Divorce: can running save your life?

For some, faced with illness or health issues, taking up running can turn around their lives, creating fresh challenges, different goals and an amazing improvement in self-esteem.

Running saved my life, but in a very different way. Five years ago I separated, then divorced and became a single mum to a three, six and nine-year-old. When their dad left the country, he left their lives, too. Life wasn’t just turned upside down, it changed completely. Forever.

What kept me going? You know the answer – running. Without it I would probably have stopped believing I was strong enough to carry on during the really tough times. I gave it up, entered many races then didn’t get to the start line, returned, stopped, got ill, recovered, stopped again, started again, spending months away from club sessions – it became the greatest metaphor of my journey through a tough life experience. But running was always there, somewhere in the background, waiting for when I wanted to lace up trainers and fly out the door again. I’m convinced without it I would have ended up a sad heap of a person feeling sorry for myself in the corner of a darkened room.

Running saved my life and if you are having your own difficult life experience it may save yours too. How? It can give you faith in yourself and get you fired up to make a change or a difference to your life … oh and there’s the added bonus of getting fit and feeling great too.

This is my story; I hope by telling it to you it will help you realise just how strong and amazing you are, too…

Chapter 1

“The greatest challenge in life is discovering who you are. The second greatest is being happy with what you find.” Unknown

February this year marked the fifth anniversary of my husband and I separating. In five years I had travelled a hard road from a dark – and bleak – time of my life, to being able to contemplate a future that included both happiness and security.

Looking back to the second week of February 2010 I had just had a great weekend, taking a trip to the Isle of Wight to do a 10-mile race, where I knocked nearly 12 minutes off my PB! I was on a high! The next day, everything in my life changed forever.

Ironically, it was my running that bought my marriage to an end. How can running end a marriage? It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I had entered my first marathon six months before and felt so excited to tell my husband; but he just turned around and walked away. He had nothing to say, even though it felt like a massive undertaking with three small children.

On that day I think I knew our marriage was over but I refused to give the thought any energy or space to develop. I just pushed it into a room in my mind, closed the door on it and denied its existence. I couldn’t tell anyone my deepest worries, either. I kept them buried until Christmas. Don’t confide in anyone and nothing will ever happen, right? At Christmas I told a few close friends how I felt, and within two months my marriage was over. But I am getting ahead of myself.

When did it all start? I have to go back to the point of my conception, when the curious sequencing of encoded biological information on one of my DNA strands (donated by my father) resulted in my carrying an un-identified, unrequested physical asset: the endurance gene. 1971 marked the year I was born, and the year my dad set his marathon PB of 2hrs 30mins. Running, it could be said, was in my blood, whether I liked it or not and whether I chose to tap in to it, or ignore it.

There had been a running club in my village all my life but I never joined it. I had been a county-standard athlete at school, but never half as good as my dad, who was an accomplished marathon runner, and had represented the Navy at various distances as well as being part of a world-record breaking Royal Navy team that ran around the island of Malta.

Aged 18 I couldn’t wait to move away to university then lived in London, New Zealand (where I got married and my eldest daughter was born) and Australia before coming back home to live. Again I saw the runners around the streets. Again, I thought about joining the club, but instinct this time stopped me. I remember thinking to myself that if I joined it would mean the end of my marriage.

It sounds so dramatic doesn’t it? But I believed if I could carry on as I was, bringing up my three girls, immersing all my energy and spirit into them, I could exist in my marriage. If I chose to put myself first, I feared I may discover the old me; energetic, determined, outgoing. So I plodded on, not in a bad place, but not truly happy. Except after having my third daughter, getting out of the door to do anything for me, social or otherwise, seemed impossible. The first few years of her life whirred by, as if I was caught in the middle of a spinning top that refused to slow down. Once she started pre-school I tried to rediscover a sense of ‘me’ again. When a friend said the village running club was holding a beginner’s course I signed up. That was the beginning of the end of my marriage…

Chapter 2

“A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there’s less of you.” Margaret Atwood

Complete dread seeped through me the day we went to Relate. I had no idea what would happen during, or as a result of going. We all know someone, or a friend of a friend who has tried Relate, but actually walking in the door, with what felt like a sign on my forehead saying ‘I’ve failed in my marriage and I’m going to wreck this person’s life’ was horrifying.

Our visit to Relate was my first contact with the vast support network that exists (unbeknown to many who have not travelled the divorce road) to help people in my situation. Did I go to that session thinking my marriage could be saved? No. But if I had been more honest about my feelings I could have suggested attending some Relate sessions long before our separation. I was guilty of living in a dreamy existence in my marriage. I functioned normally, but avoided looking within to ask about my own sense of happiness, peace and fulfilment. For us Relate meant the agreed ending of our marriage, rather than the beginning of an attempt to fix a relationship that had been broken for years. This doesn’t have to be the case for you; if you are struggling in your relationship can you, through Relate, or another support service, contemplate re-building your marriage?

