OUT­RUN­NING GRIEF

Can you out­run a hellish re­al­ity? It was this ques­tion that re­sounded in Poorna Bell’s mind as she put one foot in front of the other af­ter her hus­band took his own life. In this mov­ing ac­count, she re­veals how she ex­or­cised her de­mons – one stride at a t

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - words POORNA BELL

For Poorna Bell, run­ning was the only way to keep go­ing

Any­one walk­ing past my win­dow that morn­ing would have no doubt heard the creak­ing, the grunt­ing, the breath­less in­to­na­tions of Oh. My. God. The sweaty en­counter tak­ing place in my bed­room was any­thing but sexy. I was us­ing ev­ery ounce of strength to ma­noeu­vre a heavy, un­wieldy mat­tress – and I was do­ing it alone. The de­liv­ery guys were none the wiser, of course. They prob­a­bly as­sumed that any­one or­der­ing a king-size mat­tress would have their bed­fel­low on hand to help. How could they know that this rep­re­sented the lat­est good­bye, in a long line of good­byes, to my hus­band Rob, who had taken his own life the year be­fore? There would never

again be a bed that we’d share, nor a mat­tress that would bear the press of his body. Among the mil­lion other things he was to me, Rob was my chief lifter of heavy things. And while the griev­ing process was largely tak­ing place in­side my head, out in the real world, life was marching on, and phys­i­cal strength was an ur­gent re­quire­ment. Ev­ery dead­lift, bar­bell squat and tri­cep dip had led me to this mo­ment. I wasn’t just sweat­ing out my sad­ness in the gym, I was build­ing a body that would help me forge my way in this scary new world. When I fin­ished, and col­lapsed sweat­ing on the floor, I laughed. Then I started cry­ing. Be­cause here’s the thing with grief: it doesn’t re­spect your mile­stones. I met Rob on a blind date, set up by a mu­tual friend, at a time when I was fed up with men. I didn’t ex­pect him to be any dif­fer­ent from the other losers who

‘I WAS BUILD­ING A BODY THAT WOULD HELP ME FORGE MY WAY IN THIS SCARY NEW WORLD’

had messed me around. I knew he was a science jour­nal­ist from New Zealand, but that was all I knew. Over sushi in Brix­ton, South London, I learnt that Rob was a man of con­trasts and con­tra­dic­tions. He was a punk rocker in a Ra­mones T-shirt; a na­ture lover, with hands cal­loused from gar­den­ing; a tall, broad-shoul­dered skin­head, who held the door open for me and stood up when I went to the bath­room. I knew I was fall­ing for him the day he brought chicken soup to my sickbed. He of­fered to leave it on my doorstep – I looked like some­thing dredged from the bot­tom of a well. But, touched by his kind­ness, I be­grudg­ingly let him in, and he told me I looked beau­ti­ful. I’d heard ru­mours of big love: the kind where some­one sees you as you are, and loves you any­way. But I’d never felt it first-hand. A few weeks later, as we held hands across the back seat of a taxi, Rob told me he had de­pres­sion. He seemed re­spon­si­ble in the way he man­aged it, and he as­sured me that he’d get help when he needed it. But I was

al­ready in love with him and he might as well have told me he had ath­lete’s foot. A year af­ter we met, we got en­gaged in Malaysia, and we got mar­ried 18 months later in a pretty coun­try house in Sur­rey. But af­ter the wed­ding, Rob be­gan to spend more and more time in bed. He seemed ex­hausted, with­drawn, and he walled off his feel­ings, ven­tur­ing out from be­hind them only oc­ca­sion­ally to say: ‘I’m fine.’ It was ob­vi­ous to any­one that he wasn’t. I hadn’t pre­pared my­self for what lov­ing, and liv­ing with, some­one with de­pres­sion ac­tu­ally meant. But I was con­vinced that if any­one could coax him out of it, it was me. Love con­quers all; Dis­ney taught us as much. So it was un­bear­able to dis­cover that it doesn’t. Alone for much of the time, I was tasked with keep­ing the house­hold tick­ing over – re­stock­ing the fridge and pay­ing the bills. But I wasn’t just alone, I was lonely. A year into our mar­riage, I was spend­ing whole week­ends just wait­ing for Rob to get out of bed, and I was start­ing to un­ravel. It wasn’t just the look­ing af­ter him; it was his de­nial about how crip­pling his ill­ness had be­come. I was pa­tient, un­til I was an­gry, and then guilty. I was a hu­man vol­cano. One Oc­to­ber morn­ing, I felt a sharp sense of dread. It was 11am, and Rob was still in bed. I knew how the day was go­ing to play out – it would be an­other day of feel­ing like I was mar­ried to a ghost. I badly needed to get out of the house, but I couldn’t face putting on a fake front with friends, nor be­ing some­where pub­lic, like the gym. I needed to do some­thing for my­self; some­thing that wasn’t wor­ry­ing about Rob and whether he was al­right. So I put on my train­ers and went for a run. Out­door run­ning is part sweat, part psy­chol­ogy. I’d been mean­ing to do it for months, but the doubts al­ways kept me in­doors – one louder than most: what if I couldn’t phys­i­cally do it? This time, I pegged it out the front door be­fore my brain had a chance to catch up. My lungs be­gan to burn and my brain felt crowded with thoughts. But I slowed down un­til I was go­ing only marginally faster than my walk­ing pace, and as the land­scape un­wound it­self into col­umns of trees, duck ponds and ice cream trucks, my mind be­came qui­eter. I no­ticed the curve of the trees, the glance of the sun­light on a pud­dle. By the time I made it back to the house, I’d cre­ated some­thing: a mo­ment in time just for me. But it was only a mo­ment. The fol­low­ing year, life – al­ready test­ing – be­came even more dif­fi­cult. In an ad­mis­sion that shook me to my core, Rob con­fessed that he wasn’t just de­pressed, he’d also been hid­ing a crip­pling ad­dic­tion to heroin. I knew he’d dab­bled in drugs over the years, but noth­ing

