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People Giving Back: 'Running reminds you that even in your weakest moments, you are strong.'
At Joyful Heart we are deeply grateful to our expansive community of advocates, and supporters. You are inspiring, resilient and motivate our work in everything we do. We are able to accomplish so much because of our supporters and your investment in our programs.
A special group of supporters have joined us as Joyful Revolution Athletic Club (JRAC) Athletes. Joyful Heart’s JRAC Athletes are groups of individuals that set endurance and fundraising goals as they compete in sporting events, marathons, and races all over the world. Most of our athletes have been touched by the issues Joyful heart seeks to address, and many have found solace and healing in their training.
One such athlete is Joanna Nicoletti. She is currently training for and fundraising on behalf of Joyful Heart to run in the 2016 TCS NYC Marathon on November 6, 2016. We are deeply grateful to share her personal story of why she runs for herself, for other survivors, and in support of Joyful Heart. To support Joanna, please visit her fundraising page here.
'Running reminds you that even in your weakest moments, you are strong.'
This quote has become my mantra since December 2015 but, I guess I should back up a little and start this post from the beginning.
In 2009, when I was twenty years old, I met my ex-wife at a nondescript bar in Manhattan. She was thirty at the time – a highly ambitious and successful businesswoman. Being at a point in my own life where I was struggling to get my bearings, unsure who I was and what I wanted my future to look like, I found her confidence and self assurance almost mesmerizing. As a person who struggled almost my entire life with a debilitating eating disorder that placed me in multiple treatment centers and hospitals throughout my teen years, my growth in a way had been stunted. She swept me off my feet with elaborate dinners and trips to Europe and I was quickly taken in. Almost immediately, I moved into her mid-town apartment and my future now became dictated by her plans and her career ambitions. I no longer was pursing my passion, which at the time was to become a psychologist. Without realizing it, the goal I had been working toward got pushed aside. The title of my future business card would eventually read, “Perfect Housewife Extraordinaire.”
In July 2012, her career relocated us back to her home country of Singapore, where I quickly realized that finding employment would be nearly impossible. We were living in a country that was ultra-conservative and not at all friendly to the LGBT community. After 29 interviews in my first six months, I decided to resign myself to a life of exiting and entering the country every three months on a tourist visa, since that was the only option provided to me. In hindsight, I now realize there were avenues that could have been taken to assist me in gaining employment, a visa and essentially my autonomy, but at the time, I wasn’t aware that keeping me powerless and under her financial and legal control was my ex's ultimate goal.
"I truly believe that at certain moments you meet the exact right person who helps you through a period of time that seems impossible to walk alone."
For three years, I made the best of a difficult situation and found as much happiness as I possibly could. I created friendships and built a life for us in my new foreign home. However, my relationship became more controlling, cold and emotionally taxing. I began to slip quietly back into the comforts of my eating disorder, which had always been my coping mechanism during times of stress. For a year I hid in the dark place of my illness, ignoring the huge issues in my relationship; they simply were too difficult to face. Then, at the start of 2015, something just changed. I wanted and knew I needed to take some real control back over my life and somehow work up the courage and strength to figure out what my next step was. Would I stay in my relationship or would I leave, and if so, how would I go about separating from someone who held all the cards?
I truly believe that at certain moments you meet the exact right person who helps you through a period of time that seems impossible to walk alone. I met and began working with a recovery and fitness professional who gave me the tools to really overcome my eating disorder and also steered me in the direction of viewing food not as the enemy anymore but as fuel to begin achieving various fitness goals. I began to gain some strength and, at the spur of the moment decided to run my first 5k. Then I ran a 10k. Then I ran a half marathon. It was now the fall of 2015 and I was fully in recovery, part of an amazing fitness community and was completely immersed in running. I still wasn't ready to face the difficulties in my relationship, but I felt mentally and physically strong. It was the first time in my entire life that I had gone a year with no eating disorder symptoms.
Then my world collapsed. In early November 2015, I went back to New York for my annual trip home and without warning and in an underhanded way, my ex dropped the bomb that she wanted to move forward with separating. With my family’s support, I flew quietly back to Singapore and this began a volatile, upsetting and at times dangerous period of intense conflict between us. I was 26, in a foreign country, cut off financially and without legal representation. All I had were two suitcases that had been left outside the door of the home we had shared for three years, which I was no longer legally able to enter. I was lucky to have some kind friends who let me camp out in their guest room and gave me tremendous support through this difficult situation. Another friend helped me find an attorney willing to take my case pro-bono. However, this daily battle was taking a toll on me, and my weight started to drop. I was scared, panic-stricken and felt completely overwhelmed, but I kept fighting and eventually we settled, and I was free.
