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.

marathon conversation.png

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.

Advertisements

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.

The Depressed Christian: part 1 – definitions

I will say it again. Yes, Christians can have depression. We are humans, liable to the same illnesses as anyone else. Think about it: 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems in any one year (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). That could be depression, or anxiety, bipolar, trauma, or other mental health issues. In Scotland, 1 in 10 adults had experienced two or more symptoms of depression or anxiety in that year (2012-2013). So in a church with a congregation of 10, it is likely that one member has had depression in the past – and that there would be at least two people who have experienced some form of mental health issue. And without being too technical, the research is unequivocal in that if someone has experienced a depressive episode before, they are likely to have another at some point in their life. The life-course of depression is not like that of a broken arm. So, we need to talk about it. Examine it. Study it. Ask questions. Look inward at ourselves and outward to others. Depression is real. And within the church.

And church is all about healing people by pointing people to Jesus Christ. As it should be. But with those statistics and that statement in mind, we immediately come to a a few problems. What does healing look like? Is there a relationship between sin and depression? How does trusting in Jesus heal someone of depression? Is trusting in Jesus enough to see me healed – should I abstain from meds, for example? If I am not being healed, does this mean I am not trusting enough?

Fundamental misunderstandings of depression have unfortunately skewed the church’s understanding of how to help people heal. In my experience, it took me about three years to answer the fundamental question of what healing in my situation looked like. I do wonder if healing might have been simpler if I hadn’t been a Christian: I would have the ‘gold star treatment’ (an actual term used by my GP) of meds, psychology and exercise and be done with it.

 

The promises of the bible are true, but often they are turned into trite truisms, which minimise the struggles of someone with anxiety or depression. I found this picture this morning, and my honest response was “ugh.” I’m sure it is meant to help, but it just makes me doubt! And because I doubt, this feeds more doubt!

trust-in-jesus

True point, not very well made.

It is into this murkiness and confusion of being a Christian who has depression that I would like to write in the next few weeks. I’ll be examining some truths within the bible, combining it with a bit of ‘secular’ (horrible, self-conscious word) research and personal experience, and hopefully bring some clarity to help individual Christians who have depression, or those who look after someone with depression.

But before I do, I’d like to define two key terms.
Depression. There are different types of depression – major, dysthymia, postnatal, atypical etc – but they are all characterised by common symptoms, for example: loss of hope and enjoyment of hobbies/interest, feeling tearful for no apparent reason, lowered self-esteem, difficulty in making decisions (even basic ones like whether to make the bed or get dressed first), lowered sex drive, moving or speaking slowly, heaviness in arms or legs, headaches, changes to sleep (under or over sleeping)… for at least two weeks. More info at NHS Choices and Patient.co.uk. The length marks it out as being different to regular emotions, which  – don’t get me wrong – we all still need to be supported in.
Christian. Sometimes it is helpful to define what being a Christian isn’t. Going to church on a Sunday doesn’t make me a Christian any more than going to Murrayfield would make me a rugby player; reading the bible doesn’t make me a Christian any more than reading The Great Gatsby turns me into Fitzgerald. It isn’t about being good in a tenant/landlord transaction, in which I do good deeds and hope that God won’t kick me out of His Kingdom. It is about recognising that in myself I am not good enough to enter into His presence, and that my sin – “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God” (Westminster Catechism, in which I take ‘any law’ to mean the whole of Scripture, not just the 10 commandments) – requires punishment. And Jesus took that punishment for me. If I didn’t trust Him I would be going to Hell, and as I love him for doing that for me, I aim to follow Him in all I do. I now have freedom from that punishment, and the freedom to choose not to sin – and the promise of eternal life.
Luther said it better in his Catechism: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Next week I’ll be asking: “is there a relationship between depression and sin?”

Playing with your Plans

You may (or may not) have noticed that I posted neither last week nor yesterday. The reason: It was the latest in my 7 year long experiment with integrity.

Integrity is a challenge. It means follow-through on everything you say you will do, and not doing the things you say you won’t. As well as acting (or not acting) on your core beliefs. All. The. Time. 
At first I thought it was enough to make a fool-proof plan. I now know that plans don’t work in the myriad challenges life throws at you. Yet plans have their value. I used to make them and try to stick to them. Where I failed to follow through, I would pore over the plan trying to figure out whether it was over ambitious or not full enough, or broken down into manageable steps.

