Eight ways my Great North Run symbolised depression

So I did it! 13.1 miles of Tyneside tarmac in 2 hours 30 minutes; all while dressed as a nine-foot black dog. I won’t say I enjoyed it but I will say I’m happy with the result. Not only did I raise over £2500 for Mind, but I now have a rather nice medal to wear if I ever want to feel smug or athletic.

Did it
I did it!

But what about awareness? From the moment I announced my plan to bring #BlackDogRunner to life, I’ve been boasting how it would ‘raise awareness of depression’. But is a giant dog costume particularly awareness-raising? Or might it have been equally informative to run round in circles dressed as a white elephant?

A day or two before the run, one of those annoyingly negative people asked me a harsh, but pertinent question:

‘How will running in a dog costume raise awareness of the issues that really matter?’

I replied in my usual sophisticated way, by waving my arms around frantically and adding ‘stigma’ to the end of every sentence. It wasn’t until several hours later that I shouted (to an empty room),

It’s a symbol!’

Running a half marathon in a giant costume, in itself, does very little to raise awareness of anything. Except maybe the stupidity of running a half marathon in a giant costume. But as a symbol, #BlackDogRunner at least offers a starting point for conversation. Or that’s the theory. And in that spirit, here are eight ways that my Great North Run symbolised depression.

1) It’s horrible

I hate to admit it, but I really really didn’t enjoy my Great North Run. In fact, the clichéd soundbite that comes to mind is ‘a living hell‘. Don’t get me wrong, the first four miles were lovely. Waving at the crowds, hi-fiving the kids, the red arrows! But after that, as the heat rose and the costume got ever heavier, the fun quickly turned to torment.

TV Appearance
I loved waving, but after the first few miles it became very hard to raise my arms. (this image, by the way is taken from my three second appearance on BBC TV, around 500m from the finish)

After crawling over the finish, an excitable man thrust a microphone under my mouth and remarked questioningly, ‘that must have been unpleasant‘. I suspect he was hoping for some understated British reserve. Instead, I channelled my inner Yorkshireman:

‘It was one of the most horrible experiences of my life. But it wouldn’t have been a very good metaphor for depression if it hadn’t been’

2) You can’t remember anything

Around mile six, I stopped for an interview with a local radio reporter to have a chat about sweat… or something. As I left she said,

‘Keep going, you’re almost half way there’

I nearly collapsed on the spot. How on earth would I make it through the second half? When I think back now, I’ve no idea. Don’t get me wrong, I can remember bits – being knocked over by an enthusiastic spectator with a hose. And sirens. Lots of sirens. But apart from that, it’s mostly a blur. It’s similar when I try to recall my own periods of depression. I remember being forgetful, but I’ve forgotten almost everything else.

Memory loss
Memory loss isn’t just about age, depression chews your memory like a hungry dog (this cartoon, Memory Loss, comes from Something Of That Ilk, one of the world’s funniest webcomics)

3) You can’t enjoy the enjoyable

The final mile of the Great North Run is pretty amazing. The cheering crowds, the smell of the sea. It’s hard not to enjoy. Or so I’m told. For me, it was torture. The pain, the exhaustion, the overwhelming urge to stop. In other words, it was a remarkable metaphor for depression. Except… If it had been depression, someone would have looked at my face, seen the anguish, and remarked:

‘Cheer up’

Oh, and if – 500m later – they saw me again, with that same anguished look, they’d almost certainly be tempted to add:

‘You need to just stop wallowing and snap out of it’

Thankfully, no one did say anything like that. All I got was cheering and encouragement. But wouldn’t it be nice if people did the same for depression? Because that anguish is no less real, and no easier to ‘snap out of’.

4) It helps to know you’re not alone

As the heat rose, and the runners flagged, the crowd tried their best to rouse us. There were claps and cheers, sweets and drinks, and the odd enthusiastic man with a hose (it was a nice idea at least). But nothing motivated me more than when someone said, ‘wow, this is hard‘. Somehow, knowing I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one struggling, really really helped.

It’s the same with depression. When a friend tells me they’re suffering, I’m always very sad. They’re my friend and I can’t bear to think of them being so distressed. But, in a slightly selfish way, it’s also a relief. If even my lovely friend can get depressed, maybe it isn’t not such a personal failing after all?

