Running, mental health, and me

Before I write about the magical day that was Sunday 23 April 2017, I thought I would explore a far more important and pressing topic.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I would like to write about why vital conversations need to take place around mental health. I also want to share my own experience of mental health, how it has evolved over the years and particularly recently, with the discovery of running.

You’ll have heard it many times before – a staggering proportion of the population will struggle with one or several mental health problems at a point in their lives. It is estimated that, each year, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem. The type and magnitude of these problems vary enormously, but it is undeniable that they have a profound effect each person who goes through it.

Given the amount of people that this affects, it bothers me greatly when I see dismissive, ignorant, and, at times, downright mean responses when the issue of mental health is raised, whether directly or indirectly. The fact that there continues to be a lack of knowledge and awareness surrounding mental health makes this week, and a charity like Heads Together formally declaring the 2017 London Marathon as the Mental Health Marathon, all the more important. The message is clear. We. Need. To. Talk. About. This.

Those who consider themselves not to have or to ever have had a mental illness are invited to join the conversation. The goal is to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, to improve understanding, to educate people, to get people to listen… All this to help us as a society realise that it’s completely fine not to be fine 100% of the time, and to be open about it.

I have been dealing with mental health problems since I was 12 years old. Throughout the years, depression and anxiety have made appearances in my life, and in some really low moments, taken centre stage. Talking about how I felt was only ever possible with strangers – a health professional, a person on the other end of a telephone hotline. The majority of the time, however, I would often feel rebuffed, rebuked, ridiculed for what seemed (to other people, even people from whom I would have expected support) to be my disproportionate reaction to the situation at hand. If I had a penny for the every time I’ve been told I was imagining things, being melodramatic or unreasonable… This all contributed to me thinking that I was not entitled, allowed even, to be upset for whatever reason. Worse, still, that I was wrong for feeling what I was feeling.

It has only been in the past 6 months that I have gradually been able to open up and to seek help. In autumn 2016, my boyfriend asked me one morning whether I remembered getting out of bed the previous night, walking a couple of steps, standing by the bed for a couple of seconds, then getting back into bed. Having had no recollection of this, I came to the conclusion that I had experienced a sleepwalking episode. Although I am known to have a good natter in my sleep, I had never sleepwalked before. I decided to consult my GP about this, as my sleep quality had been deteriorating over the year anyway, and fully expected to be prescribed sleeping pills of some sort.

At my appointment, the GP asked questions that I had not anticipated. ‘Do you have nightmares? Do you have hobbies and are you still interested in them? How are your energy levels throughout the day? How are you at work? Do you have physiological reactions to stress?’ It then occurred to me that I was being asked questions to assess the likelihood of me suffering from a mental health problem, rather than just a sleep disorder. At that appointment, I gave what answers I could give from recent memory. At the same time, I was suddenly remembering how I felt at 12 years old, and several times again at other points in my life. As much as I had tried to dismiss those times as bad days or bad phases, I was faced with the reality that this was long-term.

Between that appointment and now, several major changes have happened.

  1. Opening up. It started with my closest friends and my parents. Then, a cognitive behavioural therapist. Then, a handful of colleagues. Slowly, I am moving out of this box I’d locked myself in, where I felt I always had to deal with my problems by myself, and that I’d be a burden to anyone with whom I shared how I really felt. I had always believed that by solving my own issues on my own, I was making myself stronger, more resilient, more prepared to face life’s difficult moments. In fact, I was only going round in circles in my head. Talking helps me take stock, make sense of what’s going on, and saves me from getting caught up in minute, and sometimes irrelevant, detail. Being listened to makes me feel valued, and if not understood, at least that I’m cared about enough to be worth someone’s time. The gratitude I have for the people who give me the time of day when things are going wrong is immense, and I hope they know how much they mean to me.
  2. Tango. I started tango 9 months before I went for my GP appointment, but looking back, it is the first activity that successfully quietened the noise in my mind. It showed me the possibility of life without never-ending worry, even if it was just for a couple of hours every week. I have also met some incredibly kind, funny, utterly loveable people in this way, and a community that is encouraging and supportive. Tango gives me an expressive outlet and and chance to progress in something – it offered me my first steps to recovery before I even knew I was down.
  3. Running and the 2017 London Marathon. ‘Is this a prank?’ were some of the first words I uttered when I found out I’d obtained a ballot place for the 2017 London Marathon. If you look back to my first blog post, you’ll see that the odds were stacked up against me running 26.2 miles in April 2017. Running gave me the same release from the constant churning of worried thoughts in my head as tango did. I focussed on my breathing, on the music, on the regularity of my feet hitting the ground. And when each training run was over, whether it was a 30-minute or 3-hour-30-minute run, that elation from achieving what I once thought was impossible (yes, I couldn’t even fathom running for 30 minutes not that long ago) was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And then, there were the really tough runs, the unfinished runs. I even gave up on one of my long runs after nearly 11 miles. Yet, I can now call myself a marathoner. Cynics will roll their eyes and dismiss this as indulgent rubbish, but running taught me that I can overcome adversity. Pain, be it physical or mental, could be staring me in the face and daring me to succumb to the negativity, and I’ve proved that I can shut it up and emerge victorious. Running is not a cure, but it helps me manage my depression and anxiety on a daily basis. That ‘prank’ turned out to be a lifesaver.

