I finally did it.
Four months ago, I started running. Using the Couch to 5K app, I gasped my way through running for one single minute at a time.
Sixteen weeks later, I’m running 5K in half an hour.
It took twice as long as the program was supposed to last, but I took it in my stride, pushed through, levelled up when it felt appropriate, and can now proudly call myself a runner.
For a good portion of you, this is old news though: this challenge was achieved a week ago exactly. That said, I’m writing this post for two reasons.
First, because I promised that I’d update regularly on my fitness goals, and this creates a nice sense of closure. I like rounded endings. Makes it easier to move on to the beginnings. (Next goal: 100 push ups, 200 squats, 200 sit ups. So far my pecs are burning.)
Second, because for me this wasn’t just a physical fitness venture: it was also a mental one. Between 2014-2015, I was in a solidly declining state of mental health. Anxiety and depression had complete control over my life and I never thought I’d get out of that black chokehold.
October of last year, I saw – really saw – what a mess I was.
I was having regular panic attacks, sometimes in public. I could barely go to work. When I was at work, I had to be medicated in order to function. Seeing my friends was a task so painful it took days to psych myself up for it – and even then, sometimes I still flaked out. Most of the time I made no plans at all to avoid this stress, which meant I spent most of my free time in a really dark place in my head with few distractions. To cap it off, I’d gained thirty pounds since the previous year: I was having more and more difficulty finding things in my wardrobe that would fit thus making the seemingly simple task of getting ready for the day a demoralizing affair.
So when I saw all this in one of those brief moments of clarity and objectivity that sometimes come, I felt pretty damn pathetic. Then embarrassed. Then full of shame.
After the initial pity party I threw in honour of myself, I knew something had to change. Here I was at a rock bottom so deep and dark I had no concept of light anymore. I could very well stay here forever. But honestly, I was tired of feeling so horrible, and I was sick of myself. I vowed I was willing to do anything – anything – that would help me scrabble towards the distant light I could no longer see but only have faith still existed.
At that point, the only thing I felt I had power over was my weight – probably because I could actually measure my success on the scale whereas depression and anxiety were a lot more intangible.
I downloaded the SparkPeople app to track my food, exercise, and water intake. I had programmed it to guide me into losing 2 pounds a week (the healthy maximum). I had no interest in extreme dieting: I was going to do it right this time. I was going to make it stick.
My reason for this was because I wanted to have a lifestyle change, not just a quick fix. It was time to take control over my life and for good. Medication alone definitely did not work, and I hated it anyway. The kind of foods I was eating weren’t making me feel or look good, no matter how nice they might taste in the moment of consumption. And my body felt useless: weak, tired, and more often than not sore for no reason.
So I bought a gym membership and counted my calories like a miser, and bit by bit I watched the pounds melt away.
I stood up straighter.
I started feeling better – cleaner somehow.
Best of all, cloud by cloud, my mind too began to clear.
When I moved to the UK in January, I started taking lots of long walks (those hills were almost as good as any gym). My eating habits definitely took a dip (damn you, saveloy and chips with extra curry sauce!!), but even though I gained back some weight, I engaged in other healthy habits. I couldn’t work there, so without a boss to give me tasks and deadlines, I had to self-discipline. Dozens of blog posts, YouTube videos, pieces of art, and photographs later (well, several hundred of the photographs), I started feeling proud of how much I’d managed to accomplish. And all on my own steam, no less.
That pride began to restore those places my depression and anxiety had eroded for so long. For the first time in a long time, I began to feel whole again.
When I got back to Canada, I was really worried about the backslide of my progress. It wasn’t a happy return in the sense that I was leaving behind a life I was only just starting to construct over there – and most importantly, Ricky, who’d been my greatest support through the worst of it.
But, determined to stay on top of my life, I kept on going. Life is a giant rolling ball with you on top, and you have to keep on moving to keep it from running you over.
I was unhappy with the fact that I’d gained back some weight and had stopped exercising, but unlike when I’d started in October, it didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore. It had been overwhelming the first time around, but now I had the experience of already knowing the methods I’d chosen had worked once. I knew they would work again. The feat seemed less daunting and was instead a challenge I met willingly. Even amiably.
Running was something I chose because 1) it was cheaper than the gym, 2) it seemed like every fit person ran and I wanted to be one of them, and 3) it was something I’d failed at so many times in the past.
That last one might seem weird as a point of motivation, but instead of discourage me, I was determined to do it right at last. If I finally conquered this mountain, it would prove to me that I could conquer most anything – including my mental health.
I had a lot at stake.
So I ran.
I ran and I ran and I ran. Sometimes it felt amazing. A lot of times it didn’t. My knees hurt; my tendons twinged. When the time increased from 3 minutes to 5 minutes – and then to 8 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes – I honestly didn’t think it was humanly possible. Several times I thought I might die (or more accurately puke on the street before passing out).
But I kept going.
Running hasn’t taught me how to run so much as how to push through. All it takes is for you to take another step. And another one. And another one. You just keep going until you reach your goal. Then you can rest. But when it’s time to run, you run. Mostly it’s your mind saying you can’t; your body is capable of a lot more than you think.
Having this trust in my body and reshaping how I approached the longer runs also changed how I thought about my mental health. It taught me that perseverance is possible and won’t break me. All it takes is the slow buildup of muscle. It’s not something to immediately be good at, nor is it something achieved and then retained like a shelf trophy. It’s a practice in the truest sense of the word: you have to keep on practicing to keep those muscles.
So last week, I reached the top of my mountain. But from that height, I saw that it’s not one peak, but one of many in a mountain range spreading as far as the eye can see. There’s valleys in between, but I’m not scared of them anymore because I know that if I keep going, I’ll get to another peak eventually. Right now, I’m definitely struggling with the season change and SAD, but unlike last year, it’s not crippling me. I’m stronger in every way and ready to face the world again.
I write all this not just as a cathartic outpouring (though, like I mentioned above, I like the roundness of endings as well as beginnings). Expressing this is more for anyone else who reads it or stumbles upon it who’s struggled with their mental health. It’s for you if you’ve ever questioned whether or not you’re ever going to be able to leave the cage of your mind. Here’s the truth of it: no one is born strong. It’s something you become. It’s something you build. Everyone, everywhere, has been a beginner.
A journey is never a single step. It’s a first step, and then another. And another. And another.
Your last step is just another one of those.