The Holiday (red, white and) Blues

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Around the December festive season, there are tons of articles, tips, and resources for those experiencing the holiday depression. It’s a triggering time for people as they recap on the losses from the year, reminisce holidays that were merry-less, and try to maneuver fraught relationships with family. What we forget, though, is that there are other holidays that can cause an onslaught of emotions.

For me, it’s the Fourth of July.

I know that seems weird, like, who doesn’t like the Fourth of July? All you do is eat hotdogs, watch fireworks, and go to the beach. First, I don’t eat hotdogs (unless they are vegetarian), but it’s not that I am not a fan of Independence Day. Rather, I feel the pressure to have such a star spangledly great day that I end up disappointed and discouraged. You know, like the way many people feel about Christmas.

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Growing up, we weren’t allowed to have fireworks. When my dad was a kid, his neighbor’s roof caught fire because of some stray fireworks, and the event scarred him so much that he refused to let us get some, other than a few smoke bombs. We spent most July Fourths watching other kids delight with glee as they shot off bottle rockets and fountains.

As a teenager, most kids in my town celebrated my drinking cheap beer on a sandbar on the Missouri River. I was never invited to these parties, and although I pretended that I didn’t care, I would have certainly got on a boat if someone offered to take me there.

From there, the mid-summer holiday was a measurement to see how my life is measuring up to those portrayed in advertising or Instagram. A successful Fourth of July meant that I was at the beach, surrounded by tons of my best friends, drinking beer, eating charred food, and wearing red, white, and blue. In the last five years, I’ve had just one Independence Day like that, and although it was a really great day, I’ve felt lonely and ashamed every other holiday. Last year, my husband and I spent most of the day indoors packing for a move to another apartment, and I ended up in tears because no one had invited us to a barbeque, which surely meant that all of my friends decided to hang out without me and that they no longer like me.

Riiiiight.

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Social media and other forms of media paint the perfect picture of how we are supposed to live, not just on holidays but basically any day, and it’s quite easy for us to believe that our lives look slightly different than we are doing them wrong. But, that’s just not the truth.

Holidays come and go. Some years will be terrific, and they may look close to what we hoped they would be, but others will not. You may spend them alone, or they’ll have less glitz and glamor, but they have nothing to do with yourself worth. Your life, and all that it contains, can’t be boiled down to one day, so we can’t expect to have the perfect holiday every year.

I know that the Fourth of July is a triggering day for me, and so I can prepare. Some years, I try to make plans with friends, but if it doesn’t come together, I don’t force it. Like this year, I was invited to a barbeque at a friend of a friend’s house, which sends my social anxiety into overdrive, and I have to ask myself: am I going because I want to or because I feel like I need to be at a barbeque? Probably the latter.

Also, I can let go of expectations. I can still have a good Independence Day at home with my husband and our dog (who is terrified of the fireworks, and I am not sure I even feel comfortable leaving her home alone) even if it doesn’t like the Fourth of July’s from TSwift’s Instagram account.

Instead of being disappointed that I am not on a yacht with a bucket of beer, I am going to thoroughly enjoy the day given to me. I am going to run a race, Skype with an old friend, and take a long deserved nap. Maybe I will go to the beach or watch some fireworks, but maybe not. I am in control.

Holidays are a good time to remind ourselves that we don’t have to be perfect nor live up to the shoulds. We are in charge of our lives, not idealized expectations. For me, the Fourth of July, will be good practice for loving the life in front of me and letting go of all comparisons.

How are you celebrating the Fourth? What could you let go of this Fourth?

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The Courage to Start

Most of us runners have had friends and family say, “Oh, I could never run.” They are too fat, too slow, too busy, too out of shape, too afraid, or so they say. However, we know those are just things we tell ourselves to justify our reasons for not doing something. We know, because we’ve been there.

All runners have to start somewhere. Some begin running later in life in attempt to lose weight or improve their health. Some started running as kids and ended up on track and cross country teams. Others took that first run with a friend not knowing how far they could or would go. Starts can happen intentionally or accidentally, and they can occur over and over.

I’ve been running since I was 12 years old, but not consistently. I’ve taken months-long breaks because of life, injury, and laziness, but eventually the urge to run returned. That first run (or really, runs) were not fun. I slogged through slow miles with my knees and sides aching. My fitness was certainly gone, and all the reasons I had avoided running for several weeks seemed justified in those beginning steps. But, I also knew that if I could come out the next day and the day after that then I would reconnect with the love of running. The euphoria and endorphins would again consume me, and I would be smitten.

And that did happen, every single time.

We all have goals that we want to accomplish — run a marathon, change careers, buy a house, write a book — and while the end results seem glorious, the path to get there is daunting. And, when you are looking up a mountain, it’s hard to find that bravery to take the first step.

But, we can’t get there if we refuse to start. The joy, the love, the glorious success will remain figments in our imagination unless we begin.

