a run. Even though it’s dark. Even though I’m tired. The dark seeped in around the holidays. In brief moments when I should have been filled with joy and connection, I instead felt irritated and isolated. Now it’s February. It’s been months. The feelings haven’t been persistent. They haven’t crippled me, but they have been strong enough for me to notice.
After the baby is safely put to bed, I change my clothes, lace up my shoes, and head out into the night. There is no time to stretch or ease my body into motion. If I think about it too much, I will decide it’s too late, I’m too tired, sleep is more important. I don’t think, so I make it out the door.
Cool evening air fills my lungs, and most of the stars hide behind the glow of Los Angeles’s city lights. I choose streets I know well, a path I’ve determined safest. I start running, breathing easily, legs grinding beneath me, mind sharpening.
I’ve been running from the dark since I was a kid, since the summer my brother didn’t sleep, started hearing voices and talked too fast, landing him in the hospital. I’ve been running from the dark since the winter when my sister didn’t sleep, started hearing voices and talked too fast, landing her in the hospital.
That was a long time ago. They both made it back to the light. They found their way out, but I’m sure the dark still chases them the same way it chases me. My brother doesn’t talk about it. My sister faithfully takes her pills. We are all still running.
The cool night air rushes past. Silhouetted roofs and treetops press against the navy sky. The first half of my run is uphill and I struggle to find a rhythm, to steady my breath. If I can just get through this part, the second half will be easier. My eyes seek out cracks in the sidewalk that could send me crashing down, skinning knees and burning palms. I step lightly, notice changes in the height of the concrete. I take care over curbs. My ears strain to hear cars whose drivers might not see me in the shadows. I push on.
In college, the dark was drenched in rain. Those were some of the wettest years on record in the Pacific Northwest, and I blamed my low-grade misery on the constant cloud cover and drizzle. When getting out of bed was a struggle, I trained myself to run even when it meant getting wet. After college, I moved to Los Angeles. I thought the sunshine would help, but the monotony of endless blue skies and sunshine brought me no joy. I started to see a therapist. I kept running.
I’m halfway through my run and behind pace. I force my legs to go faster. It’s getting late. Most of the evening dog walkers are settled in behind closed doors, pups curled up warm at their feet. A few are still out in the quiet of night, making me feel safer, keeping me company in the dark. I find that rhythm when my breath matches each footfall, and I propel myself across a flat stretch at the top of a hill. Orion draws his bow across the sky, but I look to the ground. I can’t stumble.
After my daughter was born, I paid close attention to the darkness. I wasn’t sleeping and I worried I might hear voices, talk too fast, and land in the hospital. In the middle of the night, I strained to hear her breathing. My worst fear was not hearing her. When she cried, there was relief because I knew she was alive, but the dark still pressed in around the edges: the flow of inexplicable tears, the visions of unimaginable losses. The burden of exhaustion kept my head pinned to the pillow. My legs grew thick, my body heavy with weight the baby left behind. Alone and paralyzed in the darkness, I waited for dawn and at the first hint of light, I started running again.
It’s mostly downhill for this last half-mile and my breathing is easy. The palm trees sway in the night wind and the sky is a deep bruise. I’m running fast, so I transition from sidewalk to asphalt where the road is smoother and streetlights scatter dappled light. My legs are strong and lithe beneath me. I could run forever.
When I tore my Achilles tendon last year, I couldn’t walk or run for months. When I think back to how I felt a year ago, it wasn’t as bad as how I feel now. I fought through the dark then, so what’s wrong with me now? Maybe it’s work, or turning forty in a few months, or not getting pregnant again, or the stalled writing projects. But I keep running. I run to silence the voices that haunted my brother and sister. I keep running to sleep soundly, so I don’t hear voices or talk too fast and land in the hospital.
I’m almost at the end, just a few blocks from home. I breathe in and out, in and out and in a few more yards, I’ll open the front door. Light will flood the dark and I’ll prop the door open to let in the cool night air. I’ll breathe and stretch and feel each muscle. There will be time to fall back into my body with a quiet clarity that was missing before. I’ll soak in the bright light and close my eyes to the dark. I will leave behind the voices and fear, the irritation and isolation outside, and do my best to illuminate this edge of darkness.