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Miles For Mind Blog - Sam Mcilwaine

Miles For Mind Blog - Sam Mcilwaine

B.C. (Before Carole) was a period of my life that lasted over 30 years.  Three decades where trauma took many forms; an absent father, a step-dad that disliked me and my brother, a destructive and failed marriage, weight gain, shootings, gangland feuds, family crisis and addiction issues. Now, for the record the shootings and gangland feuds I was not part of, but rather a witness to. Similar, too, with the addiction issues. I was not the addict; I was dealing with the fallout from the addiction issues. Gambling and alcohol have seemed to be the poisons of choice for some of my family members, and I do not use the word ‘poison’ lightly, for they are truly poisonous. These poisons will infect, corrupt and ultimately destroy a person without the correct help. Thankfully, some have got the help needed and battled through while others are still in the trenches to varying degrees unfortunately.

As my mother descended deeper into a mental health hell, the ripples from her depression spread throughout the family. Several suicide attempts followed.When I met Carole, my angel, our relationship grew quite quickly and we married. That was a significant foundation stone for me for many reasons, but most importantly it gave me a solid and reliable base to live by. My mother suffered a severe mental breakdown a few years after I met Carole. It was not exactly clear at the time, but on reflection I see that somehow fate/the universe/angels/God put Carole in my life at exactly the right time.

Wow. That is not easy to write. It is still very raw and emotional, with the most serious of her suicide attempts causing severe organ damage and hospitalisation for a long period.

My siblings and myself have had a crash course in the NHS mental health system and the drugs available to treat depression and the rollercoaster that comes with living with these conditions.

This has affected us all, deeply.

Over a decade later the damage to my mother and the immediate family circle is clear to see. My mother battles day and daily with physical and mental health issues.

Some days are good, some days are bad. Others are just dark.

Dark places produce dark ideas, dark conversations and dark moods.

Those dark conversations that I have had with mum have impacted on me severely to the point that two years ago I crashed! Mentally crashed. I had a breakdown …

To lay all of the blame for my anxiety on my mother’s depression would be wrong. I had a tough childhood during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I saw and experienced things that no child should have to. We had an abnormal upbringing where we accepted things that others could not envisage as being in any way acceptable. One or two of these experiences had scarred me deeply, scars that I had buried away, scars that came to the surface as my mother’s breakdowns forced long-suppressed emotions from me.Approaching this crucial point of my life, I had started attending a local gym where I had got fitter and leaner. I had learnt about diet and training; this gave me tools to protect my physical health. What it didn’t do was address the mental health issues bubbling beneath the surface.

Sunday 17 June 2018 was Father’s Day. It was a nice day of cards and gifts with good food and company, and certainly no indication of what was to come. I awoke the following day, Monday, as normal, dressed for work, ate breakfast and waved Carole and our son goodbye as they left the house. But something wasn’t right. Something inside was growing and I was not sure what it was. It was akin to a cloud growing from within me and it started to engulf me. That is how it felt to me – that I was being consumed by this dark ominous cloud. I got into the car and the anxiety levels grew. Confusion was developing as I started to panic. What was happening to me? What the f*** was going on?

I drove to the end of the driveway and stopped.

Turn left or right?

I didn’t know.

I knew I wasn’t going to work, but where I was going, I honestly didn’t know.

I have looked back at this point numerous times. I had no desire to hurt myself - well that has always been my thinking, but I was definitely leaving and not coming back. What I was running from was unclear, fear and a natural flight mode that had taken over.

I am so relieved it all happened the way it did. I turned left, then right, then left and I kept going. I sat in commuter traffic mentally falling apart with tears coming and going. Autopilot was engaged and I floated unconsciously to a destination. I arrived at Carole’s office and dialled her number; the subconscious desire for survival was keeping me going and controlling my actions. My conscious being was a passenger, a spectator, to everything that was going on. Carole left work got in the car as I drove a short distance before parking up, then I broke down. I have never cried like that before. So deep, so hard and so emotionally draining. Carole listened and then held me, just held me. I needed that so much. Whatever I had buried deep within finally erupted and there was no going back!

I am relieved to be still here, to not have gone away … whatever that meant.

Now I had to deal with these issues; the genie was out of the bottle and could not be put back in no matter how often he struggled to return to his home.

Many conversations have occurred since then. Mostly with my loving wife, some with my mum and others with friends that I have discovered are true friends, and in some cases are as flawed as I am.

