It’s a marathon, not a sprint
How do I just keep going?
This was the question my body was asking me as I neared the end of running a half marathon distance last weekend as the pain set into my feet and legs with every step. The answer is a combination of physical and mental strength, determination to see it through.
My name is Kim. I am a GP, a runner, slimmer, musician and church leader. I also suffer with longstanding depression and anxiety.
I live in Leicester, and we’ve lived with what feels like endless restrictions on our lives here – watching on whilst the rest of England came out of lockdown. This has been incredibly tough. I have seen an ever-increasing ‘silent pandemic’ of mental health problems in my work as a GP; people are struggling with the endless isolation, loneliness and fear. I myself have struggled with periods of deterioration in my own mental health. Just when it felt like things were turning a corner, we are now faced with the possibility of a long winter in further isolation. The question I am asking is ‘how do I just keep going?’
Well, for me, it’s remembering its a marathon and not a sprint. It really is a case of taking one day at a time, because for me the bigger picture is too much at the moment. “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us’. Hebrews 12 v 1
During the course of dealing with my own mental illness over the last 15 years or so I have had to learn this the hard way. I believe in a God who can heal, but I also know that for many, including myself, this has not been the experience. Mental health conditions by nature are often longer standing problems that we have to find ways to manage. It is not as straightforward as prescribing a 5-day course of antibiotics, and the problem is cured. It often requires a combination of medication, counselling/therapy, prayer and spiritual support. This has been my experience as both a doctor and as a patient.
You learn to find ways to keep on keeping on, to learn to recognise your warning signs, and take action to help yourself. I have a number of methods of trying to help myself when I recognise my mental health waving a ‘red flag’. I try to continue these techniques during my periods of mental wellness as well as illness, so that my body and mind is used to the routine. The prospect of a long winter of dark cold nights, more restrictions and increasing pressure on the NHS fills me with concern and anxiety. To continue the running illustration, it's like those final painful kilometres at the end of a half marathon. Every single step hurts, every single step costs, and at times you really do wonder why on earth you continue to put yourself through this.
I have had conversations with people within the NHS, my friends and those from within my church. There is a common theme – and phrases such as ‘I can't do this all over again’, or ‘how do I keep doing this’ may be very familiar to you. The best advice I can give you (and I do not profess to be an expert but speak only from my own experience) is to just take one step at a time. The rhythms of life can be really helpful at a time of such anguish and despair. These are some things that work for me:
I love to run, I know full well on a day where I am feeling low, if I can get that first step out of the door and start running – I will always feel better. I can just forget about things when I run, and I enjoy just being in Gods creation and breathing the fresh air.
I keep healthy. I used to have a significant problem with my weight and this definitely had a negative impact on my mood. I have managed to stay at a healthy weight for nearly 2 years now. Eating the right things helps to boost my mood and energy levels.
I try to stick to rhythms and routines. This really helped me during the height of lockdown when one day seemed to blur into the next.
Talk about how you feel. Even if you don’t really know what to say, talk to someone about it, share life, share struggles. Chances are you are not the only one who is feeling this way.
Pray with people. I find it a real struggle to pray when I am going through a period of depression. Praying with friends who understand me (even if it's via zoom these days) is so important. One of my favourite stories in the Bible is that of the paralysed man, whose friends lowered him on a stretcher through a roof in order to bring him before Jesus. Give a close friend permission to do this for you if you can't find the strength to do it yourself.
Of course, there's no one size fits all answer here, and I know from experience that mental illness can be a long and enduring problem, and it can often feel like a race without an end, a race you cannot win. One thing that really struck me in lockdown, was that though we had to be physically distant from one another, and were almost taught to be afraid of human touch, or intimacy of any kind, it need not be that way with God. He is the only one we don’t have to distance from, and he will never leave us to fight this battle alone.
Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It's painful and it hurts, but in the end, we will get there together.