One of SBM’s long-time friends and readers sent me this amazing piece. She originally contacted me with this question:
- “I’m wondering if you would possibly entertain a blog post about mental health issues and triathlon. MANY folks use triathlon as a release, or a way to deal with stress… but there’s a small, quiet group that battles real clinical mental health issues. Issues that are legally considered disabilities and when they flair up, can be more debilitating than a broken foot. I know most people don’t understand and I am so glad they don’t! But It would mean a great deal (at least to me) if there was some way to help folks who don’t deal with this understand why simply saying ‘suck it up, buttercup’ doesn’t work in ALL cases.”
I agree wholeheartedly. As someone who battles depression and addiction in my own ways – this is an incredibly inspiring post, full of chills and tears.
I am more than proud to post this blog from “S”… in hope that it helps some of the others out there who may be struggling. In closing (of my thoughts), I want you all to know that it’s never too late to start… it’s never too far gone to believe in yourself again… and there is always hope. We are an Army. Let’s be here for each other. #JustKeepMovingForward.
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Four and a half years ago, I started running. Not because I was overweight (though I was) or because I needed to get into shape (though I needed to desperately). I began running because I was going through the worst crisis of my life and the only thing that made sense was running.
I hesitate to give too much information about what was happening because it would be unnecessary. I was working diligently to cover bruises every day. My family was in shambles. I finally plucked the courage one hot, sunny afternoon, right before the kids were going to start school again, and we left. For good.
I endured stalking, being publicly humiliated and losing most of my friends. I still look over my shoulder all the time. I still check every room and closet in the house when I first get home.
I have a restraining order against someone. I know it’s just a piece of paper.
Over the intervening months, of reestablishing a new “normal” I discovered triathlon. It gave me a place to feel good about myself, it gave me new goals, and structure. It granted me a new group of friends who didn’t know about what I had been through.
In short, triathlon saved my life.
While it did save my life, it didn’t make everything magically better. I was depressed, angry. I didn’t sleep- sometimes for days. I found myself thinking, “if only I could get out of this town and start over, I could feel safe. If only I could start over some place new, I could finally kick this funk.”
A year and a half ago, I was given an amazing opportunity to move to the other side of the country to work for a university. I said my good-byes, left my friends, boarded a plane and set off to start a new life with my children in a place far, far from my problems.
Only my problems weren’t geographical.
After I had been in my new home for a couple of months I hit a new low. I was desperate. I did the one thing I had never done: I sought counseling. I was diagnosed with PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I was devastated because I was mentally ‘sick’ and the fix wasn’t going to be quick or easy. In some cases, PTSD is considered a life long disability.
Being viewed by the ADA as having a disability didn’t really fit with my world view of myself and I pushed harder to be ‘normal’. I attempted to ‘suck it up, Buttercup’ but what that often did was send me into downward spiral of self hate because there are days when leaving the house for work is an insurmountable task- never mind the work out I had planned later that afternoon.
Through all of last year, I managed a 15 minute PR in a half marathon, and managed to increase my cycling distance to 75 miles for my long rides. I finished my thesis and got my Master’s Degree. I thought I had dodged the bullet. I thought I was better. I was aiming for a full Ironman in my training in 2015. Then my depression and sleep got worse.
There are several things you should understand about PTSD. It changes you. Not because you want to change but because it changes the structure of your brain. The amygdalae and hippocampus of people who suffer from PTSD and even clinical forms of depression, is markedly smaller than that of someone who doesn’t have these disorder and who gets the blues from time to time.
It’s too simple to say that these are emotional problems, there are real physical differences in the brain. Those physical differences cause a whirlwind of ‘emotional’ problems.
Certain things, called triggers, can set off an horrible reaction in someone who has PTSD. For instance, one day, as I was commuting to work by bike, a large truck that fit the exact description of the one that my ex used to drive, almost hit me. The driver blared the horn. To make it worse, it seems that the driver had a bit of road rage. He turned around, and slowed down beside me to yell obscenities at me before pulling away in a cloud of exhaust.
Several years ago, this would have bothered me but I would have been ok. I would have been able to continue on my way to work.
That day, I fell off my bike, and laid in the street crying uncontrollably, unaware that I was actually ok and not in danger.
It ended the day for me.
It is called a flashback.
A flashback isn’t like an ordinary memory that you call up on purpose that might make you sad or mad. A flashback happens without you calling up the memory. Everything from today goes away and you are back reliving something horrible that’s happened in the past.
Panic is also something very new to me. In the last year, I’ve ridden more miles than I’ve driven my car. My ex was a person who hated cyclists and once tried to run an entire peloton of riders off the road. I carry that with me. There are times when I can simply put music in my ears and push through and find the sweet spot and ride for miles. There are times when a large, loud engine will make me feel like my heart is going to explode. There’s nothing to do those days but to get off the road and home where I can feel safe and try again another day.
PTSD is also insidious.
It takes other disorders and makes them part of your world. Most people don’t completely understand what depression really means. For reasons not entirely understood by me, I find myself sinking into depression. Usually this surrounds an anniversary of an event. I may not be consciously thinking about it but part of my brain is thinking about it.
The way depression feels to me is that there must be an elephant sitting on my chest. It physically hurts to breathe. I can try all I like to push through my day but a good portion of my energy will be used just trying to breath in and out.
It hurts. It saps my energy.
Running through it feels like trudging through mud up to your knees. It leaves you feeling defeated.
I have nightmares almost every night. Sometimes several a night. Sometimes just one but that ONE is enough to keep me from going back to sleep.
Through all of this I’ve trained through miles and miles of swimming, biking and running. Sometimes the symptoms get the better of me. I wind up in bed unable to do more than breathe and even that hurts.
I hear people say things like, ‘You just need someone to hold you accountable.’ ‘Suck it up, Buttercup!’ ‘Buck up! He’s not here anymore! Everything is great!’ ‘What do you have to be sad about? You have a wonderful life’
I wish it was so simple. I really do. I wish I could simply get up RIGHT NOW and walk out that door and start running but today has been difficult. I WANT to run but that pressure is back on my chest and just putting on my shoes would be a monumental task.
People who say those well-intentioned things make me feel like a failure.
I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’m angry at myself. I want the woman I knew back but she is gone. In her place is this person who is STILL pushing, and STILL moving forward even though she keeps falling.
Please be gentle fellow triathletes. Theres a saying: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. We are all fighting battles. Some are fighting the battle of an unsupportive spouse, some of debilitating illness, some are fighting other demons.
We all have this one thing which unites us and drives us.
Take care the words you let fall from your lips. Just keep moving forward, always.
I will be.