Who am I, what am I, what am I doing here?

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(Spoiler alert – this post will buck all the hard won knowledge I have gleaned in 4 years of blogging regarding what sparks a reader’s interest.  As a result, I’ll probably be able to count the actual views of this post on one hand.  So be it.)

I decided to start a blog for one reason:  to force myself to write more.  Real writing, not terse emails or the stilted language of technical documentation.  I really didn’t care if my posts were read by a lot of people or not – however putting them on the “internet”, accessible to anybody, gave me the extra impetus to create content that is more structured than a stream of consciousness personal journal.  That my posts might actually be read by strangers keeps me honest, more disciplined than I might be otherwise.  

Here are a few observations and insights regarding the blogging game I’ve picked up thus far:

  • “Likes” indicate very little.  I’ve had a post immediately garner 5 likes and no views within an hour of posting.  The likes come from bloggers who probably search on the tags or category of the post, and like it without reading it.  Why?  I don’t know exactly but I’m sure it has something to with some algorithm somewhere.   If you do know why this happens, can you leave a comment below?   The “views” tend to happen more gradually, over a period of time. 
  • Personal “life lesson” posts will garner an average amount of likes and very, very few actual views.  Let’s be honest, you wouldn’t read somebody else’s personal life lesson post either, would you?  Which is fine, we write these posts for ourselves.  Or at least I do.
  • Adding “buzzwords” to your tags or category works to get more views – but only to a certain extent.  A few years ago I added the tag ‘vegan’ to a post, and I immediately noticed a much higher than average number of views and comments.  Thereafter I made an effort to add “buzzwordy” tags to see if my views jumped dramatically on average.  Sometimes they did, but I think it happened because readers found the article via categories and tags, but the title and description of the post made them click on it.  Posts with buzzwords and cryptic titles didn’t really do well.
  • Posts on your particular niche passion will usually generate the most comments.  I do a lot of posts about powerlifting and strength training and these generate 95% of the comments.  Probably because people with niche interests are happy to find and interact with others who share that interest.  My more general posts are far less likely to garner a comment.  Interestingly some of my most “viewed” posts have 0 comments, but consistently get views on a daily basis.
  • My most viewed posts are recipes.  It’s not even close, recipes are viewed much, much more than any other sort of post.  I have one recipe post that gets a least a few views every day, year after year.  In fact, it gains momentum as the years go on, perhaps due to the Google algorithm which is more likely to list it higher in a search the more times it’s been clicked on.   Interestingly, most posts fade out of view and rarely get views after a few weeks.  Recipe posts, even old ones, don’t seem to fade away.  
  • I don’t feel blog post writing reflects my most honest self.  The pros with blogging are that I write more frequently and in a more disciplined manner.  The con is  I find myself not so subtly trying to write succinct, topical posts that are likely to be read (based on the knowledge of blogging I’ve acquired).  Which is fine, but I do think it’s time to dig deeper if I want my writing to evolve.  

I lost 10 years

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10 years.  I lost 10 years.  10 years in which I completely lost the plot.  10 years that I survived, rather than thrived.  I wasn’t depressed or unhappy, but neither was I happy.  But I was stressed.  Constantly.  10 years when I was so strung out on work stress I couldn’t stop to ask myself if, ultimately, it was worth it.

Over the summer I had an health scare and an extended convalescence.  I was immediately confronted with my life choices and my own mortality.  Ironically, for a powerlifter, my condition made me very, very physically weak.  I had “physical” nervous breakdown, rather than a mental one.  The body cannot live in a permanent state of stress and poor sleep.  It will stop functioning correctly – as it did with me.

During my many, many medical visits, my doctor began to question me about lifestyle – how much I worked, what did I do outside of work, how were my family and “romantic” relationships…I should preface this by saying my doctor is an old school medical professional and a Germanic one at that.  He says exactly what he thinks, and nobody will accuse him of being too touchy-feely.  He came to the conclusion that, as he put it, “You don’t have a life.  You work too much and when you’re not working, you stress about it.  Are working to live, or living to work?”.

10 years I assumed, almost overnight, a quantum leap in responsibility at work.  I certainly wasn’t going to say “no”.  I have always worked hard, and to be honest, was chafing at not being recognized.  Well, I got recognition, and with that recognition came a lot more responsibility and visibility.  I managed more people.  I was suddenly thrust into the bigger leagues, with all that implies.  

I had to learn a lot of new skills quickly – with little in the form of mentoring.  It wasn’t easy, and I made mistakes.  I learned to take criticism and feedback with the right mindset – and to never take things personally. I realized that you get the most criticism when you are doing something of real consequence.  Make no mistake about it, I had to work hard…but the challenge was exciting at first.

The stress levels I undertook were exponentially more than I had experienced previously.  The stress caused by looming project deadlines or dealing with a difficult employee were not impossible to deal with.  A solution, I knew, would be found.  What became impossibly to manage as the years progressed, however, was being on the receiving end of a greatly increased workload for which my team and I did not have sufficient resources.  Working week after month after year in those conditions is a losing game.  I worked longer and longer hours…and when I wasn’t working, I literally could not sleep as I’d think about all the deadlines we’d miss.

Without noticing it, I prioritized only work and my children.  I scarcely had time to train powerlifting – and even that suffered for extended periods.  Work did not directly cause any of my romantic relationships to end but it made creating new ones difficult.  I began to stop making middle to long-term plans (like great trips, planning the purchase of a vacation home, making a big sports goal) etc. because I knew with experience that work crises always arose and I’d have to put my plans on hold.  I have, many times, cancelled vacations.  Slowly, I stopped reading, which is a habit I’ve had my entire life.  I was simply too keyed up to concentrate on reading…and by the end of it, I couldn’t follow TV shows either.