The hour or so we spent at Relate was a brutal experience (although there were worse ones to come). I was full of fear. I felt like a tiny spider waiting for a giant to come along and squash me. There wasn’t a specific event or outcome I was fearful of. Never being the type of person to encourage discord or conflict in my life, the thought of having to react and respond to someone’s anger, which I had been responsible for, felt frightening. I’m not sure I had really felt raw fear before this. After settling down from my passionate student days I had slid into the persona of peacekeeper, and being an introverted extrovert. I relied on compromise, not contradiction, to keep the peace.

Yet I also felt a sense of suppressed hilarity about what I was doing – going to speak with a stranger about the failure of my marriage. Both of us were invited to state why we were there. My husband wanted to try and save the marriage. I stated that I wanted him to accept that I didn’t love him anymore. As I said those words, in front of that stranger in a bare and sterile room, I was disgusted with myself. Guilt, betrayal, abandonment, failure, sadness and confusion were all entwined into the delivery of that short sentence. It felt like I was driving a stake through the heart of the person I had chosen to marry, and to be the father of my children. A short collection of words that changed the courses of our lives forever.

The power of those words was immense: my husband finally accepted what I had been trying to tell him for weeks. The session ended quite abruptly after that; as he said, what was the point of saying anymore? What was happening to us could no longer be avoided. The drive back home drove my fear deeper into me, until it became a pulse in every cell in my body. I felt like I was in a moving last-chance saloon, where every bend or turn could have been my last.

I completely understood that my husband felt angry, and over a few miles of motorway the love he had been fighting for morphed into hate. I could see it, feel it, and even smell it between us – yet I couldn’t blame him. The greater part of me didn’t mind accepting all the blame for the end of our relationship. It would take at least two years before life, and my emotions, settled enough to be able to take a side step and look back and not feel compelled to accept total blame and responsibility for the breakdown of a relationship between two people. Getting to that state was a long way off though.

Chapter 3

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” J.K. Rowling

The weekend of our Relate session the girls and I didn’t stay at home. I went straight from the session to pick them up from a friends and tried to carry on as normal. They still didn’t know at this stage what was happening. Every ounce of energy was drawn on to get through those days. I focused on carrying on their routines, whilst fear continued to pulsate through me. I still had no idea at this stage what was going to happen to us. After two nights away we had to go home; hiding in someone else’s house couldn’t last.

We returned and everything was different. Overnight I became a liar, a thief, and a deceiver. I was blamed for everything that had gone wrong between us. Only I was responsible for the decline of the marriage.

Life then changed very dramatically as our marriage officially ended and grief took over our lives. The credit card was stopped so I couldn’t pay for anything, including groceries. Our meagre savings were moved into my husband’s account. Our house was put on the market. One month short of our tenth wedding anniversary, and all access to my husband’s wage was stopped, meaning the three girls and I had £188 per month (their child benefit) to live on. Over just a few days I went into brain shock, followed by body shock.

As separation progressed into divorce I responded like a four handed tennis player – whatever was thrown at me I batted back, whether it was the right thing to do or not. Carrying on, regardless of exhaustion and anxiety, to ensure the children’s life was not destroyed, was my only goal. Caffeine fuelled the desperately long days. For months I was unable to bring any focus on myself, and my own emotional, physical and spiritual health.

My friends kept reassuring me that we would be OK, and that constant hand-holding propped me up. I could be crying on the school playground but there was always someone to turn to, to talk through my fears. By now I was well into what is comically known as the ‘divorce diet’. My stress levels were high, and I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep. It was like I was trying to thread myself through the eye of a needle.

The night of our Relate appointment also saw me leave our marital bed forever, and it is one of my most potent and saddest memories of my life. I was looking after the children, our house was being sold and, with my youngest not yet at school, I was only working a little. I was beginning to fear how I would be able to support the girls on my own.

Grief and fear took over me, yet there were hidden blessings in my daily life. I moved into my middle daughter’s bedroom and for a few months it became an emotional sanctuary. It was during the next few months, then years, that my children truly bought home to me how loved I was. It seems bizarre for an adult of 40 years of age to be able to say that they finally knew what it felt like to be loved – unconditionally.

My friend Mel created a spreadsheet for me with all my possible outgoings and incomings, just to show me that I was going to be able to support the children. We sat together and worked through the financial implications of living on my wage – we worked out exactly what I would need to earn to meet the bills.

