My Mental Health Marathon of Hope (Part 2)

My Mental Health Marathon of Hope (Part 2)


My mental health marathon rollercoaster ride was an endurance event all of its own. With no finish-line in sight. Or even the merest sniff of one in telescopic range on the distant, fuzzy horizon.

Yet my 23 marathons to date, fortuitously, offered me a collective blueprint for recovery. A way to stay connected to my past and somehow help me carve out a new future.

When my minimal recovery (from maybe 20-to-30% of my former self) stalled, and I reluctantly agreed to move back on meds—a small daily shot of Prozac—I ran. And when I got the third-and-final chance to sit my Canadian Citizenship test, I ran to book a flight. Feeling this was a chance to be proactive, get out of my parents’ hair and have a shot at a new, old life.

My flame of vitality had been reduced to smoking embers. But every so often there’d be a flicker; a spark or crackle. And the return to Canada added stoke to this phenomenon.

Back in London, Ontario (where I’d lived when first moving to Canada in 2006), I ran. Through the stifling late-summer heat—once getting so dehydrated I conked out and lay down on the floor of a hardware store washroom for a 10-minute reset.

Then to celebrate passing my Citizenship test (90%—though embarrassingly, for a sports journalist, getting the Q on the origin of lacrosse wrong: the Native Americans, not the French), I ran.

There was another mini-breakdown (seemingly almost a sympathetic reaction to my diabetic uncle’s dizzy spell) and a return to hospital via ambulance, and a fellow mental health crusader, Frank: who, like me, was hugely anti-meds and had managed to resume his medical career going hard on CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and walking the talk. Still I ran.

Apparently healing, but actually morphing into mania (unbeknown to one-and-all), I ran. In fact, started to feel like I could run forever: a weird sensation that felt like my legs were constantly regenerating and replenishing with energy. Like Forrest Gump on speed.

At 3am, after just 15 minutes of sleep (it was all I needed), I ran. Straight down to car dealership row, where I’d soon try to buy a hundred cars, of every make, model and creed.

Satisfying an unquenchable thirst to help the homeless, I ran. And celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with a 10k race in Springbank Park, I ran. The tree-trunks strapped to my legs now smaller and incrementally less hampering.

Weeks later, in Hogtown, having driven one of the medical vans for STWM (the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon), I ran. Jumping into the race wearing jeans, and running with Polish immigrant Olga for the last 3k, having high-fived around a thousand runners as a warm-up.

Six days hence, I moved to a new basement suite. Renting a Nissan Sentra to help. Then driving said Sentra to Niagra Falls. Where I ran. The NF International Marathon (I did the Half). I befriended a Kenyan who was like a lost sheep in the early hours pre-race. I got him to the start (he had a bad one, coming 4th) and later drove him back to Toronto, via Grimsby (sitting on Lake Ontario).

A week later I headed to Hamilton to reconnect with friends. And I ran. This time the Road2Hope Marathon. Buzzing around at the start (still gloriously unaware how manic I was) and doing a lap of the lead (police) car. Starting on the front row of the grid. And thinking I had a chance to win. In the event, I faded to 443rd place (4:06:28). With virtually no training—and I’m sure the chicken hat I wore—taking their collective toll.

The mania was gaining power. And once it had risen up fully formed, like Godzilla-from-the-Sea, I ran. Then prepared to Run to Florida. In aid of Terry Fox. And inspired by my heroic grandpa, Gerry Fox: a Japanese POW survivor. All en route to starting my new career as a PGA Tour golfer.

After being stopped by the cops nine times in eight days—and arrested twice (Iike film director Martin Scorsese on speed I talked my way out of both), I ran. Thwarted in my quest to make it to Highway 401 (heading south to Windsor) via the Terry Fox Parkway. And having given away my laptop, phone and prized 2008 Boston Marathon jacket.

I then capped it all by shedding all… my clothes—as I ran into Downtown London, trying to bag a Greyhound ticket bound for Detroit. Emptying a skip of cardboard in a windstorm along the way, before finally being scooped up by London police with just my Platteville Wisconsin-bought Eastpak bumbag to cover my modesty.

