Rules for a Happy Life: Exercise

Opening a doorWant to solve depression without drugs?

Me too.

So when I say exercise, it is different from just moving around when I get bored or feel like I need to get out of the house before I lose my damn mind. I mean work out. This is more than doing a few situps or pushups or walking on a treadmill for a half hour and feeling good about myself. Working out means I sweat hard, feel a little sore, and stop only after I have kept going a few minutes after I thought I had nothing left to give.

Last year I started tracking my activity as a way to tell me the truth about how much I am moving or sitting each day. I can rationalize that binge-watching all of Angel is working because my brain is doing something. My proclivity to self-delusion is that powerful. I Jedi mindtrick myself into sloth.

In the fall of 2014 I got this little Vivofit that Garmin makes to help me out. It tracked my steps, sleep, and the kind of movement I was making. It was cool because it was waterproof and I could leave it on all the time. The first thing I noticed is that I was a very stationary chap. Of course, last winter was way too cold to be thinking about going out for a brisk walk especially because I had gotten used to being sedentary. But I had a YMCA membership mainly so my kids and I would have something to do during the winter weekend months. Here’s the kicker: There is an exercise room with all of the treadmills, ellipticals, and weights literally 100 feet from the front door of my building. A couple of years ago, I went to the Y to workout for at least 30 minutes every day, but after I moved in 2014 that and all the rest of my good habits died off which is when I started to get sluggish and down. Moving is stressful, people. All of your routines get crushed under the anxiety of change and you have to find a way to get back into it. I did not.

So why didn’t I just hop across the street? It was anxiety pure and simple. I felt out of shape and I did not want to look out of shape in front of others because all of that self-talk nonsense was polluting my brain. Even after I started running I refused to go into that room. It’s absurd to me now, but back then it was a big ass wall I did not have the will to break through.

After I started running, I got a bad case of iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) which meant my knees hurt like hell. I took about 2 1/2 weeks off but in that time I had to get my butt in that workout room to build up some strength in my hips and get on that treadmill to focus on form a bit. All I had to do was walk in the door and whatever fear or anxiety I had was gone the second I opened the door. Eventually my knees felt better and I started running outside again. I would go back to that room when I got tendonitis and now I am going back because winter decided to show up and I am not in the mood to run in that mess right now.

The reason I am telling you this little story is because if you have anxiety about exercise, about whether or not you can do it, if you will look foolish, if you will be sore afterwards, etc. just open the damn door! Of course you are going to be sore. Of course you might not look that great. The only people who look great working out are the people in the videos and even then, most of the time they are sweating and getting stinky and that is their job! If you are not looking somewhat constipated, sweating, and all around nasty while working out, you aren’t doing quite enough. This is all about effort.

Eventually my little tracker was not enough. Somewhere I went from a person who needed to track his activities who also runs to a runner who also tracks his activities. I got a Polar m400 because it can do both. I can get all of my GPS running data and track my activity during the day and night. It also has a heart monitor that I strap onto my chest. That’s where the real workouts began. In the gym, I focus not so much on speed or distance but on time and effort. I want to get my heart up and keep it in a solid “cardio” zone for most of my workout. I am 41 so my maximum heart rate is around 179 bpm. When I workout I am trying to get that up to a minimum of 150 for the duration and to peak it out to about 160-165. If I am outside and running a course with hills, that’s about what my body does so I want to replicate that effort inside. This means I am working out my heart and processing all of the sugar stores in my body. All those carbs I ate the day before are burning off and my fitness to run longer and faster improves.

Here’s the magic. When I work out like this, my mood instantly changes and I feel better about everything. My sleep improves and my quality of life gets more focused and supercharged. I wake up. My heart rate is like a natural drug and it is part of what I would like to call a totally drug-free solution for depression.

So if you are going to the gym and never see or feel results, check your heart rate. Pay attention to the effort your body is actually putting into the work. Then increase your effort regardless of how fit you are today. That’s what counts. Stop looking at the person who has been coming into the gym for 5 hours every day wearing matching gym clothes they got for Christmas and the cement mixer sized container of protein shake they have waiting for them. You’ll demotivate yourself and never want to come back. Put on your headphones and listen to yourself. Then work it out. That 30 minutes at least every other day will change your life. In a couple of weeks after you start, you will be amazed at where you can go.

