Artist on Artist: Depression Hates a Moving Target by Nita Sweeney

So, what’s up with a musician reviewing a book on his music web site? Funny you should ask! I’ve focused my latest songs on mental health. Subsequently I began engaging on Twitter with people who have something to say on the subject. This led me to one Nita Sweeney, author of the memoir “Depression Hates a Moving Target.

Like me, Nita’s a runner. Like me, she considers running her mental health medicine. (Full disclosure: Nita runs in addition to taking antidepressants. She finds the exercise prevents the necessity to increase dosage. In my case I took up exercise to prevent the need to start on meds).

Seeing Ourselves in the Story

My wife Amy and I downloaded “Depression Hates a Moving Target” in audiobook form and spent several hours listening together at the kitchen table.

Amy chronicles her own experiences with depression and anxiety, along with the benefits she gets from regular exercise, at her own blog site, Sound Mind and Body NJ.

Amy and I each saw ourselves in different facets of Nita’s book. For Amy it was Nita’s harrowing recollections of loss, hopelessness, distorted self-image of body, and suicidal urges from the past.

For my part it was Nita’s account of the baby steps she took into giving running a try when her friend posted an intriguing endorsement of her own new running experience on social media. I followed a similar path into the world of athletic self-care when a stew of life stressors prompted me to consider seeing a psychiatrist for some help with my beleaguered mind. You’ll find more of my exercise/running origin story at Kidney Donor Athlete here.

One Stride at a Time

Since Nita composed this memoir from her journal entries, she frequently takes the reader on her runs with her. We come along for those breathless first forays into walk-run intervals, the kind you’d find in a Couch to 5K training program. We have the best seat in the house for the epic effort of her first marathon.

On these runs, Nita discusses her canine running partner’s antics. She recounts the conversations she has with fellow runners. Nita expounds on the details of correct running form and its effect her aches and pains. The author sheds light on the mental negotiations every runner must navigate, but even more so when depression demands its say. One chapter is aptly titled, “My Mind is Trying to Kill Me.”

Runners like me will more readily take to the detailed accounts of Nita’s training runs than non-runners. However, non-runners take heart. Everything builds to a satisfying and cathartic conclusion even if you’ve never laced up and never intend to.

Overcoming Fears

Nita’s true story frequently winds through fearsome obstacles. The specter of neighbors’ judgment haunts Nita’s first explorations of running. More viscerally, the sight of a high, narrow bridge along a new running route strikes fear in the heart of author and reader alike. Nita shares the experience of negotiating with those fears. She reasonably picks her battles, choosing which ones or how much to confront in a given day. Reading these passages, I’m reminded of the value of psychological flexibility to cope with mental health challenges in real time.

So, Why a Book Review on a Music Web Site?

Nita Sweeney running with her dog Scarlet in Jason Didner's music video Run With My Troubles
An image captured from Nita Sweeney’s clip in the music video “Run With My Troubles” by Jason Didner

Here’s where Nita’s story really intersects with mine: I enlisted her to appear in my upcoming music video “Run With My Troubles.” This video tells my story (combined with my wife’s) of exercise to cope with mental health difficulties. I sought the diverse images of other runners to illustrate that exercise is for everybody who can find a way to do it! I found running to be the most poetic form of exercise to represent in this video. Still, no matter how you get moving, exercise really is powerful, natural medicine for your mind!

Nita’s clip of her running with her yellow lab Scarlet is like a page out of her book, come to life! She actually runs through the same secluded ravine she describes from those tentative first walk-runs – but now with the rock-solid form and self-assured joy of an experienced marathoner.

The video is “coming soon” but you can see it now by signing up below to get my emails!

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Managing mental health issues doesn’t have to be a battle.

Managing mental health issues doesn't have to be a battle. It can be a humanitarian mission.

Early on in my marriage to Amy, we were dealing with the Type 1 Diabetes she’d been living with since age 8, and its progressive complications. We’d been dealing with the emotional insecurity that comes with accelerated wear and tear on the nervous system and the side effects of nearly a dozen prescription medications. She had recently moved from injecting 4 different types of insulin every day to a new mode of self-treatment – the insulin pump. I considered her a warrior, battling diabetes every day. Similarly I envisioned her battling depression.

At the time, I wrote the song “My Gentle Warrior” with my observations of her showing up every day to fight these battles.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the battle metaphor proved to do as much harm as good. When the perception is that you live in a constant state of battle, it sets up a wider sense of hostility within oneself and among loved ones. And it’s exhausting for the person living with the condition and for that person’s immediate circle – call it shell shock, battle fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Amy and I have been faithfully going to couples therapy for about 4 years at the time of this writing and, along the way, we’ve learned that in our case, these feelings aren’t defeated with a battle. Their power grows in a battle. Instead, these feelings are mitigated with self compassion, mutual compassion.

We learn “contrary action” – the skill to do exactly the opposite of what depression or rage is telling us to do. Depression says stay in bed, contrary action says get up and sit in front of the bright light – or hop on the treadmill. Rage says to tell your spouse off. Contrary action says to hold hands with your spouse, look him/her in the eyes and make an emotional connection.

Depression and rage tell us mental health is a battle. Contrary action tells us mental health is a humanitarian mission – to ourselves and to our loved ones.

In this light I more recently thought about “My Gentle Warrior” and wrote its sequel: “Battle.” The line that keeps coming back in reflection in the new lyric is “I thought this was a battle.”

I can’t speak for everyone; I believe there are people whose mental health is better suited to thrive in a battle; I’ve learned from experience and counseling that Amy and I are not among those people. So, what will you choose in creating and maintaining your mental health: a battle or a humanitarian mission? Feel free to comment below.