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Memorial Day Running: Pain Becomes Truth

May 25, 2020

Memorial Day 2020 • Today was a warm morning as I pushed myself out the door to run. All the fair-weather quarantine walkers and runners were nowhere to be found in the early midst of summer weather. Physically, today’s run was cursed before I got out the door. My heart was racing before the heart monitor went on. My breathing was a struggle, rugged and shallow even while walking. Anxiety ran through my blood with a vengeance and I was yawning, despite the fact I woke up not long before.

But mentally, my mind was determined to go. I knew yesterday I would run. Something was pushing me outside. It was a force that was relentless. I had to run. I even knew the route I would take. The reason why was unclear, but knowing I needed to was clear as day.

I pushed through the heat and humidity, which wasn’t terrible, especially under the trees and shade. And then I got to the third mile and my body felt like it was giving up. The anxiety never quite left my body. Running turned to walking, followed by shorter bouts of running. My heartbeat thumped in my ears. My breath was nowhere to be found. My stomach turned on itself and sips of water did nothing to quell the pain.

But through it, I ran around the memorial stadium lined with flags of the fallen. I kept pushing. There was a moment when I didn’t know if I’d make it around that mile. But my mind had a plan, and far be it from my body to stop it.

And then suddenly, when it all became too much, my legs stopped. And I had a moment of clarity that transcended everything. It was why I came out today. I saw it all; the truth, reasons and directions were right there. I momentarily parked myself on a bench and wrote all the truth in my phone notes. This was the gift the pain gave me. And I wouldn’t have found it had I not pushed beyond my limits.

At the end of the year, I publish a blog post that includes photos and the word that characterizes my year. That word comes to me when I’m not expecting it. Last year’s word, endurance, hit me while I was running the Smoky Mountain Half Marathon in September. Awakening, 2018’s word, hit me late in December of that year. My word for 2020 came to me during that moment of clarity on today’s Memorial Day run. I won’t share it until December 31, but I know without a doubt, it’s my truth.

I typically publish these “micro-blogs” exclusively on Instagram. But I’m breaking my pattern and publishing it here so I can refer back to this day when I write my 2020 wrap-up post.

Mental Health and My Journey with Antidepressants

May 8, 2020

I have not publicly shared a lot about my mental health. Mainly because it’s very personal and being that open and vulnerable scares me. I also don’t like a lot of attention. That statement may sound ironic since I openly share about myself on my blog and on Instagram. That being said, even though I am comfortable writing and sharing my feelings, I don’t want what I write to be an invitation for people to think they need to reach out to me. I don’t want pity, and I don’t like people worrying about me.

However, when it comes to mental health, I’m very much a believer in being open and talking about those struggles. There is so much stigma attached to mental health, and I truly believe the only way to diminish that is to talk honestly about it. I have also seen how sharing about difficult personal situations helps people directly. And if my words can help people – even one person – then I feel compelled to do it. So to honor my truth and what I believe, I’m going to share a bit about my mental health struggles.

The first time I recall struggling with mental health was in 2010. I was 34-years-old, had a 2-year-old daughter, and feeling a lot of anxiety. I talked to my family doctor and he prescribed Paxil and I began a half-year journey on that medication. That antidepressant hindered more than helped me. I gained 20 pounds without intention. I don’t recall my anxiety lessening much even as I started working with a therapist. In October 2010, I talked to my doctor about going off the Paxil because of the weight gain. The doctor told me to simply join Weight Watchers, but I knew it was the drug that was the main cause and I embarked on a gradual plan to wean my body off Paxil.

I had a terrible time going off Paxil. My body felt electric “shocks” on days I didn’t take the medication. My brain could not concentrate on anything. I was more anxious than when I started the pills, and I was an emotional wreck. Around that same time, I was dealt with a huge emotional blow that was triggered by my work. Those few months were extremely scary for me. I never considered myself a person who struggled with her mental health. But not being in control of my emotions and my body was frightening.

My therapist put me on medical leave because I wasn’t myself and my coping skills were non-existent. She also referred me to a psychiatrist to manage the medication withdrawal. That doctor put me on Prozac as a “bridge” medication. Often times, you need to take one medication to lessen the severe side effects of going off another one. That was what happened to me. I don’t recall how long it took to feel “normal” again, but I successfully transitioned off Paxil. By late 2011, I had a new job, was feeling more confident in myself, went off Prozac, and stopped therapy. That was the end of my mental health struggle … or so I thought.

