On Loss and Limits – an Ode to my One True Love

Once upon a time, running was my one true love. As a child I was the muppet happily volunteering for the 1500 metres on sports day and genuinely looking forward to the annual school cross country race while my classmates feigned illness, set off the fire alarm or prayed for an earthquake. In later years I regularly pounded the pavements for fun and ran a marathon by the time I was 24. I could rely on my feet to get me wherever I wanted to go, at a reasonable pace, and it felt great. Then illness and chronic fatigue struck and the love affair took a long hiatus – my health took a nosedive and my trainers gathered dust. Five or so years passed before I was to try and lace them up again.

I thought I would never run again. When my body broke down fragments of my mind splintered away too and any confidence I once had in my physical abilities drifted away into the abyss. My days of chugging through the countryside listening to dodgy 80’s music became a distant memory – it’s tough to picture yourself flying round the park when you’re struggling to just get to the end of your bed. But, incredibly, over the last couple of years, slowly and tentatively, my legs have come back to me.

It started with the occasional five minute run round the block as much-needed respite from the day-to-day treadmill of strife (my boss, terrible choices in men, running out of loo roll, COUNCIL TAX), then five minutes became ten, ten became twenty and soon I could comfortably run 5k. Having been completely unable to coax my body into moving further than a few hundred metres for several years, this was huge and genuinely life changing. I couldn’t quite believe the things my body was allowing me to do – this body that I’d come to loathe and mistrust, having let me down for such a long time. It felt like I was the captain of my own ship again and I could do anything.

However as well as being elating, exhilarating and joyful, the experience of getting back to running has also brought crushing disappointment.

Disaster struck. Carried away on the winds of exercise success, I overdid it and nearly broke myself in the process. This feels great! I’m invincible! I’m going to run a HALF MARATHON! I got as far as five miles. Too much. Body and mind completely broke down, I felt terrible and had to stop completely as old fatigue and burn-out symptoms reared their head. I rested, ate my body mass in crisps and houmous to recoup the calories my body was motoring though, and felt like a complete tit. I felt so stupid for even thinking I MIGHT be capable of anything the old, pre-sickness me could do – and that I’d gone backwards. My body was laughing at me again – I was no longer captain, more misguided stow-away – unearthed and about to be cast out to sea.

Because, as it turns out, I’m not invincible. We all have these things called limitations – especially those of us navigating complicated recovery journeys. They’re mind-bendingly frustrating and tough to accept – but very real and exist for good reason. I was in complete denial over a difficult and uncomfortable truth – that I’m not where I thought I was, and may never be. This body probably won’t ever run a half marathon again.

But there’s a lot of freedom to be found in accepting your limitations. For me, part of my recovery journey has been about letting go and slowing down. Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot about being present. Mindfulness, staying in the moment, practicing consciousness – whatever you want to call it, I’ve practically nailed a PHD in stillness. Because when life gets tough sometimes you just have to sit tight and face the demons.

Not being able to gallop through the fields for miles, in the rain, while the fresh smell of deer shit fills your nostrils may not seem like the worst thing to have to live with – and yet, somehow, I was crushed. For me it was a huge loss and I mourned hard.

I picked myself up and very slowly found my way back to doing what my body feels like it was born for – moving. But in a different way. No more gruelling runs. I stick to activities that don’t deplete my limited energy levels – like yoga and swimming – and I take much longer breaks between workouts. I walk more. These days more often than not my lunch break includes a 30 minute stroll, which takes me away from the work environment, re-boots my brain, fills my lungs with fresh air and generally improves my day. My new normal really isn’t so bad.

When I do choose to run now, I don’t go far – nor do I look like much of a pro. Others steam along in branded lycra; I’m a slow, lumbering melange of neon, mismatched layers and a bobble hat. It’s Flashdance meets Father Ted.

There are no 10ks or half marathon events in my 2019 calendar anymore. I’m not setting myself any particular exercise targets at all in fact – other than to do something active (and fun) twice a week, if I feel up to it. I’ve come a long way these last few years but some things are still out of reach, and, more importantly just not right for me. I have limits, my present looks very different to my past, and that’s OK.

Getting back on the underground horse

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I spied her lurking in the newspaper-littered corner of Paddington Station; sneering, shining, defiant. Beckoning me to her shadowy depths. I paused, taking a moment to look up from my steaming tea mug and catch the full brunt of her steely glare. “So…” I mused. “We meet again.”

My nemesis? The London Underground. All I needed was a leather swivel chair and a cat to stroke malevolently – then my London transport face-off would have been Bond-worthy.

You see it’s been more than a year and a half since I set foot in the London underground system – and I have something of a chequered past with these subterranean trains. I’ve endured multiple panic attacks in-between Oxford Circus and Baker Street. The central line is my own personal synonym for ‘hyperventilation’. Descending the steps at Mile End Station literally feels like my lungs are slowly filling with water.

In short? I’m not a fan of the tube.

Over the last five years, every time a bout of depression/anxiety crept into my life the first thing to feel it’s toxic by-products was my ability to make underground journeys across London. Being trapped beneath the city’s streets in overcrowded, pungent and creaking carriages that rattle through darkened tunnels at break-neck speed can be a bit stressful for those in good health. To someone suffering mental health difficulties, it becomes unbearable. The tube is actually a very successful barometer of where I’m at in my battle with the black dog – if I can manage a 40-minute stint in the bowels of the underground then you can bet I’m pretty in control of my adrenaline levels.

I don’t intend on moving back to London. Sure I want to visit every now and then, but I can always get a friend to accompany me underground, or just take the bus instead. So why such a burning desire to conquer my nemesis? They say suffering makes you more resilient and determined; I think that’s just psychologist talk for ‘pain in the arse’. I’m far too stubborn to let my fear of the tube defeat me, even though I could probably find ways to avoid going underground in the future. Depression robs people of so many things, not to mention entire chunks of their life, but I’ll be damned if it alters the way that I choose to travel across my nation’s capital city. I’ll be getting back on the horse, even though my horse resembles a rickety underground train.

Today I had no intention of actually making a tube journey. I was just checking in and saying hello to an old friend. Contemplating the idea of someday soon perhaps taking a very short jaunt along the Circle line. But the fact that I feel ready to even start thinking about getting back on the, er, horse marks a pretty significant stage of my recovery. And for now, that’s enough for even someone as stubborn as me.