Pays au dela

"As to the natural parts I have, of which this is the essay, I find them to bow under the burden; my fancy and judgment do but grope in the dark, tripping and stumbling [wobbling] in the way, and when I have gone as far as I can, I am in no degree satisfied; I discover still a new and greater extent of land before me, with a troubled and imperfect sight and wrapped up in clouds, that I am not able to penetrate." Montaigne-"On the Education of Children"

My domain name, "Pais au dela," is the original French translated here as "extent of land before me." My goal for this page will be to explore, in an ambling way at times, the great land before me hoping to find clarity as I advance. I will focus centrally though not exclusively on mental health issues in my stumbling march forward.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wish I'd known: Accepting

In an earlier post, I wrote about the many things I wish I had known that could have kept my breakdown from wrecking my life so thoroughly. I was incapacitated for over a year while my marriage shredded to rags in a wood chipper of depression, like the one they used to pulp dead bodies in Fargo. Doing the simplest things—getting out of bed and trudging to the shower or standing back up from the shower floor after I'd laid down hoping a stream of warm water might bring peace—felt like insurmountable obstacles. It's unpleasant still even fully recovered today to create the scroll of those shitty memories. Slight echoes of yesterday's desperate gasping awaken in me when I record the past that I hated.

The people we've been at different points in our lives sleep within us. They can rise and radiate out of the gut where they slumber, fanning up in smoke through our torso, seeping into our mind. They can precipitate and calcify, solidify and become us again. Right now when I think about those shit days, that guy who couldn't hold his head level walking down the street because it was physically too painful, whose belly thrashed, whose throat filled with a nauseous choke of impotence at the thought of getting in to work, this guy who I hate and hated being is only a wisp of fumes. He puffs and passes through me and then quickly passes on. These days he doesn't have any grip to take hold.


Again, I'll harp on it like I have in other posts. Simple daily tasks like getting out of bed or walking a block with your head straight are easy when you are healthy. When I lost my mind, those things were literally more difficult and painful than running a marathon. I return often to this comparison because I think it gives the best glimpse of how hard and devastatingly real of a problem depression is for someone who hasn't lived it. The comparison is also useful for newcomers who are plummeting through the horrors of melancholia for the first time. If you've been highly functional and successful, it's hard to understand why all these stupid goddamn trifles are suddenly next to impossible challenges.


To take depression seriously and to fully acknowledge what it's done to your abilities you have to wrap your head around swirling counterintuitive thinking about success and failure. In the early days of my crash, I had a very scrambled grasp on my condition. There are different levels of knowledge and understanding. On an immediate level in the bone and gut, I knew exactly how hard everything had become. I was the one calling in sick when I couldn't get out of bed and canceling my classes pretexting stomach illness when I couldn't think of anything to do with my students. I could feel that something was terribly wrong, but I couldn't explain it to myself clearly like I can now. My brain had put me in a place where teaching a class or planning a lesson was almost unbearable. And I do not say "my brain put me in a place" without realizing that many of my own dysfunctional choices and thinking patterns contributed mightily to get me into that terrible place.  From the bottom of that stupid hole, I would compare my sluggishness to how I'd felt the year before when I was excited about teaching my first poetry class. I got to design my own syllabus and talk with intelligent young people about the poetry I love: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Yeats, Whitman, Ginsberg. But when I started back to work at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, my attitude about work had changed utterly.