I couldn’t have been much fun to be around.  Living in constant crisis mode made it difficult for me to be present in the moment.  I’ve always been prone to “being in my head” and daydreaming only now I was zoning out to imagine crisis situations in a never-ending loop.  More nightmare than daydream.  I had no interests other than powerlifting anymore – so really not much to talk about.  Other than being with my kids, my main pleasure in life was not working.  In just about every picture taken of me the last 10 years, I look like a real miserable bastard.  And I was. As funny as this sounds now, I just didn’t realize to what extent.

Negative thoughts and emotions generate a sort of negative energy that people pick up on and, quite naturally, seek to avoid.  That was me, a veritable positive energy black hole.  Having a Dad who was constantly in stress mode and who couldn’t be present in the moment had to have sucked.  I knew it, of course, but I told myself I was working hard for them and, besides (and this is not untrue) I tried to always be there for them in many other ways.  And I was, but again, I wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.  My dad  lost the plot after my parents divorced when I was young and receded into the (literal physical) distance as time went on.  I told myself that I wasn’t going to do that- and for the most part I didn’t – but the inability to relax, be present and live in the moment is a form of “distance”.

I have had many issues with alcohol, but this post is not meant to examine that in detail.  During this period, my alcohol use changed in a very interesting way.  I stopped drinking wine and spirits.  I wasn’t seeking to “get trashed”, per se.  Instead, I took an exact dose of beer most evenings (after 7pm).  It was very clinical self-mediation, I drank enough beer to ‘disconnect’ but I wasn’t getting completely blotto nor did I have crashing hangovers the next day.  I just needed to stop the incessant stress monkey in my head.  I was ashamed of this, of course, so I drank in my room.  My kids knew I was drinking, and I knew they knew, but again I told myself I’d get a handle on it shortly.  The shame just added to the anxiety.

Physically, I changed radically.  I gained weight to the extent that people who hadn’t seen me for X numbers of years often did a double-take.  Sometimes, they’d not be hypocritical and say what they were thinking as in “hey dude, what’s up with that?” which I knew was warranted but I didn’t like.  Much of this weight gain, to be fair, was also linked to muscle gain due to powerlifting.  I had added a lot of muscle pretty quickly (to the extent that an ex-girlfriend who manages gyms thought I was on gear at one point).  So I was bulky…but I also gained more fat that I should have and, worse still, often had a bloated appearance.  I was bulky, bloated, red-faced and feeling pretty shitty for the most part.  And it showed.  I’m not vain, but neither do I like being the guy in the picture who looks shit.  It was depressing but, again, I told myself handle it soon.

It’d be easy to say that the extra fat and bloating was all due to the beer.  Certainly it was the major factor, but I think constant sky-high cortisol levels (due to stress) also played a role in the weight and water retention.  Some months ago I did the calculations of my weekly calorie intake.  Other than drinking beer, I tended to eat clean and not too much.  Veggies, fruit and some proteins.  My daily calorie intake was surprisingly just over the what I normally needed to maintain weight, even with the beer.  I knew the beer was adding empty calories and carbs, but I was shocked to learn that it wasn’t as much as I had imagined.  My body, however, due to aging and stress, had become much less efficient at burning calories.

Obviously, this was not a sustainable life style.  The wheels were, inevitably, going to come off.  Some years ago I finally went through a period of mental burnout\exhaustion.  I took 2 weeks off, which really wasn’t nearly enough, and just powered through it afterwards.  For better or worse, I’ve learned how to cope with some pretty extreme periods of depression/anguish.   I don’t think my resilience did me any favors in the long run.  Then, about a year and a half ago, my daughter left for college.  Just like that, gone to college.  It seemed that I remember her being born like it was just a few weeks prior.  I realized that while highly present on a day to day basis, we didn’t really have a bunch of good memories to look back on in the preceding 10 years.  Epic trips, things like that.  You’re busy, and you put things off, but the thing is your children can’t be put “on hold”. They grow, and mature.  Fuck, I thought, how did I let that happen.  I must change.

Finally, a few months ago, change was thrust upon me.  My physical body decided to pull the plug.  It turns out there is a limit to the amount of stress the body can physically endure.  For a relatively brief, but scary , period I was fairly certain I had come to the end of the road.  We will all die, of course, but the only unknown is when.  Well, I thought, it may indeed be now.  And then I immediately thought, “what the fuck have I been doing with my life?”.  I had no answer.  But I knew, very clearly,  that all of work and the stress was not worth it.  I had wasted that time and I was not going to get it back.  10 years of not being the best parent I could be.  10 years of ignoring my own happiness and well-being.  Nothing, really, to show for those 10 years.

I realized that I made my own private hell.  Was my work stressful?  You bet.  Had I, over a number of years, taken pains to communicate the unsustainable level of stress myself and the teams were under?  Absolutely.  Did anything change substantially?  Not really.  However, what I realize now, is that there is always a choice.  The work situation was not going to change.  I work for a really good company, they are not slave drivers.  But certain conditions are endemic in both our industry and the modern workplace.  The change had to some from within.  I have options.  I can quit the job.  It’s not the end of world.  Dying, however, due to work related stress would be the end of my particular world.  Or I can change how I react to the job.  I can revise my expectations.  I realized it’s OK to say I’m going to do the best work I possibly can, but not at the expense of my health or family.  That means less hours and overall putting the work into perspective.  As I said, I work for a great company, and they have really been supportive during my health issues.  I have communicated clearly with them and for now things seem to be trending correctly.  Will that work for my employer and myself in the long-term?  Time will tell.  

A few days ago I was profoundly shocked to learn about the death of a friend that I had grown up with.  We weren’t the best of friends in school and, in fact, got to know each other better during our 20s.   He was a bright, caring and very smart guy. He was the sort of guy that naturally stayed in touch, that constantly sent crap jokes, that sort of thing.  I’ll never see him again, which is something I am still processing  There are no guarantees.  I’m in my 50s, with luck I have maybe another 10 years of good physical shape ahead of me.  I intend to take advantage of them.  

