Measuring Progress

“How’s therapy?” friends who know of my weekly appointments to keep myself reasonably together occasionally ask, “is it working?”

“I don’t know,” I always say. It’s an honest answer, but I leave out the part about how, since I had lacked the self-awareness to realize how not okay I was until I was severely not okay, assuming that I could now somehow judge my progress is either a testament to how much my friends believe in me and my capacity to make progress, or, perhaps more accurately, how little they know about my descent into sadness. Sometimes, when pressed, I’d offer that, “my therapist thinks I’m doing okay.” People seem to take this as a good sign, but given that she has also congratulated me on not being a manipulative sociopath, I probably set the bar kind of low with that relationship.

The problem is that it’s difficult to measure progress you can’t see. There are no progress pictures you can take of your mental health, no benchmark VO2Max, lifts, or WODs. There’s no road map or training program. Other than the uncomfortable realization that I was more unhappy than I’d like to be, there wasn’t much else I was sure of.

progress pic.jpeg

If the first step to addressing your own bullshit is recognizing the problem, they say the second step is acceptance. Somewhere in between, you’re assumed to have pulled yourself back to a functional state and mentally prepared yourself to address your numerous hang ups. It’s an uncomfortable experience made even more frustrating by the fact that no one actually tells you how to get from step one to generally happy. Even when you pay for professional therapy, you’re left to claw your way out yourself while answering vague questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “how do you think you can deal with this issue better next time?”

“What do you mean, ‘next time’?” I’m tempted to say, fully prepared to take the easy way out and avoid, for the indefinite future, whoever in my life had created whatever unpleasant situation I was complaining about.  “Does there have to be a ‘next time’?”

It’s the same question I voice at the CrossFit box, except, because no one there is paid to give a shit about my feelings, I’m bluntly told yes, I will eventually have to put myself through that extremely painful experience again. That the increasing weight on the bar or the heavier kettlebells are entirely for my benefit. This information usually annihilates the last thin thread of willpower I was clinging to to stay both upright and conscious. It also seems fundamentally unfair. I understand my therapist’s attempts to turn me into a better person – that’s what I pay her for – but no one told me building character was part of CrossFit or Olympic weightlifting.

useaka barbell.jpeg
kick today bottle.jpeg

Yet, as if to make up for the fact that I can’t snap under the bar with anything that resembles speed, the harder I’m thrown, the faster I seem to come back. This could be proof that I’m still clinging to learned behavior, that I’m still seeking out situations which maximize my suffering. I like to believe, however, that this time around, I’m at least limiting my masochism to the CrossFit box.

I will concede that this is by default, not by choice. The beauty of any activity that corners you into playing self-defense so you don’t die is that it doesn’t leave you with much energy for remaining high-strung for the rest of the day. It just sort of beats you into acquiescence of whatever might have previously evoked some type of strong emotion. Completely drained of the majority of my will to live, I’ve been forced to stop fighting the things I can’t change. Exhaustion has led me not only to acceptance, but to exercise-induced Stockholm’s Syndrome, as, inexplicably, I’ve taught myself to love it. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the whiteboard, staring at the WOD with a friend, as if I could change the numbers or exercises by glaring at them.

“Well, at least it’s box jumps, not burpee box jumps,” I said.

“So basically,” my friend said, “you’re saying that since coach isn’t going to kill you, you’re okay with him punching you repeatedly in the face.”

This probably isn’t the form of acceptance they talk about in therapy. You’re probably supposed to choose to accept things rather than be cornered, then beaten, into it. Sometimes, however, the amount of bullshit you’ve allowed yourself to get away with dictates that nothing else is really going to work.

It doesn’t seem like much, but I’m going to go ahead and call that progress.

35

I’m 35 today.

It’s a weird feeling, arriving at an age that suggests established adulthood when my life resembles a never-ending vortex of chaos mixed with a good measure of underachievement. 35 suggests an age when people generally have grown into themselves and their decisions; when life stabilizes, at least temporarily. When you feel good about most things that you’ve done; when you make enough to afford small luxuries and most things fit into place. Or, at least that’s how I imagined it.

Instead, I am 35 today and having only been behind the wheel of a car once, I feel like I’m in a F-1 race, drunk to the point where decisions are confusing and laborious, trying to figure out how to drive. I’m technically, miraculously, still in the race, but I’m not sure what lap I’m on, when we’re supposed to stop, or what we’re all racing away from. Given the circumstances, however, I suppose I could be doing a lot worse.