*******

In early 2018, I decided to see a therapist again. I wasn’t feeling physical symptoms of anxiety but I needed an outside perspective to help me work through some issues I was facing. The therapist made a few comments that got my mind turning, and I made a few deep discoveries that I wasn’t ready to confront. So I ended therapy after a few sessions and after my “issues” were worked through.

Fast forward to July 2019 … I was in the midst of separating from my ex-husband and it was a VERY difficult time for me emotionally. I was feeling incredibly anxious all the time. The half dosage of Xanax at night wasn’t doing anything to calm my mind. The anxiety was starting to affect my sleep, my running, and I had trouble concentrating on my work. I also started feeling depression for the first time. I cried a lot and I couldn’t stop it. That never happened to me before and it scared me.

My sister suggested I talk to my doctor about an antidepressant, but I refused. I didn’t want to be tied to medicine to make myself feel better. I should be able to feel the emotions and work through them, I thought. I remembered the horrible experience on Paxil and I would not go through that again. But eventually it got to a point where I knew I needed help beyond what I could do myself. And after learning a close friend had also started taking antidepressants, I realized I needed to find that same bravery and help myself.

My doctor saw me a few weeks later. I fell apart in her office and explained my personal situation, and she agreed I needed medication to navigate the long road ahead. She was very sympathetic and said my emotions were extremely common when dealing with a major life change such as divorce. I was very adamant about finding a medication with little side effects. I did not want something that would affect my running (my salve) I told her. And after I just lost 40 pounds over the course of two years, I couldn’t gain weight. Since I reacted well to Prozac all those years ago, she put me on a very low dose of that medication to start and we agreed to monitor my reactions to it.

My doctor said to stay on the antidepressant for at least one year during a divorce or life change, to get through the year of “firsts” (i.e. first holidays, birthdays, etc.). I naively thought I’d take Prozac for a few months, finalize my divorce, and transition off the drug. After going through the last year, she was absolutely right about those triggering events.

After being on Prozac, I started to feel more calm and more like myself. I was able to cope and better manage stressful situations. My responses to situations were more measured and realistic. I still felt emotions, but I didn’t become overwhelmed by them. And I didn’t feel them quite as physically as I did before.

*******

When 2020 began, I fully expected to transition off Prozac at some point this year. My divorce was finalized. My ex-husband and I were getting along. Work was thriving. I had my close friends. I was running. Life was feeling pretty good.

Well, then COVID-19 hit, the subsequent quarantine and moving into a new house. I did not expect those things to hit me, mentally, as hard as they have. Any feelings of loneliness I had were intensified by 1,000 in this situation. The unknown future and not knowing what will happen with me, my life or when I can see my friends and family again weighs heavily on me. I started feeling those familiar feelings of sadness again. I was struggling to get out of bed at times. And while this wasn’t an everyday occurrence, motivation wasn’t always there.

I thought a lot about whether to increase my medication, but I just did not want to do it. I’ve been in weekly therapy again since January, so I’ve been working on coping and cognitive strategies, and recognizing my emotions. I really wanted to get through the days myself and work through difficult feelings. I even checked in with my doctor a few weeks ago and told her these things. She said my feelings are VERY common and so many of her patients are feeling the same, and she’d support whatever decision I made. I decided not to increase my dosage.

And then over the last few weeks, the anxiety has taken hold of me again. I’m feeling it in the form of agitation and physical symptoms (e.g. little appetite, stomach issues, increased blood pressure, headaches). I’ll have a few good days and then I’ll feel as if I’ve taken ten steps backwards. I question my reality and my perceptions of situations. The anxiety is seeping into my running again. And since running is one thing that provides an outlet for me to manage my mental and physical health, to feel intense anxiety before and during runs is incredibly frustrating to me. My sleep has been terrible, and I’m tired of feeling tired.

So this week, I made the difficult decision (for me) to contact my doctor and increase my Prozac dosage. If I’m being honest, I’m sad and very frustrated with myself. I’m concerned it will get to a point that no amount of antidepressant will be enough; that the anxiety and depression will return when my body normalizes the dosage. I feel like a failure. I feel like I should be able to handle my emotions cognitively.

But like last summer, I also knew it was time to get help. I am tired of feeling the up and down, the push and pull. Eventually, I hope I can go off Prozac. But I do know it has helped me tremendously and I have hope it will help me get through right now as well.

