The alarm went off at 4:30am and I was dog-tired from a full-on week. The last thing I wanted to do was get up and run 10k. It was minus 2 outside and everything was wet. I ached from previous training sessions and I still had a full day of work ahead of me.
On top of the physical protest was the mental one tearing my brain apart. I just couldn’t see the point of it all. “I was useless anyway”. It took everything I had to pull the covers off, put my feet on the floor, get changed and walk out the door to start my run on that dismal morning.
Everything felt stiff. Stretching did bugger all. Each step shot pain up my hamstrings and the cold constricted my lungs to the point I could only take short breaths. I’d barely run 200 metres and it felt like I had run 5k. The temptation to simply go back to bed was immense. My mental state wasn’t helping the cause. But, I was out there. And, despite feeling terrible, I thought “I may as well do it anyway’, and plodded on down the street.
I arrived back at the house 50 minutes later and began my morning ritual. I didn’t feel nearly as bad as when I had left and, I had a feeling of accomplishment. On days when it hurts the most is when you earn it the most.
My battle with depression came to a peak in late 2008. I’d been seeing this woman whom I thought was 'the one'. Not for the right reasons mind you, but I’ll get into that later. Man, I was infatuated with her. However, I didn’t realise at the time how toxic she was for me.
All this woman wanted to do was have fun and she didn’t care who with. If you were upbeat and available enough to provide that fun, then you were the one who had her attention. If not, she’d easily find someone else. This would be challenging enough for a mentally stable bloke to handle. I guess if I had it together I would’ve been able to put her in the ‘casual’ category and just move on.
However, as I was depressed this was not a good mix. I had convinced myself that despite her behaviour, I had finally landed someone who was out of my league.
Never, ever put anyone on a pedestal like that.
When someone with low self-esteem thinks they’ve attracted someone better than them, they will do anything to keep them. Including putting up with anything they do. She would go out and get with other guys. At 5am she’d knock on my door, drunk, and proceed to tell me about the night she’d had. Like an idiot I’d find a way to put it out of my mind so I could stay with her.
Every time she did it would validate my self-loathing and that I was lucky to be with someone like her. It hurt. I would find a pathetic excuse to forgive her with and continue the relationship in a foolish hope that she would see that I cared for her. I hoped that this would change the way she saw me. All it did was make her lose respect for me, if she had any to begin with. She did it again and again. And each time she did, I died a little more inside.
It all came to a head for me when she said she was going back home to her country of origin. I wasn’t invited to go with her. The relationship was going to end, but instead of her ending it there, she strung me along.
She led me to believe that I could come and visit in 6 months time and we’d pick up where we left off when I arrived. I now realise it was because she didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to do what was right and end it when she left. For the next few months, we talked on the phone and sent messages to each other. She kept me hanging on with little bits of affection. This slowly died out and the messages became more cold and distant.
It turned out she had moved on pretty fast. When I found out I exploded. I was hysterical. It quite literally destroyed me. My parents were so concerned that they took me to the doctor. That is when I was officially diagnosed with depression. They put me on anti-depressants and I could not have felt like more of a failure.
The diagnosis had finally given a label to what I had felt for years. It was also devastating because it felt like I had failed. Further, because she didn’t want me, I thought no one did. In my mind, I was completely worthless. I couldn’t see the situation for what it was. No one could convince me otherwise. The cumulative failure had reached a pinnacle and I was at the lowest point of my life.
I did not want to be on anti-depressants. It felt like I was weak like the other people with depression that I looked down upon. Admittedly, this was due to my own preconceptions and stigma about depression. I’m still ashamed that I once thought like this. I think this is why depressed people are so reluctant to speak up about mental illness because they too stigmatise the illness just as much as everyone else.
Whilst the drugs lifted me from my darkest state, they had other side effects. 'Downstairs' didn’t work and that made me feel even more inadequate. Women became even more out of reach and, truth be told, I started to hate them. If I was going to break free of this depression I had to get off the drugs.
Whenever I have a problem I like to read as much as I can to find out how to deal with it. I had come across articles that said exercise provides enough endorphins that can be as effective as antidepressants, without the side effects. Exercise has the added bonus that it improves your body and leads to greater confidence. I was convinced that if I could become attractive enough that this would act as some form of revenge against my ex. Sometimes you need to fuel your anger with a delusion to find the motivation you need.
Simply waking up and running, or lifting weights, was not going to do it for me. I had to have a goal to work towards. I figured it had to seem out of reach so I could prove to myself I was capable of doing something above average. What better goal than to compete in an Olympic Distance triathlon.
A 1.5k swim, 40k ride and a 10k run seemed absolutely ridiculous to me at the time. I could barely run 5k and I hadn’t swum in years. This goal created enough fear that it got me out of bed for my training sessions. That fear diverted my attention away from my depressive mindset. Or at least it gave enough temporary relief that it spurred me to train more to numb the pain.
Intense exercise that is quite effective in helping me manage the dark times. When running long distance, all I think about is how much it hurts. When lifting heavy weights, I don’t think about how useless I feel. I just don’t want to drop the bar on my head.
It helps me redirect the anger towards the people who I think have slighted me. I have pushed many additional reps thinking about how my ex-girlfriend treated me and pushed, even more, thinking about how I let her do it.
The articles I read about fitness and depression were right. I became stronger and fitter. My body shape changed and I felt more confident. I redirected that anger and disappointment into positive pursuits. After each workout the rush of endorphins actually made me feel good. And, when I didn’t feel like training, I used anger and regret to push me forward. I found ways to turn negative thoughts into positive outcomes.
It took a while to turn my life around. Over time I gained the confidence to take on more difficult and scary challenges. I moved overseas, travelled alone, competed in larger triathlons and ultimately, an Ironman.
The incremental increase in confidence helped shape me into the type of person that attracted the right people. I met my now partner. She IS the REAL one, and she actually appreciates and cares for me. I’m with her for the right reasons, not on false hopes of validation.
There are many days where I don’t feel like doing anything. Just like that cold and dreary morning. There are many days where I still battle my demons. But I remind myself to get out there and do it anyway. You’ll battle depression and you’ll feel like crap. But if you’re going to feel like crap anyway, you may as well do something positive. Take responsibility for how you feel and do something about it.
Those last couple of sentences though! What an incredible way to sum up what living with depression feels like and what recovery should be. A HUGE thank you to Matthew for taking the time to write such an eloquent post for us. All respect to him for channelling his negatives into something that makes him feel so good. We wish him and his good lady, all the very best.
Have you used exercise as a way to battle your own mental illness? Was it as extreme as an Ironman? Let us know in the comments below.
If you like Matthew's story (and who wouldn't), you can connect with him on his website over at about.me/matthewrickard. You can follow him on social media; on Twitter, he's @Not_a_Psych, over on Instagram he's also not_a_psych and on Facebook, his page is linked here. He also writes a weekly blog on Medium over at medium.com/@Not_a_Psych.