Yesterday I ran 18 miles without at any point believing I couldn’t do it, wanting to die, screaming at myself in my head for being so utterly fat, unfit, useless and stupid, hitting my legs in a bid to go faster, denying myself food and water as some sort of punishment for not running well enough.
This, my friends, is noteworthy, because all of that was normal to me every time I ran. Absolutely every time.
I kept running for all those years. Of course I did; I’m bloody-minded like that. But it always involved that constant self-inflected brutality, which is to say it wasn’t very nice.
I thought that was the only way running could be, and I couldn’t understand how other people could run so well with that going on; it didn’t occur to me that their minds were different.
Then my doctor suggested it didn’t have to be like this. She said that my approach wasn’t normal. She asked whether I would say those things to a close friend (the oldest therapy trick in the book). Clearly she was talking rubbish, but I agreed nonetheless to try out her advice.
18 months ago I started deliberately saying nice things to myself as I ran: you can do this; you’re doing really well; what a lovely sunny day this is. I didn’t believe a word of it, and my head snarled that back at me. But I carried on practising anyway.
Slowly my experience began to change.
My first attempt at mental kindness was October 2015 in the Letchworth 10k. A year later, having practised regularly, I was able to run that race mostly with a neutral brain.
6 months’ more practice, and yesterday I maintained that neutral brain for 18 miles. That’s over 3 hours of running without anything brutal in my head. I even felt pleasure through a lot of that time despite the physical pain. (I put the latter down to the apple and kiwi doughnut I ate before starting. That and Primrose Hill.)
But why, you ask, the 18 miles? Because I’m running the Edinburgh marathon at the end of May. My single goal is to enjoy it, and on current training I’d say I’ve a fair chance.
Yes, it’s been about positive thinking, that’s all. Yes, I believe mere positive thinking is nonsense just as much as you do. Yes, the discipline of deliberately practising thinking differently has resulted in a qualitative change in my life. It just goes to show I can be wrong.
And so depression continues its retreat.
[NB: I am not saying people with depression just need to think more positively. I have had a lot of other treatment, and have taken a lot of medication. And changing the way you think is extremely hard work and needs serious external support. But in this one small area of my life I have managed to make a shift. And it is life-changing.]