I’m trying to give myself some grace and accept my decision. I’m trying to remember that nobody planned for a pandemic and its far-reaching effects. I’m trying to remember that I’m not alone in how I feel. And I’m trying to remember that the only way to help myself, and others, is to ask for help and be honest. That’s where I am now.

Lessons from Oz: Dreams, Friendship and the Power of “Home”

April 30, 2020

This week’s writing prompt in one of my Facebook groups featured this photo from “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy wakes up from her journey to Oz; realizing it was all a dream. The writing challenge was to imagine yourself in this situation — you wake up tomorrow and find the entire COVID-19 pandemic to be nothing more than a bad dream. What would that waking scene look like?

Writing that prompt set my mind turning in many ways with respect to “The Wizard of Oz” — its themes, as well as the meaning the movie had for me as a child and today as an adult. It’s one of the first movies I remember watching. I had a framed vintage movie poster that hung in my childhood bedroom. That poster now hangs in my new house.

Reflecting on the prompt, if there was no pandemic, would I be making plans with friends? Training harder for running events that were no longer cancelled? Thinking differently about personal situations and events that happened, and those yet to happen in the future? What if the actual events that took place in these last six weeks never occurred at all because there was no pandemic and no subsequent quarantine? Would Dorothy be looking at life in a different way had she not dreamed her journey to Oz?

I was reflecting on why this simple movie is so powerful. Many say it has to do with the themes, the most obvious being the one uttered by Dorothy at the end of the story: “there’s no place like home.” While I believe that’s true, I think the theme of “home” is deeper than the four walls in which you reside. To me, “The Wizard of Oz” is a story about friendship, believing in yourself, and what “home” truly means to you.

With respect to the idea of friendship and believing in yourself, we see Dorothy make friends along the Yellow Brick Road. Like Dorothy, each of her friends believe they’re lacking something important of which they can’t find themselves. The Scarecrow thinks he’s not smart; so he needs a brain. The Tin Man is hollow; so he needs a heart. The Lion is scared of his own shadow; so he needs courage. Dorothy wants to go to Kansas and those friends help her get to her destination, to Oz, which is the conduit to home.

But what we come to find out from Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, is that Dorothy had the power to get what she needed all along. It was always in her; she just needed to believe in herself. We all know the Scarecrow was smart, the Tin Man was capable of love, and the Lion was courageous in his own rite. And that’s why the Wizard didn’t give them those individuals an actual brain, heart or courage. He gave them symbols so they would believe in themselves. To get what we want most, we  have to believe in ourselves; and the courage, love and smarts we within us.

Dorothy couldn’t have made it to Oz, or home, without her friends. And in the end, she wakes up to realize it was just a dream. But she’s surrounded by Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, Professor Marvel, and her three friends who, in Oz, were Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Lion. She is home. …

For me, home is a feeling; it’s being with the people who know me best and make me feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in life. That’s a big reason I feel like being here — in Terre Haute, Indiana — I am finally home. So when Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home,” maybe the home she’s referring to is the comfort of being surrounded by her family and friends. Perhaps “The Wizard of Oz” is actually reinforcing that idea that home is not a physical place at all.

Going back to the idea of waking up from a dream and the idea of what may have happened without the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s really no way I can speculate how my life would be different, better or worse. I guess maybe that’s the point of life … We don’t know what will happen either way the tornado blows. But in any case, I hope I’m as lucky as Dorothy — to feel like I’m “home,” surrounded by those I love and care for the most.

Surrendering to a New Normal

April 23, 2020

I haven’t written about COVID-19, social distancing and quarantine life here on this blog yet. Although I have written some “micro-blog” posts on my Instagram about how it’s affecting me.

In many ways, these quarantine days don’t look much different. I’ve always worked from home, so my work structure has not changed. I still make my own meals and dinners most nights. I still run on the weekends (and weekdays) and spend the rest of my Saturday and Sunday reading and listening to music. I still text my friends and hate talking on the phone.

So what’s changed?

It feels different. I feel very isolated and any feelings of loneliness I may have are intensified. I can’t see the people that mean the most to me. I feel like I’m tethered to my phone since that’s the only connection I have to those people. I can’t hear the chatter from shoppers in stores. Even when I do go to grocery stores, they’re so quiet. I can’t go to a bar or see a band play with friends, or out to dinner with Sophie. I can’t see my sister, nephews and niece, and I miss them terribly. I can’t see my doctors in person.

