Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Running and depression

I started running in 2011 when I was working at a high-intensity, world renowned, much sought-after Institute with such atrocious working conditions that mystery illnesses and drinking problems (my own on both counts included) were practically part of the working culture. I used to get stomach cramps on the stairs on the way up to my workspace, and the particular smell of the hallways that I'd initially loved - an old-world museum storage room smell - started triggering my gag reflex. 

Every few months I'd go to my doctor asking for blood tests, sure that I had a thyroid problem. My skin was terminally dry, my hair was so thin I could feel my scalp with my fingers in even the thickest parts and my energy level was zilch. My blood tests were all normal though, and he'd always very kindly and gently suggest that maybe I was experiencing stress, and that a healthy way to find out would be to combine regular exercise with a wise and caring person to talk to, either professionally or casually. I would always tell him I had no time for (nor interest in) therapy and exercise, and I'd go about my exact same business again, only to return a few months later thinking that I might have a different metabolic disorder. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually my contract at the high intensity famous place came to an end, and by then I was in such bad shape physically and emotionally that I pretty much just embraced unemployment with absolute relief. Ky and I traveled to Europe for a few weeks and I absolutely reveled in having no cell service, no email emergencies, no stomach pains and nausea hanging like a pig-pen cloud around me. 

But then as so many other have discovered during times of unemployment, what starts out to be the best vacation of your life at some point turns into a sort of keening hopelessness as you lose even the unlikeable scaffold of schedule, and in my case my sense of myself as a useful human being. Yes, I was still a mother, a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister, a volunteer. But as someone who had always defined myself partly as a mother and partly as someone called to my particular profession, I felt like I'd lost half my identity. 

I drank too much and despaired quite a bit. A new kind of depression settled in as I realized that my much hated job and unemployment were two very unlikeable sides of the employment spectrum and I would very much like to be somewhere in the more agreeable center. Only I was too mired in depression to find the energy to get there. 

This is when I started running. Maybe it was the ghost of my former doctor's voice telling me that exercise would help me work out my issues in a healthy way. Maybe it was reading something about a happy person running. Maybe it was the desire to not have Ky see me sitting on the couch after school, still in my pj's, and instead to see a mother who was actively engaged in some seemingly useful activity. 

Whatever sparked it, I started running because I was depressed and I was desperate for some tangible accomplishment in my life. If I ran, I had done something with my day. If I ran 2 miles, I had tackled an obstacle that I thought was unachievable the week before. If I ran, I had something to talk to Ky about after school. "Oh, I went for a run and I saw this HUGE osprey catch a fish!"  I found some running message boards and joined them for a sense of community that I desperately needed. Often during my run was the only time I made eye contact with another adult in the course of my day. It gave me a purpose. 

I didn't enjoy running. I wasn't any good at it, and in the first couple of months I only enjoyed the feeling of being finished with a run for the day. But at some point, I think when my runs started taking a solid 45 minutes or so, something finally kicked in and I began looking forward to the hour I had to sort out problems, think of solutions, be somewhat honest with myself about where my life was going. Or to zone out and fantasize about what my life would look like if it were different, better. Sometimes I jammed in earphones and blasted music from a better time in my life. Sometimes I daydreamed. Sometimes I carefully brought out the real, painful issues in my life and examined them in bits and pieces, using the run-generated endorphins to smooth the rough edges. 

I stopped drinking as much, because it ruined the next day's run if I was dehydrated. I started gaining a tiny, small amount of confidence as I improved. I started signing up for 5K's and ultimately half marathons to gain some small amount of community. I never went to races with anyone, and I rarely spoke to anyone while I was at one, but just running in a crowd felt like company and community to me.

I made some huge decisions while running, and ultimately my life changed quite a bit. I stopped needing to run to get away from my desperation, and started needing to run as mind-maintenance. 

But something in the last year started going south again. Lately my runs have felt more like the forced march they used to feel like. I need them for emotional triage once again, and each one is an emotional roller coaster once again. I wish I didn't find myself back in this dark head space again. I wish I was joyfully running along the road each day out of happiness and an overabundance of energy, but I'm not. Not consistently. But I'm glad that at least this time I have a template for getting back to that good place in my head. I don't have to reinvent the wheel - I can use it as the tool it is, hard as that is to accomplish.

When I went running today I found myself taking an old running route, from the "dark times", from the times my head was in a bad place and 5 miles was the longest run I could imagine. Today even felt like that as I plodded along. Like 5 miles was a long, long distance and my head needed to be convinced to stick with it when it was telling my body to just stop, just walk, just lean on a tree and let myself fall apart. I did ultimately do that, in the park across the street from my house, against the tree I've run past several times a week for the last few years. 

But even as I did that, I was still grateful for the endorphin-softened fall and the knowledge that I can run it out again tomorrow, and the next day, until my heart and head catch back up with my body and my life can make it back to that good place again. 


  1. Great post! I had a similar reason for commiting to running for exercise. I faced a back injury that made me spiral into a very depressed way of life. When I was younger, working out was a good way for me to take some time for myself, but the injury seemed to take that away. I was always in pain. A doctor pushed me to give exercising a try again.He told me that I would experience a lot of pain and discomfort at first, but the stick with it, because it would be good in the long term. Eventually I got up the courage to start running again. He wasn't lying. The discomfort of putting my body back into fitness was rough. But I started to see the benefits too. I was able to go longer each day without excruciating pain, and my depressive thoughts were less intense. Though my running has made my life easier, I also still struggle with periods of time where I feel like it's a chore. But the days that don't are a great reward.

    I hope that you find your way back to peaceful and fulfilling runs. Sometimes we have to get lost again to find our strengths in life.

    1. Thanks so much, and I really like your thought that perhaps we have to get lost again to find our strengths. It seems so much more noble to just find them and succeed, rather than backslide and re-climb that same mountain, but reality seems to dictate a lot of recovered territory.

      Also I wish more people would share that starting running for them was often about sucking up the front-end discomfort, rather than being transformative from minute one. It sounds like you and I are in the same place with it, and I really appreciate your thoughts!