Running & Recovery

I’ve been thinking about recovery and my journey over the last 3 or 4 years.  I know I’ve been battling depression and anxiety for a lot longer, probably since I was 13 years old or so (I’m guessing around Grade 7). In my early 20’s I tried antidepressants, on and off but I didn’t stick with it, and my doc at the time didn’t seem overly concerned about treating it, so I left it alone. I also know that mental illness was even more stigmatized and misunderstood back then, than it is now. Depression. Anxiety. Trauma.

Trauma? Yeah, I’m not immune it. The 8 years of marriage were hard on me. I was never enough, it was never enough, and if by chance it was good enough, then there was something else to complain about. It was toxic. She was narcissistic. And there are other events from my past I won’t post; not because they’re trivial or insignificant, but because the details don’t matter. The fact that they happened to me means they had a big impact on me, and it all eventually adds up and takes it’s toll.

The word “recovery” is often associated with managing mental health. It’s not quite the right term but it seems to be the widely accepted one at this point. Unfortunately, it’s not like recovering from a cold, the flu, or a broken arm. This illness is indeed life-altering.  For me, I don’t know how much is adapting and learning to love “the new me” (as in the me I am now), and how much is uncovering stuff about the “old me” that either got buried or ignored.  Some of it is good – loving to serve, so encourage, to build into others. – yet that one comes with a razor fine line before it crosses into doing it to seek approval or affirmation from others, doing so to fill a hole or need I haven’t worked on yet. Part of it is tapping into creative gifts that I’d dismissed or minimized. Some of it has been trying a few new things here or there, and running was one of them that has started to take on a bit of a life on its own.

Sometime in the late winter/early spring of 2017 I started to toy with the idea of getting into running. I’d seen various posts and articles about “couch to 5k” programs, which a slow, graduated program to get virtually anyone from couch potato to jogging 5km in 8 weeks. Last summer, it started ok, I had some roadblocks, fought through them, but then I just gave up for several weeks. I don’t know if it was frustration, or lack of focus. In any case, I then got back into it, and by fall I was running 10km with relative ease. Over winter I didn’t do much with it, but this spring I got back into it with the goal to run a half-marathon. My first one is coming quickly. Just over 30 days to go. I only actually completed the full 21k for the first time this past weekend. I feel a bit like I’m cheating a bit by using a run/walk method, but hey – it’s also actually a recommended method for people new to distance running, like I am.

There are days where it’s incredibly hard to get out the door. Either lack of motivation or lack of focus – and then needing a half-dozen trips in and out of the apartment before I’ve got everything together. Sometimes I’m so frazzled from my day, that I’m better off just skipping the workout. Some days, I’m thinking about getting out for a run most of the work day. There are days I’m so tense and wound up that I know I need to run, otherwise I’m going to be cranky and irritable at everyone for anything and everything. It’s 2+ hours out of my day, but more like 3 if you include warmup beforehand, and then the cooldown and shower afterwards. 3 times per week, so that’s almost 10 hours out of my week, in addition to my job of course.

21 kilometers. 13.1 miles. Half a marathon.

Andrew, why on earth are you doing this to yourself at 40 years old? Why do you put so much time and effort into something that others are better at? Why don’t you leave it for those younger than you? For those who have been training longer? What are you trying to prove? For me to answer that, I want you to imagine the following scenario.

You’re standing in a parking lot. Several feet away is an idling piece of heavy-duty construction machinery. It’s big, it’s loud, and it’s just sitting there making racket. You and your friend are holding a conversation, both raising your voices somewhat to hear and be heard over the din. The machine isn’t moving, and you can’t leave – so you just put up with it. The way the human mind works, is that it adapts. The clatter of the engine running doesn’t get quieter – but your mind filters some of it out, so that on a conscious level, you don’t notice it as much. You and your friend keep talking and get really into the topic at hand. Time passes, and neither of you even notice the racket coming from the machine. In a way, you’ve become immune to the cacophony. Then, the operator appears from somewhere, climbs up to the controls, and shuts it off.

Silence.

Not even a bird chirping

Each of you stop mid sentence and mid thought, holding your breath – not out of fear or uncertainty, but to bask in the silence. Your pulse seems as loud in your ears as the machinery was, and you wish that would stop too – so you could enjoy the peace to its fullest. You suddenly notice your throat is parched, and your voice is raspy from talking that loud for that long. You notice the same about your friend. After a few moments, you pick up the thread of the conversation, albeit at a much lower volume, almost a whisper.

Now instead of just your face-to-face conversation, imagine 100 other conversations all happening around you, all in a confined, echoing building, and that machinery is still there, just as loud as before.  You’re hearing snippets of conversations from all around, and as the conversations around you get more animated, voices talk faster, louder, tumbling and thrashing, competing, and scrambling for attention within your conscience. All the while this nasty, noisy piece of machinery is just sitting there rattling and clattering, it stinks, it’s rusty, it’s ugly and that just feeds into the subliminal stress and frustration that’s building within the pit of your stomach, and manifesting as tension across your shoulders, and hands balling and flexing into fists.