5) A small gesture can make a huge difference

At one point my body threw a tantrum. Instead of continuing with the usual – how can I describe it? – ‘running motion’ , my legs starting tensing and relaxing at random. My instinct was to cry for help:

‘I can’t do this, I can’t keep going’

The runners and the crowd responded with cheers, and encouragement, but it wasn’t enough:

‘No! My legs have gone.’

As I slowed, someone shouted, ‘the dog needs fuel!‘, and before I had the chance to blink, I was handed several jelly beans and a bottle of Lucozade. It made the world of difference. A small act of kindness, when I needed it most. So it was just like that unexpected text or that offer of coffee when you’re feeling low. That small gesture that makes all the difference.

6) Your loved-ones share your journey

In the last two months, #BlackDogRunner took over my life. The costume designing, the blog writing, the fundraising, and – in the final week – the foam, glue, and fleece! In other words, when I wasn’t at work, sleeping or eating, I was #BlackDogRunner. So my partner was rather stuck with him too. Just as it is with depression.

Mess
During the final week, the house was filled with foam, glue, and fleece.

I was reminded of this when – with under a mile to go – I reached the Mind cheering point . They gave me a massive cheer, but were nevertheless drowned by someone else. On the opposite bank, shouting above all others, was my partner. She handed me lucozade and then, seeing my exhaustion, began running beside me. In that moment, as in real life, she shared in my struggle and in my journey. And I felt all the stronger for it.

7) Sometimes you need professional help

I did everything right. I carbo-loaded. I drank a frankly tedious quantity of fluids. And I got loads of help. From the crowd, from my partner, and even from my fellow runners. Yet still I had a crisis.

After crossing the line, and finishing my interview, I sat down, then lay down, then passed out. The heat, the costume, and my meds had taken a dangerous toll.

Dead dog
The run took a rather heavy toll…

Some bits I remember. My clothes being cut. My body being soaked. It must have been quite a funny sight. Me lying there, the big black dog head next to me, in nothing but my underpants.

But I was one of the lucky ones. I got quick and expert treatment. Four people died during this year’s run and but for the help of people like Claire Gareland and Tony Goldie, I suspect I’d have been a fifth. They saved my life. Which, as chance would have it, is also true of my therapist.

There are lots of ways we can help our mental health. And there are lots of ways our friends and family can help us too. But there’s no replacement for the life-changing, and life-saving, benefits of expert care. And, sometimes – often – there really is no substitute.

8) Awareness is hard to raise

I tried my best, my very best. A year of training. Months of tweeting and blogging. Many pounds, many hours, and more than a few drops of blood were thrown into the costume. I gave every last breath to cross the line still waving, in the desperate hope someone would see me, and depression could have it’s moment out of the shadows. So when I finally got home, I was relieved, and genuinely delighted, to discover I had indeed made it onto TV. For maybe three seconds, there I am, desperately striving to finish that last 500m. And yet, in my greatest moment of publicity, what did the commentator quip:

‘(He’s) running for endangered dogs everywhere’

ENDANGERED DOGS!!! Don’t get me wrong, I feel sorry for these dogs, endangered as they allegedly are. But I sure as hell didn’t go through all that pain to raise awareness of endangered dogs! Yet… When I stop and think, I suppose it’s another powerful symbol. Of what we’re up against. The battle to bring depression out of the shadows is going to be a hard one, but that’s exactly why it’s so important. *collapses in heap*

There’s no joy in stigma

Mental health stigma is like a bad smell. It gets everywhere but can be annoyingly tricky to identify. As with sexism, a lot operates casually, masked behind the excuse of light-hearted banter. Complain, and you risk appearing like an over-sensitive killjoy. Stay silent and you perpetuate a culture of shame, isolation, and trivilasation. This weekend, Joy – the ‘unique fashion and lifestyle brand‘ – served up a fine example of this casual, but nevertheless damaging, stigma. On Saturday, fellow mental health blogger Cat popped into their store and saw the following card:

Dont get mad, take lithium

It’s horrible, but not uniquely so. A fair critic might argue it’s just a dodgy joke clearly in poor taste but sold in honest ignorance (although I wonder how the tolerance would change if the subject was a more visible illness, like diabetes? – ‘Don’t go blind, take insulin!‘) Anyway, being a good citizen and – dare I say – a good customer, Cat tweeted Joy to inform them:

