Part 11 - Running To Stand Still
I have a confession to make. I’ve been telling a lie for years. Not an intentional lie, or a great big whopping lie – just a wee white one. But a lie is a lie all the same, and now it’s time to come clean.
So what’s this fascinating fib all about then? Well, when people ask me what I like to do in my spare time, I tell them that I like to write. As well as writing my Black Dog Blog, I’ve also been writing life experience short stories and articles on and off for several years now. Some even got published in newspapers and magazines from time to time, and some didn’t. But that didn’t matter to me - I just loved to write them regardless.
Strictly speaking, however, that last paragraph isn’t completely true. I mean, apart from signing a credit card slip, filling in an application form or writing a birthday card from time to time, the last time I remember actually putting pen to paper in a creative manner was when I had to write an account of a school trip to a zoo when I was twelve.
If the truth be told, I’m a terrible writer. When I do put pen to paper, even I need an Enigma machine to decipher my own handwriting. It’s something I’ve had to deal with all my life - like when I wrote about that school trip to the zoo when I was twelve. When I had finished scrawling on my jotter, my teacher picked it up from my desk, held it at arms length, and gazed at it over the rim of her glasses. She looked confused and intrigued as she stared harder and harder – and from many angles - at my precious, carefully-chosen words. She drew my jotter closer to her eyes and then backwards and forwards as she tried to figure it all out.
Finally, she smiled. Her face lit up with a look of recognition and understanding, even empathy. But much to my disappointment, my hopes of getting a gold star for elegant handwriting were dashed when she then pointed out that she had in fact asked me to write about the trip to the zoo, and not to draw it.
And so, if I were to be completely honest, whenever anyone asks me what I like to do in my spare time, I should really tell them that I like to type. But have you ever met a freelance typist? Have you ever heard of a course in creative typing? Have you ever seen an email that starts off “I am typing to you because…”? I certainly haven’t, so like many fellow producers of words, I have adopted the pseudo hobbyist title of ‘writer’.
Sometimes I get on a roll when I type, my mind is buzzing and I am on a high. I feel like I am in the zone. The thoughts and ideas flow freely off the ends of my fingers and tap their way straight onto my laptop screen. I can then manually mould them, passionately play with them and rigorously re-order them before I am happy with the energy of the end result. That is the part of typing I love. That is when it truly feels like a passion.
But sometimes, I hit a brick wall. The words just stop flowing and dry up. I can be stuck at the wall for hours, days, even weeks waiting for the words to flow freely again.
Sometimes the words are there, but I just feel too tired to type; all too often, I become a downright lazy procrastinator. Having spent much of my working day with my nose stuck in my work laptop, the last thing I often feel like doing is giving the same body part a close encounter with my personal laptop at home. And with the kids finally in bed by eight o’clock on a good night, all I often want to do is just chill out on the couch - and hopefully not nod off by nine.
Sometimes I wonder – how can this typing lark possibly be my passion if I don’t find myself leaping eagerly for my laptop at each and every opportunity? I used to get quite depressed at the thought of this. Especially at how much time I’d waste lazily procrastinating – putting off, and thinking about not typing, as opposed to just typing. At one stage, during one of the worst and longest black dog-dominated periods in my life, I was utterly aghast, I felt devoid of any form of passion, and I was so angry at myself when I realised I hadn’t typed a single word of personal prose in over two years.
It took the best part of four decades for me to realise that I used to be so hard on myself, and to understand the impact that it was having on me. And because I’ve now seen the dark places where being too hard on oneself can take you, I’ve simply stopped being so. There really is only so much you can squeeze into a 24-hour day, after all. Kids, careers and mental catastrophes also tend to consume much more of that time than one can care to anticipate. Even when I am in the zone, at times it feels like five minutes of passion a week is all there is time for anyway.
And who’s to say that you can’t have a passion even if you just feel and feed the passion for a few hours a week or even a month? Surely that’s better than never. I now type more or less when I am in the mood - and as a result, I am in the mood more often. Nowadays I am proud to say – my name is Mark, and I am a passionately lazy procrastinating typist.
When people ask what I like to do in my spare time, I also tell them that I love to run. But even that is a lie. Again, if the truth be told, I don’t mind running. I do love the feeling of having run. I also love the fact that I run. But I simply cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I love the act of running.
