JM Thompson had run a lot by the time he decided to take on one of the most grueling physical challenges – a 205 mile race around the circumference of Lake Tahoe. The ultramarathon, which Thompson ran in September 2018, covers 40,200 feet of ascent and the same distance of descent, spanning four consecutive days and nights.
It’s a lot of time to think. Or, as the British psychologist from San Francisco recounts in his new memoir, “Running Is a Kind of Dreaming”, of letting the mind go beyond conscious thought, into a liminal “waking dream world” where all that matters is moving forward.
âWhen you run,â writes Thompson, âyou remember what it’s like to be free. “
The writer spent years running in a different way long before he hit the trails. As a recent Oxford graduate, Thompson developed a tendency to jump from one crazy adventure to another, throwing himself out of jobs and relationships, skipping continents and careers. If he stayed too long in one place, he feared that the darkness of early trauma and depression would catch up with him.
In the end, that’s exactly what he did, as he recounts in vivid prose. The book, released on October 5, details the author’s descent into cocaine addiction, overwhelming sadness, and ultimately the belief that death was better than a life spent revolving around the same futile thoughts.
After a suicide attempt in 2005, Thompson checked in with Langley Porter, UCSF’s inpatient psychiatric ward. During a break on the fenced-in roof of the hospital, a thought surged from deep within his subconscious, under the suicidal noise, that running in and of itself could be positive. – tThis physical effort could perhaps even “soothe the intangible wound of my soul.”
“Run before it’s too late … Right now.” Run, âhe recalled thinking, as he began to sprint between the asphalt basketball hoops until he was sweaty and exhausted. Miraculously, his “thoughts fell silent as my feet pounded the ground.”
Thompson, now a psychologist at the Oakland Veterans Outpatient Clinic, sees running – in conjunction with therapy, sobriety and Zen meditation – as a lifeline, an integral part of his psychological healing.
Speaking to The Chronicle by phone from his home in the Mission district of San Francisco ahead of his Litquake event online on Thursday, October 14, Thompson described delving into his painful past to write this book. The hope, he says, is to “let others know that there is a way out of the underworld” of mental illness, both through self-examination and through exercise in the middle. air: run as “medicine for the mind”.
Q: How did you design the structure of the book, alternating between your 200 mile run around Lake Tahoe and memories of the darkest times in your life?
A: A lot of good memoirs have been written about difficult experiences, and there are a few good books on running, but my aha moment was wanting to do something book style that really influenced me as as a teenager, (Robert) Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Although it takes place in the motorcycling world, Pirsig is very clear that it’s not really about that. It is the odyssey of a man trying to understand the nature of reality and of himself.
Likewise, the framework for my book is on, but it really is a journey into the abyss of memory, depression, drugs and suicide, and I hope it is a journey of some sort. cathartic for the reader seeing that there is a way out.
Q: Do you feel like running saved your life?
A: Running definitely saved my life. I don’t want to create a false story that running is a cure-all – I (also) found a good therapist – but there was something about the race that was transformative.
Especially in the hellish times of still being suicidal and in the early stages of recovery from cocaine addiction. I felt bad all the time. I was not in good shape. I was actually quite overweight, but would get up early and drive to Ocean Beach in the dark and run. I could see the stars and feel the sound of the sand under my feet, hear the surf, smell the kelp and the burning firewood, and run and feel my body and just be with it. Sad memories would spring up, but also memories before I got depressed and I was like, âThis is amazing.
Q: Do you recommend running to your patients for depression?
A: I absolutely believe it helps. You don’t necessarily have to runâ¦ but aerobic exercise is proven to be an amazing drug in terms of performance in rigorous one-on-one antidepressant drug experiments.
I have a psychiatrist friend in an inpatient ward, and he would even go so far as to say that in such a medical setting, not recommending exercise would be professional misconduct.
Q: You describe being on particularly long races as a âwaking dream worldâ. Do you see any similarities to a condition induced by psychedelic drugs?
A: I do. I’m trained not only as a trauma therapist but also as a neuroscientist, and I’m pretty convinced that with long distance running what’s actually going on probably has some intersection with psychedelic psychotherapy – you have that release of the prefrontal cortex, so you go into something more akin to a daydreaming state. Because of this, there is a capacity for restructuring the traumatic experience. The reality of the traumatic memories for the millions of people who experience them is that the nightmare never ends. You have this tape loop playing in your head. As I call it in the book, the moment is always here. Those same feelings are still there.
What then becomes clinically required is a way to rearrange the experience, so that you can fit it in in a certain sense of “Well, that was then, and it’s now, and now I’m in.” security. “It was awful, but that’s in the past.” I think long distance running can be incredibly helpful in inducing that kind of psychological state that helps.
Q: I have never read anything like your description of suicidal thoughts or your hospitalization. What was your approach there?
A: I felt like there was something important about being adamant about describing the reality of not only suicidality, but also a suicide attempt with a high potential for lethality. It wasn’t a cry for help. I intended to die. Yet I felt like the whole experience of suicide and in-hospital treatment remains a mystery behind closed doors. It’s sort of terrifying, and rightly so, as these are dark corners of the human experience. But I thought there would be a real benefit in being extremely honest and open with readers about this.
Q: Would you ever do something as long as the 200 mile Tahoe ridden again, or did you remove that from your system?
A: I just did a 28 mile run this morning, and it was great. I’m now coming to the idea that running is something I will always do, but I’m not sure if I need to run all day and night and moan in the dark with my feet falling. I think it was about finding a way to heal. It’s like Alan Watts’ famous line on psychedelics: âOnce you get the message, hang up the phone.
“Running is a kind of dream: a memory”
By JM Thompson
(HarperOne; 320 pages; $ 27.99)
Litquake introduces JM Thompson in conversation with Bonnie Tsui: Pre-recorded online event. 7:30 p.m. Thursday October 14. Free. Registration required. www.litquake.org