Degrees of Success

I received a very fancy magazine from Dundee Uni recently – matte, heavy-weight paper –  celebrating 50 years of independence from St Andrews. It was cover to cover of stories of alumni who had made their mark in their field. There was the Oscar nominated film-maker, the owner of a worldwide private member’s club, the physio to a gold winning Olympic team, the British High Commissioner in Ghana, the comic artist who had made it onto DC Comics within a few years of graduating, the microbiologist who made it onto the Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.dav

It was in part inspiring but mostly crippling. It made it out that success in your field was the most important thing you can do in life; that to really make it in life you have to be at the top and influence loads of people. That to be a mover and shaker is the pinnacle of life. That how worthwhile your life is depends on the degree you have utilised your degree. 

It really made me doubt what impact, if any, I would have on the world. Given how my work life is going, will I ever make it? Essentially, I am working in a job I needn’t have gone to uni for, so in some senses I am not really using the degree. I sometimes feel I have gone backward, especially as I completed a college course after my university degree, to stay in my field. And I have no idea, in my late 30’s, of the general trajectory of my career.

Maybe it’s because of this I hold onto a broader definition of success than Dundee Uni allude to. Call it jealousy if you like. But for those few stories of people at the top, there are thousands of others just putting in the hours, day to day. So here’s some more everyday markers of success. 

Success is coming through depression (and a bad case of burn out), a break from uni, and coming back to finish a degree.

Success is getting up on Monday morning.

Success is about surviving the day not unscathed but wounded and refusing to go down like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Success is about getting stuff done regardless of how you feel – both in the low and highs.

Success is about keeping the negative talk muted – or on quiet – so that you can concentrate on the bigger stuff.

Success is getting up on Tuesday.

Success is about plodding on through the mire even when you feel like every ounce in your body aches, your heart has no desire to go on and your mind tells you that it’s just not possible.

Success is about managing self-loahing so that you don’t harm yourself.

Success is getting up on Wednesday.

Success is about doing the best you can and not getting lost in the trap of being at the top: not all of us will be first but we can all cross the finish line.

Success is getting up on Thursday.

Success is about coming home Friday having seen through another week, despite everything it’s thrown at you.

Success is about working day in day out at the thing you are called to do, because that is where you fit and that is where you make a difference, be it in front of many of a handful.
Perhaps I set the bar too low and I could aim higher. I do, when I am well which I am at the moment, but I have lapses especially with regard to self talk and getting up… I have markers of success within my day job as well. But we keep going, you and I dear reader, and in so doing are making successes of our lives. 

Cutting the Noise

I am not the same man I was ten years ago. On many ways this is a good thing, but in others I am worse. Ten years ago I was content in my own thoughts. I loved listening to music or reading but I didn’t need these things. 

Now I spend an inordinate of time trying to amuse myself. I browse Imgur far too much. You have to dig for gold even in the most viral page (it takes way longer in usersub). I have many old programs I would like to watch – House of Cards, Breaking Bad, The Thick Of It – but I can’t sit for thirty minutes anymore, because while I am ‘watching’ I am simultaneously online browsing nothingness. This weekend I discovered that Spongebob (another long-running series I had been aching to watch) is perfect for me because it’s genuinely funny and identifiable and about twelve minutes an episode. (BTW, I would be Squidward). Spongebob was perfect at getting me into a place in which I could watch more grown-up programs. 

Which really makes me wonder why I have let myself become so accustomed to Imgur, youtube, Twitter and Facebook that my brain struggles to switch off. But it’s more than that. If I’m by myself I will most likely fall asleep with reruns of old comedies playing in the background – comedies I could recite backward. Comedies which are so like friends they are a comfort. Or I read the exact same comedy book every night (I go through the five part trilogy multiple times a year). Why do I need distractions all the time? 

I read a book for a solid two hour stretch on Saturday. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I was in that world for that time. I felt what I think I seek in all the noise I have: connection. 

Yet there lies a disconnect between that desire for being part of something bigger than me and the way I go about it. When I flick through any of those social media, all I’m really doing is passively watching other people’s lives and it makes me feel small, like my life doesn’t matter. At the same time I am trying to live their life through their images, their stories, their memes. This is similar to when I was reading that book. I was emotionally involved. I was there. It wasn’t noise. It was reality. I put on noise because I can’t listen to my own thoughts. I am discontent. 

So the obvious answer would be to “disconnect.” Well, yeah. But the truth is at the moment I need that noise. I need to find a way of becoming less reliant on it. I guess the noise prevents me thinking, which is ironic because this blog has become more and more diaryesque, and thus a space for becoming content in my thoughts. I’ve downloaded one of those phone use tracker apps, and I will be forgetting it’s there so that I use my phone as normal this week. This will help he better diagnose the problem areas. Then I cut down on the phone usage and begin to reconnect the disconnect so I begin to be content again. 

Why Parkrun?

What makes a man jump out of bed at the same time he should have left the house, throw on the nearest running gear, justify a lack of breakfast by “it’s just going to be a fasted run,” abandon the car in the first space he finds, hop out with one hand locking the car, the other starting the tracking app and the legs starting running, jacket unzipped, hoping to not be that late? Parkrun, that’s what. When my body woke me up on Saturday I had a clear choice: stay in bed and run later or Parkrun.

Parkrun is a weekly, free and timed 5k hosted by volunteers all around the world. And yes, I am verbing the noun. Saturday’s decision was an easy one. But I realise it sounds ridiculous to go through all that stress to run 5K at a free run (it would make sense if I was about to lose an entry fee!) when I could have just calmly stepped out of the house at a time that suited. I guess it comes down to the fact that I friggin love parkrun in a way I don’t love any other 5k training run.


