It’s February again, we must get older

It’s time for the month in review! What’s been going on inside my head and where have my feet been taking me this month?

The month began on a serious high with my Time To Talk post going the smalltime blogger version of viral. I was asked in advance by the event director at Southwark parkrun if I had anything suitable for them to share as part of the day. I didn’t, but they’re good people so I wrote a piece on how parkrun has been more than just running to me. It ended up being retweeted a ridiculous number of times and being shared by so many parkruns, by parkrunners and by the founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt. A bizarre day of people sending screenshots of my face as it popped up in their Facebook feeds via parkruns across the country.

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Sporting my parkrun performance shirt. A ginger in apricot. Bold.

That post has now been viewed well over 5000 times, in over 40 countries. Thank you to all who supported, shared and talked about mental health on that day. You know how much the cause means to me and to have had even the tiniest impact was fantastic. The blog will probably never reach such lofty heights again!

Running has been a mixed bag. Again, the month started well. I managed a couple of post-work 5 milers, as opposed to my usual 5km. I’m slowly trying to up my overall mileage and it’s reassuring to have broken the mental block I had of doing more than 5km on a school night. This will seem such a tiny breakthrough to so many of you but my running is plagued with arbitrary and nonsensical negative mental blocks of my own forming and it’s taking a lot of resolve to dismantle them.

The first weekend in February I once again smashed my longest run, taking the distance to 17.1km/10.6 miles. With 5 weeks to go until Bath Half, this was hugely reassuring. Thank you to everyone at #ukrunchat that evening who confirmed that yes, that was indeed completely on track when I was having a wobble! The other bonus of that run was my pacing was almost spot on; a little slower than usual but that led to consistency with a couple of (actually very small) blips that I think correlate to where I paused to stretch my niggling calves.

But then came the dreaded lurgy. Classic February cold/flu/misery had been doing the rounds at the office and I finally succumbed in the second week of February. Coincidentally, also set up to be the toughest week I’ve had at this job yet. Life, oh life.  A week of feeling terrible both physically and mentally and not being able to run at all, so once again a month where my mileage is nowhere near as high as I had hoped. I’ve actually only run about 50km all month which is appalling. I’m frustrated but I know how dangerous for my emotional resilience it is to push myself too hard. A lot of rest, a lot of cups of tea and watching Netflix in leggings and ratty old jumpers, a lot of envying everyone talking about their running. I attempted a long slow run exactly one week after having run 17km. I made it through 3km with legs and a stomach feeling like lead, went home and was promptly sick. Another attempt at 5km in the week was cut short at around the 3km mark again with burning lungs. Super disheartening.

The following weekend I made it out for my long run with minimal confidence after almost 2 weeks off. I put myself through 16km, although with a few short walks thrown in there (at 3km, 10km, 14km). I’ve already written about how negative I felt after that run. I’m trying to be objective about it and be a lot kinder to myself. I was on course to be only about 2-3 minutes slower than my 17km run 2 weeks earlier. Considering that there was a good 5+ minutes of walking involved, I was just coming back from illness, I’d had some time off and it was horrendously windy out there, that’s not at all bad going. Pain and Panic are whispering that I’m making excuses but they can hush. I ran 16km when I wasn’t at my best, having expected to struggle to hit 10km, and I didn’t run them that badly. I didn’t run them anywhere near as well as I would have liked but you can’t always get what you want.

Given the setback of illness, I now won’t run the full half marathon distance until race day but I’ve now comfortably hit 15km+ on several occasions in the past 6 weeks without any real ill effect and I think I could probably have kept going. I think the adrenaline and atmosphere on the day will carry me through without too much fuss. It’s “less than a parkrun” (a well-established unit of distance!) to be added on my longest run and that’s not too terrifying. I’ve just hit the initial fundraising target I set when I signed up for Bath but as I’ve now planned an entire year of running for Mind, I’m hoping to absolutely smash that amount. Anyone feeling kind and inclined to donate, you can do so here and it means the world to me.

I went back to work and had a panicked couple of days trying to progress various matters before putting the out of office on and heading to Iceland.

