Firstly I want to make it abundantly clear; I’m not unique. I’m fortunate to be offered this platform to share my story and hopefully some of the experiences I write about will resonate with some readers and possibly allow people to see two important messages.
1. That “normal” is no more than a word in a dictionary.
2. Mental Wellness is a constant sliding scale. (My big gripe is “Good” and “Bad” being used to categorise Mental Health).
Ill pre warn you that I am known to ramble, and the timeline may cross but I’ll do my best to keep things easy to digest and follow. Ironically these traits fit right in to a textbook definition of Anxiety, go figure.
So where to begin?
Well, I’m told my 1st noticeable change was not long after my daughter was born. Post Natal Depression in fathers is a taboo that seems somewhat unspoken about. Some of that could be down to men just not feeling comfortable talking about it, but I’m here to tell you its fine to share. It happens, a lot more than you think. It’s not a weakness, it doesn’t make you less of man or father. Leading up to the birth I was certainly nervous. 24hrs before I found out the news I could barely look after myself and the biggest decision I had to make on a daily basis was what to have for dinner. Now I’m faced with the knowledge that I am now going to be responsible for a little person.
That’s a lot.
Leading up to the birth I just went into autopilot and gave myself no time to process my emotions, I needed to sort my sh*t out and get ready to be a dad, but not any dad….the best dad I can be. Looking back I was already adding pressure to myself and setting myself a goal that is unobtainable. No-one can be “the best dad” full stop. If there was an award then the winner would be excused if they wore that medal to work for the next week like the 60,000 London Marathon Runners each year. The important thing is to do everything you can to be the Best Dad in the eyes of your child. No one else. I hadn’t grasped the difference, but why would I? Days were flying by at a million miles and hour and I had no idea what I was doing.
In my efforts to be the best version of myself I decided I needed to get into shape, I wasn’t particularly out of shape but I hadn’t really exercised for a long while and led a somewhat unhealthy lifestyle. I made 3 changes that were so important in my journey, not saying they will work for all but still.
1) Quit Smoking – 20 a day habit for 15 years
2) Set up a Dads to be 7 a side football team
3) Joined a local run clubs C25k
The smoking goes without saying. It just made sense and was the best thing I did. No secrets but I’ve been injured recently and not been able to run (and really needed to some days) and have some other pastimes and passions to help me day to day. I'll get to this later.
The football team was great, less so for the activity but more to be able to check in with other new dads and was a great chance to soundboard worries off those in the exact same position as you.
Running….oh running…you glorious creature you. I take back all of those snide comments I used to make at runners on my local roads. If I had known how therapeutic you can be I would have been stomping the pavements many years before.
I joined a local running clubs “couch to 5km” when Imogen was born (and I had finally settled into the groove of being a new parent) and found myself nervously waiting around in a supermarket carpark for the 1st session. I’m perceived by most as a confident, outgoing person yet found myself riddled with nerves. I was fairly certain I couldn’t run for the nearest bus let alone build up to a full 5km. The group was great and I found myself quickly connecting to so many different people from different walks of life and I asked people why they began running? I knew my reasons but found it interesting to hear others responses. Many mentioned mental health and even then I found that term somewhat alien as I had pigeonholed my reasons as purely physical health.
6 weeks later I had completed my first parkrun and jokingly classed myself as a “runner”, and my daughter who was now 5 months old. During the time between her birth and this parkrun I had no idea that I was showing signs of Post Natal Depression. Even to this day I cannot remember or picture myself doing any of the things that my family tell me I was doing. My natural response to anything emotional was always to block it out and it seems I had done the same?
My signs of PND:
i) I was introverted and would barely engage with others around me including my daughter.
ii) I came across exhausted. Now of course I was physically tired as I had a new baby to contend with but I was emotionally exhausted and sleeping a lot, or at least spending lots of time in bed/on sofa and not really doing much.
iii) I just wasn’t present. At work, at home and socially.
Interestingly, if you asked me how I was feeling during that time, my memories tell me I was excited about being a parent and I thought I was being really hands on and engaging. My brain was obviously telling me what I wanted to hear. These signs above may not be the same for all of us but I think it’s interesting to be open about the perception of those around you that obviously care for your wellbeing.
Coincidently my mood and the perception of others changed and it was around the time I started running. I am not saying it’s the only thing out there that can help but I’d be lying if I didn’t agree that running was definitely my therapy at that time.
