Mental Health

Running for My Mental Health

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I now realize that running was and is a gift; It helped me cope with the loss of both my parents, the stressors of being a mom, and it helped me to realize my “feeling fat” was just a cover for so much more.

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I decided to run because I felt fat. It didn’t occur to me that my father dying a year prior, my ageing mother now being my total responsibility, or raising two small children with a husband who was not around much due to a demanding job had anything to do with why I was unhappy and stressed.

I blamed it all on my stomach, the size of my waist, and the fact that I had gained twenty pounds since I got married. I needed to burn more calories. Running was the answer. I decided to use an app, starting out slowly. It was hard.

I was not a runner and never had been.

I was the “fat kid” and not very athletic. I was the kid that was always picked last in sports teams and I lived in fear of the presidential fitness test which was a requirement each year in elementary school. It was hard at the beginning. The app had me running and walking until I could run for extended periods of time. The first day I barely made it through a minute of running but gained endurance pretty quickly.

As I increased my running and it became part of my morning routine, I waited for the scale to reward me. My clothes started to fit more loosely but the scale only moved a pound or two. I noticed I started to eat more but I also started craving more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Two months into my running I realized I was feeling pretty good.

My weight was basically the same, but I felt happier, stronger, and had significantly more energy. I looked forward to my three-mile sweaty solitary run on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

My mother’s health was deteriorating rapidly. We had moved her into memory care assisted living after caring for her at our home became too difficult. I visited her every day and it was hard. Little by little my mother had become another one of my children. She no longer remembered my birthday or those of my kids. She was so happy to see me when I showed up but would get mad at me or cry when I mentioned leaving. I desperately missed the mom I once had but I felt obligated to visit every day to connect with her in some way, hoping for a glimpse of the woman she once was. Frequent hospitalizations due to infections and falls accelerated her mental and physical decline. But I had my running.

Sometimes I would cry during my run, sometimes I would just think.

How would I deal with life once my mom is gone? My mother was my everything until I got married and started my own family. We still remained very close, talking every day. Other than my husband, she truly was my best friend. Now things had changed, I couldn’t talk to her the way I once did. She demanded my attention like my kids did when they were toddlers. But she still hugged me and lit up when she saw me.

I ran my first 5k race in June of that year. I was so proud of myself and my accomplishment.

I was officially a runner. I had a “race t-shirt” and was registered for another race on July 4th. I was so happy when I shared the news with my mother. I don’t know if she understood what I was saying but she smiled, hugged me, said she loved me and that she was so proud of me. Three weeks later she had a massive heart attack and died. I had run seven miles that morning with my husband, which felt terrific. We went to a farmer’s market and I bought some apple cider donuts and iced coffee, not even thinking about the calories.

Despite my mother’s condition and knowing she would not be around much longer, I felt I could handle a lot more in life than I could just six months ago.

We got the call when we returned from dinner out. When I found out my mother died, I started crying. I am pretty sure I cried for the next three days non-stop. I cried and yelled out when I saw my mother’s body in the hospital room. I sat with her for an hour apologizing for not doing better, not protecting her, not saving her. I held her hand and it was warm and soft, and I never wanted to let go.

I ran the next morning. I ran and cried, but I had no other option.

We cremated my mother and buried her on July 4th. I didn’t run my planned race, but I picked up my race packet and I have the race “t-shirt.” Those next few months I ran and cried and thought. It was a blur of attorneys, and therapy sessions, and planning a memorial for her up North so family and friends could say their goodbyes.

I didn’t weigh myself the entire time and I didn’t think of calories.

I ran because I knew I needed to because I was sad and grieving and needed to.

I didn’t run because I felt fat, or because I needed to lose weight, or to compensate for eating cheesecake. I ran to feel good and strong, and it worked. I now realize that running was and is a gift. It helped me cope with the loss of both my parents, the stressors of being a mom, and it helped me to realize that my “feeling fat” was just a cover for so much more. I stopped running after I got Lyme’s disease the following year. I just couldn’t get myself to put on my sneakers and start again.

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Related: Using Exercise for Managing Stress

Flash forward to this past March.

COVID 19 led to my kids’ school-going virtual, my psychotherapy practice moving to teletherapy, and intense fear about the present and the future. I have a son who is immunocompromised, and I began to worry constantly about him getting sick. I started having trouble sleeping and would become teary on and off during the day. Then it happened…I started to “feel fat”. There you go. I knew there was something more going on beneath the surface that led me to these feelings. No surprise to me as a therapist; old patterns love to return when we are under stress.

So, what did I do? I ran.

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Susan Theon is a psychotherapist in private practice located in Northern Virginia. She is passionate about helping people struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating. She uses an Intuitive Eating and HAES (Health At Every Size) approach and strives to help her clients make peace with food and their bodies.

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