Thin Dreams

My son is many things. The light of my life. The smartest, most handsome boy you’ve ever met. Kind to all people. Gentle with tiny animals, like his hamster, who he helps up the steps, one by one, so she can get exercise.

He first had to be hospitalized for suicidal ideation when he was in second grade.

It’s hard to believe, harder to understand, that a very young child could be actively suicidal, even for me now that he’s older. An eight-year-old plays soccer and builds Lego spaceships. They don’t stay up all night afraid of what they’re seeing and hearing, clutching at their mother. Begging her to let him kill himself.

Before the hospital, I was a stay-at-home mom and a runner. I wanted to be at home with my children at first, had planned to do so for a few years, but those years kept stretching. My son couldn’t go to school consistently, and me going back to my old job seemed impossible. How could I when I spent every day navigating his distress? Navigating my own distress in response to his?

You know that saying, about how a mother’s heart lives outside her body? It’s a lie.

Every reach for a knife, every piece of broken glass on the floor, every strangled whimper, every time I had to hold the door shut with all my strength—I had no heart at all. I was a robot. A pushing, pulling, heartless machine. How else could I survive this?

Not that I knew anything about hearts or surviving. I just wanted to rest, to watch him rest too, deep breaths filling his lungs, his mouth hanging open slightly as his jaw relaxed. I wanted to remember I had a heart for a second, to have a heart left over for his two younger sisters. For my husband. For myself.

I started running after my third child was born, long before I first locked my purse in a hospital locker and got wanded by a security guard. Years before I was shoved into a hallway while a male nurse held down my son as he screamed. At the time, I was out of shape and profoundly depressed, unsure of who I was within this multi-child universe, but sure that something unsettling had begun that wasn’t about the new baby at all. At the time, I was also sure that it couldn’t be that big of a deal. The problem was simply me, in the many ways I was failing my children and husband, in the way I ate compulsively and drank too much in the evenings, in the way I ached and ached for something undefined and nebulous.

So, I started running, slowly, usually with a double stroller, surrounded by other mothers. It gave me both a social network and a grasp at identity. It was mine, a way to separate myself from my family, if only temporarily. I was good for more than just caregiving. I could do hard things, like run twenty miles on a Saturday morning after being up all night with a child who wouldn’t sleep. I regularly failed to achieve almost every parenting goal I set, from breastfeeding to sleep training, but I ran those miles. When my legs were jelly, when I threw up by the Potomac River as fast, fit twenty-somethings raced past—running was still mine. It wasn’t about children, wasn’t about my son’s nightmares or the escalating calls from his kindergarten teacher. I wasn’t sure what it actually was about, but as I walked into my house afterward, exhausted, my kids immediately surrounding me and wanting things—I held it close. I’d run twenty miles.

Every sharp muscle pain was a reminder: I’m someone. I exist.

I did this over and over for several years. Through alarming injuries, through the guilt of being gone as my son melted down for hours. See: obsession. See: a gaping hole that can’t be filled.

See: a woman running away.

▴ ▴ ▴

What is rock bottom? For me, it was my eight-year-old son wanting out. A 9-1-1 call while my daughters slept upstairs. The moment of acceptance, after months of trying everything I could to avoid hospitalizing my child. I’d cut open my chest—see? Here’s my heart after all. Take it. Anything but this. And the medics and the police and the doctors said, “You have no choice. He has to go.”

▴ ▴ ▴

I trained for the Marine Corps Marathon that year, starting in July—several months after my son came home from his fourth stay on the psych unit.

It was a flat course, the starting line a couple of miles from our house. My friends were running it, and sometimes I’d managed to meet them for a quick three-miler. They’d ask about my son, about my younger daughters, my husband, my attempts at self-care. Nobody pushed, and I offered small truths. “He’s going to school two mornings a week!” I held no resentment, just sadness at the bubble of fear I was beginning to recognize in the people around me. ADHD, autism, anxiety? These make sense. Suicidality? Hallucinations? These are different, are potentially contagious. These are not for hill repeats.

Late one night in September, inching toward my marathon, I finished a long, crushing twenty-miler on our basement treadmill after a long, crushing day. After a long, crushing week that seemed to weigh down on our house both physically and symbolically. Nobody was okay. Not my son, who was responding poorly to yet another medication trial. Not my daughters, who needed more of me. Not my husband, who wandered like a ghost through the kitchen and living room, unsure of his own role as a father. Not me.

