My Personal Journey: Running Through Bipolar – A Runner’s Challenge

run_oregonOver the past year, I have felt compelled to share about being Bipolar; particularly how having the disorder affects my identity as a runner. In the first article I wrote I focused mainly on the depressive side. In the second article, I spoke about mania.

Not all runners have what people envision as the typical “runners physique.” We all know that. I myself was tiny, and in my teens and twenties remained tiny regardless of what I ate. I was also fairly sedentary and didn’t start running until age thirty-one. As mentioned in previous posts, my life has been full of ups, downs, and craziness and in December of 2010 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

For so long I had resisted seeing a doctor and when I finally did (a few, as a matter of fact) their answer was simply to put me on an anti-depressant.  Not believing depression was the problem, I refused.

Bipolar depression manifests itself in a very physical way.  For instance, being nauseous for months and having flu-like symptoms such as body aches, profound fatigue, and loss of appetite.  Almost overnight I would go from training for and running a great marathon to shuffling around in my bathrobe.  I was convinced this malady was of a physical nature, not a psychiatric one. Over the course of two years I demanded thyroid tests, went to a naturopath to see if I had a low metabolism, and researched chronic fatigue syndrome and everything else I could find to research. Once I began a regimen of medication specifically targeting the disorder, the symptoms lessened. But now I’ve hit a wall.

It’s pretty telling, blogging for Run Oregon and being a race director as well, that running is one of my greatest passions. However, in the past few years my disorder has worsened and I’ve had to resort to taking more, and stronger medications.

I won’t call any of them out in this blog, but I will say that one particular class of medication taken is associated with the following side-effects: Weight gain, metabolic disorder, lowering (rather significantly I’ve found) the body’s ability to regulate temperature, potential Type 2 Diabetes, as well as a myriad of less serious but annoying and not so easy to deal with side effects.  The weight gain and temperature regulation issues have affected me greatly. As a result, my running has suffered.

Last year during a period of insomnia and intense anxiety, I was ready to check myself into a hospital when I discovered a medication from the aforementioned class that brought a small miracle. It relieved the anxiety, and after having forgot entirely what it was like to get a full night’s sleep, I could sleep!  However, I also gained fifteen pounds over the course of a month.  Because I was already over weight subsequent to a period of depression and the side effects of other medications, the added weight caused me to become nearly obese (I’m 5’2”).

A couple of factors behind the weight gain phenomenon became evident after the dosage was lowered and I returned to regularly hitting the pavement yet only managed to lose four pounds in two months. One is an intense craving for sweets. I am not talking about just really wanting something sweet, but rather a very (as in needs to be satisfied right now) craving.  I know this may come across as an exaggeration, but I have actually imagined it as akin to a junkie craving heroin. The other factor is an actual slowing of the metabolism resulting in a metabolic disorder.

Troubled breathing is another reported side effect of this love-hate medication.  I can actually hear myself wheeze like an asthmatic. Obviously this has further impacted my pace and endurance, and has been absolutely disheartening.

So what is my solution going to be? This is a no brainer: I’m working with a doctor to find a medication that will provide some of the relief but will have less negative impact.

In the meantime I still go out. I plod. I shuffle. Sometimes I have to walk and that makes me madder than hell. I am one of those people who truly hates to walk on a run.

Over the course of the last year I have been greatly humbled. For the first fifteen years (except for a few super long runs while training for a marathon) there were very few runs where I struggled just to finish.  Now, every run is a struggle. Not all of them are what I would consider awful. I am still happy after every run and have come to accept at this point that all I can do, is all I can do.  If I’m not walking, no matter the pace, well then I’m running.

At this juncture I’m working with the Doc, trying to resist the sweet cravings, hitting the gym and running as much as I can.  That’s it. That’s all I have control over now because I simply came to a point in my life where I could no longer white knuckle the level of anxiety I was living with.

As with the other posts I have written about Bipolar Disorder, I write this in hopes that any runners experiencing similar issues might identify.  Because I believe there is hope for us.

I am considering this a challenge and I will not lose (hey, I sound just like Freddy Mercury).  Since my first marathon, I’ve believed I could accomplish anything I put my mind to and will keep trying until something clicks.

If you have any questions, comments or shared experiences (especially victory stories) feel free to comment or message me. I would love to hear them.

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