As a brief prequel to this post, I feel compelled to clarify that the purpose of the previous one was not to draw sympathy to my situation but to create a picture of depression that is both real and precise. We all go through stuff. What I have learned from my “stuff” is that we probably all have more in common than we realize, and I am hoping to pass along a similar realization.
I have gone through about 100 subtitles for today’s chapter of the blog, all in an effort to avoid calling it “Why I CrossFit.” I just prefer to avoid the corresponding implication of “Why You Should CrossFit”, because as much as I love my fitness program I am not here to advertise.
Rather, there are fundamental lifestyle changes that have played critical roles in my recovery from and stabilization of depression, many of which are embodied in my CrossFit experience. It is not merely that I believe these lifestyle factors are essential to managing this ultimately incurable human condition, but evidence is gathering to support such notions as well and future posts will hone in on this evidence.
But for now, let’s just get on with the story.
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I should take a moment to warn you that this post is filled with dimensions where my husband’s insight turned into massively positive life changes for me. Oddly, initial compliance often did accompany masochistic and deferential tendencies many people might not expect to be a part of my personality. But I’ve eventually become more comfortable opening my mind to things that seemed like “not me”… in pursuit of a better me. And I’m immensely grateful to my Other Half for taking this ride with me, in spite of all the doubts that might have arisen along the way.
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My husband Keith started going to CrossFit® around 2009 when our first son was an infant, and my scorn for it was thinly veiled. Not only did he frequently come home from workouts vomiting, but the lingo of “WOD”s and “AMRAP”s annoyed me. Meanwhile my job at the time was to admit patients to the hospital where “CrossFit Rhabdo” became a well-known entity. This is a situation where otherwise healthy individuals had pushed themselves too hard at the gym, resulting in uncontrolled breakdown of muscle tissue called rhabdomyolysis, flooding the bloodstream with proteins which can potentially clog the kidneys in critical fashion if left alone. As such, they require admission to the medical service for IV fluids and close monitoring. Thankfully, this never happened to Keith, but amidst all this I swore off the program for myself.
We moved in 2013, Keith found a new gym, and I continued to scoff. But he wasn’t vomiting anymore. In fact, many things were drastically different. It was hard to pinpoint, other than that he typically came home from workouts… happy. Fulfilled. And …inspired? He was bursting at the seams to share what seemed to be a regular ration of new skills with ridiculous names: “clean”, “jerk”, “snatch”. The new place was clearly more systematic than where he had gone previously, but the benefit was greater than mere organization.
I figured I could quiet his insistence for me to try it by doing the introductory classes. I had found a Groupon anyway, so what the heck? After the intro classes I felt I had done my duty and had no intention of going back. This was right around the beginning of September 2015.
One month later, broken and swimming in a sea of emotion after the loss of my brother, I decided to throw some weight around and showed up for my first “WOD” (Workout Of the Day). Exerting myself like that definitely was a first, and I was quite sure my whole body would explode before the workout was over. But I survived! And I will never forget the sense of release afterwards, like nothing I have ever experienced before.
To this day, Keith and I both know the surest antidote to bad moods – for both of us – is a strenuous workout. It certainly isn’t as easy as popping a pill might be. But it eff-ing works, and the only side effect is becoming physically stronger. There are worse things.
There was far more than one instance, though I couldn’t tell you quite how many, when I twisted my face in confusion as Keith would talk to me about “real food” as opposed to “processed food.” I honestly was mystified. My deeply seated impression was that if you eat something and it doesn’t immediately kill you or at least make you sick, it was food and that was that.
You see, having completed nearly all my higher education in institutions of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church with its embedded Health Message consisting largely of vegetarianism also eliminating alcohol and coffee (I’d say “caffeine,” although I’m pretty sure there was Coke or Pepsi in the soda fountains), I was well acquainted with a variety of “veggie-meats” which I took as healthy simply because they contained no animal products, although it clearly takes pretty advanced processing to get vegetable proteins to resemble meat in any way. I had a friend from medical school wildly entertain my husband by declaring my nutrition during that phase of life consisted of “veggie meat out of a can.”
Having long lived according to a mantra of “eat to live, not live to eat,” I considered food a necessary evil to be overcome day-to-day, which might occasionally provide enjoyment in the form of chocolate or cookies. Since most “foods” didn’t immediately render death or severe illness to myself or my kids, I easily took for granted that dino nuggets, 3-minute mac-n-cheese and yogurt squeeze tubes were adequate staples. Our erratic work and life schedules lent to mealtimes that were all over the place, too, so we rarely ate dinner together, and we rarely ate the same thing for dinner.
To my dismay, Keith began to insist that we sit together for dinner and teach the kids to eat the same thing as us… which was to include a simply prepared meat with some vegetables on the side (along the lines of a “paleo” diet). Period.
I did not take kindly to this at all.
It seemed like a hopeless venture to adjust the eating habits of a toddler and a fussy kindergartner but little by little, we discovered small victories here and there – lettuce with blue cheese dressing for one, carrot sticks for the other, etc. – and worked these into every meal. We taught them to try new things. I never really minded eating anything in particular; I was just a nervous wreck in the kitchen. That came with time and effort, too. My chopping skills have come a long way, and I even know how to “toss” in a pan while sauteeing… it’s all in the wrist!
