Running away from Depression—and Toward Life

Paula and Dan: Before and After.

As I hit Costco last Friday morning--seriously, that place is never not busy, especially this time of year—I remembered meeting Paula there a few years ago, and I wanted to dig up her post from 2012 because her transformation of body, mind and spirit reminds us all that it's never too late to make a change.

This August, I was doing a Sunday morning run at Costco and was recognized in the produce section. The woman was wearing running clothes and that unmistakable, post-race grin. Turns out, she had just set a PR in a 5K, and had recently become a runner. We had a nice chat about running and how to use up five avocados before they go bad, and we went on our respective ways.

Later, she emailed us to continue the conversation.

I really appreciate your honesty in your blog about your ups and downs, your real-life challenges with “doing it all,” and especially with your depression. I struggle with depression, too. I’ve had more bad years than good years, and it can so totally suck sometimes. When I started running a year ago, and 50 pounds ago, I was on tons of meds. The only time I was happy was when I was in bed sleeping. I found your blog, saw that you try to manage your depression with running, and decided that I wanted to do that, too.

I wanted to hear more—and knew her story would resonate deeply—so I asked her to answer some questions. Warning: It's a long post, but  I didn't want to cut what I feel are important details. (Example A: running can help depression, but it doesn't cure it.)

What I love is she finally decided enough was enough, and she had to make a change--and her change is ricocheting through her daughter. Although it can be hard to believe at times, we all have that power within us. But enough from me: Let's hear from Paula, a badass mother runner if I ever knew one.

Dimity: What prompted you to finally start running? Was it one light bulb moment/comment/thought or were you just sick of yourself? (Sounds harsh, but I think you know what I mean.)
Paula: I started running in August 2011, I was 44. I had hit rock bottom with my health, and I was pretty sick of myself. I was already on many meds and my doctor called me one day and said that some blood work revealed that I had a fatty liver. He wanted me to get some biopsies and go on some more meds. It completely freaked me out. I was sick and tired of feeling like crap all the time. That day, feeling completely desperate, instead of driving to the lab for blood work. I drove to my gym and hired a personal trainer and told him I wanted to start running. That day changed my life.

""I never thought that being a sweaty mess could make me feel so good." Might be the best line ever on another mother runner.

D: Do you remember your first run?
I started running/walking at first, and I hated, hated, hated it. I wanted to be a runner, but didn’t think I could do it. But my trainer believed in me, wouldn’t let me off the hook, and made me run (and so I hated him for a while, too). I gradually increased the minutes, started getting used to it, and finally didn’t hate it as much. I gradually worked up to 45 minutes, and in December ran my very first 5K. That was completely amazing. By then I was hooked.

D: So you felt like a runner then?
P: My most favorite run EVER was Christmas Day, 2011. My husband, Dan, and I decided to go for a run about midday. It was so cold, but we bundled up and headed out. We did a loop that ended up being 5 miles. I was able to do that whole loop without walking. I was shocked and elated. By the time we got home, I could hardly breathe because I was all snotty and teary because I actually ran that whole loop. Finally, I felt like a runner.

D: Beyond depression, what were your health issues you treating with meds, pre-running?
I was on two high doses of antidepressants/anxiety meds. I was on meds for high cholesterol. Earlier in the year I had been treated for Barrett’s esophagus, which is where your esophagus gradually narrows with scar tissues and makes swallowing food very difficult. (It’s generally caused by acid reflux, which I had no idea I had.) I’d had a procedure to take care of it, but was taking meds for that and was told I would have to take them for the rest of my life. Since I’ve changed my eating and lost all this weight ,I’m no longer taking meds for that and have not had any problems.

I’m now off of all the meds except one small one for depression. My cholesterol and blood pressure are totally normal. My liver is normal. My esophagus has healed and is completely normal. I rarely have migraines any more. I’ve lost 60 pounds so I don’t hurt all over any more. It’s amazing.

Paula and Dan at the finish of Denver Rock 'N' Roll Half. Paula has a trail half-marathon lined up for next week, and a marathon in the spring. "Never would've thought I could do this."

D: How do you think running helps your depression?
Running has helped me both physically and mentally. Physically, it’s given me an outlet for dealing with my stress. No matter how crappy I feel before I go running, I always feel better after a run. I never thought that being a sweaty mess could make me feel so good. I have more energy, so I’m more active.

