So today is a big day for me. It’s marathon day!! My third ever marathon. In 2009 I ran the New York Marathon, only 8 months after the birth of my first baby Andrew. I know, I’m totally nuts!! However when you are offered a place in the prestigious NYC marathon you say YES!! So having dedicated my first marathon to Andrew, I simply HAD to run a marathon for my daughter Cleo. So in 2012, I dedicated my second marathon, the Gold Coast Marathon, to Cleo two weeks before her first birthday.
In two weeks, I will be in Byron Bay for my 3rd annual “celebrate life” day, AKA, the 3rd anniversary of the suicide of my late husband. Last year I decided to name it “celebrate life” day, because that’s the message I choose to take from that tragic event that occurred in my life. Why is that relevant to me running the marathon today?? Well, here goes……
I have exercised my entire life. I’m one of those people who love it!! I love to sweat, and push my body to the limits physically and mentally. I love the post exercise en-dorphin dump and the feeling of a clear mind that comes with training. I took up distance running after my son was born because I had to train for the NYC marathon. Turned out, I actually enjoyed running!! My late husband was always envious of my ability to enter into what he called my “Homer Simpson Brain” and run for hours thinking about absolutely nothing!! For a few years, running became an important part of maintaining my own mental strength and resilience when managing my husband’s illness and suicidal ideation. It was my way of coping, and helped keep my mind clear so I could function optimally, stay mentally and emotionally strong, and take care of my family.
So when my husband died and I was at the depths of grief and emotional pain, it was no surprise that I turned to running to cope. Not only was I grieving, I was also suffering from PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. Having found my husband’s body post suicide, I experienced terrible nightmares for a long time. For the first few months I was like a child, afraid of the dark, and slept with a night light on. In fact I feared bed time. There were many triggers that would take me right back to those visceral feelings I experienced the day I found my husband. Simple things that most wouldn’t bat an eyelid at. For example, walking into my gym to see ropes hanging from the ceiling; movies and TV shows featuring suicide (there are a lot!!! who knew?!). I had my first ever anxiety attack watching the movie 7 Years a Slave, trying to sit through a very graphic scene which ended with me leaving the cinema, drinking wine and popping a valium at a nearby bar to regroup!! Yep, nothing like self medicating to get you through the hard times!!
Ok, so that paragraph was a bit intense…. sorry! But to understand why I’m so proud of myself today I needed to set the scene.
So like I was saying, I turned to running to cope with my grief and PTSD but it didn’t work! I couldn’t understand why?! It certainly wasn’t my physical fitness letting me down. I was very fit at the time. I had run my fastest half marathon only 2 weeks before my husband died. The problem was that when I started running, and gave myself the quiet head space I usually loved, my mind was flooded with flashbacks and images, and I’d replay past conversations and relive past events. My head was spinning and I couldn’t escape it!! It was such an uncomfortable, unfamiliar and confronting experience. I tried, time and time again to run only to get about 2-3 kms in and have to stop. My head was bombarded with a relentless internal monologue that I couldn’t escape. Circular thoughts making me feel worse. It felt like I was covered in a sticky spider’s web that, no matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t get off.
What was I supposed to do now?!?! Where’s that rush of feel good post exercise endorphins?? I remember thinking “is this what it’s like to have depression?? That brutal, relentless internal monologue that attacks you to your core?!?!” It was so foreign to me. My internal monologue was always so positive. What was happening? My inability to run was upsetting me so much that I spoke to my psychologist about it. It went a bit like this…..
Me: “What am I supposed to do?”
My Psych: “Ummm… stop running! Why are you trying to force yourself to do something that isn’t working for you right now?”
Me: “I don’t know, it’s what I’ve always done, and it usually helps. I guess it’s not helping right now so I need to find something else right?! (Lightbulb moment) Damn, you’re good”
Being the retrospective, overthinker that I am, I began to realise that I’d always distracted from difficult emotions and pushed on. I’ve never liked sitting idle with things. I like to tick things off my list and move forward!! It took me a while to realise that I couldn’t fight those emotions and distract from them if I want to heal. One of my best friends said to me “You can’t tick grieving off your list!” I realised that I needed to confront this head on. I remember saying to my friend “I don’t want to go through this dark tunnel!!” Her reply was simple “Paula my love, you have to!”
