My mind was trying to kill me again.
“Who do you think you are?” it growled as I squatted in a green porta potty four and a half miles into the Columbus Marathon. The sun shining on the white top bathed me in gray light.
The running partners I’d begun the race with that morning, and trained with for the past four months, had gone ahead without me. They would have stayed. I’d spent a mile convincing them to leave after I could no longer ignore my bowels.
Alone in the fiberglass cubicle, trying to avoid sitting down, I shivered with loneliness as I finished my task.
Mom. Dad. Jamey. All dead.
My ever-faithful husband, my sister, and friends, all still very much alive, were on the course, but miles away. Even the dog, my other regular running companion, was absent — at home — probably asleep.
This left me in treacherous company — with only my mind — forever critical. Someone in the line outside knocked. I would have to carry my heavy heart across the pavement solo.
“I’m a runner,” I whispered to my mind. Then I pulled up my panties, opened the door, and ran. –Excerpt from Depression Hates a Moving Target by Nita Sweeney
It’s never too late to chase your dreams, especially once you discover moving the body changes the mind.
“Anyone who has struggled with depression knows the ways the mind can defeat you.”
“Before she discovered running, Nita Sweeney was 49-years-old, chronically depressed, occasionally manic, and unable to jog for more than 60 seconds at a time. Using exercise, Nita discovered an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed, and with the help of her canine companion, she found herself on the way to completing her first marathon.”
I had the pleasure to speak with Nita about her memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, and how her “journey has proven that it is possible to transform yourself with the power of running.”
BJB: Modern life can be exhausting and life with depression can be even more so. You write, “… daily living exhausts me mentally. Worn down by the fight, when the bed calls, I succumb.” How did you use naps as a barometer of your mental health?
NS: My father detested naps. He felt “lazy” when he took them. But Mom napped often. Since I wanted to be like my father, naps felt shameful. But when depression took me down, I gave in to them as a respite from relentless negative thinking. I was exhausted, napped daily, and felt guilty for it.
A few weeks after I began to run, my mood began to change.
I might lie down, but wouldn’t fall asleep. That huge shift surprised me. That’s how napping became a way to measure my mental health. If I needed a nap, it often meant my mood was slumping. Sometimes I nap now after a hard workout, but the daily naps are a thing of the past.
BJB: In February 2007, your niece, Jamey died. She was 24-years-old. In the book you write, “Her death turned the natural order of the world on its ear and plummeted me into despair. I began having panic attacks again and took to my bed.” In the same year you also experienced close to ten deaths among family and friends including the passing of your mother. How did the physical movement of running help you throughout such a difficult time in your life?
NS: I wish I’d had running to calm me during that year. The running rhythm soothes me as if the Earth is rocking me.
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right. Arm swing. Body sway. Foot on ground.
I don’t know if there’s science behind it, but I imagine it’s similar to therapies that use tapping and eye movement. I can almost feel the rhythm rewiring my brain.
Sweat heals too. Running elevates the heart rate and the blood pressure, pumping oxygen to the brain. Losing so many loved ones in such a short period of time would still have jolted my family in unfathomable ways and aggravated my mood disorder, but running could have provided solace I didn’t have.
BJB: “According to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, running triggers endocannabinoids, the neurotransmitters stimulated by marijuana. A later study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed this. With runners high, the world is fine.” You also write, “It just feels good to be moving.” For someone who is depressed and perhaps lethargic, what is your advice for getting beyond the difficulty of beginning to move in the first place?
NS: Choose a tiny goal, one so small it will be nearly impossible to fail. Run for sixty seconds. That’s what I did. Walk around the block or down the street and back. Some days, just get out of bed.
But I’ll be honest. I’m not sure this impulse is something one person can transmit to another. I can tell my story, share my experience, but unless the person hearing it is ready to take action, it will fall on deaf ears. I heard the message for years, decades even, but until I’d had enough, nothing got me out the door.
BJB: I love the honesty in Depression Hates a Moving Target, specifically when you describe your first Steps for Sarcoma 5k and wore a tank that read “If found on ground, please drag across finish line.” You write about feeling self-conscious. What do you suggest for a beginning runner to reduce the feeling of being self-conscious?
NS: Sneak up on your fear. Face the thing, but do it in gradual increments.
I didn’t believe doing what I feared would help and I didn’t want to hear that, but that has been the best cure.
I spent months desensitizing myself by running and “hanging out” with runners in online groups. Despite reassurance, I showed up to that first 5k certain I would be the oldest, largest, slowest person at the race. Nope. I was somewhere in the middle — a runner among runners. It was surprising, refreshing, and reassuring to find such variety. Plus, I ran in public and lived to tell about it! No one could have convinced me.
I had to show myself.
BJB: For various reasons, we often choose to go through situations alone. Running is a private thing, but how important is a runner’s group?
NS: I’m an off-the-scale introvert so I need a lot of alone time, but I also need structure and support. I need a schedule, a training plan, and water jugs on the trail. I need to not run alone in places where it might be unsafe.
I joined the group for structure, but found I enjoyed the fellowship, peer pressure, and camaraderie. It definitely pushed my edges, but the group has a marching band kind of team feel. We’re all together, but each doing our own thing.
