Nita Sweeney: Depression Hates a Moving Target

Photo Credit: Jordan Bauer

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.

Nita Sweeney

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. Runni