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Iceland was like Narnia

This actually prompted the biggest meltdown of the month, a severe 2 hour panic attack the night before my holiday and the first serious one I’ve had in a while. I can’t explain the terror that I experience knowing that emails are flooding into my inbox and not being able to deal with them. Holidays are more stress than they’re worth really. Anyway, Iceland. The highlight of my month and you can read about it in a lot more detail here. After recently wondering where I’m going in life, I’ve realised that maybe this is where I’m supposed to be right now, booking holidays on a near-whim with one of my best friends. Now we are home and I am planning our trip to Japan next year.

This morning I turned my work phone back on to be greeted with over 300 emails. I was only out the office for 3 days…A moment of inner panic, a couple of whiny messages to people, a tube journey spent sifting through the noise. By the time I stepped into the office, I knew where I stood, a huge number of emails had been deleted, more had been filed and I could start prioritising the relatively few that required any level of attention. That’s real progress. Once that scenario would have resulted in so much panic that I wouldn’t have made it to the office.

I’d hoped to pick the running back up tonight but leaving at gone 7pm and having to be back in for 7.30am is making that seem unlikely. Law is all kinds of fun.

That’s February done. On we march to March. In 2 days, I will be 27. In 13 days, I will be running my first half marathon for Mind. Work is set to be very busy (when is it not?). I have two incredibly exciting projects relating to this blog that I’m hoping to announce soon, I’m just waiting for confirmation on some details. It’s going to be a big month.

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Parklife

[Written as part of Time to Talk Day, part of the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. As part of this, England Athletics have worked on #runandtalk, which seemed apt given the content of this blog. A friend from Southwark parkrun asked if I had anything suitable to share for the occasion. “No,” I said “But I’ll write something”]

One in four people will experience a mental health problem this year. Four in four people have mental health. Just like physical health, we all vary in how “well” we are and that wellness varies dependent on more factors than I can list. Sometimes you’re the picture of health. Sometimes you feel fine but problems are lurking, the mental equivalent of bad cholesterol. Sometimes you’re aware of a niggle, the emotional version of a bad knee or a slight cold. Once in a while, the devastating life changing illness or injury comes along. That’s exactly like a physical devastating life changing illness or injury except nobody can see it and nobody offers tests or scans that prove “You’re Sick”.

I’ve spent most of the past 10 years with a mixture of anxiety and depression, dancing back and forth over the line of niggly problems and devastating illness. Just as it improves physical fitness, running has done wonders for my mental health. We don’t wait to need a filling before we head to the dentist (not strictly true, I do); we shouldn’t wait for a problem before considering our mental health. So this post is for the four in four.

At 9am on a Saturday, in various parks, you will find hundreds of people running a 5km course. Across the country this number adds up to several tens of thousands. Welcome to parkrun. Your Saturday mornings just changed forever.

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The view from Lee on Solent parkrun

For the uninitiated, parkrun is a free, weekly, timed 5km run that happens at venues primarily in the UK but across the globe. All you need is a pair of trainers, to sign up on a website and print off a barcode that’s used to help determine your time. No further cost, no need for fancy gear. It’s a phenomenon and those of us who participate regularly can verge on evangelical about it. For the four in four, here are ways that parkrun has contributed to improving my mental health:

Exercise

The benefits of exercise to your mental health are well publicised, although nobody seems quite sure of the exact science behind it. When I first began running, I lost a little weight although I didn’t have much that I needed to lose. It improved my posture. It forced me to reassess my diet. I drank more water. I drank less alcohol and caffeine. I started sleeping better. My skin, hair and nails suddenly all looked healthier. It was the first step in completely overhauling my physical health and that has impacted on my mental health in an extreme way.

The key thing that exercise has granted me however, is confidence. As a 26 year old woman, I finally really like my body. That’s sadly, quite unusual. I’ve slimmed down and I eat whatever I like without (much) guilt. I have legs that are now strong enough to carry me for 10 miles at a reasonable speed and they’re about to make it to 13.1 miles. The best thing of all is seeing photos both during and after any run. My hair will be scraped back, I’ll be devoid of makeup, I’ll be exhausted, I’ll be decked head to toe in clashing neon. Despite all of that, I think some of these photos are the absolute best photos taken of me because it’s when you really see pure bright-eyed happiness in my face.