But failure isn’t always the plan’s fault. I’ve tried, for example, both the one and two year McCheyne Bible Plan a few times. That many people continue to use it tells me that it is certainly followable, but each time I have failed in the past to go beyond Job.

My problem seems to lie into my attitude to planning. More than anything, last year’s marathon training taught me this: have your plan, but be prepared for it to not go to plan: pre-determine your non-negotiables. Everything else is bonus. This gives you the freedom to play around with the plan as necessary while still keeping on target. Ironically, having thought about the potential flexibility built in makes the plan itself less frightening – so you’re more likely to follow-through.

I did not do every run as planned, due to minor injuries, time and (whups) laziness. But no matter what I did during those months, I aimed to do the Long Slow Distance, because according to the experts, this is the most important training run for the marathon. 

I’m taking this thinking into the McCheyne plan.My non-negotiables are to finish it and to not miss a day. As the plan starts January 1st, I am technically a few weeks behind – but I really don’t care. If I miss a day in my personal schedule, I won’t try and play catch-up by reading two days worth of passages in one. I tried that in the past, and it made it more difficult to keep to the plan overall, because I tended to miss days thinking “ahh I’ll catchup when I have time.” The time of day I read is negotiable. For me it is unrealistic to read at the same time each day, because I am not yet ready for that kind of meticulousness.

Similarly, I have (finally) decided on a marathon training plan, after experimenting with what Great Run, Runtastic and a few other places had to offer. Last year I had to narrow the choices down from many and try to work out what the best plan for me was, without having done a marathon. Now I have one marathon under my belt; and one marathon is 26.2 miles and 4 months more experience than I had last time. This makes it easier.

The non-negotiables: the build-up and distances of the long runs; a reasonable (challenging but doable) distance through the week. Anything else, for example, the days the runs falls on and the type of speedwork, is secondary. I can muck about with the days and the type of speedwork.

For example, instead of Saturdays or Sundays, I have radically altered the training schedule to make the long run fall on a Monday morning. This is not so crazy sounding in the first few weeks of 5-8 miles, but will definately be mad when it gets to 18 miles.  We’ll see how this plays out, and I am willing to change it if it is too much. But as it’s a non-negotiable, it’s going to happen. 

Why change it to Monday? As I discovered yesterday:

  • I start the week on a high, the same reason I like publishing a post on Monday – it is an early accomplishment in the week.
  • The long run is arguably the most important run. So it checks it off.
  • Having run 5 miles in the first day of the week, or 11 miles in week 7, makes the other runs less daunting (no more than 3 each for the rest of this week)!
  • It will teach me to get up early, and go to bed early on Sunday night.
  • Yesterday morning’s was definitely awesome thinking time, and that has only happened a handful of times; doing it later means I’m more tired which makes the whole thing worse.
  • As I plan to cycle to and from work (9 miles each way) after the run, I will have to keep it slow and manageable, which will mean I am training at the right pace. 

With this change of plan, I won’t be able to post on Monday – so I have changed my posting day to Thursday. Not posting last week and yesterday reminded me that my plan for the blog was to post once a week. That’s a non-negotiable. Which day I post, is.

 Coming up on Thursday: the first in a series about depression and chrsitianity.

 

Be Content with your Changes

Running has taught me many things about life.

This weekend’s lesson running: no matter what I do, I will probably be as discontent with my health as I was when I first laced up my trainers. I realised this while signing up for Freeletics at the weekend. I had to place myself on a three tier scale. I realised that while some of you may percieve me as “definitely fit”, I would percieve myself somewhere between “not so” and “quite” fit. When I did the Edinburgh Marathon, there were at least 6000 people far fitter than me! But that I finished showed me I’m fitter than others. Simply put – my fitness is not where I would like it to be. Will I ever be content? I was content to have finished a marathon, but not content with how I finished it. I was content to get a great PR on Sunday, but I look forward to the day when I do a sub 2:00 Half Marathon.

screenshot_2017-01-20-21-28-34

Where would you place yourself on the scale? Where would others place you?

Some of this is healthy: discontent breeds positive change. On the other hand, if I obsessed, (as I often do) about the science, nutrition, plans, pacing, getting the best out of my body in the time I have, that is unhealthy. So there is a tension between good discontent and contentment, and the question is – how to use discontent in a healthy way?

