Running through the blues
I hear a lot of people say they use running as a positive way of dealing with emotions. Run when you’re feeling angry, stressed, tired. Whatever the emotion, if you run through it, apparently you will feel better.
I tend to hear this view from people who have traded an unhealthy coping mechanism for a healthy one. Some of you may not know, but in a former life, I was a “Weight Watcher.”
A brief glance at any blog of a fellow Weight Watcher who has taken up running will tell you that running is the answer. “It was a rough day, I thought about the pack of Tim Tams but no, I went for a run instead and now I feel great. Life is good.” This story is told over and over again. You can substitute a different emotion and a different food but the common theme is running. Running is the answer, the healthy answer.
As a former addict of many vices, I too have shouted praise for running during times of despair. When I started training for my first half marathon, I was so deep in the bottle that most of my training went like this – get home from work, drink till I pass out on the couch, wake up full of sugar and adrenalin – run. Keep running until tired or sick or both. Repeat.
As I got fitter and started to embrace running as a lifestyle, I no longer wanted to drown my sorrows in that sweet sweet whisky.
I have also managed to keep my bipolar stable for the last three years using exercise to imitate the effect medication previously had on my brain chemistry.
So yes, running is great.
But what happens when you have a propensity for addiction and you simply trade one coping behavior for another, albeit healthier, behavior? Is this all kosher or are there any harmful side effects?
I know personally, I am now addicted to running. Sometimes there is absolutely no joy in the task. It’s simply something that must be done, a compulsion I have no control over. If it’s not done, something bad will happen. The day will be awful and it will be my fault because I didn’t run.
I can state the obvious and note that this behavior has been harmful to me in the past in that I have trained through minor injuries because of this compulsion and turned them into major injuries. This side effect doesn’t take too much analysis. I think even the mildest of running addicts has trained when they know they shouldn’t have and ended up injured to some extent.
What I’m concerned about is the level of control running has over my thought processes at times. Isn’t this after-all, what defines addiction and to some extent, makes it unhealthy? Whilst running isn’t going to destroy my liver like drinking did, isn’t this complete control over my mind just as harmful?
And what happens when you run so far that you have to keep running further and further to chase that endorphin high, that feeling of accomplishment?
When I started running, I could go for a 5km jog around the block and feel amazing. Now, I generally don’t feel good until I’m about 10km into a run. Long runs become increasingly longer and longer until the day is completely taken up with running. There is no time for friends or social pursuits, I must do my long run and my long just isn’t long enough anymore so I must run longer.
I’m not sure if these are the thoughts that many runners get. I know there are a lot of runners with mental illness – myself being one of them. I also know that running doesn’t suddenly make that tight rope coordinated between happiness and despair any easier to cross. At times, it highlights my imbalance and my fear of falling.
I’ll end this melodramatic blog with a positive story.
Two weeks ago, my friend died. Like a good addict, I turned to my vice and clocked up 100km of running in the first week of his passing (I ordinarily only run 60-80km per week). At the end of that week, I was exhausted physically, emotionally and mentally. I had succeeded at making my body hurt as much as my heart was aching though I didn’t realize this was my intention at the time.
Come Monday morning, I didn’t really feel like running. The alarm was beeping but I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was starting to acknowledge that I have the ability to destroy the thing I love – running, through my obsessive behavior. So I thought about sleeping in but the addict in me wasn’t ready to let that happen – If you sleep in, something bad will happen!
So I put on my running gear, but I was in a bit of a mental fog. I couldn’t quite remember how far I was meant to run that day, so I left the Garmin at home and just ran. I didn’t really know where I was going I just let my feet take me where they wanted to go.
I ended up in the Dandenongs on one of my favorite trails. It was lush and green – the trees hovered high in the sky. A wallaby bounced past me up ahead. The birds were chirping as the sun rose higher, illuminating my trail loving wonderland. I forgot I was even running – I was just gliding through the forest, floating my way along the trail. When I got home, I checked the time – I’d been out running for nearly two hours.
I felt completely cleansed and at peace with the world.
It was then that I realized it is not the physical act of running itself that makes everything okay. What makes running so wonderful is where it takes us. That morning, running physically took me out into nature where I could be at one with the birds and the wallabies and the trees. Mentally, it took me to a place of freedom where I was no longer lost in my obsessive thoughts and emotionally, it took me to a place of clarity where I could finally be at peace with myself.
Yes, running might be addictive and at times, it might even be a little unhealthy but it is so so wonderful and I’m yet discover another single thing – substance, activity, anything that can heal quite like running can.