Recently a young runner friend who is just a year out of college made a confession on Facebook. He related his experience with depression and urged others to seek help and counseling.
Depression can leave a person feeling defeated and broken. The first time I truly dealt with that brand of emotional depths was my junior year in college. I was twenty years old and running headlong through four straight years of college. The previous summer I’d worked an absolutely terrible job in a paint factory where the conditions were dangerous and the co-workers detached, cold and often brutal. Plus the atmosphere inside the plant was rife with fumes from turpentine and paint.
So I arrived on campus that fall feeling a bit fragile yet determined to have a good cross country season. Thanks to an interminably competitive spirit at that age, I managed to run in the Top 7 much of the season. But when the time came for the conference meet, I found myself trapped inside a dark mental space that would not let go. Every step of that race was a massive struggle. I recall the sensation of racing into the dark of night, both literally and figuratively. I survived, but it was not a performance of which I was proud. In four years of cross country, it would be the only year I finished that poorly.
I felt broken.
That winter was cold and snowy. We trained on country roads in the dark, racing along as we always did at 6:00 per mile pace no matter what the conditions. Between my generally dark mood and the relative stupidity of what we were doing, I began to complain. Perhaps I should have approached that a bit differently, engaging in some sort of “off session” discussion to moderate our approach.
Instead, my depression drove me to an outburst in which I took off from the group in anger. I raced ahead at near 5:00 per mile pace. I recall the cold wind whipping my face and body. Soon I was hundreds of yards ahead and now committed to a pace that would be hard for anyone to sustain in a race, much less a training run.
But of course, I would not give up. I kept running as hard as I could.
A few weeks later my roommate counseled me on the dangers of engaging in that approach. “Cud, you just need to shut up and run.”
it was good advice in the circumstance. For better or worse, I was not going to escape the culture of the team, especially at the time.
I’ll confess that several teammates from that dark period in my life branded it “Cud’s Weird Year.” And I’ll cop to that. Like I said, something in me was broken. I needed to fix it. But I did not know how, just yet.
When the spring track season ended, I had fully begin to emerge from the grips of depression. At home for the summer, I took a look in the mirror and did not like what I saw. My thick hair framed an extremely narrow face. My thick glasses made me look like Napoleon Dynamite. The Lasse Viren beard I’d grown for inspiration that winter suddenly looked desperate and dumb.
I literally took shears and cut off large chunks of my own hair. I shaved the beard. It all looked horrible, so I drove our Buick Wildcat into town and paid for an actual haircut, the first I’d had in more than a year. All that was left was a superb 1970s mustache. I picked up a nice tan that summer and pushed my parents to finally allow me to get contact lenses.
I showed up for college that fall feeling like an entirely new person. In fact, no one recognized me at the first party fraternity party of the fall. That made me reconsider that whole scenario as well. I left fraternity life pretty much behind. I decided that some of the things once needed to prop up my ego were more like tarsnakes in my existence.
I had been broken, but now I was fixed. I had fallen in love with a girl and our cross country team placed second in the nation. Life was not perfect, but it was humming along in a pretty good way.
Admittedly, that dark year in my life would not be the last time I encountered the difficulties of depression and anxiety. But I learned enough from the experience to know that doing something is better than doing nothing.
Depression hurts. Emotional pain is real. Running and cycling and swimming can really help. But it’s not the cure-all for everyone. We all need healthy discussion of our emotional framework. Some of us benefit from counseling. More than a few of us can benefit from medical support. The important thing is to not give up.
We all need support from friends and even work associates. Over the years, I’ve gotten all of that, and am very grateful. When I can, and the situation seems appropriate, I also try to reach out to others who seem in need of help or emotional support. My personal faith is also an important component of my life, but I view it as a compliment, not a replacement for dealing with the practical reality of depression and anxiety on its own terms.
Being broken does not mean we can’t be helped, or help ourselves. That’s an important lesson to grasp at any age or stage in life.
Have you ever been broken? How have you recovered? What might you share with others about your experiences? Reply anonymously if you like to firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps your story can help others too.