The moment the operator shuts off the machine, everything falls silent. A full minute of silence that’s as pure and crisp as a mountain stream. Slowly, here and there the other conversations start up again, but in subdued murmurs, not the raucous clamoring of before.  Your tension melts away like an ice cream cone under the hot summer sun. The nearby conversations can still be heard, but there are only a very few, no longer talking to each other, over each other, while striving to keep your attention too. No – now it’s tranquil. Orderly even. There is an atmosphere of calm, with no sense of the frenzy that was happening mere minutes before…

Instead of physical noise, physical conversations, go back through that scenario again. All that noise and chaos is inside your head. The one thing that helps more often than not is to run. Not just a 20-minute easy pace on a treadmill while you watch Netflix on the TV. No, a long effort, outside in the sunshine and wind, where you must train your body and your mind to work that hard, for that long, where you must account for traffic, puddles, weather, fluids and energy levels. And that 3 hours of effort just might reward you with 2 to 4 hours of calm from the chaos.

The only way for you to truly understand what I’m saying means you also struggle with anxiety and overstimulation. And to you, I say – man, my heart goes out to you. I know I can’t change anything for either of us, but I would be a happy man if I knew I’d be the last person on earth to “get it”. I’d much rather face the stigma and bias alone, for the rest of my days, if I knew that no one else would ever have to battle their own mind.

For those of you who don’t struggle with these sorts of issues, be thankful. Praise be to whichever deity you may or may not worship. Why? Simply because I’m “high functioning” – meaning most days, I can get up, go to work, hold down a job, be an “adult”, despite some frustrating if not downright scary internal thought processes. If you could imagine what I described, and then amplify it, magnify it, strengthen it to the point where you cannot leave your house, your bedroom, your bed. Where making a meal, having a shower, doing laundry is as daunting as scaling Mt Everest solo.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a hero. I don’t see myself as strong., at least nowhere close to the people I think as strong, as courageous, as mental health heroes. I’m not bragging or showing off, nor am I looking for attention or pity. Yes, I’ve fought hard to get where I am. I’ve also had a lot of luck, blessings, and an increble network of friends, family, co-workers, and support groups. Almost anyone I’ve been in contact with and talked about my mental health struggles has been encouraging and supportive. Pretty much the first cocktail of meds my doctor put together for me made a difference – only ongoing tweaks to the dosage is required at this point – and I have few side effects, which are manageable.  And so, I cringe when I think so many have had an experience much harder than what I’ve faced: deeper, stronger illnesses, lack of support from family and/or friends, struggling to find the right meds that balance treating the illness with the toll the side-effects take on them. But I’m no “fixed” and I’m not “cured”. For now, I seem to have this thing under some degree of control. But therein lies the danger

I’ve had an unusually high number of “off” days this week. What does an “off” day look like? Let me use what’s called the “Sickter Scale” It’s a scale 1-10. Michael Landsberg and the #SickNotWeak online community uses it as way to describe how good or bad you’re doing.

  • 10-9: I’m incredibly lucky! This is also what I imagine a normal person on a normal day would experience
  • 7-8: Today is a good day, and I’m lucky to enjoy it!
  • 6: I’ll take it
  • 5: I’m not sure…
  • 3-4: Functioning but miserable
  • 2-3: This is the worst. This is the bottom, it can’t possibly get any worse
  • 1: No, this is the bottom.

Keep that scale in mind. A few short years ago, 2015-2016, my average day was in the 3-4 range. Lots of those were 2’s. Some were higher, some 4’s and 5’s, and a few 6’s. The rare 7 felt like I was in heaven. I hated to fall asleep on those days because I knew that when I woke up, it would be nothing but a memory.  In short, my “normal” was a 3. “7” days were as incredible as they were rare, and a “10” was as likely as finding a unicorn holding a 4 leaf clover. Far too many of those were 3s, coupled with a near-steady stream of thoughts, both conscious and subconscious, of death, of suicide.

Fast forward to 2018. I’ve had my share of hard days, typically late winter into spring is my worst time, this year was a struggle because we had “teasers” of nice days as early as March (which is rare in this part of the country) but only in May have things really started to turn around. But I’m managing my mental illness better, I recognize triggers or coping mechanisms better. These days I’d put my average at a 7, and so when I speak of having an “off” day, it’s because it feels like a 5.

When my average was a 3, any day that would scale as high as a 5 was respite, a mere moment of calm in the middle of a tornado. Something to be enjoyed, like a shaft of sunlight piercing the storm clouds, savoured like a delicacy. Now, a slide down to a 5 scares me, because while I don’t remember how it felt live life as a “3”, I know it was hard and painful in many ways. And a slight bump down from my “normal” gives me a glimpse, a scent of the desolation, loneliness, hopelessness, and overwhelming feeling of never being, or doing enough.  Having to face those battles again, and then finding the courage, hope, and strength to drag myself out all over again, terrifies me on a level I cannot describe.

But maybe that’s why my heart lurches when I hear of another suicide. Maybe that’s why I love the #SickNotWeak community so much, and why I help them when I can. Maybe I’m hoping I can save someone. Maybe by helping others, I hope to save myself. Maybe I can make a difference. Or maybe I already have. Because I have 2 big fears: Finding myself stuck in a hopeless, endless string of 3’s, and knowing that there’s someone out there feeling that depth of hopelessness and despair that I fought against for years.

I was lucky. I still am.

Not everyone is.

Header photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

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