Yesterday, I went to see a new therapist. Just like running, I’ve been in and out of counseling since I was a teenager, and I was seeing a regular therapist up until last November when I lost my health insurance. In that time out of counseling, my mental health has taken a nose dive, and I’ve been in a pretty dark spot for a few months. As humans, we tend to linger in the negative. It’s an easier, comfortable spot for us, and as someone with depression and anxiety, it’s more familiar to me than joy and happiness. So, when I am there, it’s hard to get out.

Yet, that’s not how I want to live. I want to control my mental health, not the other way around, and to do that, I need help. Reclaiming my mental health isn’t a quick fix, but a long journey of processing thoughts and emotions and filtering the truth from the false. Starting back in therapy feels like training for a marathon without any specific end; it will be a long painful journey but I can’t find content unless I start.

The first appointment, like the first run after a long break, felt a bit awkward, almost as if I forgot how to do this. But then I warmed up, and by the end, I had re-found that high. Not all of my session will feel this good, I know that, but I am not in this for the quick high. I want the long-term benefits, and so I am willing to give it my all week after week.

We often think we can’t start until we are ready. We need more of this or that, or we should wait to begin after such and such. The truth is, now is as good of a time as any to start. You don’t need anything more than what you at this moment but rather just the courage. From there, you can figure out the rest.

The Start Line

Here it is, the first post of the Running Therapist blog. Welcome! I am really glad you are here, no matter what journey brought you to my corner of the internet.

So, who is the Running Therapist and why do they think they need a blog? Short story: My name is Heather (she/her pronouns), and I am a writer and runner and currently in graduate school to become a therapist.

All three of these things—running, writing, and counseling training—are a thriving force in my life, but they seemed separate. Different entities demanding my attention. I wondered if there could be a space in which I brought them together, fueled all of my passions and carved my own space?

Long story: I started blogging in college as part of an assignment for one of my journalism classes, and I really enjoyed the format. As a young reporter, I found blogging as a good outlet to pound out my feelings while practicing my writing. The blog complimented the work I was doing in my 9-5. When I was 25, I joined the Peace Corps and blogging was not only a useful tool in sharing stories with friends and family back home, but it was a source of comfort when I was feeling like a stranger in an unfamiliar place. I continued blogging back home, but after my Peace Corps service, my posts lacked focus and purpose. At this point, I also started to write more for publication (mostly unsuccessfully), which after a while started to pushout the joy of writing. For some time, I’ve been wanting to realign my writing with blogging, finding a new forum to sink my teeth in and a community where I can grow.

In 2018, I made a big change in my professional life. I decided to my leave my job, change careers, and go back to school to become a therapist. This fall will mark the beginning of my second year (of three) of graduate school. Counseling is a tough profession, but it’s one that I’ve been called to pursue for decades. My life’s goal is to help others feel not alone, and therapy has made an impact on my life. However, there were always reasons not to become a therapist. Eventually, I stopped running out of them, or they just had less power over me than previously. I knew that I would one day regret not trying to become a counselor, so I redirected the ship. 

While I love being a student again, it comes with some undeniable stressors. Running is one of the best medicines for stress. The year before I went back to school, I had hip surgery to repair a labral tear, and the recovery was brutal. Running had been a mainstay in my life since I was 12—seeing me through job decisions, breakups, moves, loneliness, anxiety—but several months after the surgery, I wasn’t healing the way I expected. I thought that I might not run again. The body is a miraculous thing, and eventually mine strengthened and I was able to run again. First for 20 minutes. Then 3 miles. Then 8. 10. 12. 15. I was a runner, again.

Soon, I was enamored with running. The only books I read, outside of textbooks, were ones related to running. I browsed running stores and watched clips of Des and Shalane on YouTube. All I wanted to do was talk and consume running.

I used to love running blogs. Whenever I was training for a race, I would check them daily, devouring race reports and workouts. They were a fun way to feel like you were running with a group, even from afar. But, these days, most running blogs have gone quiet. Former bloggers have adopted new platforms, like podcasts, or moved all of their content to Instagram or Strava. That stuff is still motivating, but I miss real, thoughtful blogs.

Thus, The Running Therapist.

But this blog is more than a selfish combination of all the things I enjoy. It’s a deeper look at the connection between mental health and exercise. In these posts, I will pull apart the lessons from both and how they can help us grow and find out way in the world.

Many people will say that running is their therapy, and as Oprah once said, running can be directly related to many things in life. From running the mile you are in to taking your rest days, running is full of good life advice. I want to explore that while uncovering some harder truths about mental health and running. 

It’s important to note that I am NOT a licensed counselor, and that my comments here are NOT meant to be therapeutic and medical advice. Please know that I am a student, learning as a I go, and am only sharing my thoughts to help those that may have similar ideas.

Also, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a special runner. I am not particular fast nor have I overcome great adversity to run. I just run because it makes me feel whole. I hope to share parts of my running life, but I am not a pro or coach. Just in case you wanted to compare times here.

Again, thank you for joining this journey, and I hope you will contribute your own ideas and thoughts in the comments section. Let’s bring back running blogs and fight mental health taboos.

Onward.