I work with a lot of athletes. I always thought it was just about helping people improve their training and racing. But it’s been so much more than that. It’s greater than just training plans and chasing improvements.
I get to connect with people. I get to learn. And I grow as an individual. A human.
No week or no plan is ever the same. And the challenges roll in week on week for both athlete and coach.
I care a lot about what I do, and the athletes I work with. Sometimes I have a good feel for what makes someone tick. I get close. Other times I’m there just to provide a service. The connection is always different. We talk about connection a lot these days, but in this hyper-speed world we live in, we often don’t take the time to really try. To really listen. Or to open up and communicate. We can always do more.
Sometimes I miss the signs. I don’t see what’s in front of me, or it’s been well hidden. And I know only after the event or when the distress is finally shared. But if running, racing and coaching has taught me anything, it’s that you need to be honest about situations and take whatever steps you can to make improvements. You need to talk. You need to listen. As a direct result of this project, I’ll certainly listen more intently and I’ll try to create an environment where people feel comfortable to talk and to share.
The main reason for attempting the Out & Back Pyllon Endeavour challenge was to start having conversations about opening up. About talking to people when things aren’t great. And listening when someone needs to be heard. We hope that more people will understand that it’s ok to ask for help. It’s ok, not to be ok.
Gayle Tait, an athlete I’ve worked with for some time, kindly agreed to answer a few questions about some of the challenges she has faced over the years. This is never an easy thing to talk about, but to me, it speaks volumes about the person that she is. I’m lucky to know her and I’m grateful for the person that she is.
Q. Gayle, I know you’ve had periods of mental ill health for some time. Can you tell us about that?
I certainly had ‘issues’ whilst at University and I remember times of feeling very down and having dark thoughts, which I never acted upon, despite coming close a couple of times. But at that time (I graduated 20 years ago!), depression wasn’t spoken about as much as it is now and I just attributed it to the pressures of study. Over the years, I’ve had challenges along the way and had some help from the Dr with that. But in 2014 and 2015 things reached a different level and I needed a higher level of intervention from the Dr as I reached a stage where I simply wasn’t able to function properly on a day to day basis anymore. I understand the personal triggers for that now, although I didn’t at the time. That help has continued in various guises since, and I’ve faced some very tough moments with depression and anxiety since then.
Q. It feels like one of the biggest challenges is realising that you do have a problem and that you need help. How did you get to that point? And what did you do?
I realised things had reached a new level at a certain point in 2015 when there was a period of time when I stopped being able to function on a day to day basis. Whilst I’d struggled on and off for a number of years, it is possible to suffer from depression and anxiety and go about your daily business of raising a family and holding down a job - as difficult as that may be at times. It’s also not a good approach and I should have sought more rigorous help sooner. Sometimes, maintaining ‘life’ is just too much, and the ‘mask’ of ‘normality’ slips. I had a period of time in 2015 when I could barely get out of bed and the ‘low’ felt like rock bottom. I contacted the Dr and perhaps for the first time, was completely honest about exactly how I felt and what I wanted to do about it. That triggered the process of more detailed help and led to a long period of NHS Psychological Services input, following a spell with a Community Psychiatric Nurse.
Q. And how do you think people get to that point of realisation quicker, rather than suffer alone for a long time, trying to just get through it, or worse?
Depression isn’t just sadness. It’s not just a difficulty coping with the trickier life events that we all go through. Life events can certainly be a trigger for an episode of more serious depression and an inability to cope with these, at all. For me, it’s a sliding scale. Sometimes, at the least painful level, it’s carrying on with day to day life in a functional way, all the while thinking that there’s no point in anything - like walking around with an air of pointlessness to your whole existence and wanting to retreat from it all. Sadness at this end of the scale invades many things, but I can usually work through that to maintain an air of ‘normal’ and actually have moments of happiness and enthusiasm. Even at this end of the scale though, the simplest tasks can at times seem impossible to manage and withdrawing from seeing people is sometimes easier than having to interact. However, I often DO interact with people when I feel like this and I can seem completely ‘normal’ and happy and outgoing - even if that’s not how I feel inside. It can be exhausting. I’ve successfully carried out day to day life for significant periods at this end of the scale. On the next stage of the scale, for me, it’s managing day to day life at the very minimum that I can get away with. And at the next stage, it’s far more serious and a very severe state of emotional paralysis descends where you want the world to stop. And that’s when things get dangerous.