It’s sociable, but anonymous

I would love to be a member of a club, but the times just don’t suit because of my working pattern and other commitments. As an introvert it takes time to build relationships, even with people who have shared interests. Some Parkruns are huge – the busiest I’ve seen Edinburgh is 600 people – which can make it daunting. But the sheer scale has an advantage – it’s a crowd, which means you still have the benefit of being with people, but can do so without actually talking to people. Everyone is really focused or chatting with the people they came with.

Yet I have found myself making conversations with people, like I’m doing in this photo from Saturday. I’ve not seen those folk again, but it doesn’t matter because for those moments we are chums. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had were with people I will never see again. This has given me confidence in the whole ‘being personable’ area of life, which I often struggle with. The last couple of times I have bumped into people I know, which is cool. It’s a chance to catch up with them after we’ve gotten our breath back. That human connection, no matter how small, is an important boost to a person.

It’s a marked out course, but it’s not a race.

My Parkrun registration email is dated January 2013. Yet I never actually took part until January this year. This was mostly a confidence issue: I’m not incredibly fast, I have terrible form, and never really felt I could call myself a runner (still don’t sometimes feel that way). Sometimes when I run in my local haunts strangers laugh at me.

Parkrunners are some of the loveliest people, and no-one really cares about form or pace. When someone slower gets a PB, we praise ’em! In Edinburgh some people have to walk back along the route to get to their car. Those fast runners are always humble enough to cheer us slow ones on. If I had known that I would have gone when I first registered. There’s a reason this photo of Dawn Nisbitt is so powerful.

Dawn Nisbet crossing the finish line with her hands in the air and a big smile on her face

Parkrunner’s rightly love this photo of Dawn Nisbet at the finish line!

It’s like any other running event that you pay for, except it’s free. There’s the same buzz of people cheering you on. The marshals keep everyone safe, and there is a tail-runner to make sure everyone gets to the finish safely. You can walk. Some people aim to run the whole thing without stopping; some people make Parkrun their final run in the couch-to-5K program. I really regret not doing this, as it would have made my first 5k actually memorable.

There are kilometer markers every km. This is horrible if it’s your first run in a while as you really feel you’ve done twenty by the time you see the 1km marker. But it means you can do some funky speed work with the run. Run the first couple of minutes at each km faster, then recover. I’m trying to do the 2nd and 4th km’s in 5 minutes to train myself to run at that pace.

The crowd also means you can practice race strategy. It’s easy to be caught up in the crowds at the start and let them take you faster than you should be going. So the day before Stirling I specifically did the whole thing as if I were doing the first 5k of the marathon, reminding my body what that pace really felt like (it was in some ways tougher than blitzing it out). On a day you arrive late and have to play catch-up (I’ve done this three times now…) the timing doesn’t matter so much to me as being able to get into the body of the kirk. One day I arrived about 4 minutes after the gun and felt I would never catch them. That run became purely psychological.

It’s a change of scenery

14 of my 15 Parkruns have been at Crammond, which is a back and forth. I generally prefer circles, and I really thought I would get bored of doing the same route week in week out. I would look at the locations of other parkruns and wonder how long it would take me before I went to those instead. But it’s been fun to watch see how the promenade and the Firth of Forth change during the seasons.  As you do the route once a only once a week this is easier to appreciate, a bit like a granny remarking each Christmas “my, how you’ve grown!” In the heavy training seasons when you’re pounding your local routes over and over, your mind and legs can get bored, which is demotivating. On this note, doing a parkrun while on holiday (as many people do), gives an opportunity to see a non-touristy part of town and meet some locals.

One run and you’re done

After 15 Parkruns I still want to sing “all the people, so many people – and they all go hand in hand, hand in hand through there: parkrun! … it’s all about the joggers, who go round and round…”

I know, Albarn called them joggers. We’re runners, and we despise it when anyone calls us a jogger! But there’s truth in the song. It’s catchy, not just because the two syllables mean you can easily swap ‘parklife’ with ‘parkrun.’ There’s something more to it.

“I sometimes feed the sparras too. It gives me a sense of enormous well-being.”
The song is really about having time to watch all the people in the park. The line about feeding the sparrows says to me a lot about Albarn’s state of mind. Sometimes the small things give us the greatest sense of achievement. Regardless of the timestamp my Parkrun stays with me the rest of the day. I find it hard to get-up and go at the weekends, especially when I am by myself! Parkrun means I have already gotten up, and went, and did by 10.30, which is a pretty big kick in the face to the part of me which calls me lazy and a thinker not a doer.

Parkrun is almost a non-negotiable (we skipped Inverness on the basis it was blattering, which would have made running on grass in road trainers somewhat treacherous). Having Parkrun as a ‘thing’ helps me get out the house and achieve at least one quality run a week. This makes it perfect for when you’re in maintenance mode or just too dang busy. And it doesn’t take all morning, which means you can look still look forward to your chores with the joy they deserve.

 

 

 

 

“What are you reading?” 

If I’m honest I’m fairly glad that no-one has asked me the question “what are you reading?” bible-wise. I have recently been good at ignoring my spiritual health.

When I think about the little bible i have read, my mind inevitibly drifts toward habits. Yet the only habit I seem to have successfully formed is the habit of saying how terrible I am at forming habits.