Even so, some days during a group run, my anxiety will kick in and I will fall back or sprint ahead. I prefer to be on “the outside of the inside” rather than in the center. I get the benefits of the group pulling me or pushing me along, but without the chatter.
Runners understand this.
BJB: In Chapter 8, you write about your ankle swelling and trying to decide how to continue with running. “I remained confused. The surgeon told me not to run. The psychiatrist told me to be moderate. The renowned running doctor said I could run freely. Determined, I created another running formula. It’s important to trust yourself and that your body knows what it needs.” Can you talk about the self-empowering aspect of creating a healing formula of your own to work in tandem with that of doctors?
NS: I love how you reframed what some call my hard-headedness into self-empowerment!
I come from a long line of stubborn Europeans who distrust medical authorities and often take “healing” into their own hands. My mother and father both used alternative medicines as did their parents. They weren’t anti-vaxxers, but they also weren’t happy if a doctor prescribed an antibiotic. Add to that my own determination to continue running after I’d felt I discovered a new type of medicine for my mood disorder, and it makes sense that I would find a way to continue.
But to answer your question, yes, it did feel fantastic to trust my body and stand up to a medical “authority.” As the years pass, I realize how fortunate I am that my plan worked. A friend recently asked, “So, what exactly did you do for your ‘wonky ankle?’” My reply? “I ran three marathons, twenty-seven halfs, and more than eighty races.” She said, “Oh. So, nothing?” Pretty much. I tried different things, but my ankle just got used to my running.
That doesn’t happen for everyone.
BJB: You compare running to antidepressants. “The drugs are hard on the kidneys and might kill me. People who take medications of any kind generally die earlier than people who don’t. However, without them, I would probably die even earlier, by my own hand or in some accident I created. If I didn’t die physically, I would die emotionally. Dead or in bed. It’s a trade-off. I choose to take medications despite the possible consequences. Using the same logic, if I continued to run easy and enjoyed the benefits, but wound up crippled later, it would be better to run for as many years as possible and have a much better life.” What is your happy medium?
NS: Happy medium? Middle ground? I’m not sure I know what moderation looks like. Just kidding.
My “happy medium” is accepting that I’ll never be a fast runner. I’ll never qualify for the Boston Marathon. I’ll never finish a 5k in less than thirty minutes (despite the promises of “Couch to 5k.”)
I push myself to be stronger and run faster, but I balance that against the fear of injury. I want to be the runner who wins her age group at 94 because she’s the only one still running. That’s the tradeoff. Fast versus forever.
I’ll take forever.
BJB: “Depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder suppress my internal motivation. Overthinking turns decision-making into paralysis. Faced with too many choices, I fixate on weighing the options. Perfectionism, fear of failure, and certainty that any task is too difficult leave me overwhelmed.” Can you talk about the benefit of a running schedule and the structure of the Hundred Days Challenge (to do any movement for 30 minutes for 100 days)?
NS: Even though I sometimes rebel at the idea of structure, once I relax into one, it’s tremendous. I suffer from decision fatigue. A schedule reduces the need to fret over what to do. The choice is already made. I look at the schedule and do that.
Also, as much as I hate to admit it, I crave external affirmation. Making a check mark on a schedule is a substitute for a coach saying, “Atta girl.” It lets me say it to myself.
BJB: I can relate to the following statements because I felt the same way when I first began to meditate: “Some days I thought I could run forever. I wished I’d never given up running years before and dreamed of running longer distances. Other days, I couldn’t remember what had possessed me to run in the first place. That day, the second mile was the most difficult. This is typical. About one-third of the way through a run, my mind says I’ll never make it. But that day I learned, and have relearned repeatedly since, if I keep running, it gets better. When you first start a practice, the goal is not to be great. It is to create what works so you can continue.” What do you mean by “Your Mileage May Vary” (YMMV)?
NS: Your analogy to meditation is spot on.
As for “Your Mileage May Vary,” I first heard members of the Dead Runners Society (an online running club) use that phrase as a disclaimer any time one of them would give advice. Someone might say, “I qualified for Boston by running Yasso 800s (a particular type of workout), but ‘your mileage may vary.’” Meaning, “It worked for me, but it might not work for you.” Hearing the “Deads” talk that way gave me the freedom to find what worked for me.
No one proclaimed there was only one path. It was refreshing.
BJB: What has been the most surprising and unexpected part of the spiritual journey for you?
NS: It’s simple and ordinary. Right in this moment. Now. I work hard to complicate it!
BJB: What is the one thing you would like readers to take away from Depression Hates a Moving Target?
NS: I’ll let the book speak for itself:
Try something. Anything. Orange Theory or Parkour or yoga with goats. Haiku or fables or portrait memoir. Zen or Tibetan or Vipassana. For me, any small action — breaking a sweat, writing a paragraph, sitting for five minutes — makes a huge difference. I hope it will for you, as well.
What I particularly like about Nita’s story is the refreshingly honest portrayal of the highs-and-lows present when bringing about change. Nita utilizes candid details, humor and humility to advocate for her mental and physical health, to forge her own path and despite difficulties show change is possible.
What gives you a sense of renewal?
What is an invaluable practice that provides an immediate connection between you and healing?