Wednesday 13 November 2019

How running helped me conquer my Seasonal Affective Disorder

Every winter, event manager Marty Mulligan's mood dropped when seasonal affective disorder set in until his good friend Bressie encouraged him to take up running

Marty Mulligan is able to pound away his problems on a run. Photo: James Flynn.
Marty Mulligan is able to pound away his problems on a run. Photo: James Flynn.

Vicki Notaro

One of the greatest stigmas surrounding mental health is the reluctance to talk about how you're feeling for fear of being labelled a certain way. For Marty Mulligan (53) from Westmeath, it was an unlikely person that inspired him to both share his feelings, and recommended a source of solace.

"Bressie and I go back years," explains Marty. "We've been friends since he was first starting out doing gigs; we know each other from Mullingar.

"A couple of years ago, we were in the pub. We met for a couple of pints every so often. He asked me how I was and I said 'ah man, winter is coming... my head is kind of wrecked'. Because I've found winter difficult for whatever reason - SAD is what they call it."

Marty had been experiencing a mix of depression and anxiety, something he couldn't quite describe but that worsened in the winter months.

Marty lived with classic symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression made worse in the dark, cold season when natural light is low. He says he suffered from low mood, lethargy and negative thoughts.

"It was particularly bad in the run up to Christmas. I know that being a divorced father-of-one would have played a big part in this, as it's never the same after [a marriage ends].

"The days being shorter and nights longer definitely did not help to shift the dark mood. Over previous winters up until a couple of years ago, I would have taken a prescribed anti-depressant, but I always stopped taking them in spring time once I started to feel better."

It was nearly two years ago that he and Bressie met for that pint. "I'd had a change of doctor, and felt I was being handed a prescription rather than helping me figure out exactly what I was going through, so I ended up on no medication for a period. I really struggled that year."

That is, he says, until he "came out" about his depression.

"Bressie told me all about the big anxiety attack he'd had minutes before going on live television a while before. We were kind of sitting in the back of the pub, hiding to talk about it, and we both admitted we were sick of not being able to talk about how we felt. Bressie told me he was going to talk about it publicly.

"I told him to be careful - he was a pop star with a beautiful girlfriend, people might not understand and might give him grief. But he's such a genuine lad, he just said he didn't care - we need to discuss this stuff."

After this, Marty came to the realisation that there might be other ways to cope with his illness, because he felt a lot better having spoken about it. One of the things that now works for him is running.

"Call it what you will, but when the dark nights come in, I definitely have less energy. Last year, Bressie recommended I try running because it's something that's benefited him. So I got some runners and gave it a go. I'd never tried it before, and I never thought I was a runner, but I really liked it."

For Marty, jogging has proved beneficial to body and soul. "It does a lot for me. It makes me get up out of bed in the morning at three minutes to eight in order to train. It allows me to run and look at a beautiful part of the country, all the gorgeous trees. It makes me feel good, pumped and ready for the day. And it means I look forward to the next run. Last year was the best winter I've ever had."

Marty runs by himself, and enjoys the pace of a 5K. "If I have a negative thought, I seem to be able to pound it out through running, so the winter blues have less of an effect. I run most days, by myself, but sometimes with other people. Anyone I know that's taken it up loves it.

"I use the training programme on, it's brilliant. And running keeps me in a positive space, not just in the moment you're doing it, but for the rest of the day."

He credits the fresh air with lifting his spirits. "I realised that running, social interaction, eating better, and being able to talk to other people about my feelings could help, and the combination of all these things has definitely improved my quality of life. Key to it was being able to talk, and I suppose to find comfort in the empathy and understanding of friends, family and absolute strangers."

His new-found love of running means Marty no longer relies on medication to lift his spirits. "I've managed to do without it, where I would have taken it before. I'm feeling better, looking better and I look in the mirror and know that I'm doing something good."

And running has had an impact on Marty's whole life - he's moving toward a healthier lifestyle on the whole and has introduced kale salads in to his diet.

Since their meeting in the pub that night, both Bressie and Marty have been on a roll when it comes to drawing positive attention to the arena of mental health. An event manager and festival producer, it's Marty that got Bressie involved with speaking in the Mindfield area of Electric Picnic on the subject of anxiety and depression, something Marty thinks is really helpful.

"I was nervous about him doing it. I was there on stage with him, and I don't normally get nervous because I'm a spoken-word artist, but I was anxious about this. Still, we were determined to make it easier for men to sit around and talk about how they're feeling. So we sat there and talked openly.

"Bressie always says he's not going to generalise; he talks about himself and what works for him."

Next up for Marty is the Cork Airport Runway 5k. "I'm really looking forward to the night time run because it's on an airport runway, with lots of people - that's not something you get to do every day.

"The last run in the Phoenix Park, I was nervous but there was such a buzz. I'd never done anything like it in my life, and I did 5K in 28 minutes. The time didn't really matter, but being part of the whole event was special because it's all about people helping each other out."

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