I do not know why I am so concerned about this. Maybe it’s because I am always in the game of self-improvement, and habits seem to be a gold standard of behavioural change. CBT is all about changing thought life habits and making them better ones. To take the old analogy of learning to drive, you know you have learnt to drive when you are able to do the actions without consciously thinking about it (to say “without thinking” is a misnomer as there is a lot of brain power still used, and of course driving does require full concentration). Habits can increase your ability to do other things.

It is like a life-hack but in reality it is difficult to hack. Once a habit is formed, you are able to just get on and do it, which leaves brain power for other things. The habit, once formed, leads to a simpler life. it provides a base from which more complex things can be achieved.

Having a regular time of reading and praying is vital in the Christian life. We are encouraged to make it a habit. And I have once again been challenged by this because today I hit a 20 day streak on a brain training app, and as we all know it takes 21 days to form a habit, right? Wrong. It actually takes a minimum of 21 days, and could take anywhere up to 254 days.

I know that the science on these brain-training apps is… sketchy, so I’m almost embarrassed to say that I use one of them, but y’know what? It takes five minutes out of my day. It makes me feel I am doing something good for my brain. Time shall tell whether it has long term benefits – but it does wake my brain up, which makes it a dangerous thing to do before bed. It may be entirely useless, in which case I have only wasted five minutes a day.

I am going to do something similar to impact my physical health: a very short strength program a couple of times a week. Yes, I would probably see bigger gains by becoming a gym rat but I would rather make a small change I can keep to. If I want to run faster I’ve got to start somewhere.


And it has got me thinking. If I am so wrapped up about making these mental and physical changes, where is the effort into my spiritual well-being? The adage that we put time into the things we love is true. So there is the harsh truth that I don’t love God as much as I either claim to or want to. The remedy: get to know him better, which means – yep, reading His word.

I have tried so many plans in the past, and I have one major gripe with them. Even if I find a good one, I always fall behind and then pretty much read for the sake of the tick, rather than communion with God, which as Tony Reinke helpfully reminds us, is the point of reading.

So I am now taking a different approach with very general plan: read through the New Testament. That’s my plan. Sometimes when I have tried to read through the bible I set myself artificial targets, like a few chapters at a time. But chapters don’t really work in the same way as they would in other books; sometimes the new chapter begins halfway through an author’s logic. I have been looking out for a reading bible – one without the chapter and verses, but I haven’t found one yet. They allow for a more natural reading style, perfect for reading the bible as a whole.

Until I find one, I have downloaded a bible onto my kindle. I have a bible app as well, but there is so much gumph on it it often hinders a straight reading process. My kindle bible still has chapter numbers, headings and verses, but it does still at least make for a slightly more natural process. I can simply read it as it comes. I am not setting aside time to, but simply reading when I have time. Which, as my twenty day streak tells me, I have oodles of

Taking the time to rest.

Some of the best holiday moments I have experienced haven’t been anything fancy. Sure, I remember as a youngster bombing down a dry luge in Germany, experimenting with going down a weir in a kayak (same holiday), roller-coaster rides or suspending my disbelief at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Those were all scary but they haven’t necessarily been the best holiday moments.

Perhaps its because I am an introvert, but the best family holiday moments have been where we have pretty much just lounged around, reading our books or magazines. I can remember specific instances, and I love them all. I remember loving them at the time, because they just felt so chilled, and was exactly what I needed at that specific time.

Some of them were forced by the rain, but others weren’t. Whatever the reason, they were all refreshing. I remember one particular week away in which I actually felt like I was on a retreat, as I read through so much bible and other books (like Amy Orr-Ewing’s Why Trust the Bible, Randy Newman’s Questioning Evangelism and Dig Deeper: Tools for Understanding God’s Word).

The most recent holiday thrill was in New Zealand. Adrenaline Forest has six levels of high ropes courses, each more physically and psychologically demanding than the last. I definitely pushed myself to the limit and went as far as I could. Totally glad we took time out to do it. But there was something far greater and more satisfying in what we did the weekend before with my sister and nephew: just hanging out.

Because it’s during those days or weeks of just reading and thinking and pottering, which allow us to go through the thrills of everyday life. I have been able to resolve internal dilemmas or correct thought/action processes, which made living life outside back in the real world a little easier.

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Adrenaline Forest, bay of plentyNew Zealand.

Remembering these times of forced stoppages has been a helpful tool this week. One week after Stirling and with seven weeks until Dundee Half Marathon, I really want to jump right back in with cycling and the long runs. This is a good desire – it means that I still love it. I did run on Saturday,  which was hard because of a cough (almost gone!). Hopefully by the end of the week I will be ready to get back into full swing, but although the cold will have lifted there may yet be underlying tissue damage still needing to heal. I’m treating all bike commutes as ‘recovery’ – slow enough to pump blood without draining energy, much like it is often wise to mull on just one helpful verse than speed-read many but forget them all.

Incidentally, as I was writing this, someone messaged me saying they’ve had to pull out of the half marathon we were supposed to be doing together. A break from an injury is far worse than what I describe here, but it’s an important reminder to force ourselves to take the time so that when other things force us to stop, we’re better able to do so.

Running on empty? Don’t do it alone.

Yesterday I ran in the inaugural Stirling Marathon. I had hoped to write today about how to use negative experiences for good – I expected that at somepoint during the race I would draw on my ‘personal worst’ training runs or races with the logic of ‘if i can get through that, I can get through this!’ There was a little of that yesterday; with four miles to go I remembered the time I ran 8.5 miles in Auckland humidity with no planning or fuel other than water at mile 7. And with 3 miles to go I reasoned “it’s just a normal parkrun…” Except, a normal parkrun comes with fresh legs, not 23 miles behind you.

