How I Discovered Exercise Was Not My Cure for Mental Illness


It was no later than 6 a.m. as I swerved my bicycle down a car-lined lane way. I was nervous and overly cautious about the tight space; my limbs trembled and my veins pulsed. I veered to the right and toppled into the side of a parked car, while a pedestrian watched nearby. I felt like my insides were going to drop out of my body. Humiliated, I picked up my bike and continued on my way to my 12-hour shift at the care home.

I did this daily — not always crashing into parked cars, but sometimes driving down the wrong side of the road with glazed-over eyes, aggravating the impatient British traffic.

I was ill and I convinced myself that my morning bike ride was contributing to a healthy routine that would absolve me of my violent, nightly panic attacks and the debilitating anxiety and the heavy depression that grated on me during the day. To push myself meant I was progressing and I so desperately wanted to progress. I craved my ambitious idea of a “functional” life in which I could sustain a 40-hour work week, be in perfect health and still create a life for myself creatively. I craved it so badly, in fact, that I was willing to pretend it already existed.

I had moved to the UK to live with my partner in November, and by May I had come off my long-term, tried and true psychiatric medications on my own accord. I was convinced I was destined to heal myself naturally, and I was proud of this self-proclaimed accomplishment. For a month or so I thrived with the same stability I had experienced on meds plus a bonus spike in energy.

When things started spiraling downward, they did so quickly; about a month or so and it came to a head. I was still in denial about the very obvious correlation between stopping meds and feeling like shit. It is hard to comprehend how I could be so blind, but I couldn’t see my transition as anything but positive. The desire to be medication free was so fierce but I knew I needed help. I didn’t have a psychiatrist in the UK so I quickly opted to see a local GP.

I visited this doctor in a fit of tears and he seemed unsure of how to handle the mess that had just entered his office. I did my best to explain myself, but he had never met me before and I wasn’t exactly expressing myself articulately. He nodded a whole lot and prescribed me a low dose antidepressant and he told me I needed to exercise.

Exercise, he told me, was the key to fighting depression and anxiety.

I had known this before, of course. It is common knowledge, really, that diet and exercise can impact mental health. Somehow, in the midst of my vulnerability, I invested absolutely everything into this fragment of what he was suggesting. The optimist in me accepted his dismissive tone. All of this was minor — exercise would do the trick. After years of battling intense emotion, through hospitalizations and suicidal tendencies, the notion I could take this all away with some physical activity became a pillar in my ideation. I was infatuated with the idea of a healthy lifestyle curing my ills.

It soon becomes apparent how difficult it is to sustain a “healthy lifestyle” when you are hopelessly depressed and skimping on your meds. I crashed, ghosting my job and confusing the people close to me. I ended up having to return to Canada to live with my parents. Thankfully, during the next few encounters I had with professionals, I was able to get a more realistic and much safer plan put in place. It is incredibly problematic to expect someone who is ill to have the capability to look out for their own best interests, especially in the form of a “healthy diet and exercise plan.” Mental health resources are already structured enough around “self-help;” we are all so burnt out.

Our society praises people who survive their pain unmedicated. From childbirth to mental illness, the struggle itself is fraught with expectations. I bought into this completely and still to this day, I have moments where I feel like a lesser person for being medicated. I still find exercise helpful, but certainly not as a substitute for the medications I take every evening before bed. I am still struggling but I am far more conscious, careful and pragmatic about my treatment, and I never ever ride my bike while impaired by my mind.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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Thinkstock photo via m-gucci


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