The greatest shift occurred, though, in early 2016 when I agreed to partner with my husband in a 6-week “clean” diet challenge through our CrossFit gym that also encouraged hydration, exercise and mobility. I detailed this experience rather extensively at the time in another series within this blog called “Confessions of a Carbaholic” so I’ll keep my message simple here. I started out angry and starving, but week #3 of diligence yielded a shocking payoff. I can best summarize it as wellness like I never knew existed. I felt energetic, clear-headed, optimistic. Even the quality of my sleep improved. It was a whole different version of being “healthy” that I think most Americans haven’t ever had the benefit of experiencing because of the toxins that we treat as basic rations even before birth.
Bottom line: changing dietary habits does not happen overnight, and every single snack and meal is a new opportunity to make a choice for better or for worse.
Also, there is no such thing as a “perfect” diet. Food still accomplishes various objectives in the human body. Achieving a balance between physical nutrition and emotional enjoyment through eating is a lifelong endeavor. There will be ups and downs. Try to embrace the journey and learn about what you put in your body. It REALLY MATTERS.
I have come to realize, when it comes to grief, that the first anniversary is the hardest. It may or may not get easier after that, but whatever coping mechanisms a survivor of a lost loved one may have constructed over the course of a year all come crashing down when the air feels familiar, certain holidays resurface, and myriad other reminders arise that someone who had once been there is definitively gone.
September 2016 came and went. I suppose I expected things would get easier after that, especially since there was mercifully little ongoing onslaught of new drama. My family was well, work was miserable but this was no change (haha), and my own physical health was in a better place than ever in the past because I was eating, hydrating, and exercising with some distinct regularity. But I felt awful, deep in a hole and couldn’t drag myself out.
Off I went to my therapist, who I hadn’t seen in close to a year (of course there had been a bolus of visits after Abe’s suicide the year before). My big question was, “What is wrong with me?” Overall, I wanted for nothing in life: healthy kids, caring husband, good household income. What more did I want or expect?
She pondered my conundrum, and told me simply: “You need mindfulness.”
I almost fell off the couch. Good ol’ Hubby had been talking to me about mindfulness meditation for the better part of TWO YEARS by that point. I had repeatedly responded to him with “I’m already mindful!” and would promptly return to my flitting activity of motherhood and doctorhood. Again, I had been annoyed with the soothing monotones of guided meditation voices, somewhat resentful over being left to handle all manner of household and parenting duties while Keith laid in respite, listening and breathing. He offered to switch places multiple times over, but I just couldn’t be bothered.
Albeit irritated about taking a stance of “you were right” relative to my husband, I was fascinated that this was being offered by my deeply trusted therapist as real advice, rather than mere spousal harassment. I asked for a distinct recommendation for something structured, an “app” I could use. She told me there were many but upon my insistence she mentioned “Headspace.”
Much like cleaning up my diet, the first two weeks of sifting through my mind were awful, abject torture. I loyally popped in earbuds and spent 10 minutes a day sitting upright but relaxed, eyes closed, and soon became ragingly aware of the chaos inside. I discovered the content of my thoughts was almost exclusively self-deprecating. For example, while driving down the road to my house one day, I attempted mindful awareness of my surroundings, cast my gaze upon a neighbor’s front lawn, and caught myself thinking, “My lawn looks terrible compared to theirs. I never make time to take care of my home and property, because I’m a terrible homeowner, not to mention a terrible wife and a terrible mother…” This was a typical reaction for me. I had just never paid attention to it before. Every single thing I looked upon seemed to be a reason to berate myself. I could never keep up at work, and my overflowing inboxes reminded me of this. I could never keep up at home, and the clutter from corner-to-corner in the house constantly reminded me of this.
Not that more details are needed, but I also discuss my journey with mindfulness in a blog post from last June. Suffice it to say, success in this endeavor also came only with time and persistence. The most poignant lesson I have personally drawn from mindfulness is self-compassion – learning to observe without judgment. Evaluation and decision-making have their place, but the ability to calmly take note of something without creating internal stories about it is a skill that in and of itself is impactful and universal. Entire books – libraries by now – have been written about it, so I don’t pretend to be able to explain all the benefits in this single blog post. It’s simply life-changing, I’ll leave it at that.
I’m a bit of a lone wolf; I got used to this early on being raised to believe my religion “set me apart from the world.” Being different and separate was a badge of honor, of sorts. Also, pride was a big deal in my Asian family — we were to be beholden to no one. Leaning on others is just not my style.
Turns out the human organism is not meant to subsist independently. We joke about whether someone “was never held as a child” but legitimate development of certain fundamental neural channels depends on interactive contact with others. Rugged independence is often regarded as strength, but the strength required to conquer the toughest obstacles can only be generated through interdependence.