 

Gym Bullies

A few weeks ago there were a spate of articles in the UK press regarding the prevelance of sexual harassment in Globo (aka commercial) gyms and the Netflix documentary on the Bikram yoga guru that really opened my eyes to what women endure on the daily. Also, not so long ago, I witnessed  another type of bullying situation that, I realized later, was not unknown in Globo gyms.  To me, the gym is a sort of universal right, the way access to clean drinking water is a right.  It’s where one goes to improve one’s physical and mental health.  When emotionally stunted trolls think they can interfere with that right, it touches a nerve.

The two types of harrassment I have witnessed in Globo gyms are varying levels of  male on female sexual harrassment and straight up male on male physical bullying.  I should preface this by saying I have never witness either behaviour in a strength training gym. Doing so in such an environment would be an excellent way to get summarily ejected from the premises and could quite possibly be very hazardous to the offenders’ health.

Sometimes everything in life seems to go pearshaped at the same time.  At times like those, it’s essential to have a healthy, productive way of working off one’s stress.  Let’s establish the baseline that everyone, absolutely everyone, deserves to be able to do so without harrassment of any kind.  One caveat, however – in serious sports training such as powerlifting, boxing, MMA, crossfit, gymnastics, etc you will be sometimes pushed to your physical limits.  This, however, is to expand your boundaries.  There should, and usually is, a clear boundary between this sort of training and “hazing”.

As guy, and not a particularly small dude at that, I haven’t experienced harassment in a gym for a long, long time (more about that later).  The most prevelant form of harassment I notice in globo gyms are various levels of sexual harassment – from the ubiquitous staring “creepers” to (occasionally) particularly egregious thirsty dudes who think they can chat up women during their workouts.  It goes without saying that 80 percent of women in globo gyms never venture into the weight room, and it’s probably for this reason.  Rather, they do classes or congregate in large numbers in the cardio area, relying of the power of numbers like wildebeest on the Serengeti.  Of the remaining 20 percent of women in the weight area, some have pretty strong personalities and God bless ’em.  It seems that even creeps know to steer clear.  Invariably, however, some thirsty dude you’ve never seen before will make a nuisance of himself to some poor woman.  (NB:  it’s usually not a regular because, at least in my experience, socially handicapped guys like this don’t last a long time).  There is a difference between normal friendly behaviour like nodding, saying “hi”, asking if piece of equipment is free, etc and thirsty-ass harassment.

A few months ago I was in the bench press area and next to me was a woman who I know very sightly.  Some dude (who I had never seen before) comes up and immediately appoints himself her personal trainer.  Now, he was a good looking guy which in his case engendered a sense of entitlement as in “no matter how clumsy and annoying my approach is, she’s going to dig me”.   This guy was all over her like white on rice with a nonstop line of bullshit that was painful to witness.  He went right up to her, started talking (making her take off her headphones) and began giving her “advice”.  Worse still, he knew F*** all about bench-pressing (which she was doing correctly, she obviously didn’t need his crap “advice” and didn’t seem to dig the attention).  It wasn’t a case of some cheeky, self-confident guy, the whole approach was oppressive and weird.

I’d like to say 2 things:  firstly, I’m not a hater, if this guy was smooth and had a good line of patter with “positive” energy, I’d be the first to give a silent golf clap.  Secondly, I’ve learned over many years to keep mostly to myself in Globo gyms.  I remain friendly, of course, but intefere in other peoples’ shit, nope.  This, however, was beyond the pale.  Luckily the guy would periodically go to the other areas of the gyms (I watched him, he was trying to “chat” up several women simultaneously with the same shit “advice” approach  – I swear you can’t make this up).  At one point this women was looking for a 10 Kg plate so I said she could take mine as I was changing plates.  I then said, hey, you know so and so who was a gym acquaintance of both of us and we started to chat about benching which, it turns out, she did indeed know a whole lot more about than this moron.  At this point your man comes back and literally interrupts us, dishing out more bullshit “advice”.  She ignored him and we continued chatting about proper form.  He tried again, employing the old “talking louder and louder” approach to interrupting.  I began to think I may have to ping this dude upside the head with a 20kg plate as there was something off here, this went well beyond a tone-deaf semi-harrasing manner of “chatting up”.  The guy was clearly off his meds.  He eventually left to go try his luck elsewhere in the gym.  The woman who was benching finished her sets and eventually left.

Now, this guy was about my size so I was not physically intimidated.  What was the intimidating was the very real possibility that the guy was crazy or having a manic episode.  I thought about the woman, though, who was maybe 55 kgs and 1m60.  What’s it like to be harassed and physically intimidated by a some big, possibly crazy dude who is clearly sexually interested in you?  Hopefully, this sort of incident is rare.  However, if I was that woman and it happened to me, even once, you better believe I’d steer clear of the weight room and possibly even attend a women-only gym.  I didn’t really understand it before but I totally get it now.  As I’ve told my daugher, if you must work out in Globo gyms, try to find one with really positive energy, with 0 tolerance for this sort of bullshit.  Better yet,  find a strength training gym.  I’m not saying this would never happen in a speciality gym, but if one chooses carefully the probability is much lower.

