I’ve been reading a lot of books which resonate with me these days: Bella Mackie’s terrific, inspiring “JOG ON – How Running Saved My Life” is one of them. In fact, Bella’s book, her story, mirrors my story in many ways. I so ‘get’ Bella, I can see so much of myself in her struggles with mental illness, in her idiosyncrasies, her ways (eg. she writes, “Moderation in anything has never seemed to fit well with me”), her thinking, philosophies, insights, mindset and the euphoria of the liberation she has experienced through her running. Bella quotes Monte Davis in Thaddeus Kostrubala’s book, ‘The Joy of Running’:
“It’s hard to run and feel sorry for yourself at the same time”.
“…I bank on two things:
One: Running makes me feel less anxious every day that I do it. I never regret a run, no matter how much I don’t want to do it on the day. I might well regret not going though, and that’s a good thing to remember.
Two: I think it helps my defences against anxiety longer term. The science might be less clear cut on this than it is on point one, but I feel it for myself (so do I, Bella!). Even if it’s a mere placebo effect (I don’t think it is, Bella), that’s ok with me…”
I don’t want this review to be a ‘spoiler’ so I’m limiting it to the big picture. Bella used to suffer from life-restricting/limiting, debilitating symptoms of ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’ (GAD), depression and other associated mental illness/conditions. The roots of it were clinical but the symptoms were fueled and exacerbated by her personal circumstances (all in the book).
I’ve been there.
In Bella’s book, she tells the story of how ‘running saved her life’. For me, it’s like this: my antidepressants allow me to function, running allows me to live. Running changed my life.
At the start of the book, Bella paraphrases a J.K. Rowling quote, that “rock bottom became the foundation upon which she built her life”. Again, been there and so has Bella.
In my case, I hit ‘rock bottom’ when, in 2001, under the onslaught of depression, anxiety disorder, panic attacks and OCD, as well as badly prescribed antidepressants and pneumonia, I ‘died’, collapsed in the street followed a few hours later by cardiac arrest. In effect, I think it’s fair to say that I had simply lost the will to live. Not a good day, not a good period in my life, although when I was in an induced coma in Intensive Care, and the docs told my wife that I’d probably pull through, she thought that I looked more at peace than I had done for years.
Bella’s ‘rock bottom’? Sorry, read the book.
Bella and I ‘found running’ in different places. Her place? Yup, you guessed it, read the book. As for me, quite simple really, 2015, I needed to lose weight, was doing no exercise, was eating like there was to be no tomorrow and my eldest son told me that I should start running. I told him I’d try any sport, just not running, but out I went: 300m, less than quarter of a mile, and I was exhausted or, rather, my mind told my body that I was exhausted (there is a difference!). Long story short, I kept at it. I ran my first marathon back in February this year. People who knew me when I was a kid and a young adult, they know that this has been a transformation! Completely changed diet and running, I lost a lot of weight, but the effect that the running has had on my mental health, my mental wellbeing, has been astounding, just as astounding as it has been for Bella.
“Somehow, after a decade of settling for merely ‘managing’, I’d found the thing that broke me out of it: I’d found running.”
“…it (running) seeps into every other part of my life, expanding them all, opening them up, giving me the self-esteem to go and do other things…” (Bella, as I’m ‘penning’ this book review, I feel tears welling up in my eyes, my running has freed me up, liberated me, too, and learning of your experience has filled me with joy).
Bella, in her book, goes beyond her own personal experience of running. She evangelises it. She expresses her passion for running, her belief in the power of running to change lives, to better the quality of lives, to liberate people, all people!
“A 2017 study in Norway…moderate to vigorous exercise in 6-8 year olds meant they were less likely to show symptoms of major depressive disorder two year later” (www.sciencedaily.com).
I am sure that the costs to countries’ of maintaining and running health services would be a lot less if Governments would prioritise the mental health of school children, infuse the education infrastructure with sport/exercise/fitness, with the teaching of the importance and value of sport, good diet, sleep (quality and quantity), and mindfulness, with the provision of stress reduction and meditation classes. Moreover, the effect that all of this would have on the lives of children, and the adults that they become, it would be invaluable (and the boost that this would give to countries’ GDPs would be colossal).
