“Leave me a alone. I'm not doing it!” This was the response I got every time I knocked on the door to ask my client James, (not his real name by the way, it’s been changed as he wants to remain confidential) if we could attend the gym together.
It sounds very final doesn't it? This is definitely someone who has made up their mind with little hope of being persuaded. James could be a very stubborn man. Twenty years of battling paranoid schizophrenia and depression, coupled with the ill treatment and stigma he has received from people in his life, have made him cold, jaded, distrustful, angry at the world and obese. This is no way for anyone to live; here he was over forty, unhealthy, depressed, angry, idle and devoid of all hope.
My role as his Peer Recovery Worker was to support him to find tools to make living with a mental illness a little bit easier using my own experience of poor mental health. James found fitness to be a key tool in his recovery. Here he shares how running changed his outlook on life
The early days of getting James to exercise were like pulling teeth. We would go through the daily routine of I knock, he answers and says no, slams the door in my face and might add an F off! for luck. This went on for about six weeks until he miraculously agreed. “You were well annoying at first. I only agreed to go to shut you up! No I’m only joking. I knew I had to do it. I’d been putting it off for years. I'd let my health get so bad and I just wanted to ignore it. When you told me how exercise helped you, it struck a chord.”
I became so engrossed in exercise after it helped me through a serious bout of depression, that I studied to become a Personal Trainer. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can have the same effect as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. The boost of endorphins produced through moving your body is a natural lift to your mood which is what I felt James needed.
James used to attend the gym in his late teens before he got his diagnosis at the age of twenty. During particularly bad episodes being around other people would cause him severe anxiety, so naturally going to train in a busy gym made him apprehensive. “I used to go as young lad, but when I got unwell I stopped. I felt like everyone knew, and they were watching me. It was horrible. I would get all worked up and sweaty. I had to get out of there. I ended up stopping because of it.”
For his first session we went at 10am to avoid peak times, there's nothing worse than a packed gym floor; having to wait for equipment, annoying people asking how many sets you have left, and the pungent smell of sweat are enough to keep many from going in the evenings.
There was only about ten other people when we got there, but I could tell that James felt anxious. “When I walked in, I immediately wanted to walk back out again. I thought everyone was looking at me. Without support I probably would have walked out.” Gyms can be intimidating places, it is easy to feel like everyone is watching you, but the chances are that most people there are focused on their own workouts . A tip to handle anxiety is to remember that the reason your there is to improve your health and the people around you don't matter.
James tentatively got on the treadmill. He started by walking at a slow pace, and then progressed to a light jog. I asked him to think about things that have troubled him in the past. Times when he has felt unworthy and misunderstood, times when people have hurt him, and above all, his frustration with life.
I asked him to channel all the pent up negative emotions inside him and put it into his workout. He latched on to the idea, and it was not long before he was really into it and was working up a sweat. “I really surprised myself. I didn't think I had it in me, but thinking about all the bad times really spurred me on. It was like in my mind, I was getting back at life for giving me all of this aggro. It was a release.”
Emotional pain can be a huge motivator when exercising. Channelling your pain for something that benefits you can be incredibly freeing, and a positive step towards recovery. James grew to become addicted to the ‘release’ he felt, slowly building the habit to run on a daily basis which has become a key recovery tool for him.
Recovery from mental illness is complex as it fluctuates. It's not the same as a physical illness in the sense that you are ill, you get treatment, and then you get better. Recovery from mental illness is about finding strategies that help you stay well. It can be anything; journaling, being outdoors, singing, exercise, or meditation- as long as it is personal to you and makes you feel good. Cue Pharrell Williams Happy “clap your hands if you feel like a room without a roof!”. The song really does make me happy! Anyway, I digress. In the last twelve weeks James has lost 19kg and hasn't looked back.” I never thought I would be a morning runner or one of those smug people that say dumb things like they can't live without exercise, but I guess I am now. I love running, and it’s the first time I have loved anything in a very long time.
I have a reason to get up in the mornings now. Not just staying in my room, sleeping and eating crappy food, hating myself and hating my life. Of course I'm still unwell; there's no cure for schizophrenia, I have to take my meds, but the running has done so much for my overall wellness. I'm different now, my mood is so much better and I don't hate life anymore. My life is far from a bed of roses, but only I can make it better and I’m doing it now with exercise. If I can do it, anyone can.”
Suzette Annan is a Mental Health Recovery Worker, Freelance Writer, Certified Personal Trainer and mango lover. She is passionate about health, fitness and recovery, and has used her personal experience of poor mental health to help others. She is a journalism graduate with a love of art and has worked as a life model. She blogs about mental health recovery which you can read here