I would say the first time this hit home to me was with my CrossFit experience, at the ripe old age of 38. From my very first intro class, through Foundations training and my first few real “WODs”, I remained flabbergasted at the steady stream of warm, fuzzy remarks from people I barely knew, who were eons more physically fit than I: “Great job!”, “Way to go!”, “You got this!” It felt essentially impossible to not keep going. Everyone else was finishing the grueling workout… including people who appeared less physically fit than I. So clearly I should, too. It was an oddly refreshing, new form of peer pressure.
Go figure, this is a phenomenon I’ve blogged about before as well. But I have grown in so many more ways than what is alluded to in prior posts, on account of actually becoming a part of the tribe, as opposed to just being present in the setting. There is a reason people thrive in religious communities, where going to church or temple or coming together for worship in one forum or the next is so successful at yielding happy people. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, although I find it a widely proven truth: this is far less about the religion than it is about the community.
At CrossFit, we congregate around fitness. The fitness is great. But to me, the true primary benefit is that we congregate. This has been by far and away the most efficacious antidepressant I have come across. I would go so far as to say interactions in the form of friendship, community and romantic love are what flood the brain with serotonin: manifesting as happiness that feels substantial, lasting. But my natural inclination is still to gravitate away from it and be a stubborn individual. Old habits die hard.
It is not just about being ‘around people’, by the way. I personally find there is no worse emotion in the world than being in a crowd of people but feeling entirely alone. It is about connecting with people who are likeminded to you. That is the essence of having a tribe, or community. This is what has set CrossFit apart from other “workout classes” where you can walk in and walk out without anyone noticing, which is easier up front but far less healing and also far easier to quit.
A tribe that suits you is rarely easy to find, often follows lots of trial and error, then entails overcoming a long, steep hurdle of integration that typically takes – again – weeks to months of persistence through initial discomfort (notice a common theme here?). Most of the time, successful community experiences are thrust upon us through motivators that have nothing to do with “seeking a community” – e.g., growing up in a church, joining the military, sports teams, college majors or other intensive training experiences. In these scenarios, people come together for a common objective, and the togetherness happens by necessity then provides them with more meaning than ever sought or imagined. Worth writing books and movies about. Over and over, again and again. This is the essence of being human.
There is something powerful about being part of something bigger than oneself. Sharing experiences with others – and sharing in others’ experiences through conversation, storytelling, reading, teaching and learning – is truly expansive for an individual. When we feel closed in, shut out, locked down, trapped… what we need is each other. It can sound very cliché, but that’s only because it’s that important, that repeatable, that life essential.
Actually, I think the best way to summarize the fundamental human attribute here is: What we need is to belong.
Much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, being able to fully realize one’s own potential is more of a pinnacle attainment as opposed to fulfillment of a day-to-day need. However, there is something to be said about a sense of accomplishment even in little things, that provides us with shots of dopamine: manifesting as thrills that feel great but are fleeting.
I love this about CrossFit. Every single impossible-seeming movement done by the beastly, superhuman-appearing competitive athletes has a countless array of corresponding “scaled” movements that engage similar muscle groups but can be completed by “the rest of us.” Can’t climb a rope? Lie on the ground and pull yourself up by the rope for a few grabs then lower yourself back down. Can’t do a handstand push-up? Do a regular push-up with your knees on the ground, or lift small dumbbells overhead. Can’t lift 225lb overhead? Start with a PVC pipe. Embarrassed because you can’t do what the competitors do? Let it go and revel in the fact that you are there doing it. My CrossFit mantra is: “I show up, I win.”
You don’t ever walk away from a CrossFit class without having done your body a huge favor. Ever. Unless you overdo it or do it unskillfully. Good coaches will prevent that. And there are LOTS of great gyms with amazing coaches, not to mention dozens of people who have bought into the culture of cheering you on even if they’ve never met you before.
Regardless of your level, you grow every single time you are there. It’s built into the programming. All you have to do is keep showing up. I wish life were so well plotted out.
But in life, showing up takes on a different form. No matter the task, there are scaled versions of it, too. The key is to proceed without wasting time and energy on critique of self or others. Judgment that isn’t constructive is the best way to create a setback, and is the essence of depression – it’s a relentless feedback loop on a theme that carries you nowhere, like getting stuck in a hamster wheel. If something didn’t go well, let it go and take a slightly different path. But keep showing up.
The following is quoted from the end of the televised 2018 CrossFit Games® in celebration of the athletes who competed:
“To be worthy representatives of us all, they must know defeat and humble themselves to its teachings.
“Continuously, they test and test and test again, for in the testing lies the answer to the question: ‘How will you be better tomorrow?’
“Only those who repeatedly ask and accept the answer, who continue to recognize missteps as opportunity will realize their true potential. Fear and ego will stop many as they mistake failure for weakness. It is through their efforts that we come to understand how our own limitations will be tried, that we come to understand what’s possible, that we come to understand what we can choose to be:
That’s all it is. Just be better today than yesterday. Or if today is really bad, make the better decision to let it go so you can get back on your way more quickly than you would while ruminating on the perceived failure.
And because there is always a way to be better, there is no goal, no final destination: only new platforms for the next leg of the trip. Just stick to the journey. Wherever you find yourself, count it a win because you are there.