Learning to Breathe

This story was written by Corinne Birchard. Thank you for sharing your heart with us!


This was supposed to be the year of everything. Senior year of college. I was so excited to start this year as I had big goals and aspirations for the up-coming cross country season. I dedicated my summer solely to training;  I discussed with my mom the idea of not getting a summer job to maximum my time for getting in my hour long endurance runs, my lifting session, my shakeout second run of the day, and my routine of “little things” to promote recovery, including sleep. My parents not only understood that, but encouraged me to hold off on getting a summer job so I could focus my energies on training. So that was my summer.

I was so excited to go back to school and compete in my class cross country season as a Division I runner. And to learn and complete my degree in biology, of course, but I invested so much time in running during my time off from school that I couldn’t wait to taste the delicious fruits of my labor.

Turns out they weren’t so delicious.

While I was focusing my energies on training, I kept putting off the dreading feeling of leaving the home I love so much. This year was different from other years. The early years of college, I would be so excited to go back to school and reconnect with my roommates and teammates, train hard and study hard. Of course, I would miss my family and friends and boyfriend back home, but the college atmosphere was different, almost refreshing. New.

Now, things are different. With one year left of college, I had my future career to look at, deciding where to get my masters of education, spending time with my parents that I enjoy so much, and planning a future with my then-boyfriend, now fiancé. And, life happened back up at school. I grew apart from people whom I was close with at the beginning. That happens, that’s okay. I went through mindset changes that maybe didn’t exactly line up with the mindset of others on my team (some may say I take my sport too seriously, but I’ve always been a serious person. That’s how I perform my best.)

I wish I realized this earlier, but underneath the focus of putting forth my best effort in training, I was masking the dread of going back to an environment in which I knew would be different.

But when I realized it, it hit me like a ton of bricks straight to the chest. I felt like I was suffocating.

The year I was expecting to be the best year ever wasn’t turning out that way. Training was going okay, but I didn’t feel comfortable with where I was at. Between the different training philosophies, eating lifestyles, practice conflicts, and levels of interest in competing and training, I felt like I was isolated and had no one to connect to. I thought that it would pass, maybe it was just everyone was adjusting to being back at school again.

But weeks went on and I never felt more alone surrounded by people. I dreaded going to practice. I ran with others, but being with people felt like I was suffocating. I would break off and run by myself, and that was equally as suffocating. I couldn’t escape it. The pressure would follow me back to my apartment and I felt uncomfortable in what was supposed to be the comfort of my own space. It felt like living in a compacted bubble that was ever pressing down on my chest.

The worst was when that pressure, the suffocating, came crashing down in my first race of the season. I went in with a happy heart and a happy head (I thought) and was looking forward to seeing how I would perform. Mid-way through the 6K race, the pressure came back and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Not exactly the way I wanted my first race as a senior to go. It was embarrassing. My parents drove for eight hours to come watch me run and spend the day with me. I felt like I let them down, and cried in the shower as they waited in my living room to go out to dinner. They had no idea.

In a place in which I was surrounded by positive energy, I encountered negative energy at an unrelenting rate. The pressure, the suffocation would squeeze tears from my eyes on my way to class, or practice, or on my way home. But I couldn’t tell anyone there; I was colloquially known in the athletic department and on my team as the girl who was always smiling, always happy, such a great big smile on my face.

Yes, I’m smiling, but on the inside, I’m crying. I began counting down the days to graduation, not because it would a joyous occasion, but because that meant I could leave this place for good.

I decided to take a weekend away. I needed a change of scenery, a change of people, a change of everything. I couldn’t wait to leave.

And thank God I did. I left my computer at my apartment and my phone’s touch screen wasn’t working too well, so I only used it to get in contact with people on an urgent basis (like, where was my ride from the airport, and yes, I landed safely, because just to type those five or six words took a solid ten minutes. I couldn’t be bothered with that the entire weekend).

With the first breath of fresh air I took in when the flight landed, I felt all the negativity leave my body. I was able to breathe again.

Over the course of that weekend, I got the best sleep I’ve been able to get since I went back to school. I really, truly, genuinely laughed so hard in the pee-your-pants-but-you-don’t-care type of way. I genuinely smiled so much (a real, tooth-grinning smile) that my jaw cramped up.

And, I felt independent. With the suffocation gone, I felt like I could actually do things I wanted to do, instead of veg on the couch post-run thinking of all the things I could be doing but instead wasting my day away. Slowly but surely I felt strength come back to my body in the form of the warm light ability to freely breathe.

I didn’t know how much I needed to get away, but I’m glad I did. I learned so much about myself that weekend. Like I truly enjoy math and maybe I should have majored in math instead, or that I am actually able to strike up a conversation with a person I just met, instead of waiting for her to dictate the conversation.

The best part was that the happiness I felt in the core of my body didn’t leave me when I stepped on the flight back to school. Instead, I think it grew and made me more confident. I reached out to a friend and teammate who I haven’t really spoken to since the beginning of the year due to scheduling conflicts and I told her how I was feeling. It felt so good to actually tell someone, instead of letting the feeling suffocate me. I became more comfortable reaching out for help from different resources, like my coach, my sports psychologist, my journal, and you, who is reading this story. The more I shared how I felt, the more comfortable I felt, because I wasn’t alone.

The more I talked, the more I realized that there were changes I could make myself to help me truly enjoy my last year at school. I happily decided to switch my degree from a BS in biological sciences to a BA, and resign a class I really wasn’t enjoying or benefiting from. I explored places and initiated activities with my friends, either going out on adventures in town or finding a new place to study.

And, most importantly, I felt like I was able to breathe. I was able to breathe without restriction.

What I learned from this experience that it is so important to do what makes you happy. Don’t worry about obtaining perfection. Don’t worry about obtaining the ideal “senior season” because there will be someone that is out of your control that may change that vision in an instant. Instead, be malleable. Be open. Be present. Be you, do what makes you happy in that moment, and breathe freely.

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