Working Out Isn’t An Option For Me

Working out is not an option for me. I don’t mean that in douchey “I can’t lose my gains” way because exercising to achieve physical strength and better fitness is only about 20% of the reason why I drag myself to the gym 5–6 times a week. I exercise for sanity.

Exercise, nutrition, and getting enough “down time” is my anti-drug i.e., the key to me living a happy, healthy, and medication-free life. I believe medication is a wonderful (and in some cases, extremely important) tool to help people live their best lives. It did not do that for me. Over the course of about eight years I was put on ten different medications and various combinations. They made me:

  • Depressed
  • Anxious
  • Feel like things were constantly vibrating (super annoying)
  • Sleep-deprived
  • Unable to sleep
  • Lethargic
  • Overstimulated
  • Never hungry
  • Constantly hungry
  • Numb

The last one was the final reason I decided to go off meds. Even though the meds helped with the dramatic mood swings and intensely negative feelings, they began to rob me of any feelings. I wasn’t depressed or anxious, but I also wasn’t happy or even aware of what was going on most of the time. It felt like I was merely existing rather than living, and I was not about that life.

I told the doctor I was seeing while I was away a school (who I hated) that I wanted to go off meds and try alternative ways to treat my bipolar disorder. She said that was impossible and I would need to be on meds for the rest of my life. After that I never saw her again. I told my parents I was going off my meds, which promptly caused them to panic and call my doctor at home to make sure I wasn’t about to lose it. She said that people who suffer from mental illness, depending on the severity, can live without medication as long as they find alternatives. Exercise and nutrition were the top choices. I was in.

It’s been about six years since I went ‘on the wagon’ and while it’s not always an easy choice, for me it was absolutely worth it. Popping five pills in the morning was easy, getting up in the morning and going to the gym is not. However, I’ve built working out into my routine and found something that really works for me (after much trial and error).

Taking care of my mental wellbeing is my number one priority, because if I don’t I can’t do anything else. I realized, very early on, that no one was going to do it for me so I had to learn how to really take care of myself. Certain things that seem simple and natural are actually a lot harder when you’re battling a mental illness. In the beginning, I had to remind myself to take showers regularly. I know that’s gross, but when my mood shifted to depression I would go an unpleasant amount of time without a shower. I had to learn how to eat properly so I could give my body and mind the nutrients I need to be healthy. I quit smoking and started running, which I promptly realized was not a sustainable exercise for me (too boring). I’ve done yoga, pilates, boot camp, weight training, spin, barre, team sports, and pretty much any other class or activity I could find. It took me several years to finally find the right combination for me (because we’re all different); CrossFit and spin.

CrossFit helps me build muscle (which help me deal with a permanent back injury) while also allowing me to feel like I’m part of something. I used to alienate myself when I feel depressed, manic, or anxious, which only made me feel more depressed, manic, or anxious. The community of CrossFit makes me feel included, and gets me to the gym in the morning because I know if I skip class I’m going to hear it from my coach.

Spin just makes me feel good. Although I like being part of a community and being around people most of the time, there’s another part of me like relishes solitude. Spin is a great way to workout in a group while still being alone. I can show up to class and not say a word to anyone (without looking like an asshole) if I’m not feeling up to talking to people. It’s great.

Exercise also nutrition go hand in hand since I need to make sure I’m eating enough quality foods, which has helped tremendously with the body issues and unhealthy relationship with food I’m still dealing with. I also don’t feel as bad if I indulge in one (or four) cookies after spin class or power lifting at CrossFit. I can’t tell you how much this has improved my overall wellbeing.

Regardless of your mental health status or situation, I strongly encourage you to clean up your diet and hit the gym. I cannot say this enough — eating well and working out will change your life. I know it’s hard to find the time or spend the money, but it’s become something that I don’t even give a second thought about. If I were physically sick, I would do whatever it took to make myself better and I hope you would do. Mental health is just as important than physical health, so do your body and mind a favor and take care of them simultaneously.

Building the Wall: Healthy Living & Mental Health

Today sucks.  Nothing particularly frustrating, bad, or tragic happened, it’s just one of those days where I feel pretty bad.  I feel incompetent, depressed, and alone.  Nothing specifically brought on these feelings, which is the most frustrating part.  On days like today I curse having an open office.  I feel exposed and vulnerable.  I feel like people can see that I’m not happy or they’re checking to make sure I’m working on some stupid document that no one will ever read.  I’m sure neither are true, but that’s how it feels.

I think the sad truth is that no matter what I eat or do, I will always have these feelings.  Everyone feels down from time to time and I honor that.  I felt so happy and confident last week that I unrealistically thought it would last forever.  My energy dipped and I haven’t been sleeping well again, but that’s not because of the Whole30.  I feel fairly certain that my energy and sleep would be a lot worse without the Whole30 right now because there’s a deeper, darker culprit than sugar withdrawal (which is thankfully over); stress.

I am stressed out of my mind at work.  I bit off way more than I can chew and it looks like I won’t be getting the help (i.e., a junior writer) for much longer than I had anticipated.  Stress is so incredibly powerful, it amazes me how it quickly knocks down all the barriers I put up to protect myself.  I looked at eating well, exercise, and sleep as a kind of ‘Berlin Wall’ that protects what I think of as my ‘self’. This ‘self’ is made up of my feelings, emotions, and thoughts; it’s essentially who I am.  ‘Self’ gets beat up a lot by internal factors (like changes in my brain chemistry and hormones) and external factors, so I try to keep it safe from the inside out.  Eating good foods actually has a tremendous effect on how I feel physically and mentally; that I can say with full confidence and back it up with scientific evidence.  Exercise, sleep, being around people I love, reading good books, writing, and drawing are all things that make ‘self’ beam.  Doing these things, especially eating well, exercise, and sleep build a protective wall around ‘self’.  

I need this wall because my particular ‘self’ (we all have one), is extremely vulnerable since it has outside forces and inside forces (stupid brain chemistry) attacking it.  Stress tries to break down the wall.  When I feel extremely stressed, it feel like there’s a breach in the wall.  Stress oozes in like tar and attacks ‘self’.  Suddenly things like drawing, exercise, and even being around loved ones sound horrible.  Stress poisons the ‘self’.

But order can be restored.  I’ve realized that bingeing on candy or booze to kill the stress actually kills the ‘self’.  Eating an apple instead of a candy bar certainly doesn’t give the same relief…at least not immediately.  But in the long term, skipping the sugar and having a cup of green tea or going for a quick walk becomes and even better relief.  Sugar and alcohol screw up the positive thoughts that can rejuvenate the ‘self’.  Instead of thinking, “Stress is right, I can’t do all of these projects”, the ‘self’ can think, “F*ck off stress – I can do these things, not just all at once. I’ll find another way.”

Making healthy decisions is not bullsh*t; that’s the point of this post.  Everyone has a ‘self’ that needs a wall to protect is from stress, trauma, and other unpleasant emotions and experiences.  Some people try to build this wall with alcohol, drugs, sex, and bad foods, but that’s like trying to build a bridge with match sticks; you need a solid base if it’s going to last.

You don’t have to do a Whole30, but look at what you put into your body – do you think it will build a strong wall?