SALT LAKE CITY — Emily Brainich doesn’t run because it’s fun.
She laces up and hits the pavement — rain or shine — most mornings for the very same reason most people avoid the sport. It’s a grind.
Running as a habit or hobby requires an embrace of monotony, and sometimes pain, that reminds her in a positive way that life’s struggles — as dark as they are — can be endured, survived, even defeated.
“I’m not passionate about running,” said Brainich, who is preparing for her next challenge, Wednesday’s Deseret News 5K race. “I like to play sports, and to run is like, ‘OK, this isn’t fun for me.’ But to run a race for me, I’m starting something hard. And I know I’m going to push myself through.
"I’m going to see myself through it, and I’m going to finish something that’s hard. And so for me, running is just something I’ve tied to my recovery and held really, really close to me.”
The reason Brainich yearns for the challenge that running offers is because her life has been so much harder than any road race. To say her life’s foundation has been chaos and uncertainty is an understatement.
Among her first memories is learning that her mother was murdered when she was 7. In the early morning hours of Feb. 22, 1990, Michelle Larae Halling died in a house fire that was ruled an arson by investigators. Nearly 30 years later, her killing remains unsolved. More importantly, her absence has haunted Brainich’s life.
“My mom and my dad were in a custody battle for me because my mom struggled with drugs and alcohol,” she said. “And so my dad actually had me at the time. … All these years later, nothing still has happened. … They have an idea of who it was, and there are things they’re still investigating. … It’s just something I’ve lived with my whole life.”
She said her father asked her to watch a news report about the house fire and then they discussed her mother’s death. Brainich’s brother was at his maternal grandparents’ house when the fire broke out and they ended up raising him. She was raised by her father.
“I feel like my mom deserves justice,” she said. “And when I was in my active drug use, I always felt like something about it was going to come up, or something would get back to me, or maybe I could be right here using with somebody that was involved.”
In fact, sometimes she rationalized her drug use as a link to the world that stole her mother.
“Just stepping into that realm of that world, and maybe even using in that world, was a way of me wanting to get answers,” she said, pausing, “as well as self-medicating.”
Brainich said the same year she lost her mother, one of their neighbors sexually assaulted her when she and her father were visiting him. The man threatened “to hurt her” if she told anyone.
"All I could think of was my mom,” she recalled.
She said she ached to tell someone what happened, even contemplating it numerous times when she was with her grandmother. But every time she got close to seeking help, the fear kept her from reaching out.
“It was something I held inside of me until I was in eighth grade,” she said. “When I finally did come out about it, my dad said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ … So that was just another thing I threw in my backpack.”
Brainich said she got good at packing the fear and anxiety around with her, even as she excelled in school.
“My dad was very strict with me,” she said. “And he did instill in me good values of go to school, get an education, be a kind person, and work hard.”
She had two jobs throughout her teen years, and she was on track to graduate from high school until she and a troublesome boyfriend broke up. He vandalized her car and caused other issues for the family, and Brainich incurred her father’s anger over this situation.
Eventually, her grandparents demanded the family meet and discuss how to deal with the boyfriend problem, which she said she wanted to do.
“But I said, ‘I’m not going to have a talk with my dad unless he’s not been drinking that day,’” she said. “And it was at that point that they were like, ‘Well, that’s not going to happen, so you need to get your stuff and get out.’ I was a senior in high school, and I only had about a quarter of school left. I left, and I fell into the deepest depression of my life. I was lost, and I didn’t kow what to do for the first time in my life.”
Brainich moved in with a friend, and that friend introduced her to cocaine. From there, it was a fast track to substance abuse for the then 18-year-old. One of the men who sold her drugs became her boyfriend.
“He promised me a better life,” she said. “He ended up convincing me to move away from home to Las Vegas. My family was supportive of it.”
At first, the move seemed beneficial as she completed her high school credits and earned her diploma. But very quickly, her boyfriend began pressuring her to help support them through sexually oriented businesses.
“I found myself working at a strip club,” she said. “Just slowly over time these things became normal, and it seemed like it was OK. … I know now that I was probably physically sexually acting out because I was dealing with the trauma of the rape.”
After nine months of stripping for money, she began working as an escort. Any time she tried to leave or express a desire to pursue some other path, she said her boyfriend responded with violence.
“I was never able to step away because I would be beaten,” she said. “Any time I tried to leave, I’d get beaten the most. I had broken ribs, teeth knocked out, hair pulled out. … And this is the guy who is supposed to be my boyfriend.”
Eventually, she did get away from that man, but then fell into another abusive relationship. She continued doing drugs, working as an escort, and then in 2009, she learned she was pregnant.
When her boyfriend said he didn’t want her to have the baby, they broke up.
“I was like, ‘I’m having this baby,’” she recalled. “I got on the bus and left him that day.”
She immediately gave up drugs and alcohol, she said, but the only way she knew how to make money was through sex work.
“I went on dates through an escort service almost my entire pregnancy,” she said. “I got arrested in two or three stings, two before my son was born and one after.” She was desperate for help, but she had no idea where to find it. Eventually, with $50 to her name, she said she stole a U-Haul truck and drove it to Utah where she lived in the homeless shelter with her infant son in downtown Salt Lake City.
On July 5, 2014, she married a man whom she met in the shelter. Three months later, her husband said he was going to the restroom and never returned.
“He got on a bus back to Las Vegas,” she said. “And now he’s in prison. But he just completely abandoned me and my son, and that was really hard on me and really hard on my son.”
Reliably, drugs became her escape once again.
In her journal on Oct. 9, 2015, she wrote about her desire to live a life without drugs, where she could pursue an education and a better life for herself and her son. Four days later she was arrested as she walked back to the shelter from the day care and elementary school where her son spent his days.
With her son in foster care, Brainich felt an urgency to change her life. But she said she also discovered an inner capability she didn't realize that she had. The foster family was supportive of her getting clean and reassured her they would take care of her son if she took care of herself.
“I remember looking at my son and I told him, ‘I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get better,’” she said. “And I gave my son my word, and I feel like I’ve struggled a lot with a lot of things, including drugs. But I feel like my biggest struggle is the PTSD. I feel like the trauma is the biggest struggle, and that’s what I have to monitor.”
Within nine months, she had her son back and she was on the road to recovery.
To understand what was causing her desire to feel numb was “life changing.”
“To know my triggers, to know my symptoms, and to know how it impacts what decision I make when I’m in that flight or fight mode, has been life changing for me. … When I feel my PTSD is getting triggered, I can make choices, and I can walk away from anything that’s not mentally, physically or emotionally healthy for me.”
Just a couple of months into sobriety, a friend’s father talked her into running a 5K race. She described it as discovering something like a super power. It gave her something hard to focus on that she knew she could handle, and it helped her keep her demons in perspective.
She has run the Deseret News 5K for the past few years, and this year she will run it with her son.
“I think it’s because you’re on the parade route,” she said. “All the people and the atmosphere, it’s fun. … Also, being down here in the city, it’s inspiring.
"I’ve walked these streets for drugs, and now I’m running for my recovery.”