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Posts Tagged ‘mental health’

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write about this race. Partly, I didn’t want to write an account that sounded in any way like a bad review, or anything too negative. Partly, the story is kind of personal, and I can’t write about this race without going into Personal Stuff in at least some detail. But I like to write these reports for my own records, and after reading a comment on the Lakeland Trails Facebook page this morning about someone else going through something similar to me, I thought it might be of use to someone if I were a little bit open about this stuff. So here goes.

This race was almost a DNS (did not start) on countless occasions. On almost every long run I’d make it to the one mile mark and consider turning home and dropping out. I never did. My training runs were poor at best, but I did every single one, totting up some of the highest weekly mileage I’ve ever managed. Running became increasingly difficult, and when I went to see my doctor (also a marathon runner) who said I probably wasn’t over-training, I went for some tests to work out what was going on. Two days later I got my B12 anaemia diagnosis, and my first thought was that I’d finally have a real excuse to pull out of this race.

And I was looking for an excuse. In the paradoxical world of being human, I was pushing myself out on runs of up to 20 miles, when even walking around the corner to Sainsbury’s was becoming a problem. The long runs were a nightmareish story of grumbling anxiety peppered with full-on panic – I did one 16-miler without straying more than a mile from my front door, just looping around a nearby 3-mile circuit where I felt ‘safe’. To put it bluntly: panic attacks. Daily, sometime hourly, bursts of near-death experience. As I write this I’m wondering why I didn’t just give myself a break and pull out of the race.

The panic wasn’t enough to stop me, and neither was the anaemia. I found myself in Coniston on 4th June, overwhelmed by the brightness of the sun and the greenness of the trees. There was so many people, children everywhere, bright colours and shrieking from every angle I turned. There was no peace, my mind was raging with the explosion of newness around me. I really really tried to look forward to the space of the marathon the next day, but there was only dread, and under that, utter terror. After a night of almost no sleep, I found myself at the startline at 6:45am, where finally there was peace as runners assembled all with their own nerves and fears about the day (and the heat! it was already hot!) ahead. I cried into Daniel’s chest, totally resigned to feeling too fragile to run a marathon. We had agreed weeks before that I would pull out at the first nudge of anaemia-ish symptoms – I was going to start the race, that was all. A DNF (did not finish) seemed inevitable.

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And so we were off and I was crying as we set out, but soon enough it was ok. I focussed on my steps, upon setting a gentle pace that I could keep up for a while as my thoughts slowed into a comfortable rhythm. It was ok, I was ok. Not great, but ok. Not even two miles in and sweat was dropping from my face, but the heat wasn’t really an issue; if I could deal with my head I could deal with the heat no problem. At mile 8 there was a feed station and I noticed that one lady was dropping out. I could join her. A car will be coming, I could wait and get in that car and we can go back together. I carried on, reluctantly – mile 8 seemed too soon to drop out without an injury.

We got to the beautiful Tarn Hows section and I remembered walking here on the last day of our honeymoon. We talked about all of the things, it was warm and sunny, I was totally content. I tuned in to that day as hard as I could, remembering that feeling of joy and newness, tucked away in the Lake District far from all of the normal life stuff. I chatted to a few other runners here, pushing down the nausea and battling forwards. My Garmin beeped 10 miles and a small group of us cheered – 10 miles already! Around and around Tarn Hows and then up a track past some super marshalls to find James basking in the sun with his camera. I think I felt good by this point – certainly good enough to have a joke about suncream. It was hot, and not even 10am. It was getting really hot.

Coniston

Another feed station, almost 12 miles in and just before Grizedale forest. I had been looking forward to shade: there was no shade. The sun was blazing right above, and everyone kept stopping to walk, drink, moan quietly. I stopped to reapply suncream, afraid of heat stroke, alongside everything else. This was getting hard and I didn’t think I’d be able to finish. But all the time, as always, amazing runners sharing the dregs of cheer that they could muster up. Some familiar faces from previous races, a lot of new people to talk to. The next feed station was at 19 miles – Just another 10km and then I’ll see about pulling out. I looked forward to being shuttled back and sitting in the sun waiting for Daniel to finish his half marathon. Dreams of pulling out pushed me forwards, albeit incredibly slowly.

