• Sue Ann Rybak

Keep Your Eyes on the Goal: seizures and depression no match for running

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

In the middle of my freshman year at Temple University, I left college because of financial and health issues. I remember being extremely depressed. As a child, I was diagnosed with complex partial seizures.


By the time I was in high school, my medication combined with the benefits of running completely controlled my seizures.


In fact, no one knew I even had epilepsy except for my family. I promised my parents I would tell my roommate at the time I had seizures. I told her my medication controlled my epilepsy and that I usually just spaced out for a minute.


Unfortunately, the stress of school combined with sleep deprivation and the decision to have an occasional alcoholic drink or two was a recipe for disaster.


Suddenly, simple things like going to the cafeteria or taking a shower felt like a monumental task. I was crippled by anxiety and depression.


After an EEG showed I was having seizures at the time, I reluctantly decided to leave school and return home to New Jersey. I felt like a complete failure.


I was drowning in the abyss of depression.


My self-esteem was slaughtered. I began stuttering. Mentally I felt like I was drowning.


My parents, who meant well, thought I just needed to get a job and “relax” and everything would be fine.


I started working part-time at the Wawa around the corner from the house, but unfortunately, it didn’t have the result they hoped for.


In high school, I used to run every day after school or work. I loved running, but I didn’t run track or cross country in high school. I started as a way to get physically fit; I never really thought about the mental benefits of running.


My mom encouraged me to run, but I could barely get out the door to go on a walk until she told our neighbor Bob, who used to run for Penn, that I would like to run with him sometime.

One evening, Bob just showed up at the front door with his sneakers on and said, “You wanted to go for a run.”


And run we did!


I don’t remember how far we ran. But, I do remember Bob talking to me while I struggled to keep up. I don’t remember thinking even once, “I can’t do this.” I only remember him making me laugh and racing home.


It was exhilarating! I felt great!


The Benefits of Running


It was the medicine I needed.


We began running regularly.


At the time, I thought Bob was old. I think he was in his late 30s.


I often struggled to keep up with my neighbor’s quick pace.


Once when we were running, Bob suggested I focus on the tops of the roofs.


It worked. I began focusing on one point and running past it.


Step by step, I was setting goals and not just achieving them but excelling beyond them.


At the time, I attributed running to overcoming my depression. Now I realize it was a combination of therapy, running, and new seizure medication. Seizures and depression are no match for a full mental health toolkit.


The Challenge


Bob told me he was training for a 10-mile run, Captain Bill Gallagher Island 10 mile Run in Sea Isle City.


I never ran in an organized race before. At the time, I didn’t even know 5K runs were an option.


He showed me the race information he received in the mail and encouraged me to register.


Bob agreed to help me train and said I could ride down with him.


We continued running short distances in the evening; I began running long distances by myself on Saturdays or Sundays.


I remember pestering my Mom to clock how many miles it was from point A to point B.


Even if cell phones existed then, I couldn’t afford one.


Faith over matter: Saved by the psychedelic relic


Just weeks before the run, Bob informed me he couldn’t take me to the race because he would be away for work.


Luckily for me, my best friend Susan suggested we drive down in her 1973 camper van, which was the color of a goldfish. It was bright orange with a white top that had the word Hobo on the back.


It always reminded me of the Mystery Machine Van from Scooby-Doo, but with a white cap.


It was the perfect vehicle for our road trip.


When we finally arrived at the Sea Isle Tourism Welcome Center to pick up my race packet, everything seemed surreal.


I began to panic and worried about not being able to find her after the race.


I can still see the look of bewilderment on my friend Susan’s face when I asked how I would find her after the race.


“If you miss this psychedelic relic, we need to get you glasses,” she replied.


I am going to chuck it up to prerace jitters, but Susan knows the truth. As a kid, I would get lost going around the block.


The date was Saturday, August 19, 1989.


That morning the sun was blazing, and the sand was hot.


I can still picture the markers in the sand as I ran across the uneven hot sand.


At 19 years old, I thought I was invincible.


I wasn’t carrying a water bottle, and the idea of starting slowly to finish strong never occurred to me.


I ran roughly nine miles until I got a “runner’s cramp or side stitch.”


The Sea Isle City Beach Patrol organizes the race every year, and that year, they had TWO medical emergencies due to hydration. I was still roughly a mile away when a lifeguard asked me if I wanted a ride.


It was my first race, and I never finished it.


Until this year, on Saturday, August 15, 2021.


Thanks to the encouragement and support I receive from Still I Run, a running community that rallies around mental health


Roughly one mile from the finish line, I became emotional.


“Dear God, I just want to finish this time,” I said out loud.


Physically I was fine. I wasn’t in any pain, but I was at war with my mind.


I felt defeated.


“The race had to be over by now,” I thought.


A man sitting in a chair by the edge of the water saw me and encouraged me to go on. He said, “You got this just three more blocks.”


I squinted in the dark and asked if the finish line was at the black flag.


“No,” replied. “It’s that red light.”


Just then, something clicked inside me. I could see myself running across the finish line.


I looked ahead at the red light with laser focus. It wasn’t until it was in full view that I focused on the lights behind the finish line. I can still hear the sound of my feet as they hit the timing mat.


Runners had 2 hours and 30 minutes to complete the course. I finished in 2 hours and 36 minutes. The fact that I was one of the last runners to cross the finish line doesn’t bother me because I completed it.


Now whenever, I feel insecure, or I think I can’t run any further, a little voice inside my head says, “You ran 10 miles on the beach! You got this! Just keep your eyes on the goal.”


And more importantly, when I feel depressed or anxious, I know I can go to Still I Run Facebook page and talk to a friend.


Still I Run (SIR) provides me with a community of support. It’s just another example of how running improves mental health.

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