How Running Saves Your Soul: Part 2: Running Through Burnout

(Ain't it always how these things go?  The very day that you come up with a good idea for a blog series, and NPR profiles some guy who's releasing a much better book on the topic, stealing your thunder.  I'm excited to read it.)

I don't know what the first thing people think when I say, as a former minister, that I quit the church.  I'm guessing a lot of people think that I must have lost faith, but in fact that's not really what precipitated my departure.  What actually happened was that I burned out.  While burnout isn't a genuine psychiatric DSM-IV diagnosis, it is in fact an actual thing that sucks - it usually relates to work, and it happens when you push yourself too hard for too long.  I like Wikipedia's description of it as a type of emotional exhaustion caused by "long hours, little down time, and continual peer, customer, and superior surveillance".  My experience working for the church included all of those things - long hours at work, and working from home, a sense that I was never off the job, and a number of ways in which I was constantly under supervision.  When I made the decision to quit, I was working two jobs with a total of 4 supervisors (and literally dozens of people who I was accountable to on various boards and committees), in school taking two Masters level classes, and in an ordination process in which I was regularly evaluated by a large and sometimes amorphous group of people in the church, lay and ordained.  One overwhelming sense I had was that I needed to get out so people would leave me alone and so I could do anything that wasn't related to church.  Now, when I think about church, I don't think so much of 'that place that I don't believe in anymore', as of 'that place where I had too much freaking responsibility and not enough support'.  The best analogy for how I feel about it: it's similar to the way I feel about gin, after that time in Hawaii when Angel and I tried unsuccessfully to finish off all of our friends' half bottles before we went home.  Spaghetti, passion fruit and gin flavored puke!

If you read the Wikipedia article, you'll know that the burnout cycle eventually leads a lot of people into depression, and I'm pretty sure I was there: sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, anger, worry, guilt, hurt, bitterness, irritability.  I don't think I had a chemical imbalance, but I probably could have talked some doctor into giving me some Prozac or something during that time period.  It's not hyperbole to say I consistently felt like shit for about a year during the process of leaving - partly from the job stress, and partly from the consequences of leaving.  At one level, it wasn't that different from any career change - you have to give up on one path and either try to parlay your skills into a different field or retrain entirely.  But when you work for the church, your coworkers and peers are also your friends - for me, pretty much my entire social circle.  Quitting my jobs meant losing income sources and a lot of professional connections, but quitting the church as a whole meant  alienating almost all of my social connections as well - sometimes by my own choice, and sometimes not.

Life sucked.  I was depressed all the time.  I didn't know what I was going to do next.  I think that pretty much everyone goes through periods that feel like that, and I think that's why my experience with running is universal enough to be interesting.

Running as Progress in Life

Somewhere around two or three weeks after I quit one of my jobs, quit school, left the ordination process, and decided I was going to leave church, on New Years Day in 2010, Angel and I decided to start exercising while we were watching the Ironman championships on TV.  That is, of course, an enormously cliche thing to commit to on New Years, but it worked for us.  We downloaded a Sprint Triathlon training program, started it the second week of January with a 12 minute run, and trained religiously for five months (including running circles on the deck of a cruise ship and doing laps in the Pacific in Cabo San Lucas on our 30th birthday vacation) until our first Tri - a small event at Moses Lake in May.  From there we gradually bumped up our running mileage (and bumped back our biking and swimming) to run our first half marathon in November, and our first full marathon in March, about 15 months after we decided to stop being sedentary.  The progression kept going, we ran three more marathons that year, finished our first ultra in April 2012, and have now done ultra distances in training and races somewhere around 7 - 8 times, with our longest run being 50 miles, and three more ultras on the calendar for the year.

Until we were training for our half marathon, I never went on a run that I actually enjoyed - it was mostly just pain and discomfort.  I think the main reason I was able to stick it out through that early period was that the process of training represented something I needed in life, which was positive progress.  At a time when my personal and professional lives felt like a huge mess, running was a way that I could feel like my physical health, at least, was moving in a more positive direction than it had been - it was a way to take control of one area of my life in order to reassure myself that I could take control of other areas.  The pain and struggle of starting to run yielded quick and concrete results - as long as I did my training, I could run further one week then I'd been able to the last, and it only took a month or so before I was running over 5k on a regular basis, which was more than I ever had before.  The Tri, and then each week of completed training and successively longer distance, felt like significant achievements, and steps up the rungs of a ladder I hadn't previously thought I could climb.  I ran the half-marathon 20 minutes faster than my goal time, which was a significant milestone, and the first time that I started to think of myself as a runner.  I'd always thought the marathon distance was both unnecessarily painful and physically out of reach, but after the half Angel and I decided to go for it.  It was in fact painful, as first marathons are supposed to be, but completing it felt like realizing that I could do pretty much whatever I decided to.

The life events that my early training paralleled were notable.  While we were training for our first Tri, I was also spending a half-year finishing up my commitments at my last church job and processing whether or not I really was going to leave.  I talked to Angel about switching careers into nursing early in the process ("I don't know why you didn't do that a long time ago."), and I started a Nursing Assistant Program shortly before we completed our Tri.  Our second Tri came shortly after I finished up at the church, and a week after starting a new job at Children's as a Pediatric Mental Health Specialist, my first job in the new field.  Our Half came midway through my completion of the prerequisite classes to apply to nursing school, and we completed our marathon shortly before finding out that I had been accepted to UW's School of Nursing.  Even at the time, I could feel the metaphorical significance of it all.  I remember long runs (at the time probably 8 - 10 miles) where I would think about walking or quitting, and would respond with an instinctual "Fuck that!  I'm going to make it through this," where I would be thinking not just about running, but about all of the other crap I was going through.  I finished my second marathon in September, hitting my goal time the weekend before orientation started at UW, and in retrospect I feel like that marked the completion of that round of therapy.  After that, running has started to take on a different significance.

I'll talk about that changing significance, but before that I'll talk a bit about another part of the role that running was playing while life was shitty.  Psychiatric treatment usually involves both therapy and medication, and I think running functioned a bit like both.  If the metaphorical experience of progress was the therapy, endocannabinoids, or endorphins, or whatever chemicals that exercise produces, were the meds. 

Up Next: Running as Self-Medication