Will You Become “Unbroken” With Me?

Posted by on Jun 26, 2012 in General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 8 comments

I know that a'la my beloved John "The Penguin" Bingham, I will waddle on once again!

(Small diversion from my usual, but my usual will be back. Between now and into fall and 2013, I’m going to commence an intermittent series of posts dedicated to students—anyone—who is having to redo, retool, or just plain start again. Read on and I’ll explain…)

My goal was to get in and out as quickly as I could.

I didn’t have the strength for conversation. I couldn’t make eye contact.

Given how much I love people, talking with them, experiencing them, my momentary shielding of self would have been a clue that something was not right with me right now.

I filled out my waiver and sure enough, a chirpy woman began friendly banter. “You doing the half or the full?”

“Neither,” I muttered.

“Oh…” she said, sympathetically. “Are you injured?”

“Something like that,” I replied. “I’m giving my number to someone else.”

“Well, I’ve done it injured and, you know, you just get through,” she said, a little more perkily than I could handle.

“It’s not that type of an injury.”

My nonverbals were finally getting across. She stopped talking.

“Have a good race,” I said, mustering a half-smile and scurrying away. I found my corral position, showed my ID, picked up my materials for the 2012 Rock & Roll Seattle Half Marathon–my bib, race shirt, and swag bag. Then, fast as I could, I escaped to the getaway car, driven by a dutiful fellow mom who was circling the Centurylink Events Center so we wouldn’t have to pay for parking.

Just a year prior, I would have lingered at this expo for hours, reveling in it, owning my role as a “runner,” albeit a penguin runner (a’la John “The Penguin” Bingham), a proud back-of-the-pack’er. This 2012 race would have been my 11th.

I’ve chronicled my weight story briefly before, my familial history and my own with morbid obesity. About eight months ago, I realized that something physically wasn’t right. That’s when an unfortunate metabolic issue surfaced, which involves an insulin problem. Now, until further notice, I’m sidelined from hard-core exercise. According to my doctor, long distance running is harmful to the chemical shifts that need to take place to get me “well” again.

Since 1998 when I started my journey to lose 90 lbs (yes, it took years and years… and two kids), I am not a woman who gives up. I trained for the 2008 Seafair Half Marathon with an open C-section wound for four months (don’t ask). I had major (elective) abdominal surgery in August 2010, was walking hills two weeks later, and went on to complete two half marathons and one 25 mile bike race in the next year.

I would never give up a race that I paid for. I’d let someone drag me to the finish first.

Gaining weight when you are working so damned hard to be healthy (marathoning, for goodness sakes!) is like that surreal, tunneled nauseating feeling when you get an exam back that you thought you studied your ass off for, only to find that you still only scored a C, D, or even failed it. (Yep, students, I’ve been there, too).

So, while being “repaired,” I’ve felt physically broken.

Like when you wonder what’s wrong in your brain that you’ve studied and studied and studied and still can’t get that particular math equation or your research paper still doesn’t quite make the sense you want it to.

And I have never felt more broken than last Friday when I had to walk in and out of that expo knowing that I was going to hand that bib number to someone who could run.

Let me put one thing in perspective: The world isn’t coming to an end. Not doing a race isn’t tragic. And I am same woman who just had a book come out. I can compartmentalize that there are incredibly exciting things going on in the other part of my life.

But when our core being isn’t functioning, it’s easy to just feel like we’re malfunctioning. Again … broken.

I have told my students often that my struggles with weight and exercise are the place that I deeply relate to their academic struggles. Of course, I had challenges in college, but I’ve been out of school for over 10 years, so that experience is dated. And suffering is suffering, right? The genres don’t have to be exactly the same for us to relate to each other.

The bottom line is that in the aftermath of failure or even just a single bad experience, we end up in the “in between” before we make our next moves. We are over the terrible moment that’s happened, but we haven’t embraced the new possibilities just yet.

In one of my favorite books, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, who lost his child to a rare illness says that we can’t say “Why did this happen to me?”, but instead we must say, “What will I do now that it has?”

So what will we do now that it has?

Students, maybe you failed a class last term or you had one class that went wrong, you had a poor experience with a professor, or you’re feeling unsure about your major. You are having to do some major retooling for the term coming up in the fall. Here are some strategies to tackle right now to keep you motivated and sane until that time comes. I’m going to take some of this advice, myself.

1.  Support, support, support.  Students, for you, I’ve said many times that I think the campus counseling center is one of the most critical places to use as a resource. Make an appointment with a counselor and say, “I am just coming off of a failing term/bad paper/horrible experience and I want to make a plan to turn things around.” You can also say “I’m scared that my bad experiences are going to continue.” Or, “I don’t want to repeat my mistakes.” Say whatever is on your mind. Be where you are. Most of all, create a plan and get some support!

For me, my doctor has other patients who have gone through the same metabolic syndrome that I am dealing with and who might be willing to provide support. I’m game.

2.  Smaller, achievable goals. Try to chunk out what went wrong in the bad experience (wrong combo of classes, lack of time management, not seeing the prof enough, etc.) and this time, create some smaller steps, some win-able achievements, that may seem more do-able than “Get a 4.0 in all of my classes.” And tell someone about your goals, too.

I had a student who told me that they had a history of falling off on all classwork after the third week. So, we set a goal right at that third week mark: The student was going to make a checklist and we would check the checklist literally every day to ensure that Student was on track. Tell someone, “I need you to hold me accountable for _____________________ because I don’t want what happened last time to happen again.”

Just this last weekend, I said to my husband, “I wonder if I could do a 5k or 10k in September. I think the IronGirl race is then.”

