‘You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide’: When Exercise Can’t Outsmart Depression

A few years ago I met with a new personal trainer at my gym. I’d recently run a marathon and a handful of half marathons, but without any upcoming races, I was having trouble sticking to a workout schedule. At least, that’s what I told him. We spent the first 20 minutes of the meeting laughing about the worst workouts/exercises we’ve paid to do, and then we verbally went through my medical history.

“Any injuries?” No. “Heart disease?” No. “Diabetes?” No. “Depression?” Silence.

As I started to nod my head yes, he’d already started filling out an answer on his clipboard. “I’m going to go ahead and guess no,” he laughed. “You seem pretty upbeat.”

I’d been ready to tell him the reason I was sitting in that room was because I needed help. For weeks (months?) all I’d wanted to do was sleep. And eat. I couldn’t motivate myself to work out. Every day felt like wading through a fog, and my limbs felt like they were battling quicksand. I couldn’t remember what those endorphins from running felt like.

I wouldn’t tell him about the crying. The loop running through my mind that I was a disappointment, worthless, unlovable and deserved to be unhappy. I wouldn’t tell him that sometimes my brain tried to convince me it would be easier if I just weren’t here.

So I said nothing. I’d been assigned the role of the happy, lighthearted client, and I was going to play that role for him. I’d show up at 5:45 for our 6:00 a.m. sessions, and I’d fake being wide awake and energetic. I’d complete any sets without complaining, and he started giving me more and more challenging exercises to do. And soon, I started to feel like that girl again. My confidence grew, my spirits lifted and everything felt lighter. “Maybe I’m not depressed,” I thought.

Then, after a particularly difficult and low night, I overslept and missed my session. I awoke to a text message and missed call from my trainer, and I knew I should text him immediately to apologize and reschedule. I didn’t. I waited a day, and I felt horrible the entire time.

The next session, I showed up right at 6:00. I wasn’t chirpy. I wasn’t smiling. “Hey, you OK?” he asked. “You don’t seem like yourself this morning.” Tears slipped down my cheeks and I shook my head. I worked out in silence that morning, without any chit-chat in between sets. This was someone who already knew my most personal details — good grief, he was weighing me every week! — but I couldn’t let him see that I was hurting. That I didn’t really meet the image of me I thought he had in his mind.

I canceled my next appointment and then stopped training. I was hoping if I worked out hard enough, I could trick my brain into getting better. But I couldn’t. I was so disappointed in myself for standing in my own way.

So I shared with a few close friends that I thought I might need to talk to someone. I’d reached the point where I couldn’t manage these feelings on my own. And slowly but surely, with the right therapist, the right medication and the right support system, the fog started to lift.

Those things were all game changers for me, but the biggest game changer was transparency. The more we can talk about mental health, the more we can de-stigmatize it. Almost 10 percent of the population battles depression. Tens of millions of people. And many of us keep quiet, feeling alone.

May is Mental Health Awareness month, and I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone! If anyone is struggling, I’m here to listen. Depression is the worst kind of pathological liar. And it’s real. That’s the truth.

Depression often looks like someone crying. Someone who is exhausted. Someone who is withdrawn. But just as often, it looks like someone who is smiling. Someone who’s organizing happy hours and trying to keep busy. Someone who’s running from activity to activity, so they don’t have to be alone with their thoughts. There’s no one face to it.

Pay attention to yourself, and pay attention to your friends and family. Let them know they’re not alone. 

And thank you for letting me know I’m not alone.

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