But the mental changes have been the most life changing. Mentally, I’m in a better place than I have been for years and years. I feel better about myself, I believe in myself, and I feel strong. Somewhere along the line of growing up, becoming a mom, working, etc. I kind of lost myself. I had no self confidence and didn’t believe that I could be any different.

But I’ve learned that I can improve myself, I can do hard things and I can be the person that I’ve always wanted to be. It’s been totally empowering. I am strong enough, both physically and mentally, to do whatever I want to do. I’ve never in my life felt strong. But I do now.

Just yesterday I was having a rough day. After work all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and eat potato chips. Then I thought to myself, “don’t think, just GO!” So I pulled on my clothes and shoes and went. I ended up doing a 10-mile loop that I’ve done often. On that loop is a very big hill. I’ve not been able to go all the way up it on any of my runs so far without walking.

Yesterday I told myself that So I (slowly) ran the whole way up. And when I got to the top I turned around and looked down at that big freaking hill and gave myself a big old hoo-rah because of my bad-ass-ness! That pulled me out of my funk and turned my day around. It was awesome!

I still have tough days. For sure. But I try to not let myself panic, because I know that it won’t last. I try to get a run (or a nap) in or a date with my husband. It’s OK to have a bad day, to admit that you’re just not feeling yourself, and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

D: Did you make other changes in your life besides running?
P: I completely changed my diet. I quit eating crap all the time (I still indulge, just in moderation). I work hard to have a good balance of protein and carbs. I learned that my body runs much better if I get enough protein in my diet. The biggest change was with sugar. Even when I thought I was eating healthy, I learned that I was eating way too much sugar in my yogurt, oatmeal, milk, fruit, etc. I switched to almond milk, Greek yogurt, oat bran, and cut sugar anywhere else that I could. I even cut way back on “natural” sugar, like fruit.

I have learned that when I eat crap I feel like crap. When I feel like crap, I eat crap. It can be a pretty vicious circle because I really love junk food and don’t like a lot of vegetables. But it is so worth it when I feed and fuel my body correctly.

D: I know my mood goes south easier in the winter, when the days can be bleak and it’s harder to run. Does that happen to you? And if so, do you have a plan for this winter?
P:  In past winters, I’ve always kind of curled up, both mentally and physically, and just tried to endure the winter. I literally just felt like I closed down. Since I started running I’ve been able to battle that better. I’m not an early morning runner, my favorite time to run is in the afternoon. So, I have some warmer running clothes and plan to keep running in the afternoon after work. (I get home at 3:30 so have plenty of time to run before sunset.) I can always run at the gym, but have promised myself that if the sun is shining and the wind isn’t screaming cold, I will run outside in the afternoon. I need all the sun I can get.

Dimity: What are your running goals for 2013?
I would like to run a couple of half-marathons and a couple of full marathons. I’ve started doing some trail running, so maybe a couple of trail races in there. I’d like to break 2 hours for a half. My best time so far is 2:04. I can beat that.

My youngest daughter is a senior in high school and for her senior project has chosen to train for and run a half-marathon. In preparation for that we are running four 5K’s that lead up to the half-marathon in March. I’m very excited to train and do this with her.

She also struggles with depression, and self doubt, so I can’t wait for her to catch the vision and realize that she is strong enough to do this! Watching her cross the finish line will absolutely be the highlight of my year. It means more to me than any other race I will ever run.

71 responses to “Running away from Depression—and Toward Life

  1. When I first went to therapy three years ago, my therapist prescribed exercise to combat my depression (I was already on 10 other daily pills and wanted to explore my other options before adding another). And it worked and was wonderful! I started with a Couch to 5k program and was training for a half marathon in summer 2015. I’m just in a hard place right now because I strained my hip during the summer, missed my half marathon, and am still not back to running and now it’s winter in Alaska. Walking helps some, but I can’t wait to get back to running.

  2. Paula’s story sure resonates with me! I’ve battled depression pretty much most of my entire adult life and maybe even part of my childhood. I got into a real bad place just last monthand started the Runner’s world Run Streak on top of doing the stride for the holidays. Just getting out a little each day and sweating helped get me out of that really dark space in my head. I am grateful for people who share their own struggles with mental health and how running helps manage that. Awesome post! Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for this article. I so relate. You motivated me to “Just do it!” I used to run religiously for all the reasons you have. I stopped as the short daytime available became my excuse. No more! The runner in me has been re-energized!!

