How Running Brought Me Back From the Brink… More Than Once – By Zeni Bellwood

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t struggle with anxiety. As a child I’d obsessively count syllables in sentences, trying to make them add up to ten, repeating the sentence over and over in my head until it sounded right, adding or removing words to make the right number of syllables. I used to tell my Mum I wasn’t feeling like me, or I’d feel sad, for no reason at all. As I got older, some family money troubles, which led to an 18 month trip to Italy, meant I developed a fear of running out of money, and would agonise for hours over whether to buy a t-shirt from Primark. As a teen, I developed a small shoplifting problem. Later on, I’d internalise everything, absorbing myself in my work: first GCSEs; then A-Levels; then University. I’ve always been a perfectionist and a high-achiever, and my academic work felt like the only thing I had control over. 

In 2017, halfway through my undergraduate degree at Manchester, I began having counselling. I’d hit a low point after the death of my Nana; everything felt like it was falling apart. I was treating those closest to me like rubbish, because I felt terrible myself (I know that’s no excuse). During our first of two thirty minute sessions, the counsellor suggested that I do some exercise. I’d never been very fit – at Sixth Form I’d hide in the music practice room to avoid Wednesday afternoon Zumba. But, as I lived in Fallowfield with Platt Fields Park on my doorstep, I turned up to South Manchester parkrun on 4th February 2017, accompanied by a friend, Jade. I hated it, and cried most of the way round. I felt self-conscious about how I looked; how other people looked; and whether my sports bra was going to unzip itself. Running felt unnatural and clunky: my limbs felt at odds with my main frame. I got home from my first parkrun, wet and deflated, had a shower and a bowl of pasta, and went back to bed. I ached for a week afterwards. But somehow, the following weekend, I found myself back at Platt Fields, on my own this time, and completing my second 5k. Within a few weeks, I’d joined my University’s running club, Run Wild, with another lovely friend, Tim. Everyone was supportive: despite being too slow to keep up with the beginners’ group, someone always stayed back to run with me. Despite initially hating running, it now seemed to ignite something in me. It made me feel strong, powerful. Almost attractive.

Back in those days, visiting my boyfriend Isaac in his student house in Leeds meant lazy Saturday mornings, not getting up until gone midday, and ordering a takeaway for dinner. But, on the 20th May 2017, I decided to give Woodhouse Moor parkrun a go. The idea of a slog up to the park via Woodsley Road didn’t fill me with joy, but I made it, and upon arriving I soon met (or did I hear her first?!) Anne. She was chatty and welcoming, and showed me the start line, since I must’ve looked a bit lost! The following Sunday, I completed my first 10k. The buzz of the atmosphere and completing it didn’t leave me for days afterwards.

From then on, I was hooked. When I went to visit my Mum in Sussex, I’d insist that she drive me to various destinations near the South Coast, so I could continue to get my parkrun fix. I did lose a bit of weight, and I felt like I looked better and happier than before, but I grew to accept I’d never be the fastest or the fittest there. For me, running was about enjoying the fresh air, making friends and feeling good about myself. I’ve made fantastic friends through running, particularly at Woodhouse Moor, where there are too many wonderful people to mention. You know who you are – sweaty hugs all round! You’re all beautiful. Volunteering, as much as running, became a highlight of my week, and I made my RD debut in September 2018 (honourable mentions must go to our beloved Rolf, here, who always did the shouty bits for me).

2018 was also the year that I officially joined Hyde Park Harriers and became a permanent resident of Leeds. It wasn’t long before I’d begun leading sessions, helping out with Strength and Speed and standing for a spot on the Committee. Running was an outlet for me. As an introvert, it offered the perfect balance between socialising and solitude. Hyde Park Harriers remains the most inclusive club I’ve ever come across. It never matters how fast you are or how many races you do or how long you’ve been running. Everyone is welcome.

