Healing via Triathlon

I’m on my way home from a swim tonight. It was one of those long, calm swims where when I finally stop I realize how quiet it is and how peacefully I’ve been floating through the water for the last hour and a half utterly undisturbed. It’s a beautiful thing.

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In ten days I’m going to be jumping off a ferry into the San Francisco Bay and racing to the finish line of the iconic Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. Two years ago I never would have imagined myself here. I had never learned to swim properly, and I was years into a withdrawal from competition of any kind. That was what I needed, for a while.

My life changed. After half a decade of avoidance, denial, rationalization, and self-blame I finally made sense of the abuse I endured when I was 16. This realization caused me to rather abruptly report my abuser, who at that point I had still considered an important person in my life, to the police for rape. Within a month, I was told by prosecutors they wouldn’t be pursuing charges against him.

Three days after that meeting with the prosecutors, I got an email from Farm Sanctuary, an organization I donate to and love, with the subject “Join Team Farm Sanctuary at NYC Triathlon.” Once upon a time, running and yoga had been my salvation. Things had changed. I needed to feel excited about something. The NYC Tri was something I had considered doing for years. The timing couldn’t be creepier. Obviously I had to apply.

The months that followed were challenging in an abundance of ways. Despite now knowing without any shadow of a doubt what my rapist was, I deeply struggled with processing it all. I had trusted him for so long, defended him for everything, and believed I had forgiven him for the things I thought I had to forgive him for. Even though it was over five years later, I was dealing with the reality of it for the first time. Twice I texted him desperately begging for him to explain it all to me. Even though I knew he was incapable of honesty I couldn’t accept that I’d never hear explanations. I had a profound need to understand how this person who I had cared so much for had all along only ever seen me as a thing he could control. I was haunted reliving traumatic times I had newfound perspective on, but also I was haunted by the good memories of him. How, after I had come to know him for the sociopathic monster he is, could I still miss him? How could I even dare to still hope he could be more than the pathological abuser I knew he was?

There was no logic. I had no answers.

But simultaneously I was training for the triathlon. This gave me life. It gave me purpose. It gave me a goal I needed to put in the work to accomplish successfully.

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Triathlon gave me even more than that.

I was reading a lot, and I learned about the tactics that abusers like mine use and how they psychologically affect their victims. People like him tend to give their victims a mixture of hot and cold; one day they treat you like you are the most special human being on the planet, the next day they ignore you. One day they praise all your insecurities, the next day they exploit them and hold them against you. This inconsistent affection has a druglike affect on the victim’s brain. The bursts of loving treatment cause dopamine to be released in the victim which acts as positive reinforcement, and the victim becomes addicted to the intermittent dopamine releases which are associated with the abuser’s lovebombing. When we are being treated unkindly, we remember that flood, that rush, and we crave it. We believe we need it. We don’t recognize how unstable it is, especially combined with the gaslighting, triangulation, and other manipulation tactics that abusers use.

This addiction explains some of the science behind trauma bonding. This is what made it so hard to let go of who I wanted him to be.

I also learned ways to heal and break the trauma bond. One way to ween off of the abuser is to find alternative ways to stimulate the release of dopamine that don’t involve abuse. Dopamine is released in response to pleasure; one way to induce its production is exercise, and a great way to exercise is to train for a triathlon.

Being in an abusive relationship affects other hormones as well, notably cortisol (“stress hormone”) and adrenaline. The turmoil of all these hormones firing in response to a cycle of tenderness and mistreatment often puts victims in a perpetual fight or flight state, high on adrenaline, and when contact is severed between an abuser and their victim, there are palpable withdrawals. Activities that are challenging, exciting, and even scary help to replace the unpredictability of an abusive relationship. Once again, triathloning fit the bill.

When I joined Team Farm Sanctuary I didn’t know any of this. I got to experience firsthand the effects of finding a new, healthier addiction to replace the toxic person who had discombobulated my brain chemistry. In committing to my training and then falling in love with the sport and improving my performance, I started to let go of him and my need to understand him. I started to accept what I should’ve known before: He doesn’t have the answers, he is not the answer.

Becoming a triathlete has brought me an unbelievable amount of joy. It’s given me a platform to represent and fundraise for a cause that is meaningful to me. It’s given me things to look forward to while life has otherwise been kicking my ass. It’s brought me more sense of community. It’s given me a new way of traveling. It’s cost me a lot of money! It’s given me motivation and empowerment. And it has broken my trauma bond with my abuser. It’s given me freedom.

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