The Phoenix Project: Overcoming Mental Illness with Running, Therapy, and Prayer
Today’s interview is with Maria Abbe, founder of RunningMyselfTogether.com. She talks about how her faith, cognitive behavioral therapy, and running has helped her heal from an eating disorder and cope with anxiety and depression and shares her tips for thriving in life, even when struggling with mental illness.
When did you begin struggling with an eating disorder and anxiety/depression?
I think I’ve always struggled with anxiety - since I was a little girl. But the eating disorder didn’t show itself until I was a freshman in high school. From there, I’ve wrestled with anxiety and depression, but over the years, I’ve learned how to manage it pretty well. I still have bouts of anxiety and depression, but they’re much shorter and less intense than years past.
Many people have the misconception that recovery is a “once and done” process. What has your recovery journey looked like?
This statement couldn’t be more true. It’s funny because when I started writing RunningMyselfTogether.com, I thought I was through it all. That I had reached the finish line and I could share the path to recovery with everyone else. Boy, was I wrong. I still had so much further to go. Coping with anxiety and depression when you’re not in the comfort of college - i.e. you can miss class or sleep in - is much different in the working world.
My journey to overcoming my eating disorder was quite a long one. I started seeing a therapist in high school and have been seeing therapists ever since. What helped me work through my eating disorder was cognitive behavioral therapy, a deep faith life, and the motivation to get better. Even though it was hard and even though some days I wanted to stay trapped, I knew life HAD to be better on the other side. So, I kept showing up. Day after day. I had plenty of pitfalls, but because I kept trying and working, I was able to eventually find peace.
For my anxiety and depression, therapy always helps, and of course, running. Running has shown me that my mind and my body can be at the same pace, and when those are in line, it helps my anxiety and depression subside. However, I’m still learning that I have a ways to go. Each stage of life has its own, unique difficulties, and as someone with anxiety, I need to be cognizant of that fact and make sure I’m always doing what I can to take care of my mental health.
Although you have recovered from your ED, you said that you still struggle with anxiety and depression. What are ways that you have learned to cope with your anxiety and depression?
I have what I call my mental health tool kit. It’s filled with all of the things I know help me when I’m struggling. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you need to take care of your mental health before you hit a breaking point. So, I make sure I’m going to therapy, running, writing, and placing prayer at the center of it all.
How has your faith helped you recover/cope with mental illness?
I’m not sure where I’d be without my faith. I know if I didn’t have it, I’d be in such a worse place, because anxiety and depression feed you continuous lies. If I didn’t have my faith, I wouldn’t be able to decipher what was true and what was false. Knowing that God knitted me in my mother’s womb, and that I’m wonderfully made (anxiety and all), has helped me in my journey of understanding who I am outside of anxiety and depression. Also, receiving the sacraments and spending time in adoration has deepened my spiritual life, and helps keep me at peace.
There is such a stigma surrounding mental health in the Christian Community. What has been your experience with that stigma and how do you fight it?
Thankfully, I haven’t had any bad experiences with mental health and the Christian Community, but I do agree that there is still stigma surrounding the topic in the church. And I believe it’s because they’re tough waters to navigate. The devil is the master of the mind. So, sometimes it’s hard to decipher what is anxiety and depression stemming from mental illness and what are lies coming from the devil (and sometimes they’re the same). I am no expert here, but the advice I can give is to seek help from BOTH a therapist and a spiritual director. And if you’re a member of the Church who doesn’t struggle, my advice to you is to be open minded, patient, and show mercy with those who struggle with panic and depression or any mental illness. Some (or even most) of us are dealing with biological/chemical imbalances that we cannot always control.
What has been your motivation to fight for recovery and continue to fight, even on the bad days?
I know, now, that I need to be an example of persevering through mental illness for others. And knowing that God has called me to that has given me the hope and strength to keep going.
Can you tell us a little about your blog, Running Myself Together, and any upcoming projects you are working on?
Yes! I started writing RunningMyselfTogether about 5 years ago, and it’s slowly turned into a platform where I can talk about all things faith, running, and mental health. It’s been a beautiful journey. Right now, I’m working on a journal that’ll come out next year and on building up my running coaching business.
What is something you would like to say to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder and\or anxiety and depression?
It is okay to seek help. Please do. Even if you think you’re “not sick enough,” it’s so important to get the help you need. Make sure each day you’re placing yourself before God, and surrendering to Him, and that you’re allowing yourself to feel emotions and be mindful without any judgment. You’re not alone in this. Reach out and be open with those around you. You will be surprised by the love and help you will receive.