Marathon runner takes challenges in his stride ahead of Great Birmingham Run
While in the debilitating grip of PTSD, anxiety and depression, Ryan Mills couldn’t have imagined running for a bus, let alone entering a half-marathon.
But after hearing the benefits exercise could have for his mental health, he took the first steps on the road to recovery by going for his first run.
Now the 26-year-old will take part in the Great Birmingham Run on October 13,cheered on by his fiancée Jessica Hoggins and one-year-old son Arthur.
And Ryan says his loved ones will be his biggest motivation because in June last year he had feared he would lose them both to life-threatening sepsis.
"I was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression at the end of May, but my issues began at Arthur’s birth. Just a couple of minutes afterwards, Jess threw up all over me. Arthur was rushed to the neo-natal unit and I was removed from the operating theatre.
"I hadn’t a clue what was happening. Jess was extremely pale, shivering all over and looked like she was going to die. The doctors diagnosed they both had sepsis and needed to act quickly to stop it killing them. Seeing the state Jess was in, I started thinking ‘if she’s like this, how can a baby survive? Arthur must be dead’.
“Both Jess and Arthur were pumped with antibiotics to stop the infection spreading to their organs. My emotions were all over the place. At the same time, I was crying tears of happiness, at seeing my son born and sadness that I could lose them both.
"Thankfully, the infections were caught in time, but a couple of hours later Jess started screaming in agony. She had a hematoma the size of a grapefruit.
"They managed to remove it but she was kept in for two weeks and in real pain for most of it.”
As they both began recovering from their ordeal, Ryan continued to feel anxious, restless and experienced a loss of appetite - clear indicators something was wrong.
“During the week Arthur was born, I slept no more than three hours and was living off cigarettes and energy drinks. I couldn’t eat. I was at the hospital 12 hours a day, then I’d go home and couldn’t sleep. I was racked with worry.
"Being on my own, I couldn’t stop thinking ‘they won’t be coming home, this is what my life will be like moving forward’. Thankfully, they both pulled through and have fully recovered. Arthur is wild and lively. But after they came home, I started having dreams about them dying.
"Either Jess or Arthur, or both, would die. When I woke up, I had to feel Jess next to me, or wait for Arthur to make a noise on the baby monitor, to convince me everything was ok. I was still having the dreams several months later,” he says.
He was inspired to get his trainers on during a conversation with his fiancee's aunt Yvonne Chetwood, a keen runner, who had mentioned in passing how her hobby helped her mental health.
"She had no idea I was having mental health issues, but she coerced me to do a Park Run last April – with no training! I wasn’t into any sport or exercise.
"My father-in-law, Dean Spink, played for Shrewsbury Town in the nineties but that didn’t rub off on me. This was my first-ever run. Even my mum laughed at me! Forget couch to 5k. It was more like ‘couch potato to 5K finish line’ in one go. I was absolutely shattered afterwards but had a huge sense of achievement. I felt the runners’ high, as they call it.
"A few weeks later, with a couple of training runs under my belt, Yvonne persuaded me to do the Market Drayton 10K and I haven’t looked back since,” explains Ryan, who works as a residential support worker.
Despite catching the running bug, he was still experiencing flashbacks to Jess and Arthur's ordeal and so he decided it was time to seek expert help.
“I loved the feeling I get from running. It took my mind off the pain I was feeling from Jess and Arthur’s ordeal. There was no reason for that pain, as I hadn’t lost them. But the PTSD was giving me flashbacks to scenarios that didn’t happen.
"Running also helped me think more clearly. But it can’t solve everything. Not long after the Market Drayton 10K, I was still feeling really low so I plucked up the courage to go to the doctor, as I was still having these horrendous dreams.
"I’d tried to deal with it on my own, and kept telling myself to 'man up', but that was a huge mistake.The doctor diagnosed PTSD, depression and anxiety, put me on medication and booked me in for therapy sessions, which have all helped. He also encouraged me to keep running. I run three to four times a week now.”
He is following a training programme for the Great Birmingham Run which starts on iconic New Street and takes in city landmarks and suburbs like the Rotunda, Selfridges, Bournville, Cannon Hill Park, Edgbaston Stadium and Digbeth before finishing on Jennens Road,with Aston University campus hosting post-run refreshments.
Ryan, who will be raising money Mental Health UK, says he has mixed feelings about his first half-marathon.
“I’m both really nervous and excited at the same time. I’m following a training programme and vary my routes, which is also good for the mind," he says.
The father is also keen to share his advice with others who may be experiencing mental health issues and his main tip is: don’t bottle things up.
"I would advise anyone with similar issues to pluck up the courage to speak to someone – even if it’s just one other person. A great starting point would be Mental Health UK, which is helping to normalise mental health issues in the UK.
"Being a man, I thought I needed to be the strong one in my family and was ashamed to admit I was struggling. I now know it is stronger to tell someone something is wrong. Getting active can certainly help this process.”
To sponsor Ryan see www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ryanthomasmills and for more information about the Simplyhealth Great Birmingham Run go to greatrun.org/great-birmingham-run