19 millimeters. It doesn’t seem very big. Not very far… What kind of impact could 19 tiny little millimeters (or, for my American friends, about 3/4 of an inch) possibly have on the life of a distance runner?
Pretty big as it turns out.
It was the very tail end of 2008, just after Christmas, and I had no idea that I was just about to be hit by an avalanche. Literally. An avalanche. Â There was no warning, just whoompf! And then it hit me.Â Not a big avalanche, but big enough to send me into the ER for chest X-rays and have me trying very hard not to cough or laugh. Once again in my life I was lucky, very lucky and, once again, I didn’t really appreciate this fact all that much.
You see, the way my life was going, getting hit by an avalanche was almost par for the course.Â My relationship was falling apart; I was working with good people but in a job that, very seriously, was just not for me; and, struggling under a mountain of debt, my money was almost literally being burned up in the furnace trying to keep the house warm during a very cold Yukon winter.
Iâ€™d been through worse though, seen darker times, hurt much more.Â Things werenâ€™t â€œall that badâ€ – I was just kinda numb, living day to day, getting by.Â Strangely enough, this floating, this just getting by, that didnâ€™t seem all that bad, was just about to rear its ugly head as being something darker than the dark times; I just didnâ€™t know it yet.Â Apparently an avalanche wasnâ€™t enough to paint the picture for me – turns out that it would take an MRI.
So there I was, at work – yeah, that job I really wasnâ€™t into – feeling quite beat up from the wall of snow that hit me a couple weeks before, my partner heading off to â€˜find herselfâ€™, and my landlord informing me that we needed to move.Â There I was staring at the computer screen at work wondering why I was seeing double.Â Definitely time for a break!Â I walked onto the shop floor and saw a friend of mine.Â Well, actually I saw some of a friend of mine, as my vision seemed to be getting quickly and dramatically worse.
So when I told that friend that I really didnâ€™t have time for coffee with everything I needed to get done – you know all the “most important stuff” in life like orders, schedules, and email – and that, oh by the way, I seemed to be suddenly losing my ability to see her face at the moment, she drove me to the emergency room.
It was like someone pushed fast forward.
“Itâ€™s probably nothing but letâ€™s just do a scan just to be sure.”
“It looks like a tumor, but generally not a kind that kills you.Â We need to fly you ‘out’ for an MRI to find out for sure.”
Sitting on the plane flying down to Vancouver for an MRI, somehow this all still seemed par for the course.Â Just kinda numb.Â I mean, the neurologist had said it didnâ€™t look like the kind of tumor that killed you, right? No big deal.
The MRI was on Friday and my appointment with the neurologist was on Monday.Â I had the whole weekend to relax!Â This was like a vacation!Â I got to see my friends I hadnâ€™t seen since moving North. Go for some runs. Eat some good food.
Please note: If going off to see if you have a brain tumor seems like a vacation compared to your everyday life, something is seriously screwed up with your everyday life!
Monday morning, I didnâ€™t have to go to work; it was awesome! I just had to go find out if I had a tumor or not.Â I walked into my neurologist’s office and there it was, painted out so clearly in stark black andn white that even I could see it – the 19 millimetres that would change my life.
Now, pull out a ruler and look at how long 19 millimetres is. Consider this length from the point of view of having something in your brain that shouldnâ€™t be there.Â I bet you that little less than 2 centimetres suddenly seems huge – it did to me at least.
Again, I was numb at first; I think with good reason, though.Â I was in shock.Â Itâ€™s not everyday that someone tells you that you have a massive aneurysm and that if it ruptures it you will die immediately.Â That you will need surgery to fix this and that you need to go to the hospital immediately for more tests.Â Do not pass GO.Â Do not collect two hundred dollars.
I went to the hospital.Â I got more tests done. And then, I went to have crÃ©pes with my brother.Â I had the savoury crÃ©pe AND the sweet crÃ©pe.
I flew home and went back to work.
Then I left my job.
I really didnâ€™t like my job and really, reallyÂ didnâ€™t like the prospect of possibly dying at work.Â I spent the next few weeks learning that you should not research surgery survivability statistics; trying to write my will; trying to tell everyone that I loved that I loved them without trying to make it sound, you know, like I was saying â€œgood-byeâ€ even though it was starting to look like maybe I was.
There was a night in particular in the ER after hearing a popping sound in my head and starting to go numb, with the doctor on shift scrambling to wake up neurosurgeons down South to see if I should be put on the medevac… that night in particular a lot of things in life became very clear to me.
Through this all I think two things really stood out: One, that I really wanted to live.Â And two, that if I made it through this all that I really wanted to live my life better.