To get past this terrible slothing, you have to acknowledge and accept your condition, lower your standards and admit that something real is keeping you from performing the way you'd like to. There's a sliding scale of accomplishment at play when you get depressed. Healthy people don't have any problem walking two blocks to get on the metro to ride to work. Healthy teachers are able to plan the next day's lesson without feeling like their entire world is caving in on their airways. But judging yourself when you are sick based on what you can accomplish healthy is a recipe for a dysfunctional thinking disaster. Thinking this way creates added pressure and obstacles that make recovery harder. To get out of the hole, you have to find ways to feel good about the tiny things you do manage to do. Once you've gone through the fall and climb back out to normal healthy living, you might understand that daily tasks when depressed were harder than running a marathon healthy. When you're in the shit, especially the first time, it is very difficult to realize that you've accomplished something difficult by making it to the shower. Good therapy often works to restore a sense of self-worth attached to these miniscule accomplishments, but it is very hard to build confidence when you can so readily compare your sick and healthy selves. If you can acknowledge and appreciate how depression changes degree of difficulty, you can perhaps avoid the counterproductive stress of feeling like you should be able to charge full speed like a healthy man. If you accept, you might cut down on the useless railings at yourself about what an unproductive asshole you've become. These railings only set you back. But it's not an easy shift to make in the way you think. I mean I've run a marathon (twice) for Christ's sake. And I'm supposed to pat myself on the back for taking a damn shower? Fucking absurd. Absurd like the irrational attacks of the beast that's trying to crush you.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Tottering with Demons

This essay could also easily be called “Concerning Effort.” It likely would be if Montaigne were writing it, though every once in a while my renaissance mentor did go hard off the rails and write something that had practically no connection at all to his title.

From fourth grade through my senior year in high school, I played football—minus one year when my pediatrician didn’t want me exposed to contact because of a rare kidney condition called nephrois. My football coaches at every level taught me to give 110% maximum effort on every play. As an undersized linebacker and guard, I relied on being mean, being smart, and my coaches’ balls-out though mathematically dubious work ethic to became a decent player. Getting older (and smarter?) it’s sometimes tempting to dismiss high school sports as meathead nonsense. That, though, would be elitist, intellectual nonsense in turn. I don’t discredit my football experience today. And I don’t want to shit on sports culture. I liked playing football, still love watching football, and learned a lot about effort when I played. But the 110 effort mentality useful for a 3–10 second burst of a football down can work against me as a mediocre long distance runner trying to get better in my mid-thirties—yeah it’s true, mid-thirties, I’ll own it.

Two cartoon style demons hover above my shoulders next to my ears when I run. I’ve recently named them Lucretia and Jackson. Jackson and I have known each other for a very long time. This all-American speed demon fought welterweight as a freshman on his high school’s varsity MMA squad. He’s had his nose broken twice, and 3 of his incisors are now made of state of the art bio-tech composites. This absolutely ingrained monster stokes the urge to always hurry, bellowing at me to go go go go damn it go and when the pinch in your side and the burn in your lungs start to feel like too much, go anyway for fuck’s sake. He is an utter and all-time badass, though unconfirmed rumors have swirled for years about his crossdressed Karaoke at a backwoods dive bar off a dirt road somewhere between Hazel Green, AL and Fayetteville, TN.

Jackson’s counterpart Lucretia is a bawdy harlot who only wants to lounge on her hand made leather couch that someone else paid for. Lucretia snoozes dreary all day in and out of consciousness at her opium-sloth house. Everything bores her. Her distorted perceptions of reality arrive refracted through the light waves bouncing around the glass and smoke of her water pipe. She would sit and watch, yawning out passive indifference, while her whole world was swallowed up and drooled into useless piles of debris. Jackson screams you scared and gets you to push. Lucretia is crafty. A skilled rhetorician, she persuades with tender words. If you don’t defend your ears against her, she’ll have you wallowing in bed over Dorito crumbs and watching SVU reruns on Netflix quicker than you can say “maybe I’ll wait and do my long run tomorrow."


GNOTHI SEAUTON

Patience is a marathon runner’s friend. If you learned how to try as a scrapping high school football OG, it’s easy to burn out when you hit the pavement to build long running endurance. The fall I turned 22, I made my first failed attempt at running Pheidippides’ race. I knew very little about pacing, fueling, hydration, tapering, inflammation, wicking fabrics, or chaffing. I didn’t talk to anyone who had done a marathon for advice, didn’t take fluids during my runs, didn’t stretch, didn’t eat for energy, didn’t carbo load, or gel. Because I just didn’t like the feel of a cold against my skin, I would have never iced joints to control inflammation. The ice bath has now become a nearly ritualistic part of my long run routine.