“Fifty per cent of mental illnesses in adult life start before the age of fifteen and 75 per sent have shown themselves by the age of eighteen. And mental health problems in teens are thought to be on the rise: a study by the Department of Education (UK) in 2017 found that one in three teenage girls suffer from anxiety and depression – up 10 per cent in a decade.
This is a crisis and a tragedy on so many levels!
Sport must be seen by Governments as being as important as academic lessons in schools. Girls have it even worse than boys!
“ The campaign ‘This Girl Can’ has worked hard to show women and girls that exercise is vital for wellbeing, and nothing to feel embarrassed about (Bella goes into the sources of embarrassment but an example is body consciousness in front of boys), but it’s a hard stigma to crack, especially when girls have mixed PE (physical education) lessons and have to worry about comments from boys, something one study showed was a main concern.”
And here’s a shameful statistic:
“…‘black people are 40 per cent more likely to be turned away than white people when they ask for help from mental health services,’ according to the CSJ (www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk).
A couple of my sayings:
“My antidepressants don’t live my life for me, they ‘merely’ allow ME to live my life MYSELF”
“Antidepressants level the playing field – it’s up to us whether or not we want to ‘play’”.
Wake up! You won’t get anything out of life unless you put something into your life. Sport/exercise/fitness (and I do believe that running has an ‘extra’ power) is as important in the matter of your mental wellbeing and physical health as is good diet, sleep, stress management and a healthy mindset.
Challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zones: I am not throwing out words and phrases as platitudes, as clichés, I mean it! It seems to be the human condition to believe that where we are, what we are, that that’s it, our place, our position, our max. When I ran my first half-marathon last year, I’d done it, not as a stepping stone on the way to a full marathon, but as an achievement, full and complete, in and of itself. I was beyond elated! People asked me if I was considering a full marathon run next to which I replied:
“I’m not a marathon runner, I’m a half-marathon runner. Marathons are for a different sort of runner, not for me, not for people like me”, those sorts of people are ‘real’ athletes!”
I was, when thinking and saying that, defining myself. All I’d done was move from one comfort zone to another. Comfort zones are dead zones! Some months later, I decided to take on the marathon challenge, to get out of what was then my new comfort zone. I’ll leave the rest of the episode for my book (if I ever write it).
I am ‘average’, not super-talented as a runner, not super-talented as a person. In fact, I’m not talented at all. What has got me (and I dare say Bella) from a state of chronic lack of self-belief, self-concept, self-esteem, to where I am now is those first running steps. Confidence breeds confidence. If I, from my starting point, can get to where I am now, YOU can!
It has been the same for Bella:
“My first big run. My utter joy in holding back my anxieties to do it. I was living with what had constrained me my whole life, what else could I do now?”
I know that feeling, that transformative power, it’s real, it’s worth the effort!!
Where did Bella start?
“He (my therapist) reminded me that when I’d first come to see him, just as my marriage was crumbling, I was barely able to leave the house. That low place seems far away now, even though I know that living with mental illness means never getting too complacent. I have anxious thoughts, and occasionally nightmares, and sometimes I get caught up in it all, but never when I’m running. It all goes away in those moments………..You (depression/anxiety suffers) most likely will never be ‘cured’….you try to minimise it…you find the tools to cope with it. And forcing myself to run every day , despite often not wanting to, works remarkably well for me.”
Bella’s book is NOT just for people who suffer from and with mental illness, depression, bi-polar, anxiety conditions, panic attacks, OCD and/or other related conditions. It is for everyone because everyone can be inspired by Bella’s story, everyone needs to be aware of the importance, value and transformative power and effect of exercise/running, challenging ourselves and getting out of our comfort zones!
Bella, thank you for taking the time and for investing so much of yourself in bringing your book to life!