I’ve been running on and off for almost 3 years now with two sustained periods out due to injury (ironically a broken hand playing football with the dads team) and then the pregnancy/birth of baby number 2 and I can honestly reflect on that time and see how my mental health has struggled without running as my outlet. What’s really important is balance. I made the mistake of focussing all of my outlet into running and was always asked the question; “What happens when you can’t run?” to which my response was always “I’ll be alright….”. Well, I wasn’t. I’ve learnt through this journey that’s its really important to have multiple ways of managing your mental health and then lending on them when needed. Running will always be my number one yet I now have other activities and outlets I can call upon when needed.
So the million dollar question, “how does running help you?!” and by you I direct this to myself. It’s a question with such a multi-layered answer but I hope some of the thoughts below will resonate. If you are thinking of running as a mechanism to boost your mental wellness and you share some of these characteristics then I hope it works for you as well as it has done for me.
Headspace – I really enjoy the time in my own head and this headspace works in so many different ways for me. If anxious about work or a meeting coming up, it gives me time to deconstruct the month and focus on the thoughts that need more time. It allows me the opportunity to look back on all the conversations I’ve had and almost convince myself that everything is ok. Times like these I am thankful for long, slow trail runs in which I can forget about the speed, the Garmin, the distance and get lost in my head if I truly need to. These runs are good for my anxiety but also serve a purpose to the mechanics of helping me improve my mood when I am low. The views, the sounds and the freedom help me reconnect and remind of how big the world is and how many things I truly have to be grateful for. Long runs are really powerful for me, and that’s before we even think about using them in a training plan to go longer and race smarter.
Accountability – I find it so much easier and calmer to have a plan in place and be able to tick off the runs as they go. If you do chose to do this then make sure you are comfortable if you need to change the plan? I would imagine that could be difficult when dealing with anxiety especially but it’s something I have learnt to manage. Being able to tick it off the list, add it to Instagram (I, like so many others, find this platform somewhat therapeutic as a run blog – you can follow my journey here: @dan_thecaffeinatedrunner) and feel a sense of achievement is a great endorphin booster for me. Weirdly I’m really not the biggest fan of lists in every other aspect of life, especially when it comes to chores!
Communities and Support – The world of running is flooded with likeminded people and I am fortunate with clubs/groups a plenty that I can run with and build a network of friendship and
support. I think I may be very fortunate that in a 10 mile radius I have 10+ clubs and 5 parkruns to whet my appetite but even if you only have the odd one or two I would encourage anyone thinking of trying running to get in contact with their nearest one. I promise you it’s not as scary as you think. If clubs aren’t your thing and you are still unsure then you can always dip your toe at a local parkrun. If you aren’t looking to run in a group just yet, you can even volunteer and get to know the people. I’m sure you will get the bug soon enough. You’ll be surprised how many of those in attendance are sharing experiences like you are.
I mentioned earlier about coping mechanisms and I picture them as spokes on a wheel. Its important to have other means of coping if your favoured mechanism isn’t available. It’s clear to see that running is my main go to and something I hope will be a constant going forward but what can we do when that’s not available? My journey now sees me finding other things that I can immerse myself into that can act in the same way. These may not be an everyday go to but as someone that suffers from poor mental health at points I now know I need a few others that can be there as an option. It may be another physical activity to release those endorphins and help me clear my mind and get lost in the moment. It may be that you enjoy engaging your brain with puzzles and problem solving, or maybe spending time with friends is important to you. It could be getting lost in a music album whilst practising Yoga, or finding therapy by doing something with your hands. Whatever it is for you I do feel it’s important to have spokes in place to support yourself when things are harder than you want them to be and that the wheel keeps on rolling.
Whatever it is just remember that you are not alone in this, its ok to speak about how you are feeling and that however you chose to find your therapy – own it and embrace it. Take time for yourself and never feel like you cannot ask for help. As I finish this blog I have discovered another release that I never thought would help me but has been both relaxing and therapeutic for me, writing. Maybe this isn’t the last blog post I’ll write, and if I do write me I’m not sure if it’ll be just for my eyes or for others to read but I’ll gladly add this to my wheel. Its funny how sometimes this spokes can be created out of nowhere.
Be kind to yourself, you deserve it.
Thanks to Daniel for sharing his experience and it's one that men often find hard to talk about so we appreciate him opening up about it. #MentalHealthMatters