I could be miserable right now. January and February brought a rainy winter, the shocking loss of a colleague and friend to suicide, a nagging injury, a lengthy illness, and a looming and very significant salary cut thanks to the jackwagons in Congress. But I’m not miserable.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sad and frustrated and mad about those things. And I’ve had some really tough days this winter, shed more than my fair share of tears.
But I’m not miserable. And I’m pretty sure I know why.
Plenty of Januaries and Februaries have passed with fewer challenges than I faced this winter. And yet I suffered through many of them sure I might collapse from the weight of my unnamable, insoluble sadness and gloom. I’m grateful to have lived through what seemed at those times unsurvivable.
This is my third winter as a runner.
I noticed over my first two years as a runner that my annual winter depression was…less depressed. Not depression-free, but lighter and less weighty.
Now, having stared down a season of frustration, loss, and apprehension, and having made it to another March—to the beginning of another season of lingering daylight and possibility—I know more than ever how vital running is in my life.
I know because for several weeks of December and two more in February, I couldn’t run. I know because those weeks—particularly those weeks In February—were some of the hardest and gloomiest I’ve endured in recent memory. Running doesn’t solve my problems. But being alone, outside, with only the rhythm of my breathing and the sounds of my footfalls to keep me company, gives me the clarity and peace to believe that I can solve my problems. And the strength to try.
It is not popular for people in my profession to publicly admit that they suffer from depression (or any other mood disorder)—even though studies show that lawyers are among the most depressed group of professionals around (insert lawyer joke here: you’d be depressed, too, if you had to spend all day with lawyers). In fact, the application to the bar in my jurisdiction asks about mental illness in the same section that it asks about felony convictions. Because, you know, they’re so totally similar.
Well, screw that.
I am a lawyer. I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and related mood irregularities most of my life. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed. In fact, I’m proud as hell that no matter how many times my faulty chemistry has tried to get the best of me, I’ve gotten back up, fought back, and kept moving. I’m proud as hell that every day I use my experiences with depression and anxiety to help me empathize with and advocate for people far less fortunate than I am, who battle structural and systemic foes far more powerful than the internal gloom that periodically confronts me.
Lawyers, in particular, tend to be stubborn boneheads when it comes to seeking help. But whether you are a lawyer or a vet or a bus driver or an accountant or a teacher or a painter or a chef, if you are struggling with depression (or anxiety or mood swings or substance dependence or any other problem that feels private and poisonous and rooted in your gut), get some help. If you are laboring under the false premise that this is just your life, that feeling shitty all the time is just your thing, STOP BEING A BONEHEAD. Try something. Ask for help.
For my part, I’ve seen doctors, done talk therapy, and taken medications. At various times in my life, each of those has been immensely helpful, and I would encourage other people dealing with similar issues to give those options a chance. When our kidneys are malfunctioning, we go see a kidney doctor. When we experience heart palpitations, we are all too happy to be hooked up to an EKG in the cardiologist’s office before an orderly can yell, “STAT!” So why is it that so many of us avoid getting professional advice when our thinking or moods get out of whack?*
Lest anything I say after this point be misconstrued, let me be clear: there is NO substitute for professional help if you are experiencing profound challenges to your mental well-being.
But nothing—nothing—has been more powerful in my own life for fighting depression and smoothing out the shallows of my depression than running.
There are plenty of obvious reasons—the evidence is clear that sunlight can fight depression and other mood disorders; we know that exercise stimulates endorphins and other mood elevating chemicals in the brain.
But I think there is more to it than that.
In the midst of depression, every task feels harder, every encounter more strained. Answering emails, listening to voicemail. Cleaning the kitchen. Helping a kid with homework. Getting dressed, doing the laundry. Whether you’re wealthy or poor, apparently blessed or cursed, depression makes even the most mundane tasks in life harder.
And that’s why, for me, running is my depression drug of choice. It is HARD. For me, at least. Those first few months, just running for 90 seconds felt like an eternity. As time went on, the difficulty shifted from keeping my feet moving, to moving them just a little faster or just a little longer. And it never wasn’t hard. But I always seemed to be able to do a little more each day.
And that is exactly what living through depression is about. Facing down the seemingly impossible task of just getting through each day, chipping away at it bit by bit, every day getting stronger. No one—well, almost no one—decides to run a marathon on race morning. It takes work and sweat and setbacks and pain and tiny, invisible victories just to get to the starting line. Few are the runners who have never been injured or never experienced an inexplicable slowdown or loss of motivation.
The same holds true with depression. Most people who experience it once will probably experience it again. But if dealing with cyclical depression throughout my life has prepared me for the ups and downs of life as a middle-aged athlete, then pushing through the limitations and doubts inherent in such a middle-aged pursuit has prepared me manifold with the tools for working through my depression.
Running has given me access to my own internal toolset. But I don’t pretend that it’s the only key or that it will work for everyone. And while it’s not a magical elixir, it has no negative side-effects or drug interactions and can be used in concert with any of the wide variety of mental healthcare tools and treatments. I think each of us needs a thing—not the thing we do for a living or that we do better than everyone else, but the thing we work at as diligent dilettantes. The thing we will never win at, except in so far as we start, we try, we strive, and we finish.
Maybe your thing is rock climbing. Or gardening. Or open water swimming. Or improv comedy. Or learning to play the Moonlight Sonata. It’s that difficult but not impossible goal that takes time to achieve, that is beset by unforeseen challenges, that gives way almost imperceptibly to new goals. Find that thing. It won’t solve your life, but it might just give you tools you need to make a better, more fulfilling life than you ever imagined was possible. It might give you the energy to keep working at your life when nothing seems to be going as planned. It might introduce you to wells of strength and resolve you never knew existed. Strength and resolve that might just save you from yourself one day.[/symple_column]
*There are lots of good answers: our health care system ghettoizes mental health care, making it unappealing or completely inaccessible for many; disordered thinking leads to more disordered thinking and less rational approaches to self-care; no one wants to be told he or she needs to be on medication. The list goes on, but I hope that if more of us who have dealt with mental health challenges can be open and honest about our experiences, we can make both systemic and social progress.