Tuesday, November 27, 2012

brain chemicals, part one: running in the dark

Aberdeen sunsets (in my backyard and at the City Beach), July 2012

This is one in a series of posts which will all be tangentially related to mental health and its various bases something that’s always at the forefront of my mind but especially so lately as I slog through the writing of my PhD. Some of my anxiety and depression is most definitely related to environmental and experiential factors, and the rhythm of my life at the moment is definitely not conducive to balance or relaxation, so I understand its occurrence; some is also connected to my emotional/psychological state, which is also very understandable. 
And some of it is purely physiological, and this to me has always been the most inscrutable of the elements, these brain chemicals, because it seems sometimes that there is little I can do to predict and then mediate their effects on me. 

(And yes, I take medication for them, but that is another post!) 

Now, one way I can appease these wayward surges of badness is to run, thereby feeling the emotional and psychological effects of going outside and doing something that would make me feel strong and connected to the earth even if it didn't also have the lovely side-effect of flooding my synapses with endorphins and other good things. I have been running for most of my life, and I started during a time when I was in late elementary school and dealing with one of my first severe bout of anxiety and panic attacks. I discovered that it was something I could do to feel strong again, and sure of myself, confident and perhaps most importantly, distracted. I am sure the extra brain chemicals were also a good bonus, and basically, this addicted me for life. It is a productive and healthy addiction, as they go (though there was also a period where I did run a little too much, and suffered for it) though procuring my running fixes can get complicated, due to time and in the following case, daylight hours, and factors beyond my control (being a woman, for one).

* * * 

So I am writing a dissertation. And often late afternoon, and evening come, and I know that I still have hours of work to do, but I need a break. I need to move, to disentangle myself from the chair and desk and unlock my eyes from the screen. And so I creep out of my office, where many are still working, and put on my running things and go out into the evening and run. And then I come back and feel better and more productive for a little while longer. Calmer, sharper, everything is more crisp and serene. 

A few weeks ago, though, in Aberdeen, a young woman was raped close to the University. She was walking down the street at 7:30am when she was attacked. And this made me sick, because these things happen at all, but that is another post, too. What really irked me was the advice of police: women, don't walk alone, even in daytime! Which of course is what's been said forever, and does not address any of the roots of the issue. And I was annoyed, too, because I was startled by it, and angered because I needed to go for a run. By myself, outside, in the dark. So, the next day I got ready to leave from my office as usual, and when someone asked where I was going, I told them, receiving the response, 'You're going for a run now!? Didn't you hear what happened to that girl?!' and 'Why don't you go in the middle of the day, or morning, when there are more people out?' and 'That's really... brave... of you' (implied meaning: stupid).

I told them it happened in daylight, and morning wouldn't be happening for me. I didn't want to get into it, so I just left. Morning runs have never been my favourite, anyway. I’ve always been an owl instead of a lark, and find it very difficult to exert myself early in the day, especially on no food due to metabolic issues. Waiting until breakfast digests puts me too much into the middle of the morning and into my work, which, while flexible, is best done in large blocks of time when possible due to my writing habits. And the days here are getting alarmingly short with the season turning, with darkness now falling before 4pm and so I am really left with little choice, in some ways. And I am going to run regardless, because I will feel shitty, frankly, if I do not: because I will not get my brain chemicals otherwise, and I will feel down on myself for feeling belittled and thwarted.

People also often tell me I should just go to the nice fancy university gym on my street, but I really don’t want to. I’ve never liked running indoors all that much, for one, and there isn’t even a track there, so you must deal with the Sisiphean scenario of the treadmill: you go nowhere, at a strange gait and pace, under headache-foreshadowing fluorescence.  And the people, too – the hordes of football and rugby men, and the women who are not hairy yetis like I am. I don’t want to go and feel on display, to have to compete with those men for space, and I don’t want to feel shamed into shaving. There is no solitude, no quiet there. This is not a relaxing, affirming situation, to say the least.

And so I decided to keep running in the dark.  And yes, I take precautions, should anything happen, whether it be attack or injury. I am covered in reflective striping, on my shoes, leggings, a highlighter-pink vest over my jacket and a climber’s headlamp for where the streetlamps are dim. To protect myself menaces other than local drives, I have a mobile phone and busfare, headache medication; a whistle tucked inside my shirt and a keyring wrapped around a finger and keys jutting out from my palm. Sometimes, I carry my dad’s Swiss Army knife in my pocket, not because it would be much use to me if I were to be surprised, but because of its talismanic weight and meaning. I do avoid Seaton Park, because assaults have happened there frequently, and other heavily treed areas, and stick to places out in the open along the beach road, and main thoroughfares. I go early enough (before 11pm, usually) that there are still people and cars out and about.

