Debi Gliori shares how running helps her cope with depression

I hate running. Can I just get that out of the way? Lest you think I’m some kind of athlete or fitness addict, I’d like to debunk that myth. Yes, I do haul myself out of bed three mornings a week at 5.30 and go running on a treadmill at a nearby gym, but trust me, the alternative to all this hideous cardiovascular effort is far, far worse.

I hate running for the first ten minutes. Those ten minutes are the ones where my unquiet, wayward mind reminds me how unfit I am, how I’ll never improve, how much my knee hurts, how everyone else at the gym is fitter, faster, slimmer, younger and happier than I could ever hope to be. It points out that I’ll be dead soon, that my children could be vulnerable, unemployed and impoverished in this world that I’ve been selfish enough to bring them into, it reminds me that my income could dry up tomorrow, and as if that wasn’t enough it points out that I’ll have to work till I drop dead because being a freelance writer and illustrator tends to make you unable to afford any provision for your old age. Which isn’t all that far off now.

I hate myself and these unhelpful thoughts until the first ten minutes are up, and then something good kicks in. I find myself breathing a little more easily, my knee either goes numb or isn’t hurting any more, I discover I’m not aiming to run any faster or be any fitter, all I’m doing is running while I pay attention to my own body and feeling what that feels like. All I’m thinking about is how to breathe and how to keep my legs moving in a comfortable cadence. Amazing – I’m not beating myself up any more. Perhaps this is a form of meditation, or perhaps it’s the pheromones kicking in, but whatever spiritual or physical process is taking place, it makes me a whole lot happier than I was when I laced up my trainers and climbed on the treadmill.

I’m 58 now and I’ve been running off and on since my first episode of depressive illness at 25. Not that you could tell – the running hasn’t changed my shape, and depressive illness is invisible. Up until I was 25, the most exercise I’d actually taken was walking from art college to my son’s nursery school to pick him up and head home on the bus. This was during the Reagan–Thatcher years, so I did run the distance between art college and nursery just once to check if I could make it in time to give my son one last cuddle before the bombs started raining down. I couldn’t. The eighties were a precarious time, especially for those of us with a predisposition towards anxiety.

I hadn’t realised that I was so inclined until I graduated. At first, it was weird in a good way to be launched into the real world of design and illustration. I was lucky enough to pick up a lot of work, so being an anxious sort of person I decided to work my socks off just in case the work dried up. Show willing. Meet insane deadlines. Stay up until the wee small hours making minute adjustments to artwork (in the days before Photoshop and computers) so that I’d garner the reputation of being reliable and competent. Thus, hopefully, getting more work. Which I did. Tons and tons of it. Which I stayed up all night finishing. Which led to more work, which… You see where this is going?

I hadn’t realised that I was setting up a broken sleep pattern until I found sleep beginning to elude me. I also found that I wasn’t particularly hungry, so I stopped eating very much. My weight dropped. Sleep, when it came, was full of nightmares or horrible times where I’d spring awake, heart hammering and my mind spinning out of control. To say that I was anxious was a massive understatement. I was having panic attacks, but I’d never heard of such things. I had no idea what was happening to me.

With no idea about the symptoms of depressive illness and thus no insight into my condition, I decided that since sleep was causing such problems, I’d simply do without. That state of affairs lasted about a fortnight and then I began to unravel. I suffered vivid aural hallucinations as if a slightly out-of-tune radio station was being broadcast directly into my head. One night, my desperately worried partner tried to get me to explain what I meant by this ‘radio effect’. I sat in front of him and offered to tune in and report back what I could hear. I did whatever my poor, ill mind thought it needed to do to ‘tune in’ and heard screams, clashing metal, someone saying “this is All-India Radio” and then all I could smell was the metallic tang of blood. Oceans of it.

I began to cry, trying to pull out of the hallucination, trying to return to the normal life we’d shared up until a few months before. Needless to say, that night I didn’t sleep a wink. In the morning, over breakfast, to fill up the silence, my distraught partner turned on the radio. To his horror, the news was full of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. This awful coincidence simply tipped me further into psychosis. Here was vindication that my altered state was something else altogether. I decided that he was wrong, I wasn’t ill, I was a visionary. My partner phoned my mother and between them they managed to get me an appointment with a psychiatrist.

