Why I’m running a half marathon dressed as a black dog

There’s always been a plan. It may not seem that way – what with the disappearances, the hissy fits, and the dramatic decline in the quality of my blog posts – but there’s always been a plan. And it’s time I let you know about it…

Last year, when I was suffering from severe depression, a dear friend ran the Great North Run half marathon in memory of her father. She isn’t fond of running, and she’d never done a race before. But since he’d been a keen runner, and had always wanted her to be, it was something she was determined to do.

Around the same time, I also started running. Not to run a race – don’t be silly – but to help my mental health. Now let’s be clear, I am not what you’d call a natural athlete. Most of my adult life has been spent wobbling on the edge of obesity. In fact, the nearest I’d get to ‘running’ was ‘running late’. But I was also pretty desperate. And I was getting tired of being given the same advice:

Have you tried running?

So I did.

As suspected, it wasn’t the miracle it’d been made out to be. But it did help a little. Especially with my agitation and anxiety. Before long, the running had become a bit of a symbol. That I hadn’t given up. My black dog may have had me on the run, but I hadn’t stopped running. You could say that’s when #BlackDogRunner was born, the part of me that kept running when everything else wanted to stop. But please don’t. It sounds horribly corny.

When my friend finished her half marathon, I was overwhelmed with pride. But, I also felt something else. A sense of responsibility. Like the baton had passed to me. As my health improved, it was getting harder to stay motivated. I needed something to keep #BlackDogRunner alive. So I decided that on 7th September 2014, I would run the Great North Run myself.

I get rather scared when I think that I’ll soon be trying to run 13.1 miles (I found the picture of this lovely little fella at PicHost)

But who would I be running for? Don’t get me wrong, clearly I’d be partly running for myself. The ups and downs in training for a long race seem like a surprisingly good metaphor for the ups and downs in the recovery process. But that isn’t enough. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m terrible at motivating myself for myself. Which is when it hit me. What if #BlackDogRunner could be a symbol, not just for me, but for everyone with a black dog? For all those brave souls fighting depression right now? For those millions with invisible dogs, that are hidden behind the veil of stigma?

From then on, it all fell into place. Clearly I’d need a costume. Every good vigilante needs a costume. And I’d need a way to get to message out. So I joined Twitter, I started blogging, and I even recently set up a Facebook page. *Shudders*. I’ve tried to stay anonymous. I like the idea that – in theory at least – I could be any of one those invisible millions with depression. But the most important thing is just to get #BlackDogRunner out there; to raise awareness, bash stigma, and hopefully raise lots of money for a good mental health charity. Which reminds me, I’m going to be fundraising for Mind – the UKs largest mental health charity. There are some magnificent mental health charities out there, but Mind were one of the few with specific places at the Great North Run. In any case, their mission, to ‘provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem‘ and ‘campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding‘, seems absolutely spot on.

Of course, life as a masked vigilante hasn’t proved to be quite so simple as I thought. For a start, I don’t have any of the usual benefits. I can’t fly, I don’t own a ‘customised vigilante transport system’ (i.e. a ‘dogmobile’), and it’s seems to be an unpaid position (like one of those internships that’s ‘good for your CV’, but useless for paying the pills).

Alas, I do not own a ‘customised vigalante transport system’ – like this dogmobile! (Picture taken at the Houston Art Car Parade 2004 by Picasso of Dreams)

Also, not long after starting to promote myself, my health decided to take a turn for the worse. I originally hoped to blog once a week, but my black dog has been trying a new line of attack (chronic fatigue) that makes blogging, or indeed anything even remotely useful, doubly challenging. It wasn’t long before I revised my target down to ‘once a fortnight’, ‘once a month’, and finally, ‘I promise you a doggy treat if you manage to write a couple of words today’.

