Some thoughts on mental health and running

I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about Amy Winehouse, about how we lost an enormously talented woman and how sad and completely predictable her death was.  But, and I imagine I am not alone in this, but her death also caused me to reflect a bit on my own life and to consider the dumb, blind cruelty of luck.  There but for the grace of God go I, and all that.

I spent most of yesterday morning writing about this, but what I had written was too personal to share, especially on the internet.  I suppose I’m still a bit old-fashioned in that I’d like to keep some parts of myself just for me and those who know me well.  So instead, here’s the PG-13 version.

I’d always been a bit of an anxious and fearful person…actually, that’s an understatement.  Anxiety and fear comprised the foundation of my personality for much of my life, which is a lot like building a house on the proverbial quicksand.  Most of my energy was spent protecting myself from harm, which was a bit of a fool’s errand, as harm lurks everywhere and is often unavoidable despite our grandest efforts to evade it.

And in my case, my attempts to avoid harm led me directly into the most harmful situations of my life. (Oh irony, you brutal bitch.) I wound up in a relationship that lasted through my teens and into my late 20s that can be best described as a list of Relationship Warning Signs.  The relationship was violent and codependent and degrading, a self-help author’s nightmare.  It was the kind of relationship that, if you saw your best friend or loved one wading into it, you’d do everything you could to wrench them right back out.

I was in this relationship for nine years.  Over the course of those nine years, that anxiety and fear was blown up and magnified until it had squeezed everything else out of my life.  So I self-medicated; it was the only way I knew how to cope.  The alternative – to walk away from this relationship in which I had invested everything – was unthinkable.

I eventually did walk away, but that wasn’t the end. For another year or so I found myself dealing with things that bear more than a passing resemblance to post-traumatic stress disorder – nightmares, flashing back to certain moments, unexplained bouts of anger so huge I thought the intensity would burn me alive.   With the help of my husband, who has had his own share of demons with which to contend, I was eventually able to move past all of this.

I was lucky.  I had one part of the addiction equation – “lack of coping mechanisms” – down pat, but the other part, the genetic disposition, was not present in me.  I was so, so lucky.  It was harrowing enough to deal with A Problem.  Full-blown addiction would have been unbearably difficult.

For me, the biggest part of learning to deal with my tendency towards self-medication – and its dark twin, self-destruction – was finding a new set of coping mechanisms.   It took a while, but I soon found that I could find that peace of mind I had sought for so long by lacing up a pair of running shoes and heading out into the streets.

This, more than anything else, is why I am now a runner.   It wasn’t about fitness or health or developing muscular legs or being a superstar or cracking a 22-minute 5K.  It was about making all of the voices of self-doubt and fear and anxiety shut up for a second so I could breathe.

And it has worked beautifully, better than I could have ever anticipated.  All that anxiety seemed to evaporate from my body along with sweat, and I could sleep at night.  I soon found I could handle situations that had once made me melt into a puddle of terror, everything from public speaking to confronting my ex to pursuing a job I really wanted.  I became more confident, not just in the strength of my body but also in the strength of my spirit.

You know how a lot of people say punk rock saved their lives, or Jesus saved their lives, or something like that?  I could very easily make the argument that running saved my life.  Of course it is more complicated than that, but running through the streets, day after day, solidified that shifting quicksand in my soul and turned it into something more substantial, something stronger, something that has allowed me to begin the difficult but rewarding process of becoming an actual human being.  Not a mass of neuroses and anxieties and defensive mechanisms, but an actual person who accepts her vulnerabilities and her flaws as readily as she accepts her strengths and her beauty.

Yesterday I went for a long run through my neighborhood, and as I ran over boardwalks and past flocks of white ibis and beneath oak trees, I thought about Amy Winehouse.  I thought about her and Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. I thought about all of the not-famous people I’ve written stories about.  I thought about all of the people I’ve known who have been hurt in some way by drugs and alcohol.  I thought about how sad this is, and how common it is too, and how that almost makes it worse in a way.

I wish there was some easy way to make it all better.  I wish it was as easy as saying, go put on some running shoes and get out of your own head for a while, but I know that’s not the case.  I just know that I’m lucky enough that this is what worked for me.

3 responses to “Some thoughts on mental health and running

  1. Thanks for sharing this article. I find it inspiring that a once anxious and fearful person take charge of their life in the way that you did. It gives me hope for myself and for all the others who are the same way.

    • Thank you! There’s actually been a lot of research out there that has found a link between physical activity and decreased levels of anxiety and depression. Something to do with the chemicals in our brains, I think? But in my case it was a lot simpler, which was that I saw I was capable of doing really difficult, challenging things, which forced me to re-examine the limits I’d placed on myself and to redefine the image I had of myself.

  2. Caitlin,

    Your blog is a coherent and balanced commentary on women’s issues and arguably one of the best available on the internet. This post, though, is the most inspiring piece of writing I have ever come across online or otherwise. As I struggle to become a whole and healthy person again, reading how others have overcome similar challenges is not only thought-provoking, but comforting.

    Thank you.


    P.S. – Bonus points for the excellent style and dash of sarcasm!

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