My Mental Health Marathon of Hope

My Mental Health Marathon of Hope

WHEN I shimmy into the starting pen on October 7th, 2018, I’ll be limbering up and exchanging high-five-powered good luck wishes with friends ahead of my 24th marathon.

It’ll be my sixth in Victoria. First in seven years. And, as I have eight Sub-3s under my belt, I’ll be shooting for my ninth 2-hr-something time. My first as a Vancouver Islander.

But more than that. Much more than that. The race will signify a landmark in my recovery from a major mental health crash less than four years ago.

A crash that sent my life spinning off the highway and free-falling down the slopes of a great peak. Hitting roots and rocks and the odd mountain goat along the way.

‘Til I hit rock-bottom. And all I could see was an Everestian climb back up.

I feared I may never even make Base Camp. Let alone the summit.

But all I could do, just like in a marathon, was put one foot in front of the other. And keep running.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When I initially crashed I was running. In Hamilton, ON. Though something was clearly OFF. I fell to the tail of the pack I’d usually head. And struggled to hang on. Resorting to a shuffle. A hand to discard. But still I ran, making it to the welcome finish of coffee, cake and camaraderie.

Then back in Blighty for Chrimbo, and the weird sensation of a bead of liquid abseiling down the back of my skull as I fell asleep that first night. I woke the next morning unable to answer my mum’s question: “How did you sleep?” There was a 15-second delay. I heard the question. Knew the answer. But the line between thought and speech had been cracked. I needed an aid station. This early in the race?

Yet, somehow, I still got out and ran. In what appeared to be another body. Else I was now wearing an invisible suit-of-armour as I strode. It was torture. But I ran.

Reactive depression, says the drop-in doc. “Wellbutrin to go?” “I’ll pass on that,” I reply. Being massively anti anti-depressants. Let’s give it a week. See what seven days says.

Christmas comes. Christmas goes. They prop me up. But nobody knows… what the hell has happened. Six days. Am I bleeding on the brain? Was it a minor stroke? Think I need a brain scan.

Which was when the fun really began.

The scan was clear, but they kept me in overnight at Gloucestershire Royal for observation. I can’t recall if I was on medication at this point. And, if I was, what it was. But I became convinced I’d have a heart attack and die that night.

I even wrote a “thank-you” note to my parents—which the doctors thought was a suicide note. It looked like a five-year-old on a sugar binge had scrawled it. I was embarrassed and wanted to keep the note. I stuffed it in my trouser pocket. But a nurse noticed and forced me to hand it over.

Being grilled by a team of three was a mis-match. I could barely answer my name. Yet was expected to reply to a series of interrogative probes. A test which, of course, I failed with flying colours.

My bombing of the test also led to the question: “Do you think a stay in Wotton Lawn might help?” “Wotton Lawn?” I replied. It sounded like a tennis club. But turned out to be the psych arm of GRH. Connected to the main site by a tunnel/walk of pain/shame/’promise-of-gain‘. My reply was: “No.” I didn’t think a stay at Wotton Lawn would help (an image of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest popping-up front-and-centre in my mind). And this turned out to be the wrong answer. Then arguably the wronged answer. Though I didn’t know that at the time.

They’d been devious. Not sharing the fact, with either I or my parents, that saying “No” gave them the power to override and Section me. Not cool. If I’d have said “Yes”, I could’ve/would’ve entered voluntarily. And been able to flee, screaming, the same day—if I’d found hanging out with Randle McMurphy and friends too much.

Not now though. Now it was Game On. I had to take the Walk of Shame/Pain/’Gain’. And embrace what lay beneath.

As I waited in a patient room ahead of my transfer, I remember the nurse taking an instant dislike to me. Projecting... “How could I put my mum and family through this.” Like I’d done it on purpose. But also being in awe of my super-hero mum, whose maternal instinct had kicked in a thousand-fold. And whose focus was now lasered on her eldest son. And doing whatever it took to get him healthy again. I’m sure in that state she’d have been a 65-year-old grandma with the power to lift up a car—or maybe an elephant—and toss it to one side in the name of her child’s protection/survival.

We finally got the call, and did the walk across the divide. I remember thinking how I was due to be flying back to Canada tomorrow and now those plans were screwed.

I was assigned a room and immediately put on suicide watch (apparently when patients first enter a psych ward they’re most likely to top themselves). I was also assigned a watcher, to sit in with me and cast her beady eyes over me that first night. Even though all sharp objects and potential nooses had been diligently disposed of.

My watcher seemed to be riddled with rage, however; on the verge of a major breakdown. She was quickly replaced (I never saw her again—perhaps it was my first stage of delusion).

That first night was perhaps the peak of my insanity. At least during the down. I refused to take any medication and would hide out of sightby the room’s sink front-right. Time-and-again a nurse would pop their head in the room and thrust some pills and a plastic shot glass of water in my face. And each time I refused.

I was starting to believe the hype of my insanity. Or had perhaps slipped in a little deeper. As now I was convinced that if I swallowed the pills, they’d knock me out and I’d then be carried, comatose, to a special room containing a vat of acid. Before being dunked in said vat of acid. I mean, who hasn’t had that dream? Or was I crazy? Well, yes. But I was so convinced.