At mile 16 I saw a marshall. It had been a very long, lonely mile or so and I was at rock bottom. He told me I was halfway. But I’ve done 16 milesOh you know these events, 26 miles is just an estimate, he replied. I had done the run last year, I knew it was 26 miles, not 32. But my spirits dropped from low to rock-bottom. The next 3 miles are a blur in my mind. I was dying the entire time, seemingly encapsulated in panic, far from anyone or anything, with no shade from the sun. I was in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever run in, and I couldn’t think coherently enough to enjoy it, only feeling surges of dread all over the place as I clambered over the rocks. It was here that I encountered The Guy Who Got Me Through, though it wasn’t until later that he really saved the day. We were both in a slump – he said he’d love to be sitting at home drinking a tea. I hadn’t even had a cup of tea that day (no wonder I didn’t feel good), and all I could think of was sugary tea from there on (note: I felt too ill to eat by this point, and was relying on coke from the feed stations to get some sugar in me).

This is a long account. It was a long day.

Every story needs a hero, and there are many many heroes in this one, but my first hero (and probably that of many other runners that day) was the ninja feed station at mile 19. It was here that I was supposed to drop out – I had actually decided that this would be the case – but instead I came across a little table and two friendly people handing out water and Kendal mint cake. They had done the race before, but had decided this year to hand out refreshments to runners instead, setting up outside a friend’s house where they could use a tap all day long (bearing in mind that the official feed stations were usually tap-less, so precious water had to be shipped to us – water really was at a premium that day). Here I got chatting to a small group of people and it turned out that we were all struggling with major issues. I WAS NOT ALONE. I told them that I had decided to drop out, but that their company might be enough to see me on a little further. We ran together for a while, and stuck together on and off for the remainder of the race.

This was the turning point for me. It took 19 miles (and who knows how many hours) of journeying forwards before my mind started to calm, but I got there. By this point the heat was seriously bad, and I was aware that it would be too much for many people, but miracuolously I felt ok. I had ample water and was soaked in suncream. I also have to mention here the lovely family of one runner, to whom I’d mentioned that I was getting some chafing from my backpack. She had given her family a description of me, and as I approached them they were holding out a tub of Vaseline, complete with kind words and well wishes. I wasn’t surprised – this level of kindness and camaraderie is what I’ve come to expect on Lakeland Trails events. If you’re reading, fellow runner, thank you – and well done on such a great run 🙂

The last six miles? Easy peasy compared to the first 20. I had blisters all over my feet, I was starving hungry, I had a grumbling headache and I hadn’t had a wee for more hours than is probably safe, but I felt as if I could do it for the first time since March. I ran along chatting to the same guy who I’d met earlier (now known as The Guy Who Got Me Through since we didn’t bother asking for names), whose company and really good conversation (how is it that you can be that tired and still really enjoy a conversation?) took me from enduring to enjoying my time out on the fells. He was one of a number of really awesome people who I met – always a theme at Lakeland Trails days out!  I actually felt kind of cheerful, and when we reached the final aid station (3 miles to go!) it was a veritable festival of joy. Here I bumped into Mark (sorry I called you Jeff – was a bit delirious by this point!) who was ploughing along like a running machine, and who offered me some great words of encouragement to see me through those last couple of miles. Up a bit, then meet the lakeshore and just a couple of miles of flat from there (oh and a wall to climb over).

I petered out in the last few hundred metres and ran in a sort of ‘creeping’ style over the finish line – not the strong finish that I usually like to go for. But who cares? Somehow I’d made it, battling on past the lowest of all lows to actually gain some real positivity from the run. Ask anyone who has ever run a marathon and they will tell you that the challenge is almost completely mental. Mostly, I agree with this. But somehow this run showed something different. I had no mental strength that day, none whatsoever. The thing that got me through that marathon was the strength of others. So, while I am free to think what I want of my own mental strength, which may or may not be available at any point, at least I know that there is a goldmine of strength to be found in other people. And I really hope that I can give back as much as I take – the runner who got treated to my ‘Last few miles rap’ at mile 24 (sorry) may have something to say about that one…

