Discovering Dysthymia: A Mental Health Journey (Guest Post with Melanie Brender)

I met Melanie Brender when raced together on a team for Michigan at the Mideast Cross Country Championships at the end of our senior cross country seasons. Melanie and I stayed connected over social media ever since, and when I began posting for this blog, she was extremely supportive the entire way.

Melanie has had her own share of mental health struggles after competing for Michigan State University and then as a professional runner for the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project, and wanted to be more transparent lately with the hope of helping others. I was excited to have her share her mental health experience here about her struggle with Dysthymia. Thank you Melanie for your support of the Running in Silence endeavors, and for your own vulnerability to reach others!

“You have dysthymia,” my therapist explained from an overstuffed armchair. “With depressive episodes. It’s like the winter blues all year long.”

“Dysthymia,” I repeated. I knew this condition had a name, but I thought it was called Laziness, Weakness, or Unwarranted Misery. Invalidity. Childishness. Not Trying Hard Enough.

I thought it was a refrigerator full of uneaten food, rotting from negligence. Or a failed professional running career. Or my red puffy face in the mirror whispering back, “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.”

Dysthymia.

This explained the feelings and moods I had since middle school. It explained why, after moving to Greensboro, NC for a new job, there were weekdays I had trouble leaving the office. On weekends, I rarely left my apartment.

The new job in a new city was supposed to represent hope and renewal after my professional running career ended. I competed for the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project for three years. While sidelined with an injury, I found myself glued to marketing webinars and began resurrecting social media content for the team.

When my passion was put on hold as I recuperated from injury, I found something new to be excited about. My marketing career was supposed to take off in Greensboro. But while I was growing professionally, my mental health continued to deteriorate.

Dysthymia.

Now that the condition had a name, I could address it. And then I took the Rachael Steil approach – I blogged about it.

Rachael (left) and I (middle) first met at a cross country championship in high school.

Inspiration from a Friend

I remember when Rachael first blogged about her eating disorder. She created a community with those posts. That community launched a movement, the book Running in Silence, and a non-profit for eating disorder recovery.

Only two weeks have gone by since I learned the term dysthymia. And only three weeks have gone by since my Dad drove down to Greensboro, NC to help me move home. I left my job and new friends. We packed up my life in two cars, sold most of the furniture, and drove back to Michigan.

I have no idea what’s next. But I do know I’m not alone in these struggles. For those who need to hear it:

You are worth it.

Your mind and body are worth nourishing.

I’m glad you’re here.

Sending love from the top of Mt. Mitchell.

3 Guidelines for Navigating a Loved One’s Mental Illness

For our friends and family: Thank you so much for valuing us as we are. If someone you love is struggling with depression, dysthymia, anxiety, or similar mental illnesses, here are three helpful guidelines*:

1.     Anticipate static.

These mental illnesses can make simple tasks feel like Mt. Everest. Responding to a text message feels like breathing at 10,000 feet – labored and dizzying. You may have invited us to dinner, called to check in, or sent a message on social media. No response. Or maybe an answer took weeks to receive.

I promise, we know you reached out. We love that you reached out, and we’ll remember it. Our unresponsiveness does not reflect our appreciation for you. We may seem aloof, but we’re thankful you care.

2.     Ask about mental load.

Some days are better than others. And some days are so dark, we’re just one Jenga block away from structural collapse. A simple “How are you feeling?” can go a long way. This is especially important to ask before sharing bad news.

3.     Let’s talk diabetes.

The way we talk about mental illness is radically different from the way we talk about other health issues. Let a loved one know he or she can talk to you about mental health the way we’d talk about any other persisting health issues, like diabetes or asthma.

Tone is key here. Avoid a hushed or alarmed manner of speaking. Treat mental health conversations like any other “How are you doing?” discussion. Keep the lines of communication calm and open.

~

*These guidelines are based off of my own experiences and conversations with others navigating mental illness. When in doubt, reach out to a mental health professional for superior advice.

Melanie spent three years competing under the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project. She writes for the Running’s Hard blog and sporadically posts reflections on Instagram. Follow her @melbrender.


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