There is another form of gym “harrassment” which, thankfully, one sees very rarely these days.  When I started weight training as a 145lb weakling in the mid 1980s, weight rooms didn’t just “seem” intimidating, they were intimidating.  Weight rooms in North America were inihabited solely by two groups, US football teams and roided out bodybuilders.  The ambiance in your local weight room was there something akin to taking your first stroll out into the “yard” at San Quentin prison.  It’s hard to communicate just how neanderthal the mentality was.  Football teams are, I suppose, insular by definition.  They are team, after all, and perhaps more apt than most other sports to be “juicing”.  Bodybuilders in those days, however, had to been seen to be believed.  Huge, hulking super roid beasts decked out in resplendent mullets, perma-tans, ridiculous multicolored baggy “gym” pants, cutoff stringer t-shirts and, very weirdly, Rebook hightop gym shoes that were the same model their high-haired girlfriends wore to aerobics class.  It was a hugely Gay esthetic, but these same dudes would beat you to a pulp for merely suggesting that.  It wasn’t that one felt passively intimidated, if you dared to wander into the weight area you were straight up harassed.  “Who are you, what are you doing here, don’t touch that bench, I’m using it…hey, Tony, look at this guy” etc, etc. Also, I’ve heard recently that the roid rage phenomenon is rare, blah, blah.  Perhaps it is now, but I can tell with 100% certainty it wasn’t then.  Fight in gyms or anyplace that the bodybuilders frequented were common.  Perhaps the “gear” people are using those days was more apt to make them behave like mentally addled toddlers.  Suffice it say that after a few forays into weight room and basically being told to “F” off, I got the hint.  Happily, sometime in mid-90s attitudes changes and I soon found myself back in the weight room.

Bottom line – don’t ever accept harassment in the gym.  It’s everyone’s right to be there and to train without some asshole ruining it. It’s relativey easy to spot a gym that tolerates an evironment that allows for harrassment.  If that’s the case with your gym, find a new one.

 

Let’s talk about depression in young men

I’ve reached an age when the children of people in my social circle are now young men and women and are taking their first tentative steps in establishing their adult identity – leaving home for university or, in some cases, going directly into the work-force.  2 of them, young men, are displaying signs of depression.  Discussing their issues immediately brought back a flood of memories of my own experiences with what I now recognize as fairly serious depression as a young man.  As I learned more about what these young guys were going through,  two thoughts  echo’ed in my head “Just hang on, it will get better” and “I wish they knew what I know now”.

According to a recent CDC study, “The percentage of adults who experienced any symptoms of depression was highest among those aged 18–29 (21.0%)” **.  (Please note that what follows are my opinions based on my own personal experience.  I am not, in any way, an expert in the field of mental health.)  Given my experience, I was not surprised by this result.  As far as I can tell, there are 2 types depression: situational (caused by stress, events) and innate (genetics, body chemistry, etc so that one may be predisposed to depression even in the best circumstances).  If you’re already predisposed to depression, taking those first steps into adulthood creates a lot of situational stress which, in my opinion, creates a perfect storm for a really bad bout of depression.  This is made worse by one’s relative inexperience with depression – not knowing what is happening to you or if it will ever get better.  This is why colleges famously get their share of freshman freakouts or worse.  I don’t know if it’s an apocryphal story, but we were told the reason that college dorm room windows don’t open completely is because of “jumpers”.

Looking back, I realize that I was predisposed to depression.  I was a fairly depressive kid and this was only exacerbated by factors in my childhood.  I was a sensitive kid with a very active imagination who was constantly daydreaming.  I’I had some good times, but also downright bad times.  I learned at an early age that life was often unfair and unpleasant, and there were times that the best you could do was to slog through, to endure.  It comes as no surprise that when I drank my first beer at the age of 15 there was an instant attraction.  My anxiety (briefly) vanished, and the incessant monkey mind chatter in my head was silenced.  Of course, the following hang over just made my anxiety levels sky-rocket.  Self-medicating with alcohol was, and is,  a viscious circle but I was young and very oriented toward short-term results.

As I’ve related in other posts in this blog, I left home at 18 and moved “back” the States.  In many ways, I was very much on my own.  I had a bit of money and the addresses of some friends I could stay with as I got on my feet.  Lest this sound like I’m playing the world’s smallest violin (woe is me), I did quite a bit to deserve this situation.  I barely, just barely graduated my senior year in high school so obviousy I hadn’t bothered to apply to colleges or even think about them in any material way.  I was, in short, a real handful my last 2 years of high school.  Rebellious, never home and more often than not partying with friends.  So my brilliant plan when I hit the US was to live some sort of bohemian working class existence that was part Jack Kerouac and part Bruce Springsteen.  Embarassing, but true.

Spoiler alert – it was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated and rather less glamorous.  I really scraped, scrounged and couch surfed.  I worked a multitude of shitty jobs, at one point working two full-time jobs simultaneously.  Looking back, I’m sort of impressed by what I achieved and the discipline that I imposed on myself.  The dark side of this achievement is that I had painted myself into a corner.  I really had no other options other than what I was doing – working and trying to get by on my own.  After about a year, I had managed to find a decent bottom rung of the ladder corporate job – working in a mail-room.  The pay was better than retail or restaurant jobs and the job actually had benefits like medical insurance and a 401k.  It seemed like things were looking up, however I soon found myself in what seemed like a black, bottomless pit of despair.  It felt like a dull physical pain and it made everything that much harder.  Getting out of bed, acting normal around people, going to work and not just suddenly walking out because I couldn’t deal with it anymore required gargantuan effort.

Because I was young and had relatively little life experience, I didn’t know what I could do to remedy this situation…so I just continued dragging myself to work and trying to ignore this heavy feeling of suffocation.  Finally, one day at work my body began to seize up.  I literally could not move my neck, it was frozen in place and I began to have a full-blown anxiety attack.  I excused myself from work (they were not at all understanding) and went to straight to my shitty HMO (US Healthcare, I  realize now, is a travesty) where I had to wait 3 hours to see a doctor.  When I did get to see the doctor he said there was nothing wrong with me and accused me of trying score drugs.  No counseling, no advice as to where I could get appropriate care, no concern about mental health at all.  I did the only thing I could think of – I scored some beer and drank.