But you gotta first, open the damn door.

Part four of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

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Rules for a Happy Life: Eat Less

myplate_yellow_livetype copyMy go-to response to stress and depression is eating. I love sugar and I love carbs. It turns out that for people with depression in their families or who regularly experience depression, sugar is a source of craving. Too much sugar can jack your hormones and create more craving which plays right into addictive patterns of behavior. It’s the great proxy for people getting sober as well. When you stop drinking, your body consumes less sugar so you naturally it will seek out sugary foods. Talk to any recovering addict about ice cream and they will let out a knowing laugh.

Most of my calories have been from processed carbohydrates which turns into sugar at some point in the power plant of the human body. Since I was not exercising, that sugar turned into pounds and sent my already unstable emotional balance downhill. Moving helps this problem since by using up the energy found in the glucose stores in muscles, your body is processing all of the crap it would normally store. If you are a runner, you need this stuff because after about an hour or so, you use it all up. But if you were a slothful slug like me, all of that ice cream, potato chips, and pasta would just put on the pounds.

I used the idea of calorie cutting first to help with the weight loss process. But what it also does is helps me to build an awareness of what I am putting in my body. Carbs feel great for a little while, but they don’t satiate hunger for a very long time. Something like a can of Pringles (screw not eating just one, I eat the whole damn can every time) is 900 calories but will only help you feel full for like an hour. Ice cream is even worse. Protein rich and fiber rich foods on the other hand are filling, take a lot of work for the body to digest, and far more satiating. So if I am going to cut my gross calorie intake a day, it had better be with those kinds of foods. That means more things like veggies and legumes.

I used to be tired and sluggish after lunch. At the start of 2015 and all of the years I can remember before that, I would avoid meetings after lunch and would feel exhausted for the hours afterwards. I ate too much and was doing nothing to burn it off. That sluggishness is gone. Now, I snack more periodically throughout the day and my main meals I try to keep around 500 calories. If I go over the limit of around 1500-1800 net calories, it’s not a big deal, but I try not to slip all that much. I dropped the excess pounds and now sit at a very comfortable weight that gives me enough fuel for a long run without the need for gels and other crap – even though they help sometimes. For that I will intentionally jack my system with complex carbs but only with the intention of burning it off.

I use MyFitnessPal to track what I eat. It is a great tool to build awareness and to see what I am actually putting in my body. I can’t trust my eyes or stomach to tell me the truth. Only data can do that for me. This is not a diet. It is part of a lifestyle change. And it works.

Part three of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Move

Stuart_Smalley

Stuart Smalley was wrong.

Thinking my way out of bad thinking does not work. I used to confuse action with things I could do with my mind alone. For the longest time if I had a bad thought I believed that all I had to do was pray or meditate and replace the bad thought with something good.

If I was starting in on the monologue of “I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m useless, I’m expendable,” I believed that all I had to do was reverse the spin in my mind with affirmations. “I’m valuable, I’m smart, I’m useful, I’m special.” Or I would pray, “Lord help me see my worth…blah blah blah…”

But I always felt absurd doing that and it never helped. I think if it helped, I would feel less absurd. No matter how much I worked on it, my thinking would come back to its pitiful default. Then I would feel worse because I couldn’t seem to do what worked for others.

If something isn’t really working, no matter how much people tell you that it should work, just stop. You need to do something else. So I stopped praying and self-affirming. I stopped reading about it or thinking about all of those things that I had been told by well-meaning people for whom these methods had worked. Sure, I could get temporary relief from prayer, but I would always return to the fundamental structures in my brain that were firing off these awful messages that were mentally and physically exhausting me on a daily basis. I refused to accept the belief that this sort of thinking is just “who I am.”

The solution was literally to get out of my head with physical movement. The problem is in my brain which is a mass of chemicals and energy and moving my body helps to change what is happening in there at the most fundamental levels. Just doing the Stuart Smalley thing by telling myself I am “good enough, smart enough, and people like me” was like trying to clean up a spill on the floor with a soaking wet towel. The towel might be fine, but I needed to wring that thing out before it would work. Moving my body is like wringing out that towel.