Sense of purpose

This came in two stages. First, the ability to run 5km. I could (just about) do this when I started attending parkrun but it was a bit of a struggle. Being able to run the full 5km without stopping was a massive achievement, as it is for a huge number of parkrunners. Parkrun is not just for “runners”, it’s for everyone. Sure, some people go sprinting round the course in an agonisingly fast time but there also plenty of people who walk/run it.

Once I could run that 5km, then came the relentless quest for PBs (personal bests). At the end of each parkrun, you receive a text with your timed result. Here begins a maddening relationship of trying to improve your PB. Every week you wait for that text; some weeks it disappoints you, some weeks it elates you. If it elates you, then you just try to beat it again the following week. It’s strangely futile because although you’re incredibly happy, you’re never quite happy enough. There’s always a new goal in mind, the next barrier to break through.

It’s interesting that no matter my lack of motivation or enthusiasm in other aspects of my life, the drive to be a better runner doesn’t fade. I don’t necessarily always back it up with the motivation to train enough to get there but the goal remains. Sometimes the only thing in my life I’m striving towards is a new PB. But that’s something at least. It’s a spark in the darkness.

 Community

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The start line at Southwark parkrun

Loneliness is a routine issue that’s brought up in connection with mental illness. It’s isolating. Loneliness extends well beyond that of course; to the old – as we all know from John Lewis’ Christmas advert in conjunction with Age UK, to parents who feel their life now revolves solely around their child, to young people surrounded by friends in the greatest cities on Earth. I never felt so lonely as when I moved to London. Strange, to feel alone with 8 million people around you.

The parkrun community is a) massive, b) wide ranging and c) welcoming. Constantly on the lookout for new participants, each parkrun begins with a new runner briefing where all new runners to that course have the concept and the route explained to them. No shame here in being the new kid. There is also no one demographic to parkrun. Children run it with their parents (and indeed it has proven so popular that there are number of junior parkruns springing up), parents run it pushing buggies with sleeping babies inside, the young and old alike run it. From people embarking on their first runs, to those who have run ultramarathons, they all flock to parkrun and that’s part of what makes it so great. Wherever you are in the pack, you’ll be cheered over the line. Fellow runners offer their support and advice. Eventually (and surprisingly quickly) you make friends. Recently, when some drama in my personal life made me nervous and reluctant to attend, it was that community who supported me and coaxed me back.

The community is such that no matter where I am in the country, I can turn up at the local parkrun and be welcomed readily as a parkrun “tourist”. I seem to pack my running shoes no matter where I am for the weekend and end up chatting to strangers about running and the other parkruns I’ve attended.

It’s also very easy to be involved through Twitter and Facebook. So many individual parkruns now engage through social media that there’s an extra layer of participation. Even outside the hour on Saturday mornings, the connection to the various parkruns I attend lingers on throughout the week because I continue talking to the people involved and the organisers. I see photos of friends and people I recognise, I see increasingly brilliant statistics about the number of participants and volunteers and PBs set that week. It’s a little like a club, that will have anyone as a member and that I’m incredibly proud to be part of.

Routine

There’s a lot to be said for routine, it brings some structure when perhaps the rest of your life feels like it’s crumbling away and being swallowed by a sinkhole. Personally, I am not a morning person and so really, parkrun is a fresh type of hell. Being somewhere by 9am? On a Saturday? Madness. Most weeks see me complaining about how early it is, especially on the weeks when I volunteer and I have to be there even earlier. As I pointed out in my most recent tweet on the subject, I actually get up earlier to volunteer at parkrun than I do for work. Arguably that’s because I have a dreamy commute but hush.

When ballerinas pirouette, they focus on a fixed point to fend off dizziness. That’s what parkrun has become to me, my fixed point and my anchor. No matter how bad work is going, no matter how much I’ve dreaded social commitments, no matter the other things falling apart, I know that 9am on a Saturday is there. The worst case scenario is that I have to get through 6 days until then. It’s amazing how much that can help, knowing there’s a glimmer of positivity on the horizon.