The beer helped in the short-term, but when I woke up with a hang-over my situation was worse.  My anxiety was off the charts.  I realized my only option was to will myself to relax, one small step at a time.  So that is what I did.  It was horrible, I could only focus on the immediate – on literally hanging on.  I had no immediate safety-net.  I could completely lose my shit, but that would land me in unknown, possibly much worse, territory.  I still had to work, of course, so my major challenge was going to work, toughing it out and trying hide everything I was feeling.  Still, each day I did this was a small victory, and each time I was able to check my anxiety and will myself to do something positive gave me a very small measure of confidence.  After a while, I realized that I was not going to drown in this tsunami of anxiety and depression.  I could keep my head above water, if only barely at first.

I didn’t suddenly wake up one day without depression, happy and refreshed.  This bout slowly lifted in very small increments, two steps forward, one step back.  What did happen is that one day, many months later, I realized that I was making it through the day more or less normally.  I wasn’t particularly happy, per se, but neither was I being crushed the darkness.

Life is not a Hollywood movie.  I would like to say that I never suffered bouts of depression after that, but I did.  None of them were as scary as that first one that hit me at the cusp of adulthood.  Also, with experience I was/am able to handle depression better.

That experience taught me a few things:

  • Just. Hang. On.  You are stronger than you think.  Sometimes the only thing you can do is focus on small victories.  Forward momentum, no matter how slight, is key.
  • You need something that imposes structure in your life.  Staying in bed all day is only good for deepening your depression.  It can be as small as setting a goal such as today I will take a shower, get dressed and take a walk in the neighborhood or, as I did, go to work.  This was exhausting for me, but one positive aspect is that I was forced to focus on something other than myself for part of the day.
  • Substance abuse makes your anxiety/depression exponentially worse.  Avoid it.  I’ve had issues with substance abuse in the past, however during this episode an innate survival instinct made me avoid alcohol for the duration.  I was literally scared of ramping up my anxiety even further.
  • Find a competent mental health professional ASAP.  Keeping trying until you find one.  My experience was inexcusable.  We’re not in the 80s anymore, so I sincerely hope mentalities and overall compentency in dealing with depression have evolved.
  • Physical activity is the most effective way to alter your mood.  This is why it’s the most popular method addicts use to help modify their behaviour.  Walk, run, swim, bike, lift weights…golf, tennis, whatever it is, do it.

Finally, I think that depression hits young men differently than young women because men famously do not talk about their feelings and, if they do, certainly not with friends.  That being said, I think it’s key for young men suffering from depression, as it was for me, to spend time with their friends.  What male friends are good for is talking shit for hours, playing dumb video games, hanging out and doing whatever.  In the case of depression, this might actually be a better approach than endless talks about feelings.

** 2019 CDC Study about rates in the US

We all need a party-trick – or the fun of cultivating obscure, semi-useless natural talents

Talent is the natural aptitude or skill one has in any given action.  If one is really fortunate, one is able to combine their given talent with their livelihood.  If you have a calling, as the saying goes, you will never “work” a day in your life.  What I’m talking about is something that comes easier to you than it seemingly does to others although one must work hard to refine this talent.  Most of us, if we’ve lived at least semi-full lives, have discovered a number of things we are terrible at,  a smaller collections of things we are middle of the road average at and a very small list of things that, for one reason or another, we kick-ass in.  This post is a celebration of the cultivation of those weird, random talents.

When I was 11 I begged my mother for months to let me take martial arts classes.  It’s not that she didn’t want me to, it’s just that we didn’t have that much money at the time.  Finally, she relented, and we found a suitable dojo/boxing gym.  This place was open 7 nights a week – the first 2 hours for boxing, the 2nd two hours for Shotokan Karate.  I usually went a minimum of 5 days a week and attended both training sessions.  After 10 or 11 months of this the following things became apparent.  I was shitty boxer and at best I was able to attain a level that didn’t provoke outright embarassment in onlookers.  On the other hand, I was better in Karate…and what really distinguished me was my flexibity, speed and kicking ability.  My kicks were well above average, and my hands, even in Karate were, well, meh.  For those of you who are new to martial arts, Shotokan is a Japanese style that is not generally known for flashy kicks.  I , however, lived for such, so this being the early 80s I ordered books (yes, kiddies, no Youtube tutorials) written by well-known Korean Taekwondo practitioners that gave detailed technique breakdowns of many jump-spinning kicks, double jump spinning kicks and the like.  Soon  I started to do tournament sparring and it turns out I was relatively succesful.  I was painfuly shy at this point in my life so nobody at school had the slightest idea what I was doing with my spare time until my tournament results got some very localized media attention.  But perhaps even funnier, of the “party trick” variety, was the reception I got at first in the actual tournaments.  I remember once I destroyed this kid, a black belt, 3 points to 0 with rapid fire high kicks.  As we finished the head judge said “Hey, outstanding job for a yellow belt, you do Taekwondo?”  When I replied “No, Shotokan”, he did a doubletake and laughed.  The thing is, I trained 10 to 14 hours a week on this really obscure (especially at the time) skill that was really only applicable in this very specific setting.  I have never been a skilled fighter, I don’t have the instincts.  What I was very good at, however, was this very specific form of “tag” that is tournament karate sparring.