And again, if I am to be completely honest, I also love to run because it will allow me to fulfil my other dream of still being able to see my toes over my belly when I’m sixty. Though one of the benefits of my size thirteen feet is that I won’t have to run as far as others in order to fulfil this particular dream.
Sometimes, just like with typing, going for a run is also the very last thing I feel like doing. But I usually force myself to go anyway, because I know how I’ll feel afterwards – I‘ll have a clear head, I’ll feel refreshed and uplifted, the happy endorphins will be racing around my body, and I’ll be able to justify a family-sized pizza for dinner rather than just a large. Furthermore, I often get my best ideas for writing when I am out for a run and my head is clear – the ideas can just come to me, though hopefully not too many or I forget half of them. I am only human, however, and there are occasions where I should, but plain and simply can’t be arsed going for a run - and don’t.
In the black dog days of the past, I’d often come home from work so utterly anxious and depressed about work, or money, or whatever my what-if worry of the day was, that it would feel like nothing could lift my mood, my negative thoughts of impending doom and gloom. But all it would take, without fail, was half an hour or so of the simple act putting one foot in front of the other at higher speed than normal walking and breaking into a sweat. I’d gradually start to feel better about ten minutes into a run. I’d then find that the distraction of the ensuing discomfort would take my mind off my black dogs, and all I’d want to do was be finished.
The feeling I’d get when I arrived home at the end of my run and could put an end to my mild physical discomfort was nothing short of sheer relief. It was similar to the relief I’d feel when I would sometimes have instantaneously brief flashes of realisation - completely out of the blue - that my worries were never going to transpire. In fact they were one and the same senses of relief, because right there and then, at the end of each run, my worries would also vanish – albeit briefly.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I also used to get a more elongated (albeit still brief!) window of freedom from my black dogs on most but not all days. It was during these windows that my mind would temporarily stand still. I wouldn’t be blocking out all the things I had been worrying about. Quite the opposite – I was always well aware of them, but I could ponder over my thoughts without the irrational worrying, without my mind racing. It was like I was able to hold my worries in my hand one at a time, look at them, prod them, and say to myself – is this all I was worried about?
I realised during these periods of stillness of my mind that all the worst case what-if scenarios I had been worrying about were also highly unlikely to ever happen; even if they did, the outcome would never be as bad as I had been imagining.
My black dogs would have no hold over me for a short while. But I also knew I’d be sucked back into Movie World after an hour, maybe more, maybe less. The return to Movie World would happen slowly – one minute, I wouldn’t have a worry in the world, I’d just be relieved to realise that everything was going to be alright. Then I would start to worry about worrying again! I’d know that the wave of worry and anxiety was on the horizon, rolling forwards in my direction. And then, some of those worries I had just been holding harmlessly in my hand would turn into black dogs who had just woken from their restful slumber. Fully recharged, they would start growling again. Welcome back to Movie World!
But at least I knew that running gave me back some level of control over when I’d get that window of stillness and freedom. Running would also influence how long the stillness would last, and how intense the feeling of relief would be throughout. The harder I pushed myself during my runs, the more discomfort I felt when pounding the pavements, the better and more free I’d feel afterwards, and the longer I’d feel that way for.
There is one way I can think of to best sum up the impact of running on my state of mental health – and I hope Bono doesn’t try to sue me for borrowing one of his lines here. Going for a run would make all the difference between me enjoying an hour or at best an evening of sheer relief on the couch, or of me enduring an evening of torturing myself on the couch, wanting to cry without weeping, wanting to talk without speaking, wanting to scream without raising my voice. As tongue in cheek as that may sound, it also rang oh so true, oh so often.
I can’t say for sure what state of mind I’d be in today, whether I’d still be rid of my black dogs, whether I’d have even managed to keep pushing through the darkest days, if I hadn’t been able to give myself a regular break from the black dogs. But I can say for sure that the mental benefits of running were a huge help to me when my black dogs began to have an increasingly vice-like grip over my life, as I slowly approached frog-boiling point.
Now that I have beaten my black dogs into submission once and for all, I still like to run regularly. I still don’t love running, but I still love that I run, I still experience a great mental boost at the end of each run. The difference is that running used to be my medication; nowadays, it is my top-up. I did start to wonder whether the practically uninterrupted positive state of mind that I’ve had for nearly two years now was purely down to taking medication. Well, on the odd occasion when I’ve been unable to run for several days for whatever reason, I have actually been quite relieved to notice my mood dip slightly – though never even remotely close to the lows I used to experience. I like to think this is a sign that the continued discomfort I willingly endure when I go running does therefore contribute to my ongoing overall positive state of mind. In other words, the way I feel today it is at least partially Mark-made.
