“If you opt for a safe life, you will never know what it’s like to win.” —Richard Branson
By Brittni Hutton
Straight out of college I got offered a pretty sweet deal: Train in Colorado Springs with a top coach and some of the fastest runners in the country. And to help cover your expenses, Brittni, here’s an adidas sponsorship to go along with it. Talking about a dream come true.
And for the first few months I trained in Colorado Springs it was like a dream. Great competition, training at altitude, and living the life of a real runner improved my times by leaps and bounds. Until… What’s up with my lower right leg? Nothing major. I could still run. Doctor? And admit I have a problem? Not how I roll. Instead, I pushed and pushed through the pain until a teammate finally said, “Brittni, WTF?” Turns out WTF was that by not dealing with my injury when it first happened, and by pushing and pushing I’d pushed myself into two stress fractures. Deep and lasting wounds. Adidas dropped me, the situation with my coach fell apart, bingeing and purging – and a lot of drinking – ensued.
In my last post I wrote about my family trying to push through the injury we all suffered after losing my sister Courtney in a car accident back in January of 2004. We all shut down, in the wake of it, and didn’t know how to deal. Doctor? And admit we had a problem? Not how my family rolls. At one point we all did tried therapy, but my mom and my brother… Just not for them. Or my dad, turns out. I hung on a little longer and learned some ways to avoid triggers, but let’s face it: therapy is painful. We’d had enough pain. Instead of facing our grief we existed in a safety zone where sorrow and pain were not allowed.
And living in denial worked at first, but over time it led to disintegration, of us as a family and as individuals, and it became too painful for me to bear. I wanted to help. “Let’s go back to therapy, please.” But no, no takers. So what could I, a fourteen-year old girl, do to save her family? As it turns out, the answer was win.
As I started high school, I blossomed as an athlete, in both basketball and track, because I threw myself wholly into sports to escape the shit show at home. And the better I got, the more my teams won, and the more we won, well, winning brought my parents alive again. I gave them something to root for. I cannot describe how good that made me feel. So I began pushing myself even harder – so hard that my teammates nicknamed me, “The Beast.”
But while winning was a salve for my family, losing could sometimes set us back. In those cases I would punish myself by going on long, grueling runs or shooting free throws in the dead of night. Or I’d binge and purge, a shameful secret I kept from my parents (and everyone) throughout high school. Mom and Dad had enough on their plate NOT dealing with their grief; they didn’t need my self-inflicted bullshit too.
But in college, seven years after Courtney’s passing, I was in the throes of my disease, and had reached a dangerous point. I couldn’t study or compete anymore. I needed help. I wanted to go back to therapy. So finally I told my parents about my binge-purge cycles. “Just stop doing it, Brittni,” my mom said, as if an eating disorder, like grief and mourning for her, has an on-off switch you could just flip. But my dad, God bless him, understood and convinced my mom I needed help, and they agreed to pay for therapy.
One thing about therapy, in case you haven’t been: It can be really fucking painful. It’s easier for me to run at a 5:45 pace for 10 miles than sit in a room for an hour and talk about my deep, dark shit. But therapy helped. In a lot of ways. For instance, I learned that I couldn’t compete for my parents anymore – or anyone else. If I wanted to make the Olympics, I had to do it for the right reason and that reason was because I wanted it. That was liberating. I also accepted the obvious, that it wasn’t my role to save my parents. And as I kept going to therapy, eventually, I learned how to avoid the triggers that caused me to binge and purge. Therapy saved me. So much so that I tried again to convince my parents to get help too. But as I learned that’s not my role. I knew I just needed to love them for who they are. Unconditionally. And I do.
Recently, they came to Santa Barbara for a visit. It was so good to see them, everyone was in a great mood, and, I don’t know, it was like we were in a different place with each other. Like I had finally become an adult in their eyes. The shift in our dynamic and their happy mood made me hopeful that they were finally moving forward too.
One sunny, perfect Santa Barbara day I showed them the town, from Carpinteria to State Street. It was a solid time. And to cap it off, my fiancé, Brandon, was performing that night (he sings and plays guitar), and my parents were so looking forward to it. But first, I drove them up Highway 154 to see the sunset.
As we drove back down the mountain in the dark, the traffic slowed to a stop. Lights flashed up ahead. Only one lane was open. In the other, twisted metal, broken glass, victims. The sight of it transported my mom and dad right back to that icy road outside Milford where Courtney died. My mom started screaming and crying, my dad yelled at her to stop, and so it went till we made it back down to the 101. Then they did what they always do: They put on faces like nothing ever happened, and we didn’t say a word about it for the rest of their trip.
After my parents went back to Milford I expected a wave of relief to wash over me, but I’d put on a face too, for days, and hadn’t dealt with what had happened either, and I pretty much broke down. To soothe my rocky state I took a backward step and turned to food. I ate so much and felt so guilty and stupid and angry that I had to purge to get all it out of me. Luckily, nowadays, I have Brandon to talk to about these issues, and speaking about it really helped me understand why I’d taken that backward step. That made all the difference.
And luckily these days my mom and dad are doing all right too. They watch the same TV shows every night, they eat in the same café twice a week (and order the same meal every time.) They still live in that safety zone where nothing can get to them, and their visit here taught me why they feel the need to stay living there. But I can’t live there with them. I want to be an Olympian. I have to take risks. And I’m about to take a big one.
Brandon and I bought a sprinter van and will soon be calling the road our home, driving wherever the training’s best, Colorado where the air is thin, Lubbock where we have supportive family, Santa Barbara where winters are mild. We’ll drive to races, and live our lives in pursuit of our Olympic dreams. It is an unpredictable and uncertain future full of unknowable risks. It’s living outside the safety zone. And I’m ready for it. Stay tuned…