We are the product of our parents. Nothing in my own life brought that fact into sharper relief than my divorce.
I’d married in my mid-twenties thinking I could prove my Mum and Dad wrong, that it was possible to have a love that endured and could withstand anything that was thrown at it, but I was naïve: the marriage ended 10 years later in great acrimony and I found myself where my father, Fred, had found himself when he’d broken up with my mother, Jan, in 1979: tying up the shoelaces on a pair of running shoes.
"The nicest thing about running was the way he could be whatever he wanted to be. Some days he’d feel troubled, so he’d run troubled. Head tucked down, listening to his own breath, mixed with troubles, going in and out of his body . . . he was a troubled man taking it on the concrete."
Fred had written these words for Billy Blue, a Sydney literary magazine, back in 1981. The story was called “Runner”.
I vividly remember my dad from that time and what he wore when he went running: an old-style Bjorn Borg headband around his long, curly brown hair; flimsy black football shorts that rode high on his thighs; white Reeboks; a red singlet so faded it had turned pink. He was a distinctive sight around the streets, beaches and hills of Sydney’s north shore, where most days he’d run till he was spent.
Of course, I didn’t know what was going through his head when he went on those long runs from his bachelor flat in Mosman; I was just a kid. But I do now. We’ve come full circle. He’s married again, and has been for more than 30 years, while I took his place as the jogging loner struggling to deal with matters that felt beyond my control.
The marriage break-up wasn’t my only source of tumult. For about eight years in my thirties – what should have been some of the best years of my life – I’d also battled fairly severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It got much worse during the divorce.
My ex wife had an affair. When she broke up with her new man, she gave him our dog. I found out about that much later through our daughter.
I didn’t think my situation could get any worse. I wanted to suicide. I put a knife over my wrist. I stood on a ledge. I contemplated walking in front of a garbage truck. What stopped me killing myself was my kid. I couldn’t hurt her.
To cope with the stress of my unravelling life, I guzzled antidepressants, slept around, drank till I passed out and did my best to ignore the advice of Fred and Jan, because – as I had when I’d got married – I thought I knew better than they did.
Aside from these pressing problems, I was also grossly fat – up to 105 kilograms at one point when my normal weight was 72kg – but still thought I was attractive enough to entice my ex wife back. I was deluded, of course.
Jan urged me to “let go” of the idea of ever getting back with my ex wife. “Life’s a series of letting go,” she said. I resented her words at the time, but I’ve come to see them as a profound truth.
Fred, for his part, suggested I go running, as he had when he’d split with Jan. He’d done it without fail, no matter the weather, irrespective of his emotional state. He told me it gave him structure when he had none. It freed him from the prison of his own regrets.
Exercise – having a physical routine – was the last thing on my mind. Getting through the night and waking up the next day was my priority. I hadn’t run for years and, at 37, I knew I could never get back to what I used to be when I was 25 and fit.
But I had to do something constructive. Howling at the moon with a half-empty bottle of whisky in my hand or arguing with my ex wife on the phone until we hung up on each other wasn’t getting me any closer to where I needed to be – happy in myself, in my own body and in my own company.
So I stopped drinking like Gérard Depardieu. I got my diet sorted. And I started walking on a step machine down at the Juanita Nielsen Centre, an old-school community gym in the inner-city housing-commission area of Woolloomooloo, not far from where I lived in Sydney’s Kings Cross.
There were other men in that gym facing their own personal demons: drug addiction, life after jail, relationship breakdown, bereavement, unemployment. Like me, they were trying to retrieve a measure of their self-esteem and sense of purpose through exertion and discipline. We were in it together. The camaraderie in the place was palpable.
I used that machine and a treadmill for a year. Then I began running outside, from Kings Cross to the Sydney Opera House and back along the foreshore of the harbour.
In rain, hail or shine I’d run seven kilometres a day, six days a week. I ran a couple of half-marathons.
All the extra weight I had stacked on melted away. I got “v-cut abs” for the first time in my life. My OCD disappeared. I fell in love with another woman. I lived each day for the exhilaration of putting on headphones, cranking up AC/DC’s Powerage, closing my apartment door behind me and bounding into a run.
I was doing what my father had done before me: getting better through my own effort and commitment.
I am now 41. I’ve been running solidly for four years, and in the process of recovering my fitness and mental health have become a lot closer to both my parents, especially Fred. I used to hate my dad for allowing his family to fall apart. But now I understand what caused the marriage of my parents to falter – there are always two sides to the story – and have been able to confront the mistakes I made in my own. I have forgiven my ex wife for hers. We’re all human and imperfect.
Running has given me the sort of clarity I could not get through alcohol, casual sex, medication or counselling. It’s taught me to be self-reliant. It’s restored my confidence. It’s made me more attractive to women. When I feel better about myself I’m a better father to my daughter. There is nothing more important to me than that.
I’m not going to reconcile with my ex wife or put together our family again but I’ve got my life back. It’s not the life I had before but, like Jan said, I had to let go of that.
Sadly, I’ll never go for a run with Fred. At 68, his knees are shot. He can’t run any more so he swims each morning at North Sydney Olympic Pool. We get together for a sandwich and coffee every Monday at a friend’s cafe in Bellevue Hill.
Fred admits he doesn’t get the same pleasure from doing a kilometre of laps as he did running – the sweat, the smells, the sun, the beautiful passing female joggers – but age catches up with all of us. I hope to be half the father he is when I’m 68.
After everything I’ve gone through I realise it’s better to be a wise man with lousy joints than to be a fool going nowhere.