She was so right, and so I did.
I read everything I could find about surviving suicide, grieving and PTSD. Every book, and every blog I read would validate my long list of feelings; tired, lethargic, lacking motivation, cheated, angry, sad, relieved, guilty, lost, bored, restless, lonely. But where the f&$k was the chapter about what I’m supposed to do with all that?? Where’s that book that tells me how to fix those feelings and make them go away?? People love to say “time heals” Well, I’ve decided that that’s BS! Time doesn’t heal at all. You’ll never heal if you wait for time to do it for you. It takes hard work, dedication and commitment to heal. You need to actively take very painful and difficult steps to get there, but it’s so worth it when you do.
I discovered that the path to healing was to experience the full brunt of my emotional pain and let it crack me open. So I started meditating. It’s really hard!! It’s hard because when you force yourself to sit still with your pain, no distractions, no escaping, there is no other option but to let it kick your arse and crack you open!! But…… it is an incredible experience. Meditation has taught me how to anchor down into the present moment rather that thinking about what had happened in the past, reliving past moments and circling over past conversations. It has taught me to recognise my thought patterns, and to almost watch, like a bystander, from outside my body. It has taught me to be non-judgemental and kind to myself. You can never stop thoughts, the job of the mind is to think! However you can learn to recognise and acknowledge thoughts and feelings and to let them pass rather that ruminating over them. I learned how to integrate the tragic events in my life into my narrative and move forward.
The biggest thing I have learned is that for healing to occur, you need to be prepared to face your fears, go a mile out of your comfort zone, face your darkest demons, and confront your anxieties and vulnerabilities. You need to be prepared to be cracked opened, broken, hit rock bottom, and to feel the depth of emotional pain you didn’t even know existed. It is only when you are brave enough to go there, that you finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Numbing the pain with alcohol, self medicating, meaningless busyness, over eating, under eating, excessive exercise, excessive work and other forms of distraction don’t work. Well, they help for a little while, but not long term.
So what helped me? Healthy eating, regular exercise, meditation, mindfulness, listening to my body, sleep, sunlight and the great outdoors, switching off from social media, engaging with my children and practicing present moment gratitude. Focusing on getting all of those basics right. Sounds easy right? Sure! Except when you’re faced with major life stresses that you’d prefer not to deal with. The path of self destruction and self pity is quite appealing, but it’s a slippery slope, and certainly doesn’t lead to happiness and contentment. You need to take responsibility for your own healing, your own wellbeing, and your own life.
So this year I found my way back to running and rediscovered my old Homer Simpson brain, well I found a clear and quiet mind. I can now run 30+km by myself with nothing but the open road and my Garmin…… no music, no one to talk to, no distractions!! I have no words to describe how amazing and freeing that is!!!!! I have also conquered the ropes at the gym and climbed those bad boys without triggers, fear or anxiety…… Woooo!!! I am so much stronger physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally than I have EVER been. Why? Well, to quote George Michael, from the day after my husband’s death, I decided to CHOOSE LIFE, and now have an annual celebrate life day!! I chose to use myself as an anchor when life got tough. I always go back to basics when I find myself struggling. A beautiful and wise widow friend of mine once said “anchor down through the storm Paula, you’re a fighter and you know it will pass.” She is so right and I always tell myself that now. I know that when I’m having a really, low day and lose my mojo, I have the ability to pick myself up. I know that I always have myself, and that’s all I need.
So today, I will run my third marathon, and I’m dedicating this marathon to ME!!!
I am easily my hardest task master & I’ve set myself, what is probably an unachievable goal of running a 4 hour marathon. Realistically, I think I’ll hit about a 4:10. But to be honest, I’m already pretty bloody proud of myself, because I’m here. While I absolutely could NOT have done it without the help of too many family & friends to name (you know who you are), I certainly couldn’t have done it without myself . And to me, that’s a bigger achievement than the time I’ll see on my Garmin after 42.2km later today.