In support of Mental Health Awareness Week, I will be posting a daily account of topics as they feel relevant. Each day that I continue on this journey brings new surprises, difficulties, experiences, adventures. Some are magical, heart-warming and soul-replenishing. Some are bleak, leading to darker thoughts. All are reality.
I’ll be upfront and admit it straight out: this is written after a long, tough, bleak, tear-jerker of-a-day. Emotions are running high. Feeling vulnerable and under a dark, drizzly cloud only lightly describe my current sentiment, 750 miles from my start point, and still 930 miles from the end.
Like the majority of this challenge, today’s run feels like yet another metaphor for managing life with a mental illness: at times it is scary and lonely.
So after running for 34 days in what is now the 43rd day of this Fierce Mind “Land’s End to John O’Groats and back again on foot” challenge (including 6 days’ injury + 3 days’ logistical blip) to raise money for 5 mental health charities, to hopefully improve awareness of the possibility of extraordinary adventures in life whilst managing a condition, and to unglamorously show the stigma-full sceptics that, yes, we should probably readdress how society perceives its ‘mentally ill’.
Or something to that effect.
Yet, should someone say to me that physical activity, or in this particular case, running, is good for your mental health, I would probably sigh, and respond with a “Yes, but…”.
Currently, there is a trend for giving such advice – to tell those who are either stressed or suffering with a mental illness to simply go and do physical exercise: it releases endorphins therefore…x + y + z = 3.762.
So far on this journey I have notched up over 750 miles. I run where I can, I walk if I have to, I’ve most certainly hobbled (Dartmoor, oh indeed), and I have bum-shuffled and moonwalked across smooth floors to reach the bathroom or kitchen because of sore, swollen legs, where every step felt as real as a thwack from a hickey stick in the shins.
Now that last bit is not to scare anyone off from exercising, but, yes, I moonwalked across a kitchen floor in Devon.
Not all exercise is created equally [for the mind].
In training, I chose routes with limited traffic, countryside views, some hills, mostly alone at a pace I could discover life at, running for my mind, not for a specific time.
I didn’t train on the congested roads without pavements with drivers driving at you, squeezing past in the same lane as another vehicle approaches from the opposite direction. I didn’t train on those roads because they are stressful.
However, these are the roads I am having to run on.
If there is a pavement, my anxiety levels decrease and I can tolerate the loud and constant rush-rush-rush-rush of the passing vehicles, though each and every one still takes out just a tiny notch of my confidence in society and my tolerance of decibels.
Being here today, in Dingwall, Highlands, after an earlier brush with a van that drove too close, and a car that honked at me as I composed myself back onto the white ‘kerb’ line, whilst I effectively tried to keep myself alive, running into the oncoming traffic, simply because of an absence of pavements…I would say that this running, and this situation, is certainly not good for my mental health.
As the lay-by approached I broke down and cried. I gave a lip-trembling, eye-streaming account of the current scenario into my video camera because this was just as important a scenario to capture raw, as crossing the Severn Bridge at sunset. Perhaps even more so, because running on roads without pavements, without that clear divide between them (drivers) and me, means that I am quite literally making myself more stressed by running. I have to consider my triggers, or at least accept that I am putting myself into a situation that will create them.
If only it were as easy as just sticking to pavements. Unfortunately, I’d be going in circles around one town alone if that were the only option.
Running in itself, in order for it to work as a means of therapy, requires as much consideration as where you decide to meditate.
It is a form of meditation, after all.
Would you consider meditating in a Bingo Hall, or in a primary school yard during lunch break?
The West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way, my two planned trail routes, away from traffic, blaring engines, screaming sounds of society, were great routes for running.
Having to concentrate on my footsteps or else fall flat on my face if my mind wandered, to slow down to see the views, hear the birds, take pictures, smell the woodlands, feel the enchantment and riches of nature all around me, allowed my mind to alternate between restful awareness of what was around me, and an inner dialogue that was inspired to think positively, confidently, patiently. I swelled with energy, motivation and felt rejuvenated by the run.
If only the entire 1680-mile route were like those trails…
If anyone were to say to me that running was good for your mental health, I would say: “Yes, it is if you are in the right location to allow your mind to relax, but no it isn’t if the situation will cause you stress. So find the best place for you to run, and run there, lots.”