In 2009 I became fed up with working out indoors. I moved to the waterfront here in Toronto and I was enticed by the idea of running outside. But I had never been a runner. I didn’t do cross country in school. I remember walking for a large portion of my high school 1500m fitness test. But working out for me was always my chance to relax. Yes, I find it incredibly relaxing to work up a sweat. It’s also a huge part of my recovery process with my anxiety. If I don’t burn off that energy working out, my mind will pick up the slack and start working in overdrive. In fact, my first panic attack after I had started therapy in 2013 was brought on from being sick and cooped up in the house. And oddly enough, one of my symptoms of my anxiety is the desperate urge to move my legs. Sometimes when I am lying down in bed I have to kick my legs violently against my mattress to try and shake that feeling. So for me, going to the gym was a way to combat that. But I was getting incredibly bored of my apartment building’s gym. I am an outdoors girl at heart. Nature is the way I connect spiritually to the universe. So I needed something else.
That’s how running entered into my life and became a game changer. I’ve always tried to stay active but in 2009 I found myself getting to a weight I was really unhappy with. I hated my body. It only fed into my insecurities and made my attitude about myself worse. So one day I sat down and drew up some monthly goals for myself, and started a workout journal. I went downtown and raided a few stores for running gear. I bought a bad-ass pair of shoes. It was April and the air still had that edge from the winter but I forced myself to stick with it. Slowly but surely I found my pace. It was exhilarating being outside and exploring the waterfront, even in the cold. I found myself completely forgetting about my day to day stress. I’d lace up and focus on the beauty all around me. The sunsets, the ducks, the houseboats, dogs, flowers, birds, you name it, I ran past it. I watched ducklings grow up. I saw flowers bloom. I ran past the seasons.
About a year passed and slowly I started dropping pounds. I started to tone up. I changed my eating habits and started to really focus on eating a varied diet. I started to love being in my own skin. I then decided to sign up for my very first race. Training was a word that had never entered into my vocabulary before. Training?! Isn’t that for people who run marathons?! But there I was setting up a 5km race plan. I worked hard. I logged it all in my workout journal. I tracked the inches I lost, and the kilometers I was running each week. I went into my first race, the 2010 Scotiabank Waterfront 5km a bit disheartened. I had set a lofty goal of 30 minutes, but went in thinking I’d be lucky to finish in about 45 minutes. I was a nervous wreck leading up to the race and on race day. I am a competitive person, and I am very hard on myself. I want people to look at my time and be impressed. I want to be impressed. In the end I finished in 35:44 and I was on top of the world. The runner’s high is a real thing and it brought out motivation in me I didn’t know existed. I became hooked on running and racing.
Running for me has always been about three things: staying active, getting outside, and setting aside time to de-stress. The last point is the key one. If I didn’t run, I’d be a miserable person. I would hate myself. My anxiety would be rampant. I would not have the confidence I have today. Running has made me a stronger person in more ways than just the physical. It’s a chance to clear my head and drift off into my imagination, or just enjoy the music. It’s that time of the day where no one can reach me, there’s nowhere I need to be, and nothing else I need to worry about. I just need to put one foot in front of the other.
After I completed my first half-marathon this past October I found myself burned out from running. Training for the half marathon turned running from a love to a chore. I didn’t look forward to lacing up my shoes anymore. That’s when my parents stepped in and re-ignited another love – my love of cycling. It’s once again tapped into the wanderer in me. I love exploring the new paths, and seeing more sides to the east side of Toronto. Now that urge is back. Where once I’d get the itch to run, now I actually look forward to looking ridiculous in my helmet.
For those of us with mental illness we need these escapes. You’re trying to silence your mind and fight the demons the best way you know how. I am lucky. I found my escape in running and the outdoors. It’s now as much a part of my therapy as my anti-depressants, and just as important. Especially suffering from health anxiety, staying active is the best way to keep proving to myself that I am alive and well. I often go into races fearing death. In the lead up to my half marathon there was a strong part of me that believed my heart would give out on the course and I’d die. I’ve felt this way before 10km races as well. I always think to myself “what if I am one of those people you read about?”. But each time I cross that finish line it is my triumph over my anxiety. That’s me saying “I DID IT!” Finishing the half marathon was a huge kick in my anxiety’s pants. It’s hard to believe my heart will give out on a 10km course when it survived a 21km course. Each medal is a symbol of a moment where I defeated my demons. They are accomplishments that no one can take away from me. That sense of pride is powerful.
I encourage everyone with mental illness to find their pride. Whatever it is. You might hate running. But maybe you kick ass at knitting. And those moments when you’re on your own with your needles are the times when you get to say NO to your anxiety. My races give me the runner’s high, but when I’ve had a terrible day at work sometimes the only thing that will cheer me up is heading outside and getting sweaty. I find so much peace in watching the sun go down. In the winter, I love running by the Christmas lights and seeing snow fall around me. You need to find that. If anything, those moments when you’re busy focusing on something you love they are moments where you aren’t letting your anxiety cloud your mind. If you’re supporting someone in their battle, hopefully this allows you to understand why your loved one is always going out for a walk, or heading to the gym to hit a punching bag, or taking art lessons. Whatever it is, they are probably just trying to find their way.
I know that if I didn’t have my running shoes, or now my bike, I’d be completely lost.
As always, you can find me on Twitter @TeslaMay