Another very, nay, extremely unlikely skill that I possess is the benchpress.  If you told me at 18 that one day I’d be that dude in the gym who benchpresses more than everyone else, I’d have laughed my ass off.  Until my mid-40s, I had a slimmer atheletic build.  I’ve always had fairly broad shoulders but otherwise I wasn’t big-boned, hairy chested or, at the time, overly burdened with muscle.  I was, and in some ways remain, the original metrosexual.  Benchpressing was for Neanderthals.  I was much more focused in my 20s and 30s on my 10K times than powerlifting.  Fast forward 2 decades in time and almost 8 years of Powerlifting training.  My deadlift is pathetic by almost any standard, my squat is respectable when I’m not injured but my bench is another matter.  On any given day in a commercial gym I can probably outbench anyone in the gym, even the heavier guys.  I might not out-bench everybody in a powerlifting gym, but I’ll at least make a good showing for myself.  I don’t grind out my benchpresses, they go up easily, even when I’m very close to my 1RM…until I’m over that limit and it doesn’t move.  I never train to failure and I only fail lifts a couple of times a year.  As my coach asked me the other day, “So what’s it like having this one weird thing you’re really good at?  I bet it doesn’t come up much in cocktail party chat”…

Finally, the last thing I’m weirdly good at is Trivial Pursuit or Jeapordy type games.  My cousin actually had a week long winning streak on Jeapordy program (RIP Alex Trebek) in the 90s so perhaps it’s in the genes.  So much so that I immediatey vibed with with the move Slumdog Millionaire when it came out.  I just happen to know a lot of weird, random facts for a number of weird, random reasons.  I clean up in pub quizzes, as long as it’s general interest and not too (which can happen where I live) UK specific.  I’m always getting the “WTF, how do you know that?!?!” reaction.  What can I say, I guess rampant boredom and no TV growing up had something to do with it…

We all need these party tricks, these obscure skills that maybe don’t garner much public glory but make us feel good about ourselves.  Firstly, because skills or talents are only discovered and developed because you’ve gone out there and tried many things until, lo and behold, here’s this crazy thing that you’re better at than most people.  Secondly, you need to work hard take the skill in question to the next level.  All of the skills I mentioned above were examples applying many hours of hard work to a specific apptitude.

To sleep, perchance to dream…

An anecdotal account of the effects of sleep deprivation on training and general health

The internet is awash with well being and sports training advice. All of the reputable sources of advice and coaching, without exception, stress the importance of quality sleep. “Yes, yes”, you think, “I get it…it’s the low hanging fruit type of advice…thanks, Captain Obvious”. Sleep, they say, is THE most important component of your physical and mental well being, and the most important factor of your athletic performance. Your programming, diet, all of it is for nought if you don’t have quality sleep. “A tad exaggerated, perhaps”, you think.

Well, if my recent experience is a good indicator, it’s spot on. I’ve always been able to sleep at the drop of a hat. My fondness for naps is a running joke in my family. Over the last several months, however, my ability to sleep was severely impaired. As I’ve described in previous posts, a perfect storm of personal and professional stress battered me for over a year. Little by little I completely lost my ability to nap (no matter how tired) and eventually a good night’s sleep seemed like a feverish dream from another life. It’s insidious because the most immediate effect of sleep deprivation is on your mental state. You lose the ability to focus, to concentrate which means, among other problems, you’re even less equipped to resolve whatever issues/stresses are causing your sleep to degrade.

My sleep quality degraded over a period of time, so the mental effects were noticeable but gradual. I always thought it’d be OK if I was just able to get a good night’s sleep. Indeed, I’d get a decent night of sleep every 5 or 6 days due to accumulated exhaustion and I’d wake up feeling like I had some sort of mental super-power. I began to use my powerlifting training as a means to physically exhaust myself enough to sleep. This worked for a short while but the lack of quality sleep exacerbated my depression brought on by stress I was encountering. I never stopped training, but I lost my motivation and began to just “go through the motions”. My workouts were subpar so subsequently my lack of quality of sleep reached critical levels.

It was a fairly rapid loss of strength 2 months ago that made me snap out of my stupor and seek medical help. It’s a scary thing to have 1/3 of your strength seemingly evaporate over night. Suffice it to say my doctor saw the state I was in, not to mention my skyrocketing blood pressure, and immediately implemented a number of measures, many of which were aimed at improving sleep. Firstly, I had learn to manage my sources of my stress and fix what I could while letting go those things that weren’t fixable. It’s literally a matter of life or death. Secondly I became very serious about sleep hygiene and, among other things, bought a better quality bed and pillows. I made sure I was properly hydrated, avoided alcohol (very detrimental to sleep quality) and began to take valerian (an herbal remedy) before bed-time.

It’s been several weeks since I implemented these measures. My blood pressure, while still high, has reduced from “off the charts” as it was when I first entered my doctor’s office. Slowly but surely my sleep is improving. The better I sleep the more able I am to address the causes of stress and, as a result, the generalized feeling of depression has lifted. If I wake up at night, I’m actually able to go back to sleep Enthusiasm for my personal interests, such a power-lifting, has returned.

Yesterday, 2 days from my birthday, I equaled my previous PR weight in deadlift. 2 months ago I could barely lift 70kgs less. My training partners have seen my lifts increasing week by week in 5 to 10 Kg increments and they have jokingly accused me of being on PEDs. It’s simple, if you don’t have quality sleep you don’t have health and if you don’t have health, you can forget mental and physical performance.

 

When life don’t give you squat, squat gives you life.

Greeting, everyone.  Yes, I know the title of today’s post sounds like a “cringey” catchphrase from a t-shirt (hmm, note to self…) but it came to me a few hours ago when I was training at the brand spanking-new premises of the powerlifting club. I don’t think I’ve made it a secret in my past few posts that I’ve been going through a rough patch lately.  It was only really dawned on me the last few weeks that much of my malaise stems from a full-blown case of professional burn-out.  Like many of my generation, my attitude at work was just to get it done, no excuses and the phrase “I can’t” does not exist.  As manager, of course, I have managed staff through burn- out soI know that acceptable levels are different for everyone and accumulated stress over time is insidious.  However, to echo that old cliché “I just didn’t think it’d happen to me”.

Well, I didn’t think it’d happen to me because pride goeth before a fall.  I thought I was too aware, too smart, too “woke” (very ironic given the context) to suffer a burn-out.  Burn-out was caused, in my case, by accepting to do what evolved into 2 full-times jobs.  It is, of course, impossible for 1 person to perform 2 full times jobs at a high level for the long-term so an eventual crash was inevitable.  While I did escalate the situation repeatedly over the last few years and demanded resources – said resources were always right over the horizon. A number of factors, unrelated to work I was doing, made the work I was doing even harder as I was called in to “fight fires” repeatedly for situations not of my making.  I gradually began to fall behind on my deliverables…and was forced to perform “triage”, prioritizing those which I would deliver on time and those for which I’d “take a hit”.