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*To the tune of So Solid’s 21 Seconds, but replacing the seconds with distance as you get closer to the end…

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I had some big successes in 2015: getting a PhD, running an ultra marathon, starting a job that was both satisfying and challenging. But, while I’m proud of all these things, life is so much bigger than all of them, and none of them guarantee stable happiness and well-being for any decent length of time. Alongside these big successes, there was a slightly larger number of small successes; I managed to fix a few good habits in place over the course of the last 12 months, which have improved my happiness bit-by-bit, and which I can carry with me through the weeks, months and years regardless of whatever else life might throw at me.

I ummmed and ahhhed about new year’s resolutions for 2016. Part of me felt as if I should want to improve myself in some way, and so I resolved to drink more water and cut out sugary food just before bed. Both lasted almost the entirety of January (almost), but neither made me happier, and while I might be more hydrated, possibly a little thinner and saving more on dentist bills (see below), the effort required to do both of these things took something away, rather than adding something good to my life. As a used-to-be-overweight person I know that any real changes need to be easy to implement, make you feel good, and have some sort of measurable outcome. And they need to be enjoyable eventually, if not right away, in order to continue with them long-term. Aside from the satisfaction of ticking off glasses of water each day in my head, there was no real carrot to these two sticks. Inevitably I gave up, and I now continue to enjoy late-night sugar fixes thank you very much, no guilt required.

But onto the good habits – the things that really are making me that bit happier each day, and which bring stability and meaning to even the glummest and hardest weeks. Here is my small list: they’re all works in progress, but they have shown me how making positive changes reaps benefits in the long- and short-term.

Pilates
For a long time I did yoga almost every day. Everyone seems to talk about how great getting ‘on the mat’ is; how spiritually invigorating and healing it is, how in touch everyone feels with their bodies. Years of yoga later and I started to feel totally out of touch with it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved yoga in places, and had an amazing teacher when I lived in Bradford who just about saved me. But we moved to York and I just couldn’t reconnect with it; it wasn’t right for me anymore.

Daniel had been attending a pilates class for some time, and so, intrigued, I decided to give that a go instead. One class later and I was adamant that it wasn’t for me. It made bits of me hurt that I didn’t know existed, and I didn’t see the point in doing strange movements that I never had to do in normal life. I knew it was good for me, but it wasn’t fast-paced or sweaty enough to keep me interested. But then I started training for an ultra marathon, combined with excessive amounts of PhD-related stress. I forced myself to go by paying for 7 classes up-front, so I attended those 7 classes, always a little bit reluctantly. And then I paid for 7 more. After 14 classes I could do this:

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This might not seem a big deal, but no kidding, I have never in my life even been able to sit with my legs out straight, never mind bending forwards and touching my toes on top of it all. I could see the benefit, and I was sold. Now, I look forward to pilates. It’s become an hour in my week that is solely for me – all about doing good for myself and tuning in with my body. A hard-won habit, but one I’m sure I’ll stick with.

Flossing
I know it’s really gross to not floss. I’ve tried and tried to become a nightly flosser since meeting my dental-health-freak husband, but my OCD makes it incredibly difficult to floss owing to the hand-to-mouth proximity that it requires. Last August I had to have my second filling, which my dentist put down to eating chocolate before bed. I knew that if I wanted to stick with my chocolate and avoid any more fillings, this had to change. I found a way to make it work for me without excessive hand-washing practices beforehand, and as I kept doing it, I noticed time and time again how great it feels to go to bed with a lovely fresh mouth. Better sleep, (hopefully) cheaper dentist bills, fewer fillings, more chocolate: what’s not to love.

Meditation
Veggie Runners’ review of Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier totally changed my life. Convinced by their enthusiasm, I bought a copy for myself and laughed and cried my way through it. Only a few chapters in and I started to try out meditation for myself: first three minutes, then five, and now I’m up to seven minutes most days. It’s totally imperfect: most of the time my mind wanders to a place where I’m simply unable to observe my thoughts, and sometimes the alarm goes off without my having experienced a second of mindfulness. But just showing up to do it is enough for me; I am more aware of my thoughts, and it’s led me to some pretty soul-shifting revelations about myself and my thought processes. And, I’d agree with Dan, it’s made me around 7% happier for now – there is still a lot of work to do!

