Depression. Mental Health. Fitness.
These are three things that are a part of my daily life, and I would wager, many of our daily lives. Over the years, in learning to cope with the former, I have learned that the latter is the greatest friend and drug I could possibly have. I have seen this in friends and clients over the years as well.
My family has a history of mental health issues, both treated and untreated. I, for instance, have never formally been diagnosed with, or prescribed medication to treat, depression; but I am keenly aware that I am prone to depressive episodes and tend to experience about one prolonged episode every year. These episodes are almost always brought on by major life events or changes that become overwhelming, causing me to retreat into myself.
One of these episodes hit me was when I was laid off from my engineering job. I had been working since the day I graduated college in a very lucrative field. While I didn’t always love what I was doing for a living, I never had to worry about money or where I was headed in life. When I was laid off, everything suddenly changed. Even though I “knew” I was going to be fine, and that this was going to allow me to pursue something I actually enjoyed, I was unable to process anything beyond the fact that I was a failure. It took me months to accept the truths that, on the surface, I already knew: Why would it matter if I did something I enjoyed, I was already a failure. Why would anything else be any different?
Over the years, I tried many things to cope with these “events”— sleeping more “just to make this day end, cause tomorrow can’t be worse,” putting on the “happy” face because I thought if I just acted happy, eventually I would be happy. When that didn’t work, I tended to become more withdrawn in public because it wasn’t anyone else’s issue, and I didn’t want my negative nature to bring anyone else down. And of course, while doing all of these things, I also self-medicated with alcohol.
The consistent element in all of these coping methods (beyond the fact that they didn’t work) was that I wasn’t letting anyone know what was going on in my head. I think that, for a time, I was ashamed about how I felt. I wondered, “Why am I like this when no one else is? Everyone I know is so happy and has their shit together, and I’m just struggling to get through the rest of this shift so I can lay down and be away from everyone and everything.” I only sought solace in myself, which only served to worsen the cycle.
I would be lying if I said I never thought about taking my own life. Who would even miss me? I thought they would all be better off if I wasn’t around, anyway.
I have had friends who have taken this way out. I have had family members attempt to take this way out. I have never wanted to do it, but I don’t think that they wanted to either—I think they felt alone and saw no other way out.
So what does this all have to do with fitness? Well, one of the things I learned very early on when I started exercising regularly was how great it made me feel—and I don’t mean physically. I mean I noticed how happy I was, and how things that used to bother me or set me on a downward spiral didn’t bother me quite as much.
This whole “fitness thing” isn’t just about your body; it’s about your mind, too! Hell, maybe even more so! The connection between physical and mental health cannot be overstated.
I found that not only was I generally in better spirits, but when I was having a bad day or feeling the stresses and pressures of life, coming to the gym, kicking the iron around, and getting a good sweat on generally made me feel better. If nothing else, I got that hour of the day for me, and that hour would be good. My workouts have almost always spilled past that hour. Leaving the gym knowing that I had accomplished something, regardless of what that was, always put the rest of the day back on track. If nothing else went right, I knew that I had at least done one thing to better myself that day. I could put my head on the pillow at night knowing that that particular day wasn’t a total waste. That is a profound feeling when you are stuck in a cycle where it seems like nothing matters.
The other amazing thing that I found, especially as I began coaching and talking more and more with my athletes, was that I wasn’t alone. A lot of people were dealing with depression, or anxiety, or bipolar disorders, or any number of things. They too felt alone and ashamed to talk about it. That’s what led me to recognize the other great tool that fitness has given me to fight these demons . . . community and support.
We are not alone in these battles and journeys, and that is an amazing feeling. I am not in any way saying that I am now “cured” from these episodes. Absolutely not. But I do have the knowledge that continuing to care for my body will help me care for my mind, and I know that I am not alone, and that there are plenty of people or groups that I can reach out too.
I’ve included some stories below from a couple of friends who were gracious enough to send in a few words about their struggles as well. Again, you are not alone!
If you or anyone you know is having trouble coping or is contemplating suicide, please reach out to a friend, a family member, a coach, anyone. If you feel like you do not have anyone to reach out to, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or reach out to another entity like To Write Love On Her Arms.
Julia Evergreen - CrossFit 405 South - Norman, OK
Jill Herlihy - Black Flag Athletics - Cleveland, OH