UNLEARNING TO RUN
WORDS BY JOSH RIVERS
In moments of darkness, I find myself falling into old habits. Sliding into the well-worn grooves of the coping mechanisms I’ve mastered by watching and practicing provides a respite from the voices in my head, the often overwhelming pressure of rebuilding a life and the attendant anxiety of being alive. It’s not for want of trying: I’m enchanted by the idea of feeling the full spectrum of possible emotions, from the pain of rejection to the flutter of a crush, but in execution I retreat. It feels like too much has happened to bounce blindly into the full-feeling place where joy and happiness are made more potent because they’re preceded by pain. Quieting the side-eye cynic in my head is hard when I feel I know too well that too often people have ulterior and self-serving motives. Sometimes, checking out feels safer, more comfortable.
Typically, my retreat from one is a retreat from all and in doing so, I forgo the important exercise of gratitude that so undergirds a full life. Getting a cavalcade of defenses to stand down is no small feat. In my conversation with performance artist and activist Travis Alabanza for Busy Being Black, we discuss the role these defenses play in protecting us from threats real and imagined. When Travis suggested that some of these defenses work and execute according to lived experience, I felt a sense of relief: I’m not broken. In another conversation, Kelechi Okafor, the self-titled “benz punani womanist”, speaks to all the things we carry around with us, that which we’ve accumulated over the course of our lives. Her suggestion that we have to regularly go through that “knapsack” and throw out what we no longer need echoed what therapists have said since time but which felt different, more reasonable and possible coming from someone I imagine could be my older sister.
“Quieting the side-eye cynic in my head is hard when I feel I know too well that too often people have ulterior and self-serving motives. Sometimes, checking out feels safer, more comfortable.”
In all of this is recognition, an acknowledgement not only of what I’m feeling (or running from), but the source of those feelings. A quickening heartbeat in the presence of certain older men and the arm’s length distance at which I try to keep them is a natural response for a survivor; perhaps the scowl on my face or the thinly-veiled suspicion with which I tend to treat them all is not: It wasn’t them. The self-defeating thoughts that prevent me from attending LGBTQ events and engaging with the community more fully make sense in the mind of someone whose mistakes are so public, but if the hyper vigilant voice that tells me I’m not worthy prevents me from engaging with the community I love most, then perhaps it’s time to make peace with my mistakes and my past. The list, and therefore the work, goes on.
If I allow them, these lessons can work in concert to create a lasting resonance, and so I’m trying to unlearn cat-like reflexes by holding in my mind all the people who’ve taught me differently, the ones whose very presence in my life challenges some painfully hard-earned conclusions about what I can expect from the world. There are people in my life who see me running and who run faster, grabbing my arm before I dart around the corner to isolation or who coax me back out of myself when I’ve retreated. There are those who, disquieted by my silence, admonish me for letting my pain get the better of me and remind me that my voice matters. There are gentlemen who’ve helped me re-engage with the intimacy I’d thought I’d abandoned, who’ve re-taught me patience and vulnerability in the bedroom.
“We slowly start taking bricks out of the edifice, one-by-one, and consider its necessity.”
What I’m still learning, and what the constellation of shining people around me continue to demonstrate, is that we move forward and we move on. We grasp what we’ve learnt — all of it — so we can analyse it, distill it and discard or keep it. We slowly start taking bricks out of the edifice, one-by-one, and consider its necessity. This is the type of growth that I keep encountering through my conversations on Busy Being Black. It’s the type of growth that makes us useful to ourselves and to each other.