If I am bored and want a snack even if I am not hungry, I go for a walk. If I am feeling lonely or stressed that just means I have energy I need to release so I walk over to the YMCA and work it out on a treadmill or something more low impact if I am injured. In good weather I will just go for a run. Or I will take the dog for a long walk. This is basically a specific method of leaning-in to the problem. 100% of the time since I started this, whichever thoughts were bothering me or whatever emotions were starting to weigh me down disappeared.

By moving as a response to negative or harmful thinking, the thoughts evaporated almost instantly. The payoff is that I have effectively conditioned my mind to the degree that these thoughts, which I have been a victim to my entire life, are very rarely present anymore. Whatever was in me that responded to the environment with depressive thinking is basically gone.

By moving my body, I have evicted my depressive self from my mind. It has taken several months and practice not just every day, but every time the thoughts appear and as soon as they appear. Depressive thinking is tenacious. It is incredibly difficult at the beginning because it is so unconscious. It takes time and practice just to build awareness of when and under what circumstances it happens. But it gets easier because with consistent and equally tenacious practice, the thoughts begin to fade. And fade they have.

Now I move my body mainly because it’s fun and I feel good doing it, especially if I am having a bad day. I now schedule my days around it. I know that the more I do this, the more likely my depressed visitor will never want to stop by for a visit. I don’t even need the towel to clean up the mess because the mess no longer exists.

Part two of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Running Into Change

I wasn’t feeling that well. During the unseasonably cool and wet month of June and then into July I managed to binge watch my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and finally Sense8 (oh my God what a great show). I accomplished almost the entire Whedonverse right into Buffy Season 8 in the comics (I almost hit up Firefly, again). My consumption of old TV at the expense of using my mind for constructive things like reading and experiencing sunshine was not out of some healthy compulsion, but in order to fill time. Depression works that way. Depression is persistent giving up. It is a condition of gravity and feels inescapable.

In July I decided I needed to change some things. I needed to change my thinking. But the way the brain reacts to the environment can’t just be wished away. I accepted that wishful thinking was the easy path for people, like me, who didn’t really want to work all that hard. But being different and thinking and behaving differently is not easy. It is hard work. It takes a lot of force to push against instincts that pull you down in self-destructive ways.

I love you Buffy, but our relationship was more dysfunctional than you and Angel. Maybe not as bad as what happened between you and Spike. That was messed up. I knew I could do better than that.

When my brain started in on those depressive thoughts – “It’s pointless,” “You kind of suck,” “There you go failing again” – rather than dwell on the messed up world that my brain lived in, I decided to push back. I started to tell all those thoughts to “Shut the fuck up.” That was a liberating start. But there was this energy left over from the fight and I needed to put it somewhere.

Two different running routes

On July 20, 2015 I was eating horribly (I partially blame the deliciousness of the Chinese buffet across the street), gaining weight, in a deteriorating physical condition, tired all day, not sleeping well, and persistently bored. So I took the next step. I put on running shoes and went out to kill myself – metaphorically, of course.

Within a minute of “running” I was out of breath, my legs hurt, and I needed to walk. In that silence, those thoughts began to dig their way out of my brain again (“You idiot,” “What the hell is wrong with you,” “This is stupid,” “Give up already”). I told them where to go and picked up the pace – for another minute. Running for 90 seconds straight that night was an accomplishment and I made it through the entire route. It took me over 40 minutes to make it through just over 3.5 miles. It’s like a fast walk or thereabouts. It was my first victory. I liked the feeling.

Since that night I hurt my knees, I have been sore more often than not, blistered up my feet and came close to losing a toenail, fell pretty hard once, and found myself completely dehydrated one hot afternoon. But every time those voices came into my head, I finished the run and pummeled them into non-existence. With every run it is like a layer of that depressive self gets ripped off and a bit more of who I really am gets to emerge. And I like the running me.

Last Sunday I ran over 12 miles and signed up for a half marathon. I am 20 pounds lighter, sleep like a champ, and have learned that I don’t need to run from depression by bingeing on hours of TV and pounds of popcorn and burritos. I can run right into it and beat it down with each footstep. That’s better medicine than any pharmaceutical can manufacture.

The only way I can change is by sometimes forcing myself to do the things that seem difficult and that I don’t really want to do. I don’t love running. In fact, I hate running during that first mile or two. But that’s when running does its best work. It is during those hard miles that the voices start to speak and I get to attack them. They lose power because I take my power back. My pace always picks up at that point. I don’t think its just because I get warmed up. At that moment I decide who I want to be and the demons of depression lose their grip once again. Right then, I am free.

