• Matt Atkinson

Mental Health, Running, Vulnerability, and Acceptance

Hi all, I’m Matt Atkinson, I’m 55 years old, and I live in Minnesota with my wife Elspeth and our three grown children. We moved to Minnesota from southern Ontario, Canada 23 years ago, and love it here. I am absolutely thrilled to be a SIR Ambassador this year. I would like to take this opportunity to share a bit of my story, and how, to my own surprise, I’ve become a mental health awareness advocate.

Starting Running at 49 Years Old

My wife and I both started running six years ago, because of a challenge to raise money for water projects in Africa (through World Vision). I hadn’t run in the previous 25 years, so it really was a challenge for me. I wasn’t particularly athletic, so I had a lot of big firsts that year.

  1. Running my first non-stop mile, in February, was a huge success

  2. Running my first race (a 7K) in March. I was amazed when I crossed my first finish line.

  3. Running my first half-marathon that September. This was so big for me, I was in tears for the last mile.

I was aware of the physical challenges that come with running so I did the recommended training to help with that.  However, I was not prepared for the mental challenges. Every time I headed out, the inner critic would tell me that it was pointless because I didn’t have what it took to succeed and that I was weak. Sometimes the hurtful things people in the past had said to me all came back.  Runs were tough, until I came to the decision that every step was an act of defiance to everyone, including my internal critic, who had told me I was inadequate.  Every step. Every single step, whether easy or difficult.

Bring On the Running

This soon turbo-charged my training; if it was difficult, I took it on. Hill training? Yes. Heading out in 90F? Yes (carrying water and mapping the drinking fountains, certainly!). Heading out in 5F? Yes (you have to get used to it in Minnesota). Trail running with guys 15 years younger than me? Yes (the guys were very encouraging, which was one of the first times that people cheered me on! Those guys were the best!)  I could do it: I wasn’t weak, I was strong! Even if I was wrung-out at the end, I was strong. Since that first year, I finished the Twin Cities Marathon, ran Ragnar-Great River, and a dozen or so half marathons.  Running had become a regular part of my life.

The Concussion and the Diagnosis

A year and a half ago I fell while playing in the backyard, and suffered a concussion.  Part of the screening for my recovery plan involved psychological testing.  I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which was separate from my short-term concussion. Now, looking back to college, I had strongly suspected I had depression. I was afraid of “officially” finding that out though because I feared that I would have been stigmatized by my friends. So for decades I held on, barely sometimes, getting through episodes the best I could without letting on to the people around me that something was wrong. 

The turn-around

Once I was diagnosed, got on meds, and learned self-care skills, I was amazed at how emotions could be balanced! At that point I made a decision: I didn’t want anyone else to suffer needlessly as I had for decades. Once cleared to run again, I started running for mental health and suicide awareness. As a guest speaker, I’ve spoken in churches about mental health (by the way, I’m a scientist, not a preacher: I’ll write about those messages in a future blog post). I’ve been posting about mental health with each of my runs, and this has started conversations with friends. I’ve taken the further step of talking about it at work (which I was very scared to do, but I am determined to break the stigma). My wife is very supportive of this new journey we are on. Friends and acquaintances have been surprised that I am open about my depression, and are very supportive, sharing their own struggles. They’re encouraged because they see they don’t have to hide anymore either. This is why I am so excited to be a SIR Ambassador for this year! To go from hiding my depression in fear of being stigmatized, to being an ambassador for mental health awareness and being open about my own struggles is a complete change that I never saw coming.  And it is freeing.

I am not deficient, I am not weak, I do not have a character flaw, nor a moral failing.

I am living with depression and I am a warrior!

You are a warrior too!

As we head into the new year, let’s work together toward with our common goals of caring for ourselves, our loved ones, of raising awareness of mental health issues, the benefits of exercise (run therapy!), and supporting those with mental health issues. I am thrilled to be among you wonderful warriors! Peace, all.

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