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Phew.

So that was me being open. And that was me inviting you to understand that mental health is not straightforward. Dealing with mental health problems is an ongoing effort, and doing so positively often starts with acceptance and a dialogue. Reach out and listen – it achieves so much more than negative judgment and stigma ever will. And if anyone reading this feels like they need someone to talk to, I would be more than happy to listen. ❤

Training Update: Weeks 14-16

It’s taper time!

And it was about time – it took nearly a whole week for my legs to stop aching and twitching after that 20-miler!

For me, the greatest thing about reducing mileage is being able to discover new routes. The first “long run” after the 20 miles, I had to run for 1h34mins. I decided to head east for my taper runs instead of following my usual westward long-run route into central London. A friend had recommended following the Thames Path to the Thames Barrier, so I picked a beautiful sunny Sunday to run east.

My previous long runs made me familiar with the majority of the London Marathon route, but running east allowed me to get acquainted with the first couple of miles of the route. It takes us from Blackheath through Charlton, up to Woolwich, at which point we turn back and go west towards Greenwich.

After the initial relief at not having to run for so long anymore until the big day, I’ve been starting to get the tapering blues. I have read extensively about the ups and downs of the marathon training cycle, and I had been wondering whether I would feel this “maranoia” that so many runners talk about. Well, it’s hit me and it’s hit me hard.

Whenever someone asks me about the marathon, I can feel the anxiety creeping up as I try to put on a brave face and say all is fine. I know it’s natural to feel nervous in the lead up to an event as big as the London Marathon, but I’ve been asking myself why I feel this way, especially as I’ve been training diligently for the past 4 months.

As someone who struggles with anxiety, worry is a huge part of who I am. Worrying is my natural approach to everything in life. So as a response to this one event, I am worrying about whether I will be able to finish the marathon, whether I will experience any tummy troubles on the day, whether I will have packed enough jelly bloks, whether the weather will be nice, whether I’ve raised as much money as I could for charity, whether this small ache in my leg is a sign of something worse… The list goes on.

It feels like the majority of the training at this point focusses on the psychological aspect of running a marathon. I have to make a concerted effort to remind myself that I did not just dream the past 4 months and the waking-up-to-run-in-the-dark-and-cold-winter-mornings.

Perhaps the biggest fear for me is fear of the unknown. As a first-time marathoner and as a newbie runner, I have no idea what to expect. I do not know how difficult the whole thing is going to be. I have not run beyond 20 miles in one go. And when people say, ‘You can do it,’ I can’t be certain they’re right. I’m one of those people who can only draw certainty from concrete evidence.

To counter the anxiety and stay inspired, I have been watching videos of London Marathons past and Paula Radcliffe interviews on Youtube. I’ve also worked on my Spotify playlist (my trusty companion throughout training), adding a few new tunes to run to on the day. Music has carried me through pretty much every difficult moment in my life, and I suspect that on Sunday 23 April, it will be no different.

Only 8 days left! I’d be interested in hearing from others about what helps them maintain focus when the pressure starts to pile on.