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Gay Dartmouth athlete overcame major depression, now running marathon for at-risk LGBT youth

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Phil Claudy had lost all hope of accepting his sexuality. But running saved his life and now he wants to help other LGBT people struggling with depression.

Phil Claudy
Phil Claudy

One night last winter, as I lay in bed, unable to sleep, I decided to go for a walk around the pond north of campus. As I walked, the bitter-cold air piercing my clothes, I contemplated the emptiness I felt in my heart, the inability to care, and my frustration with not being able to feel anything. I was exhausted from living with a constant aching inside me, from having my friends and family comment on how sad and aloof I seemed, from being the person I had become. In the quiet of this cold New Hampshire night, I reached my breaking point.

An intense feeling of defeat and hopelessness washed over me, and my feet began shuffling through the snow to the frozen pond. There was a small area of black water pushing through the ice, and my padded footfalls were leading me directly to it. On the inside, I felt like I had already died, and the black spot on the pond was calling for me to finish the job. I blankly stared up at the inky blackness of the night sky and saw the myriad stars poking their way through the dark. I filled my lungs with the frigid air, and began to cry.

I didn't try to kill myself that night, and I still don't know what compelled me to turn around and walk home. Where I was, who I was, just a few months ago, a few years ago, was so different from the person standing there that night.

Growing up, I felt that I had an amazing and happy life. At my home in suburban Philadelphia, I had loving parents who made sure I wanted for nothing, four amazing siblings who helped shape the person I am today, and great friends who provided a support network that pushed me to achieve anything I put my mind to. In high school, I began rowing and was fortunate enough to be recruited to Dartmouth's Heavyweight Crew team. I was going to a great school, I had great friends, and I was playing a sport I loved. Depression didn't make sense to me. How could I have depression? I had no reason to be depressed.

There was something, though. Something that I buried deep within myself, something that I was determined I would not let ruin my happy life, my athletic aspirations, or my professional ambitions. I grew up believing that my sexuality was an illness, a sickness that put me at risk of a lonely and immoral life.

Throwing myself into sports and academics allowed me to be "too busy" to date girls, a convenient excuse that allayed any suspicion about my sexuality.

I moved cautiously through middle school and high school, trying my best to hide who I really was. I ran track, played football, and rowed crew sports that demanded discipline, time, and structure. I assumed the "jock" identity, using it as a facade behind which I could shield my true identity. At my all-male high school, I felt safe in this persona. Throwing myself into sports and academics allowed me to be "too busy" to date girls, a convenient excuse that allayed any suspicion about my sexuality. Every move I made was carefully chosen to make me blend in, to disappear among my peers. I dedicated my life to being unnoticed and undiscovered.

By my first term in college, keeping my secret had exhausted me. I struggled to focus on school and crew, and I was consumed by my attempt to establish the identity I hid behind in high school. Soon, I was unable to recognize myself. What started as a subtle numbness to emotion quickly spiraled into a debilitating and life-threatening depression.

Depression set over me like sleep, creeping up on me and lulling me into its grip. By the time I realized it was there, I was deep within its grasp. I didn't recognize myself when I was depressed, and I could not have cared less. Who I was, who I wanted to be, none of that mattered anymore. I moved from day to day, apathetic to my classes, my friends, or any obligations I had. Most days, I found it hard to get out of bed, to get myself to eat, to go to class, or to do my homework. Often, I lay immobilized in bed, too depressed to speak, to explain how I felt, to call out for help. Before long, I would find myself at the edge of the pond on that winter night, no longer the man with the happy life. No longer the man I wanted to be.

That winter, I left the crew team in order to focus on my mental health, and spent the rest of the term trying to balance my classes, my struggle with my sexuality and my worsening depression. It wasn't the sport or my teammates that led me to leave crew, but my exhausting battle with depression and my sexuality that left me too defeated to commit myself to a Division 1 team.

In the winter, I picked up running as a hobby and immediately fell in love, not only for the physical benefits, but for the mental benefits as well. Running provided an outlet that allowed me to overcome my depression and to remedy my dissatisfaction with my sexuality. As my love for running grew, so did my love for myself. I became happier with who I really was, who I had hidden for so many years.

