Fitness for the batshit- my journey to becoming a runner

I’m pretty vocal about how I use exercise to manage my mental health & it is now a huge part of my life. I honestly believe it has kept me alive. I am not a natural runner or athlete, I am probably the opposite, so I thought it might be useful to share how my relationship with exercise has changed over the years.

As a child and teenager I mainly hated exercise. PE and games lessons were dreaded. At school it was pure humiliation, just an extension of the shame I felt every day anyway- I was bullied for many years which had a profound affect on me. I remember being forced to run and giving up after 30 seconds,having a painful stitch and crying.  People like me were left alone at the back whilst the teachers only encouraged the athletic types. I took dance lessons out of school, but also struggled with fitting in there. I frequently felt left out and inadequate, and not good enough . Later I developed body image issues and disordered eating. Around this time I started to run again, by myself, but this was a joyless task. It was purely to burn calories and to punish myself. I hated my body and hated myself. I consider myself very lucky that I managed to pull back from my difficulties around eating & I somehow became more accepting of my body as it was, as things could have got much worse. But I still did not feel that exercise was for me & my only association with it was tangled up in these negative experiences of calorie burning & restricting food.

 Things began to change when I joined a gym back in 2011. A friend was joining & persuaded me to try it. I tried all sorts of classes I had never done before & began to notice that endorphins could boost my mood. It would never be a magic cure& I struggled with my mental health- but it did something.  My friend ended up cancelling her membership, but I stayed- and I was hooked. I felt I had reclaimed exercise from my former self- it was no longer about diet and weight, it was about feeling stronger, and sometimes more balanced in my mind. I started to try bodypump classes & lifting weights. I loved these & enjoyed challenging myself every week. Even if it was a horrible day, for that hour I could get some space from my intrusive thoughts. I was at uni at the time & I think it really helped me to get through my degree.

I had stayed away from running though, as it still felt too connected to bad body image.  But I noticed that friends were running, and training for half marathons. We started to run together. It felt different now- it was for me, on my terms. It didn’t matter that I was slow (I still am slow) but it felt good.  On International women’s day 2015 I joined a group of women to run a 5k around Leeds city centre & that felt like a turning point. I remember that I nearly didn’t go to the event as I was struggling so much with anxiety. But I did & I even felt a tiny bit proud. I started to enter events with my running buddy, we completed 10ks and trained together for a half marathon in September 2015. I chose to fundraise for Leeds Mind, where I was volunteering at the time. The training, like my mental health, was up and down. Some days I did not want to run, sometimes I felt suicidal when I ran & the thoughts were all encompassing. Other days I felt great, & in the flow. On the morning of the race I was incredibly nervous. I worried I wouldn’t be able to do it & let everyone down who had sponsored me. The race was HARD. I threw up at the end. But I completed it and ran it all.

Since then I have run two more half marathons, 10 mile races, and other events. Which brings me to my next challenge: a full marathon! I’ve entered the Yorkshire marathon in October. I’ll be raising money for Samaritans. My training has started & it’s not easy. I’m trying to share as much of the mental journey as possible, in as honest a way as I can, and future posts in this blog will reflect that. I also feel there will be parallels with my marathon training as I undertake the work I’ll be doing in therapy. 

26.2 is a huge distance & means a huge amount of work, but in reality it is nothing compared to living with mental health difficulties. I try to hold onto this on bad runs & awful days. The good runs are always worth the struggle. 


Making peace with the mirror

I went back to private therapy yesterday after quite a lengthy break. We previously worked together open endedly, but have decided to do more focused work this time round. It’s time to sit with the nasty appearance anxiety that plagues me whenever I try to do anything. 

I have a lot of work to do, and I’m scared of it. But I no longer have the energy it takes to keep up the mask all the time. Despite the fact I don’t think I deserve to feel good about myself, I am tired of always hating the way I look.

I have always had the self critical thoughts about my appearance. I haven’t ever liked the way I look. Sometimes I have tolerated it, more frequently it causes me distress.The mirror is an enemy, & even more so, the camera. But along with this hatred of mirrors comes the need to check my reflection and sometimes this becomes obsessive. I have to check again and again or I can’t cope, I have to get out of whatever situation I’m in.

A recent reaction is one of physical sickness when looking in a mirror. The idea that my own appearance makes me want to vomit feels me with shame, and only serves as confirmation that I am hideous. 