like this. As painful as it was, I de­cided to for­give him and do what­ever I could to help him re­cover. But Rob couldn’t break the pat­tern of ly­ing and try­ing to fix things on his own, and af­ter the last colos­sal lie, we sep­a­rated. A week later, while vis­it­ing his fam­ily in Auck­land, Rob took his own life. I os­cil­lated be­tween deep shock and feel­ing the full, undi­luted hor­ror of it all. I felt guilty for not be­ing able to save him, and de­spair that he’d died this way, alone. I flew to New Zealand for the fu­neral. I got through it, but af­ter­wards, I think peo­ple ex­pected me to lie down and draw the cur­tains. I knew if I did, I wouldn’t get back up again. I had to cling to things that made sense, so, the next day, I put on my train­ers. I opened my Nike run­ning app with­out a thought for where I was go­ing, and I ended up on a beach. With the swirl of the clouds and the crash of waves on the rocks, I felt some­thing ap­proach­ing nor­mal­ity. It was the strangest feel­ing, to be so over­come with sad­ness, and so glad to be alive. Back home, the shell of my old life re­mained, but with­out Rob in it. I knew

‘WHILE OUT RUN­NING, I COULD CRY, WITH MY TEARS PASS­ING FOR SWEAT’

I had to do some­thing – and run­ning be­came my some­thing. I forged a rou­tine of go­ing for a jog along the stretch of the Thames near Rich­mond. The crowd of tourists and geese strut­ting around for scraps soon gave way to quiet, leafy av­enues where I could take the small­est plea­sure in see­ing a bird Rob loved or the trees by a lit­tle brook. I could even cry, with my tears pass­ing for sweat. Dur­ing those first few months, run­ning an­chored me to re­al­ity; it gave me roots to a world I felt like I was no longer a part of. But I needed more. With a house move im­mi­nent and no Rob to help me lift the boxes and cart the rub­bish off to the dump, I not only needed to feel strong, I needed to be strong. With no idea where to start, I hired a per­sonal trainer. His name was Ty­rone, and he lis­tened pa­tiently while I told him what I wanted to do. When he told me he would get me dead­lift­ing 100kg, I laughed. But as the weeks wore on, my time with him on the gym floor came to mean more to me than I could ever have imag­ined. Some­thing borne out of prac­ti­cal­ity be­came an emo­tional life­line. Here was a world that made sense; where I was in con­trol; where I would get out ex­actly what I put in. Ses­sion by ses­sion, I cre­ated a strong scaf­fold­ing within my­self, and the heav­ier I lifted (I man­aged 87kg), the more sta­ble I felt. There’s a statis­tic that, to this day, I find shock­ing: peo­ple be­reaved by the sui­cide of a friend or fam­ily mem­ber are 65% more likely to at­tempt sui­cide them­selves than

‘IN MY DARK­EST MO­MENTS, IT IS EX­ER­CISE THAT HAS KEPT ME HERE’

they would be if the per­son had died by nat­u­ral causes. This brings their ab­so­lute risk up to one in 10. I’m not say­ing I was sui­ci­dal, but there were mo­ments when I couldn’t imag­ine liv­ing with this much pain for the rest of my life. It’s im­por­tant be­cause re­cent stud­ies have con­firmed what we’ve all long sus­pected about ex­er­cise – and it’s not just about the im­me­di­ate bi­ol­ogy of the en­dor­phins flood­ing the hy­po­thal­a­mus in your brain. A co­hort study of 33,908 par­tic­i­pants pub­lished last year con­cluded that do­ing one to two hours of ex­er­cise each week nearly halves your long-term risk of de­pres­sion. The ma­jor­ity of this seem­ingly pro­tec­tive ef­fect oc­curred at low lev­els of ex­er­cise and was ob­served re­gard­less of the in­ten­sity. Re­searchers don’t know ex­actly why ex­er­cise has this ef­fect, but one the­ory is that it en­hances the body’s abil­ity to re­spond to stres­sors; the idea that han­dling a gru­elling work­out is good prac­tice for cop­ing with a bad day. For me, now, a typ­i­cal week in­volves some com­bi­na­tion of run­ning, strength train­ing and yoga, all of which serve a dif­fer­ent pur­pose. Strength train­ing makes me feel less vul­ner­a­ble, and less like I need a man; run­ning helps me un­load my wor­ries into the river I run along­side; and yoga works out the knots cre­ated by both. When peo­ple tell me I’m ‘so good’ to be work­ing out so much, I know they don’t get it. I don’t ex­er­cise to be ‘good’ – what­ever that means. I don’t do it to fit into a pair of jeans or to help me run for a bus. Fit­ness has be­come part of the fab­ric of who I am. When I’m work­ing out, my mind trav­els to a place larger than my sad­ness. I’m lucky to have such sup­port­ive friends and fam­ily, but in my dark­est mo­ments, it is ex­er­cise that has kept me here. Fit­ness was never just about flip­ping a mat­tress; it saved my life.

pho­tog­ra­phy RETTS WOOD

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