Overcoming My Learning Disabilities

Shortbus Lick Windows Wear HelmetOctober is Learning Disability Awareness Month. This is part of my story.

It was 1983. I will never forget my five years as one among many other sequestered kids stamped with the label of learning disabled.

When I was in 3rd grade my family was hanging on by a thread my mom did everything she could in her power to hold together.Problems in the family placed undue stress on us all.  We each had our own issues and found support for better or worse from different places. Developmentally, I did not have much of a choice for what kind of support I needed. The home was it.

Third grade was my education bottom. So depressed from the immense stress in my environment, I was admitted to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, DC. That was the beginning of 5 year of placement in a restrictive education environment. There I spent three months in residential care to regain footing in my delayed cognitive and social development.

If the reactions to stress are flight and fight, I flew. But I never flew away from anything. I flew inward. Shutting the world out with the walls of my imagination worked for a while. It was a cocoon. The strange thing about cocoons is that the caterpillar literally digests itself into a soup before it develops into a butterfly. Gross. But it’s a really good metaphor for my mental state at the time.

What I learned most was how to game the system. There were specific outcomes that had the reward of a less restrictive treatment. Once you hit the highest level which was “Unaccompanied walks” off the premises, you were just a step away from discharge. I could actually walk outside of the “yard” where we got to spend time in the sunlight and play games like at recess! Once I figured out how to game the system, I knew I could get out.

When I was discharged from that program, I spent the next year at a school called the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents (R.I.C.A.). The program lumped together all of us dysfunctional kids in one place separated only by age, or at least that’s the way it felt. Even at “P.I.” everyone was tossed together. For several years, I felt like a leper quarantined from the rest of society.

R.I.C.A. “mainstreamed” me to a “regular” elementary school for a few months before I was able to join that school full-time. However, even there I was in my own little classroom that looked the same as the other places. All of us special ed kids were again lumped together. On the scale of autism and dyslexia to depression and broken homes, we were all part of the same crew. We were visibly separated from the rest of the school in that little cloistered group. Outcasts, that was where I began to hear the terms “sped,” “retard,” and “stupid” among other things. My one goal was to get out.

Eventually, I was mainstreamed into the “regular” classes. That happened through middle school. I went to a middle school in Potomac, MD where the kids were far wealthier than us, so even there I felt different from everyone else. It wasn’t until 8th grade and out of that environment that I began to feel truly “normal,” or as normal as I could be.

I had a new home, new school, new friends, and a new start. From that point on I got better and better at just “doing school.”

Despite the fact that many of the procedures made me feel like an outcast during and for long after my treatment, something must have worked. I learned how to manipulate the system and as I later found out, I learned how to manipulate people. Was I better psychologically? I doubt it. I could hide more effectively and play the role of someone healthy even though I knew deep-down I was still a hot mess. Later in life, I was able to overcome and most of the scars have healed.

I recently completed a doctoral degree in a program for which I earned a 4.0 GPA. I earned two master’s degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, one of which I received a Fellowship for thesis work and the other I received a full academic scholarship. I graduated college with a 3.0 and made the Dean’s list twice.

These were all statistically rare achievements for someone with mental and learning disabilities such as mine.

I say that not because I am special, but that it can be done.

Long Weekend Blahs

Today I woke up with the blahs.

Ok, it might be more significant that having the “blahs.” It was more weighty. Some morning I wake up with a certain gravity that pulls me down. I am heavy metal and the bed is my electro-magnet.

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the air was fresh with potential. I finally had enough escape velocity to get in the shower and get ready to go. I walked the dog, ate a banana, and was off to the office on my bike. This was on 7 hours of sleep. I even got paid!

I have a three-day weekend, fun stuff with the boys planned, and there is nothing that seems wrong.

I did everything correctly to feel good. But I did not feel right with the world then, and I have not since. I am productive at work today, but even that may not help the shadow over my head.

Sometimes I just wake up that way and stay that way until the next morning. I just have to move through the day as if nothing is wrong.

Maybe I should have known I would wake up in a funk when this song was the most awesome thing I heard yesterday.

Naw… That’s not it at all. That song just rocks!