Dropped off in the jail-like Emergency Dept of Victoria Hospital, I ran. Round and round the 15-foot square cell. Getting dizzy with rage and lack of an outlet/channel for my abundance of manic energy.

Trying to escape in my VH shower cap shoes, I ran. Only to be foiled by a female security guard whose lightning turn-of-pace would’ve given Olympic Champion Donovan Bailey a run for his gold. We later became friends on another ward.

I was then bounced around PICUs and hospital wards, a buzzing ball of crazy energy causing magical mischief and mayhem wherever I went.

Needing no sleep and peering out-the-window night after night, waiting for the ant-like cars to start crawling again (usually around 5am), I ran. Up, down and around corridors. Often giving staff the slip by building an Escape to Alcatraz fake person in my bed. Always well-endowed. And would’ve, on multiple levels, made Clint Eastwood proud.

Hiring a lawyer, then firing the (inept) lawyer. And defending myself in a hospital hearing where I contested my insanity, wearing an outfit featuring maybe a hundred business cards and flyers taped to it. Plus a shower-cap-shoe for a hat and various other items protruding from every free orifice. Before being lynched, strapped to a trolley and wheeled back out again, having lunged at the doctor (Dr. Fruitcake, as I affectionately tagged him) who’d (wrongly) accused me of all sorts (to ensure he won the case).

He later visited me, while I was still strapped down, to apologize. Before I was allowed to return and defend myself. In that state I was both courageous and unflappable. But still, of course, lost the case. So I ran. Jogging up and down the ward’s 80-yard strip of track, while being fed and supported by fellow inmates.

It wasn’t the only time they strapped me down. I endured the same fate after being chased down by a crew of 10 VH staff, having invented a new sport: wheelchair throwing. Launching one through the air (and I think it was extra-largemy strength when manic was incredible) down a hospital ward in anger. A jobsworth nurse took issue with my racing round the ward in the wheelchair, which belonged to my buddy Tyler—a fellow patient—who was also recovering from a broken (or severely sprained) ankle. My issue was that it was discriminatory not allowing able-bodied people to also use wheelchairs. Providing they weren’t denying a disabled person the use of it in-the-process (Tyler wanted to walk around the ward a bit to test out the ankle). The nurse wouldn’t let it lie… so I let if FLY. Before playing Catch Me If You Can with the Crew of Ten. (I should also add I made sure no people were in the flight path. And that the wheelchair made a full recovery).

When I finally succumbed to the idea of taking medication—believing it was my only way of getting outta thereI ran. Downing copious amounts of water every time I took the pills. Believing (mistakenly) I could flush them straight back out of my system.

And after four weeks, being transferred to the plush, state-of-the-art Parkwood Institute, I ran. In the snow. And got to chip orange golf balls around the hallowed grounds. During six more weeks of crazy-time. Making new friends and experiences that will be indelibly imprinted on my psyche for life.

Slowed by the heady combination of haldol and lithium, I ran a little less. Losing the urge and compulsion to roll oranges down the ward corridors (often taking crossing patients by surprise and angering staff in-the-process). But still I ran. Up-and-down the stairs, in the gym and around the attached on-site trails.

Released at the end of January (becoming a habitual date for my psych hospital stays), I shared a group home with a paranoid schizophrenic who shuffled around most days like a zombie. He’d frequently pound my wall at night and call the cops in the day; always claiming we’d attacked or threatened him. Gripped, so, by delusion.

And I ran. To escape the new madness. I ran.

Every Monday at 2, with the wonderful Street Soccer London crewheroically led by community dynamo David SticklandI ran. In shorter, quicker bursts, of course. And frequently pulling hamstrings the first few weeks. But still I ran.

I was working again now, too. As a part-time driver for Impact Junk Solutions. Running either side. And eventually weaning myself off the Lithium (the haldol was shed while still at Parkwood). And the monthly gift of blood.

Having been blessed by the stellar support of my London, ON family, I accept my parents’ kind offer to make a clean break from my current predicamentrepelling the danger of getting lost-in-the-system and starring in my own version of The Truman Show.