It turns out there was another, and far greater, lesson in store for me: sometimes you get empty and you need someone or something (or both) to get you through. It is during those times that you can not rely on yourself.

I had been on target until about mile 16. I had been doing fairly well pace-wise, but I had been feeling rotten since the start and this feeling was only getting worse. Early on in the day I had a sense that nutrition was going to be an issue during the race, and this proved to be the case. By mile 20, as much as I really needed it I could not force down another energy gel. Eventually the doubts took over and slowed me to a walk for mile 20, and then an even slower walk at mile 21 – with stops and inner questioning to ask if actually today just wasn’t my day and whether dragging myself to the end was really worth it. I had given my all, and it wasn’t good enough. I really was not capable of finishing, as my back and forth with my wife showed.

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Mrs H knows I’m cross when I don’t put kisses

I was in the kind of place where no-amount of self-talk would have helped me. I remembered my personal worst but that was a totally different situation – I bonked in the middle of nowhere and still had a couple of miles to get back to the car. With neither money nor food I had to get back to the car, where-as I didn’t have to finish the marathon! I tried phrases from Don’t Quit lady,  so-called because she had those words pinned to her back. We had met a few miles back and ran for a couple of miles. But “I am fast, I am strong, I am powerful” didn’t work when I was alone because I was listening to my own voice.

This was three miles of just getting through it. Mrs H encouraged me to think things through. Which I did. Badly. All my thoughts were negative until it eventually clicked that this was the way it was and I just had to bear it. The question then became how to bear it. At length this led to more productive thinking.  I realised what I needed and asked for it.

When I saw she had a cereal bar waiting I was able to quicken my steps into a power walk for one more mile, and receive that welcome gift! Before she had even handed over that granola bar, Mrs H had lightened my load. I am 99% sure that if she had not been there I would have given up.

I feel like this has a parallel with healing from depression. At points, you cannot do anything for yourself. Even though you’re thirsty you don’t have the energy to pour a glass of water. Your own will-power, positive self-talk, reminders, phrases simply do not do the job. In this instance you need someone and possibly something – medication, counselling, exercise – to help. I tried going to the doctor many times, but eventually just needed to be taken. I overtook Don’t Quit lady on lap 2, which I was running (my fastest miles were miles 25-26.2!), and repeated that phrase aloud to her, which perked both of us up. We somehow found each other after the finish line for a massive hug!

So in those times when you feel like you are running on empty I encourage you to keep moving. Somehow. Don’t quit. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you feel like you ought to be going faster and hate the slow pace. Just do your best, and shuffle on. In time you will be able to pick up pace again. And when you do, you will be proud that you kept going. But the struggle is a heck of a lot easier if you ask someone to be there for you. Because like it or not you need that person.

The Depressed Christian: part 3 – healing.

Last weekend, before Mental Health Awareness Week, Premier Christian Media posted a podcast with the title “Should Christians Take Anti-Depressents?” It is a 45 minute seminar hosted by psychologist Dr Rob Waller. This makes it difficult to listen to for the first ten minutes, as the mic doesn’t make its way round the room for feedback from discussion groups (he does summarise each point). He then goes into a really detailed talk in which he picks up different themes.

Unfortunately on the Facebook thread following Premier’s link most people answered a simple “yes,” as if there was no discussion to be had. The following was a well-written commonly held point.

should christians take anti-depressents

I see Jim’s point, but there is more to the story, and it seems most people didn’t actually bother to listen to the podcast before spouting their simplistic understanding. This irked me and prompted me review what I had already written about healing in relation to depression, a post that I left unfinished as the editing was too great a task! It has taken the full week to write this post. It is not as structured as I would like, but I could sit and tweak for ages and not be satsified. I only hope it makes sense.

In part 1 of this short series on being a Christian with depression, I tried to define the beast. In part 2 I wrote a bit about sin.

And now we come to thinking about healing.  What is healing? A simple definition might be the physical and emotional symptoms lifting. But can we ever achieve that completely and how do we achieve that?

For the Christian there is ultimate healing in Heaven. The well known verse in Revelation 21:4 says “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” What an awesome promise! No matter how crap things are now, we know it won’t be like that in Heaven. I very much look forward to that time!

But what about the rest of our life on earth?

What you believe about depression determines what you believe healing should look like. If you believe that it is completely sinful, you would believe that healing comes through Faith in Christ alone. As you put your trust in Jesus, your thoughts and mind will be transformed and the depression lifts. You experience the ever increasing happiness that Hannah Whithall Smith enthuses about in The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.

I don’t completely deride that view. Romans 12:2 strongly calls us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Although depression causes negative thoughts which are impossible to lodge by mere thinking, our negative thoughts can cause depression. For example, one of my triggers is my anger at being wronged and my inability to deal appropriately with it at the time by politely debating the point. There are two thinking processes to tackle: the actual or apparent wrong done by the other person; my perception of myself. These can be transformed by scripture, but it is not straightforward. Last week I was cycling home really angered by someone and realised I needed to forgive that person. It took me the whole 50 minute ride to get my brain wrapped round it and into the right gear. It took even longer to actually forgive the person and myself; to trust the fact that God forgave me because of Jesus – and to trust that that does mean that I can now forgive others. So, yes, trusting Jesus does salve.

But when we are depressed we are unable to do this thinking process. We are unable to trust. I don’t think the pneumatic style of counselling works for depression; in pneumatic the goal is to get the person’s thinking in line with scripture. This is a noble task, as it is the whole life-goal of a Christian, but a depressed person is not in the kind of place where they can do it!

