Life, by definition, is a risk. The simple act of getting out of bed in the morning, with all the potential dangers, adversities, and accidents our world holds, is an act of true faith. As a people we waiver in our relationship with risk and lean towards one of two extremes; we either carry an aversion to risk-taking (trembling at the mere thought of leaving our safe harbors,) or an addiction to risk (living in constant anticipation of our next free-fall.) Both of these extremes carry with them implicit, and slightly ironic, dangers. The individual who feels a continuous need to live their life on the edge will at some point teeter too far over it and lose the life they risk, and the person living in fear of ever taking a risk, ironically enough, risks never living the life being protected. I pen this essay from the perspective of “the addict,” and feel that our society intentionally as well as unknowingly provokes the risk-taker. Take social media as an example- posting pictures of a recent skydiving endeavor will always get more facebook “likes” than those from the vantage point of a couch. Much the same, 140 character’s or less of hair raising adventure proves a more successful tweet than a 140 character reflection on knitting. Danger is entertaining, so we give our attention and praise to those who take risks, and by doing so encourage the adrenaline junkie to continuously push the limits. “Tell us about the biggest risk you have taken,” this essay contest alone provides fuel for this argument. Society can only be blamed so much for promoting “risk,” because our true yearning to test boundaries stems from a personal quest for the next “high,” that euphoric feeling that engulfs the senses when our physical, emotional, or cognitive limits are tested.
For the better part of my life I have been an avid endurance athlete; finding that the feeling derived from pushing my bodily limits mirrors the ecstatic experience of risk-taking. My experience with the larger endurance athletic community has demonstrated that this is a bit of a universal phenomenon, that these sports have a way of harvesting risk-addicts. Scientifically that makes perfect sense. During an intense or demanding physical experience the body releases the natural painkiller, dopamine, in the same manner as it would during the “flight or fight” response that occurs as a reaction to fear or excitement associated with risk. In that regard, the endurance athlete is simply a very smart addict, because they have figured out a way to feed their addiction daily through their sport. That is really where my story begins.
During high school I developed a pretty severe eating disorder/exercise addiction while running on our Cross Country team. The eating disorder was simply my addiction to risk-taking manifested through excessive exercise and starvation. Always having been inclined to take risks, I had found my eating and exercise regiment allowed me to live a life constantly walking the razors edge, because the “high” of starvation and physical exhaustion of a workout strangely paralleled the rush that I received from risking my well-being. I thought I had found an eternal high. Unfortunately the “high” associated with any worldly risk is temporary and sooner or later we must always return back to earth. It is a common occurrence that after the thrill of a risk we find ourselves left depressed and unfulfilled, something we call post-race depression in the running world, but is simply our experience of withdraw. I was fortunate to still be breathing when the reality of my eating disorder set in and I decided to “sober up,” but many are not so lucky. With that in mind, the biggest risk that I have ever taken happened the day I decided to stop putting my body in danger and instead, take the risk to love it.
During my lifetime I’ve jumped out of an airplane and off a Canadian suspension bridge; dove with sharks in Costa Rica and sped around on my Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle testing fate during college; but those weren’t really risks in my mind, they were the status quo. The risky move came my sophomore year of college when, over Christmas break, I entered myself for five weeks into an impatient eating disorder hospital instead of going home to see my family. The physical risk was low, almost non-existent as I was constantly monitored in my every movement. Sitting safely in the, “sharp-object free,” facility that could double as a high security prison, I was given options to knit, paint, or play board games to pass time. It’s ironic that most people are paralyzed by heights or snakes and turn to comfort food and rest as a sanctuary; whereas I feared sitting still, eating birthday cake, and the word “carbohydrate.”
Giving up control was risky; but even more so, the experience risked my reputation. I entered the hospital a popular and well respected athlete in his early 20‘s (an age of yearning for the praise of our peers, while constantly searching for our place in society.) I had admitted to the world, and myself, not merely that I had a psychiatric disorder; but one worthy of hospitalization! Furthermore, my “disorder” was one that has always stereotypically been “reserved for girls!” Well I became “one of the girls” pretty quickly, and rather enjoyed it, growing somewhat fond of lounging around in my pajamas in socks that I had personally knit (knitting being the most masculine of sports.)
The euphoric feeling that came from turning over control of my life to the hospital staff was just as powerful, if not more so, than any adrenaline pumping experience I had experienced in my life to that point. I had taken the risk of self-love, and that was a cliff I had never before had the guts to jump off. When I finally did jump, it became clear that all of the risks I had taken up to that point were simply my way of crying out for a love that could inwardly give. I fully believe that love is the biggest risk we can take and we can never know the love of another until we risk loving ourselves.
The risk-reward became apparent on Christmas day. I had been in the hospital for over two-weeks by that time and had been too overcome with shame to speak with any of my friends. That shame and loneliness made Christmas morning amazingly difficult. So alone I sat all morning, dwelling on the pain and disappointment that I had caused my family, who sat at home unwilling to have Christmas without me. It was after lunch before my tears finally dried, leaving a path salty residue on my cheeks, and I looked up to see my four best friends parading down the hallway with open arms and handmade gifts. Picture them now- four lacrosse playing, beer drinking, fraternity brothers averaging 6’2” and 200 pounds a piece, barreling into an eating disorder center with loving eyes and Christmas stockings. At that second I realized that I had not risked my friends nor my reputation through admitting my disorder, but in reality, I had risked losing everything by not allowing them to fight at my side up to this point.
Jumping forward into the present, it would be a lie to say I do not still struggle periodically with my disorder and I am still in love with the intoxicating rush of risk-taking. What has changed is this- I lived much of my life feeling the need to risk my body as a means of seeking the love of others with the fear of injury or death masked by the fear of not being accepted. Now, I am able to see past the risks of this life and understand that the love of my friends, my family, and myself is beautifully strong and completely independent of any attention grabbing risk I could take. I treat myself differently now and cherish my life. I wear a helmet when riding my bike, put on a harness when rock climbing, and buckle my seatbelt when I drive because some risks are worth taking and some risks are not. In closing, it was Bob Marley who acknowledged, “To love is to risk not being loved in return. To hope is to risk pain. To try is to risk failure. But risk must be taken because the greatest hazard in my life is to risk nothing.” I had “risked nothing” for most of my life, because the risks I took were unnecessary and meaningless, and had I never risked reaching out for help that Christmas break, I would not be here today. I would have left this world known only as a guy who risked it all to be loved, but lost it all because he never took the risk of loving himself.
By Ryan Althaus