Running Away

Thankfully the title is not referring to any type of literal or metaphorical escape, but is in fact a reference to my new found addiction to running. Addiction is described as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice”, and I believe it’s use in this situation is apt, although thankfully it is not a dependence of the negative variety usually associated with the term. Perhaps ‘addiction’ is too strong a word, as that implies it is an ‘unhealthy pursuit’ precipitated by a belief that you cannot live without something, and that you will go to any length for your next ‘hit’. However, there are clearly some endeavours (such as exercise) where a craving is completely advantageous, and the negative repercussions are noticeable by their absence.

It started off as a functional avocation, primarily as an attempt to lose a bit of weight and increase non-existent levels of fitness. I’ve applied for the London Marathon next year through a few mental health charities and whilst this is not directly related (as a place is not guaranteed…and besides next April is so far away), in the back of mind I thought that it would be a good idea to start some basic training to see how I would cope. The second motivation, and one which has formed a basis for many failed attempts at joining and maintaining a presence at the gym, was the widely held belief that exercise can be invaluable in managing poor mental health. Whilst it can so often be a frustrating cliché (“why don’t you go for a walk”… if only it were that simple), it is certainly a theory based on scientific fact.  Regular exercise can “release feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids) and it can reduce immune system chemicals that can worsen depression.”

This scientific jargon is all well and good, but putting it in practice is another thing entirely. Often when you find yourself a deep depressive episode you cannot drag yourself out to the gym or the park. Even if you can manage that, finding the motivation to maintain a regular commitment to exercise can be inexorably challenging. However, once I had got through the first couple of days (nearly being sick and struggling to breathe), the effects of the running were quite intoxicating. I haven’t found the confidence yet to run outside the confines on the gym, but I find the static and contained nature of the treadmill quite reassuring. During the actual running I push myself hard, and for that period of exertion my mind can become relatively blank; the need to propel my muscles to their limits, and fight the effects of the lactic acid build up, ensuring that there is little space for any ruminations or worrying. If I’m lucky the only noise in my brain is from the music that is being pumped in from my iphone’s Spotify app.

The effects of a tough run (I’m focused only on running rather than other cardio options) can remain with you for some time afterwards. Whilst the actual exercise can be painful at times, the after effects are mildly euphoric, both in terms of a sense of achievement, but also as a physical act of reducing anxiety and increasing energy levels. Admittedly these sensations wear off within a few hours, and thus only provide a temporary relief, but that is certainly better than nothing. I have occasionally pushed myself too hard, especially considering I’ve only been immersed in the exercise for a couple of weeks, and this can lead to some physical difficulties afterwards. But that is something I hope I will learn to curb over time.

Whether this is a pursuit I will be able to maintain, and whether the concept of achieving a regular attendance (let alone running a marathon) is all but a pipe dream, only time will tell. I’m sure there will be times that I cannot motivate myself to leave the flat, or when my mind is too frazzled to even comprehend a trip the gym. But like depression in general, this is a hurdle to overcome, and the difficult first step has been taken. The Black Dog revels in keeping you weighed down in lethargy and inactivity, so if this can present an opportunity to get one over on the old adversary, then I hope my running shoes will be called into action for a long while yet.

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Unwanted Change

A few months ago we were told that The London Studios, where I have worked since 2013, will be closing down next April, resulting in redundancy of the whole department. This wasn’t an immense shock and it had been on the cards for some time, but it was still a surprise that it was happening so soon. I’ve kept reassuring myself that I’m “not too worried”, and that “change might be a good thing”. It certainly has been one the few things that hasn’t affected my mood in a negative way. Or so I thought. On reflection, I’ve probably underestimated how the next 12 months are going to affect me, and it’s only in the last few days that this realisation has hit me.

A person like myself relies on stability, and the concept of change combined with the breakdown of routine, can be an irrefutable source of anguish and despondent ruminations. Depression thrives amongst the unknowns, the what-ifs and the disruption of the equilibrium. I will have been in my job for 5 years, which is a significant period of time for anyone, and whatever else has been going on in my life, it has provided a security and comfort the like of which is only fully appreciated once you realise that it is ending.

The job itself is not the thing that concerns me the most, as it will hopefully provide me with a necessary push towards a different challenge, and an understanding of what it is that I want to do with my life. I can become too comfortable, thriving on the stability and lack of change, which consequently prevents me from progressing. In addition to this, I’d like to believe that I have enough experience to enable me to find another job in the future, and there will be opportunities out there waiting to be found. No, the thing that bothers me the most, and that has been swirling round my mind like smoke around a bonfire, is that my job has essentially been my life for the last 5 years. For someone who lives alone, and does not find socialising all that easy, work essentially becomes my existence, and the people I work with my family. I have made some very good friends through my job, who I get to work with every day, and the knowledge that this will all end has made me feel extremely dejected, as I recognise that it will leave a great hole in my life.

