After years of struggling with addiction and low moods, Claire Stretch, 47, has found walking is the key to feeling good. As told to Brian Johnston.
“Depression kicked in for me when I was about nine and my parents divorced. I was told not to be sad because my parents were still friends. From the age of 11, I was sexually abused for two years. I was always on high alert and developed a huge amount of anxiety.
“I thought no-one else had the feelings I did and there was something wrong with me. I felt lonely and isolated and constantly wondered what the point of life was.
“When I went to art college, I started smoking cannabis and felt a high I had never experienced before. I felt like it was the medication I’d always needed, but over the next few years it spiralled out of control. I was smoking daily.
“Eventually, the effect was a full-blown psychosis. I was admitted to a mental institution and diagnosed with manic depression. The doctors put me on antidepressants and lithium. I was only 21.
“My anxiety became so chronic that sometimes I was unable to function properly. The self-medication escalated to include heroin. My wake-up call came when my fiancé left me, saying he just couldn’t watch someone he loved slowly kill herself.
“I checked myself into rehab. I was 25. That was over 20 years ago now, and I haven’t touched alcohol or recreational drugs since.
Life After Rehab
“After 25 years of therapy, self-help groups, personal-development and professional programs, the self-knowledge I’ve gained has equipped me to stay stable. My mental health is good, but I’ve accepted I’m one of the 10 per cent of people who need long-term antidepressant medication.
“After I left rehab I started exercising regularly. I did high-impact aerobics four times a week. When I was in the aerobics class with all that high-energy music, my mood would instantly lift. “No matter how down I felt – and sometimes I had to drag myself there – I knew that, for those two hours at least, I’d feel good. “I don’t do high-impact aerobics anymore – my knees no longer cope! But I haven’t forgotten exercise’s positive effects.
“I started walking 13 years ago and now I walk for half an hour most days. The difference between the days I walk and the days I don’t is huge. A walk first thing in the morning really sets me up for the whole day.
“That’s backed up by research, which shows that people who exercise regularly have fewer signs of depression and anxiety.
“They say when you’re moving, you go into full-brain thinking, which engages both sides of your brain. I often think of solutions to problems I’ve been grappling with when I’m out walking. I notice my brain seems to work differently and the ideas flow much better.
“Another aspect of walking is it connects me to nature. I find it incredibly calming. When I’m out walking, I’m less stressed and take more notice of what’s around me.
“Nature takes me out of my mind, which is where depression lives. I look at a tree with a dead branch that has been struck by lightning, yet the tree still flourishes. Nature tells me how life continues despite the problems.
Tips to Keep Motivated
“One of the challenges of depression is lack of motivation, which is an ongoing battle. I put my walking clothes next to my bed so they’re the first thing I see.
“Once my dog sees me dressed in those, he knows a walk is due. I have him to thank for getting me out the door – I can’t bear to disappoint him!
“Another thing that helps motivate me to exercise is accountability; I let someone know what I’m committing to and check back with them to tell them whether or not I’ve done it.
“Prioritising exercise is important, too. I’m addicted to Facebook Scrabble, but I have to ask myself whether a half-hour of Scrabble is worth more than a walk. It’s a no-brainer which is more important.
“I’m so conscious of how walking elevates my mood that I just have to do it. I just know that getting up and out and moving about is good for me.
“I don’t discount the medication, but regular exercise is the other important factor that keeps me stable. When you look at my story and see how it helps me, I think it would help just about anyone.”
By Brian Johnston, bodyandsoul.com.au