In closing on the topic of running, the point of this post is not to encourage anyone who may read these words to just get out running on the streets. No, the point of this post is to try to highlight the benefits that finding a way – any way - to give yourself a break from the black dogs can have. Taking back some level of control over when and how that window of relief takes place may not be a cure, but it certainly has its benefits.
Of course, as well as not being a medical professional, I am also not a fitness professional. So if you do decide that you want to take back some control through exercise, whether it be running, walking, swimming, or even just doing the garden, whatever it is that toots your horn, it would be a wise move to seek professional advice first. Just like medication, after all, overdoing on exercise, or doing exercise wrongly, also has its pitfalls. I used to run early in the morning, for example. I’d get up at 5am so I could get out for a run and back before the kids would wake up at 6am. But I’d hinge my entire state of mind for the next day on getting up for that run. Knowing I had to get up at the crack of dawn meant I’d often have a terrible sleep the night before. When I explained all this to my doctor, she pointed out the utmost importance of getting as much sleep as possible when dealing with a mental condition, even if it is poor sleep. And so I started to run instead in the evenings and continue to do so to this day.
And in closing on the topic of lying, I’ve spoken to many people who have expressed concern about starting to take medication to tackle their black dogs. They think they might lose control over their thoughts and senses, and indeed I have heard stories of some medications having that very effect on some people – yet the same medications working miracles for others. In finding the right medication, with the right level of exercise for myself, I’ve found quite the opposite regarding control over my thoughts. I can confidently say that it was before I tackled my black dogs, when I wasn’t taking medication, that I was not in control of my thoughts. I wasn’t being true to myself, I was lying to myself even, kidding myself that I could put up with all the anguish, that it was an acceptable way to live.
Perhaps lying isn’t the best word to describe what I’ve been talking about here. Perhaps the term “being economical with the truth” is more appropriate. Either way, if we can’t be untightfistedly and uneconomically truthful first and foremost with ourselves, who can we be so with, and what is the ultimate impact?
I can hardly believe it has been over two months since I posted Part Ten of my story. Fortunately, this long delay was not all down to my propensity to being a passionately lazy procrastinating typist, and I am now aiming to get back on the track of putting up a new post every 3-4 weeks. The reason for the delay between Parts Ten and Eleven is that I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the past several weeks working more on raising awareness of my story, with, I am pleased to say, a degree of success. Some reading this may already know that my blog was recently tweeted about by one of the Titans of Twitter, none other than Stephen Fry, to his 4.2 million Twitterati followers. Some may even be reading this because of said tweet. You can see Mr Fry's tweet by clicking here
I was also recently interviewed on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio, as well as having my story mentioned in another Australian newspaper article. As I write this, there are also a few more potential newspaper mentions on the horizon, both within and outside of Australia.
But as I’ve said on Twitter, Facebook (and on the radio!) while all this publicity is all well and good, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it, I am also constantly reminding myself why I am doing all this. Two years ago, when I found myself cowering away in my darkest cave, with the black dogs growling at the entrance, I made a vow to myself. I vowed that if I should ever get out of there, I would write openly, candidly and honestly about my experiences to make as many people as possible feel not ashamed of their depression or anxiety. I also vowed to encourage people to take action to beat their black dogs - and to not be ashamed of whatever action it takes to beat them. In doing so, I also hope to give hope to sufferers of mental conditions that they can go on to enjoy life to the full - in the very same way as I now feel free to do.
What I am trying to say is – although my story is about me, I realise it’s not all about me. Should that ever appear to change, you have my permission to let me know. Please do in fact!
I also realise of course that the fight against the black dogs is a long, pothole-riddled, twisty, dark road, one where at times you can’t even see the light at the end of it. You just have to trust that the light is there because it is so incredibly worth it when you get there. Several people have left comments or tweeted to me saying how they do not feel at all brave while walking (or even running!) along this road. And so, I’d like to close with a very important distinction that I mentioned in Part Two, one I feel so strongly about that I recently posted it on Twitter and on my Dancing With The Black Dog Facebook page, and it is this:
Taking bold action in the absence of fear isn't bravery, that's fearlessness. Taking bold action, pressing onwards in the face of fear - that's bravery.
Thank you for reading, and for your continued support and comments. Stay brave!