Walking
In the midst of my PhD I found myself routineless and lost. I was staying in my PJs for way too much of the day, feeling useless and without direction. I decided that I’d go out on a morning walk each day, before starting work. I’m lucky enough to live right by the River Ouse, where we have the wonderful New Walk, which was built for wealthy Georgians to promenade after their evening meal. It’s lined with huge trees, and there are two bridges crossing the river a convenient mile apart, making it a perfect 2-mile morning circuit, totally free from traffic. I walk this circuit almost every morning, come rain or shine, and it is wonderful. It never gets old: the light through the trees is different every day, the birdsong changes with the seasons and the light. And it’s valuable fresh air, headspace, and time for myself; it didn’t take long for me to reach the point where I simply couldn’t start work without my walk.

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Writing
For years I have kept diaries, and written in them sporadically at best. Last year saw the start of this becoming an almost daily occurrence – something I’d been striving towards for a long time. I didn’t force it, but like the walking habit, it became a daily need. A time each day for me to reflect on what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling, what I’m hoping for. I know I’ll be grateful for it in years to come when I can look back, but it’s also helping me look forwards too, as I try to make sense of where I’m going, and balance up the various things that I want from life. Writing each day is probably the best gift I’ve been able to give myself: I don’t plan what to write, but the words fall from my head as if they’re desperately trying to escape into reality.

Swimming
This was a good habit, but I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit in the new year as everyone in York seems to have made ‘swim at 7am every Monday’ their resolution, and they’re sticking with it, too. But I used to hate swimming, and now I love it. Again, it’s an OCD challenge, but just facing these challenges makes me more powerful. I also used to hate it because I’m rubbish at it, but now I love it because I’m still rubbish at it. I love how tired I feel afterwards: how easy it is for me to run 1km, but how difficult I find it to swim the same distance. I love watching the super swimmers tearing down the pool as I potter around in the slow lane doing breaststroke. I love admiring them yet not feeling rubbish about my own incapacity to swim well in response. It allows me to drift away in my thoughts, one repeated stroke after the next. Wonderful.

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I’m pretty happy with this bunch, but they are all works in progress. As life changes, no doubt some will fall away, but hopefully I’ll gain new habits in their place. There are a few new ones creeping in that I’m keen to get established:

  • Parkrun – I’ve done Parkrun on 3 out of 5 weekends this year so far, and I love it. I really want this to become a regular weekly ‘thing’, as I love the sense of community. It’s so great to be part of something so positive!
  • Blood donation – I’ve done it twice, and I fainted the second time so now I’m scared to go back. I want to make it to five times and see how I feel after that. We’ll see.
  • Shopping local – more to come on this, but it’s our challenge for February, and I am really enjoying connecting with local producers when buying my food.

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Note: this is a reposted version of something I wrote on my other blog on 12th March 2014. Most of it is still entirely accurate.
There has been a lot of dedicated time for discussion about mental health issues in the media recently. From #timetotalk day at the beginning of February, to Eating Disorders Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago. Appropriately for me, there was also an OCD week of action recently. OCD is something I rarely talk about outside the comfort of my own home/CBT session, but its presence in my life is becoming more noticeable as I see people rising to address mental health issues via social media, and I feel I owe it to myself as well as any other OCD sufferers out there to acknowledge OCD for what it is, which is probably way more than most people think it is. According to the OCD week of action is was “time to act”, but in my case I’ve been acting (knowingly) for more than 12 years, and I realised that it’s probably time to stop acting. Contrary to the usual mantra, it may, finally, be time to stop acting and start talking, so here we go.
I don’t feel any need to ‘come out’ about my OCD – no reason to apologise or confess anything in particular. Those who matter to me never ask me to, and never question why I behave the way I do. It’s not something I’ve purposely hidden, but have instead come to keep sealed under an ever-tightening lid of reflexive excuses. After all, it’s not something that arrives easily into conversation, and while in retrospect I wish I’d had the guts to say ‘it might seem like I’m a bit weird but actually it’s OCD’ to every new friend I’ve made over the years, somehow that doesn’t quite work in reality. I know that to a large extent it’s down to the endless stereotypes of neatness, checking the front door twice, using hand sanitizer, and so on, and partly down to the trivialization of the condition by so many people who self-define as being ‘OCD-ish’ because they like to iron their shirts in a certain way. Anyway, it’s obvious that the general public’s idea of OCD is completely misconstrued, so maybe it’s time to explain.

OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. According to OCDaction.org.uk:

intensely negative, repetitive and intrusive thoughts, combined with a chronic feeling of doubt or danger (obsessions). In order to quell the thought or quieten the anxiety, they will often repeat an action, again and again (compulsions).

I would also use the word ‘irrational’ here. Often intensely, ridiculously irrational but perfectly sensible and obvious to the obsessive compulsive person. There is nothing obsessive, compulsive or indeed irrational about washing hands before eating. I think that actually comes under ‘good personal hygiene’.

As this is a condition that is very much grounded in behaviours, OCD symptoms are unlike the symptoms of many other mental health issues because they are (often) visible. You need to look closely, but they are there. It has been my preoccupation over the past 12 years to make them as invisible as possible, and while in some ways this has been a therapy in itself, it’s also caused a whole load of compulsive behaviours to stay locked up as habits and reflexes. I should add here that at the moment I’m more on top of these habits and behaviours than I have been in a long time – some days I’m not even aware of the presence of an OCD in my life, and I know that this makes me one of the lucky ones. But when I think back over time and how the behaviours that I see as ‘mine’ have mutated, largely alongside the periods of life that have been the most difficult, I’m generally pretty amazed by the way this thing has taken hold of me. Strangest of all, some of the things that I could never have faced back in the early days of my OCD diagnosis are perfectly fine for me now, while back then I was able to do things that I wouldn’t dream of doing now. And when I see other people doing those things (which I do, every single hour of every single day), my insides recoil in horror and I experience just a prickle of the fear that stops me from doing them myself. Weird eh? However, this also gives me hope that one day I might not be this weird at all – maybe one day I’ll be able to do it all, and that would be awesome.

A little mantra that I go by is ‘get out of your comfort zone’. Usually I’m referring to PhD-related activities, or to running or climbing or even trying a new kind of food or music genre, but in reality outside my comfort zone is my default setting, and it’s when my comfort zone is completely out of sight that the OCD behaviours really take hold; generally during periods of high pressure, stress or upset, or when there are lots of people to deal with all at once. There are other times when I’m able to push those comfort zone boundaries as far as I can, and naturally this is during periods when I’m especially chilled out or having fun – it’s the reason I can run in races (pre-marathon toilets are no one’s idea of a safe environment) and that I’ve surprised myself so much on occasions at friends’ houses when all of my OCD behaviours go out the window and I can chill out with a glass of wine. Those days are the best.

The worst thing about having OCD is that it’s all-consuming; there are very rarely periods of down-time, even when I’m well within the boundaries of my comfort zone. It’s a bit like being stuck in a cage, which shrinks and shrinks as anxiety increases, until the bars are squeezing in too tight and the noise is too loud and I’m pretty sure the only option is to self-combust. There have been times when I’ve rushed out of a shop halfway through buying something at the checkout, or thrown out large quantities of food ‘just in case’, or whole days when I haven’t had a glass of water or something to eat, just because I was too stuck in that tightening cage to be able to grab on to anything rational to help pull me back out. It’s here that I quietly recognise the very tiny number of people (n=2) who I’ve shared my thought-processes in detail with – one of whom has meandered slowly out of my life, and the other who has committed to putting up with me for life – and their patience and resilience in the face of these unpredictable reactions to normal life situations. Living with someone with OCD is pretty tough – walking on eggshells would be an appropriate expression – as OCD eyes and ears are constantly looking out for threats to the safe (for me) environment of home. I’ve trained myself not to look as Daniel hangs out the towels or empties the dishwasher, but there’s still that rush of fear when I hear him going about these perfectly normal jobs without my standards being imposed on him as he does so. Imagine having to do every task yourself in order to make sure everything conforms to the rules of an OCD. Exhausting. Equally exhausting are the myriad ‘normal’ tasks that come with being an independent human: I could write a whole blog post on the intricacies of making a cheese sandwich with OCD.

