Saturday, January 8, 2011

Getting Better: Running to Find Myself

Mile 1

I stepped onto the front porch in my sweat pants and slightly tight T-shirt that clung uncomfortably to my pudgy torso.  It was unseasonably warm outside for an October afternoon. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and it was a gorgeous day.  And I felt worse than I'd ever felt in my entire life.  I stepped off the porch and set my foot to the pavement for the first time in over 15 years, determined to run as far and as fast as I could. If I couldn't run from my problems metaphorically, I'd run from them physically and in the process, hopefully do something good for myself. Hopefully.  As I took my first stiff steps down the sidewalk, I let my mind wander in an attempt to recover.
photo © 2010 iyasser .com | more info (via: Wylio)I couldn't believe it. The worst case scenario I had imagined had just come true. I had no job, no career, no prospects, no goals, and no dreams for the future.  How could this have happened?  The previous year, I had been a teacher, directing a music technology program at a community college, a job that turned out to be much too far over my head and just two years earlier in 2008, I'd been a brand new dad with a five-month-old son in an audio production career that I loved with a job that I didn't but was decent enough.  When I quit my job at the college in May 2010, I was sure that I had a new gig at Big Toy Company, that my triumphant return to professional audio production was waiting for me.  My career had been progressing rapidly but now there was nothing but silence.

The last major hit I took, my failed application to Big Toy Company, simply crushed the little hope I had left and blew it away in a single puff of stilted breath.   Through the first half of 2010, I progressed easily through their application process knowing that I was going to quit my teaching gig at the college no matter what happened.  I had great phone interviews.  I was flown out for a personal interview.  I heard positive feedback from the interviewers.  Contrary to my usual practice, I let myself believe in myself, that I had a chance at obtaining my goals.  But when their deadline for a decision came and went and again all I heard was silence, my stomach dropped.  I knew that I was not getting the job despite all the energy, hope, care, and love that had I poured into my application.  It was frustrating at the least, infuriating at the worst.  My life was on hold and since I'd already quit my teaching job there was nothing left.

The point at which my career disappeared in a single mirror-smashing moment of shattered dreams was when I stumbled.  I fell headlong into a major bout of depression, deeper than I'd felt in a long time.  As a surprised and stunned stay-at-home dad, my son kept me busy, but I still had a very difficult time focusing on anything that may have needed to be done around the house.  I would often catch myself staring into space or in my own little daydream world.  Day after day, I would wake up before he would call for me from his crib, my head heavy on my pillow and dreaming of leaving, of disappearing, thinking only of the life I could potentially lead and nothing of the one I would be leaving behind.  I hid these thoughts from my wife and family.  But the day I lost control, the same day I yelled at my son for no good reason and began uncontrollably wailing and sobbing on the basement floor, was the last straw.  I couldn't hide this anymore and I couldn't avoid my responsibility to demonstrate maturity and respect to my son.  I revealed my issues to my wife and she encouraged me to seek help through counseling.

Mile 2

DSCF0816bphoto © 2009 Steve Newman | more info (via: Wylio)
My feet pounded the pavement quickly with comfortable repetition.  The first leg of my inaugural running route was initially downhill.  It felt good to move again, to sweat, to feel the warm fall breeze on my arms and face.  The smell of the season, a swirling mix of decaying leaves and freshly cut grass, was a gentle perfume to my nose as my breaths grew increasingly heavy.  Having not run for so long, I felt like I was relearning to breathe.  I had been out of shape so long that I'd forgotten what it was like to feel the heady rush of endorphins that running can create.  As I began to feel better, I continued to recount my recent experiences that led to my current state.
I began seeing a counselor in August.  I'd been told by my counselor that not being able to hold a steady job was a red flag for bipolar disorder.  But I'd stayed in some very crappy jobs, like the job in the shipping department at a media warehouse, for more than 18 months and most of my jobs were left behind for either good reasons or reasons out of my control.  Cable modem installer?  Laid off.  Data entry for a mortgage lender?  I had quit to go to graduate school.  How could going back to school be a symptom of bipolar disorder?  But there were other symptoms that shed more light on the problem.  I had had symptoms such as racing thoughts almost my entire adult life, especially at night.  I would awaken and my mind would refuse to shut down, racing through either good ideas or bad memories depending on my current mood.  Spending sprees or simply urges to shop, mild though they might have been, were a common theme.  Wanting to cry and to feel sad coupled with feelings of hopelessness were also a regular occurrance.  Suicidal thoughts, though actual attempts had always been absent, were yet another issue that remained uninvestigated.