Awakening

I hated running. I hated the burn in my legs, the cramps in my shoulder, the tightness in my chest and lungs. I hated struggling for air. In the morning, the soreness made it nearly impossible to get out of bed. My muscles ached on every flight of stairs. I felt exhausted for the rest of the day, and I struggled to finish my homework. I couldn't even run one mile without cramping up. Running hurt. At night, I peeled off my socks to reveal new blisters on my toes and heels.

Depression hates you. It hates you when you get out of bed in the morning, it hates you when you go to class anyway, it hates you when you finish one day and want to start another. Depression exhausts you. It makes you too tired for homework or stairs. It hates being ignored. It hates not being the loudest voice in your head. Depression hurts. And it hurts until you think that everyone must be able to see the pain like cuts and bruises on your face. Depression makes you want to give up. Depression wants you to give up. It doesn't want you to keep running.

It wasn't until my first run through the beautiful landscapes of Vermont in late February of 2015 that I fell in love with running, that I began to fall in love with myself. My friend suggested that we go on a run through Norwich, Vermont, with the promise of a beautiful view at the end. I was reluctant, but I decided to give it a try. We slowly made our way through the windy, wooded trail. After a mile, the road took a sharp turn right, and we were soon faced by a hill that could very well have been a mountain. As we began our journey to the hill's summit, the only sounds to be heard were the slow, patterned melody of our breathing and the crunch and sprinkle of gravel as our running shoes kicked up the loose road beneath us.

What couldn't be heard, though, was the screaming in my mind — the command of my depression weighing down each step and each breath, tantalizing me with surrender, with defeat. The physical pain of climbing this hill paled in comparison to the mental pain that my depression caused me. The burning in my quads couldn't compare to the burning in my mind. The labored breathing couldn't compare to the strength it took to want to take my next breath. The acute pain in my side couldn't compare to the dull, chronic pain in my heart.

The weight my depression put on me in every step of every day, telling me that my sexuality was wrong — that I was flawed — was more taxing than a run up any hill or any mountain. I was just about to use what little breath I had left to call out to my friend and tell her to stop running, to quit, when we reached a break in the hill that gave way to a clearing. She turned around and smiled at me. As I caught up and looked to see what she had found, I lost what little breath I had left. What I saw before me was the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen. Large expanses of forest and rolling hills were spread out before me, not one inch touched or marred by humanity. Immediately, the burning in my legs dissipated, the pain in my heart numbed, I caught my breath, and the screaming of depression in my mind fell silent. I was outside of myself, completely engrossed in the beauty before me. While subconsciously, I began to experience the beauty within myself. For the first time, I felt a beauty that was also unscarred by humanity, by the social constructs that led me to believe that I am flawed. I had begun my journey of accepting who I really am.

Steps

Taking the first step, seeking out help, is the first run through Vermont. It's fighting your body and pushing up the long hill to get to the beautiful clearing. It's facing something you don't want to confront head on. It's the hope that depression will not prevent you from experiencing life. It's seeing yourself for the first time as someone who isn't flawed or immoral. The first run — the first step — is getting hooked on a glimpse of life, of beauty, of acceptance, and not letting go. When you take the first step and seek help, you are fighting against your depression and thoughts of suicide, and not letting them oppress you. Seeing the clearing, acknowledging that your depression can be conquered, changes your perspective.

Running was no longer about the burning legs or painful cramps; it was about escaping the prison of my mind, the home of my depression, and projecting myself into the nature around me. After the first step, depression is no longer the only voice in your head; it can be quieted, muted, and eventually silenced. With each subsequent run, and each subsequent day, running gets easier, and your depression gets quieter. The more I ran, the longer I was able to run, and the longer I could escape my insecurities, my critiques, my poisonous thoughts. When you seek out help, you are pushing back against your depression; you are telling it that it will end. Each day, you are pushing yourself to fight it more, to run longer.

Depression is a heavy wool blanket that weighs you down, blocking out the light of the outside world, and suffocating you in its isolation.


