When I was a teenager, my parents ran a home for adults with chronic mental illness. Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. They were stable, independent individuals who just needed that extra bit of support – “Here are your meds. Have a good day at work!” …. “You’ve been sleeping all weekend. Let’s go do some gardening.” Everyone had meals together, walked the dog, shopped for groceries, went on road trips. The goal was normalcy with stability and support.
John* was our longest-term resident. He had lived with depression his whole life, attempted suicide a number of times. His sisters would take turns visiting him, but otherwise, he was alone. Our family unit became his second home. John was quiet and pleasant and kind. While staying with us, his mental health stabilized. Eventually, me and my brothers graduated high school and moved away. Then, my parents moved to a different province and closed the home. Shorter winter days came along and we weren’t hearing from John as regularly as usual. His sisters mentioned that he was struggling again. Shortly before Christmas, he took his life. It was devastating news. That was 30 years ago, but it irrevocably embedded in me the importance of connection.
Not surprisingly, my first career was in mental health. John, and others like him, are one of the reasons I started a variety of groups over the years – some successful, some not. It’s also partly why I avoided cliques or people who – intended or not – excluded others. Eventually, I started Edmonton Trail Runners. Some who didn’t know my motivations, the back story, were quick to judge my leadership, accusing me of having too much ambition. This always makes me and Todd chuckle. I learned to not worry about what others thought. ETR became a community of care: fit runners who make every person of every pace feel welcome. There is no room for cliques because there is no hierarchy of importance. You’re fast? Okay. I’m not. Did you meet your daily forest raking quota today? It’s not a good run unless we’ve shared smiles and chuckles – “Glad I came!”
Getting to Really Know Each Other
In our run club, Todd and I talk about the importance of managing mental health, reminding others that some of us run for mental wellness, to escape addiction, to manage depression, to deal with anxiety. Good talks, lots of agreement. Is it helping?
In the last month, three runners from our group have opened up about their own mental health struggles. Running has helped them, and still, highs and lows happen. Especially around this time of year. Shorter days, holiday stress, isolation, grief. Instead of slipping into the dark hole pulling them down, they’ve reached out. Without saying it, they’re really saying, “You tell us to talk about this. I’m talking about it…?” With each of them, I’ve had different conversations. To all of them, I’ve said – “It’s good that you’re talking about this. I’m glad you said something.” To one of them that I regularly run with, I said – “I noticed. Remember that. You’re seen here.” We all need to hear that, am I right?
How Can I Help?
As we celebrate the holiday season, let’s remember to create points of connection, to reach out when we need someone to know that we’re struggling, to reach in when we see someone around us who looks like they’re struggling. If you want to help and you’re not sure how, here are some ideas:
- Pay attention. There’s something about running together that brings out a different kind of awareness. We’re not always talking or listening. We’re looking at our surroundings in relation to each other, moving around in each other’s physical space. Sometimes, I’ve noticed someone was off just by running way ahead of them when they should have been way ahead of me. Or running beside them and noticing that they’re grimacing where they’d usually smile. This is one of the reasons that we say at ETR – “We compete at races, not on runs”. You miss what’s going on if you’re just trying to out-pace someone, or get a PB or an FKT. Do that on your own watch. In a group activity, pay attention to others. Why else are you there?
- Ask awkward questions. “Are you okay? You don’t seem okay.” … “Do you need to talk to someone?” “Here’s the phone number of my therapist, he’s great.” … “You said you were feeling depressed last week. How are you doing?”. You don’t know which question may be the one they need to hear. Might be none of them. Might be all of them. Be curious and inquisitive and sincere.
- Follow up. “Did you talk to your partner?” …. “You said you were going to check in with your psychiatrist. How’d that go?” Keep in mind that you are not responsible for another person, and nobody wants that, really. You’re just checking in. What if they confided that they were struggling with an injury? Wouldn’t you ask them about how it was going the next time you saw them? If they hadn’t seen anyone to treat the injury, wouldn’t you say – “You gotta do that. It’ll help so much.” Apply the same interest in someone’s mental health as you would in their physical health.
- Create points of connection. “I’m going to the Saturday run. Wanna go together?” … “You’re working late? Come for the campfire. I’ll save you a spot.” Sometimes, we all need a little support to show up. That’s all you’re offering. You don’t need to save anyone – it’s just a ride and a “good to see you!”. Connection is that easy.
I recently saw an Instagram post with the caption, “It feels great to be first”. I remember how great it felt when I used to take the podium. Still, I was struck by how we can get so focused on ourselves – our successes and our failures – that we get confused about what’s really important, like others. People. Connection. I see you. You matter. Tell that to someone this season, in any way that works. Giving isn’t just about presents.