What’s more is that there is so much Saturday left afterwards. Did you know Saturday existed before midday? I didn’t. A day that was often previously lost to feeling sorry for myself is now wide open because I’m awake and I’ve conquered the hard part of getting out of bed and then out of the house.

Volunteering

It’s easy to feel like a burden when you struggle with mental health. People tiptoe around you. You screw up a lot. It gets tiring. You offer very little back to anyone in return. I know in my heart that I’m one of the most loving, supportive people available to the people I truly adore, I really am. It doesn’t stop me feeling like a leech every time I ask for help.

Parkrun is organised by volunteers, that’s one of the ways that it remains free. Every week, people drag themselves out of their warm beds to shiver on part of the course wearing hi-vis. Hi-vis is cool. Thank the volunteers when you run past them because they have no chance of a PB that week and a tiny bit of them is dying inside. Also they’re wearing hi-vis and it looks really stupid.

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Hi-vis is cool; I look exceptionally glamorous in it & I will not be told otherwise.

Without the volunteers, parkrun couldn’t happen and all things considered, it really is a staggering effort that is put in by people up and down the country to put on these events every single week, come rain or shine.

The idea is that for every five or so parkruns you participate in, you volunteer for one, giving back to the community that you’re now part of. There’s a wide range of roles available, from marshalling, to handing out finish tokens, to acting as a tail runner making sure there’s no man left behind. I do genuinely believe I get as much, if not more enjoyment out of volunteering as I do running. I have made friends through it but most importantly for me, I get a sense of self-worth. I know that parkrun needs my efforts to exist and seeing the huge amount of enjoyment it provides to literally hundreds of people running past me results in so much satisfaction.

After a long week of feeling useless, I can stand about on a drizzly Saturday morning and know that in that moment, I’m doing something on behalf of 300 other people. That has to make you feel a little better about yourself.

I’m sure there are more ways that parkrun has helped me feel “normal” again but I could lovingly ramble on forever. I encourage anyone, from any walk of life to attend your local parkrun which you can find here. I’ve never come across anything so welcoming and that provides so much benefit to so many people. Anyone in south/central London who would like to attend but is nervous about trying something new, give me a shout and I’m more than happy to come along with you some Saturday morning, I’m a very friendly creature and not all that fast so I’m the ideal running mate for newbies.

With thanks to all the parkruns who have hosted me, but mostly to Lee on the Solent, Wimbledon and finally Southwark, for providing inspiration. The nicest bunch of people you’d ever want to meet.

Links:

Time To Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

Mind: http://www.mind.org.uk/

Rethink Mental Illness: https://www.rethink.org/

Parkrun: http://www.parkrun.org.uk/

Southwark Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter

Wimbledon Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter

Lee on the Solent Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter

 

All these things that I’ve done

[Written as part of Time to Talk Day, part of the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness]

Post #2 that I wish I didn’t have to write. Everything written so far has been leading up to it. This illness is ugly. It has led me to say terrible things that I never meant and do things that I’ve regretted every day since. I have left jobs, lost friends and destroyed people I love. My anxiety is not an excuse but it is part of an explanation. One of my best friends asked why I was doing this to myself, dragging up the past and putting myself through it all over again. Whilst every fibre of me hates writing this post, it’s important that people recognise the extent of the effect this illness has had on me, just how far I’ve fallen and how much I have lost (almost) entirely at my own hands.

And so, my absolute lowest moments, in chronological order. On a personal level, there were probably worse days than these but these were the destructive days where I broke hearts and lives. To all the players in these tales, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

ONE

It’s summer 2007 and I’m in the middle of my A Levels. The night before a Classics exam, I get too drunk. I know I’m underprepared for the exam and so I’m creating an alternative excuse for everything going wrong. I come home and then leave again in the middle of the night determined to walk a friend home in the pouring rain.

My parents, realising that I’ve left, drive after me and pick me up soaked to the skin, seething at how drunk I am and how stupid I’m being, an exam that will shape my future only hours away. They have never been so angry. There is shouting and swearing and I, in a drunken panicked state become increasingly hysterical and scared about what I have done. In my hysteria, I convince myself that I cannot possibly stay at home. I phone a friend and beg him to pick me up at a ridiculous hour to drive the 20 miles to sixth form.