The answer is, I think, in how we choose to make those changes. Yes, I would like to be stronger than I am. Looking at my marathon training, which starts this week, helped me narrow the appropriate strength work. I need to go for functional strength. My core is useless. And I need to make a change that I can live with forever. There is no point in implementing a heavy weights program which I will only be able to utilise until week 12, would hate, and couldn’t actually fit into an already tight training schedule. Far better to take what I have and do it well and often throughout my training. The beauty of Freeletics seems to be that they are short, intense sessions. Highly achievable while your wife is watching Casualty, or after a run or bike commute. And they work. I’m still sore from Saturday’s session.

This morning I also changed my morning routine from:
coffee pot on hob, cereal in bowl, faff on facebook, pour coffee, to:
coffee pot on hob, cereal in bowl, plank, pour coffee.

Because a plank a day is doable. I don’t know whether I will do it at the weekends too. Probably not. Because I can see myself doing it five days a week, during a time I am not already using.

Likewise, instead of filling my eyes and kind with junk during my coffee I am reading at least one chapter of Scripture a day. Because one, although small, is a heck of a lot better than nothing.

I am content with my goals. I am not sure whether I will do another marathon after this – it really depends how race day goes. The training will be tough, particularly around weeks 1 through 16. But I am content with the content of the training program, which makes it a lot more manageable. That said, I am currently putting off my first pyramid treadmill session. Mean as you start to go on…

Workout your salvation

I often think one goal of any race is to make it to the start line having done the best you can to prepare yourself for however many miles are ahead of you. This takes months of preparation – my training for yesterday’s half marathon began 12 weeks ago!

But the half wasn’t the real goal, which is the Stirling Marathon (21st May). Only 17 weeks and 6 days to go! The half was really training for the 21st itself and to force myself to have a bigger base to work from than I did last time. So you could argue that by the time May 21st rolls around, I’ll have been preparing for it for nearly seven months!

Taking such a long view sounds ridiculous, but I think it is incredibly wise. It forces you to think about what steps you can take today to make that day in the future the best it can possibly be.

I think there should be in our Christian lives a very similar way of thinking. At the end of my life, I would like to be able to say that I have endured my race, I have kept the faith; I’d very much like to hear Jesus say “well done, good and faithful servant.” I’d like to do the best with what He’s given me.

Those months of training for a marathon can be likened to years of continuous training for daily life as a Christian. I gained a new appreciation of the phrase “work out your salvation” (Phillippians 2:12) yesterday during the sermon. Our minister gave three analogies, one of which I forget precisely (to do with sowing in a field): when you work out a maths sum you use the figures you have and try to get the outcome – the answer; when you work out physically, you take what you have and try to get a different outcome – stronger, faster.

He didn’t say any more than that, as the sermon had to cover more ground, but as a runner it makes a whole lot of sense. Very quickly, here’s how the analogy carries forward.

You should be doing different types of workout:

  • long, slow distance: in which you are taking the cardiovascular system and making it more efficient at pumping blood and oxygen round the body.
  • speed work (of whatever variety: fartlek, hill sprints, sprints), takes your lactate threshold and aims to increase it, so that you can run faster for longer.
  • strength work, where you take your muscles and put them under stress and let them heal stronger, which helps both speed and endurance. For instance, my core is terrible; so I know in the 17 weeks I have I need to do as much as I can to strengthen it, so that I’m able to keep proper form for longer and so avoid the calf cramps which plagued my last one!

Now, there are different things we can and should be doing to train us for the Christian life.

  • praying. Helps us to focus on God’s greatness, and therefore our folly, taking our sin and repenting so that he can remove it and replace it with a new desire for his will.
  • reading the bible. Takes whatever knowledge we have of God and deepens it: how can we know his will without reading the bible?
  • listening to sermons, reading devotionals and other books: as with the last point, can help us deepen our knowledge and love for Christ.
  • Meeting with other Christians, not just on Sunday. Helps us appreciate others more, and can help us love them deeper.

God gives salvation today for our sins of the past and today, and a new hope: that is the greatest gift. We must use it and do these things out of reverence for that. He has also given us the above resources. Let’s use ’em gladly!

