April 20th, 2009
On day’s — like today,
when the sky is grey and brings lots of rain
and when the news around the world brings much of the same,
give thanks for all that is bright and sane…
Read this Very Inspiring Interview: The Central Park Jogger - Still Running 20 Years Later
It was 20 years ago today that passersby found an unconscious 28-year-old woman who came to be known as the Central Park jogger, a victim of a brutal rape and beating during a regular nighttime run. Although she remained anonymous for years, the woman, Trisha Meili, revealed herself publicly in April 2003 with a memoir, “I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility.” Today, Ms. Meili is a motivational speaker and advocate for victims of sexual assault and brain injury, and helps organize the “Hope and Possibility” run in Central Park. I spoke with her about her life, running and finding purpose in adversity.
Why did you decide to speak publicly again two decades after the attack?
Part of it was that I was contacted by some media around the holidays. It made me think, with the anniversary, is this a good time to get that message out there again of hope and possibility? I speak around the country to all kinds of groups and continue to get such positive feedback. And it’s healing for me. I thought this would be a good time to say, “Hey, look. It’s been 20 years, and life doesn’t end after brain injury, after sexual assault or whatever our challenges are.”
Is running still a big part of your life?
Back then, I was compulsive about it. I had an eating disorder. I am thankful that I run in a healthy way now. I do a lot of other kinds of exercise. I’ll go four miles at a time maybe twice a week, especially when it’s warmer. I do a fair amount of yoga, which is wonderful for balance and being attuned to your body and your mind. I do bicycling with weights and kayaking. I love to be out in nature. The Achilles track club encourages people with disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics. When we see ourselves reach physical goals — it’s not just running a marathon, sometimes it’s walking a little further — and you reach that goal, it builds up your confidence. What I’ve seen in myself and so many others, that level of confidence from reaching a physical goal can be transferred to other aspects of your life.
How soon after the attack did you begin running again?
It was three to four months. It was just a few weeks after I was in a wheelchair. The physical therapist knew just how to push me. There was a chapter of Achilles at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn., where I was treated, that met on Saturday mornings. The head of the physical therapy department asked me if I wanted to join. At first I was a little hesitant — part of it was the realization that it’s the running that got me into this and do I want to do it? I went one Saturday morning, and there was a man in a wheelchair, a couple people on crutches, a boy with spina bifida. I thought if they can do this, then so can I. It just felt so good to be out there and outside of the hospital. It seemed so natural. The reality was I could barely walk, but it still felt so good, and it filled me with such hope and it made me think I could conquer anything. It was a very powerful morning.
How often did you run after that?
For a number of weeks on Saturdays, as I got strong, I would run in the afternoons. I’d go around the hospital parking lot. I kept seeing myself get stronger. I’d go around a second time. Just seeing that improvement was a huge motivator for me to keep pushing to the edges of what was possible.
At what point did you feel like life was normal again?
The recovery never stops, we’re always changing. For me the healing and growing doesn’t stop. That’s one of the positives too. But I was so fortunate in so many ways. Salomon Brothers, who I had worked for, brought me back to the firm. Right now everybody hates Wall Street, but they opened their hearts to me. I went back to work about eight months later. I wasn’t doing the same things I’d done, but I gradually regained more responsibility. I felt in a lot of ways very normal having the work routine. It gave me a sense of purpose.
Do you still suffer from physical or cognitive problems as a result of the attack?
I’m fortunate that on the cognitive and physical side I have very subtle deficits. I think back to when standing up was a big mental effort, because I had to think about it. When you have to think about every little thing it’s very tiring and fatiguing. But a big part of the healing process is to say, “Mentally, I’ll never be the same as I was.” It’s part of the woman I’ve become, and most days I like that woman. Sometimes there are moments of frustration and getting angry at myself, and that can lead to that downward spiral. It’s trying to recognize those moments and take a step back and say, “Wait a minute. Look at what I have, and look at how far I’ve come.” It’s a process.
What kind of work are you doing today?
I left Salomon in 1998. Travelers bought Salomon Brothers, and it was the push I needed. I had been thinking for some time, because of what had happened, do I have something else I want to give? For a time I ran a nonprofit for preventing homelessness, but my passion was really in reaching out to those who have been sexually assaulted and those who have brain injuries. The universe responded and the pieces fell together for writing the book. I do public speaking and work with Achilles on the Hope and Possibility races. I’m on the board of Gaylord, the hospital where I was treated, and I work with the Mount Sinai sexual assault and violence intervention program.
Can you tell us a little more about your personal life since your recovery?
I met my husband on a blind date in 1995. A woman I had gone to college with knew him. I told her, “do me a favor, don’t tell him my history. That’s my story and I want to be able to tell it if I want to.” In talking to him before we met, I had told him I went to Yale business school and the school of management. He mentioned it to a friend who had also attended Yale. She said, “You know who that is, don’t you?” And she told him. In the end, it didn’t matter, but there was a little bit of that feeling, “Hey, that’s my story.” The media keeping my anonymity is something that I do appreciate. I was known as the Central Park jogger, and when I told my story it was my choice. That was a degree of control that I had completely lost with the attack and the rape. When I’d meet someone it’s not like I would say, “Hi, I’m the Central Park jogger.” It’s kind of a conversation stopper. I decided to share my story because I had a real sense that sharing the story would help other people. That’s the message I’ve gotten, that sharing has given them hope.
Do you have any memories of the attack?
From about 5 p.m. that evening, the last thing I remember was a call at work. After that, I have no memory of the next six weeks. The memory isn’t there. It’s like when you have film in the camera. If you expose the film by opening the camera, the photos are gone.
Do you find that your message appeals to a broader group, beyond those recovering from brain injury or sexual assault?
Yes. The feedback I’ve gotten, sometimes I hear from cancer survivors — it’s the struggle. It’s made me realize that every one of us — it’s life — has or is going through some kind of struggle or is helping someone else. The message I give in talking about lessons I’ve learned are about the power of support, the importance of the present moment and learning to accept yourself. Even now, with the economic turmoil, there’s a sense of being out of control, of being helpless. It’s realizing that the only time we can have an impact on the future is right now in the present. Whatever the challenges are, I’ve seen from my recovery that from hope, possibility emerges. That’s what keeps life moving forward, focusing on what we can do, rather than getting caught up in what we can’t.
By Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times