My ignorance eventually led to injury that fall. And yet, as I sit here wanting to show why it’s helpful to understand different levels of pace and effort, a haunted ache rises, a semi-sweet morsel of lost time and blurred rustlings of vehement late afternoon fights with dear shithead friends over the significance of wisteria vines, all washed down by the burning allure of bourbon drinks under fading November dusk in front porch rocking chairs. Part of me misses the guy I was then, so free of theory and so much closer to the immediate experience of the body running, the guy who could throw on a pair of shorts and cotton t-shirt, nipple chaffing be damned, and charge out into the streets of Athens, GA to just run unprepared for hours.

That was the year I discovered iliotibial (IT) bands. The IT band is a tendon that connects one of the shin bones (tibia) to the muscles in the hip. It crosses the top of the knee joint on the outside of the leg. Back then, I didn’t know that these bands existed in our bodies, that they need to be stretched, that they are one of the most common sources of overuse injury for runners, or that if you run all the time without the right preparation and aftercare they become enlarged and press against the knee.


My goal race that year was in January, and I made it all the way to a 20 mile run in late December. That run went well. Blissfully ignorant while home from school over Christmas break, I mapped a course to a spot 10 miles away from my parent’s house. I ran to that spot and back—without drinking any water!—and felt good the whole way. A few days later there was an immediate sharp pain in my knee when I tried to run again. I thought at first that I’d be able to run through the pain. But before I reached the end of the block, I was convinced that I had blown my knee joint and that there was no way I’d be able to continue running. More or less ready, physically prepared for my target distance, I scratched on my first marathon attempt that day less than a month out from the race.


When I think about that scratch, my ignorance transforms from a blissful, immediate connection with my body into an unsettling churn of regret. There was no major damage to my knee. I could have easily run on it. I didn’t know that though. I stayed off the knee for a while and then began running shorter distances again several months later. The following summer, I went running one afternoon and made it about half a mile before I felt the same pinch in my knee. I tried again to push through it but didn’t make it very far before the pain shut me down. I walked home frustrated and fuming, an immature and nauseous sense of injustice hounding me with questions about why this unfair knee problem was happening to me. When I got home, I was so choking mad that I paced around the house furious for a few minutes and then kicked a hole in the wall. But I also finally decided to get my knee looked at. Later that week, a sports med specialist at the University of Georgia student clinic explained what was happening. She taught me a simple stretch that I have done ever since, and I’ve never had any more trouble with IT band pain. What if I’d gone in to see her in December and learned the stretch before I dropped out of my race? Back when I could run a sub 6:00 mile, would I have notched my four hour marathon on the first go round? The McMillan calculator says I would have run 3:24:05 based on my 10k PR from the same year. Could I have qualified for Boston? Ohhhh tense and mood. Ohhhh sacred could have.


Ever since my days as a kid with nephrosis, I’ve hated going to doctors. There’s a residue in me of a half-articulated error connecting doctors and limitations. I do not readily see them as healers who will alleviate my pain and help me fix my physical ailments. When I was a kid, a check-up often meant going back on a Prednisone steroid treatment that made me want to eat all the time. It meant worrying about high cholesterol as a fifth grader, months of peeing on these goddamn sticks every morning to find out whether my kidneys were flushing all the protein I needed out of my system, occasional 24 hour urine collections where I kept all my piss from the day in a bottle in the fridge to send away for lab analysis, and the afore mentioned and bitterly hated ban on contact sports. I saw all these negative side effects instead of the miraculous science that had transformed nephrosis, a potentially fatal condition, into just a series of moderate nuisances for an elementary school kid.