The first step is the most difficult to take. Everything within you opposes it. Depression is a heavy wool blanket that weighs you down, blocking out the light of the outside world, and suffocating you in its isolation. It's itchy, constantly rubbing up against your skin and irritating you, but you can't scratch it, you can't take it off. Depression doesn't want you to. You don't want to. But once you take that first step — push up that hill knowing the beautiful view you will experience, reach out for help knowing that your depression will be conquered — each subsequent step is easier. You move forward with a new perspective on running, on depression, on yourself, on life. You begin to walk away from depression.

I took my first step towards accepting myself with that run through Vermont. With the first run, I was able to begin my journey towards realizing that being gay was not wrong, that it was not going to stop me from living a happy life. Running allowed me to access a place outside of myself, free from self-critiquing and constant guilt. The more I ran, the more familiar I grew with this place, and the closer I came to accepting my sexuality, to accepting myself.

Phil Claudy 2


Strides

What starts as one step becomes a journey.

After my first run through Vermont, I researched other trails in the area and began running more and more. Through the runs, I began experiencing the beauty of the landscape around me. Running became an outlet, an opportunity to escape once a day. I escaped myself. I could project myself into the pace of my breathing, the repetitive movements of my legs and arms, the nature around me. Running allowed me to focus outside of myself, to be somewhere rather than in my own mind, where I was suffocated by the presence of my depression.

I didn't count my insecurities but my mile time. I didn't critique my self-esteem but my running form. I didn't look for my reflection in passing windows but watched the gleam of the sun on the snow-covered crests of the Connecticut River. When I was running, I was free of myself. I was free of my depression. While running, I grew stronger, both physically and mentally; I was running away from who I used to be, and running towards who I wanted to be, towards acceptance of who I really am. When I was running, I was alive. I was myself.

The further I distanced myself from my depression, the more comfortable I became with my sexuality.


The stronger I became physically, the stronger I became mentally, and the less I let my depression control me. The ability to run longer, to go more days without submitting to and sinking under the weight of your depression, is the development of mental strength. By fighting your depression more, you can hold it off longer and get further and further away from it. Soon, the good moments become more familiar than the bad moments, and you start to recognize your depression less and less. The thoughts that plagued you and drove you past the breaking point start to seem irrational as they dissipate and fade into the background. At this point, your depression is struggling for your attention, it's losing its influence on you and its control over you. You start to pick up speed, to run faster and longer, to feel more confident both in yourself and your battle with depression. Now, you are alive.

The further I distanced myself from my depression, the more comfortable I became with my sexuality. When I became comfortable enough, I made the decision to come out to my closest friends at school. In this moment, I started to feel that I was being honest with not only my friends, but also myself. The more I opened up to my friends about my sexuality and my struggle with depression, the more supported and accepted I felt. My friends made an effort to check in with me, to make sure that I was coping with my depression and sexuality properly, and to make sure I felt comfortable being myself around them. The support network I developed in coming out to my friends only accelerated the healing process from my depression. I began to pick up speed. I began to run faster. I began to feel alive.

Miles and Slip-Ups

As strides develop into miles, moments develop into days.

The more I threw myself into running, the longer I could run, and the further away I got from my depression and suicide. I looked forward to each run, to every mile and moment that allowed me to escape reality. Each mile was progress. Each moment was recovery. Each step was acceptance. Moments of release from the thoughts that plague you develop into days, and the feeling of depression and suicide becomes less and less familiar. The feeling of hating yourself and who you are starts to become foreign. Depression's grip on you loosens, and you begin to live freely and fully.

Just as the hills of Vermont vary from a slow incline to near-vertical, so does progression from depression. Occasionally, I would run out of breath, my legs would burn more than usual, or I would have a bad run. Feelings reminiscent of my early attitude would creep up from the past, leak into my mind and poison my brain. Why put myself through this? Am I really OK with who I am? Why push forward? Isn't it easier to not run?

Every once and a while, you will hit a steep hill, you will have a bad mile, you will be reminded of thoughts that you believe you have moved past. You will be revisited by your hatred of yourself, by the ubiquitous dissatisfaction. But, you move them because the misleading comfort of depression, of feeling safe in nothingness, is no longer appealing. You take it day by day, mile by mile, and you get through. You refuse to go back to a time before you were making progress, before you were running, before you were truly living.

