Running is a counselor. It is always there for you on bad days. It counsels perseverance and shows that you have more strength than you realize. It is cathartic, transformational.
When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with depression. One diagnosis led to another; I was bipolar, borderline, had PTSD, ADHD. I was prescribed antidepressants, Ritalin, Klonopin, antipsychotics. I kept looking for someone to figure out what was wrong with me and fix it, but the more diagnoses and medications I received, the worse things seemed to get. I accumulated more and more negative experiences and began to feel so negatively about myself, that I came to believe I was irreparably damaged and that my life wasn’t worth living.
A bright spot during those dark days was when I was running. When I ran I felt strong, connected to my body and comfortable in my own skin. I could meet the eyes of people I passed on the street and smile. I would set out with my Walkman and mix-tape and run from my pain and shame and with each mile they seemed further and further away. If I was angry I would imagine that, with each stride, I was stomping on whatever or whomever was bothering me, and before I knew it, the anger had dissipated. Sometimes during a run, I would look up at the sky and feel the breeze cooling my skin. I would be overcome with exhilaration, gratitude for life.
However, things got worse before they got better. I’d become so self-destructive that I needed to leave school and move back in with my parents. I wondered if I would ever be able to create a life for myself. As fate would have it, while working at a coffee shop, I met a social worker who encouraged me to apply for a job at a local residential program for children. It was there that I discovered my capacity to give help, instead of always being the person who needed it. I would read bedtime stories to the children, and sit outside their doorways when they were scared so that they could fall asleep. It was there that I truly started down the road to recovery, and also discovered a career path.
As I continued to work in the human services field, I often found myself confronted with my past. I would hear colleagues talk about “borderlines” or describe clients as “low-functioning,” “manipulative”, or “emotionally fifteen”, and I would wonder how people were supposed to start feeling better about themselves when this was how they were seen by those who were there to help them. It seemed that our mental health system had become so focused on symptoms and finding out what was wrong with people, that we had forgotten to look for what was right, how to bring out a person’s strengths.
I joined the peer/recovery community in Boston, first through MPOWER, an advocacy organization. I am now a social worker, taking classes in expressive therapy and in the process of becoming a certified Peer Specialist. I recognize how far we have come from a strictly medical model, with the incorporation of employment, housing and peer supports into many mental health programs, but I know there is still a long way to go. I share a vision with others in the peer/recovery movement, of a mental health system that inspires hope, is strengths-based, and offers a broad range of supports, recognizing that there are many dimensions of our wellness, including spiritual, occupational, intellectual, financial, environmental, social, emotional, and physical (Peggy Swarbrick, 8 Dimensions of Wellness).
On September 22nd 2013, 9am at Jamaica Pond, the Transformation Center is hosting its second annual 5kFlight, a 5k run/walk/move to raise awareness of the role of exercise/wellness in mental health recovery. DMH Commissioner Marcia Fowler and Jamaica Plain Representative Liz Malia will be speaking. The event is a great opportunity to meet people in the Massachusetts peer/recovery community, to support the statewide peer organization, the Transformation Center, and enjoy an autumn day at Jamaica Pond. I hope it will inspire others to discover the joy of running, walking and moving.
I first discovered running when I joined the cross-country team in high school. I still think of some of the tips our coach Mike Glennon gave us. I think they apply not only to running, but to recovery as well:
On adversity: when you see a hill, don’t slow down, speed up. Dig you heels into the hill!
On supporting one another: “It is a lot easier to run with someone, then a few strides behind them.”
And on not giving up: “Just don’t stop; keep going you can make it!”