Sitting down to write my story, for this site specifically, has proven to be more challenging than I ever imagined. I’ve written countless social media posts over the last couple of years, all of which ramped up in 2020, each one flowing out of me like a waterfall. Yet, I still sit here thinking about where to start and what to say today: so many stories, so little time. For now, I’ll tell you how I got where I am today, Tuesday, June 1st, 2021.
My youngest brother Justin died of a heroin overdose on Wednesday, December 5th of 2018. I had been with him the day before, at court. My dad and I supported him because, in his never-ending quest for sobriety, there seemed always to be a court date; it was overwhelming for him. Like no matter how far ahead he got, there was always a court date looming to drag him back. It was painful to watch, and it made me feel both helpless and angry. As a self-proclaimed control freak with admitted anger management issues, this was a toxic situation every time. For me, and him. I wanted so bad to be the empathic, loving, sensitive sister. Instead, I showed up as the angry, judgmental and resentful version of myself every time.
But not this day.
This day I was so freaking grateful to be there. It felt good to support him with no judgment; I couldn’t understand my change in attitude at the time. I was a little hungover, busy with work, and the last place I wanted to be was the Bridgeview courthouse for yet another one of Justin’s court dates. But Justin had been sober, or at least doing his very, very best; he was the straightest I had seen him in quite some time, and he was a joy to be around. He was always making me laugh. He was charismatic and so hilarious that he could put a smile on my face just by smiling at me from across the room because there was always mischief in his eyes. Always. Without fail, he was usually up to something, and nine times out of 10, I could read what it was from across the room. We just understood each other in that way, and I loved it. The universe put me in the right frame of mind to enjoy this day with him because it would be the last time I saw him alive—what a gift.
Driving to Rockford, Illinois, with our dad to identify Justin at the hospital the following day was a painful experience. So many miles. So much painful silence. When my dad first called to tell me Justin had overdosed, he held out hope that he would survive. You see, his partner Mary had found him outside. Because he nodded out on the deck of her house in the middle of winter, the cold preserved his body, and the paramedics were able to revive him enough to get him to the hospital. So when my dad called me, he thought we were going to the hospital to see him. When he arrived at my condo building to pick me up, I pulled around in my car and said, “I’m driving.” My dad got out of his car and said, “Here, talk to Mary.” It didn’t take a complete sentence to know Justin was gone. And that was that. We would have an hour and a half to get there. My dad thought his son might make it, and me knowing I had just lost my sweet baby brother. That’s a lot of time to think. And imagine.
Seeing my baby brother in the ER, intubated and gone, was one of – if not the – most traumatic experiences of my life. It breaks my heart all over again writing about it now. He was so handsome. His hair so freaking amazing. He used to rub it in my face all the time, his beautiful thick wavy hair as I complained about mine thinning with age. All I could think to do standing next to his lifeless body was to run my hands through his hair and kiss his cold forehead. I was genuinely heartbroken, and at that moment, all I could do was drop to the floor and sob. I just sobbed uncontrollably. I literally couldn’t believe I was looking at my baby brother dead. You don’t ever wipe a memory like that out of your mind, and for the next 12 months, it would haunt me every day.
In May of 2019, during the exceptional pity party I was throwing for myself, I bought myself a Peloton treadmill. I woke up blurry-eyed to the confirmation email sometime in early May and thought to myself, “Well, I guess I’m gonna be a runner now.” Truth be told, I had dreamt of being the type of person who was a runner for a long time – dedicated, hard-working, fit – so come fall, I decided. This pity party I was throwing for myself had to end. It wasn’t sustainable, the way I was living, and I knew only big changes would create significant results. I created this challenge in my mind that I would run one 5K every month for a year until I could do that without stopping to walk. I thought it would take me an entire year to accomplish such a thing because running made me feel like I might die. I also committed to something bigger – my annual dry January would be a Dry 2020 instead.
Yes, I was giving up alcohol for an entire year.
At the end of 2019, I was drinking alcohol in an abusive way, numbing the pain from drowning in grief over losing Justin and our mom just two years prior. In fact, I suffered many losses in the years leading up to Justin’s death: two miscarriages, a marriage, and a uterus, to be exact. I knew the way I was handling what life was throwing at me wasn’t sustainable. But more importantly, I didn’t want it to be. I did not want this to be my life, and I knew that my long, storied past with drinking had to come to an end first before anything else could change. So I quit. I was committed to changing my life story and set out to transform myself from the inside out. I was determined and felt unstoppable.
My first 5K was the Chicago Turkey Trot in 2019. I stood on that start line, alone, surrounded by families and friends loving each other on my favorite holiday, and just felt alone, scared, and sad. It was a brutally painful experience. Not only did I feel totally out of place as a person that wasn’t a runner, surrounded by those that clearly were, but I was also literally drowning in grief over losing my mom and brother in such a short period of time and could barely breathe. My pace for that race, which I ran and walked, was an almost 13-minute mile. My average heart rate was 191 bpm. After posting my workout on Facebook, someone private messaged me and said, “It’s no wonder you feel like you’re going to die when you run; that HR is NOT normal!” Who knew!? Not me. I had my work cut out for me.
Sometime in early 2020, I stumbled upon a post in a group called Running Motivation on Facebook. At this point in my life, I had tailored my Facebook feed so much that all I saw were posts about running, sobriety, and inspiration. This particular post stood out to me because the guy in the picture resembled my brother enough to catch my eye. Then I read the post and got choked up with tears because this person, Glen Harrington, was recovering from heroin, another reminder of Justin. I private messaged him to ask if I could share his post in my Dry 2020 sobriety group on Facebook, and he answered back right away and said yes. But then he took one more step, the nudge that would prove to be a pivotal moment in my life. He introduced me to Herren Project, and the trajectory of my year became crystal clear.
From November 2019 to the end of 2020, through a global pandemic, no less, I managed to run 19 races. Most of those were live, if you can believe that, and the last three were back-to-back half marathons, the last of which I ran straight through, without stopping to walk even once. My pace for that race was around an 11-minute mile, and my average heart rate? 171 bpm. Progress. This picture you see is of me with all of the medals from my races last year. It makes me so freaking proud and happy every time I look at it. I had it taken after someone commented on my running challenge. I jokingly told them that if I accomplished my goal, I would go “all Michael Phelps on your ass” and take a picture, referencing his Sports Illustrated cover after the 2016 Olympics. And so I did.
Nothing has made me more proud than running for Team Herren Project, raising money for this cause that is so close to my heart. Discovering their community and support network early on gave my path a purpose, gave my soul a home. While I would do anything to go back and do the last ten years over again, I know now that the next best thing to having Justin and our mom around is helping those that are still here, still struggling, and still needing help as they did.
To think I run every week just because I love it, without feeling like I need to stop and walk, is mind-boggling to me. I attribute that as much to my fitness level as I do to my Herren Project family, which offers me endless inspiration, encouragement, and support. With them, I will run my first full marathon – the London Marathon – the day before my 48th birthday. What a privilege to honor my brother and mother and spread the message that together, we recover.
So this is a love letter, a thank you to all of the supportive friends, family, and teammates that helped me get here. As I said, there are so many stories to tell, outlining how my life has ebbed and flowed since 1973. Some of them pretty, some of them not so much, but all of them a part of me – a person I can finally say I admire quite a bit. Living a great story while I’m here on earth is my goal every day. I want to be the person who looks in the mirror every day and feels pride. I’m that person today, and I’ll do my best to be that person tomorrow too. I hope you do too.