I like to think of healing from depression like the journey of a marathon. Those 26.2 miles are a long way.  You aim for the finish, knowing you’ll get there sometime, and you don’t often feel like you’ll get to the start, let alone the finish. But keep plodding, and you’ll get there.

Is there a finish-line for depression? Everyone is different. But I believe that yes, there is a finish line. We just can’t see it yet. What evidence do I have? None. But I believe because I have to. We fight in the hope there is a finish line.

In Mind Over Marathon the BBC held an experiment in which they took 10 people with various mental health issues, and trained them to be able to run a marathon. I have only watched one episode – I cried so hard I am waiting for the ‘best’ moment to watch part 2. all the way through). It’s telling that the participants talked about ‘coping’ rather than ‘being rid’ of their mental health issues.  One of my favourite moments was when participant Jake and presenter Nick Knowles discussed whether he was actually in a good place, or whether he was in a state of flux. He thought about this, and replied that he could feel his depression coming; that it was “in the mail, but I don’t know when.”

I think of my healing in part as coping with depression when it comes, and doing my best to prevent it coming again – knowing all the time it may strike again. In the Facebook thread, people likened depression to a broken leg: if you break your leg, you would go to the doctor. This is true, but that’s where the analogy stops. When your leg heals, the fact that you’ve broken your leg doesn’t put you more at risk of breaking your leg again. But that’s not the case with depression.

I know full-well that I may have another major depressive episode. In that instance, I will go to the doctor, and get on the right meds. I think medication is crucial. Apart from a very small minority of people (I assume), most people would agree that Christians absolutely should use medication. After-all, they were given by God, and we don’t have issues with using painkillers. If we had no issue about seeing the doctor with a broken arm, surely we should have no problem going about a mental health issue?

The painkiller analogy isn’t the best. Consider the following drugs: would you be comfortable taking them? why, why not? Pparacetamol. Morphine. The Morning After Pill. Most people in the seminar agreed that paracetamol was fine, but the morning after pill definitely was not. There are clear ethical implications. Morphine split the room in half. Personally, I would be concerned about the potential for addiction to morphine after the initial problem had been healed. In this instance, morphine might not actually be helpful for me, but a hinderance with regard to my overall healing. I hope I never have to find out!

Similarly, anti-depressents should come with a health warning; and doctors should work hard to ensure the patient is on the right ones for them, and that the patient is actually doing their part. Anti-depressants for a long time hindered my healing process. Having heard about people on them for a very long time, I wondered if I was destined to be one of those people and I gave up hope. For some people, life without medication would be simply not worth living. I believe for some people it is right to continue to be on them. I believed my meds would completely heal me and became dependent on them, and for a long time ignored the hard work of addressing the issues potentially behind my depression. Dr Waddell also discussed the fact that for some people anti-depressants can worsen their condition. They are clearly not a one-size fixes all.

One of the best discussions during my healing was with my psychologist. I came to realise that what was really healing me was the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – in which I learnt about my thought processes and some tools to help – my meetings with the psychologist and my running. My medication was simply enabling me to do accomplish the real work. Maybe my medication was hindering rather than helping me; maybe I was dependent on them for something they weren’t giving?

This is what Dr Wallar and other professionals posit. That for deep depressions, medication can and should be used. Wallar talked about them helping someone go from a “minus 10 depression to a minus 5.” This was my experience, and is what my GP told me – that by themselves they won’t heal. Wallar went further, and said that for minor depressions they don’t help because in minor depressions aren’t so much about missing chemicals, so it won’t solve the general unhappiness.

After I had realised that, I started to look at coming off the medication. It’s another story in itself, but I’ve now been off them for a year. My healing is ongoing, but I am healthier than ever.

Next time: keeping depression at bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Why the first Stirling Marathon will be my last.

It’s the old joke: your body and mind scream right after a race “never. again.” But as soon as you’ve cooled down and somehow get some food into you, your thoughts turn to “well, maybe”, and before you’ve gone to bed you’re looking at the calendar for your next one. So feel free to doubt me when I say: my next marathon, which is Stirling’s first (21st May), will be my last.

OK, maybe it won’t. Not until I get faster, or stronger, or mentally snappier, or. No. It will be my last. I am bowing out of marathons, having satisfied myself.

I have not had a fantastic career. I’m an also-ran. Always back of the pack at school, I stopped doing sport as soon as I could. I started running a whole year after my doctor prescribed exercise to help fight my depression, about 7 years ago (I’ve lost track). I made my way through the Couch to 5K program. After I accomplished that goal,  I let it slip to the extent where I had to redo the second half and founded I what I really needed was a goal. I wondered whether “someday” I would do a marathon.

So I signed up and completed a half marathon in 2015. I decided that before my 30th I should just get ahead and do a marathon, giving me three years. I signed up to Edinburgh Marathon 2016, and got round it alright, but at mile 22 I was taking a walking break with a marshal for one of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had.

I learned that he was a 5k specialist, and loved trying to get his time down; the training involved lots of speed work but also lots of easy miles – much like marathoning training. He said he found “all of you so inspiring.” After all, it takes a lot to run a marathon.

There’s the long runs (up to three hours), and it’s not just the running that takes time – but the eating properly beforehand, and refuelling afterwards. It’s planning and adjusting routes as mileages increase. It’s adjusting your schedule to fit in all your workouts, complicated for me by my need to commute by bike. That takes mental energy, too. In marathon training, you work on accumulated fatigue; so you’re running or cycling on tired legs. This can have a draining effect on your body. You start feeling niggles in your body and wonder whether you’re injured – I call it marachondria (maratho hypochondria). And running so much can tip it from enjoyment into a chore, especially if you do the same routes all the time – which is why I started doing Parkrun!