There was nothing fun or cathartic about running alone at 2 a.m. Running wasn’t a reprieve or respite at that point, not anymore, and this particular long run was a desperate act, a combination of anxiety-induced insomnia and the certainty that I wouldn’t find another four-hour window any day that week.

In my head: Baltimore, the emergency room, the security guard. In my head: our future. Maybe even this coming week, if these meds couldn’t get figured out.

I googled “Johns Hopkins.” I looked at the images of the hospital, which didn’t include photos of the behavioral health wing, of course. The secret floor up top, the attic that stays locked. Barely an internet blip, though so vivid to me. I knew every detail, could see every corner and doorway and nurse’s face.

Google keeps tabs on you, though. It remembers the running shoes you bought, the Marine Corps schedule you checked. It connects the dots. That night, clicking link after link down a Baltimore rabbit hole: the Baltimore Marathon. I’d heard it was a harder 26.2, hilly and lonely. I clicked again, found the course map, and traced the route mile by mile.

Halfway between miles sixteen and seventeen, it looked like I might be able to catch a glimpse of the front of the hospital.

I’d driven there every day for weeks. Blinded by the sun’s glare on its shiny, blue glass windows, by the hundreds of mirrored reflections of my minivan approaching. The main hospital building. The entrance to the parking garage right before the loop toward the emergency room.

I realized that I might be able to see it from the course, this building that saved my child’s life but also turned my hair gray practically overnight. This monument to suffering, to me thinking I might die myself as I sat in its waiting rooms. This crowded, loud place where I let them take away my son. Where a social worker told me I was an unfit mother. Where I failed to protect him, failed at the one thing I was supposed to do on this earth. Where an intern, earnest and serious, asked me if I’d used drugs during my pregnancy. Where the case worker wasn’t available to meet today, but maybe on Thursday? He’ll be here a while, after all.

Months later, I zoomed in on the course. My son was out of immediate danger, but was I? This fear was too heavy, and in the basement, my muscles wrung out and sore as I sat sweating in a pile of unfolded, possibly clean laundry, staring at my phone—I didn’t care about anything at all except one thing. Could I see the building from that mile marker?

Why, my husband asked the next morning? Why go back?

Fuck Baltimore, he said.

But that spot between miles sixteen and seventeen—it loomed in my mind, growing larger and more monstrous. Baltimore and I weren’t done with each other, and I was desperately afraid that feeling was actually a sign of another hospitalization ahead. I couldn’t let that be the reason I went back.

I need this, I told him.

I need to choose to go, this one time.

▴ ▴ ▴

I had three weeks until the race and ran every practice run solo. Every night was filled with anxious dreams of getting lost in the city, looking for my son, driving the wrong way down one-way streets that all looked the same, no street signs visible, not a single person to ask for directions.

Returning to Baltimore had to mean something, and the weight of that pushed the air out of my lungs before I even pulled into the parking lot. For days, there’d been a lingering unease that I’d tried to ignore. What a pathetic charade, a voice whispered. Your son will never be okay. You won’t even be able to finish this ridiculous race and it won’t matter.

You chose this, the voice said. Imagine.

But the race began, and the first fourteen miles were surprisingly peaceful and smooth. My legs turned over automatically. I ran with an ever-changing pod of people, and I felt strong and in control despite the uphills coming fast and steep early on. We passed through the zoo and I eyeballed my pace, which was a solid two minutes faster than when I’d trained. The adrenaline rush pushed me up the hills and flew me back down without thought of conserving energy. For a little while I was an actual runner, not a mother running away. I breathed in, breathed out, and I was someone. I existed.

It wasn’t until mile fourteen that the hills grew significantly steeper and closer together. I slowed down, now running beside fresh half-marathoners who’d just entered the race. Gone were the tired faces of runners who’d also been through the wringer; here were well-rested, hopeful people who reminded me of the person I used to be eight years ago. Of the mother I’d planned to be. Memories of birthing classes, belly photos, the perfect baby I’d perfectly parent.

