Battling Depression – My Strongest Competitor

By Daryl Flacks

Daryl Flacks at the Cloudsplitter 100

Daryl Flacks at the Cloudsplitter 100

As athletes we strive for the complete fitness lifestyle.  Often this includes eating healthy, getting in scheduled training sessions and attaining the necessary sleep to achieve peak performances.  The reality for many of us is that life gets in the way.  Every day we are faced with challenges that threaten our mood, our dreams, and our practice.  How we react to these challenges or how much they derail us from our desired course is ultimately a measure of one’s tenacity. 

But, what if there’s something more?  One day you go from feeling really good, to very quickly getting sucked into a hole.  No matter how hard you try; you can’t seem to stop it.  You experience overwhelming sadness but with no purpose and without explanation.  You experience distress and feel that your mood and emotions are not under your control.  These are some of the symptoms I experience in dealing with “depression”.

Wikipedia defines “major depressive disorder” (MDD) (also known as simply “depression”) as a “mental disorder characterized by a pervasive and persistent low mood that is accompanied by low self-esteem and by a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities for a period of at least two weeks.”

Depression is more than just the “blues,” being “down in the dumps,” or experiencing temporary feelings of sadness that we all experience from time to time in our lives. It is a serious condition that affects emotions, thinking, behaviour and physical well-being.  It impacts all aspects of everyday life including eating, sleeping, working, relationships, and self worth. People who are clinically depressed cannot simply will themselves to feel better or just “snap out of it.”

Major depression is the most common of all mood disorders.  It is a serious illness and can be recurrent (that is, people recover but develop another episode later).  It affects about 13% of Canadian adults at some time in their lives (Source: Government of Canada (2006) – The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Ottawa (ON): Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada., p.59.)

I started running in 2004 to combat the effects associated with depression and the side effects of the medication.  Depression and running go hand in hand for so many.  As I compose this article I struggle with the disorder and the effects are debilitating.  Depression impacts people in different ways.  Some examples that I personally experience are listed below.

  • Emotional: sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, mood swings, lack of emotional responsiveness, helplessness, hopelessness, irritability
  • Thinking: worry, impaired concentration, difficulty making decisions
  • Behaviour: withdrawal from others, loss of motivation
  • Physical: chronic fatigue, lack of energy, unexplained aches & pains

Episodes are especially tough when you have a focused goal in mind and you’re working so hard and sacrificing so much and without warning, you have this come up.  You can’t get your butt out the door and it compounds the problem and it hurts even more.  It becomes really frustrating and in turn leads to anger.  Not to mention, it’s terribly awful for family members who have no control and so desperately want to help.  The anger soon leads to sadness and guilt.

Athletes are typically categorized by society as physically and mentally fit and tough, represented as pillars of health and well-being in culture.  The truth is, depression is indiscriminate.  Whether you are rich or poor, at the top of the pyramid or the bottom, depression can hit any of us at any time. Willpower alone cannot banish the illness. Nor can physical strength.

Although it’s commonly thought that physical activity and the pursuit of goals have a beneficial effect on mental health, those alone don’t necessarily reduce an athlete’s risk.  While exercise in conjunction with therapy and medication can help elevate mood, alone it is no match for depression. I can tell you, it’s not the kind of thing where you can go for a run and suddenly feel all better.  That’s a big misconception.  It is important that people understand that receiving treatment for depression is not a sign of weakness or fault.  It is a serious illness and if left untreated could result in suicide or even death. 

I was first diagnosed with depression in the late 90’s and like most individuals I was in denial – depression???  Not me, I’m alright!  Accepting you have an illness is the first step on the road to treating the depression.  Unfortunately, there is not a blood test that can determine the type and dose of medication.  It is a process of finding the correct type and dosage for each individual, and it takes longer for some medications to take effect than others.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.  It was the motto I lived by for some time, inadvertently compounding my frustration.  I was eventually hospitalized and my medications dramatically adjusted.  There was medication to allow me to sleep (stop my mind from racing), to treat the depression, to wake me up (keep me alert); with the side effects resulting in weight gain and living life in a constant fog. 

I attended appointments with psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors.  Depression had left an undeniable path of destruction.  The devastating consequences resulted in financial, legal, marital, relationship and employment losses.  I was alone; I was lost and desperately trying to survive.  The days were long, and the nights longer.  I feared leaving my one bedroom apartment, afraid that everyone knew.  What if I ran into someone who knew me?  I avoided people like the plague.  This was no way to live. What would they tell my son if I wasn’t around?  Something needed to change…

I laced up a pair of shoes and went for a jog.  I ran a few blocks…out of breath; out of shape but still alive.  “Tomorrow, I’ll make it one more block before I stop” I told myself.  On October 29th, 2006, I completed my first marathon.  To say running has saved my life is an understatement. 

Today life is much different but not without its challenges.  Depression is never far away; it is opportunistic and never leaves my side.  Winston Churchill is attributed for the phrase “Black Dog” used as a metaphor for his depression. This description of a wild, ominously colored constant companion, growling and baring his thick, razor-sharp teeth is an accurate depiction.  The possibility that depression will return is high – a 50% chance after on depressive episode, 70 % after two and 90 % after three episodes (Source: American Psychiatric Association (2000) – Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (4th ed. text revision). Washington (DC): Author. pp. 341-2)

I have learned to recognize the warning signs and not to panic.  Addressing the symptoms early as with any illness, leads to the best possible outcome.  Sleep, routine, and removing circumstances that cause me to become overwhelmed, help to minimize the effects.  I need to feel in control and allow myself time to recover.  I need to be somewhat selfish and worry solely about me.  I can’t worry about others…how can I?  I’m struggling with me.

While its human nature that family and friends want to fix the problem, trying to make things better only fuels the emotional turmoil going on inside.  We’re not broken per se but require comfort and reassurance.  Remaining supportive is paramount in reducing the loneliness and guilt that one experiences when struggling with depression. 

Duathlon season is fast approaching and training has been anything but smooth.  Although, the loss of drive for a goal is a reality we all deal with in some form at some time it’s important to know what we are dealing with as we forge ahead.  If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression you are not alone.  Get help and start the road to recovery.