This for me turns running from something which helped heal my depression into something which hinders me. Throughout Couch 2 5K I hated the shin splints, feeling out of breath, not being able to get up the hills and the self-consciousness about my running gait. Yet I kept going for two reasons: the achievement of reaching a time or distance, and the impact it had on the rest of my life. Over time running began to energise me, I was able to sleep slightly better at night, and I had energy to get on and do the rest of the things that needed doing. I also had an increased motivation to eat healthier.

I have found I am not dedicated enough to stop my marathon training interfere with basic life stuff, while the physical and mental energy required saps me, often leaving me unable to get things done. This includes writing; I’ve very much let this blog slip!

Mile 22 marshal was inspiring because he showed me you don’t need to do a marathon to get the benefits from running.

However, shortly before meeting this marshal I had decided I would do another marathon, but would learn from my mistakes and do it better. That’s what Stirling is about. When I realised a few weeks ago that marathoning was not the best distance for me, I was able to readjust my goal from a specific time to just enjoying it. This actually should help me with pacing in the first 16 miles – because in order to enjoy the last 10, I will need to slow down enough in the first 16 miles (so in that sense I am expecting a better time than last year’s)!

Mile 22 Marshal also inspired me for his dedication to reducing times in that shorter distance. Because it takes as much work as a marathon does. I would love to run a sub 2 hour half; a time that is for most people normal, but for me requires a huge leap of 18 minutes. And a sub 25 minute 5K – achievable, as in this marathon cycle I’ve knocked 2 minutes off my 5k time. Doing a marathon was about pushing my limits, to see how far I could go – now I want to push myself at how fast I can go.

The shorter distances are great because they don’t take as much time. I joked recently that I wouldn’t be able to attend something in a couple of months because I’ll be training for my next half (Dundee – 16th July). Someone quipped that surely you don’t need to train for a half if you’ve ran a full! But I will! Me breaking 2 hours for the half will be as miraculous as Kipchoge nearly breaking 2 for a full.

It will take my training into a new direction, and I’m really looking forward to it. It will require a different type of dedication and I’ll be able to easily vary the workouts without much planning. And best of all, it won’t take over my life, so you will get the best of me!

5 things I learnt while watching Nike’s #breaking2 attempt

This morning Eliud Kipchoge became the person to come closest to running a sub 2 hour marathon. Had he done it, it would have been a milestone, like the first sub 4 minute mile, or the first sub 10 second 100 metre sprint. He came tantalisingly close. Although technically it was the fastest marathon ever ran, it doesn’t count as a world record because various conditions weren’t met (for instance, the distance between the start and finish lines; the ability to have fuel whenever they wanted as opposed to at set points on the course; the use of pacers). But that’s not the point of the experiment.  Zersenay Tadese, Lelisa Desisa and Kipchoge all still needed to run their hardest for all 26.2 miles.

Before I became a runner I never would have watched any distance – not even the 10 seconds required for a 100m – let alone a marathon. But loads of non-runners on Twitter seemed to also find it a nailbiting 2.00 hours. I’m sure we all learnt a lot.

If you want to do it, you’ll go ahead and do it

I am not an early riser, but I had to get up at 4.40 am on a Saturday to watch the thing. And I saw all bar the first minute and a half. This presents a challenge – if I was that desperate to watch a handful of men run for two hours to get me out of bed long before I needed to be, what else should I be excited to do? I’m sure if I wanted to get up and go for a run at that time, I would make it happen. Or read the bible and pray.

Failure is as much about a state of mind as it is a thing

Given the aim of running 1:59:99 or below, the time-stamp on Kipchoge’s run of 2:00:25 is a failure, as are Desisa’s and Tadese’s comparitively slower but still flipping fast efforts. So, yeah, Nike failed to break the 2:00:00 barrier. But does that make them a failure?

Not in the slightest. This was an experiment. And all that science, selection, training, drafting, use of pacers, individually tailored fluids to the quantity and makeup of their sweat, and – yes – the trainers with a carbon fibre insole, clearly worked: Kipchoge ran the fastest marathon ever – the WR being 2:02:57 – while Tadese got a PR.

Humilty maketh a man great

I don’t know why Nike chose to have comedian Kevin Hart on the side of the track. Probably to appeal to those not in the running community as he could bring some fun into all the data and discussion given by commentators Paula Radcliffe and Craig Masback. He was amusing during the clip of him racing the pacers (he lasted maybe a minute), but he managed to turn everything toward him. While talking with Carl Lewis, he failed to give Carl time enough to voice his thoughts before he talked about how he could do it, just give him time. It was by then a tired and laboured joke. I think I actually shouted at him at one point.

Compare this with the pacers, tasked with setting the pace for the three men, getting them round the course. Each of them seamlessly entered and exited the group. Each of them had to take time out of their own seasons to practice all this in the weeks leading up to this attempt. Each of them did 4.8k before a 30 minute rest and another slot – as someone said “it was like a good, hard workout for them”. And each of them were darn thrilled for Kipchoge. One of my favourite memories is of them coming round the last bend, pointing to the finish line, screaming encouragement and smiling as if it was them achieving it.

Also compare with Kipchoge himself, who when being interviewed by Lewis stated that he was happy that “the world is closer to the sub-2”. He could have easily said “I am closer to sub 2 than anyone else.” This was for him about testing the boundaries not only for himself but for all of us – or at least the ones who might be able someday to do it! He also made a point of jogging past the fans and signing shoes, high-5ing, selfies. So chilled.