These missed deadlines and other looming missed deadlines played constantly in loop somewhere in my subconscious.   Slowly, insidiously, it affected my professional confidence and engendered a feeling of anxiety and a barely perceptible sense of impending doom.  I began to have problems sleeping as I’d awake at night and not be able to go back to sleep as my now conscious brain endlessly re-hashed work stress.  My accumulated sleep loss began to visibly affect my ability to concentrate which put my work productivity into a death spiral.  I worked longer and longer hours to complete formerly easy tasks.

At the same time, I became increasingly worried about lack of quality time I was spending with my kids.  Even when I was spending time with them, I was haggard and preoccupied.  My guilt over this wasn’t aiding my mental state.  Finally, my powerlifting training took an obvious dive.  I was still training when I could find time (at this point purely a desperate measure to preserve sanity and physical health) but my heart wasn’t in it.  Then in late May of this year I could barely get out of bed and force myself to go to work.  Had I not had 2 kids in private school who will soon go to university, I think I might have thrown in the towel.  In 35 years of working, I never felt anything like I was feeling.  I read a clinical description of burn-out and realized that exhibited every single symptom in flashing red lights.  I wracked my brain to find a magic silver bullet that would fix everything.

I decided, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that alcohol was the cause of all this mess.  I was certainly drinking more than was healthy, but at the same time at this point of my life I wasn’t a case study in Barfly-esque excess, either.  So I stopped drinking booze altogether save a very occasional glass of wine.  And the situation improved somewhat, but not as dramatically as I’d hoped.  I was able to sleep a little better and therefore improved my concentration briefly.  It allowed me to continue limping along professionally for another few months until, about 2 weeks ago, the dominoes began to fall.

This is a painful situation, for sure, but it is nowhere near as bad as the loss of loved one or something of that nature.  Still, I was surprised the emotional toll it took on me.  The sliver-lining in the experience is that my mental fog receded somewhat so I was able to analyze how, little by little, I put myself in this situation.  Also, it has become clear what I need to do to improve my mental health as well as my professional situation.  Let me be clear, this is an ongoing situation, but I no longer have blinders on.

To whit, I’ve been making a marked effort to live in the moment, spend really quality time with my loved ones and friends.  I have found refuge and a gained little bit more “gout de la vie” in reading and writing – my age-old friends that have helped my out of so many tight corners.  Finally, today I forced myself to go to the powerlifting club to make up for a training I missed yesterday.  I was supposed to work bench-press, overhead press and accessory exercises.  I’m still down and struggling and felt the need for a boost.  I love bench press, love it, and I’m pretty good at it, but it’s not it’s not the King of exercise.  So I did squats, not heavy, mind you, but at about 70 percent for triples.  I concentrated on relearning the technique.  I was all alone, so I began to crank my music on the sound system.  This song came on my play list:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eBfX_a9_o4

For a brief, shining moment, all was right with the world.  I wasn’t moving hero weight but I was squatting and making strides to get back to where I was before.  I will prevail.  I wish I knew why, but only squats can do this.

 

 

When the squats don’t work…

If you’re reading my posts I don’t think I really need to convince you about the benefits of physical training in general and strength training in particular.  Exercise improves the quality of your life, period.  This post is targeted at those of you who have taken the red pill as concerns physical training.  It’s unquestionably a part of your life.  What happens, however, when the ability to train is taken away, either partially or entirely?  Additionally, can physical training serve as a psychological crutch for some trainees?  Can over-reliance on physical training and the benefits it imparts cause emotional stagnation?

My interest in this subject is, of course, personal.  Habitual readers of this blog know that I injured myself last November – just before – and then again during – a powerlifting competition.  The end result I could not longer low-bar squat until recently and, to be honest, I shouldn’t have been going heavy on the bench or the deadlift, either.  (Of course I did…life is about weighing the risks).  If you have ever been serious about a sport and suffered an injury you’ll know that it’s, well, depressing.  Not being able to perform and excel at something you viscerally enjoy is a psychological blow.  Training not only provides an outlet and a healthy psychological coping mechanism, it often informs our sense of self.  Therefore a negative impact to this coping mechanism is unsettling.  This is what happened to me – I tried to keep a positive attitude, concentrate on assistance exercises, improve my poverty deadlift, etc.  Be that as it may, I couldn’t fool myself.

The heavy low-bar squat is the king of exercises.  If you ask any serious strength athlete if they had to pick only 1 exercise for the rest of their lives 95 percent of them would choose the squat.  You might have a pathetic bench-press or deadlift (depending on your body-type, etc) but nobody has a really bad squat.  Everyone who puts effort into the squat will achieve respectable numbers.  The squat is the Ur-movement.  The squat makes your body strong.  The bench and deadlift are “nice to have”s.

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I hated squats at first because everyone hates squat at first.  They are difficult, they humble you and, oh yeah, there is actually more technique to it than most people suspect.  But, mostly, you need to put the work in, my friend.  If you do, though, you will be richly rewarded.  The feeling after a heavy squat session is different from any other exercise.  It’s like a secret super power – you know that your entire body is getting stronger.  A heavy bench press session – er, not the same thing at all.

Roughly the same time I could no longer squat I decided to detox and take a break from alcohol.  On paper, it’s a great idea but in practice it was more complicated than I expected.  You see, training was healthy coping mechanism and those beers and glasses of wine were unhealthy coping mechanisms.  It was a largely symbiotic relationship in a weird way.  Training hard allowed me to think I could down that booze with less guilt than a couch potato.  So my healthy coping mechanism was impaired (training) and I took my alternate (albeit unhealthy) coping mechanism out of the equation.  The end result – I had to face the issues I needed “help” coping with.  It was hard, frustrating and, yes, depressing.  But, much like beginning with squats, you should..no, you need to do it.  If you hang on and slog through the rough patches, you will probably get stronger.

