Posts Tagged ‘depression’

Trouble in Shangri-La

May 8, 2017

I’m writing this in Mental Health Awareness Week, 2017. Many stories have emerged in the press etc recently of sports people suffering from depression and other mental health issues. Go back on this blog a few years and you’ll find that I was part of that gang too. It’s an area of my life I don’t revisit here very much now, but it’s part of me that never goes away, and probably never will. Depression was such a huge shock to me that I was, frankly, in denial for quite a long time.

In the twelve months or so period during which severe depression steadily established its grip on me, by some standards I had “no excuses”. Life was sweet in many ways. I was in my early fifties, and my training as a sprinter in Masters athletics was paying off. I was a regular finalist in World and European Masters competitions; I had very narrowly missed out on a medal in the last World Masters sprint final I’d raced in; and I was holder of three world gold medals from relay events. I was also in the world top ten for my age category, free from illness, and the back injuries that had plagued my life for the previous 15 years were apparently under control.

I had (and still have) a happy home life. I had a satisfying job, albeit with lots of anti-social hours. I had hobbies, and a sense of humour. And depression knocked me sideways nevertheless.

In my sporting life, I can’t say I felt unhappy in the accepted sense, but in a number of respects, I was unsatisfied. I was training hard and regularly, but one consequence of those frequent anti-social work hours was that I found it impossible to commit to training with a group of other athletes, or a coach. I just couldn’t guarantee to be there for any given session. I needed to grab opportunities to train when I could, and that usually meant solo.

I think I’ve always been a pretty self-critical person. Often that’s been with good reason. I don’t like just to think or imagine that I can do better; I like to set myself on a trajectory I think will lead me to “better”. And over time, I’ve come to realise that being your own control-group, only hearing your own voice as encouragement or criticism, only seeing yourself in the gym mirror, etc, can all be part of quite a dangerous cocktail. With no one to tell me what my sessions looked like and being largely dependent on how they felt to me, for feedback, there was usually only one answer to sessions that didn’t feel hard enough: try harder next time.

I wasn’t short of encouragement, from work colleagues, from my sports masseur and chiropractor particularly. My GP was (and still is) very supportive of this older athlete’s activities. Yet, there came a point when, with hindsight, I can see that diminishing returns set in. The harder I trained, the worse I seemed to perform. What I was doing and experiencing seemed to be lacking any “cause and effect” (as in “do A, and B should eventually happen”). And it seemed to me my options were limited to a single way forward: train harder still.

The nature of situations involving diminishing returns is that they quickly, and often stealthily, develop into downward spirals. I freely admit I missed all the indicators. No matter how untypical I knew I was for my age, my (then) 55 year-old body wasn’t made of Kryptonite, of course. It began to creak at the seams. Niggling injuries wouldn’t go away. Efforts to work around them simply meant less specificity in training, and eventually meant niggles just spread to previously healthy parts of me.

The expression I think I used most often, in my self-talk, was that training was beginning to feel less like something I did for sport and more like “beating myself up”. There is something relentless and deeply disturbing about self-harm. You eventually reach a point of paradox, where the activity that causes the harm actually begins to look like the way out. I lost several things going into and through severe depression. One was my sense of proportion – my sport was exactly that – sport. Not life or death. Yet I acted much of the time as if it was. I lost my coping strategies. I couldn’t cope with conflict or disappointment in particular. My mother died during this time. I simply couldn’t engage with that on any level.

An answer would have been to take a complete break from sport. However, to me then, that would just have smacked of squandering the effort I’d been putting in, and brought with it the certainly I’d just end up needing to do more, and harder, to “get back in”. So, the cycle of abuse continued. Until, that was, sitting in my hotel room one evening, while away on a trip to race in Europe, I was inwardly berating my day’s performance (despite having won two races and come second in the other!), and it finally dawned that I had completely lost the plot.

A few days later, I said this to my GP. After some standard diagnostic tests, he said to me “These suggest you are suffering severely from depression”. Depression? Me? Antidepressant tablets? Me? I went into further denial for a while, but did lots of reading about what depression is and how it works on you. Eventually, I had to concede that my GP was right, and I started taking the pills that had meanwhile been sitting untouched on the beside table.

There’s more to it, of course, than I can or choose to include in a single retrospective blog. Learning that depression was an illness, not a failing of character, was crucial. Being open about it to others was also quite important. Surprisingly so, given how dishonest I’d hitherto been with myself. The pills worked for me, and despite a few adventures in the process of coming off them, there came a day when I didn’t need them. In the intervening period to date, I’ve fallen back into depression’s clutches a couple of times, largely because old (bad) habits die hard, and depression is a stubborn bastard.

I still have lots of questions and not as many answers, but if this blog has touched a nerve with you, I’d say: be self-aware, ensure you have “significant others” who are able to give you feedback, and be open, both with those around you and with yourself. Good, honest internal dialogue is key! It’s not about kidding yourself everything is ok really, it’s about telling yourself how you feel and making that all-important deal to do something about it that breaks the cycle that got you to here in the first place.

Tom

My title comes from a great song by Stevie Nicks (ex Fleetwood Mac)

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