In mid-2019, things started to go a bit pear-shaped. I was struggling with my job and finding that things weren’t really going the way I anticipated. I found myself questioning my purpose in life; and my worth as a human being. My weight was creeping up (probably noticeable to nobody other than me!) and I’d stopped enjoying the things I used to love. I became withdrawn and reclusive. I’d go to parkrun as normal, but I’d often call my mum on the walk to Woodhouse Moor, in tears. I wasn’t quite sure what the problem was, but life felt relentless and unforgiving. Getting up in the morning was a struggle, and I started having counselling again. I was prescribed a cocktail of medications to help me feel better, from beta blockers to SSRIs to anti-psychotics, but none of them really seemed to work. Everything felt exhausting. I’d get back from parkrun as soon as possible after everything was cleared away. On the occasions I made it to Opposite I’d sit in silence, watching everyone else around me talking and laughing. I’d want to cry because everything felt so overwhelming. 

Once home, I often needed to sleep for the whole afternoon. When I woke up, I still felt exhausted. I stopped coming to club, and when I did turn up I’d be on autopilot, not really feeling like I was there at all. Whilst I had previously enjoyed running with my friend Mo once or twice a week, I started making excuses. I’d had to stay late at work. I’d forgotten my kit. Isaac was ill. My mum had phoned me. In reality, I was just too exhausted, and the only thing I could face doing was getting home, rewatching Peep Show, The Ricky Gervais Show or the IT Crowd for the thousandth time, and going to bed. I’d feel immensely jealous – often to the point of bitter anger – of my friends who seemed to be achieving PBs left right and centre. One of my closest friends, Robyn, was often at the receiving end of this (I am sorry, Robyn, for casting rain over your success). I just couldn’t seem to be happy for her, as every time she got another PB, it felt like I’d failed a bit more. I continued to turn up to the Brownlee Track on Wednesdays, but often the journey home would be a tearful, angry one. I’d drive recklessly, sometimes dangerously, as a means of venting my frustration. 

Somehow, my running friends never gave up on me. They told me (very rightly) that running goes in cycles. We can’t make progress all the time! We all have times where we stagnate and sometimes even regress. It will happen again for you – there will come a time when you’re achieving PBs and doing well. For now though, just try to enjoy being outdoors! As well-meaning as these comments were, I couldn’t believe them. Every run seemed like a fresh reminder that I just wasn’t cut out for being good at running. I’d torture myself by scrolling endlessly through Strava after big races, seeing everyone’s PBs and smiling faces. Despite being elected as PECO Captain for 2019/20, I couldn’t bring myself to attend more than two of the four races of the season. Instead, I spent my Sundays in bed. 

Interspersed with this dark period, I’d have brief spells of productivity, where I’d wake up early, forget to eat breakfast, do loads of cleaning; make lots of plans; race down the motorway at 90mph (sorry, black box!) and make large purchases which I neither needed nor wanted. These periods were short lived, and often ended in a crash, sending me spiralling back into crippling depression. In November 2019, after a referral to the Community Mental Health Team in North Leeds, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II. This causes highs and lows in mood: often the depressive state can be destructive, manifesting itself in the form of anger, or just a complete emptiness. The ‘hypomanic’ phases are often mild, and can be perceived as positive for the person experiencing them. More medication was prescribed. I felt like a failure. 

The medication didn’t really help. It made me feel more disconnected from myself than ever. As some of you know, I’ve used cannabis on an occasional, strictly recreational basis since I was around 19, but my usage increased dramatically. I’d get in from work and immediately need a smoke. Just to take the edge off, I’d say. Just to numb the pain. Just to help me sleep. It was the only thing in my day I’d look forward to. The only thing which made life feel bearable. I also began self-harming, which I hadn’t done since my first term of Uni in 2015, and I contemplated suicide more than once.

This lasted for a few months until early March 2020, when I woke up one day for work and just couldn’t do it anymore. I just sat by the radiator, holding Cat, my childhood cuddly toy and cried. I phoned my line manager and told her I couldn’t come in. She was very supportive, but I felt like she didn’t understand. I didn’t see how she could possibly know how I was feeling. She kept telling me to go for a run or a walk. It makes you feel great, she’d say. Think of all those endorphins! Think how lovely the fresh air feels on your face! This made me angry. How could I contemplate a run, when even walking to the Co-op for a lighter or a carton of milk took every ounce of my mental and physical wherewithal?!