As many people with anxiety disorders will tell you: When one thing dies down a little, another pops up. I have recurring episodes of struggling with a particular intrusive thought/belief around something horrendous I feel I have done. When I’m in the grip of this, it is hugely distressing. It pulls my head apart, it demands that I check every single memory I can recall & screams at me that I’m evil & need to remove myself from life. Right now I have distance from this- but it’s simply changed tack, for the moment. It feeds into how I feel about the way I look, ripping the tiny bit of self esteem I have to shreds.

But I so badly want it to be different. I want to have the ease of being able to take a photo and it not matter how it look. I envy friends for this. I want the effortless feeling of not having to care. I want to feel that I can hear compliments from my partner and friends and not have to dismiss them because I am ashamed of myself. 

We are also working with the idea that I feel emotionally stuck at a younger age. I don’t know how old exactly yet, I think a teenager. Maybe younger- or maybe there is more than one part. I think this further adds to my confusion and sense of self loathing, particularly with the appearance anxiety. 

It’s time to make peace with this stuff, to be compassionate but not to push the bad things away. I feel it for a reason.

Hurting myself, & why it’s not the worst thing I could do 

I’m discussing self harm in this post. This won’t be graphic but take care if you’re feeling vulnerable & choose to read on.
I first started to hurt myself as a teenager. It was a private thing, a way to get some distance between myself & the noise in my head. It didn’t feel painful- it was (and is) a calming release. Sometimes it was impulsive, other times the anticipation would build all day knowing I would get my time later on to make things better.I was always very thorough about attending to the cuts. It hadn’t occurred to me then that the self care and attention I would apply to myself afterwards could exist without the self harm stage. In order to sooth and heal I needed to hurt myself first. It also didn’t occur to me that I was already hurting a great deal without externalising it as injuries.

The part self harm has played over the years has changed for me. As a 30 year old, It’s no longer something I do very frequently, though the sense of urgency  still rears its ugly head & sometimes I give in. I do have fairly constant urges which are heightened by my hormones, & the out of control feeling I have around then makes it harder to manage. When I feel I can ‘delay’ it I do everything I can to avoid it. This is where pushing myself in the gym is useful, although walking away from a workout still feeling you want to hurt yourself is an unpleasant feeling. But sometimes it works.

I don’t talk to many people about this who don’t also self harm. Usually because it panics people, or they tell me I should phone the crisis team. But I feel angry when I’m told it’s bad, that people ‘shouldnt’ do it, that we need to stop immediately. It has stopped me from dying. I also used to notice that I ‘function’ better when I am harming myself, or more likely, it’s the only way I could function. This has been especially true when trying to work more hours than I’m able to, or when I’ve compared myself to what other people manage to do. 

I don’t really see self harming as any different from drinking to excess, smoking, taking drugs, or even playing any kind of sport that has risk attached to it. It’s socially acceptable to go out and drink a lot when you’ve had a bad day. I do it too, but I also know that personally the repercussions of hurting myself are less than if I’d got very drunk. It’s more controlled, less risky. Less unpredictable than alcohol can be for me. I can manage myself in a way I can’t with alcohol.

In an ideal world I would like to be able to live my life without this being a part of it, but it is a part of it. So I accept that & I plod on with it. If someone wants to talk to you about their self harm, listen to them. Just listen to what they say. Accept that it may be keeping them alive. If they want support to stop, for them, then support that. But not everyone is able to do that. It plays a role for many people. Maybe that’s uncomfortable to think about for someone who doesn’t do it. But that’s the reality for some of us.

The pay off

When stuff goes ‘well’ for me, I will experience a pay off. Sometimes this is immediately after the event, sometimes a day or two later. But it always happens.

On some level I believe I am not worthy of good experiences, whatever they are. This is often feeling shame, self loathing, anxiety about what I looked like, what I did, what people really think. These things always exist in the background anyway, it’s an undercurrent to anything else. In the wake of better hours/days they are intensified though.

From others I’ve spoken to, I can gather this kind of pay off is not unique. It seems to happen a lot to people with mental health difficulties, particularly those with low self esteem. So how do we work through this. 

I would like to reach a point of being able to enjoy and accept things for what they are, without this hangover of doom & self criticism. It’s pretty fucking tiring.