I was tired now, my legs dragging. I began to spiral, thinking about miles sixteen and seventeen up ahead. Would I freeze, seeing the hospital for the first time in six months? Would I even be able to finish after that? Was this race just an elaborate, indulgent exercise in masochism? It became harder to breathe. My thigh muscles twitched, as if ready to cramp at any moment. I tried to eat an orange slice and my throat closed up. I kept running.

Then I hit mile sixteen.

And there was nothing, no sign of the hospital at all. By mile 16.5, I had slowed to a shuffle. I’d been wrong.

That realization, as I pushed toward mile seventeen, was a slow-motion, jerking reel of grief and surrender. The voice had been right. This whole idea was a joke, a sad, meaningless joke, and so was I. It had never meant anything. A hallucination of my own. The delusion of hope, of choice.

I stopped running, still in slow motion, and decided to sit, right there on the street, letting the other runners stream around me. But as I lowered myself to the ground, a woman next to me held out a tissue. She was older than me, in her fifties, wearing a bright pink T-shirt. I waved her away, wiping my nose on my bare arm before even realizing it, but stood back up. The world picked up its pace a little. I started to walk, then shamble-run, confused, still blurry.

I didn’t notice anything at the time, much less her staying close to me, because less than a quarter of a mile later, it appeared. The glint of sunlight on glass. I sped up, pushing, and saw the corner of the building. The world sped up too, fast-forwarding, and yes—this was real. This mattered. This was everything, exactly what I had imagined, exactly what I needed, and I was allowed to need things, it turned out. I was allowed to choose.

But now we were about to turn right, in the opposite direction.

No closer than this? The crowd of runners turned and pushed past the seventeen-mile marker.

Cheated, enraged, I couldn’t even tell if I was still running. I exploded, screaming, “FUCK YOU, BALTIMORE! FUCK YOU, HOPKINS!”

The runners around me yelped in surprise, one even tripping before righting himself. Then, all of a sudden, from behind me came a woman’s voice.


The woman from before ran up next to me, patted me on the back, and took off ahead with her fist in the air.

And now I was ugly crying and laughing, the other runners around me distancing themselves in a way that felt horribly familiar, but who cared? I sped up, no longer interested in the hospital or what this marathon was supposed to represent. Now I wanted to catch this stranger, this angel. I wanted to tell her my story. I wanted to thank her. For what, I wasn’t sure. Reminding me how to laugh again? For hearing and seeing me and touching me anyway? For staying close, for making it make sense? For joining me on these hill repeats?

By then she was gone. Later, I wondered if she was even real.

What was real was my family at mile nineteen, my husband cheering, my son grinning and waving as I ran up for a water bottle refill. Here was my light, here was the prize. My heart beating so loud, my son’s leaping high five a laughing burst of delight, and then I was past, moving on toward mile twenty. Just another tired runner, like all the others, but this time, yes, a mother too. And now it was a boost, propelling me forward.

I could write about my dramatic finish to the Baltimore Marathon, about the little old lady who darted in front of me to cross the street in the final quarter mile. I could tell you how I knocked her over and left her there, knowing if I stopped at that point, my legs would never start back up. How I called out behind me, “I’m so sorry!” as I passed. How she stood up, hurling insults at me, and I cackled uncharitably and with genuine joy as I raced to the finish line.

I could tell you about hugging the smiling, bearded man that handed me my medal.

Each moment was a dream, though. The huge sandwich I ate, the congratulations from my friends and family, the texted love letter from my husband. The radio playing, singing along to songs I’d forgotten how to listen to.

There is no changing certain truths in my life. There will be new medication trials and emergency rooms. There will be fear in my clenched muscles, in my thin dreams and 2 a.m. whispers and even here, on the page. Also true: I choose to move forward, which is not the same as running away. Also true: I choose to see and love my son better, more perfectly, for who he is, and to see and love myself similarly. This imperfect mother who stretches her skin, searching outward, off the pavement, for goals and dreams and an identity outside of that fear.

Hannah Grieco is a writer in Washington, DC. She edits novels and prose collections for Alan Squire Publishing, where her anthology Already Gone came out in 2023. Her own work can be read in the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Craft, The Rumpus, Brevity, Poet Lore, Fairy Tale Review, Passages North, and more. Find her on most social media platforms @writesloud.