Depression, whilst making you hate yourself, can also make you quite self-absorbed, in a weird way. I felt as though no one else on earth could possibly feel as bad as me. I’d walk past people on the street and, without knowing anything about their life, I’d wish I were them. I took a week off work to clear my head, during which I mostly slept, cried; rewatched familiar television shows; wandered aimlessly around my flat and stared into space. And then lockdown started. 

At first the lockdown felt immensely challenging. Whilst, for months, I’d craved nothing more than the chance to sleep my days away, with no real need to wash or take care of myself or get dressed or leave the house, I found myself spiralling due to a lack of routine. After waking up for the fifth day running at gone midday, I felt disgusted with myself. I downloaded Animal Crossing on the Switch, a game series which, in the past, has helped me relax, but couldn’t enjoy it. I was worried about money. The money-saving and mortgage-paying aspect of Animal Crossing exacerbated this. It felt like the game was mocking me. So, amid all the stress, I made a deal with myself.

A walk. Just a walk. One mile, maybe two. Just round the block. Down to the Picture House. It won’t be too difficult. You won’t die. It will be fine. No one will stare at you or laugh at you, because no one is going out. It’s fine. You’ll be okay. I promise. 

So I went on a walk. Every day. It started off being just a couple of miles. Down Queen’s Road. Up Burley Road. Past the Co-op. Then Home. I split it into small, manageable chunks. I’d phone my mum on the way, who was also on a walk, albeit 300 miles away in Sussex. We’d chat about nothing much. One day on my walk, I noticed something. I’d started laughing again. I was starting to smile a bit more easily. I’d make jokes. Instead of ringing up my mum in tears, I was enjoying it. 

Gradually the distance of my walk increased, and I started adding in some easy runs. It took a while to build up. My feet hurt. My breathing was awful. My achilles hurt. My brain kept telling me to stop. But I kept going, and started to enjoy running again. With no targets, no races, no one else around me. No public humiliation, no photographers capturing me at my worst angle. Just me. And it started, very slowly, to get easier. Within a few weeks, my daily run or walk was the best part of my day. I learned that, whilst my Mum, Isaac and my friends were sources of huge support, the only person who could really get me out of the pit was myself. 

I’ve got a long road to go yet but I think my love of running may be returning. Once we begin returning to races and parkrun, I hope to return as a better, stronger Zeni. Not a different Zeni. I’m still the same person. But a Zeni who is capable of looking in the mirror and thinking: yes, I am worth something. I deserve a croissant with my coffee. I deserve nice things. I deserve to feel proud of myself. 

I know that the lockdown has been incredibly hard on a great deal of people. And, don’t get me wrong, there have been parts I’ve found challenging. The hugs, especially. Things are very uncertain. My heart breaks for children in neglectful homes, for adults in abusive relationships and for those who, for whatever reason, are finding this really difficult. But I also think there are some positives to be taken from all this. A chance for some headspace. A chance to disconnect. And a chance to spend time with yourself, and relearn what really makes you tick. A chance to figure out what’s important. 

 For those struggling with their running, or with life in general, just remember that you will have good points, and you will have bad points. I’m by no means saying that going for a little walk can cure mental illness. Nor I am implying that I am cured forever. In a way, these periods feel bittersweet, almost like I’m waiting for myself to relapse. Because it’s likely that, at some point in the future, whether it’s next week, next year or next decade, a relapse will happen. However, as bad as things may seem, you will always have the opportunity to bounce back. Your relationship with running may ebb and flow, but it will always be there. You just have to wait for it to come back when it’s ready, and when the circumstances are right. 

I finally want to say thank you so much to all the wonderful people who have supported me. Your unconditional love and kindness, even when I’ve really not been that great to be around, have not gone unnoticed. 

Much love, and I look forward to seeing you very soon. Zeni x