  4. This is my story too! It’s really amazing that there are so many mother runners who struggle(d) with this issue and found solace in running. It really brings the clarity I need some days. Thanks for sharing Dimity and Paula!

  5. This was tremendous to read. Sincere thanks to both Paula and Dimity for their courage and eloquence in talking about this. You’re both inspirational.

  6. What a fantastic story and post all the way around! The ‘don’t think, just GO’ strategy has been my go-to for decades–thanks for the reminder!

  7. Thanks for reposting this….I had not read the first time around. The common theme with so many moms, as with myself, is that they are lost in their responsibilities and running helps them find themselves. I hope that Paula and her husband and daughter are still running.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story, Paula. Like you, I prefer to run in the afternoon. It does take the blue out of winter for me. Wishing you continued good health habits.

  9. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been struggling lately with a lot of anxiety and what may be depression along with GERD from hell and your words rang true on so much of it! Running is keeping me going for sure. Thank you!

  10. Need to read this everyday for inspiration! It is like listening to my inner dialogue.
    Would love to know what kinds of things you found to eat! Share!
    Blog! Let us know!

    Thanks for sharing!!!!

  11. Loved your story Paula! The part regarding your daughter was very touching. Running does so much for us, but the minute it trickles something in those we love, it means so much more to us than any race we have ever done! I can relate as my 5th grade daughter has been a huge fan of my running and now is getting interested in it herself. She just goes outside and may run a mile or two on her own. She is very excited to run the Color Run with me this summer. There can’t be anything better than doing something I LOVE with SOMEONE I LOVE! Again, great story and I think you are on to something with that sweaty mess quote! I would love that on a mother runner shirt!

  12. So glad to read this; my name is Paula too; and I too suffer from Depression, High BP, High Choles and would love to come off of some of my meds. Currently weigh 206; (down from 230) but still have a long way to go (5’4″). Your story is so inspiriational and I will think of you every time I don’t want to run or exercise. Thank you for sharing.

    Paula M.

  13. Thank you for posting this. I can’t even finish reading it because of the tears in my eyes. I’ll try again later. But just knowing that I’m not a freak is such a huge relief.

  14. Wow Paula what a great story. I have also found my depression and anxiety is much easier to handle when running is part of my life. Thank you so much for sharing

  15. Really powerful story – thanks for your honesty Paula. I too suffer from depression. And like you, I have found that forcing myself to run outdoors during the winter and embrace it, rather than hibernating, has really helped me make it through the long, cold months.

  16. Thank you for addressing this issue with your awesome post; it means a lot to know that those of us who deal with depression are not alone.

  17. Paula wonderful testimony, I am your greatest fan and cheerleader.
    You and Dan are truly awesome. If only MD,s would write a script
    for the true cure for depression.

  18. This morning I woke up feeling so depressed. I couldn’t stop from weeping while on the phone with my mother. I kept telling myself, I need to get up and just do my long run. I know I will feel better after that. After reading this post, I’m on my way out the door. Thank you so much!

  19. I am blown away. She looks amazing (as does her husband—what a team!) and has dealt with so many of the same issues many of us have and still deal with. The difference is that we admit it do someone about it. I would love to break 2 hours with her:) My fastest last year was 2:06. Inspiring real woman. Loved every word.

  20. Great post! I, too, struggle with mild depression. Loved your line “it’s ok to have a bad day”. I tend to beat myself up about that, especially when it affects my family. Your last line about your daughter’s race got me choked up. Enjoy every moment of it!!

  21. Awesome post. I have had the worst week, and was debating going on my run yesterday before I read this. This fully inspired me, and this statement: “It’s OK to have a bad day, to admit that you’re just not feeling yourself, and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.” made me stop beating myself up for the bad week and just move on, starting with my run. So – thank you for this post and Paula, thank you for sharing your story.

  22. I can’t seem to find the right words to describe how I felt while reading your post, but I am smiling from ear to ear because it reaches so many and I’m SO happy for you. I too started running when I was 44, and have lost 50 lbs, 20 more to go and after reading your post I feel inspired and strong! Congrats Paula on a beautiful journey to your self and thank you Dimity and Sarah for honoring so many inspiring women, and for always being the bridge that brings me from wondering to doing.

