My Health Experience: Running on road to recovery

A counsellor’s common-sense approach meant it was easier to identify things that were causing stress

Gavin Macarthur, trail running near Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

Gavin Macarthur, trail running near Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly


I was put on strong anti-depressants in 1998 when I was in my mid-20s and I went from 12 stone to 19 stone in seven months. I was not drinking at all during this period. I was eating normally. The drugs affected my metabolism and slowed down my body clock.

It was as if I was sleep walking. I had gone to a GP looking for help and I was prescribed drugs, with zero supervision. There was no other remedial action taken. Coming off the drugs was a horrible experience. I have struggled with my weight since.

Even when I came off the medication, it was a constant struggle to stay below 17½ stone. At one stage I swam and played a lot of rugby and I managed to get down to 15 stone. I am about 5ft 10in and I am 12 stone again now, which I would call my normal weight. It took a long time to get there.

I am a medical anthropologist by training. I don’t like the term “depression” – I think of it in terms of “mental health management” or “mental health hygiene”, putting the emphasis on the positive.

I studied at NUI Maynooth and later taught there in the anthropology department. I also worked over the years in Tanzania doing research.

Relying on alcohol
As a schoolboy in Sligo I sprinted and played rugby. I was probably about 10½ stone when I did the Leaving Cert. I did rely on alcohol, like all people with mental health issues. I would have used alcohol as a pressure valve or as a crutch.

There were times when I was in a permanent state of stress and fear. It was an underlying problem. My normal intake was eight to 12 pints in a night. I would go to the pub after work at 5.30pm. It was a way of avoiding issues – and it was also great fun.

I used to smoke, about 10 a day. I smoked more when I was drinking. I was always a healthy eater, not a fry every morning kind of person. And I did eat fruit and veg, but cheese was the basic problem. I could eat a block a day.

My contract in Maynooth ended in 2008 and I was unemployed for nearly a year. I had put off finishing my PhD. I was out of work and still trying to finish it in 2009 and I was still not dealing very well with mental health issues.

Around this time I was referred to the Sligo Mental Health Services. I did cognitive behavioural therapy. I was put on mild antidepressants but it was made very clear that my use of the drug would be monitored and I would also have counselling. I was on the medication for a year. The therapy really worked for me.

I had had counselling before but this was radically different. The counsellor had a common-sense approach. She got me to identify things that caused stress in my life and then to do what I could to change them. Instead of seeing great big insurmountable problems, I had to strategise.

As a medical anthropologist it was not just ironic, but perverse, that I had such a poor grasp of this.

Falling into a pattern
I went back to Tanzania doing research on a contract basis in August 2010 and I was elated to be working again – but I fell into a pattern of working long hours and drinking regularly. It was difficult to exercise and I went back up to 17½ stone.

The wheels came off again. I stopped taking care. It was a case of being intoxicated by optimism and I was eating too much of the wrong food and drinking regularly. When the work in Tanzania dried up after a year, I began to feel panicky again.

By October 2011 I was really in trouble; I was back home in Sligo and was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I went back to Sligo Mental Health Services. I cut down on the drinking – I associate drinking with lack of control or with feeling overwhelmed.

I was living in Sligo town and I started cycling out to the Radisson hotel to go to the gym there. I found it difficult. I was in my late 30s, unemployed and overweight. Sometimes I did only two to three kilometres on the treadmill, sometimes a bit more.

I tried to go three or four times a week. It’s a 4km cycle and it gave a structure to build the rest of the day around.

I started applying for jobs and planning other projects. I am in the process of getting my PhD published. I started to feel that things were more manageable. The counsellor encouraged me to have objectives, so I started to look at everything I was doing in terms of targets. I did a number of 5k and 10k road runs.

It seems like every weekend in Sligo during the summer there was a road race in places like Grange, Collooney and Coney island.

At a certain point, running changed from something I was doing to improve my health – almost like a job – to something I really wanted to do because I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed getting off the road and into the woodlands and the seashore. It’s good to get away from the noise of traffic and chatter in your head.

Last year I did the Berlin marathon for Temple Street Children’s Hospital and I have been busy setting up a trail running company (Tralua Trail Running).

Adventure sport industry
I would like to work with people who might be intimidated by the idea of joining a gym or an athletics club, people in their 40s and 50s, more than elite athletes.

There is a growing adventure sport industry in Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal. It’s probably geared at the young fit types, which is great, but I want to target people outside that group.

I have also been talking to the HSE about a new pilot GP physical exercise referral programme where doctors can prescribe exercise for patients. I would like to be the link there for people who might find it hard to take that first step. I would also like to monitor the impact of such a scheme on a community.

Gyms are not for everyone. In fact, being prescribed physical activity could create another stressor for someone who is unfit and emotionally not coping well. It could be another thing to feel bad about.

I was barely able to do 3k on the treadmill in November 2011 but I finished the Berlin marathon in 4 hours 41 minutes.

I don’t feel that I have been saved or that now I am a different person. It is an ongoing process . You do it every day. You don’t say, for example, I will never smoke or drink again. That is too much pressure.

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