Even as a teenager, I had the classic symptoms of manic depression: mood swings, suicide attempts, and an inability to cope with life's normal challenges. My early 20s proved no better. When I was most ill, I would hide out in my bedroom for weeks at a time. I entered into violent, unhealthy relationships. I even dropped out of graduate school.
Mental illness runs in my mother's family, but I always ran away from the knowledge that I was sick. My aunt and uncle, who were volatile, transient, and underemployed, were also mentally ill. They frightened me because they were the promise of what I would become if I were ill. Scared into denial, I vowed I would never be "that way."
One sleepy afternoon on a foggy beach, everything changed. I had travelled there to put an end to the relentless, nameless pain that gnawed at me like a tiger on fresh flesh. I swallowed 72 button-sized sleeping pills, planning to close my eyes and fade away like a sunset.
Fate had other plans. As the pills entered my system, an adrenaline-induced fear of death stopped me in my tracks. I stuck my finger down my throat and vomited all that as bad inside me. I was alone, teary-eyed, and covered in puke. I realized I could no longer run away from the truth: I was mentally ill.
A month later, I began seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Pills and talk therapy were supposed to life my mood and help me to cope better. The thought of relying only on doctors and pills for peace of mind left me feeling powerless. I wanted something more.
My own prescription for mental clarity was fresh air and exercise. While remaining in the professional care of my doctors, I joined a marathon training group. Up until that point, I had run only intermittently. Slow and ungainly, I never considered myself a "real runner."
All that changed with my commitment to good health. I was determined to cross the finish line of a 26.2 mile race. I awoke every Saturday morning before dawn to pound the pavement with my training group. My pace was slow and my form sloppy. I felt awkward and embarrassed compared to the more experienced runners. There were many times in the dark hours before dawn when I questioned my ability to run, when I doubted my commitment to training, when I did not believe that I could run another step.
Time and time again, I overcame my hesitations with achievements in running. Each week, I set personal records for time, speed, and distance. My stride became steady, my style graceful. Running became less shameful and more pleasurable. When I ran, I felt strong, powerful, and healthy. I was a real runner.
Improvements in my mental health developed as I improved my running. Suddenly, I could hold job for longer than three months. I no longer cried for days at a time without knowing why. My temper mellowed, and suicidal thoughts vanished from my mind. Each day I ran, my life grew more stable, more peaceful, more liveable. Running taught me to take life one step at a time, to set goals and achieve them, to keep going when I want to give up.
When I told my doctor that I planned to run as a part of my recovery process, she applauded. She said that running would raise the endorphin levels in my brain and make me feel good. She was right. What she didn't tell me was that running would become my constant companion and offer hope that I could live a healthy life in the face of manic depression.
I plan to run for the rest of my life, but never again will I run away from the truth that once frightened me: I am mentally ill. I am strong. I am powerful. I am capable. I am a runner.
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