I am suspicious of activities considered healthy and wholesome, the kind people like to show off on Instagram on Sundays.
You know the ones, where they’re dressed in brightly coloured Carhartt beanies with Patagonia fleeces, cosplaying lumberjack mountaineers when they actually do something in accounting.
They usually go in pairs and can be seen grinning in front of a tree or a rock with the caption “into the wild!”, even though the asphalt car park complete with coffee vans can be seen behind them.
Aside from propping up the burgeoning industry of old horse trailers serving flat whites, it’s these types of people who keep perpetuating the myth that hikes, swims and all that other stuff are what the healthy and the happy do.
Dyslexia: ‘Quiet, well-behaved girls can go undiagnosed and slip under the radar in a busy classroom’
But I think it’s the exact opposite.
Remember lockdown? When we all went on walks because that’s all we could do? Trails overflowed at weekends and the schlep from the only place you could get a parking space to the starting point was longer than the planned walk itself.
[ 32 great hikes around Ireland – one in every county ]
Were we happy? No, we were anxious about what the pandemic would do to our old ones, our jobs, our hospitals and our kids. We were trying to tire our bodies and minds in order to get a bit of sleep and to get away from the news on the telly.
In the summer of 2021 I had been stranded away from my home country, unable to see any family for two years, and had just watched my grandad’s funeral on a low-resolution webcam. I was not okay.
A gorgeous friend, like a good strict PE mistress, knew exactly what I needed and bundled me into the car for a hike. Well, it was actually a big walk, because really that’s what hikes are, but that doesn’t sound as impressive. Mountain hiking sounds better than walking up really big hills, doesn’t it?
The point of the really big walk up Ticknock that day wasn’t love and lightness. It was solely to walk out the sadness and sometimes to yell the word f**k a bit too loudly into the safety of nature (checking for children first, obviously).
And it worked, at least temporarily.
My problems were still waiting for me at the bottom, next to the information centre, but they seemed smaller, less likely to be able to climb on my chest and hold me down like they’d been doing for days.
So if you see me hiking up an incline at pace, I’m not doing it because I am at my zenith of wellness. No, I am battling demons out there on those wooden plank paths.
I am not in a good place if I am outside and exercising by choice. If you see me running and not for a bus, something has gone terribly wrong.
If my YouTube history shows Yoga with Adriene for 10 days straight, it’s a cry for help. If I am attending any kind of fitness class that has needlessly combined two words into one like Yogalites or Jazzercise, then you might as well call the gardaí.
But if you see me dancing on the dance floor at 2am in a licensed establishment with a whiskey ginger, then I am fine. All is well. I’m engaging in some personal development in my safe space. Leave me undisturbed.
The irony is that when my mental and physical health are at all time highs, I go out to gigs, I smoke five “just the one” cigarettes at night, I throw parties and serve a mixture of carbohydrates smothered in cheese.
We are conditioned to believe that these are acts of the desperately unhappy trying to get away from their feelings. Which isn’t true. I know what I’m feeling as I sit with my bag of salt with a side of chips on my sofa. Bloody great.
But life happens, mental illness rocks up, grief hits and that’s when I stop going out and start running.
[ Brianna Parkins: Should young Irish people emigrate to Australia? I hate that my answer is yes ]
I’m not the only one. I see the same people on the same daily running routes. Certain fit-looking dad types with little wrist robots telling them how fast they need to run give me a nod as they pass by me with embarrassing frequency.
They might be telling people in the office they’re training for a fun run, but I see the pain in their eyes. I want to stop them and give them a gentle pat on the head and say “it’s all right little buddy”.
But then I remember that is exactly the type of madwoman behaviour I’m out here on a freezing day trying to suppress with my pathetic little walk-run hybrid.
I have a hypothesis that if Ireland suddenly provided adequate public mental health services, the number of marathon runners would halve. They would no longer have to literally run from their problems. They could resolve their emotions in therapy. It could clear the roads of mountain bikers, the golf courses might return to nature and gyms would become little bakeries.
We would be free.