Cat Tweet

They responded not with respect and humility, but with arrogance and mockery:

Problem solved

Like and hate

What followed was a mini furore, as many with mental health problems reacted with shock, anger, and upset. Some, like myself, called for the card to be removed, and for the company to apologise:

Please apologise

When the apology finally materialised, it was worse than I feared:

Apology

OK, so I didn’t expect Joy to sign a Time for Change organisational pledge. But, it would have been nice if they’d agreed that ’embrac(ing) love, life, laughter and Joy’ (that’s their slogan) doesn’t have to involve laughing at others. Alas, looking back through a few of their older tweets, it seems that their ‘irreverent’ ‘dialogue’ has been witnessed before. Not keen on mocking mental health? Perhaps you’d prefer a fat joke?

VF

Joy claim they’re a brand that likes to ‘start conversations and create dialogue’. The problem is, I’m sure I remember my racist stepdad saying something similar, and that’s not a ‘lifestyle brand’ I’m too keen to be part of.

It’s time to bring the black dog out of the shadows

There’s an old saying. Commeth the hour, commeth the man dressed as an eight foot black dog… Well, apparently… I myself am still in denial. Yet, believe it or not, this time tomorrow I’ll be running the Great North Run dressed as a giant black dog. What started as a somewhat eccentric idea – is now almost reality. Objectively, people tell me I’m 99% there. The training is finished, the dog suit is made. All that’s left to do stuff my face with pasta and trot around Tyneside for a couple of hours.

Except, that last 1% does make me nervous. For a start, this week hasn’t been as restful as I’d have liked. When I haven’t been at work, I’ve been either frantically finishing my costume, or desperately devising new ways to promote myself and raise more money for Mind. My final practice run also went disastrously wrong. An attack of IBS brought me to a halt after six miles in agonising pain. Not exactly the confidence boost I was hoping for. But it did remind me of an important lesson. Mental health problems, like physical illness, are not something we chose and rarely something we have much control over. In other words, all we can do is try our best, and be proud of our effort.

Man Behind BlackDogRunner
The man behind #BlackDogRunner – holding the costume. This picture was taken by a local newspaper (The Northern Echo), who wrote a very short piece about me. Beware: it shreds any last remnants of my anonymity!

And the truth is, I am proud. For me personally, #BlackDogRunner was about pushing myself. Giving myself a project that could help me engage with life. As my health has improved, I’ve been able to push myself more and more, which in turn has brought it’s own rewards. But I haven’t always got the balance right. Three months ago, I was crippled by fatigue. I could barely get out of bed, never mind run a half marathon. That’s when I was forced to remember the other side of the lesson. You can never push yourself too far. This can be intensely frustrating when there’s something you want to do, but like it or not, we don’t have a choice. You can’t ‘snap out’ of depression and run a half marathon any more than you’d be able to ‘snap out’ of having broken legs. So it’s about knowing your limits. And however small they may be, whether it’s going for a walk, or just getting out of bed, trying to be equally proud.

Except, of course, it’s not that easy. I’m one of the lucky ones. My health is good enough such that I’m about to run a half-marathon. For millions of people with crippling mental health problems, that would simply never be an option. Yet, I get lavished with praise and words like ‘inspirational’, and they get nothing but silence. Those heroic millions, struggling every day to survive, yet often simply ignored. That is what I want to change. To celebrate those invisible heroes. Like we do, so often, with sufferers of physical illnesses, like cancer. To recognise their strength and their bravery. As I struggle through my run tomorrow, I hope it can symbolise the struggle of every one of those brave souls. For their heroic battles, for when they push their limits, and for simply keeping going. I also hope that when they see me, they’ll realise they’re not alone. It’s time to bring the black dog out of the shadows, to break the silence, and break the stigma!

#BlackDogRunner

Appendix:

The Great North Run will be televised on BBC One from 9:30am onwards. I will probably be running from about 10:30am – 1pm (UK time), so if you’ve got nothing to do, switch it on and give me a cheer and a wave. It’s genuinely really motivating to think of people waving at me. I will try to wave back whenever I see a camera – provided my arms haven’t completely conked out.