Running in the Grip of Mental Illness

I believe I was 12 years old when I had my first panic attack.  I was laying on a couch, it was December, and we were watching a special where different religious leaders were discussing the after life.  And suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

It has been 20ish years since that moment – and very rarely have I used the term mental illness when discussing things about myself.  I’ll make soft jokes at my own expense – how sometimes things bother me a bit more than others, how during the winter I would like to just hibernate like a bear, how sometimes my brain breaks down on me a little.  The real truth is it has been 20ish years of cycles.  Weeks of unpredictable levels of stability.  Days where getting out of bed felt like a herculean task.  Months where it seems like it is all finally over – where I am steady, happy, and panic attack free.

And then I find myself pulled over on the side of 495, crying hysterically and more than likely traumatizing my two kids who can’t figure out what is happening to their mom.  I don’t like to talk about it, so I don’t.  Just like so many others, carrying the weight of something they don’t really understand, I have become amazing at avoidance.  There are conversations I don’t have.  There are tricks I can use to make others not notice when my panic is mild, and I am pretty much an expert at putting on a happy face at work when internally I feel nothing but turmoil and despair.  I can redirect questions and make you forget they were ever asked.  Thanks to my minor in counseling, I am excellent at keeping others exactly where I want them – just far enough to only see the surface.

And then – there is running.  At times – running has been able to “fix” me.  I’ve gone for a run, or gotten back into the swing of running after a long break, and had it make me feel energized.  I will feel like myself – or at least the version of myself I am when things are good.  People frequently like to remind you how when you are feeling a little down, exercise is great at improving mood and releasing endorphins.  Running with others gives a great social boost – which can also be crucial during the down times.  When I have a steady habit of running, where it is automatic and scheduled into my days and held sacred from interruption, things are typically great.  Unfortunately, no one has a perfect schedule for too long.  Which brings on my next point.

I have also found that sometimes running can make a bad moment or day or week even worse.  There are times that what I need in order to keep moving forward is to be busy, distracted, and focused on specific tasks that require my attention.  There are times when going for a run allows all of the worst thoughts in my head to become the loudest.  Those moments that on another day may become that elusive runners high – those miles where you are almost in a trance with no thoughts in your head, just scenery – those miles become torturous.  There are times when I know logically that a run would really make me feel better if I could just make it happen, but after a single mile I simply don’t have it in me, and then not only do I still feel awful, but I also feel like a failure.

I bring up this highly personal (and admittedly, mildly embarrassing to be publicly sharing) topic, because I am certain I am not unique.  I know there are many people out there who feel like running is a kind of therapy – helping to keep them up, keeping them connected to a community, keeping them feeling physically healthy.  There are also folks out there who would love to be running, or running more regularly, but the war between mind and body is holding them back.

I am occasionally in a uniquely uncomfortable position while writing this blog and discussing my grand running goals and plans, but weeks later finding myself in the middle of a depressive swing – benching me physically and keeping me from achieving what I very publicly declared I wanted to try.  I then find myself back-peddling, trying to find a good excuse to give my reader for what kept me back, instead of just admitting that on some days, the best thing I can do for myself is nothing.

As members of the running community – I can almost guarantee that you know someone like me.  Someone who loves to run, who loves how it feels and the company and the sense of accomplishment of setting out to do something and getting it done.  Maybe it is that runner that occasionally disappears from the track work outs for months at a time.  The friend forever signing up for races and then backing out (I’m not implying all of these folks are struggling – but maybe a little motivation could help!!).  Maybe it is even the overly eager runner, the one who never misses a single opportunity to get out and run.  I know I certainly had a period in my life where everything at home was so hard to manage – any offer of a run would make me basically leap out the door.

I implore you to build relationships with the runners around you (big shout out to the Metro Milers group from Metro Run & Walk and the amazing care I have seen them give each other over the last five years).  Give a call to that runner that hasn’t been showing up.  Remind them you want to see them, go nice and slow with them, and don’t grill them as to why they’ve been missing their miles.  And if you are a runner like me, don’t be afraid to make someone an accountability partner!  Let someone know that maybe if you miss a few runs, to give you a call and help you get back on track.  Join a group, there are tons in this area full of incredibly friendly and supporting runners looking for new friends to enjoy their hobby with.  And on those days where you are really struggling with making it out the door – be gentle with yourself.  Your shoes will be there when your feet are ready for them.



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