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.

Holding The Black Dog At Bay

I’m very conscious that most, if not all, of my blog posts have been scribed when I have been feeling down or hopeless. One of the many facets of the illness is that you focus on the negatives, and ignore any positives, and therefore I guess its inevitable that the ratio of optimistic versus pessimistic blog posts is so one sided. Someone pointed out to me the other day that it would be useful to note down what happens when I’m feeling more positive and upbeat, as this will be a valuable record to look back on when I’m feeling particularly low. What was happening on that day which caused me to feel more positive? Why was I not feeling as discouraged as usual? Can I use any of my findings and put them into action when I’m feeling especially depressed or anxious?

I’m not entirely sure of the reasons for my more upbeat state of mind in the last day or two, but I can hazard a guess at a number of factors:

(1) My bronchitis, which has been dragging my down for the last few weeks, has finally started to subside. I’ve felt dreadful for the duration of the illness, as its been difficult to breathe, and the cough has been intensely painful. As with getting over any illness, you can’t help but feel positive that you have seen the back of it.

(2) The aforementioned bronchitis has ensured that I have been unable to visit the gym at all for the last few weeks, and therefore I’ve been feeling decidedly inactive and restless. Today I was able to return, and had an intensive workout, which made me feel less guilty about the lack of exercise recently, and also precipitated the inevitable good vibes that come from the release of endorphins.

(3) Last night I met some good friends who I haven’t seen in a long time. It was a lovely evening, and we laughed, joked and reminisced about past times. It reinforced to me the importance of friends, and interacting with other people. Whilst the illness often negates this basic human characteristic, it proves that if it can be achieved, then the results are immensely positive, and allows you to fight back at the illness. Depression doesn’t want to you to have any semblance of happiness, and consequently if you do have a moment of contentment or hopefulness, you are in a sense defeating it, albeit until the next time it strikes.

(4) I’ve felt more of myself at work in the last few days, which is inevitable as a consequence of the previous points mentioned. Everyone I work with I consider friends, as well as colleagues, and hence when I’m feeling well in myself, and have managed to seek out some optimistic state of mind, it is a genuinely pleasurable environment to spend my time in. It helps greatly that everyone in my team knows about my illness, and thus there is no awkwardness or shying away from the realities of it.

(5) I’ve now got a few days off, and am looking forward to participating in some of the activities that I enjoy, but which depression effectively strips any pleasure from. Simple things like reading, going to the cinema, working out, going for a walk in the park. Points 1-4 in this list certainly contribute to being able to do this, as well as other factors that I probably don’t even recognise. Normally when the weekend swings around there is initially the inevitable ‘Friday Feeling’ that everyone experiences, but as soon as Saturday morning raises its head, the usual feelings of lethargy, hopelessness, lonliness and anxiety come rushing through the door. It’s nice therefore to actually be able to look forward to a few days rest, and hopefully a time to recharge the batteries, as the last few weeks have been physically and emotionally draining.

This is my no means an exhaustive list, but it will hopefully give me something to reflect upon when the inevitable slide downwards happens. Because it will. It may be in a few weeks time, or a few days time, or even in a few hours time. There is no stopping it. The doors have been boarded up for now, and the shutters on the windows pulled down. But depression is persistent, strong, and stubborn. The only thing that you can do is try and enjoy the moments when its at arms bay, and quite possibly the more times that this is achieved, the more tired and bored the ‘Black Dog’ will become. Maybe one day it will leave forever, its tail between its legs. But for now if I can at least hold it at bay for a few days, then that surely is a positive. I’ll take that any day of the week.