At the start of the year, I wrote a blog post titled ‘Stepping Stones’, where I set out the three goals that I aim to achieve this year to help me function better on a day-to-day basis (following the loss of my little boy, Ned, in 2016).
My three goals are:
- To write for children again; to be the children’s author I’ve always wanted to be.
- To exercise.
- To no longer have the people in my life who have caused/continue to cause me immense emotional suffering.
These may seem like small, trivial goals for some, but for me they are enormous and will mean a mountainous battle to achieve them.
I’ve decided to write about each goal individually to try to show how each one will impact on my life. I’m going to start with my second goal – exercise – as emotionally, it’s the easiest one for me to write about.
I’m not a person who dislikes exercise, I never have been. As a young child I played mostly outside – skipping, bat and ball, on my roller boots or skateboard, in the park. I loved PE at school and was proud to be in the netball team throughout my time in Secondary School. I represented the school with the javelin at county level athletics. I enjoyed sports.
I was bullied about my weight as a teenager but when I was lost in a netball match, or throwing my javelin, I could forget the cruel taunts and name-calling.
When I went to University, I immediately joined the netball society with enthusiastic intent … but never made it to the first meet-up. University became a wonderful three years of hard work and hard partying. The occasional aerobics class or quick swim were the only forms of exercise my body had … other than a daily walk to lectures and the nightly lifting of pint glasses.
I graduated and became a Primary School teacher. I got married. I had children. As the years passed, I became the person that says, ‘I haven’t got time to exercise.’ Overworked. Overtired. Overweight.
After returning to work at the end of my first maternity leave, the dark claws of depression began to take a grip on me (I was unaware at the time that I was ill). I won’t go into detail here but I sunk deeper and deeper into the hell that is depression and the anxiety I had lived with as a child and teenager wrapped itself around me like a creeping vine, squeezing ever tighter.
I reached December 2014 – blessed with three beautiful sons – but being eaten alive by depression and anxiety. I wanted to end my life and a particularly frightening incident, which is too painful for me to write about, made me muster up every last bit of strength I had, and walk through my GP’s door.
‘You’re ill,’ she said whilst holding my hand. ‘You have depression. It isn’t you. It’s an illness. A very real illness. But you can get better and I’m going to be here with you every step of the way.’
I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll never forget her words for as long as I live. For years I had thought it was ‘just me’. I was being told to ‘snap out of it’, that ‘everyone gets miserable sometimes’, that I ‘had nothing to be depressed about.’
With the support of my GP, I slowly started to feel stronger and more like myself. A very close friend finally persuaded me to join a local running group, towards the summer of 2015 (she had been trying her best for a long time to convince me that I would enjoy running). I read about the benefits of running on mental health, but I was very sceptical. Running … really? Other than the obligatory running with school, I had never chosen to run as a hobby and couldn’t see myself as a runner.
I almost did a u-turn in the car park when I went to my first session and saw a group of women dressed in ‘proper’ running gear, chatting happily. I was in an old baggy t-shirt and leggings. Somehow, I fought the panic attack, got out of the car and shuffled to the periphery of the group.
I stuck with the running group but found it incredibly difficult. I have social anxiety so being amongst a group of chatty women felt extremely uncomfortable.
I had to stop attending the running group when I had a hysterectomy in December, 2015. My operation was a complicated one and I was told that my recovery would be slow. It was likely to be about nine months before I would have the strength to start any physical activity again.
But three months after my hysterectomy, my whole world came crashing down. My little boy, Ned, died.
I’m not going to write about that time here as I have already written blog posts about that day and my continuing journey with grief.
I’m going to fast-forward to January, 2018, when I set myself my three goals. With the constant support and encouragement from my truly wonderful psychologist, I had started to feel that maybe I could have some kind of future. Maybe.
She was very encouraging about me taking up running again, but once more, I had the running … really? attitude. Despite this, I have complete faith and trust in her, and having reached a point where I had to try to do something to be able to function better for my sons, I agreed to give it a go.
I had become increasingly isolated. My anxiety was making it almost impossible for me to leave the house. I was spending much of my time curled up crying under my duvet. I wasn’t living, I was simply existing.
I didn’t re-join the running group. I really couldn’t face it, so I started going out for a run by myself whilst the boys were in school. My aim was to go out for a run three times a week.
And so my running journey began.
It hasn’t been easy. Very far from it. I’ve been in tears on many days as I tie the laces of my trainers, wanting to just crawl back under the duvet. But I have forced myself out through the front door and off for a run.
I started at two miles, with a two minute recovery break after a mile. This was my limit for several weeks and I honestly didn’t believe that I would ever be able to run any further. Running is hard work. It challenges your body and mind. You swallow flies. It hurts.
Not really selling it am I?
Stay with me…
I persevered and I began to run a little bit further. Week by week, I have steadily increased my distance. And dare I say it, I actually look forward to my run.
I’ve now been running three times a week for five months. I had set myself a target of being able to run 10k (6.2 miles) by the end of the year. Mission impossible it felt like, but I ran that distance for the first time in my life about a month ago.
With my hand on my heart, I can say that running has changed something in me. I’m not going to talk about the physical benefits of running, but the benefits of running to my own personal battle with mental illness and grief. This is how running has impacted on my life:
- When I run, my mind empties. The constant thoughts, images and flashbacks that haunt and overwhelm me, vanish. I don’t think about anything at all.
- When I run, I don’t think about tomorrow. I don’t think about yesterday. It puts me in the moment; the right-this-very-second moment.
- I’m outside breathing in fresh air… sometimes in the sunshine, sometimes in the rain. I’m lucky to be surrounded by stunning countryside where I live.
- It has given me determination. I became determined to run 10k and I have.
- It relaxes me. My anxiety doesn’t feel as gripping. My panic attacks are less frequent.
- On the days when I’ve been out for a run, I sleep better at night.
- It has become a safe coping mechanism for when I become overwhelmed with pain and emotion at losing Ned.
- It’s something I chat about with my eldest son, who loves running. He gives me his running tips e.g. what to do when I get a stitch, how best to run uphill/downhill. He loves being my ‘personal trainer’. He’s a true inspiration.
- My concentration level has improved dramatically.
- I talk to sheep, cows and horses – I’m not sure if this can be classed as a benefit, but it makes me smile!
So, running … really?
Running has had a massive positive impact on my life. No, it isn’t a miracle cure. I still have days when I’m under the duvet, but these days are far less frequent. It isn’t a cure for grief because grief isn’t an illness. But by easing the symptoms of my mental illness, I have more space to grieve for my little boy.
I have no interest at present in entering running events and I can’t think of joining a running group. Running is something I’m doing alone. It’s my own personal challenge. This is how I like it.
I have promised Tomi (my personal trainer) that I’ll run one race – the Aberystwyth 10k this December. I know that I can run this distance (very slowly!) The challenge for me will be to put myself in that social environment at the start of the race – to stand amongst others at the start line. I feel the panic rising just thinking about it. I will need to find a tremendous amount of courage to do this. But running has proven to me that I can be determined and that I can face a challenge. And I want to make my boys proud of me.
That leaves only one last challenge, and it’s the biggest challenge of all for me – to be proud of myself. To feel proud of myself for having the determination to force myself out of the house for a run. To feel proud of myself for reaching my target of being able to run 10k. And hopefully to feel proud of myself for running that race at the end of this year.
With such low self-esteem and confidence, I’m not there yet, but I’ll keep on running until I can say, ‘Yes, I’m proud of myself.’ (Forrest Gump now springs to mind!)