My running evolved very quickly from a necessary evil to welcome therapy in a very short space of time. I discovered a relationship with running like a client might have with their therapist, an empathetic listener that doesn't judge or pass comment.
The last 12 months have been tough personally for a number of reasons, and whilst I'd like to be virtuous and say "running has been the only thing that's kept me a sane and levelled human being" I'd be a big fat liar if I did. No, like a lot of people who suffer from depression, my immediate response has been to withdraw and cease the one thing that would perhaps have kept me mentally ticking over when the going got tough. Once I'd completed the half marathon, with no discernible target in sight and with nothing else to focus on except the more immediate problems in my path, I temporarily hung up my trainers, albeit by accident.
Whilst I don't use the term "depression" in any clinical sense, neither do I wish to make light of what can be a very serious condition. That said however, I do believe I am prone to bouts and have been at certain points in my life so far (whilst remaining undiagnosed) suffered periods of anxiety and despair. I do used the term cautiously as I have some personal experience of depression by proxy - my mother, now a counsellor, suffered for many years before seeking help and embracing the condition to use it occupationally herself - and I suppose, not wishing to come across too deterministic, there is statistically a damn good chance I have suffered from depression, even if not formally diagnosed.
For instance, I suspect I suffered from post-natal depression, though I challenge anyone to act normal on scraps of fettered sleep.
Periods of depression for me, are times when I feel out of control, almost claustrophobic in my own skin and as if some enormous entity has taken residence on my chest. It has occasionally in the past materialised in panic attacks, but more commonly I become quite despondent, withdrawn and emotional. I need long term, totally unrelated goals to focus hard on to keep my head above the proverbial water when things get me down. And so to running, which has provided both the goals and the escapism to deal with the all-consuming negative states of mind... that and the cocktail of mood enhancing chemicals that are widely recognised as the by-product of strenuous exercise.
The primary benefit for me is the escapism though; a good hour or two, or somewhere in between, with only my brain and my legs for company. Now you might think that having all that time to indulge yourself with thoughts when in such an inimical frame of mind might not be the most constructive move, however I find it quite the opposite. I need to focus on willing my legs to move forward for a start. At the beginning of a run they don't just "go", as much as I would like them to; I need to focus on my pace, rhythm and breathing and once this is in flow, I need to keep myself going, setting mini goals and rewards to get me through the next mile. For example: "I'll run at this pace to the next lamp-post, then I'll slow down" or "When I get to the brow of this hill, I'll walk for a bit" but of course when you do get to the brow of the hill, what a feeling that "I actually ran up that hill!" and so the next half a mile of flat terrain is a doddle in comparison, and you keep on going. This continuous cycle of goal setting and mini achievement reaching during a run, for me, is all good brain training for overcoming the seemingly insurmountable during periods of ennui, and the approach is contagious. I find myself positively solutionising problems, or systematically planning when I get to the point in my runs when I no longer need to coax my legs into action and my thoughts are my own.
I resolve that running brings about an unparalleled clarity of mind for me, even if it's just for the duration of the run. It's like pressing the system reset button, so even if things do slide I'm starting from a better position than I might otherwise. I also realise I may have become a little dependant on running for providing the necessary diversion from my everyday problems, which in itself is causing an ironical impasse; abstinence from running might actually be the cause of my depression (the wise words of my husband pointing to this twist of fate when he recently said "you're an arse to live with when you don't run") and the goals are getting progressively tougher - I'm training for a marathon - need I say more.
Hills are less steep when you're climbing them, even less so when you've conquered them.