It struck me recently, after the topic came up on several coffee dates, school pick ups and Facetime chats that 2/3rds of my girlfriends do, or have at some time, suffered with mental health issues. That coupled with the current media storm around ‘Mental Health’, driven by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry with their ‘Heads Together’ campaign, it seemed like a good enough time to share my story… it’s not about grabbing a slice of the zeitgeist, but when something is so part of your day-to-day life, when it becomes a common talking point, it feels ‘okay’ to share your experiences too, so here goes…
Having sailed through my teens and early 20s without any major mental health issues (the usual exam stress and puberty body image hang-ups and heartbreaks aside), I was knocked sideways after a car crash aged 26. Whilst my physical injuries healed over 18 months of treatment, my newly acquired anxiety, crushing exhaustion, insomnia, panic attacks and low-level constant fear didn’t want to budge. I got some amazing CBT help, and meds, and slowly I learnt enough coping strategies to get back to ‘normal’. That said, it was definitely something I had to work at and ‘manage’, to stay functioning in my life and career (I was a magazine editor in London at the time).
Fast-forward 3 years and my Dad’s sudden death, followed by my mum’s terminal cancer diagnosis and I was back at square one. There was no ‘coping’. This time round I didn’t want to go down the meds route to manage my overwhelming grief and anxiety, I didn’t want to mute it, I wanted to face it head on. So, on a whim I downloaded a ‘Couch to 5k’ app and bought some cheap trainers, grabbed one of my hubby’s t shirts and started running. Forrest Gump style.
As tactics go, for someone who used to fake sick notes to get out of cross country, it wasn’t the obvious solution. But it worked, primarily because for every second I was running, my mind was occupied. It couldn’t overthink, worry or grieve. I gradually progressed from couch to 5k, running a 5k race in my dad’s memory three months later. Those few months sowed the seed. I found I was sleeping better, felt calmer and was having fewer panic attacks.
I always ran by myself, not confident enough in my body or my ability to seek other ‘real runners’. I would plug in my loudest, happiest music and head out… some runs I’d pound the tarmac hard, channelling my anger into every stride. Others I would end a lung-bursting sprint and scream into the wind and rain at the sheer horror of the grief I felt. It was cathartic and exactly what I needed.
When I got pregnant again I worried I wouldn’t be able to turn to running to manage my anxiety, and then my mum died of the terminal cancer she had been fighting, and before I noticed a year past by without my tying my trainers once. I was too plain exhausted.
18 months on, and as per my post last week on grief, I felt like I’d been spat out the other side and something clicked. I wanted to run. But with over a year off the track, I was pretty much back to square one.
Rather than panic about it, I just started again slowly and within 3 months I was back to comfortably clocking up 5k, 2-3 times a week. It was time alone, away from being a mummy, wife and grieving daughter. It gave me that kick of endorphins that runners rave about, it melted away the baby weight and gave me something that was ‘just mine’. Soon I began chasing bigger highs and the next challenge. The 10k. So I decided to join a running club. With real runners. EEK.
To Be Continued…