How Running Saved My Life

When BELLA MACKIE‘s marriage ended she asked others what they recommended to heal the pain. Then she started running …

Almost everyone on earth has had a shitty breakup, and I am not special in dealing with anxiety alongside it. I handled the initial pain like most people do, even though I don’t remember very much about the first couple of weeks. There were no inspirational quotes that gave me strength, no empowering music that made me feel like it would be OK. I just remember lying on the floor a lot (maybe just to ensure that it wouldn’t treacherously shift even further).

The funny thing was, in the days that followed I no longer felt as anxious. I felt a host of other shitty things, including anger and sadness; but not predominantly anxious. There was a perverse relief in tanking everything so badly – I almost felt fearless – with nothing left to care about, I didn’t have to be afraid I’d lose it. It turned out the marriage had made it all worse, not better. I suddenly felt restless – I wanted to do something.

The first run I took up and down the alley was fuelled mainly by anger. I wanted to dramatically break out of my head, and I didn’t know how to. Short of screaming and punching something, I thought moving as fast as I could might work. Turns out, I couldn’t move very fast but it still felt like something. When I’d finished my three minutes huffing and puffing, I limped home feeling I’d sort of achieved my aim. I felt physically awful, but I’d pushed aside my thoughts for a moment. I’d gotten out of the misery cycle I’d been in since well before my husband left, and done something different – something nobody else knew about but me.

Sometimes, when you’re at the end of your tether, it can only take one thing to make a difference. When you’re so low, even a small change can provide a glimpse of hope. When I cast around and asked people for the things they tried when going through hard times, I got a range of answers: some funny, some obvious and some plain eccentric. Box sets were a favourite – binge watching the West Wing on repeat (I can also recommend this); as was reading – books, magazines, the newspapers. Communal exercises were vouched for – learning an instrument in a group of beginners was mentioned, as was an old-fashioned knitting circle. An ex-colleague volunteered for as many charities and organisations as possible until all his time was taken up by looking after others and he had no time to dwell on his own problems. Cooking also seemed popular: one respondent told me she ate potato gratin every day until she felt better, another cooked every chicken recipe he could think up. A photo sent by a stranger on social media alerted me to their amazing Lego habit, formed after a breakdown. Pottery was another one, sculpting something, making something. Creating, not destroying.

People also told me about bigger challenges – trips to the Himalayas, silent meditation retreats and signing up for ultimate marathons. Those challenges have my admiration, but also would’ve seemed unattainable to me. But mainly people said exercise. Long walks – taken with no end goals or route – as one friend described it so well: “Walking! Walking aimlessly for hours and hours, listening to music, stopping to people-watch. Sitting on benches if its sunny, closing your eyes, and letting the sun warm your face.”

Yoga to focus the mind and relax the body, boxing to get rid of adrenaline and anger. And running. Running came up a lot, so I wasn’t very original in my choice – but I was obviously onto something.

Life didn’t change, I kept on going to work; kept on crying in the toilets; kept on running away from the looks on people’s faces when I had to explain that my marriage was already over. I would call my husband and ask him if he’d changed his mind (spoiler alert: no,never). I packed all his stuff up as the dog watched warily, whining as
I manically stuffed shirts into bin bags and books into old cardboard boxes. When he came to pick them up I noticed his wedding ring was gone. It turned out that he’d been looking for the exit long before I’d noticed. It amazes me what we refuse to see. My lovely sister came and stayed a lot – without me noticing, she sort of moved in and kept me getting up in the morning, made me shower, made me eat. I couldn’t bypass the break-up, or ignore all my long-cultivated anxieties, but I could break out of it for a few minutes a day when I pulled on my old trainers, snuck out of the house after dark and headed to the alleyway where I had run that first day.

I kept heading back to the same starting place. I kept running to the same song. I felt out of breath and elephantine at every attempt. But I noticed that I was running for longer, that I would stop less and that I would even let the ridiculously angry song that I relied on to lead to another track.

And I noticed physical changes too. I was sleeping better, not just staring at the ceiling while my sister slept next to me and I drew comfort form her regular breathing and warmth. A simple reassurance that not everything had been ripped away from me. I wasn’t hit with a huge adrenaline rush whenever I had an intrusive thought or a moment of panic I wasn’t crying the moment I woke up. Progress!

Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, Bella Mackie, William Collins, €10.99.

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