Eventually, of course, they had to override my rebellion. Which meant a group of five bursting through the door, wrestling me to the bed, then plunging a gleaming needle into my right bum-cheek.

It had been an interesting day. And one I wasn’t keen to repeat in a hurry.


A beam of sunlight angling through my window woke me the next morning. A different watcher was now on duty. I acknowledged him/her (I don’t recall) then turned my head back towards the window and secretly celebrated my skin still being in-tact. And no signs of any vats. Or acid.

My stay in Wotton Lawn (I don’t remember seeing the Lawn part) would be a four-week festival of funthree weeks under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act. Lots of bad food, wounded souls and a blend of fine nursery and subtle bullying; one nurse in particular taking advantage of my fragile state at dinner time (I haven’t forgotten. And plan to one day return and feed him his testicles. Garnished, of course. I’m not a monster). Though I’m sure karma’s also served welcome retribution.

I met weekly with a psychologist I recall being Welsh (perhaps Dr. Jones) and going through the charade of convincing him I was improving. Anything to get that section lifted. Perhaps I was improving. But it was so fractional/incremental as to effectively be like a fart in space. Yet, he agreed I’d rediscovered some pep. So I was finally ‘freed’ three weeks in. On the proviso I hung out for another week. And endured more teeth-rotting and heart disease-inspiring meals. It was a small price to pay.

My weight when I entered The Lawn was 9 st 10 or 136 lbs. I know this ‘cos they weighed me on my first night. Ahead of my acid trip. The refined fare quickly starting adding pounds to my port. But still I ran. In the gym at Wotton Lawn, with a gait hanging off its hinges and footed flatter than the perennial pancake, I ran.

I also did a couple of runs outside. One with a welsh girl who’d taken leave from the army due to a mental health episode. A gym staff member ran with us. And I struggled to run a nine-minute mile. Where just a few months earlier I’d run 26.2 in a row at a 6:46/minute average.

Then they let me outside on my own (were they crazy? Oh no—that was me). And I ran around the nearby streets, in the city where I’d graduated high school. The outer cityscape was familiar. And eerily quiet. Almost like the ghosts from my 18-year-old life were watching on. And wondering what the hell had happened to me.

But it was good be outside. And to run. Or do something at least vaguely resembling running.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I got out of Wotton Lawn in late January. Whisked away by my mighty parents for what would prove a nine-month stay.

It featured cocktails of daily drugs, horrible side-effects (starring panic attacks, weight gain, freakish and paralyzing anxiety, chronic hypochondria and last-but-not-least suicidal thoughts)—and that was just for starters. Hot sweats, crippling self-doubt and mind-spinning brain zaps would later join the fray after I cold-turkeyed off my evil cocktail of three—determined to regain some control in my life and be drug-free.

It did give me a boost and I was able to run a bit more, dropping some pounds in the process (I’d topped the scales at around 176 lbs and had become a bit of a roly-poly little fat-faced boy). But there was likely a fair chunk of placebo effect involved.

Before then I was basically operating at about 20% of my former self. And the only way I could pep or perk myself up was with drug help: Lorazepam. Which the doctors insisted I only take fleetinglyas it’s highly addictive and getting hooked on that would only stoke the flames of my crash. I used half a pill once-in-a-while. And it was kind of miraculous; I could snap back into my old self. But then the effect wore off and I reverted to my now default state with a broken brain.

Through my winter of discontent, when the days were long. And dark. And cold. I still ran. My sister often came to keep me company and entice me out of my shell.

When hiding under the covers was bliss and every cell in my body was screaming at me to stay put, I ran. Tricking my mind by staying one step ahead and donning running kit and shoes and stepping out the door before the black kicked in. Slipping back into an old routine that was a small slice of heaven in a thick pie of hell.

Thrown into the mix was the aforementioned hypochondria, which I quickly got the hang of. In fact, truly mastered. I convinced myself I had multiple forms of cancer. Medical tests and scans always proving otherwise. And tested the unconditional love of my retired parents to the hilt in living back with them at the age of 41-turning-42. And contributing little else.

I couldn’t work, so spent most of my days on my back. Either sleeping or with my head buried in a laptop researching which kind of ailment I had. Meanwhile, my ma had stealthily arranged some government disability benefit while I was in town. Half of which I paid to them for a paltry contribution to the housekeeping. And half I saved.

I also developed the habit of late-night TV binging. Staying up ’til 4 or 5am as a way to distract myself from reality. And escape to other worlds for as long as possible.

Frustrated, forlorn and fat, I cold-turkeyed off the Terrible Trio in early June of 2015. And could run a little more. Whether a healthy hit of placebo or bit of power regained, I cared not. It was a pitter-patter of (a) tiny feat.

It still felt like I was permanently hitting a marathon wall, with no loose bricks to dislodge. But I kept running. Putting one tree-trunk-for-a-leg in front of the other.

The marathon mantra and mentality stood me in good stead as I strove to stride; then once-again thrive.

And gave me hope that—somehow, some way—I could navigate this ultimate endurance event and 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