By then I would happily have admitted myself to a psychiatric ward if they’d promised to make me feel better, but the psychiatrist asked me to count backwards from 100 in sevens and then asked if I knew who the current PM was and then turned to my mother and pronounced that I had manic depression and my GP would prescribe something to take the edge off. Frankly, I far preferred my diagnosis, but I went to my GP and explained what was happening. I cried a lot, I seem to recall. I’ve never felt so lost and rudderless as I did then. I’d completely lost any sense of who I was.

My GP prescribed a hefty dose of amitriptyline and promised that’d do the trick. There was no discussion of depressive illness other than a brief mention that there was a lack of some vital but nameless chemical in my brain which the amitriptyline would sort out. There were no self-help groups, no useful NHS leaflets to explain how the medicine worked, no timescale, no mention of the side effects of the drug…

Within a week I was a shuffling, dry-mouthed zombie. I developed a stammer. I couldn’t work any more. Couldn’t pick up the phone. I closed down my little cupboard/studio and didn’t go back in for nine months. I ballooned up to 14 stone in three months. In total, I lost nine months to a medicated grey fog. At the end of this period, my partner left, never to return. I don’t blame him. I would have left me too. There was nothing left to love. I’d gone missing in the fog. The day he left, I shook out all of my pills onto a plate, adding the contents of the medicine cupboard for good measure. More than enough to do the job.

But I couldn’t. There was a little boy down the corridor playing with his Lego models. I was all he had now. I flushed all the pills down the toilet and carried on. At some point that week, I dug out an old pair of gym shoes and a saggy pair of shorts and went out for a run. Heaven knows where the impetus to do that came from. Clearly, buried deep inside the fog was a shred of self-preservation. I ran along the little country road in front of my rented cottage. Approximately 1.5K. I say ‘ran’ but in fact it was more like an uncontrolled lurching stagger. I couldn’t breathe, mainly due to my having been a smoker since I was old enough to spark up behind Our Lady’s statue at the back of the school playground. I’m happy to report that I no longer do such awful acts of self-harm, but then… Let’s just say that I didn’t care as much, back then.

So, I ran. It was awful. It hurt. I hurt. However, when I returned to my little cottage for a shower… I loved it. Loved? At last – a feeling. After nine months of feeling nothing other than a kind of grey numbness, to actually feel something was progress of sorts. I ran on. In sun – boiling. In rain – refreshing. Through autumn leaves – nice. In snow – not to be recommended.

Watching all this effort got my next-door neighbour interested and she asked if she could join me. We ran together, gasping out encouragement. She asked me in for coffee, I reciprocated, and slowly, over the following months, I realised I’d returned to the human race.

I’m not advocating running as a universal panacea for depression. It doesn’t suit everyone. I think we all need to find our own accommodations with this illness; for some of us, it’s medication, or walking, or wild swimming in water cold enough to squeeze the heart and catch the breath, or gazing at the night sky and remembering that we are a very small part of something infinitely complex and far bigger than ourselves. Whatever it takes, we need to find it, clasp it and cherish it because it’s our survival mechanism without which we’d be swallowed in the fog.

I run on beaches, through woods and on roads as well. Running on a treadmill at the gym is a solution to trying to carve out time for running in the winter in the northern hemisphere. As an illustrator, I need to use all the daylight I can find between the months of October and February, so going to the gym at such an ungodly hour allows me to run first and then work. Obviously, running outside is infinitely preferable to running on what is essentially a gigantic elastic band. Running outside is as close to heaven as I can get – once the first ghastly ten minutes are over.

Despite what I said at the beginning of this piece, I love running, once I hit my stride. It’s my church, the place where I feel like I am being the best version of myself, the place I go to to find myself. I commend it to you.

Debi Gliori was born in Glasgow and studied Illustration and Design at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating with honours in 1984, immediately after which she suffered her first episode of depressive illness. Since then, she has had five children, written and illustrated over 75 books and gone through various kinds of depressive illness, from clinical to postnatal. Her latest book, Night Shift, published by Hot Key Books, documents what it feels like to suffer from depression. She cites running as one of her main coping strategies to reach an accommodation with this, as yet, incurable illness. (Accurate at the time this issue went to print)

First published in Issue 49 (Summer 2017) of JUNO

Buy Issue 49 (paper version) from £4.25

Subscribe to JUNO (paper version with free digital access to all back issues) – from £14.50

Buy a yearly digital subscription to JUNO – £15.99