Swish-swath, swish-swath, swish-swath. First mile in and I’m feeling okay. A second later my mind taunts, “You are going to die along the side of the trail if you keep going.” I try to shove it away as this isn’t the first time it has told me a similarly sinister variation of the same thing.
As I force myself to keep my feet going, my vision appears to be fading. There is a tangible shock and shift in my brain. I am suddenly aware that I am half-gasping instead of breathing.
Swish-swath, swish-swath. My shoes slide through the long grass almost on their own and I push an errant hair strand out of my face. “You are dying,” a part of me whispers. “Just ignore it,” I tell some other part of myself, as if it were that simple.
“Are the trees and flowers changing color right in front of my eyes?” I wonder. I open one eye and close the other, then repeat on the other side to confirm the truth. Everything still works. “For now,” I hear in my consciousness. And the conflict is on. Half my brain encouraging me forward, reminding me of all the other times I have felt this way and survived. The other half tearing at my sanity, causing my hands to sweat, despite the cool air temperature, warning me that “this is it this time.” I am tired of this cruel tyrant, but also ever respectful of it, because what if it IS true this time?
Would you suspect that I am so filled with turmoil when you approach me? Most likely not. In our brief time in passing, I will muster a smile and a “Hi!” which will likely sound cheery to you. As soon as you are on your way, it’s back to my fight against myself.
As I continue, I find that the next mile has passed quickly but also horribly slow at the same time and I stagger along, trying to both think rationally and clear my mind of any thought. My feet drag in the gravel as I sigh, “I’d better be careful.” My heart rate’s still elevated, the sounds of blood pumping in my inner ear echos through my jacket’s hood, demanding my compliance.
How far I have gone forward down that road and away from this feeling and yet the confidence I had, not that long ago, as I ran in Boston, as I drove myself to and from marathons, alone, even those 10ks a half hour away, seem a lifetime ago.
Anxiety keeps catching my heel as I try to escape, pulling me into a pit of despair on a wheel of misery over and over again. I claw at the cavernous walls, willing myself to fight upwards. Again it pulls me down. Over and over. For a moment, I wallow in the pit, trying everything to catch my breath and re-energize myself while my mind is draining me at the same time. At this point, you may be wondering why I keep going.
Despite the horrid feelings I experience, there is also euphoria. During part of each run, I will hit that moment when I am my true self, where I can feel all my troubles and labels shedding behind me. I can tell you exactly where this happens on my favorite trail—about mid-way down the tree-lined hill, where the grass springs my legs down the slight descent-and I hope for this moment with every run.
I am also working to continue moving forward, surrounding myself with caring family and friends who don’t think I am strange for having these feelings. I am reading all I can to understand the “why” better, and yes, seeking the advice of professionals to guide me closer to recovery.
You may also be wondering why I am exposing all of this to you. There are many reasons. One of them is that l am tired of hiding it. Tired of making up excuses as to why I don’t want to run with you in case I have a panic attack and you think I am “nuts.” Tired of coming up with explanations to translate my emotions into something more socially acceptable. Exhausted from trying to hide my truest self and longing that someday telling someone, “I think I’m having a panic attack,” would garner as much sympathy as someone else saying, “I think I’m getting a migraine.” Desperate to put the erring chemicals that are short-circuiting back into place.
Even though I have tried to increase my self-confidence, my skin is still thin and I DO care too much about what people think. Even though this is a part of me and is there for a reason, which I now understand, I still don’t always like it. And although I am learning to listen to my true self, sometimes I still find myself wanting to argue. And I hope. I hope you will be kind to me if you see me. I hope you don’t think any differently of me now that you know. And so with hope, I continue to traverse the trails, run the roads, and hike the hills. I hope to see you there too!
Mental Health is a serious topic and something more people should learn about; taking time for a better understanding of the importance and effects it can have. If you find yourself struggling, know you are not alone. I encourage you to reach out for guidance, whether that be a family member, friend, clergy member, physician, or counselor. Asking for help with issues like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia, or anything else does not make you weak. I hope you can strive to be out on the trails as your best self, even if you are a work in progress, like me!
You also might also be wondering how to help people like me. I am not a mental health professional in any way, but I heard a phrase the other day that really resonated with me, “Everyone has mental health.” How simple, yet profound! It was so shocking to me that I had to tell myself, yes, it’s true. Everyone has a degree of physical health, so they also have a degree of mental health! I would encourage you to support those suffering from mental health issues in the same way you might for physical health, and in this way, you can help end the stigma which still keeps many people silent and suffering. Because everyone has mental health.