Surviving the harsh climate of the human mind

Kettle100

I am currently ramping up for the 2019 race season and my first stop is next week in Delta, Ohio to run Dave’s 10-Miler. Dave’s is one of my favorite races, not only because of the amazing community it has created since its inception in the mid-70s, but because it gives me an excuse to visit an old friend who knows what it means to survive in one of the harshest climates known to humankind...the human mind. 

The beauty of Dave’s is that everyone knows everyone. It’s a local race so most are neighbors and friends who share a common love of this communal sport. It’s a great time of year for it, too. After the holidays, the cold settles in leaving people needing a way to break that cabin fever. For those who see Ohio as just a place you pass through or over on your way somewhere else, they should know that there are amazing people living in small towns like Delta, Maumee and other great Toledo ‘burbs. One of those people is that old friend of mine and the main reason I found this great race.

He is one of the most brilliant people I know with a great gift for healing others. He was a relatively young man in his mid-30s living in New York City and working as an art therapist when he suffered his first psychotic break. 

It was September 11, 2001. He was riding on the subway traveling under Manhattan’s financial district heading home from work when a group of people obviously shaken by something they had seen entered his car. While telling me this story shortly after that day, my friend said that they seemed panicked. He heard them mention something about a plane crash, but that was about all he made out from their hurried whispers. Now, remember this was 2001 and the smartphone was yet to be, so there was no going online to check the Twitter or Facebook to see what had happened. 

My friend continued to sit on the train, traveling under the East River before arriving at his stop in Staten Island. He exited the train and walked up the steps to see firsthand what most others would see that day and the many days to follow on television. Smoke trails streamed from their upper floors. He continued to watch as the World Trade Center towers burned and eventually collapsed to the ground. This was the tip of the trigger that, along with the coming days and weeks of fear and uncertainty that filled New York City, would send my friend into a mental decline of schizophrenia.

I last visited him in 2011 and things were tough. He was back in Ohio near family by then and had a place to live, but no job. Schizophrenia is a powerfully debilitating disease where the person hears voices in their head and the mind conjures up non-existent threats. They often think that there are people and other things that are out to harm and even kill them. Without medication the mind runs wild and can spiral into some very dark places. 

At some level early in the disease’s development, my friend knew what was happening. The disease ran in his family. Medication would help him, but a need for normalcy often got in the way. There was also the pride of believing that you are in control, which is an illusion as the disease takes over. 

I have always been amazed by the strength of my friend and people like him who live and deal with crippling mental disorders. He still functions in the same world as you and I while carrying this great burden. Part of that positivity in the face of great adversity is credited in part to his running background.

He was an avid runner in his younger years and takes great pride in that. When I was in town in 2011, I ran Dave’s and my friend joined me for the post-race festivities. With his heavy beard filled with gray, jacket two sizes too big for him and a hunched posture, he definitely stuck out and looked much older than his 47 years. But take a step or two closer and you would see that his eyes showed happily a joy of being part of the community that surrounded him on the bleachers inside the warm Delta High School gymnasium on that cold January day. He knew that he was one of them. He was a runner and that made him feel proud. He told me about the people in the gym that day and how he and his siblings grew up and played sports with many of them. It was a feeling of pride and being part of something bigger than himself. 

January is often my roughest time of year. While daylight is becoming more abundant it is still scarce and I also celebrate another trip around our star. But as time marches on, I find that I woe less myself and think more about my friend and people like him who are fighting daily these mighty battles from within.

I have not seen or talked to my friend since that 2011 visit. He’s not online, so no email or social and he doesn’t answer phone calls. My only hope is that a recent letter I mailed to him announcing my visit will be received with a welcome at his door and that he will again join me for a day of celebration and camaraderie with the local running community.