"There are many moments I am annoyed with myself for not healing better, but then I remember that healing is unique for each person. I remember that I have endured an unimaginable amount of pain this year. I remember that by some miracle I am putting one foot in front of the other and have found a daily routine."
On December 16th, I boarded a plane back to New York with my suitcases and my 5-pound Yorkie – which had been my one real comfort – and 29 hours later, I was home. I left Singapore with my freedom and the determination to start my life over in New York. I was exhausted, drained and needed the love and support from family and friends. My father picked me up at the airport and I collapsed into tears. I finally felt safe.
It was Christmastime and I spent the next week surrounding myself with family and friends. I allowed myself to sleep, eat and get back to a healthier weight and recover. It felt like I had been tossed around in an emotional and physical washing machine for weeks; everything ached.
On December 26th, I sought guidanceand support from a trusted male family member. We shared a passion for running and for the past several years shared a very close bond. What I didn't realize or ever see coming was the moment that he shattered that trust by sexually assaulting me during my most vulnerable period that evening. I remember being so shocked at what was happening that I felt frozen. Then I remember very vividly thinking, how could I possibly endure any more, how could this be happening?
The next morning, I made the decision to tell the details of what had happened to my closest friend. She urged me throughout that day to get help, seek guidance and speak to my parents. I couldn't find the words because there are no right words to begin that kind of conversation. I thought if I could just hold it together, hold this inside, maybe I could push my way through; maybe this would simply go away. I was standing in my Mom's kitchen about to go with her to the grocery store, not even 24 hours after being attacked and desperately trying to keep myself in one piece, but I couldn't. I began shaking, crying and sat down on the floor from dizziness. My Mom, worried by what was happening, decided to take me to an immediate medical care center. The waiting time to see someone was over an hour, and during that time I frantically texted my friend, pacing back and forth in the waiting room, my face all white and panic-stricken and I was shaking. I remember how uncomfortable it felt to sit still. I was struggling to process what had happened, struggling to breathe and struggling to find the words. So my friend found the words for me and reached out to my Mom with my permission. Right at the moment she sent a message to my Mom, I was called in to see the doctor, who was able to give me some medical assistance to remedy the panic attack I had been experiencing for hours. We made it home and I finally found my own words to tell my Mom what had happened the night before. We both cried and began to think about how to handle this and what I wanted the next steps to be.
On January 9th, I ran my first 10K back in New York. I cried through the entire race but I finished with my Mom cheering for me at the finish line. It was exactly what I needed to do for myself. I felt a little more whole, a little more like myself. Shortly after that day, I made the decision to report what had happened to me to the police – one of the hardest decisions and several hours I have ever endured. This wasn't a stranger. This wasn't someone I barely knew. My attacker was my family. My attacker was someone I deeply trusted who took advantage of me at an incredibly vulnerable time in my life. Charges were pressed and every month there are court dates. Every month I have to revisit what happened to me that night. Every month I go through that emotional rollercoaster all over again.
"I remember that although I am still not at the end of my battle, I am not alone and for that I am grateful."
I felt and still feel broken inside, but what he did didn't break me.
I found a job in the city. I got an apartment. I met someone who has seen me at my worst and stands by me with unconditional love. I have my family’s love and support. I have the love and support of my friends. I found a community of runners and made a decision to run the NYC Marathon for The Joyful Heart Foundation as my first marathon. With every finish line I cross and every difficult training day I get through, I push through barriers both mentally and physically. Running is part of healing for me.
There are days and weeks where getting out of bed is difficult. There are days I want to slip quietly back into the comforts of my eating disorder. There are nights I don't sleep. There are the nightmares. There is the PTSD that can be unbearable, overwhelming and suffocating. There are many moments I am annoyed with myself for not healing better, but then I remember that healing is unique for each person. I remember that I have endured an unimaginable amount of pain this year. I remember that by some miracle I am putting one foot in front of the other and have found a daily routine.
I also remember to take it easy on myself. Healing and recovering from serious pain and trauma takes time. Trusting people again will take time. Trusting myself will take time. On days when I can't seem to find my way out of a dark space, I call my Mom, I call my best friend. I let them remind me over and over again that I can keep going. I let them remind me that I have come this far, endured so much and I can keep fighting. I have to. I think about all the women who have experienced trauma like mine or worse and don't have the support I do.
I remember that although I am still not at the end of my battle, I am not alone and for that I am grateful.