Imagine a flimsy plastic bag containing a half dozen or so bricks, neatly stacked into two columns. Imagine picking up that bag, fitting your head through the handles so that it rests—somehow—around your neck. Imagine someone duct taping the bricks in place around your sternum and ribs, tight as can be, with so many layers of tape there’s simply no hope of ever escaping. Now just try to breathe.
That violent image is the best way to describe what running felt like from the last time we had to run the mile in sixth grade gym class, up until I had breast reduction surgery on March 24, 2015. I was 26.
Around my mid-teens, I became acutely aware that society believed that it was one thing to have big boobs, but it was another entirely for them to be so disproportionately large that the “mean girls” in school asked if I had a birth defect. There are sexy “Playboy Bunny-style” breasts that society seems to welcome wholeheartedly, and then there are breasts so large they have their own medical terminology: gigantomastia, a rare condition characterized by excessive breast size and weight.
If my breasts were my most prominent physical trait, my most prominent personality trait was my ability to steadfastly cling to my convictions, refusing to yield to anyone or anything. If I believed something to be right or wrong, that was it—done. I believed the world was wrong for making me feel like there was something wrong with me that had to be “fixed.” I believed I could do anything any other woman could do—including run.
I was wrong. By the time my breasts swelled up at age 25 to a size 38J, I could not run more than a few seconds without doubling over in pain. I would frequently get choking sensations, and would often vomit from the pressure caused by the multiple bras I would have to wear (two, a regular underwire bra and a sports bra over it, just to walk around the house, and for exercising, an additional tank top with a built-in bra). Running was simply not an option. I began to resent women who could run. To make matters worse, running was everywhere.
When I moved to Washington, D.C. to take part in the cliché of coming to the nation’s capital with a dream to change/conquer the world, I was overwhelmed by the ubiquitous running culture. Races dominate certain days of the year, as tens of thousands descend on Washington for races like the Marine Corps Marathon and the Army 10-Miler. The races always made me indescribably bitter, as if they were there to rub it in my face that these thousands of people could all do something I could not. This running obsession especially pervaded my field, the defense policy community. In the Pentagon where I work as an Army contractor, running is a way of life. It’s what you do. Well, it’s what everyone else did. I sat quietly while everyone would discuss upcoming race plans and training programs, internally screaming with anger towards these people—women especially—who could run to their heart’s content. I placed a high premium on running because it was the one physical thing I could not do that seemingly everyone else could. Running was the one thing that represented the shame I felt in my own limitations.
For a decade before I had the operation, breast reduction surgery had been floated as an option by concerned family members, well-meaning friends, and horrifically cruel fitting room attendants. Everyone seemed to look at me as if I had a “disability” that could—in their minds—be easily cured, so why on earth wouldn’t I do it? If I wanted to be a runner so badly, why couldn’t I get rid of the only thing standing in my way?
For me, the reasoning was simple. If I did the one thing I swore I would never cave in to doing, what would I have left? My resolve, as well as my breasts, were who I was. As the years went on, the two things became virtually indistinguishable: to get rid of one was to get rid of the other. My identity revolved around my large breasts and my refusal to give in to society’s pressure to reduce them. I knew where I believed plastic surgery, barring any real medical necessity, fell within my rigid interpretation of right and wrong. If I gave up that belief, I would also have to give up the physical trait that I thought made me who I was.
Soon, however, the lines between medical necessity vs. cosmetic procedure became blurred. After years of denial, my back pain became so egregious that I would often wake in the night to find that I could not feel my legs. After near-daily sessions, my physical therapist said there was nothing more he could do. In the months that followed, bizarre occurrences continued to add up. I was playing piano one day when I realized that I had lost feeling in my fourth and fifth fingers on my right hand, and I did not regain it for days. I nearly fainted on a date after bending forward in a car to reach for something on the floorboard while wearing a seatbelt. Finally, I was on a work trip with some Army coworkers when we stopped for lunch at a rustic-themed restaurant with a booth table comprising a thick wooden slab, with me sitting closest to the wall. As the shortest one of the group, the table came right up to my chest and I couldn’t breathe. My eyes began to water and I truly wondered if this is how I would die. I sat through the meal praying it would soon be over, too ashamed to speak up. Afterwards I lifted my shirt in the restroom to find a three-inch thick line of bruising around my chest. The next day, I called for a consultation with a plastic surgeon.
Leading up to the operation, I felt like no one could understand what I was feeling, because even YouTube vloggers and various authors who had had a breast reduction seemed very different from me. They all couldn’t wait to get rid of their breasts. Not only did no one seem to be as large as me, no one seemed as intrinsically attached to them as I was to mine. They were excited; I felt like I was walking the plank. They thought they would wake up with a new lease on life; I worried I’d wake up and have no idea how to pick up the pieces to find out who I was on the inside once everything on the outside had changed. I needed someone to share a story I could relate to, someone who shared my fears but knew it would turn out for the better.
In the days and weeks that followed, I fell into a deep post-surgical depression. They said this was to be expected, but it still hit hard. I tried to get through it by dreaming of the things that I could do now that I couldn’t before. Play guitar. See my feet while standing. Button a shirt. Most importantly: run.
After spending the rest of 2015 with an eerie sensation that something was physically missing—that same feeling you get on the way to the airport when you KNOW you forgot something, but you can’t remember what—I decided to start 2016 on a new page. Now that I had clearance from my surgeon, I decided to be brave and give running a shot. I’d run on the gym’s indoor track for half a lap, and built up to a full lap: 1/8 of a mile. Then 1/4 of a mile. Then a half. Once I hit a full mile, I cried with joy. That final lap may as well have been the summit of Everest. I was finally a runner, like I had always dreamed.
To cross off an item off my bucket list, I entered a race before my 28th birthday, a Friday night 5K in a month-long series. I thought it would be a one-time thing. But crossing the finish line in my public debut as a runner, just over a year after my operation, gave me an unexpected feeling. I no longer felt like something was physically separated from my body. I felt like everything I thought I lost had been given back to me. I quickly became addicted. I signed up for the rest of the 5K series and an extra charity run, then a summer full of races of all distances. I set my sights on the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon this September, determined to prove to myself that now that I’m a runner, there can be no stopping me now.
Related: Why Every Body Can Be A Runner
I realized it was never just about the physical activity of running. Running is more than a sport; it’s a journey from where you used to be to wherever you want to go. Recently at the Baltimore 10-Miler, the last few miles overlapped with the first few. By the time I reached the last splits of the race, I considered that earlier that morning I had been on the other side of the same street, but as a totally different person. As I continue my running, I realize that I have come so many miles from my days of resenting runners from the sidelines and my post-operation nights of wishing I could find a way to be ‘me’ again. Being able to finally call myself a runner has given me back the piece of my identity I thought was lost forever. The road from a J-cup to a DD has been a long, difficult, painful, lonely and draining one, but at the end, I found a different version of myself that I could previously scarcely imagine: someone who is no longer waiting at the start line, too afraid of the journey to the finish.