Chronic fatigue also isn’t great for the whole half marathon / running / training thing either. Two months ago I just about managed 12 miles. Two weeks ago I collapsed before managing a single one. This obviously makes me nervous about running the full 13.1 mile race. Especially given some idiot has suggested I run it in a costume. But, then again, it wouldn’t be a very good metaphor for depression if it was easy.

So there we are. That was – and still is – the plan behind #BlackDogRunner. If you want to donate to my run – please donate to my run- then my fundraising page is:

< The fundraising page has now closed >

In the meantime, I’m going to try and post blogs on preparation, frustrations, costume design etc. I haven’t actually made the costume yet (did I mention I’ve been suffering from fatigue?), but it’s something I’m really looking forward to. If you can, please keep in touch with me on Twitter or Facebook. And wish me luck!

#BlackDogRunner

It’s not selfish to be self-centred

It was supposed to be simple.

I’d join Twitter, follow lots of people, write the occasional ‘highly insightful’ tweet, and *hey presto* I’d have a great way to market my blog. Because it was all about numbers. The number of followers. The number of hits. The higher they were, the more interest I’d generate when I made my ‘big announcement’*.

It’s easy to get upset if you get too focussed on number of hits and number of followers (Cartoon by Ward Sutton in The New Yorker)

I remember being quite proud when I explained it all to a psychiatrist back in January (as yet the only time I’ve managed to glimpse one of his species):

‘I’ve been getting involved with the mental health community’.

In truth, I’d only had a couple of short Twitter exchanges. But it didn’t matter. I was involved. And #BlackDogRunner was on his way!  The psychiatrist, however, rather threw me:

‘Can I give you a piece of advice? Don’t! Stay away from them. They’re poisonous.’

I want to get better. #BlackDogRunner was conceived not just as a symbol of my recovery, but as a conduit for it. Something positive that would help drive me towards a happier place. But what if it could also be a hindrance? I’d already been warned, by my partner and by my friends. Don’t let it take up too much time. Don’t let yourself get too attached. I have a history of getting distracted by pet-projects, and I’m at a very critical stage of my work, so that has to be my priority. But it was that ‘poisonous’ remark that hurt the most.

How can I practice self-compassion without being compassionate? And is that even the person I want to be? Healthy but self-centred? The man who walks past his fallen comrades and ignores their cries for help?

So I changed my tact. I stopped focussing on the numbers and started focussing on the people. The community who I was so starkly warned away from. And it’s been a revelation. Yes, I’ve met many people who are suffering. Some who make my own struggles seem like a drop in the ocean. But not one of them has EVER been poisonous. On the contrary, my new twitter friends are some of the most caring, interesting, and compassionate people I’ve ever met. People who react to the smallest acts of kindness, and – when you need it in return – give it back with interest. I can’t even express how touched I’ve been by their stories, how flattered I have been by their words, and how moved I have been by their strength in the face of enormous adversity.

“My new twitter friends are some of the most caring, interesting, and compassionate people I’ve ever met” (Image adapted from original by AA Milne, and taken from a blog called Light & Shadow)

So I’m content that the psychiatrist was wrong. Self-compassion doesn’t have to mean limiting our compassion to ourselves. There is no poison in the suffering of others beyond the poison we carry in hearts. So why, if compassion is so healing, has my own health been getting so much worse? Why am I now so fatigued that I haven’t been able to run or work in over two weeks?

I think it’s partly because I’ve gone too far the other way. Being self-centred doesn’t mean being selfish. It means recognising that you must look after yourself, your own health and your own energy levels, before you can be there for others. In other words, it isn’t an ‘either/or’, but it is a balance.

Which is why, for the next week, I’ve decided to be indulgently self-centred. A week away from Twitter. A week away from work.  I’m going to miss my friends, both old and new. I’m going to miss #BlackDogRunner. But part of self-compassion means recognising that I matter. And besides, every good pet-project should be allowed the occasional trip to the vet.

*By the way, I’ll be making my big announcement in mid-July… So keep an eye out… 😉