Another issue was unearthed during my counseling sessions in addition to the bipolar diagnosis, one that I suspected but always wrote off as being a fad, a psuedo-psychological issue, thanks to popular culture in the 1990s.  Since my childhood years, my self-esteem had always been a struggle.  Being a common target of bullying in my neighborhood and school growing up probably did not improve my chances of a good self-image, but I chose to listen to the bullies rather than ignore them.  Misguidedly taking the bullies' barbs as truth was nothing but a mistake.  As an adult, even people that barely knew me had the insight to tell me, "You're being too hard on yourself."  I would constantly call myself stupid, un-talented, or just plain useless on a regular basis, verbally punching myself in the face every chance I got.

Mile 3

Empty roadphoto © 2010 Keith Ramsey | more info (via: Wylio)Finally my hustling, burning feet brought me to the bottom of the hill, sweating, panting, but still feeling energized.  If I was going to make it home there was nowhere left to go but up.  A long climb lay ahead of me and I stared up at the top of the hill already tired but knowing I could make it if I tried hard enough.  I had always been self-conscious about my body image, worried that people would make fun of me from the relative comfort of their cars or homes.  I put all of my unreasonable fears aside.  If they were going to make fun of me, so be it.  I needed to do this for myself.  For my wife.  For my son.  I kept running, shins hurting, out of breath, up the hill as car after car revved past.

Several weeks of counseling were devoted to exploring useful tools I could use to improve myself behaviorally.  One major step was correcting my self-esteem, which had always been in the proverbial toilet.  To correct this is a day-to-day, sometimes moment-to-moment battle.  But a psychologist named Albert Ellis developed a therapy dubbed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) that has seemed to work for me.  Whenever I have a negative thought about myself, before those thoughts propogate and snowball in my mind, I must insert a corrective question, a self-checker, that challenges the statement I am making about myself.  For instance, before I finish the thought, "I am a useless person because I am unemployed," I must insert a question or a challenge, "Why?  How?", and ask myself if what I'm thinking is rational.  If it isn't, I must discard the idea.  It's a challenging thing to try to reverse a lifetime of thought patterns, but with the help of this system I am starting to succeed.

As for the bipolar bit of the equation, I have been on medication to treat both mood swings and depression for a combination of two months.  It seems to be working quite well.  In conjunction with the general consensus among the mental health professional community, my most effective path to success has been through a combination of talk therapy and medication.  I don't want to stay on medication forever, but I must stick with my doctor's recommendations if I am going to lead a normal and effective life.

But there is one final piece of the puzzle, a prescription that I have given myself, that has done more good than I have ever imagined.  I stuck with the running and added yoga and lifting weights to the mix as well.  I now run at least three days a week and I am over half way through a program called Couch to 5k, designed to get inactive people onto their feet and running 3.1 miles in two months.  I even purchased new shoes recently, ones designed solely for running.  Athleticism has long avoided my attention throughout my life, but I am now deadly serious about running my first 5k in 2011.  I have a goal for the first time in almost a year.  The exercise seems to be doing my brain and my body more good than all of the other therapies put together.

Mile 3.1

Gasping for air, I made it up that hill.  It wasn't pretty by any means.  It was ugly, sweaty, painful, and to use an understatement, unpleasant.  My shin splints were killing me.  I slogged the rest of the short distance home until I arrived in my own driveway.  Staggering in a circle trying to cool down, I felt something I hadn't felt in a long time:  accomplishment.  I had forgotten all about the people that might make fun of me.  I had forgotten about all the loss and sadness that I felt.  My only goal had been to run home.  And I had done it.  The greatest part of the entire experience was, however, knowing that if I had done it once that I could do it again and through practice, get better.
If you are like me, you've gone your whole life believing that your state of mind is simply what it is and can only be endured, not helped. I am not the first and will not be the last to say that if you experience any symptoms of depression or other related mental disorders, please see a doctor, counselor, or psychiatrist that can get you the help that you need.  An exercise regime, while incredibly valuable, is only a single tool among many that need to be utilized in the process to better your mental health and above all, get better.

Chuck LarishChuck Larish is a composer, songwriter, and sound designer.  He enjoys writing, running, video games, board games, and being a father.  Follow his musical output at and the Quad Mini Jasons blog.  You can also fan, like, friend, follow, and listen to Quad Mini Jasons on ReverbNation, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and  Follow his personal blog at the echoing green.

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