How Running Helped Me Reach my Mountaintop of Mental Health
Meet Andy! A week or so ago Andy reached out to me via our contact form and expressed interest in sharing his story. He is the first guy to want to share and I couldn’t be more excited! Just as many men suffer from depression as women, but they are the least likely to get mental health help.
I get it though…. depression has a very large stigma attached to it. One part of that stigma is that society sees people with mental health conditions as lazy or weak (which is BS!!!) and I think that plays a large part as to why men are afraid to admit they might need help. Our world today mocks men that show any weakness, sensitivity or vulnerability. This isn’t helpful for anyone though. For men, the suicide rate is three times higher than that for women. THREE times! If that isn’t compelling enough evidence that a lot of men are suffering in silence, the CDC reports the suicide rate for men ages 45 to 64 jumped by 43 percent from 1999 to 2014.
If you are a man who believes they have depression or a mental health condition, please know there is no shame in admitting it. I think one of the strongest things a person can do is admit they need help, and then get that help. I commend Andy for wanting to share his story with us and I hope that he inspires you as much as he has inspired me.
My mental health journey started when I first started learning how to talk. I was diagnosed with Semantic Pragmatic Disorder. Basically, my language neurons weren’t firing properly.
I spoke English words, but my sentences didn’t make any sense. Many times, I would simply recite names of family members in response to people introducing themselves to me.
This obviously proved to be problematic when I started school. I couldn’t connect with my classmates because I didn’t know how to respond to them, and likewise, they didn’t know how to respond to me.
And so begins my journey with anxiety
The most killer part of my anxiety is that I always expect a negative response from people when I interact with them.
This is exactly what happened to me in preschool. Because I couldn’t communicate with them, they usually walked away and I was left to play by myself.
Thankfully, a few years of special ed and speech therapy got me on the road to being able to communicate normally. However, those initial interactions and negative responses were burned into my psyche and never left me.
Increasing mental health problems and coping mechanisms
My anxiety remained with me and developed into depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder during my teenage years. Things calmed down during college but came roaring back in my 20’s. I felt alone in the world and completely unsure of myself.
I didn’t have the confidence to really pursue a career path in radio broadcasting post-college. So, I started over and tried to figure out what to do next.
During this period, I developed many unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with my anxiety and depression. Among them were eating junk and gaining 50 pounds, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, drinking way too much on the weekends, and otherwise doing things that were not good for me.
My sense of self-worth was in the toilet. I had no confidence at all. At some points, I didn’t care if I lived or died. Death seemed to be the easier option, but something told me that I really just wanted the pain to stop.
Finding stability in marriage and a new passion
After I managed to slowly start crawling out of rock bottom, I reconnected with an old friend from college who became the love of my life. We got married, and I forged a new career path in technology and marketing.
I got my MBA and two project management certifications. I also taught myself how to code websites and immersed myself in the web development and nonprofit technology scenes.
I was on the up-and-up with my career. I was in love. We planned on starting a family. Everything was hunky-dory.
My life blew up
You never really know how strong your relationship is until a crisis occurs. In my case, the relationship was not strong enough to withstand it.
In April 2015, my wife left me. We filed for divorce soon after.
The very next morning after she left me, I found out that a very dear friend of mine died due to complications of childbirth. The baby was fine. My friend got to spend about 24 hours with her before developing complications and dying suddenly.
One month after all that, my father, who was my mentor and hero, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I flew out to Honolulu to be with him and my mother. We put Dad through hospice and ultimately had to take him off dialysis.
He passed away three weeks after I arrived. We buried him and celebrated his life. I then returned home to an empty apartment with a few of my things, rented furniture, and a pile of divorce papers at the front door.
My world was rocked. I was heartbroken. I didn’t really know what I was going to do next, but soon, the path unfolded.
Let’s try healthier coping mechanisms this time
Before my life blew up, I was already on a path to being healthier. I had quit smoking, was eating better, and developed a daily 10,000-step Fitbit walking habit.
I incorporated meditation and mindfulness into my routine. It helped me learn that everything is temporary and that my strong feelings of sadness, anger, and otherwise will not last forever.
Meditation helped me gain clarity, and running helped me gain strength and confidence.
I got bored of walking, and one night, during a particularly brisk walk, my legs just started running. I didn’t have any control over it. The music was blaring in my headphones, the weather was beautiful, and I was having an excellent time.
So, my legs started running on their own. I took that as a sign.
Where running has taken me
I started off by training for 5Ks. It didn’t take me too long to do my first half-marathon in April 2016. Then I did the ten-mile Broad Street Run in my adopted home city of Philadelphia.
Since then, I have done several 5Ks and races of other distances. My PRs are all well and good, but the sense of accomplishment, strength, and confidence that I have attained are priceless.
Running gave me the confidence that I needed to quit my job and start my own web design business. Though that venture only lasted for seven months, it gave me the skills that I needed to land my dream job as the head web and digital marketing guy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. I love what I do every day.
I also volunteer with a wonderful organization called Back on My Feet, which combats homelessness through running. Every Wednesday morning at 5:30 am, I am in South Philly leading a group workout that involves a 2-3 mile run, the serenity prayer, and group hugs. My group members are men in recovery from addiction and people in the neighborhood who are there to help them get back on their feet.
I have reached my mountain top
My anxiety has been a lifelong burden. It has held me back and caused me to have an entirely skewed negative view of myself.
Today, I feel unburdened.
I see myself as the strong, confident, and loving person that I am. I am living in the light. I am living the life of service that I always dreamed of.
With love in my heart and excitement and enthusiasm, I take on each new day as an opportunity to learn, grow, and connect.
I have reached my mountain top in my struggle with mental health. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what happens from here on out.
If I get diagnosed with terminal cancer in two weeks and am dead three weeks later, it doesn’t matter.
If I remain in this wonderful place forever, or if my anxiety and depression come roaring back, it doesn’t matter.
Whatever happens really doesn’t matter, because I have attained a level of peace and love in my heart that I never thought was possible.
Lots of factors were at play, but meditation and running are the two biggest ones. Meditation brought self-awareness and self-compassion, and running brought the ability to surpass whatever I thought my limits were.
I also couldn’t have done all this without the support of my family and friends, especially my parents. They have always been my biggest supporters. They never gave up on me and have always had faith that I would reach this point.
My only disappointment is that my father didn’t live to see it.
Still I run, and I always will until I can’t anymore. If running is your passion, and if it helps you get through your struggles, keep going.