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What’s Your Story? Guest Contribution: Battling depression with fitness

Running has truly changed my life.

It’s helped with my anxiety issues, it forces me to keep disregarding bad habits from my eating disorder days, (one cannot marathon train without proper nutrition,) and it’s helped my writing by proving I’m more capable of achieving great things than I think. So with this in mind, I asked the following questions to a group of folks some time ago: What’s your story? How has fitness changed your life?

A friend responded by sending links to two of his blog posts; this one and this one.

I was completely blown away his honesty and willingness to help others by sharing his story of depression.

And now I’m honored to share his amazing story with you, combined into one post:

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In the Beginning … 

I didn’t mean to start cycling and running. At least not to get physically fit. I started because I became severely depressed. Depressed to the point that, while I was afraid of the thought of taking anti-depressants (and refused to even contemplate therapy), I was hoping that it was depression because the thought that how I felt could still be in the range of “normal” was even more terrifying.

A visit to my doctor confirmed what I already knew and resulted in a prescription for an antidepressant (months later, a second was added). At her suggestion, I also started to see a therapist, even though minutes before the doctor’s appointment I was convinced I would say “no,” if it was suggested that I see one.

Then I started reading. Before the doctor’s appointment I had already been reading about symptoms of depression and taking assorted online “diagnostic” quizzes. All of which pointed to the same place…depression. After the appointment, though, I started reading about the antidepressant that was prescribed, therapy, and pretty much anything else about depression that I could find on the internet. That’s when I kept seeing that exercise had been shown to help depression.

So, I started biking. I had biked in the past…the distant past…and enjoyed it. I still had the 25-year-old bicycle I had bought as a gift for myself when I passed the bar exam after law school. I started slow and short….just 6 miles.

The first several months were difficult. Not just because I was out of shape, but also because of the depression and start-up side effects from the anti-depressant. Those side effects included sharp shooting pains in my head and dizziness, both unpredictable but, luckily, brief. When they hit, I had to stop and get off my bike until they passed.

The depression was a bigger barrier to cycling than the side effects. Among the many, insidious effects of depression, is negative thinking. Calling it “negative thinking” is too clinical. Negative thinking is evil. It robs you of yourself and tries to convince you to not do the very things that can help fight depression.

Cycling while having negative thinking was not especially fun. I would ride along the trail, smelling the fresh air, watching others walk, run, and ride, while negative thoughts would rattle around my brain. One day, only about two months after I started cycling, those thoughts led to my calling the local crisis line. It was hard enough to get started that day. All I wanted to do was stay in bed but, that day and nearly every other when I had that feeling, I was able to resist that temptation.

I got on my bike and went out on my usual trail. About two miles into the ride, it started. Everything I saw looked like a way to hurt myself. The sound barrier that separated the trail from a highway was a cliff to scale and jump from. The huge towers holding the high voltage power lines were jungle gyms meant for climbing to the top and grasping the wires. No matter how improbable, everything was a means to hurt myself. Finally, I became convinced that everyone else on the trail knew that I was depressed and was staring at me. I didn’t really believe that; I wasn’t delusional. But that’s how I felt.

I left the trail, darted under a bridge, got off my bike and started crying. After about ten minutes of crying, feeling defeated, I got back on the bike and turned around to head home. With each revolution of my pedals, I felt worse. Only half of the way home, I stopped again, going to the far corner of a small park. There, I lay my bike on the ground, sat on a rail road tie and cried. Again.

Feeling alone and in despair, I called the local crisis line. But, about two minutes into the call, I politely excused myself and hung up. I was convinced that the voice on the other end didn’t care. And, why should he, since I was convinced that no one else did either. I got back on my bike and went home.

Fortunately, after that, things slowly got better. There were still bumps…craters….along the way. But, over time, the negative thinking during the bike rides declined in frequency and severity. Finally, about seven months after I started, in September 2013, I had my first bike ride without any negative thoughts. It felt wonderful. There were more bumps after that. Including other rides where I would stop and cry, and another ride that involved a call to the crisis line. (That time, staying on the phone for roughly 30 minutes.)

But it got better. Now, I very rarely have those negative thoughts while riding and cycling is a complete joy. (Well, maybe a little bit short of that when it’s 95 degrees and humid.) It’s not easy for me to even summon up how I felt during the worst rides. For that, I’m grateful.

I don’t know whether cycling helped my depression. As I said I was (and am) also on an anti-depressant and in therapy. I knew the antidepressant helped because I could chart that progress and tie it directly to changes in dosage and the addition of another drug. I knew the therapy helped because I knew I was learning ways to resist the negative thinking. I can’t make those connections to cycling. But, now it’s a part of my life and I enjoy it.

Roughly a year after I started cycling, I decided that I needed to do something in addition to biking. I knew that realistically cycling would only be a weekend activity for me. I wasn’t going to bike the 20 or so miles to work (and then another 20 miles back). And, biking either before I left for work or after I got home really didn’t give me enough time for a meaningful ride. Yet, I wanted to do something at least one more day per week to get (stay?) reasonably fit and to keep off the weight I had lost while severely depressed.

Short of buying exercise equipment for the house or a gym membership, running seemed to be the obvious, and maybe the only, choice. Little did I know that between clothes, running shoes, assorted running paraphernalia and entry fees for races, running would wind up costing me as much as exercise equipment. Also, little did I know that I would later join a gym.

Years earlier, I had tried running. About three days a week, I would hop out of bed in the morning, put on shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers (I had no idea that running shoes or running clothes were a “thing”) and head outside for a short run through the neighborhood. After one week of this, I stopped. Running was boring. This was well before the smart phone and mp3 era and I certainly wasn’t going to carry my Discman while running. The scenery moved by too slowly and the whole thing seemed like drudgery. Maybe I should have stuck with it a while longer. Say, at least two weeks. But I didn’t, and thus ended my running until last year.

I installed a Couch to 5K app on my phone, and started anew. And found that I still didn’t like it. It’s not as boring as it had been, thanks to the music on my phone. I simply don’t get the same joy out of running that I do out of cycling. But, I stuck with it. Over time it grew on me a bit. I came to the point where I liked the thought of running and I liked having run and having a sense of accomplishment. But, I still didn’t like actually running. No matter. I kept at it, planning to supplement my bike rides with two or so runs each week.

Then, a strange thing happened. Two friends convinced me that I could run a half marathon by the fall. Specifically, a half marathon at Disney World. Mind you, when they said this, I hadn’t even made it to 5K yet. But, I’m a huge Disney fan so the thought of running at Disney World with friends easily reeled me in. I set a goal of being able to run the Wine and Dine half marathon at Disney World in early November.

Which meant that I kept running. There were still bumps along the way, though none as bad as when I started cycling. In late spring/early summer, I started to fall back into depression. I found myself pausing in the middle of some runs tearing up for no reason. Once I simply stopped because I was too sad to keep running. I walked home. My doctor increased the dosage of one of my antidepressants. Fortunately, that took care of the depression. Unfortunately, for a while I would sometimes have to pause during runs to let a wave of nausea (a start-up side effect of the anti-depressant) pass. Within just a few weeks, the nausea stopped.

I continued to run, and bike, trying to increase my distance on each every week. By the middle of November I had completed my two goals of finishing a half marathon (in the rain….more about that later) and a metric century bike ride.

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Thank you so much for sharing your story, friend. I admire your strength and determination to fight depression head on!

And yeah. I remember trying to run with a Discman. So not successful…

 

QOTD: What’s YOUR story? How has fitness changed your life? If you’d like to contribute, please contact me using the form above.

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