And after about two weeks of waiting for a surgery date, of having my family prepare to be there for the surgery, of really wanting to be able to go for a run, it happened.
The phone rang.
It was the neurosurgeon.Â And it turned out that all the docs and radiologists before him had been mistaken.Â This man, who I was preparing to have slice open my head, was telling me that he didnâ€™t need to.Â In essence, as par for the course in my strangely lucky life, my aneurysm was stable.Â It was not at risk for rupture. Â It was likely that many of the symptoms I had experienced had more to do with stress than the aneurysm.Â I didnâ€™t need surgery and I could “go back to living my life as usual.”
Go back to living my life as usual.
There was a problem with this message. I didnâ€™t like my life as usual.Â After what the previous few weeks had shouted out to me, I could not go back to my life as usual.
Initially buoyed up by my newfound enthusiasm for changing my life, I was very proactive, pounding the proverbial pavement to try to find a means by which to have more meaning in my life.
It was hard.Â Hard to not find a more meaningful job.Â Hard to explain to my loved ones why I didnâ€™t need surgery; why I wasnâ€™t overjoyed to go back to ordinary life.
Things started to unravel.Â My relationship, which clearly hadnâ€™t been working well, stopped working at all.Â My hopes to go back to university were dashed with the economic reality that bankruptcy was the only clear option.
I spiraled. Down and down.Â Feeling ever worse and conflicted when I started to have suicidal ideation because it did not seem to honour my newfound value for life.
I did not feel better.Â I felt much worse.
Headaches.Â Visual disturbances.Â Strange sensations in my head.Â â€œWhy was this all still happening?â€ I wondered.Â After a year of trying to put my life back together it had just fallen apart. I was worse off than before getting run over by an avalanche, and that’s saying something.
At the end of March 2010, my doctor sent me â€œoutâ€ again; out of the Yukon, down to Vancouver to have a face-to-face chat with the neurosurgeon that had given me the â€œgood newsâ€ to try to figure this all out.
It turns out he was a great guy to talk to.
He explained to me how it was all in my head (pun intended).Â I wasnâ€™t crazy.Â Some of what I was experiencing was likely because of the location of my aneurysm.Â Some of it was likely because of stress.Â The main take-home message was that I wasnâ€™t going to drop dead because of this thing.
I really needed that talk.Â I needed that reassurance.Â It had all become so surreal.Â He made it real and for the most part understandable.Â He also answered another very important question.
It was safe for me to run.Â To full out race again.
Running is very important to me.Â I am a runner.Â Been one ever since I was five.Â And Iâ€™m not a half-bad runner, either.Â Running is a life indicator for me.Â When Iâ€™m running well, life is good.Â In fact, running well can help make my life good when things are otherwise rough.
I left that talk with my no-longer-needed neurosurgeon and went for a long, hard trail run with a good friend.Â I was over two hundred pounds for the first time in my life.Â Just overÂ six months later, I was a svelte 167 pounds on the day that I toed the line at my first marathon, the Royal Victoria Marathon – a race that I had wanted to do for a decade but had let things like email, schedules, finances, and depression stand in my way.
I started that race and went out way too hard and just kept on going that way.Â It was a most amazing and simple joy to push myself hard again.Â It was a celebration of my life.
By the time I crossed that finish line in two hours, forty-nine minutes and fifty-one seconds in twenty-ninth place, I had found something that I had misplaced – my identity.Â Not only as â€œMike the runnerâ€ but as â€œMikeâ€.
Iâ€™m still struggling.Â I still have dark times that do not seem to work well with my newfound appreciation for life.Â The preciousness of life is so easily lost amidst the humdrum, mediocrity of things that are really not that important.Â But I am running again and through running I am working on getting through the rough times better than before.
Through running I am working on becoming better – SuperBetter.
What is SuperBetter to me?Â SuperBetter is a tool.Â A fun tool that helps me to keep in contact with the people and things that are most important in my life.Â It helps to remind me that, when things seems tough, doing something like rocking out to Billy Idol will make me feel better and by feeling better I will be more capable of dealing with whatever stress Iâ€™m facing.Â SuperBetter is me, with the help of my allies, identifying what makes me happy in life and how to overcome the things that donâ€™t to help keep me in that “happier than not” zone.
Iâ€™m not always good at this, but Iâ€™m working at getting better.
Mike is a SuperBetter All-Star, playing for depression so that he can set a running personal record for fastest time. He lives in Yukon Territory, Canada, where he braves significantly cold temperatures to keep up his love of running. You can watch him share his SuperBetter journey, along with our other All-Stars, on our YouTube channel. Do you have a SuperBetter story to share? Tell us about it!