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Editor's Note: We are a non-religious magazine. However, we acknowledge that spirituality is important to many. Our Faith column is a place to discuss how faith (of any kind) positively affects mental health and how to improve the conversation around mental health within faith communities.
When I moved to a hilly area of western Pennsylvania, I missed the easy, unchanging nature of running on the flat sidewalks of Massachusetts. With time, however, I began to notice the ways running hills was changing me.
As I continually ran along hilly routes, I expected to become physically stronger, and I did. I didn’t, however, predict the effects hill running would have on me mentally.
At first, I struggled with wanting to quit every time I had to run up a hill. Halfway up a steep incline, I would question if running was worth it and if I actually liked it. On the downhill stretches, however, I would feel like I could keep running forever.
Within a few weeks, I learned to recognise the circumstances of my run were influencing my perspectives.
I couldn’t allow the desire to quit or the doubts that arose on difficult uphill stretches regarding the value of running to control my actions. If I fought through the incline, a wonderful downhill stretch would be waiting. This would all me to rest, giving me the strength to recover and prepare for another uphill climb.
I learned to love hill running because even when it was hard, it was making me stronger in every way.
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One day this fall, I was talking with my mom about the way the incline of my run changed my perspective on running.
I realised the inclines of my experiences with mental illness often influence my perspectives on life in the same way.
Exactly seven years ago this winter, I moved from a life of flat sidewalks and relative health into the hills. These hills were a long and arduous journey with anorexia and depression.
In the winter between 2009 and 2010, I started on the steepest, longest hill I had ever faced. Puberty brought with it a vicious depression, taking me over before I realised what was happening. Within months, anorexia ravaged the remains of my mental health, creating another incline at the top of a hill I was already struggling to run up.
I grew weary. My emotional muscles threatened to give out and my perspective on life took a turn for the worse.
I wanted to quit fighting and give up on life.
I questioned the worth of my life, developing a deep desire to sit down on the hill I was on, and allowing my depression and eating disorder swallow me right there.
Thankfully, I had running buddies. I had my parents, as well as spiritual leaders who had run this route before. Grabbing my hand, they pulled me up the hill, reminding me downhills would come.
Over the next few years, fighting back depression and anorexia presented several uphill climbs. But, moments of communion with God, intimate community, and the beauties of life provided me with downhill stretches.
These stretches could refresh me, equipping me to conquer the uphills.
One day, however, a beautiful downhill of first love suddenly took a turn for the worse. It left me running up an incredibly steep hill of first heartbreak. I sat down at the base of the hill and tried to stop moving forward.
My hero–my dad–pulled me up to my feet, looked me in the eyes and told me, “We are not finished yet.” He hired me the best coach, an amazing eating disorder therapist, who walked me to the top of that hill. They gave me the skills to push forward over the many hills to come.
In the years that followed, I faced many more steep hills. I started college at a very difficult school and faced the ugly intensity of my perfectionism. Loneliness, homesickness, and anxiety were just some of what I faced. I relapsed into anorexia for several months, and the darkest depression of my life followed a medication change.
Many times I wanted to give up, but I looked back at the journey I was on, putting the skills and lessons I learned to work.
I refused to let myself be controlled by the perspectives I felt when I was running up a hill, constantly reminding myself there would be downhill stretches coming soon.
Right now, I am a college graduate pursuing a career I am passionate about (coaching others through their journeys with mental illness). I am about to marry my best friend. My depression has been well controlled for almost two years. In that time, I have also been completely free of my eating disorder.
I am running a beautiful, long, downhill stretch.
I can feel the exhilaration of the wind in my hair and the sun on my back at this amazing stretch of my life journey.
Right now, it is easy to love life. It is easy to want to move forward and see where the adventure of this route I’m on will take me.
I know with time, I will face more uphill battles. Perhaps they will be steeper and longer than any I have imagined or faced before.
In this time, I am choosing not to worry and dread the end of this delightful stretch. Rather, I am choosing to be fully present in it, embracing and savouring each moment. I am choosing to be intentional about seeking refreshment, joy, and encouragement in all of its beauty.
When it ends, I will choose not to mourn its loss but to celebrate the way it has equipped me so beautifully for the road ahead.
I will choose to look back at my life and thank God not just for the downhills, but for the uphills too.
Sincerely and wholeheartedly, I will thank him for the moments I hit rock bottom, as they made me the woman I am today. I will thank him for the uphills, allowing me to help others along their journey, and for the dark moments where I learned how beautiful the bright moments are. For the uphills, teaching me joy is a choice we make whether we are running uphill or downhill.
I will thank him for teaching me to rely fully on him and those he puts in my life. I will thank him for all of my journey, uphills and downhills, that has taught me he is by my side through all of it.
Looking forward to the hills ahead, I will thank him for his plans and for being by my side as I run them.
Unlike learning to run in a hilly area, learning to live with the ups and downs of mental illness is a lifelong battle I have yet to master. I am not perfect, but I am stronger. With every day, I plan to continue fighting to embrace faith and God’s strength in every step I take.
I hope and pray the same for you. I would love to connect with you and celebrate and/or speak hope into your journey. Please share your story with us below or in one of our support groups!
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