Sophie is home … all the time. The remote learning and her motivation to learn is a challenge. She’s feeling all this and I know it’s hard for her too. We have no idea if school will even re-open fall or what her summer will look like. She spends her days on FaceTime, listening to videos, music, shows because that’s the stimulation she craves as an extrovert. As an introvert, I however, hear all that “noise” and find it mentally draining. I’m not complaining; we’re both working through it. It’s just another factor that was not there before.

I run mainly by myself these days. I don’t mind running solo, but I miss running with friends and the bonding and conversations that come with that. Races for the foreseeable future have been cancelled, so 2020 running goals have changed. All plans and upcoming events are cancelled. I didn’t realize how much not having events and appointments on the calendar would feel so jarring. Every day is nearly the same. And that monotony can be overwhelming. The uncertainty for the future and not knowing when it will all “end” is really hard for me.

I’ve been struggling with quarantine productivity guilt. I see so many photos on social media of people’s new lockdown projects or learning new skills. Memes float around about how Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” in quarantine; and how if we don’t come out of this with a new hobby, then we’re unmotivated and lazy. But for me, the anxiety I’ve felt has been a hindrance to getting things done. Sometimes the best I can do is get out of bed, make coffee, sit at my computer, turn on some music, and work. Running has been difficult for me since this started. So I’m trying to cut myself some slack if I don’t write my novel during all the “free time” I have during quarantine.

I don’t want to come across as all doom and gloom. … So what has helped me during this time of uncertainty?

The big thing is trying to stay with some resemblance of a routine. I’m way better than I used to be in terms of needing structure to function. But it’s still hard for me to be in such an unknown state. So I set an alarm every morning, even though I don’t have to be up at a certain time or get Sophie to school.

I’m trying to be very conscious of identifying when my body needs to stay in bed to sleep versus when it just wants to stay in bed because the world feels too daunting to face. If my body is truly tired, I let it sleep. If I’m hiding, then I try — very hard (and not always successfully) — to force myself up. As much as they drive me crazy these days, having dogs who rely on me to get out of bed so they can use the bathroom helps with this.

I try to get outside at least once a day, whether it’s in the form of running, walking my dogs, or just sitting on my patio to read. And with my running, I’m giving myself permission to simply move. I’m trying hard not to focus on miles or speed. Just getting outside and being in nature helps tremendously.

I try to do small things when I start feeling anxious or depressed. When I came up with a list of “big plans,” I got very overwhelmed. So I have a running list of small tasks that I keep in my phone. And anytime I have an idea, I add it to the list. These include baking a new dessert, making deep dish pizza, writing letters to friends and family, buying a few houseplants, mowing the lawn, hanging pictures in my new house, or watching a few episodes of a new show. I know myself, and I’m not going to master a new language, start sewing or plant a garden in this quarantine. But taking one small thing and doing that each weekend has helped me feel a bit more in control of my life.

While this “new normal” has been difficult, I’ve found a few silver linings too. Perhaps because of the increased solitude, my mind has been constantly going with so many ideas and I’ve been writing a lot, and wanting to write a lot. That’s been energizing.

The Instagram performances by musicians from their homes are sustaining me. I’m beyond grateful these artists are choosing to share pieces of themselves with us, and I hope they know how much hope it gives people like me. And during a time when I have no plans or places to go, those performances give me something to look forward to.

And while I do miss my running with my friends, the solo trips have allowed me to do a “re-set,” if you will. It’s helped me move away from mileage and race goals, and focus on why I love running and why I started in the first place. That reconnecting to the act of moving, and thinking while I move, has been a gift.

While writing this post, I noticed a phrase that I repeated: I try. And honestly, this quarantine and “new normal” comes down to that. Every day, I try. And I’ve realized that’s all I can do. Some days, it’s easier to try, and feel like I’m succeeding, than others. I’m slowly coming to terms with being okay with that.

It’s hard not knowing what the future holds and when that future will unfold. If there was ever a time to live in the moment, it’s now. But it’s very difficult not to feel swallowed up in those moments too. But I try … the best I can to get through each day. Eventually it will end; and we’ll surrender to a new version of “normal,” once again.

Being Brave Enough to Break My Own Heart

April 2, 2020

In March 2019, I went to the Power of Narrative conference in Boston with my close friend, Ann marie. She and I had been attending this conference for the last three years together and all year looked forward to those four days together to reconnect, talk, laugh, drink, eat, shop, write and think.