Human physiology is amazing

The science could only do so much: these guys still had to run fast. For two hours. In a way that isn’t (or wasn’t) really possible. Most records are set by running the first half slower than the second; the Nike team realised that they had to have the guys set off as fast as they were to finish. Watching Kipchoge was memorising. The fast leg turnover, the stable torso, the arm swing. His form did not breakdown at all until the final push when he somehow gave more than he had already been giving, and I honestly had to look really hard during his post-race interview before I noticed the tiniest bit of sweat.

Tadese and Desisa had completely different form; Nike had chosen them all for their running efficiency (how much oxygen they get pumped round their body) not on a perceived “perfect form”. That two of them gave the best performances of their career shows that running style can vary from runner to runner – at least in elites. There are basic principles which as a back-of-the-packer with terrible form I am working on – but it was encouraging to know there is some leeway.

The mind-battle must be fought, and can be overcome

I’m amazed at Tadese and Desisa for finishing. Runners aim to have a stronger finish in mid to long distances because starting faster means a lot of pain at the end of the race. They kept ploughing on, despite the searing pain their legs must have felt. Once they realised that the sub 2 wasn’t going to be theirs, they must have felt like giving up, because, well what’s the point? They could have so easily gone “nope, it’s not happening today.” (for other stupefyingly courageous mind-over-matter battles, watch Akwhari finishing the ’68 Olympic Marathon  , or Derek Redman in Barcelona – i’m sure you’ve seen that one).
Kipchoge has also spoken about how much he wonders if the battle is psychological.

He didn’t accomplish the goal, but the attempt and all those other finishers are so inspiring because of that drive to keep pushing to test the limits. The question Radcliffe kept asking was “what’s your sub-2?”

The day I achieve a sub 2 half marathon will be amazing for me. But that’s the point – to think about your dream, and question whether any of the barriers aren’t actual but perceived. There may be some physical ones (I am not built for speed, so I doubt I’ll get much below 2 hrs for a half), but before the sub 4 mile, 4 minutes was a psychological block. Now some people run under 4 minutes regularly. I definitely used this psychology in my long run today. Setting off for somewhere between 8 and 15 miles, I pushed my barriers and, very much glycogen depleted, nailed 16.1 miles; driving me to think that a sub 5 hour marathon in two weeks might just be possible.

So, as Radcliffe asked – what’s your sub-2?

The Depressed Christian: part 2 – sin

I’m sorry. This post should have been live last Thursday. It was more than writer’s block: I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t open up Scrivener, let alone write the words. It wasn’t just procrastination. Normally I can get going by throwing down a quick first draft, but there were too many ideas, too many doubts. It wasn’t a lack of time, for there was ample, and we give our time to what we care about. The task was just too much. It was a difficult post to write – I joked with a friend that the topic could easily become 73 posts! I somehow pushed through and ended up with a first draft, though it was nowhere near ready to go live. I still feel it isn’t ready: there is so much more to say on the topic, so let’s consider this a starting point for discussion. Nevertheless, apologies for not finessing it and getting it live.

You were expecting a post on Thursday, because I stated I would be posting every Thursday, and I let you down for apparently no good reason. It looks like laziness or procrastination or writer’s block when in reality the stumbling block was my depression. And yet, I feel I need to apologise.

Let’s take another example. On Monday I impressed my wife by leaping out of bed at the sound of my alarm to go for a run. She was less than impressed when a few minutes later I crawled back into bed. I made excuses, of course I did – that I hadn’t slept well enough, that it was too cold. But really, inside I was just low. But is that in itself an excuse? Was I really low, or just demotivated?

And here-in lies the dilemma the depressive has. There is often a felt need to apologise for the depression, because of what it does. But there is a fine line between apologising for the effects of depression and apologising for the depression itself. It’s such a fine line it’s almost non-existent and I’m essentially playing with words. There is also a balance between where normal behaviour ends and depression begins. It is close to the eternal debate: is there any point at which my depression is sin, or sinful?

There are three mistakes we can make with regard to this issue. One is to ignore it completely. The other is to come into it with the assume one way or other, with a lack of appreciation for the opposing view. These are both disasterous because there may be an ounce of truth in the other side. The depressed Christian needs to not only hear but find the truth. This should include thinking through the most bizarre thought processes: for the depressed Christian, this is not a theoretical question postulated by clever theologians in late-night discussions, pipe and dram in hand, but an insanely practical one. It has to do with one’s own salvation, and therefore one’s current and future hope; something which is sorely lacking during a depressed episode. And it is hope that gives reason to keep on plodding forward. Think of it like this: when I was a teen I listened to Led Zeppelin – very very loudly. When asked to turn it down by any family member, I would retort “but it’s Led Zeppelin: they deserve to be played loudly!” A depressed person needs our support, and that means giving them an airing for their inner thoughts: as illogical as they may sound they may have some truth in them.

