Oh heeeeey! Yeah it’s a topical blog title and I am impressed with myself.
Be assured, this is not about Brexit or Emperor Palpatine. So if you were looking forward to an informative insight to the upcoming election, this is not the post for you.
So! What is it about? Well! Unless you live in a cave or under the sea or somewhere with no access to the internet (so….Fife?) you’ll have noticed, by now, that this week is Mental Health Awareness week.
Mental Health is something that we all possess. Some are in control of it, others not so much. But we are all beginning to learn that we each have a responsibility to look after ours and that of other people.
Over the last few years, there has been a huge upsurge in the number of organisations fighting against the stigma associated with mental health. And it’s such an important subject.
The more open we are about it, the more comfortable we become with the fact that sometimes we are not ok. And that it’s ok not to be ok. Ok?
Since I ran London, I have experienced the typical highs and lows of emotions that follow such a huge achievement and also what turned out to be a very difficult race. This time however, the lows have been lower. I’ve lost control a few times and had to try and scrape myself together more than once. It’s been particularly tough. There are some other factors contributing the the lows this time, but largely I’ve felt less able to cope. My BFF gave me a shake and encouraged me to take some time and try and get myself to turn a corner. And it’s got me thinking….
The link between fitness and mental health improvements has been debated many times over. The more active we are, the greater the rush of endorphins and the more positive and healthy we feel and physically become, over time. But there’s a dark side to all that post-run adrenaline.
The risk of overtraining is great when you take on so many huge challenges. I’d become a victim of that. I was pushing myself too hard in training both physically and mentally. And it took its toll.
There is also the fact that Post-race blues are a real thing and they have challenged my anxiety to its very limit.
Of course, my story started a very long time ago now. Here’s a sort-of-summary:
Admitting I wasn’t well.
I was overweight. I had been suffering from chronic back pain for nearly 3 months and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. This followed years of sporadic fibrositis. My GP, having seen quite enough of me, thank you, was quite frank with me. At 24 years young, I was informed that if I chose to continue on my path of Sitting Still and Filling My Face, all I’d have to look forward to would be continued muscle damage and pain. I had compressed discs in my back and if I didn’t get active, I’d likely require surgery by 40. A sharp kick to the arse.
Around this time I also reached what I perceived to be “rock bottom”. My partner encouraged me to ask for help. Again, my GP didn’t hesitate to offer support and immediately referred me for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) at the Murray Royal Hospital in Perth.
I was not strong or stable. I didn’t know which way was up, where I was going or what I’d do if or when I got there. I was the physical and emotional embodiment of Brexit. (#topical #sorrynotsorry)
I also now began to experience, first hand, the stigma of mental health. At school, if someone was being a bit of a weirdo, you’d tell them to fuck off to The Murray Royal. It’s got a reputation for housing some pretty fucked up humans and I figured I’d best keep my referral to myself.
So, if anyone asked, I was seeing my “Chiropractor” WINK. (Note; I was also actually seeing a chiropractor so if you were one of the people I said this to, I’ll leave it to you to decide where I was…)
To be honest, I found that after 6 months of CBT, all I was able to do was identify some of the factors that triggered the chronic anxiety I’d suffered from childhood. I couldn’t actually do anything to prevent the triggers, or avoid the downward spiral. But at least I could say “HEY! Thats a thing what makes me anxious!” As I cried and panicked.
Following CBT, I tried more holistic approaches such as EFT and acupuncture. These provided short-term relief from anxiety but were never going to get me close to the root of the problem, nor would it give me the right tools to control it.
Of course there was initial relief that I had finally broached the subject, I was still painfully aware that my issues could be shrugged off as needy and selfish. And that just because a doctor has given what I was experiencing a name, didn’t mean I could dine out on that.
I wasn’t going to let high-functioning anxiety define me. I needed a hobby to distract myself and to give me direction.
The beginning of Marathon Bean.
In 2012, my dear friend and colleague (at the time) gently badgered me into entering the Kiltwalk with her and some of her friends. It was Lesley who gave me the first motivational kick in a positive direction. She doesn’t know quite how much she helped, until now.
After Kiltwalk, I set my sights on running marathons. The obvious next logical step, of course.
I now had drive. I had goals. I met more people with these goals, entered more races, diversified, became a triathlete, rekindled my love of swimming and now I’m busy taking that to the extreme as well. The whole time I laughed inwardly anytime anyone said “you’re mental” for entering something stupid. Yes. Yes I am. But I’m at least 80% less mental now that I’m active….
I found my positivity.
But this new positivity came with new challenges.
Truthfully, the mental health problems that I’ve encountered seem almost impossible to “cure”. It’s a case of managing them. Sometimes I manage to manage them. Other times I don’t. But at least now I have an outlet. I have a level of control over myself that I need in order to feel in control. It is a balancing act.
The effect that took me completely by surprise was The Post Race Blues. No one warned me about this. So…. let me get this straight: I’ve just completed the most amazing achievement, and now I’m going to a) feel like shit and b) experience a renewed and greater lack of self confidence?
Oh ok, cool.
Over time, I have trained myself to allow this to happen. I realised that it’s important to feel the lows so that you can appreciate the highs. And simply accept that it’s part of the ride and the learning curve.
This time, however, the post race slump has been particularly jaggy. I’ve had to fight harder to hold on. And I’ll admit to letting go, not wanting to get out of bed and finding solace in comfort food and crying at Dogs Trust adverts.
However, I am working on pulling myself out of it. Focusing on the next challenge while allowing my head to accept what it’s done to itself and move on. This isn’t easy or straightforward, but the sheer fact that I’m able to identify these thoughts and feelings is progress enough for me. Sometimes it’s about the smaller victories.
I’ve also learned to stop focusing on the event as the achievement itself. Instead, taking a big old step back and looking at the journey. 7 years ago I was miserable and had no health and no fight. Now I’m all fight and despite injury from overtraining and occasional illness, I really am healthier than I’ve ever been.
I now sit down after every race and, instead of looking predominantly at what I could do better (this is always important)and what I did on the day, I look at what I actually did to get me to that start line.
Because it’s all me.
I mean, yeah I’ve seen the odd remark along the lines of “but she has a coach which makes it easier” … and I’ll say this: Having a coach to help me plan in sessions has made my ridiculous combination of disciplines FAR easier to manage around 5am starts and a stressful job. BUT. (And this is the crucial bit)….. it’s ME that gets myself ready to go to the gym. It’s ME that lifts the weights off the ground. It’s ME that keeps myself going through 3 minutes of lunge jumps. It’s ME that gets up at 4am on a Sunday to cycle 40 miles so I can spend a day with my family. It’s ME that goes out running in sideways rain and snow and sleet. I wrestle tired limbs into a wetsuit and jump in a freezing Loch.
Realising this was huge. A lightbulb moment. I am the driving force behind my achievements.
If you are pushing yourself to achieve things it’s because YOU are your driving force. Do not let go of that.
So. Will I ever not be crippled with anxiety and fear? Hopefully! But until then, what keeps me focussed is the fact that every hurdle, every blocked path, every set back I have ever experienced, the common denominator in beating those things?
I have the strength. And so do you.