But last year’s conference weekend had a different “theme” for me, if you will. So many things were heavy on my mind, and I was also chosen to pitch a memoir-essay to a panel of editors. The essay centered around moving to the Middle of America, at midlife, and becoming a runner. During one of our downtime excursions, we ventured into a bookstore and Ann marie bought me a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Tiny Beautiful Things.” This book will change your life, Ann marie said to me. While I’m a deep believer in the power of words, I wasn’t sure how Strayed, whom I only really knew from her memoir, “Wild,” was going to change my life.

We went back to our hotel room and Ann marie read several passages and essays aloud to me. The one that struck me like a bolt of lighting was the following:

“You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”

“Be brave enough to break your own heart.” That was powerful! You must truly have to be brave to risk hurting and ruining yourself for something, I thought.

I’ve always thought of myself as strong. But brave? Not so much. My biggest act of bravery thus far was moving from San Diego to Indiana at age 40. And even that was not an “act of bravery,” per se. I wasn’t like Strayed who decided to leave her life and hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself (now, THAT was brave). This move, in July 2016, was a decision we made as a family so my husband could take a new job. I wasn’t brave; I was going along with what was best for my family.

Yet in May 2019, I summoned courage I did not think I had and I broke my own heart, as well as breaking others. I told my husband of 19 years that I needed a divorce.

*******

Bryan and I met as juniors at San Diego State University (SDSU). I was 20 years old; he was 22. In 2019, we knew each other for 23 years and were together as a couple for 20 years; that’s more years together than apart. We grew into adulthood together. He was my best friend, in many ways. We bought homes together. We raised (are still raising) an incredible daughter, Sophie (12). We brought home our first puppy as well as adopted two other dogs, and a liter of cats. We’ve endured the loss of pets together, as well as family members. We both went through graduate school and he went through law school. We weathered the down-turned 2008 economic crisis and endured forced furloughs while we both worked at SDSU. We went through countless jobs, in higher education as well as my shift to freelance writing. We had debt together. We paid off student loans and credit cards together. We moved across country together. We were partners, in every sense of the word. In my mind, we had a successful marriage and I am proud of that and all we’d accomplished.

Yet over the years, like so many other “normal” couples, especially ones that met and “coupled” so young, we grew apart. Our goals changed. We ended up wanting different things out of life. We talked less and less. I found myself getting frustrated at things that, for many years, I just accepted as part of marriage and life. I also unknowingly went on a journey of self-discovery and found a vulnerable girl buried deep within that needed to find her way out. And in order to do that – in order to find that person I’d been ignoring for so many years – I had to say goodbye to a relationship that no longer worked for me: my marriage.

While that may sound like an easy and an eloquently-written decision, let me assure you, it was not. I agonized over what I considered doing. You don’t just leave your spouse and break apart your family, I thought. For my entire life, I believed strongly that if you make a commitment like marriage, then you need to keep it, no matter what it cost or how it felt. I believed that strongly … until I didn’t anymore.

When I read that one paragraph from Strayed, combined with all the other thoughts that had been plaguing my mind for some time, something clicked in my mind. In order to fully discover myself, own my life and make the next 40 years count for me, I had to make a change.

I want to be very clear that this was a complicated decision. It’s not as simple as me needing a new start. I don’t blame Bryan for anything. He is not a bad person, and my decision to walk away from my marriage is not because of something he did. There was no instigating circumstance. I don’t hold him responsible for my feelings. I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened and every feeling I’ve had.

I knew the decision would be painful — for me, for Bryan, our daughter, family, friends who knew us as a “perfect” couple. But I also knew I had to save myself and be the person and mother I needed to be.

I won’t go into details about what happened after I told my ex-husband I wanted a divorce. What I will say is that while I fully wanted this new life and I do not regret my decision, that didn’t make the process any easier. It was months and months of pain, tears, anxiety, depression, grief, sadness, uncertainty, anger, shame, guilt … I broke my own heart, again and again, and I know I broke his, too.

But throughout all of that heartbreak and chaos, I remembered the one line that Ann marie read in our Boston hotel room, and she continued to repeat those same words in the months ahead when I was at many a breaking points: “You wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all.”

Divorce is never simple. Thus far, it was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. But anytime I felt like I was not going to make it though, I remembered the simplicity of that phrase. I wasn’t trying to hurt my ex-husband or my daughter. I wanted a different life for myself and I was worthy of that new life. And I had to change the terms of one relationship to get it. It hurt like hell and it was not easy (it’s still not easy; it still hurts and I’m still grieving). But I had to find strength and courage I didn’t know were in me. I had be brave enough to break my own heart.

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