I have also asked for help, finally. I am awaiting counselling to help me primarily, but also to help me help my mum.

I have taken to writing, both a journal and blogs, hence why I have written this. I have also starting writing poetry to confront the historical issues that I had buried away, some of which I have now read publically at a local poetry group meeting.

But one source of comfort has aided more than any.


I had read many times about the benefits of running; however, my training was cardio light and weights dependant. This training gave me a platform of a lighter frame and great base knowledge to work from, however now was time to evolve it. Couch 2 5k had been mentioned many times in books and social media so I downloaded the app to my phone. Then I purchased basic gear and started week one.

I felt very self-conscious about everything. Did I have the right kit? Was I running the right way? Did I look ridiculous? Why am I walking then running then walking? Surely I could just run? To cope with this feeling of inadequacy I ran early in the morning, like REALLY early. 5.30 a.m. was a shock to the system and I chose a local forest park as there would be less people about, Goodness! Running is hard! Why didn’t anyone warn me?!

I had often commented on passing joggers and runners whilst driving in the car; what was the point of it? I saw running on a football pitch as having a point, having a goal (no pun intended) but running with no specific aim was pointless surely?

How wrong I was. What I discovered on these runs was a revelation!

I was facing my greatest opponent ever - myself. My inner self to be exact. Those demons in my head that said I couldn’t do it, that laughed and mocked me every time I went out; that self-doubt which only grew with each and every challenge I faced. Couch 2 5k became my ‘road to Damascus’.

Downloading the app Strava was my first link to this important fact. I could interact remotely with other runners. Dip my toe in the community so to speak.I faced and overcame some of my demons. I found that the more I challenged myself the more I grew as a person. My confidence returned. I discovered something else; that runners are nice people, they are a community that welcomes all and they encourage every single person.

Wow, just wow. Everyone was so nice and everyone was there to help. I enjoyed the comradeship again of kindred spirits, people with similar goals or desires.So, what was it next that I wanted to learn? Well that was also a revelation. Runners do have goals and purpose. I discovered PBs (personal best). I discovered what it was to run against yourself and a previous time; I discovered what it was like to push yourself to be quicker or run further. My self-confidence grew so much so that I entered 5k races.

Then I decided to buy some new gear, and really push myself.

10ks came along and I trained for them. Another milestone successfully passed and I looked on the horizon for the next challenge, which I found in the form of the Great North Run! A half marathon, to some it is a gentle run, but to me it was akin to Everest. An unsurmountable peak to tackle After all, only two years ago I had run and walked for twenty minutes with lungs that strained under the pressure. Now, here I was, clocking up 15 miles a week and try to grow and develop on that, according to my training plan.

This training plan lives on my fridge door and gives me structure and purpose, but it also gives me a regular dose of medicine. For running is now my medicine, my drug of choice. It sorts my head out. When I run, I can find my zen moment like mediation does for some, because my mind is on my pace, my breathing, my stride, my direction, the route and any traffic around me. I zone out from my daily issues, or sometimes I focus on one issue at a time. I line them all up and deal with them one after another, this way I am not surrounded by them, swamped and overwhelmed by them. I can cope with the issues on my mind.

Running is my escape. It is my time to deal with anything bubbling away in the background; it is my safety valve.

Running as a coping mechanism has developed within me so much so that if I am being grumpy around the house or if I seem down Carole will say to me “Do you not think you should go for a run?” I have got to the stage where the benefits of my runs also benefit my family.

They see how different I am when running regularly and when I am not.

As I said before my relationship with Carole is the foundation. Without her understanding I would not be out hours every week pounding the paths and roads instead of being at home. Without her encouragement and the odd kick up the backside I would not get out of bed and out the door for a run on those cold, damp and dark mornings. Without her I may not have made it through that fateful Monday morning back in June 2018. But with her I did; with her, I explored my issues and I found answers.

With her, I found the outlets that would help soothe my soul and deal with my scars. The most beneficial of which is running. To chat with others on the runs. Those nods, smiles and waves of fellow runners who you may not know personally, but somehow you share a bond with. To have a structure for my week; to have those targets and goals to keep my mind focused; to find a release for the tensions, and escape the dark times.

To find time for me.

And there it is. The epiphany. The key to it all.

It is time for ME! Time to concentrate on myself and to take time to self-care.

Running may not be the answer for everyone, but it was the answer for me.

Take care of yourselves first, then you can care for others.

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