Self-help books also were a salvation. With no one to talk to about the divorce books gave me the power to find my way through the lows. Well aware of the universal law of attraction, I didn’t need anyone to tell me if I carried on fuelled by fear, my life would disintegrate completely. I had read books like The Secret, Ruling Your World, The Power of Now, and Learning to Love Yourself, and I knew that the more negative emotions that my mind clinged to, the more of this type of energy I would bring into my life. So I began to retreat to bed as early as I could and read more, reminding myself that the power to survive the experience I was living through would only come from within myself. As Wayne Dyer says, I knew I had to: “Be open to everything and attached to nothing.”

My running took a drastic downturn – I just didn’t have the energy to get to my club training sessions like I was used to – but it didn’t stop. I stopped entering races, as there were so many distractions to pull me away from my sport. As my self-esteem was knocked out of me, the miles I travelled on the roads dropped, and the time it took me to complete them got longer.

Anyone who has run for a significant period of their lives knows that their running becomes a metaphor for how they feel in life. Unsurprisingly, as my weight dropped, I took on sole responsibility for the children, and my focus switched to progressing our separation, running didn’t just go on the back-burner; it got thrown out with the potato peelings onto the compost heap at the bottom of the garden. I still tried to build some gentle runs into my week, and they became crucial in helping me release the stress I was experiencing. But I didn’t know if I would ever want to be a competitive runner again.

Chapter 4

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Nora Ephron

My running suffered as grief had taken root, in body and soul. She was not alone though. Anxiety and guilt accompanied her. Quite a vast collection of negative feelings had been slowly accumulating inside me. I had made the decision to allow them to prosper, and had become emotionally toxic. Like many, as a child I had not been encouraged to freely express authentic emotional responses in difficult situations. Growing up the 70s, my parents’ generation, and theirs before them, had deferred to a pattern of suppressing difficult emotions. If you were unhappy about something at home, the consequences of expressing this stopped you doing so. Fear again; it planted its seeds very early in my life.

My parents loved us, but I can’t remember them providing an atmosphere that promoted the development of our self-worth. They were suffering their own pain as they navigated their divorce – and were under pressure from both their families to stay together, whether they wanted to or not. What young child can frame the words to talk to their parents about their own anxiety, grief or pain? A child’s world is a selfish one: you only focus on your own pain. I suffered from deep feelings of loss and inadequacy as a child, teenager and young adult, but was unable to share this.

Many people, who grow up in troubled homes, adopt this denial lifestyle, where you deny your true feelings, and your truth; this becomes your emotional history. Whether it is a consequence of living in a household overshadowed by addiction, dependency or loss the end results are often the same: low feelings of self-worth. Experts tell us common statements of a distorted reality are “Things aren’t that bad,” and “I’ll be all right if only…” These had been two of my internal responses to most/many issues that had come up in our marriage.

When I could no longer avoid conflict by avoiding the problem we faced, fear, which I believe stretched back into my early childhood, flooded back into me. It overtook me. Just as I had been fearful of standing up to my mum as a child, I was fearful of doing the same to my husband. What was behind this fear? Probably anger; firstly, a naïve childish anger that life didn’t unfold the way I wanted it to, then a subtler, unconscious and selfish anger that my husband hadn’t been everything I needed him to be. I still hadn’t completely grasped that only I could provide everything in life that I needed for my own happiness.

Being able to express anger is completely natural and essential to your mental well-being. I could never tell the people who counted that I was angry – about anything! It is still something I find almost impossible: for fear it will make me unlovable. My role-modelling consisted of two parents who were both twins. Both sets of twins had fallen out with their sibling, and neither of my parents talked to their twins for at least the last 30 years of their lives. Speaking my truth to loved ones, I feared, could lead to dire consequences: complete ostracising from their lives.

Maybe the issue goes deeper than being a product of a troubled upbringing. Being a female/wife/mother also leads many of us, when faced with situations or behaviours that we find inappropriate, to respond by making the most of what we are facing, rather than challenging it. I had a rebound reaction to difficulties: I got through them, whether I wanted to or not, believing that things would get better. It was an entrenched belief; one I know my grandmother would have been proud of. That’s what women do.

Suddenly going for a run became my therapy; it was almost a meditative practice when I could face my fears by looking at the deeper feelings behind them. As I ran I would mentally list my negative feelings, and, without apportioning blame acknowledge them. This process was invaluable as through the process of running I began to accept how I felt and let go of my negative self-talk. I wouldn’t just feel better physically when I got home; it was as if each run would free me to allow more positive and creative feelings and energy to flow into my body. Each step of a run helped me feel stronger. This became my salvation as the divorce became more and more complicated.

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