  23. This is a wonderful post–I’m glad you didn’t cut any of it out. I loved the part about her daughter’s half. What a great project! I say, the younger we ladies find running the better.

  24. Wow! This is the first post ive read on this site and what a great one! Judging by what others say- all the other posts I read in the future will have a lot to live up to! Congrats on your amazing success! I too have started to feel empowered from running and I just love it!

  25. Thank you so much for your story. You’re doing an incredible job! I was diagnosed with Barrett’s esophogus a long while back and also found that cutting out junk food cured me. If I’m not careful about avoiding sugary or processed food, the gerd creeps back up. I’m glad it worked for you and I’m so glad it’s helped everything else too. You’re doing amazing!

  26. I am so completely inspired by your story. GREAT JOB! You are just a terrific role model for everyone out there who doesn’t think they can do it. Your story will inspire others to get off the couch and enjoy life!

  27. I am not the daughter she is talking about but Paula Stoddard is my mom and I am so proud of her!!! She has changed into a new happier person over the past year and I am so happy for her. She is such a good influence and inspiration to my sister and I, and everyone she knows! I love you mom!!

  28. I’m so proud of you! I’m on the same journey; it is amazing to feel so healthy after years of being on meds. Keep going!

  29. So encouraging! Thank you, Paula, for being so transparent and to Dimity for the insight which knew how important this post would be for so many. I am so curious about the story behind the skinny dude, Dan, that you are hugging on!? =)

  30. I love that this is talked about. I have never suffered from depression just bad days but running and exercising has always helped me. I love that you discuss this topic that so many women and men shy away from. There are more people than you know out there suffering from depression but won’t talk about it because it might make them look weak. Instead of hiding it we should talk about it and help each other out. Thanks for being so open and sharing you never know who you might help.

  31. Such a great post! Not only are Paula’s accomplishments inspiring but her candor and honesty are as well. The line, “Somewhere along the line of growing up, becoming a mom, working, etc. I kind of lost myself.” also resonated with me. I’ve clung to running since having my son because it allows me to be something more than a mom. Congrats to Paula!

  32. Love it! “Somewhere along the line of growing up, becoming a mom, working, etc. I kind of lost myself.” I think many of us struggle with that. I know I do and it’s a main reason why I’ve changed my lifestyle. Just like Paula, “I’ve learned that I can improve myself, I can do hard things and I can be the person that I’ve always wanted to be. ” Thanks for the post!

  33. Wonderful post. Congratulations to you, Paula, and your husband, Dan, for turning things around for yourselves and your family. Very inspirational. And congrats on the Denver Half. I was there, too! Great run!

  34. Paula, your story is so inspiring! You are a remarkable woman and great role model. Congratulations on your accomplishments and way to go for helping your daughter meet her own ambitious goals.

  35. Thank you for a great post. This time of year is the worst for me, as well. Running helps a lot, but it always seems like there is that little black rain cloud overhead. It’s nice to hear we aren’t alone in this struggle.

  36. Thanks so much for this! It is so powerful because it hits so close to home! and it is comforting to know that we aren’t alone 🙂

  37. wow, just wow. What a great post. Everything you say about the power of running and taking care of ourselves – it’s just so right on. Yes, there can still be rough days but knowing how to stop the slide, that’s the trick. You are an amazing woman, Paula, thanks for sharing your story!

  38. Paula – you are awesome! Promoting exercise for depression and anxiety symptoms is a professional passion of mine and there is a good body of literature and Cochrane review that tells us what you know — that it can lead to a lot of improvement — it is, however, WAY better to it hear from you!

    We continue to need more research in this field, especially for depression in moms. It’s totally on the agenda.

  39. Totally relatable post. Thank you. Lots to be proud of. I’m also excited for your daughter’s half marathon. What a great goal for a high school senior! I, too, am curious about how to use 5 avocados… 🙂

  40. Exactly how I feel, too.
    Now just tell us how you guys use up 5 avacados before they go bad. I have been known to peel and de-pit and then freeze them to use them in my smoothies. Any other ideas?

  41. This is one of the best AMR posts. Congrats Paula on turning not only yourself but your family around. You are a great inspiration for the rest of us mother runners who battle depression.

  42. Paula, you have spoken for so many thousands of us out here! Congratulations, and especially, well done for “infecting” your daughter.

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