Beyond convenience to my schedule and patterns of energy, I’ve just always loved running in the dark. I used to run around and around my block (exactly 400m around, my dad measured it for me) or the loop road in my neighbourhood, as I wasn’t allowed to stray far, but my parents knew I needed to train. Summer nights, when it was finally cool and feeling breeze on my skin was the most awaited moment of my day. The flash of my legs, birch-white, under a streetlamp, chasing the local rabbits that sprung out of the shade of the driveways, disappearing ahead of me. In autumn, when my feet whispered through the crush of black ash and poplar leaves on the ground, the smoke-scent of early fires dissolving up into a black sky and the wintry pinpoints of stars (or, if I was really lucky, bands of northern lights that moved and breathed as I did, sighing and striding on with their own silver rhythm). And it was so quiet, except for a distant car on a main road, or a house party, perhaps, a few streets over. I made the most noise, with my footfalls and my breath, mind quiet and still and clear and joyful.

And last night when I was running, I was again marvelling at the sensorial changes of the dark. How when I turned off King Street down the Beach Boulevard and faced towards the sea, I saw a cloudless night sky for the first time in far too long here, the stars spilling above the ocean, the sprawl of Auriga and Taurus, Orion’s bright belt pulling me forward. Cresting the hill up onto the treeless boulevard ship lights make their own constellations, out on the blackness of the invisible horizon. Cars pass intermittently, and I follow the cues of light from the headlights, the glow of the city to my right, and the twenty lumens spilling out of my headlamp into a flowing pool in front of me.  My eyes register the light, but I am not really seeing, or looking now; it is just a faint guide. With this deprivation (how we spend our days always looking, reading, writing, everything so visual!) I feel enveloped by the dark, and forced into listening. The waves of the winter sea folding in on themselves, a stray oystercatcher’s call drown out stray engines. The ocean makes breathing easier, a pattern to follow, the patter of my feet, the moments between mid-air and pavement, the tiniest of flights. The southeast wind, salt and fish, frosted grass, leafy decay. I am very much inhabiting my whole body, but at the same time I am aware of how truly faint the membranes are between us and everything else. I spill out into this, forget the boundaries, bones dissolving in warmth and all my dear little endorphins (or whatever they are) go to work mending my synapses.

And yes, it’s true, even without my darkness, my sea and my sky, I could still run.  I could go to the gym, and scrabble away on the treadmill, and I could manufacture a whole ocean of brain-chemicals and feel okay in the end. But it would not be as satisfying all around. Because while I am primarily running because of its immediate chemical effect that is going to let me write a few more paragraphs of my thesis that night, and function like a decent human being the next day, and thus not feel utterly useless, and all the related emotional and psychological reasons, there is the other reason here: I am doing this because to not run there, in the darkness, on my own terms, is to let both bad individual people and the misinformed patriarchy win, and take something from me that I don’t want to give up.
I am sure that there are people that would still find this crazy, an unnecessary risk, something foolish and careless and all those other things women are told not to do, not to be.  But lately, I feel like my mental health depends a great deal on these runs, both for the physiological benefits of the aforementioned brain chemicals, but the emotional and psychological payback as well. This goes beyond feeling like a body beyond the brain, or the sense of accomplishment from rousing myself out of a paralytic mood. There is something so profoundly strengthening that derives from challenging what I am supposed to do and be: a woman afraid of the dark, timid, overly cautious and avoidant. I am not going to refrain from running alone, all by myself, at night simply because I am female-bodied. I need to do this; this is my way of taking back the night.

Certainly, I’ve been to marches full of people, and there’s definitely solidarity in that and something empowering that can arise from that feeling. But when I do this, I feel so sturdy, so tough, so self-sufficient, and in the last throes of a long run, perhaps a little invincible. And that’s a rare and treasured thing for me, when all my other thoughts and feelings are otherwise conspiring against my well-being, and I don’t think it’s crazy at all to do this, to run myself back into chemical equilibrium, and take back a bit of space in the darkness, both physically and psychologically, at the same time.