Mind Over Marathon was a BBC documentary that followed a group of ten unlikely runners living with or affected by different mental health issues, as they trained for the 2017 London Marathon. The programme aimed to show that mental and physical health are closely linked, and that physical activity can benefit our psychological wellbeing.
Jake Tyler, one of the runners featured in the documentary, has shared his story with us for Mental Health Awareness Week* and revealed how parkrun will be playing a part in his next big challenge.
I have lived with depression for longer than I haven’t.
The first pangs started when I was 15. I slowly started to withdraw, and sometimes I even hated myself.
I felt ashamed because of it and I never told anyone. I kept it bottled up, and when I got to college and started feeling proper stress for the first time I would often get really angry. Everything I had bottled up came out and sometimes I’d snap at people – I wasn’t mean, just frustrated. Internalising those feelings for so long made it feel like I was hiding a dirty secret that was eating away at me.
It, whatever ‘it’ was, became more frequent in my 20s. I didn’t know what depression was, and I didn’t know about mental illness. I just kept thinking I was a freak compared to others. My friends got frustrated with me when I bailed on plans – rather than try to articulate how I was feeling, I just told them I couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. Looking back my thinking was so backwards, but that was how I felt.
Eventually, many years of mismanaging my illness led to a complete mental breakdown. Not taking steps to get the help I needed, and bad coping strategies such as drinking heavily, had eventually led to constant, dark thoughts. That’s when I knew I needed help, so I called my mum and moved home to live with her for a while and lick my wounds. At that time I had my dream job managing a pub in London, so on top of being in the worst bout of depression I’d ever had, I also felt like a failure.
I went to see a doctor which was stressful in itself. It meant traipsing through the years of anxiety that was stored up in my mind, and knowing deep down that for me there was no silver bullet. I refused medication because I didn’t believe it would get to the root of the problem, and instead began having Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
My mum was my rock throughout this terrible time and eventually she successfully persuaded me to start exercising as a form of medication. It might sound simple, but when you’re depressed just taking a few steps to the bathroom or to make a cup of tea is hard enough – let alone going outside for a walk.
After two weeks of watching awful daytime television, I succumbed to the boredom and took our dog for a walk. For the first time in a long time it made me feel like I had accomplished something, so I did it the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. I soon realised I was literally walking my depression off.
This was my Eureka moment, and I wondered if I’d discovered something that other people with depression didn’t know about. I wondered how I could reach out to them, how I could inspire them, and where else I could walk. With all these thoughts swimming around in my head, I realised in that moment I was no longer walking – I was just standing there on the seafront, smiling and standing next to my dog.
I bought a big fold out map of Britain and circled all the places I wanted to walk, such as national parks, coastlines and national trails, then drew a line between each one. That was my route laid out in front of me.
Not wanting to give negative thoughts time to creep into my head, I spent an entire day writing about my challenges, my plan, my vision to help others. It was my public statement of intent. I couldn’t back out now.
“I wondered if I’d discovered something that other people with depression didn’t know about.”
Putting pen to paper was really difficult because it was everything I had been ashamed of for so long suddenly being out there in the open. My anxiety went into overdrive, but I knew I’d done the right thing and the outpouring of support was immense. People I had known for years who I didn’t know were struggling with their own mental health suddenly got in touch with me. It was strange to be congratulated for having the strength to admit feelings that I was ashamed of, but I now know that I wasn’t just helping myself, I was helping others.
I spent two months training every day and planning my route, then I started walking west from Brighton. Doing the walk on my own was just what I needed because I wanted to force myself to speak to other people, and when they found out what I was doing they couldn’t do enough for me. Anything from buying me food and drink, inviting me to dinner at their house, giving me a place to stay rather than sleep in my tent, and charging my phone for me.
After 1,500 miles of walking, winter was fast approaching and my tent was getting really cold at night! I’d been video blogging about my journey and a BBC producer got in touch to see if I’d be interested in appearing in a documentary that linked physical activity with improved mental health, with the end goal being to run the London Marathon. Their objective to raise the profile of mental illness mirrored mine, so it seemed like the perfect way to spend the next six months.
Having the Royal Family support this cause was amazing. I was absolutely starstruck at first, but when I was speaking with Prince Harry it felt like I was having a beer with a bloke I’d just met. They are so personable and passionate about the cause, and for me it’s refreshing to see the monarchy being so involved with the people.
The day of the London Marathon was one of the best days of my life, but the feeling of accomplishment didn’t sink in right away. The other runners and everyone involved in the filming were there at the finish, crying and hugging and celebrating, but the whole thing just washed over me. It wasn’t until a few days later when I was back home in Brighton walking through Preston Park, by myself, and I saw the trailer for the documentary. That was the first time I had seen the footage of Poppy and I crossing the finish line hand in hand. I immediately called her and blubbed down the phone – emotions never seem to happen when they’re supposed to for me!
My next visit to Preston Park had a lot more smiles as you can see from the photo at the top of this blog – as of course it was because I was there for parkrun! Claudia, who was also on the show, called me up and suggested we go along. I’d heard about parkrun during my walk and vowed to go along to Preston Park parkrun when I got home, so it seemed the perfect time and will certainly become a regular habit. I loved it!
Claudia and I live right near each other but had never met previously, so it’s been great for my motivation to have her so close. All of us from the show still keep in touch, and have done regularly since the day we first met. It’s a totally unique experience because we all have a history of mental health problems, and we knew that about each other from the first second. Normally you get to know people better over time, but we were meeting from the core and working outwards. We are all converts to movement as a way of managing mental health, and I don’t want to let any of them go as they all mean too much to me.
“The Royal Family support is amazing. Speaking with Prince Harry felt like having a beer with a bloke I’d just met.”
It’s really difficult to give advice about depression because everybody is unique, and different bouts can be triggered by different things. Sometimes I wake up feeling 10 times worse than when I went to sleep, and other times I am struck down with an ominous dread – the demons are knocking at the door but I don’t know when they’re coming in. If you are suffering, it’s important to take things at your own pace. And if you’re ready to talk to someone, give some thought to who that might be. For some it can be friends or family, for others it can be the Samaritans for example. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me directly too.
If you care about someone and are concerned about their wellbeing, then acknowledging this is the right thing to do. But be careful how you do it. Asking something like ‘do you want to talk about anything’ is often the best way to go, because you’re less likely to make them feel like they are a burden or are being judged.
The one thing you can’t do with depression is apply logic to it. I consider myself to be relatively intelligent and in touch with my emotions and I know exactly what I need to make myself feel good and be happy – talk, exercise, and reaching out to people. That’s why it’s frustrating when depression sinks in and those things that make you feel good and happy are the last things you want to do. And when logic fails me I get frustrated and I feel like I’ve lost control. It’s a chemical unbalance, pure and simple.
With the London Marathon done, I’m preparing to embark on another long walk from June until November to continue banging the drum about mental illness and how exercise is such a wonderful form of natural medication. My plan is to run in between every National Park in Great Britain, and then hike through them, whilst hitting as many different parkruns as I can along the way.
I’m hoping the run/walk strategy will keep me fit and healthy for six months on my feet, and at least my barcode won’t weigh me down!
*Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 8-14 May 2017
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