I knew it was coming this time. I could feel it and name it. In the years before I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, it would always sneak its way under the door and creep its way into every available pore of my brain until it enveloped me in a tar pit of despair. But in the years since that diagnosis, and enough practice living sober, I knew that this time I didn’t have to get completely drunk in order to feel normal and then run away from every problem I thought I had. This time would be different. Depression was not going to take up residence again. In early 2015, I was on a cocktail of mood-stabilizing, anti-anxiety, and anti-depressant medications. These were all important and necessary to regulate a brain that was woefully imbalanced for as long as I could remember. I had been on these meds for a few years. But I was getting sluggish and missing details at work. I had a flat affect and was perpetually exhausted regardless of the amount of sleep I had the night before. (Which in many cases was never enough.) It was time to change things up. Before I was diagnosed, I drank alcohol to feel whatever I believed was normal. All that really did was make me numb, give me the means to escape reality, and make numerous bad decisions. I never knew what my brain without chemical interventions was supposed to feel like. When my flexible spending account ran out and I decided to hold off on refilling my multiple, expensive prescriptions, it was the perfect time to start a mental reboot. The key was that if I were to wean myself off the meds, I needed to replace them with something else to stabilize the moods.
That’s when I started running. Losing weight and getting physically healthier was an added motivation to mood management. This meant changing some seriously unhealthy habits and cognitive distortions that I had developed for years. I started working through a method developed at UCLA to help OCD patients. With my own addiction and impulsive personality that always seemed to land in fits of depression, it seemed like a nice fit. If it did not work out, I could revisit a new medication cocktail. However, if it did work, it was something that would need to be part of my life to maintain sanity. I talked to my psychiatrist, and a few people close to me, so that if I were ever to start falling off the beam, they would tell me. It was then that I started brain hacking to get it working for me more efficiently. (Brain hacking is the practice of using simple tricks and techniques to enhance brainpower in areas such as memory, reasoning, mental fluidity, productivity, energy, and mood.)
So what happened? Just four months into running, my job performance improved, I was able to focus more intently on anything for longer periods of time, and my short-term memory seemed to come out of stasis. I also lost those 30 pounds, and the persistent negative thoughts, that at one time led me to suicide ideation, went away. Since then I have run three marathons, a 5K, and crushed my previous half marathon PR and other PRs along the way. It’s not just running casually that works. It’s balancing intense training and slow recovery for race goals and setting longer-term goals that helps my body and brain perform at a higher level. Running this way is a continual cognitive rewiring and it keeps me healthy. The key is to keep doing it. My identity as a runner has replaced both my medication and my therapy as a far more effective means to manage my mental health.
My Personal Solution
I understand that this is not the program that everyone can just go out and perform with the belief that they can drop the medication. That can be very dangerous. Everyone has a different way to maintain mental health. But it does show that a consistent program of physical exertion does wonders for the very chemical and electrical structure of the human brain. Even if you are on a medication that you cannot live without, running can only help. And that’s why I am a Still I Run Ambassador. I have had my share of injuries. I lost my mother after serious heart disease. I’ve had some scary financial difficulties and experienced all of the weird stresses that being a divorced dad-at-a-distance can muster up. However, through it all, my brain and body have never been healthier. I have never once allowed depression to park itself in my brain, and I have stayed sober. Running simply works for me. I know it works for others too. Friends of mine often say that if you have found something that works, it’s your obligation to share it. If my own turnaround can inspire someone else to find their fitness in the midst of a mental illness, then this has been worth it beyond what it does just for me.
Andrew Tatusko is one of six Still I Run Ambassadors for 2018. He is an academic administrator for online teaching at Penn State University. In 2017, He ran 2112 miles and finished the year with PRs in the marathon, half marathon, and 5K distances. This year Andrew is training for his first 50-mile ultra. He has two boys, a wonderful girlfriend, and an aging but young-at-heart black lab.