I say “Hi” and “Bye”, one final time. Then I run. Across the Atlantic.

Back in England, drug-free and maybe 60% of my former self, I join the same temp agency as my brother and start driving. Delivering parcels, packaging and various parts of kitchens and bathrooms to random spots around the UK. It gives me some routine. Plus a little cash (being a minimum wage gig). And I run. As well as cycle-commuting to every job. Often at 4am in the teeth of healthy monsoon (I sometimes saw the sun rise. Though if the weather was particularly wild, it’d pop its head up—then go straight back down again, crying “Forget it!”.)

Making a trip down to London at Christmas, I reconnect with friends Michele, Andy, Mike and Annieplus the whole Ranelagh Harriers crew. And I run. Racing the Henty Relay. To ensure I clock at least one race in 2016. Before training it back to Gloucester to welcome 2017. The journey made me anxious. But platformed by the present, I reach my destination.

February comes and I tap back into the running community, engaging with the Newent and Gloucester parkruns—bonding with fine new friends in-the-process. My time’s initially a whisker under 23 minutes for 5K (22:58). But over the months I start to slice seconds off. And I run some more. Jumping in for the hot-‘n’-hilly Dymock Half Marathon (coming 19th in 1:35:24). Then racing the inaugural Cotswold Ekiden Relay in September. Stringing for Newent Runners (and we win!).

Otherwise, though, life’s lacking lustre. I’m maybe at 70% now, but have itchy feet. And being back in Blighty feels regressive. I need new impetus. And running can only take me so far. Like, say, North America.

So, with my Canadian PR still valid—and needing to act quickly to keep it that way—I decide to vault back across The Pond for (what I hope will be) one final time. There’s no real plan. Other than to reconnect with friends in Vancouver. Then maybe start afresh across the water in Victoria.

I bid my formidable family another fond and emotional farewell-for-now—and hop on a YVR-bound plane. Incredibly the date is once again September 6th.

Back in BC, I hang out with friends and race the Pinetree Cross-Country in Magic Mundy. I then take advantage of a friendly contact to start a three-month stint at Victoria Golf Club. Relocating to Vancouver Island—and buying a silver Dodge Grand Caravan en route, so I have a place to sleep. And I keep running.

I quickly link up with the Prairie Inn Harriers and start racing again. Living very much in-the-moment is starting to pay off. I’m mentally sharper from all the required daily decisions. And running lots. PIH weekend trail tears and Clover Point parkruns helping regain more of my mojo. As does racing the XC in Abbotsford and Harriers four-pack circling Thetis.

After an epic ocean-road Christmas trip catching up with family in Oregon, I focus on firing the cylinders of my creative arts business back up—and running aplenty. I tuck into Van Island’s road race series and check out parts of VI other beers can’t reach. Lowering my times for the 5K, 10K and Half-Marathon back under 20, 40, and 90 minutes respectively as I go.

And gradually, over time, something remarkable happens.

The sustained spell of living-in-the-the-moment, embracing van life—and, of course, continuing to run, restores me to, dare I say it (I dare), full health. Physically, mentally and emotionally.

I now have an abundance of energy. Live a largely stress-free life. And have a brain which is brighter and sharper than it’s ever been. And I’m not manic (as sure-as-sure-can-be). ‘Cos I’m aware. Where before I was blissfully clueless. Plus I have none of the bonus-ball delusions I had during the deep of the mania. Such as being the New Jesus Christ. Or having real superpowers.

It almost seems miraculous to find myself here: In a great place. Reflecting on an incredible journey. A tale of against-the-odds recovery. And some kind of redemption.

So when I line up at the start on October 7th, I’ll feel empowered with pride and promise. Excited for the future.

Knowing that, whatever happens, hope will put an eternal spring in my step.

And I’ll make it to the finish.



John Atkinson (AKA BC Johnny Fox) is a Writer, Journalist, Speaker and Connector based in Victoria, BC. Learn more and connect with him at his creative homes => and <=