Life is not Hollywood movie.  Depression is a horrible, scary experience.  A big benefit of gaining the wisdom that comes with age is knowing that, yes, we’ll come out at the other end.  You just need to hang on.  You also need to be honest with yourself.  Coping mechanisms only allow you put a problem “on hold”.  The title of this blog post is a play of the title of The Verve song “The drugs don’t work” that I can’t seem to get out of my head the last few days..It was also a play on the fact I couldn’t squat literally and that squats weren’t working for me figuratively.

So a quick update:  I have been able to low-bar squat for the last few weeks.  It still sort of hurts and, even worse, I’ve lost 1/3 of my squat strength.  But, fek it, I can squat, folks!  I now struggle at embarrassing weights, but I can squat.  I will miss the next 2 competitions but if I train intelligently I will be able to compete next year.  If I can’t do great numbers, well, I am grateful anyway.  Yes, I’ve started the occasional beer again but I’ve also found the booze don’t work.  I can, sure, but periods of abstinence make me question why I thought it was essential.  And those issues that needed to be coped with – they’re still there but I make an effort to met them head on.

 

 

 

The dark side of the Gym

 

 

This blog is about to get real.  This morning I read an excellent post from Awkward Brown Guy (https://theawkwardbrownguy.wordpress.com/ – I highly recommend his blog) in which he describes his motivation for going to the gym, and how it’s changed over the years.  It got me thinking about how we all like to post about the myriad benefits of going to the gym, but we very rarely touch on the less than salubrious aspects.  It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, folks, so let’s have an honest discussion about some of the more disturbing trends in gym going behavior.

  • Balance is the key:  Nature seeks equilibrium; too much or too little of anything is not good.  Physical activity is required for one’s physical and mental hygiene. The question that many people struggle with is “how much?”.  Some people see some of the less than healthy behavior of some “fitness” trends and use it as an excuse to avoid exercise.  Still other seemingly think that engaging in physical exercise will solve all of your problems.  I think all of us are somewhere on this spectrum, and where we are at any given time depends on external factors.  Personally speaking, I’ve had couch potato periods, somewhat exaggerated periods of heavy training and more common work/life balance “trying to find time to train” periods.
  • Motivation vs. Pathology:  The modern fitness world is addicted to motivational stories to an unhealthy extent.  It’s very simple, if you don’t train and then start training, you will notice many improvements.  Better mood, sleep, weight loss and/or muscle gain, reduction of anxiety, the list goes on.  And I think it’s great this engenders a feeling of empowerment in people.  I don’t think, however, that pushing stories of how people have seemingly conquered all of life’s ills by physical training is a positive trend.  We all know a few 1 dimensional “gym is life” types and, admit it, it’s a bit sad.  Sadly, many of us have a seen a few pathological cases which literally make you wince.  At the Globo gyms I go to, for example, there is  one guy who is so hyper-ripped that his muscles actually interfere with his mobility.  He waddles from machine to machine and occasionally the dumbbell rack.  It’s kind of disturbing.  There is also this extremely anorexic woman I’ve seen at gyms around town for years now.  It always makes me nervous to be in the gym with her because I honestly expect her to keel over at any moment.  She’s literally a walking skeleton and all she ever does is cardio.  I have a family member who struggled with this disease, I know it’s a desperate attempt to exert control over one’s life,  so I don’t take this lightly.  The gym is the last place she should be and nobody should be enabling her to burn any more precious calories.
  • Performance Enhancing Drugs:  I used to be very naive and thought steroid use was rare.  10 years ago I might have even thought that the behemoth I described above was a “natural”.  The reality is that most of the shredded guys and gals at your local gym are on “gear”.  Most of us don’t have the genetics  it takes to resemble a Comic Book hero, so, surprise, surprise, many people resort drugs.  I understand if a professional athlete or movie star does it because the risk may be worth the monetary reward.  It’s pathological, however, for  your average gym goer or amateur competitor take the same hormonal health risks.
  • Body Dysmorphia:   Sure, body dysmorphia exists outside a gym environment.  It’s also true that physical training is conducive to developing a limited degree of body dysmorphia in most people.  What I find most interesting is how the condition manifests itself depends on what type of training you are doing.  This is logical because depending on your chosen activity you’ll spend a certain amount of time around phenotypes best suited to that activity.  For example, when I ran semi-marathons I used to think I was too bulky at 66 Kgs for 1m79. I now weigh 30KGs more after years of strength training.  Honestly, some of that is fat, but a lot of it isn’t.  It’s not an abnormal body type to find in a powerlifting gym but I am sometimes reminded, by people’s reactions, how outside the norm it is.  The interesting thing is that in my mind’s eye I’m “normal” size and I don’t really dig the “getting bigger” aspect.  It’s a side effect of the sport, not the raison d’être.

The point is that we need to apply the same critical regard to physical training as we do to other parts of our lives.  I often liken it to stages of “culture shock”.  When you first arrive in a country you often “love” (or detest) everything about it for a period of time.  Then, abruptly, that feeling completely changes to its polar opposite.  So now you loathe every stupid aspect of said country/culture.  Within a few months, however, you’ll reach a more reasonable mindset and begin to see the culture for what it is, neither perfect nor horrible.  Physical training is, for me, an essential part of life.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide an answer for all of my problems.  Sometimes, it even causes a few problems such as my recent injury or getting bulkier than I’d like.   At my age, though, I’m not motivated by vanity.  I like how it makes me feel and I get a kick out of achieving goals and getting stronger.   Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.