Marathon

I started to build my life around running, around my recovery, around my love for myself. I would plan my week out, deciding how many miles I would run each day and where I would run. Run after run, day after day, I made progress. Each step truly felt like a step towards becoming my true self, a self that is accepting of my sexuality and independent of my depression. Who I was that cold night in the winter was no longer recognizable, and I could not have been happier. Occasionally, I would go for a run around that pond, and look back to the spot where I stood just a few months ago, picturing myself in that moment. The scene would feel foreign to me. The person standing there isn't me — he's my depression, he's the version of me that hates himself, that wanted to kill himself. I would pass this place on my run purposefully, as a reminder of how far I've come. As a reminder of how I am now miles away from that place.

In the spring of 2015, two of my closest friends and I ran the Sugarloaf Marathon in Maine. For me, the completion of the marathon symbolized the completion of the marathon that was my depression. The person who finished the race was not the person who started it. The person who finished was stronger, both mentally and physically. He was happier, both with himself and his life. He no longer submitted to the screaming voice in his head. He silenced it. He no longer suffocated under the weight of the wool blanket. He took it off. He no longer yearned for release from reality. He looked forward to each day. He was finally happy. He was finally himself.

The weight of my secret had finally been lifted, and I felt lighter, happier. I was finally myself.


As the truth about my sexuality came out to my friends at school, I began to feel as though I was finally being honest. After I completed the Sugarloaf Marathon, I publicly came out on Facebook. With that came the acknowledgement to friends back home as well as extended family. I felt that I was no longer keeping a secret or living a lie. My true identity, the one I desperately tried to hide, was now out for the world to see. The weight of my secret had finally been lifted, and I felt lighter, happier. I was finally myself.

The recovery process from depression is a marathon. There will be hills, tough miles, and temptation to stop running. Who you are the beginning of the marathon will not be who you are at the end. Depression will manifest itself in every hill, in every mile, and in every second. However, once you start running, it gets easier. It becomes more manageable. You believe that you can finish, and you begin to release yourself from depression's grip. Before you realize it, you are at the 26th mile. Even after you complete it, you will not stop running; you will not stop moving forward.

To stop running is to submit to your depression, to give into the thoughts that used to plague you, to stop living. You no longer hate running. You love it. Running gives you life and running is the reason you are alive. You no longer hate your depression, even though it hates you. You've moved past it, you've silenced it, and you are in control of it. At this point, your depression can no longer keep up.

Your depression has stopped running.

Today

On Nov. 22, I am running the Philadelphia Marathon and donating the proceeds I raise to The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is a non-profit that serves as a suicide hotline for LGBT youth, as well as a resource to help educate individuals about suicide, its warning signs and how action can be taken before it's too late. The Trevor Project aims to imbue the idea of hope; the idea that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; the idea that depression and suicide can be overcome; the idea that being gay isn't a flaw.

The Trevor Project helps LGBT youth struggling with depression, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies take the first step, go on that first run, and experience life. I was not aware of The Trevor Project's many resources when I was struggling with my depression and suicide, and I am incredibly fortunate to have found running as my outlet, my road to recovery, and my road to acceptance. I believe that many individuals are not as lucky as I was, and I want to spread the message of the Trevor Project so that these individuals can begin their road to recovery and start their marathon.

I already ran my own marathon. Now, I'm running the Philadelphia Marathon for all of those LGBT individuals who struggle with suicide and depression, for those who have yet to take the first step to recovery, for those who are struggling with the process, and for all of those who took their own lives under the incredible pressure of their depression. I'm running to help them complete their marathon. I'm running to help them overcome their struggle with suicide and depression. I'm running with them on their journey to recovery.

I'm running this marathon for them.

If you are LGBT and suffer from depression, contact The Trevor Project hotline at 866-488-7386866-488-7386 FREE. Someone is there to help.

To contribute to Phil Claudy as he gets ready to run the Philadelphia Marathon and raise money for the Trevor Project, go to his Go Fund Me page. (https://www.gofundme.com/philclaudy)

Phil Claudy is in the Class of 2018 at Dartmouth College, and is majoring in Economics and English. He can be reached on Facebook, Instagram, or by email at philclaudy@gmail.com.

Story edited by Jim Buzinski