So, I think people should be aware and look for the signs of that first stage - when you feel perhaps a numbness, lack of interest in things you enjoyed previously and perhaps a feeling of pointlessness and a constant air of sadness. It’s important to talk to someone when you feel like that, before things descend down the sliding scale! Clearly, this is how I can best explain my personal experience - it can vary greatly for different people. One thing is for sure -sharing experiences is crucial. Don’t ever be ashamed of feeling that your ‘issue’ doesn’t warrant input. I have gone from the early stages of my ‘scale’ to the very worst end of it within a few days - seek help early, even if it’s chatting to good friends.
Q. Does it ever go away?
I’m not sure. I have times , yes, where I’m doing great and I thrive. But I think I’ve learned the hard way that taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health and has to be given the same care and attention as we are perhaps more inclined to give our bodies.
Q. And what can you do to try to manage it and be more aware of the signs that it’s not just a “bad day”?
I think this goes back to my sliding scale above - if it starts to pervade your life in a day to day way and you feel like you’re not getting past the “bad day” quite quickly, then it’s time to talk to someone.
Q. And this isn’t always about the individual - how did those around you help? And what should caring others do to help or support? What should they look out for?
I’ve had a lot of help from a number of people in my life. The problem is that I have a tendency to try to shut people out and say that everything is fine, even when it’s not. I’m getting better at not doing that as it’s brought some issues! If people are looking to help friends or family that they think may be struggling - sometimes it can take a little bit of pushiness to be let in! Don’t be afraid to question and rigorously stay in touch - even at the risk of being a pain in the neck to the person you’re trying to help! I have a few particular people in my life now who perform this role - sometimes I want them to leave me alone - but they persist, and don’t. And actually, one of those people saved my life by being switched on and insistent! So, I think just looking out for signs of change in how someone is - even if they say they’re ‘fine’...sometimes a bit of insistence discovers that they’re not!
Q. Running is a big part of your life, and you train for and race quite extreme distances by most people’s standards. How has that helped you?
Running is absolutely central to good mental health for me. It’s hard to express just how important running and exercise is to keeping me in a good place. Sometimes I love the solitude that running long distances on my own brings - it provides time to process what goes on in my mind and sometimes make sense of things! Racing long distances for me, is like the icing on the cake - it’s a way to test the hard work that you put into training. But for me, training, will always be the crucial part - it’s that day to day routine in the outdoors which helps me. I can genuinely say I’ve never felt mentally worse for going for a run - it always helps me, even if getting out the door is difficult sometimes. That’s where training with a coach has helped me - accountability, routine and consistency!
Q. You’ve had a very difficult time recently, and you clearly needed help to find a better balance. How can you (and how have you) change(d) things in your life to achieve that balance?
In early October this year I very quickly descended on that sliding scale I speak of above. I reached a state of emotional paralysis within the space of a few days and as a result, made an attempt on my life. Nothing mattered anymore, and that is not a nice place to go to when you have two children whom you love dearly. I am still working with a counsellor and accepting that I will probably always need help. I think that’s the biggest change for me - acceptance. I was in a good place at various points this year and I became lazy and complacent and thought I was ‘better’, and I stopped paying attention to warning signs of how I was really feeling. That, coupled with a series of difficult life events, meant I was able to quickly descend to a difficult and dangerous place. I now accept that this is something I need to pay attention to and commit the same enthusiasm to my mental well being as I do to keeping my body well for running!
Q. What’s next for Gayle - 2019 and beyond?
I’ve been diagnosed with an irreversible condition in my knee so I’m working on preventing that from getting any worse, to allow me to run for many years to come. That’s my immediate priority, with a view to being back on top form for next year! I’m hoping I’ll be on the start line for the UTMB in 2019. I adore the Alps and running there feels like nirvana! My race goals for the first half of the year have still to be discussed with my coach! Other than that, regularly running trails and mountains will keep me on the right track with regard to my mental health!
Q. Finally - one piece of advice you’d like to share that may have helped you many years ago?
It’s something I’ve pretty much outlined above - be honest and open about how you feel and try not to withdraw from support when it’s offered - don’t wait for the descent to a difficult place that’s much harder to emerge from.
And will you be tracking the team on the 16th?
I’ll be tracking AND out on the trail shouting support during Friday night and Saturday morning!
Our 192-mile Pyllon Endeavour starts 16 November at 4pm
Get involved, by tracking us online, supporting us on the day, and / or by making a donation to SAMH. We’ve already reached our initial fund raising target, but we never expected so much support this early, so please help us reach over 200%!