I wake at 5am, still drunk and sneak downstairs, packed bags in hand. She is leaving home, as The Beatles sang. My mother hears and follows; cue more fighting, more tears and desperate shrieks. I run out of the house and along the road as fast as I can go before darting down a cul-de-sac, sure she is following. She is, I see our car drive past minutes later. I hide in an alcove in a hedge and call my getaway driver.

I phone another friend once I arrive at sixth form, still panicking, but when she passes me over to her mother, I immediately hang up. Adults are the enemy. I receive a barrage of texts from my parents all day, threatening and pleading, desperate for me to take the exam and come home. It is my mother’s 50th birthday. It will be 3 days yet before I go home. This is my first serious episode.

I fail that exam. I don’t completely flunk my A Levels but I don’t do as well as originally expected. I miss my grades for university spectacularly; they let me in anyway. A new chapter of my life starts but it’s not adulthood, it’s vague awareness that something is wrong.

TWO

By summer 2012 I somehow have a law degree, a job as a paralegal, a long term boyfriend and we share a pretty little flat near the sea. We are almost 3 years into this relationship and on paper, our lives are everything we could ask for at 23. Paper and reality differ.

It’s late May and we are fighting. I don’t remember what first started it now. I doubt I remembered by the time we reached this point in the fight. I am hysterical and irrational, struggling for breath, running from room to room in our tiny flat. My boyfriend can’t calm or reason with me. This is by now beyond the realms of an argument. I am a hurricane, a girl possessed and there is nothing to be done but let me rage and wail until I’m so exhausted that I can’t continue. We’ve been here before. We’ve been here too many times before and I am losing him. Usually, I wear myself out and fall into a deep dreamless sleep until the following morning. Today is different though; the rage and confusion and terror are all stronger than they have ever been and I’m showing no signs of burning out.

Eventually, hours in, I collapse in the dark of our hallway, a desolate little figure huddled among coats and shoes. I have stormed out of the flat half a dozen times, returning within minutes, afraid of everything, desperate for my boyfriend to find a way to make this stop. He can’t, he doesn’t even know where to begin. He’s a 23 year old man, living alone with a seriously ill 23 year old girl who can’t provide a single reason as to why she’s in this awful state. How do you begin to fix her? We are both too young for how much pressure I am placing on us.

I sit on the floor of the hallway, still crying, still unable to breathe. I’m slouched against our front door, sapped of energy, knees drawn up to my chest, rocking and muttering like a madwoman. He stands in the doorway to the living room, equally exhausted, and asks what I’m doing. I learn in that moment that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Through the tears, I mumble in sheer desperation that I’m praying and resume muttering a plea to make it all stop. I am not religious but in that moment I truly believe that the only way I can be delivered out of the darkness is by way of a higher power. All other hope is gone.

He can’t make it stop and as expected, there’s no spiritual intervention that saves me. I don’t get better. We don’t know where to start in stopping any of this. We struggle through another unhappy year together. We break up in terrible acrimonious circumstances that end with us despising each other. We both behave badly. The man who was my best friend, who called me his little bear, who bought me what remains my favourite piece of jewellery, who wrote about Christmas in our first home together believing there was a future, is gone.

THREE

I move back home. I quit my job. I slowly start to improve. I move to London. I meet a boy. I have learnt from past experience and on our third date with the man who would become my boyfriend, I tell him absolutely everything. He tells me all his deepest darkest secrets that nobody else knows. A month in, I tell him not to get any more involved with me because I’m too much of a mess and I will end up breaking his heart. He tells me that I’m a beautiful mess and we’ll get through it together. I start falling in love with him in that moment; how can I not? Time passes. It is spring 2015 and we have been together for eight months.