Some would say that depression in and of itself is sinful. A typical argument would go like this. As a Christian, you are to be joyful. Paul gives the directive, not a suggestion, to “be joyful in hope” (Romans 12:12a). Jesus commands us to lay our burdens down at his feet, and to not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Or again, “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). In addition, anyone who is not for Christ is against him. Therefore, if we are not trusting in Him for a time can we still claim to be Christians? This leads to doubt about our salvation, especially if we are depressed and unable to trust anyone. Therefore, if you are not abounding in joy you are a weak Christian. Here’s an actual quote from a web page:

[depression comes because of, among other things]
“7. A lack of faith and trust in God, a lack of contentment and high self-esteem are the root causes of anxiety and depression.
8. The bad news is that non-Christians have no escape of anxiety and depression because they have no one that is looking out for their wellbeing.”

http://www.bible.ca/psychiatry/psychiatry-junk-science-anxiety-depression-myth.htm

I think the second statement is a very wrong statement to make. It is self-evidently untrue. Non-Christians do have people looking out for them. Indeed, the non-Christian psychologist I saw was most helpful; the non-Christian GPs were all fantastic. What the author is getting at, though, is that Christians have a great friend and helper in Christ. Therefore we have a particular ‘ escape route’ from depression. Yet ‘escape route’ is a faulty image. It suggests the way is well lit, clearly marked, and takes you directly to freedom, when the reality is far different – I’ll be posting more about what healing looks like in a future post. But the rough argument has some truth in it. They are, after-all, direct quotations.

 

But there is another simple conclusion to draw when we consider the definitions of the issue at hand.

Sin: those things we do or fail to do which displease God, that go against his will. To sin against someone is to do something contrary to their wishes.
Depression: an illness which causes a lowering in mood for a period of time – not just regular ‘sadness’. I like to think of it as an illness which presses down on you and makes all the normal things difficult – responding to emotions properly, making wise choices, getting things done, thinking properly.

So from that the obvious answer would be that it is not a sin to have depression, any more than it is sinful to have a broken arm. Depression is something that happens to you, for whatever reason. You cannot control depression happening to you.

But I think there’s more to the story.
Let’s consider the above quote.

“Depression comes from a lack of faith and trust in God, a lack of contentment and high self-esteem.”

Let’s focus on high self-esteem.
Timothy Keller once argued in a sermon that although we as a society hold low self-esteem to be the root causes of many of our social ills, it is actually the opposite and that we are really only society to hold this view. Is this as bonkers as it initially sounds? It sounds wacky, because we are so assured in our own belief, but it does make some sense. If I were to break into someone’s home, do I think highly or lowly of myself? I would be thinking that I am better than you, and that your security and feelings of safety are not worth my salt. If I were shout at my wife, would that come from thinking nothing of myself? Not really, because in that situation I would be believing that I am right about this issue, regardless of whether I am actually right or not.

But what about other symptoms of depression, such as self-harm (I write as someone who has self-harmed). Do we harm ourselves because we think too highly of ourselves or too low? Too lowly, most would assume, as I used to. You can’t think highly of yourself if you are willing to harm yourself – surely that says you believe you are not worth anything? No. I harmed because I felt I had no other way to release my emotions. I felt that cutting would help, more than any other methods. My way of dealing with my emotions was right, and I refused to listen to the people telling me it wasn’t the best way. If I had been more humble, I would have tried other methods.

Low self-esteem does cause issues, that is true. People hold very real fears about not being good enough for a certain task. Runners get this – “I’m too slow to call myself a runner!” Heck, Dick Beardsley thought as he was standing at the start, right before his 1982 Boston Marathon, “what am I doing here, with all these great elites…”

It is too high a view of ourselves that makes us think that we are right, and that others are wrong. This goes for out attitude God. When Adam and Eve first ate the fruit in the Garden, they said that God’s way was not the right way. If they weren’t thinking of themselves they would trusted God, not the serpent.

So high self-esteem causes some problems, specifically not trusting God – the first sin. In that sense the author is correct. But does it cause depression? Not in itself, but if it leads us to not trust in God, this causes sin, and this can cause depression. Or to say it another way, this can cause depression.

Spiritual depression

In our medicalised society we have tended to shy away from the idea of spiritual depression. I haven’t, as far as I remember, heard a live sermon on it. I think this is because we are frightened to suggest it exists, because we are frightened of the consequence – that the depressed person will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find solace by examining their sins, repenting, and yet not seeing freedom from their depression. We are so assured that all depression is physical, we forget this exists. In my next post I’ll be discussing other types.

Yet spiritual depression is one type of depression. Physical depression is another. Martin Lloyd-Jones has an incredibly helpful series on the matter. It was recorded long before Led Zeppelin, probably on an 8-track. The quality is therefore understandably poor and you will need your best speakers turned up louder than I used to listen to Led Zep just to be able to make it out. But in his gentle way he acknowledges that a Christian can be ‘unhappy’ (a term which was a great deal stronger than our current definitions), but can find joy. Check the whole series out here. Alistair Begg also touches on the issue here.

All I can really do here is remind us of Psalm 32, with two clear caveats.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

– Psalm 32: 1-5

In the first part, the symptoms of the unconfessed sin match very closely with that of depression. “my bones wasted away… my strength was sapped… your hand was heavy on me…”

This makes it clear that:
1. Our sin can cause depression, but remember, not all depression is caused by sin.
2. We mustn’t be afraid of introspection. If sin is the cause of a depression, we can only find this out through prayer, introspection and talking things through. We should help a depressed Christian think through their innermost thoughts while reminding them of the greater truths. A very fine trick if you can do it: throw them a life-ring, encourage them to put it on, but allow them to swim to safety at their own rate.
3. if the depression is not caused by a sin, that will become apparent with time. God forgives. So if having repented we are still not free from the depression, there must be some other reason.

I have been disuaded from introspection both from friends and the pulpit. I have always attended churches which proclaim Christ and Christ alone as our savour and hope, but is realistic about our sinful nature. I have heard people promote the idea that for every time we look inward we should look ten times at Christ. But there is a danger in this truth, in that people tend to spend so much time looking outward they forget about looking inward.
There is lots more to say. Next week, I’ll be considering the same issue from a slightly different point of view. For now, let’s remember that depression in and of itself is not sinful.