When the fun stops… stop. It’s a well-worn quote from a gamble aware campaign, and frankly when it comes to gambling I struggle to see where the fun really starts. Formative eighties memories of the stale reek of desperation that emanated from the amusement arcade that I wasn’t allowed into. Watching mates tossing drinking money into pub fruit machines, convinced they were about to win big in the nineties. The creep of online gambling spewing over all sports coverage and sponsorship in recent decades. Stopping gambling seems like as good a policy as never starting in the first place.
But what if the fun comes from something much more wholesome? What if the fun disappears from one of the few things that can bring joy and mental relief? What if I’ve lost my love of exercise? Should I stop?
The Wily Black Dog
Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’ve had ongoing fights with my own mind throughout adult life. Stability of mood far from guaranteed. The crushing weight of depression constantly lurking, an unwanted mental guest that used to strike like a sledgehammer, unstoppable waves that floored, flattened, scraped and destroyed. They were tangible, devastating and terrifying, but ultimately survivable as I learned to recognise the signs, ride out the worst and regroup to face the next time.
Times change, people change, brains change. Over the last couple of years I’d convinced myself that the dark days were consigned to the past. The euphoric highs largely dissipated and the subsequent emptiness a distant memory. How foolish we can be. Our grey matter is complex, so far beyond our comprehension, and the black dog is wily. The transformation has been so subtle, so incremental that it escaped my notice, if not that of those closest to me. The signs were there, but denial is powerful and over time that flat mental state became normalised, no extremes, just grey, dull endless grey, the eternal winter of the mind.
Exercise used to be my love. Not just for the physical benefits, the buzz of tearing down trails or skipping over mountains, the toned body and powerful heart, but simply because it was fun. Granted, it was sometimes gut-wrenchingly painful, but even that brought the self-esteem, the pride at the gritty mindset that pushed my body where others couldn’t go. I’m not sure when that stopped but at some point it morphed into necessity. For a while I viewed it as addiction, fuelled by the need to be the best, to grease the ego, push personal limits. Then it became a desire to beat the ageing process, to stay lean, grow more muscular, retain the look of an athlete, not the middle-aged dad. Latterly a truth has dawned, it’s none of the above, it’s darker, it’s simply a need to feel normal.
Exercise induced endorphins are well documented, the runner’s high, the warm feeling of satisfaction and the flush of feel-good chemicals. For most people I believe that they’re a reward, a euphoric rush transcending the everyday, before a gentle return to normality. For myself this reaction has often become virtually the only time I feel much at all.
Mental issues are multi-faceted. From the maelstrom of anxiety, the constant uneasiness and subsequent snappiness that is unleashed on family and workmates (to whom I apologise hugely), to the desert of depression, the clinical removal of feeling, the dreaded numbness. The realisation that my mind has snuck into a permanent low was a kick in the gut, but at least I’d finally recognised the fact, the self-reflection that is so readily applied to my coaching belatedly reflecting the mirror on to a haggered psyche.
And yet there is always redemption. Glimpses of the reality that I jealously assume others feel constantly. Out of the blue last Tuesday there was a brightening of colours, a lifted weight and a sudden optimism for life. Naturally my brain generated a fear reaction, dragging me back down because to taste that norm compounds the pain when it’s ripped away again; never underestimate the human capacity for self-destruction.
But this tale doesn’t have a sad ending, or indeed a happy one, because as yet there is no ending. Yesterday another breakthrough came whilst picking my way down Donard Wood’s most challenging of trails. The first two runs accompanied by the fear of crashing, but also the self-hatred of incompetence. That destructive internal monologue reiterating uselessness. Dropped by my mates, statuesque in movement, devoid of flow. And then from nowhere a chemical rush, the beauty of my surroundings suddenly as apparent as the easy interaction of friends I’m privileged to bike with. Dappled sunlight breaking cloud and a muggy but pleasant warmth. The rarest of experiences, the sense of in-the-moment happiness. The claw-like grip of doubt releasing both brain and limbs and flow returning, along with the easy speed of decades of muscle memory on the super-technical and steep root-fests that epitomise that mountainside.
Exercise is a joy unto itself. Mountains, friendship, sunshine, adrenaline and effort, technical proficiency, dusty trails, greasy trails, wide-open spaces and ancient woodlands. It all has the capacity to make us feel alive, to provide a reason. Elevating to normality is the facet that makes it essential, and that need can suck out the fundamental goodness, but I keep going, I always will, through injury and struggle, physical and mental, because every now and again it affords that precious relief, and that’ll always be worth fighting for.
Sometimes when the fun stops, just keep going. Know that the fun will re-start eventually, because when it comes to the things we truly love that fun can never be fully extinguished, it’s just bubbling away, waiting for the catalyst, and when it re-appears it can be all the sweeter for the absence.