I am better than I was three years ago. I recognise that there’s a problem. I know roughly what is needed to control it. I have a lot of happy days and I’m in love. I have been on an NHS waiting list for therapy for four months and I am two months away from being eligible for private medical insurance at work. I have contacted over 30 therapists in south London and the City, trying to find someone I can afford and with availability but it turns out that all of London needs therapy and my options are limited. We both prefer me off medication and I’m not convinced it helps but I keep experimenting, hoping to find something that will calm me for long enough that I can fix things. I need therapy and I can’t get it and I am despairing. My boyfriend is despairing of me.

We wake up in my flat one Sunday morning, both hungover. We have been at an engagement party the night before for his friend where he had spent the night ignoring me, I had felt alone and once again decided that gin is a coping mechanism. Hungover and sad, I ask him to leave then immediately know this isn’t what I mean to say. We fight, he storms out, I cry, ask him to stay, repeat repeat repeat. He says and does a lot in the space of an hour in that flat that means we are doomed and I can never forgive him. It wouldn’t matter if I could because his cards are then marked and certain of my friends are baying for blood. They still are.

I hate him and don’t want to see him but still I beg him to stay, I cannot be alone. If I’m left alone, I know I will die that afternoon. My brain is not controlling my actions anymore, my little demons of Pain and Panic are acting as puppet masters and I’m watching this all unfold as an out-of-body experience. Bad things are going to happen and I’m going to be helpless to stop them. I ask him to take me to hospital, this has all become too much and now I am afraid of everything and everyone. As soon as I say this, I’m immediately too scared to go to hospital and beg him not to make me go. He hates how indecisive I am when I get like this but he reluctantly stays with me until I calm down and give in to the exhaustion.

We keep trying to make it work and we manage a few more great months together which include some of the best days of my life but are interspersed with more bad moments, although never to the same extent. That awful day in the spring remains in his mind and he can’t quite forgive me for it (although I try my hardest to forgive him for his part in it all); it lingers over everything. We break up and manage two days without speaking to each other before being tearfully reunited. He clings to me that whole night, so glad to have me back and we promise each other we’ll be okay and find a way through this.

A week later, I have one final awful slow-burning panic attack and in having it, I break his heart. We break up. It breaks me. Another week later, I finally start that desperately wanted therapy but it’s too late to help us. I’m that beautiful mess and I get through it completely alone. We muddle through trying to find a way to some sort of friendship for a few months. It’s too hard for either of us and he cuts all contact. It takes that before he manages to break my heart. In the months following, he behaves abysmally on a sporadic basis and I desperately try to cling on to the new-found semblance of stability I have found because I can’t risk being dragged back under.

Fin. A decade of pain and regret. I’m not unique in that, we’ve all made regrettable decisions that have shaped our lives. It’s just that all of mine have the same root cause and I’ve felt powerless throughout. These don’t feel like choices or decisions I made, they feel like tsunamis. I’m too harsh on myself, after years of ruminating on the same disasters. Please know that the other players in these stories are not heroes and I am not the villain – although I’ve perhaps written them that way. I’m my biggest critic but nothing is black and white, we’re all terrible and murky. They did and said terrible, awful, hateful things themselves.

#1 is the story of youthful indiscretion and an only child who always felt too much pressure on her.

#2 is the tale of an incredibly insecure and confused girl who wanted love to be enough to save her. That boyfriend was, at one point, the best man I knew and I believe my mental health in the latter half of our relationship forced him to become a man I didn’t recognise. I hope the years apart from me have restored him. There was so much pain that I can’t remember loving him, yet I think he has a permanent piece of my medium-sized heart. It all remains steeped in hurt and regret. I fear it always will.

#3 isn’t a story about me. It’s about a man with issues of his own, partly projecting them on to me and how the combination of the two of us together amplified my problems to levels they shouldn’t have reached. I will always love him but ultimately he wasn’t happy enough in himself to be loved. Regardless of my mental state, there would have always been another problem he kept in reserve, ready to force on me and unfortunately, I don’t have the resilience to withstand that. I wish I did. I am sad that it happened but I don’t regret my actions in the way I do those first two anecdotes.

None of them the fault of mental illness alone, it has acted as a catalyst on all of them and without it, I suspect there was a very different path to be taken at the end of each these little tales of woe. My life has been subject to anxiety’s choices and I have hated writing this more than I can ever explain.