Most people have to face their biggest fears at certain times in their lives. Some people choose to do it – climbing the Eiffel Tower and peeping over the edge of the top balcony, doing a sky dive – while others just go for it when presented with the opportunity – picking up a spider and popping it safely out of the window, stroking a dog – and then there’s the awful, unavoidable things that sometimes force people to face what they’re most afraid of – taking a trip on a plane, speaking in public. That feeling of relief when you face something that terrifies you and realise that you’re ok, that you’ve survived at the end of it, is not comparable to anything else. Relief combined with pride combined with the aftershock of terror, sort of like being drunk momentarily – it’s quite a good feeling, from what I can tell from my own experiences of jumping off things or peering over things or talking in front of large numbers of people. Similarly, while it’s been a while now since I ‘faced’ door handles, and over a year since I mastered the technique of eating a tangerine without touching it with my hands, still every time I do these things (every day) I notice, and my stomach sort of flips and the cage bars rattle, and then I remember that it’s ok because I’ve ‘survived’ it now hundreds of times in a row*, and then my heart and my head do a little victory dance together, and slowly those bars get a little bit further away. I call these moments small victories, comparable to jumping out of a plane time and time again, forever grateful for surviving, yet always aware that next time I might not. So then I touch the nearest chair or doorframe, just in case, and continue on my way.

Edit: Rose Bretécher is doing some great work raising awareness of OCD, and in a recent article criticized a hideous report on Good Morning Britain where Michelle Mone talked about how having OCD was great because it made her more organised. Rose details a list of some of the common intrusive thoughts that OCD sufferers deal with. These include intrusive thoughts about sexual violence, fears that you might want to murder or harm your child and fears that you may be terminally ill. I would also add to the list the fear that someone you love has died (every time the phone rings) and the belief that everything you touch is contaminated.

If you like to laugh while learning about OCD then check out my friend Adam’s stand up set,OCD Octopus!

*here I pause to tap on the coffee table, just in case

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We spent a few days in the Lake District at the beginning of September. We camped in Seatoller and took the opportunity to climb Scafell Pike on the Thursday, and then headed to Keswick for some B&B luxury the next day, in time for the Lakeland Trails event on the Saturday. Even before the start of the holiday I’d been experiencing some strange (and pretty nasty) aching in my ankle, and had barely done any running in the two weeks before the event. I climbed the mountain fully aware that it might put an end to my hopes of running that weekend, and when I was able to run I did so with full acknowledgement that I wasn’t doing myself any favours. My ankle was fine for the first few miles, but 9 miles of technical trails were just about enough to make walking painful the following day.

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Photo courtesy of James Kirby

I wasn’t surprised when my doctor told me that I’d need to stop running. What did surprise me was that I was totally ok with that. For the first time, I listened to the advice I was given knowing that I would pay it some heed and not push myself. Something about pushing myself has become old news around here – it no longer interests me, and not running turned out to be one of the most revealing (at times painfully revealing) experiences I’ve had in a while.

Not running allowed me to address all of my reasons for being afraid of not running, and in turn, allowed me to reassess all of the reasons why I run. I realised that running had become much more a part of my life than it should be; my weeks were planned around when I would run and what sort of running I wanted to do; there was a non-negotiable commitment to the plans I had made, and, well I guess I had become a bit boringThe idea of going three consecutive days without a run had become unthinkable – I ran on holiday, on days off, when I was more in need of pyjamas and pizza than exercise…every part of my life was tied to running in some way.

So, when I stopped, the first thing I noticed was relief. I was tired, and actually, I was a bit bored of running; a break was good news. The surprise here was that I didn’t frantically start rushing out to a spinning class or on daily bike rides instead: I upped my weekly swim to twice a week and, if the weather suited, went on a short bike ride at the weekend. I couldn’t really walk far (my Doc advised to avoid walking where possible), so I paid more attention to the unavoidable walks that I had to do, appreciating the time outdoors as much as I possibly could.

