Staring into the Abyss: Depression, Running, and Life

I still haven’t figured out how to open the conversation. How to talk about something that has been a part, well, of my whole life. That will likely be a part of me until death. To pull back the shades and begin the dialogue still feels like an admission of weakness, of failure, of missed opportunity.

Thinking back, I can interpret symptoms of depression in myself before the age of ten. I told someone recently that I thought I could trace it back to the middle school years, but more mental mining leads me to the earlier time frame. Really, it’s lifelong. A lack of naturally produced serotonin, but the reality is so much more complex.

Depending on when you’ve known me, you might say my depression was well hidden or plain as day. More likely that it was plain as day, as I know that people along the way saw the symptoms and helped, asked questions and did what they could. I’ve been blinded and resistant for a long time.

Running, and other endurance activities served as a self-medicating mechanism. There have been times where my relationship with those activities flirted with addiction, and it’s now clear why. John L. Parker Jr wrote about runners and depression in the 2010 book Again to Carthage, the sequel to Once a Runner. I’ll paraphrase a section where the main character, Quenton Cassidy, is told by his mentor, Bruce Denton, that runners may self-select for depression. It’s a fiction novel, but that part is surely based in reality. I recall that line hitting home on my first read through. It was a moment of “huh.”

Truth is, running and the associated friends carried me through more than once, even if none of us knew it. I’ve seen role models emerge from the community, and have an enormous amount of respect for how many people have shined the light on their own struggles. Rob Krar and Devon Yanko immediately come to mind currently, and there are many others.  

Depression manifests differently for everyone, but what I experience often ties to an agonizing amount of self-critique. I’ve always been my biggest critic, and tend to hold myself to standards I wouldn’t expect of anyone else. When I fail to meet the unrealistic standards, it drives my mood south and I begin cycling through the memories of all of my past failures. I end up very low, and without the energy to function beyond basic necessities. There are days, too, where there’s no clear cause and every single activity is an internal struggle. It could be as simple as putting a shirt in the dirty laundry, or even more basic tasks. There is no triumphing on those days, only surviving. And the real result is that I fail at being the kind of person I want to be. I’m short with friends and family, even hostile at times. I know that I’m failing immediately when it happens, and this inward anger starts to burn as I despise the way I’m acting, but can’t seem to find the controls. I’ve never had actively suicidal thoughts, but have wished at times that there was a way to check out from dealing with the lowest lows. There have been a number of extremely low points in my life. A couple of those lows over the past years have brought me to this point, where I’m able to recognize and accept the diagnosis and reality.

In September 2017 I finished the Superior 100 trail race. It was my second attempt at the event, and honestly, the race went perfectly. I haven’t had another race of that distance where I felt as comfortable for the entire distance, even through an entire night running solo through the northern Minnesota woods. I took time to rest afterwards, and that was where I went wrong. Without any discernible goals, I let activity slip.  A month later, I was hardly doing anything beyond what I absolutely had to at work. I didn’t have the energy to help at home, to play with my year-old daughter, to do anything. And finally, even though Kendra had been asking for some time, I went to see a therapist. And I have continued to see the therapist since.

One of the activities I picked up again after beginning therapy was writing. I’ve written throughout my life, and have dabbled in stream-of-consciousness poetry in recent years. I started posting online as a way to hold myself accountable, to accept some vulnerability that offers growth. Vulnerability is not a strength in my life, I’ve always prided myself on self-sufficiency. Yet, here I am.

Then, flash forward to January 2019. I’d been using the strategies the therapist guided me through to improve my symptoms as much as possible, including a consistent plan of activity. Despite overall gains and a very open conversation, I’d been resistant to utilizing medication as part of my treatment strategy. By rule, I avoid taking any medication unless I absolutely need to. There have been years where I haven’t taken more than a handful of ibuprofen. Then, during a game of pickup basketball, I jumped and landed wrong. A chance accident, with a fracture at the base of my fifth metatarsal to show for it. No weight bearing for eight weeks, no running activity for twelve. It was my right foot, so I couldn’t even drive. Helpless.

And so it went. I worked, and did some strength activities at home, but mostly dwelled. Sunk, let the depression take hold. I missed appointments with the therapist because of the logistical challenges. Down, down, down. I missed the Birkie for the first time in 12 years. That hurt. I withdrew from spring and summer races, knew I wouldn’t be ready. I withdrew from many things, felt nothing when I would play with Ida. It was isolating, by circumstance, choice, and symptom.

Eventually, I was walking in a boot after about ten weeks. Being mobile again, I finally kept an appointment with the therapist. During that first appointment back, she brought up medication again. She told me (again) that, if it’s a lack of naturally produced serotonin, there was nothing I could do to overcome that barrier. She described how painful it had been to watch me struggle through those peaks and valleys, because I tried so hard to use all the tools available, short of the medication and it wasn’t enough. I finally said say yes, yes. Yes to medication. And I broke down in her office. I knew that it had to be this way, that I needed more help. For me, and for the people around me. I’d created fear in others that I never meant to, and it all still feels so selfish.

You see, at that point I had trapped myself mentally. If the medication works now, it would have worked ten years ago. And I would have been better, to myself and to a lot of other people for a long time. I could have done something then, and why didn’t I? Or when I was in high school, and it was clear to me in hindsight but I was in denial at the time? Why couldn’t I figure it out sooner?

And that’s the whole disease in a nutshell. I’ve been holding my current self hostage for the mistakes of my past self. But, I said yes to the medication, finally. That was two months ago, and the escitalopram seems to be helping. I’ll be taking it for at least a year, and likely longer. Quite a bit longer. If medication continues to help, to make the days easier, I don’t see any reason to stop. I’m fortunate. I have a strong support system, and people I know I can lean on. It’s not easy, but it could be harder too.

So where does that leave me? Well, I know that depression is part of who I am, and that I’ll be fighting it, one way or another, for years to come. And I know that it’ll be easier if I can talk about it, write about the struggle honestly. I want to talk more about how the connection with nature and outdoor activity has helped me as a tool in the battle. I want to be an open book. And if you’re struggling yourself, look for those resources and try to be open to them. It’s hard, really hard to need help. It took me a long, long time to get here, but here is good, for now. If that changes, I’ll look for other resources. I’d denied/tried to hide this part of myself for so long. Enough. More soon.

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6 thoughts on “Staring into the Abyss: Depression, Running, and Life

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey to a diagnosis and how you have come to utilize the resources available, including medication, to improve your life.

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  2. Thank you for opening up about this! As someone who deals with anxiety issues, I understand how it can be hard to talk about it.

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  3. This is a great story to tell, Eric. I’ve known you for years, and hadn’t known you were suffering like this. Depression is a tough thing to live with, but know that the people you’ve surrounded yourself with care, aren’t judgemental, and here to help.
    Thank you for sharing.

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  4. 1 eye miles separate us and time has flown but you sir (my little freshman) are never alone. Thank you for sharing and there is nothing I still wouldn’t do for you brother. Strength to you as you rise above!

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  5. “There is no triumphing on those days, only surviving.” Thank you–although it can feel like failure, “only” surviving is a great achievement, made with unseen pain and effort.

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