After writing all that out I have a penetrating flash of compassion for my parents—and any parent who has to make a sick child stick to a treatment regiment with unpleasant side effects. Understanding the give and take of side effects and benefits of a wonder drug doesn’t come easy when you’re ten. I was learning to misinterpret the doctor’s white coat and loading it up as the symbol of everything I hated about being a puffy, swollen kid with raging spikes of steroid emotion who wasn’t allowed to play football. It must have been difficult for my parents to make me keep taking Prednisone, the medicine I hated even though it was saving me.

Playing football as a kid, I drew on my roid-rage style temper to compensate for being smaller than most of the offensive lineman who tried to block me. If you explode nastier than the guy coming at you, you can beat him a lot the time even if he is bigger and stronger. But if you explode nasty like that during a long training run, you can catch iliotibial band syndrome, patellofemoral pain syndrome, planter faciaitis, shin splints, pulled hamstrings, and the like.

Twelve years after my doomed marathon attempt, I joined a training group at a local running store. We met on Saturdays and gradually built our distance starting with a 7 mile run 18 weeks before the race. Early on in this program, one of the coaches told me that he rarely sees people fail for lack of effort or determination. The most common failure he sees is from overtraining, people who push too hard too early and injure themselves. I’ve slowly started to understand the need for patience in training, and I’ve learned a lot of times to differentiate between the type of short burst effort I learned about in my football days and the slow and low sustained and almost gentle push of a long run. But still, those demons die hard, and with a vengeance. I know on an abstract level that during a long run it’s best to run steady and 1-2 minutes per mile slower than your marathon goal pace. Knowing this though doesn’t always prevent me from pushing too hard. I ran a 15 mile training run in early December. I started out steady at the intentionally slow long run pace. Four miles in and feeling absolutely great, my body takes over and wants to kick. You lose site easily of what your mind knows when you are elated by your legs feeling stronger and swifter than you expected them too. When you’ve got the energy to bound a little bit and you’re feeling crisp early on, you’re body goes unless you make a real concentrated effort to hold back. I didn’t hold back the urge that day, and by mile 12, I was blown up and dragging on fumes not sure I would make it all the way back in. Runners often tell each other to listen to their bodies to prevent inury. But much like Apollo’s cryptic pronouncement carved above the the temple doors at Delphi, it’s hardly ever half so simple as it sounds to fully know yourself as a runner.


“Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

W.B. Yeats – “Among School Children”




Thursday, February 27, 2014

Race for Your Mind Deux: Finish Line and New Beginnings

You did it. I did it. We did it.


I'm indifferent to race medals unless they have Willie Nelson on them.


 
I have a confession to make. When I set up my marathon fundraiser page several months back I didn’t think I would reach my goal of raising $1500 for the Huntsville affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Huntsville). This is the second time I have done a running fundraiser. The first—when I ran the Rocket City Marathon in December 2012—brought in just under $700. When I launched the second round for this year’s Austin Marathon that I ran on February 16th, I set a publicly high bar while secretly hoping the higher goal would bring in $1000. You all showed me. And I thank you with most sincere gratitude for your powerful show of generosity. The morning after my race, an anonymous donor made a $35 gift to push me to the goal I didn’t think I’d reach. Since race weekend, a few more donations have come in and the total is currently at $1776.

Hitting the number that I didn’t expect to reach felt great, but reaching that goal takes on a much fuller meaning when I stop for a moment to think about what it really means. Teaching and taking NAMI's Family-to-Family were life altering experiences following some of my lowest moments. The course, designed by Dr. Joyce Burland, gave me grounding insight into my own crash into depression and the struggles of my family members. I am well today, in large part because of the NAMI members and volunteers who brought me into the loop. And I know looking forward that soon NAMI newcomers will find the same crucial support and guidance thanks to the compassion you have expressed in your giving. That push forward to keep the cycle of NAMI support ongoing and expanding in North Alabama is what matters most about my run. By providing that collective boost, you enriched the solitary marathon experience with a profound sense of connection. Thank you.

Never to late to contribute to a good cause.