I also noticed that I didn’t become depressed. I had been convinced that my mental stability absolutely depended on running: nope, I was wrong. Of course, getting outside and moving is essential for good mental health, but so is coffee with friends, long morning lie-ins, quality husband time, an evening with a great book and furry cat cuddles. And, as the constant pressure on myself to get out running five times a week was no longer there, I felt in a much happier place then I’d been in a while. If anything, not running removed a huge burden from my life. Because running had become a burden; the thing I thought I did to keep myself happy was making me unhappy.

And this leads me to The Space. I would perhaps have been tempted to refer to this as The Gap previously – the idea that stopping running would leave a big gap in my life and I’d just sit feeling sad, getting fat and being bored (I am a bit ashamed to be typing these words, but I think it’s true of how I used to feel). But no, suddenly there was space. I got in touch with the friends I hadn’t contacted in a while, I went to my favourite coffee shop on empty afternoons and treated myself to some reading time, I stayed in my pyjamas until noon on Sundays, I bought myself some new things. I applied for (in one case successfully) some exciting jobs and took part (unsuccessfully) in a baking competition. I made bread for the first time in ages and stocked up on homemade jams and chutneys using veg from the garden and foraged blackberries. I made homemade ketchup – red and green! I visited my family for Sunday dinner and spent an afternoon at a rugby game in my home town. It’s not that I never did things things before, but before they always had to fit in to ‘a busy schedule’ of keeping up what I thought was my favourite hobby. It turns out that grassroots rugby and mushroom pie is really quite fun too. Life became fuller than it’s been in a long time, and at the same time there was more space to sit and breathe, slowly.

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The best loaf of bread I’ve ever made

Of course, there were moments when I desperately wanted to run. This is the best time of year to get out there, and the weather has been perfect for long Sunday runs. It was those moments when things were most difficult that I was able to find something new and exciting. This is where I was able to really question myself – am I a runner or not? Do I ever want to run again? For about three weeks I was convinced that I had to stop running altogether, and those moments were the only glimmers of what the future might hold as a runner, and not as a non-runner. On many an occasion I sat on the floor with my eyes closed, in a sort of meditation I suppose, and just listened to what my thoughts were telling me. This non-running existence is slower, unpressured; life is fuller, more peaceful; I am happier and more whole. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that this weird paradox where we run marathon after marathon as a way of justifying or finding worth in our actions and existence – well, it’s just another excess of modern life. To a certain extent running has become a consumer product, like a designer handbag, perhaps. We want more and more, because the getting, rather than the having, feels so good. It does feel good – there’s no denying it – but it also makes us feel bad, guilty, not good enough. And thus the cycle begins. I half-speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Finally, eventually, I came to the place that I’d been looking for. I realised that the important part of my non-running journey had passed, and I was left with a sensible balance of wanting to get out running and not wanting to ever feel pressure ever again about doing or not doing something that I choose to do for fun. It took four weeks for the thought processes to gather in a happy place where I no longer felt fear about not being injured any more, or about starting running again (and having to make the decision about whether or not I would). Finally I was comfortable about starting again with a new ‘only when it feels good’ approach.

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Four weeks isn’t a long time – could you do it? It was one of the nicest four weeks I’ve spent in ages. Oh, and in answer to the inevitable question, I don’t own a set of scales, but my slightly-too-tight-to-wear jeans now fit nicely; I wonder if this is my body’s response to relaxing and being allowed to regulate itself without constantly fighting for energy? It was hard to accept that I was feeling this way about running, and I’m glad that I was forced into it with an injury because I never would have taken the time to stop otherwise. After the break (and still with an ankle that needs caring for) I was glad to start running again, but now my sole goal for a run is to feel good and shake off the day (I’m yet to manage a morning run – I’ve become too fond of lazy breakfasts with my husband). So far I’ve been paying attention constantly to how I feel when I’m out, and questioning my reasons for getting out there. Never again do I want to find my running schedule on auto-pilot, where a hobby turns into a burden and thus a drain on my quality of life.

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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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