Nostalgia and melancholia, in my experience, play a significant role in depression. The realisation that things will not always be as they are, and that people will move on, is an unwanted facilitator of sadness. People get married, move away, get new jobs, have children, and thus things are always changing, and constantly in flux. In years to come I will look back at the last 5 years, and this snapshot in time will merely be a memory. It will no longer be the present or the future, but will be deeply entrenched in the past. The idea that ‘all good things must come to an end’ is true, but this recognition makes it no easier to handle. When something is happening you never imagine that one day it will be over, and that it will only exist as a distant recollection.

I guess this notion of change also causes me to focus on my own place within the world. In 12 months time people will move on and still have lives they live, jobs they work and families they bring up. But I see myself as being stuck, treading water, and that whilst everyone will move on, I will remain standing still in the same spot. This sense of nostalgia for the past coupled with a disappointment of the prospects for the future, is not simply evident within this particular scenario. It is ever-present throughout the entirety of my life. Thoughts, memories and dreams all become entangled, and it’s impossible to discern how to turn them into a source of positivity, rather than as a reminder of times gone by or perceived failings of oneself. I’m so often stuck in the past, that I forget about the present that is passing me by, and the future that has yet to be written.

 

A Challenging First Day

Last Thursday I attended my first group therapy session, something I have been waiting almost 10 months for. The week preceding the first session brought with it a mounting anxiety, which continually increased in intensity, culminating in a feeling of nausea and panic when the day finally arrived. Throughout that morning I had an almost continuous internal argument, convincing myself that I should abandon the therapy before it had even begun, with the knowledge that whilst in the long-term this course of action would be detrimental to my state of mind, in would at least in the short-term go some way to curbing the wretched anxiety I was experiencing. Despite a pounding heart and an inability to think straight, I forced myself out of the house, onto the bus, and into the waiting room of the West London Psychotherapy Department. Before entering I lingered outside on a bench, not wanting to go in too early and spend any extra time than was necessary in what was sure to be an uncomfortable situation. After eventually entering the building, and composing myself in the toilets, I proceeded into a waiting room which contained the 4 people that I would be sharing my most personal and painful thoughts and feelings with over the coming months.

I realised that the worst thing I could do would be to sit in silence in the waiting room, as the anxiety would only escalate, and the awkwardness of the situation would be heightened. I therefore introduced myself and engaged in the usual pleasantries and introductions, which would in turn make the start of the actual session slightly less terrifying. As it happened there was a lady who was also attending for the first time, which ensured that I didn’t feel completely alone, as we were both in the same boat. Over the next 90 minutes (which at times both dragged and raced by) I mainly listened and took everything in, contributing only the occasional comment or reaction in response to what someone else had said. As a result of my difficulty in opening up, and my discomfort at engaging with new people, it will inevitably take a few weeks before I am confident enough to begin talking about myself and my illness. The other members of the group were incredibly welcoming and made me feel very at ease. On the one hand they encouraged me to open up about anything I felt comfortable talking about, whilst on the other hand they also reiterated that if I merely wanted to take a backseat and simply listen to them speaking, then that would be perfectly ok as well.

Not knowing what to expect, I quickly realised that the sessions would be very fluid, and the therapist would be taking a hands off approach, essentially acting as an arbiter, and an occasional provoker of debate. I was hoping that there may be some attendees who were of a similar age to myself, but the rest of the group were quite a bit older. However, I soon dismissed this from my mind, as at the end of the day we are all in similar positions, regardless of age, gender or background, and that this shared unifying knowledge is the most important factor. Some members the group had been attending for 18 months, whilst others had been coming for only 6 months. Not everyone starts their 2 year course at the same time, and it is inevitable that I will meet a variety of different people over the next couple of years, as new members join the group to replace those that have moved on. For now though I welcome the fact that for the first few months I will have consistency and stability in those that I engage with, which is crucial in facilitating an environment where it feels comfortable to open up.

I continue to find great difficulty in thinking positively, and the usual doubtful thoughts creep into my mind, such as “this isn’t going to help me”, or “there must be a better alternative”. However, a couple of the long-term members of the group  were unequivocal in their explanations of how the therapy has helped them, and this acted as a source of comfort and slightly reinforced the knowledge that I was doing the right thing. It was also very apparent that some of the group had not sought help with their mental health until late in their life, and therefore I feel some relief having started the process as early as I did (back in my early twenties). I have no idea what the coming months will bring, and how the therapy will play its part in my life, but the most significant thing is that I forced myself into that waiting room last Thursday lunchtime, despite every fibre of my being screaming at me to run straight out of the door. I’d like to tell myself that the hardest part is over, but I know that I haven’t even touched the surface yet, and when I begin to open up to the group about myself and my experiences, that is when the real hard work starts. I will need all my strength and resilience to ensure that I don’t give in to the desire to hide away and bury myself within the protective bubble of ‘avoidance’, rather than facing the challenge head on.