Are you a runaway? Most of us are, at one time or another.
Maybe we don’t pack our favorite stuffed animal in to a small backpack and sneak out the bedroom window; maybe we don’t end up as homeless teenagers on the streets; maybe we don’t create a new identity or drop off the grid completely. But we run away, nonetheless.
I was venting some frustrations and struggles with a confidante recently, when she spoke a truth I didn’t want to hear. Once I recovered from the punch to the gut, my first reaction was to run away—from her, from the situation we were discussing, from myself. As I pondered my reaction and the situation we were discussing, I realized that I’ve run away many times, and I come by the reaction honestly.
I remember as a young child (before eight years old), when my parents would argue, and my dad would jump in his pickup and go for a long drive. I would watch from the living room window as the dust trail disappeared into the hills, wondering when he would come home. I couldn’t bear to consider that he might not. Or when the house became stifling with tension, I’d go outside and play with friends or wander by myself until the dreaded “third call” yelled out to the neighborhood that I’d better come in or else.
After we moved to the big city, I discovered books. While my mom buried herself in work (her runaway destination) and my dad struggled with his demons, I discovered that I could lose myself in worlds far away in time and place, and no one bothered me there, as long as chores and homework were done.
Books have remained my hideaway of choice, whether from struggles outside with family, work, and the world, or from myself, my insecurities, and my anxieties. Certainly, I self-medicate with food (thank you, Grandma C.), and have tried alcohol (too close to the causes to be a good antidote), but losing myself in a good story doesn’t take the physical toll those and so many other choices do. What it does do is take my time and attention from writing my own stories, from being my own creative self.
Sometimes we need to run away for self-preservation. Abusive relationships and toxic environments (emotional or physical) often require we absent ourselves permanently to survive. But if, like me, you want to thrive, then knowing what you are running away from and why are as important as for how long.
Is the current situation temporary? Do you just need a chance to breathe and regain your equilibrium before powering through? Are you avoiding your own responsibilities to others or yourself? Be careful here—I’m not talking about expectations. Taking care of your body by feeding it, clothing it, protecting it and getting some exercise (responsibility) is not the same as dieting to a model’s size, or spending hours a day at the gym for that ultimate ripped body, or even running marathons every week (expectation). If you have children, you have a responsibility for their care and upbringing. But do not lay on yourself—or accept from anyone else—the expectation of perfect kids or the perfect family. The same goes for any relationship: spouse, siblings, parents. Yourself.
Sometimes, we need to run away a bit to get some perspective. Work, alcohol, even reading don’t really help for that. Journaling, counseling (formal or informal), prayer, meditation, a trip to the mountains or desert or the middle of a field can help for this. Eliminating distractions so we can’t avoid the hard questions and can cry, rant, yell or scream—these can make the journey fruitful, breaking down the barriers that keep us from seeing the larger picture.
In the end, even if we decide that running away is the best solution for the long term (and sometimes it is), remembering one key truth is vital if we want to live and grow and thrive: I can’t run away from myself. Whether I find myself on a desert island or in the middle of a 200+ member family reunion, the person I am first responsible to and for is myself. If I can’t accept myself—warts and gifts—then I’ll never stop running.
[A note to anyone reading this who is depressed or suicidal: you may not see the gifts and strengths inside you right now, but know this: they are there. They are worth seeking, cherishing, and growing. Even the Atacama Desert in Peru, one of the driest places on earth, gets the occasional rain, snow, and a fog that sustains life. Leave the permanent departure for old age. You have much to give until then, so walk back from the precipice with me and those who have held my hand.]