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Archive for August, 2015

A year or so ago I wrote about living with OCD on my other blog. After years of hiding a massive part of myself away from pretty much everyone around me, it was a relief to confess the inner workings of my mind to friends and family, even if it had to be via an impersonal blog post. OCD is back in the public eye again this week with a Horizon documentary exploring some of the neuroscience behind this condition, and I can’t help but feeling more aware of my own experience of OCD now that I see people discussing it on social media. I didn’t watch the documentary myself, but was overjoyed to see so many positive and sympathetic comments from people on Twitter this morning.

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I have to add here that this condition is different for everyone – no one story is the same, and in my case at least, the story has a number of very different and sometimes entirely incoherent chapters. Even my own story at one point is not the same as my own story at a different point. OCD does not make sense; it’s tricky to deal with.

OCD means that most of my life is careful, spent avoiding things and situations, hiding away or trying to make day-to-day things easier. But there’s one really massive thing that contradicts all of this completely: you guessed it, running. Running somehow frees me from anxiety, and over the years I’ve found that it helps me move forwards, allowing me to rebel against some of the things that hold me back the most. Recently I’ve noticed myself doing things that I’d previously been unable to do: drink water from plastic cups at aid stations, use portaloos, high-five cheering kids as I run past. I did panic when I checked my number for the UT55 (553) to find that it added up to 13, and you’ll probably never find me grabbing a handful of jelly babies from a kindly spectator – but slowly I’m getting there.

There’s something about running that makes things possible; it’s a freedom that doesn’t exist in any other aspect of my life. I’ll gleefully run through a muddy field and return home covered in dirt, but when it comes to sitting on a friend’s sofa or flicking through a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room I’m often totally stumped. I’m sure that medical types would tell me that it’s the release of serotonin during running that temporarily releases me from the grasp of OCD (which is often treated with SSRIs), and while I’m sure that they know more than me about this stuff, I’d also argue that there’s something primal about running that strips us of all of the complicated cognitive stuff that comes with being a human.

Marathon running might be quite an extreme example, but I’ve found that the more I push myself to my limit, the more I am stripped to my most basic of needs: water, food, and eventually, rest. When I’m tired and dehydrated during a hot run, the promise of water from a plastic cup gets me through, regardless of the phantom fingerprints on the cup and bits of dirt and dust in the water that would usually leave me going thirsty. I don’t think twice about drinking water with bits of road in it during a marathon, but won’t touch the cups at conferences; the need to hydrate so that I can keep moving forwards is urgent enough to allow me to forget all of the ‘what ifs’ (not always, but increasingly often).

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The view from the top of the biggest hill on Keswick Half Marathon. Run and conquer!

But more often than not I’m running around the streets and trails of York, and am not about to keel over from thirst or exhaustion. Still, the moving forwards appears to work as a metaphor, as I run – almost literally – from the plague of worries that circle around my head. I remember during my very first months of running outside, a large fly flew right into my mouth. I stopped for a second and gagged a little bit, which was enough time for the sirens to go off (who wouldn’t be grossed out by that anyway?). I had no choice but to keep moving forwards, and as I did the sirens began to quieten a little, as if I was running away and leaving them all behind me. Running is an amazing way to calm down stresses and anxieties, so it makes sense to me that it would help to dampen the obsessive thoughts from OCD, too. When I recently took on a whole mouthful of dirt at the Lakeland Trails marathon, my immediate thought (after checking all of my teeth were in place) wasn’t panic about contamination – instead I was panicking that I wouldn’t be able to keep on running to the finish line. As I sat in the First Aid tent with my medal, my mind was on the glory of completing such an amazing race, and not on the fingers of the first aider that were searching my mouth for missing pieces.

In the end, for me the value of running is in the positivity that it perpetuates. Even when the world is too scary a place, running helps me out of the door and gets me back in search of the good feelings and empowerment that push all of the obsessive thoughts and strange habits to the side. When real life becomes difficult to deal with through stress or sadness or whatever, my OCD is the first thing to raise its ugly head; keeping positivity in check through running has been the best way to push the lid down on it, and running is the easiest and most reliable way to do that.

Of course, this experience applies only to me. I’m not saying that running is a cure for OCD – I would be the first to know if it was – but that the positive vibes that I find when I’m running have helped me no end. It gets the bad thoughts moving and replaces them with good ones. It pushes me to an edge where contamination is less important. And it somehow creates a space where I am safe to forget all of the things that I’ve decided are true – it gives me a world without all of those rules and routines, and I’m endlessly grateful for that.

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During my PhD I’ve been lucky enough to travel regularly, attending conferences and workshops in some rather exciting places. Anyone who attends a lot of conferences will know that no matter how exotic the location, it’s near impossible to stray very far from the conference venue when days begin at 8:30 and finish after dinner and drinks that evening. Unless you tie an extra day or two to the beginning/end of a conference, you can travel pretty far without seeing much other than a conference hall and a table of sandwiches.

It was during my first overseas conference in 2012 that I realised how great it would be to have my running gear along with me for the ride. I was in Stockholm for five days, but most of my time was taken up in the conference itself, so instead I got up early each day and walked the few miles across the city to the venue. I made an effort to take a different route each day, and one day I found a glorious path through a forest which led me right to the university: had I not made the effort to leave my hotel at 7am, there would be no opportunity to discover these things. Ever since, I’ve packed some lycra in my backpack (it takes up no space, after all) and worn my trainers for the journey (comfy, excellent when running for buses/trains, and no problems at airport security) – conference travel has been yet another excuse for some awesome running adventures.

Most recently, I enjoyed a little tour of Warwick University’s excellent campus. Not glamorous, but great for a little bit of headspace before a long day of networking, presenting and thinking. I’ve run along the beaches of San Sebastian at dawn when no one else was around, joined the masses of early-rising Swedes at midsummer on Södermalm, Stockholm, and explored woodland trails in Leipzig. Generally I don’t run far as usually there isn’t time, but when you’re in a new place no running route is boring, and a quick 5km is all you need to see something of a place. When staying for a few nights, I usually make the effort to get up as early as 5am on one morning (so long as it’s light outside) to get a decent long run in – at that time, you get to see a place so differently from in daylight when tourists are at their most enthusiastic.

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Wonky Stockholm, 5:30am at midsummer.

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Less-wonky Stockholm

Running has taken me to some awesome places, too. Last year I was lucky enough to get to a workshop on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle, and Daniel met me in Tromsø afterwards to run the Midnight Sun half marathon. This was an experience I’ll never forget; taking part in an overseas race has to be one of my top running highlights to-date, and I’m keen to do more and more as I continue to explore the world.

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Runners on the Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø

Equally, I’ve taken running to some awesome places, and used it to my advantage in times of need. Last week I was visiting family in Ontario, Canada, and made use of the early hours presented to me by jetlag to see the sun rise over Lake Ontario. It was an incredible experience: locusts and cicadas sung out but the rest of the world was so still and quiet. The vastness of Lake Ontario was exactly what I needed after weeks of busy thesis-writing, and it was warm enough (actually, it was boiling hot even at that time) to sit down and soak in the views for a while.

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Spot the CN Tower in the distance!

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I have a little Deuter 15L Speedlite which I use as my everyday backpack*, and doubles up perfectly as a running pack for easy runs. I always pop in some water, a map and my phone/camera, just like any proper tourist, before I head out on my exploration runs. And, importantly, I never hesitate to stop and enjoy the views, take photos, and soak in the awesomeness of wherever I might be!

*Unfortunately nobody has paid me to say this; I just genuinely love this backpack.

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