It’s no secret that my life is busy, as are many of ours. Quite often, I have a few too many cookies. I balance a full time (and then some) career as a high school teacher, a marriage, cooking for two sets of specific macros, a master’s thesis in progress (THREE DAYS until I present my research findings guys!!!), training, I attempt (mostly unsuccessfully, if I’m honest) to have some semblance of a social life, plus regular travel and music festivals (priorities, yo)…common story, yeah? But something I don’t really list in my inventory of cookies is my mental health. We all balance this in, somehow, to varying degrees and proficiencies. It mightn’t be something we acknowledge on our list, or maybe it is, but it bears speaking to. Some of us need to focus on it a bit more than others.
I try not to let it run my life, or use it as a crutch, so I don’t speak up much about it outside of my own home, but for most of my life I’ve dealt with (not “suffered from”) anxiety. And not just a little worrying, but full blown panic attacks in the break room at work, pulling the car over on the highway because suddenly my vision was going black and I couldn’t breathe, leaving my cart in the middle of the grocery store and running out to cry in the car kinds of panic attacks anxiety. In college, having no health insurance and no money, I attempted to sign up for a research study through Covance studying generalized anxiety, so that I could get some help, but I was told I didn’t qualify because I was really dealing with even more- a panic disorder.
Through the years I’ve used various coping mechanisms, ranging from simply ignoring it and living my life in a terrifying panic bubble and causing scenes sporadically, taking any number of anti-anxiety medications, counseling, yoga, meditation… you name it. As I’ve reached my upper 20s and not only learned how to balance my hectic life, but how to remove myself from anxiety-causing scenarios (unhealthy relationships, taking on too much, etc.), I’ve learned how to mostly manage it without the use of pharmaceuticals, as I found that these were more debilitating in many cases than going without. To clarify, I am not against the use of medication to manage mental health issues, not in the least, and I know that many, many people benefit from their use, and many people are simply unable to cope without. I, however, found that the side effects were unbearable in all cases, and chose to go without.
Most of the time, I have a good handle on things. I can, at this point, harness my anxiety and channel it as sort of an internal motivator, a drive to be better, rather than letting it suck me down. I’ve learned to turn things around and reframe them in my mind. If nothing else, I can recognize that a problem is arising. Panic attacks are no longer a surprise. They are days in the making. My chest will be tight for two, three, maybe four days. Like I can’t catch a full breath, like that time I had pneumonia and still rode a bike from one castle to the other through Prague, up two fucking mountains… and my head will be foggy and I’ll be forgetful, distracted. I know these signs. Most often I can head them off- one way in which I do this is to do what I call “Being Quiet.” My husband will arrive home from work, or from class, and find me on the couch in complete silence. This is abnormal- music is playing in our house literally at all times, unless both of us are sleeping (partly due to my anxiety- as a piece of it, I have this idiot syndrome called misophonia, or selective sound sensitivity syndrome, and the music not only gives our life a badass soundtrack and gives me an excuse to dance around the house- yay cardio!, but helps alleviate triggering noises like chewing or tapping or the goddamn cat licking his fucking leg again that might send me into a tearful rage). So when he arrives and the house is silent, he simply asks, “Are you ok Wife? Are you just Being Quiet?” and an affirmative answer is simply met with a kiss, and he walks away. This means that I need to not say, not hear, not interact with anything. It’s sort of a grounding, centering, meditative state, where I simply need to not be stimulated at all. Sometimes I read, or write, but I need to just be with myself in that time in order to adjust and be ok. The next morning, I’m typically feeling better and back to myself, dancing around the house and ready to take on the day.
But sometimes, I get too many cookies, and I ignore the signs, I don’t ask for help, I don’t help myself…
And I sort of lose it.
Sometimes, I have a terrible day and eat all the mini Baby Ruths and Kit Kats from my class rewards stash and skip the gym and feel like a giant pile of dogshit and have a nap to try and reset myself, and then wake up and decide to lift anyhow…and it’s hard. But I push through my squats, and it feels good. HARD, but good. Satisfying. Yes. I needed this. Yes.
And on rep five of my last set of deadlifts, I start to feel my chest tighten… and on rep six a few tears spring from my eyes. By the lockout of rep seven, I begin to cry, chest heaving… and by rep 8 I’m full on loud-ugly sobbing because what-the-actual-fuck-is-wrong-with-you-please-stop-crying-stop-STOP-STOP!
That’s not a hypothetical, that was last Friday.
Zack came bursting in just in time to see me lock out my last rep, and as I set the bar down he was already holding me as I cried and cried into his chest, a mess of sweat and tears, incoherently babbling and apologizing for being unable to get my shit together, with absolutely no explanation for what happened, or why, or what the hell was wrong with me in that moment. I can’t even make up that kind of movie-drama, I’m simply not that creative, but trust, that shit was like whyyyyyyyyy.
A previous time, it manifested itself by way of hysterical sobbing over a bag of defrosted chicken in the kitchen for about an hour. Poor Zack, it was just after I had moved to California to be with him. He had no idea what to make of it, or how to cope with Anxiety Stephanie at the time.
In the fitness world, we sort of ignore mental health, I think. So much focus is on aesthetics, on strength, on nutrition- what’s clean and what’s not, does it matter, what’s your Wilk’s score, I set a rep PR… bodies are everything. But mental health is just as important, if not MORE important than any of these things. It’s literally what holds us together as people, what makes us functional not only in society, but as an individual. If your head isn’t right, how can you possibly expect that anything else will be in place? We need to start prioritizing this, and stop vilifying or ignoring mental health. I will say, I have seen glimpses of people hinting at this in recent months- talking about finding balance, about taking some time off from social media or from competing, about checking into rehab or getting counseling, signing up for a step program, to deal with whatever their cookies are, or just recognizing in themselves the signs of mental and physical fatigue. I think if we spent half as much time, as a culture- the fitness culture, if you will- working on and maintaining our mental status, we would benefit greatly, and we could provide incredibly role models for other struggling people, for young people, and for one another. So many times a person is worshipped for their body on social media, or on stage, but you have no idea what they are struggling with on the inside, and many of us just keep it to ourselves. Quiet, in our internal disquiet.
But I say we stop.
I’ve always prided myself on being open and honest, perhaps sometimes to a fault, or at least to embarrassment on more than one occasion. Even if you don’t have a mental illness, taking care of yourself on a mental and emotional level is just as important. Just be mindful of how you treat your whole self.
So there it is. Sometimes, I struggle, really, really hard. Sometimes I have a panic attack in the gym. Sometimes I can’t breathe for days at a time. Sometimes, it’s really hard to do… life. And that’s ok. That’s my “normal,” and I just try to manage it as best I can.