(Confession: After so many half-marathons, anything less has been inferior to me. Not anymore.)

He said, “Let’s ask your doctor and find out.”

There. Little goal. And a little race that I will covet to feel a glimmer of my strong self again. Tearing up even as I type that.

3.  Unhiding from the broken. I don’t know about you, but the extreme extrovert in me has taken to introversion in my disrepair. Some might say this isn’t a bad thing. But too much sadness turned inward can trigger anxiety and depression, which can spiral. So, reach out and let others in, particularly in this in-between time. I’m going to do the same. In fact, this past weekend, when I almost turned down a friend who invited our family for dinner, but then ended up going, I said, quietly, “Please keep asking. Getting out really helped.” And that’s all you have to say.

I’ll be back with progress and more “unbroken” posts from time to time in the months ahead. Bravo to any of you going back to school in the fall who are making a comeback. I’m here to support you!

I have been out of the classroom working on a grant and my book for a year. So, I am truly going back to the classroom and starting over with you again in that way, too!

Here’s to becoming unbroken… together.


  1. You are an inspiration! Keep on keeping on!

    • Hi, Sara,

      Thank you! I’m a’tryin’ :-) .

  2. Bravo! You put my feelings into words and then pulled back a curtain of hope for me. I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis 18 months ago. I had faithfully exercised and eaten only healthy food for 30 years trying to avoid a family history of heart disease. Then RA came out of nowhere. I’ve felt like my body has betrayed me. I processed my anger but still have my moments of sadness. It is a long tough road to remission with RA. While you are taking chemo and immunosuppressants you have the side effects from the drugs + the symptoms of the disease. There are times it feels surreal. That I don’t know the body I now inhabit. So broken. However, I am joining you in believing that I too, will become unbroken. I WILL run circles around my kids again. I WILL tame my never ending housework. I WILL be back in my Pilates class 3x a week. Geeze, I may even go back to school. Like a broken bone, I am already becoming stronger, as I have been to another side of life. And when I am unbroken, I won’t have to dry my hair in 3 stages, lying down to rest in between. I won’t go without just because I would have to climb the stairs. I WILL be unbroken. That is the path I chose. I believe we will both get to the finish line! Thank you for the words of support. I wish you strength, faith and complete success in your journey. Please keep encouraging us.We are just momentarily in a different race.

    • Dear Running Along Side of You,

      Your note was so meaningful to me. Of course, under entirely different circumstances, I empathize with you so much and appreciate you telling me your story. I know that feeling of betrayal by your body. It is exactly how I felt and I hadn’t put it into those words. I have also felt very sad, angry… the gamut of emotions. You are right that it is a choice and I have to re-choose to be strong. I see my doctor on Monday and am going to ask about what my options are with exercise. I wish you the same strength, faith, and success in your journey, too. Let’s stay connected and keep encouraging each other.


  3. Great post, Ellen. I appreciate you sharing personally as well as on this blog. You know I am rooting for you as you track down your metabolism triggers, and you get on the road of long-term good health.

    Your students are blessed by your empathy and ability to translate these struggles – and eventual victory/success – with their academic struggles.

    You *will* become unbroken – and in some cases, you are in the perfect condition to be an example to your family, friends and students.

    • Dear Brian,

      You’ve been such a tremendous supporter in so many ways and I value you. I’m working to make your words reality! All of your commitment to fitness inspires me so. And, hey, I’m supposed to be upping my caloric intake. Oreo balls, anyone? ;-)


  4. Ellen, you are the MOST Unbroken person I know. What a heartfelt, encouraging, and courageous post. I had NO idea you had struggled so mightily with weight and, frankly, I’m still not quite sure what has slowed you down via this post and why you couldn’t run…did I miss something? I just “get” that the doc has ordered you to “take it easy.” It doesn’t matter ’cause I know you and I know you’re honest and whatever it is, the emotional impact is the same.

    Have you seen the documentary “Forks Over Knives” about eating a whole foods based – largely Vegan – diet? It is fascinating and might be a natural aid to your recovery? I’ve been Vegan now about 2 months. It’s getting easier as I learn more and more what to eat, how to prepare food, and most of all, HOW TO BUY food!

    YOU are a winner.

    BTW, Harold Kushner’s book is one of my ALL-TIME favorites. I used to keep several copies handy to give people that I thought might benefit from reading it.

    • Hi, Bruce,

      You know, I was just thinking how much I had missed interacting with you and there you were!

      I’ll try to explain this the best way that I understand it, and I’m not sure that I do–my husband had to attend the last visit with me. My leptin is screwed up, apparently. Marathon training and marathoning, for me, takes hours and hours because I’m such a slow runner. That long running is harming my leptin, suppressing it, particularly since I was not eating enough calories and, as my doctor puts it, I was, for a long time, in a “starvation fog” (which she is working to bring me out of). So, no hard-core running right now, other than maybe 3-5 miles, though the doctor would prefer me take it really easy with exercise. I am going to exercise, though, because it helps my mental health!

      Anyway, you are the second person to mention Forks over Knives and I’m interested in it! I would also like to try juicing, not for meal replacement because I love fruits and veggies, but just for overall continued health.

      And, yes, I love Rabbi Kushner’s book and think that having it around for others is a great idea. I should do that, too.

      Thank you for the kind words. I also need to focus on “activity” that just feeds my soul, like you do… Don’t you rollerblade a lot? I had just started to learn to roller skate (my daughter is in roller derby) and thought that was kind of fun. I was previously scared to do it for fear of injuring myself because I was always in training. But now… no worries about that.

      Big hugs to you and thanks,


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