As I stated, the training can take a long time, and results can be frustratingly slow. But they can come. Yesterday’s half was physically demanding. I was working on roughly 2.5/3 hours sleep,  felt sick multiple times, and went into it not thinking a PR would even be possible. My squelchy stomach meant I just had to adapt to using fewer food gels than planned – all I could do was continually plod as best I could. My legs weren’t really willing to speed up after a small surge at mile 6, but they were at least willing to keep going (apart from mile 11 and 12, in which I had two small walk breaks) and I was able to sprint finish by forcing my body to ignore my squelchy stomach. And I felt exhilarated at the end and justified by the work I put in, although I should have done much more!

Old PR: May (during the marathon, totally not meaning to PR) 2hr 24m 17s.
New PR: 2hr 17m 58s.

hm-pr-15th-jan

A remarkably consistently paced but Personal Record setting Half Marathon

 

Yep, I shaved 6 minutes and 17 seconds off. I did so mostly by giving myself a bigger base through, for example, commuting by bike more, doing the different types of workout, using a cross country 10k in November as a side goal. And yesterday, I was remarkably consistent with the splits. Not record breaking, but it made me realise: take the steps today, no matter what, and in a few months time or in many years, I may just creep under the 2hr mark – but much more importantly, hear those words “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Psychological preparedness

No runner wants to see those three letters against their name in a results page: DNF. Did Not Finish. Take a look at Paula Radcliffe’s grief – and there is no other word for it – as her body forces her to stop at mile 22 of the Athens Olympic Marathon. Every runner who has taken part in any event, be it their first 5k or Nth marathon, implicitly understands her anguish. It is as horrible to rewatch as it was to see it happen live.

Clearly the feeling is amplified for her, having been pitted as a favourite given her world records a year earlier. But the fear of failing can be huge, even for plodders like me.

This week I have wrapped my head around the DB12 half marathon at Strathclyde Country Park, which is tomorrow morning – at 8.30! It has taken me a week, I am psychologically prepared for a DNF.  Although I will do my best, if it becomes clear I am going to do myself an injury which may set me back weeks into my marathon training there will be little to no point in finishing. Ironically, accepting I may get a DNF will free me to do the best I can, and allow me to finish; if I pig-headedly refused a DNF I would probably not actually finish, as I would push myself too hard early on.

So why leave the house at ridiculous o’clock and drive for an hour on a Sunday morning to plod 13.1 – or maybe fewer – miles? Because, having accepted that I may not complete the run, I have thought about what the run means for me tomorrow, and evaluated my goals. Tomorrow’s run is not the be all and end all; the marathon isn’t but is the real goal behind tomorrow. So I have tweaked them a little:

  • Pre-marathon-training assessment. Difficult to do in training runs, so is better done in a race environment. So whether I finish or not – that will be where my fitness is at!
  • Keep fitter during the Christmas period. Although I don’t feel totally ready for tomorrow, my resting heart rate is bang on where it was pre-christmas (60 BPM) and my breathing is much the same. I also think I ate slightly less than last year…
  • Knock 13 minutes off my last half marathon. Possible, given some great training runs. But tomorrow won’t be the day. I have removed this goal.
  • Practice same strategy for the marathon: slow first half, medium middle, and push as hard as I can for the last bit.
  • Finish strong. My last training run was supposed to be a banger, but a 2 hour psychological booster became a 1 and a half hour physical and mental struggle. I did finish strong though.

In addition I have some tools to help:

  • My running cap, bought while in training for my first half marathon. A physical reminder that I can do it.

    mde

    Tools of the trade

  • A friend’s running belt. Reminder that friends are rooting for me, and the pink will cheer me – and probably others – up (Glaswegians are a friendly bunch).
  • Mantras, such as “you’re slacking” – after a friend’s son told me 13.1 miles is nothing given what ultramarathoners do; “no matter how high your mountain, never ever give up” – Dick Beardsley
  • A reason for every mile. Adapted from Tina Muir’s positivity bottles. These include (mile 1) to burn fat (has the additional benefit of keeping me at that slow pace); (mile 6) inspire others; (mile 10) bragging rights; (mile 13/13.1) finishing.

 


No matter what, I am prepared for the result – and the result will be good. If I finish, I have a well timed psychological boost reminding me I can do it, regardless of my time. If I finish well, that boost will be bigger. If I don’t finish, I’ll become more resilient for next time and be able to do next year’s better, and I’ll still have an accurate pointer as to my fitness. I am still nervous about tomorrow, but having thought it all through, I am now not so worried – and I’m actually looking forward to the experience. The lesson for you for your challenge – think about it, tweak what you can, enjoy as much as possible.

Expect some bragging on Monday.