I say that without allowing myself the luxury of being grateful for things that my friends tell me I should take into consideration; that I’m not, for example, a homeless convicted sex offender or a crack addict turning tricks to support her habit. I am aware that my life could be much worse, but I also wonder what it says about my friends’ perceptions of me that they revert to such extreme examples. Couldn’t they choose less desperate hypotheticals?

That’s not to say that they’re wrong. Despite the fact that the bottom fell out of my life recently – or perhaps because of it – my current life can only be described, for better or for worse, as unexpected. It’s not cycling or lifting, but CrossFit, that has become that thing I do to keep my mind off of everything else. And because I need to keep it a daily practice to keep those black dogs at bay, the workouts and WODs have led, to, of all things, preparing batches of broccoli and chicken breast twice a week.

 Cleans gone wrong.

Cleans gone wrong.

 The birthday menu.

The birthday menu.

I had always seen meal prepping as too rigid and restricting given my desire to be perceived as easy-going and flexible. Who wants to be around someone who is so Type A and neurotic about their food, I thought. Who wants to eat the same thing every day for lunch and dinner? Who is humorless enough to choke down chicken breast twice a day? And then I became one of those people.

meal prep

Let’s be clear; that’s not to say I actually eat well. I follow up that chicken and broccoli with ice cream and potato chips on a daily basis, which means that I am only trying to make up for my otherwise shitty diet at meal times. I call it balance.

Yet, my best efforts at self-sabotage via a half-assed diet have ironically resulted in arriving at 35 looking better than I ever have. Like a cheaper form of liposuction, CrossFit erased the cellulite I couldn’t get rid of unless I was at least 3 kg lighter than my current weight. Everything got tighter. I grew lats and my back got brawny. I actually look like I lift things with my arms and not just my legs. It feels pretty good.

coffee and a cookie
 My furriest bestie.

My furriest bestie.

But the best part is that I have people to lean on when times get tough, who will listen and nod and give me a hard time. The same friends that tell me that while I might feel like the emotional version of nuclear winter, “at least you don’t look that way.” The ones that get coffee with me, and sometimes McDonald’s, and who will stay on the phone whether I’m sobbing or laughing. Whatever my underachievements or my failings at constructing an age-appropriate life, those friends remain a sign that I might not be doing it all wrong.

I’m 35 today. Still drunk behind the wheel of that F-1 race car. Still confused, still figuring it out. But things could be worse.

Here’s to another lap, another year of keeping the rubber side down.

Surviving through CrossFit

A couple days after I published my last post, I got my heart broken.

It wasn’t the usual breakup because I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone as intensely. It wasn’t because the feelings weren’t mutual; and so, it completely obliterated me.

The first two weeks, I couldn’t function. To be honest, I don’t really remember much of those two weeks, but for the next month, I woke up with a nervous pain in my chest that would explode into wailing sobs throughout the day. I lost my appetite and stopped eating. I wanted to disappear. Life ceases to have meaning after you lose someone you thought was the love of your life. In a lot of ways, I still don't see the point in it.

It would be nice to say that it drove me back to the bike, but it didn’t. I threw myself into CrossFit instead.

crossfit yoyogi 1

Maybe I was doing it because I had nothing else to do, and the bike had its own share of burdens. Maybe it was a convenient distraction that I’d already paid for. Maybe, in the end, I kept going because he had gotten me into it. But I had fallen in love with CrossFit by myself, and those first few weeks, it saved me. The searing of straining muscles, the feeling of pain reduced to numbness from exhaustion and exertion, the suffocation, the sensation that I might be drowning. It all mirrored my state outside the CrossFit box but somehow, there, there was catharsis.

I started going to classes every day the box was open. I switched classes so that I could stay afterwards to practice everything I couldn’t do. When the memories ripped through whatever healing I’d managed, I practiced pull-up negatives and push-ups at home. Last weekend, I doubled up and went to two classes in one day.

It sounds crazy, I know, or at least, excessive. Overcompensation for a lost love and a directionless life. Seeking redemption from emotional trauma through physical pain. Or worse, a self-imposed punishment for a perceived general lack of worthiness. All embarrassing ways of coping with loss and projections of internal strife.

kettlebells and belts
plates

But isn’t that how we all survive? You put yourself through solitary trials until one day you don’t wake up every day wishing you hadn’t. Until you reach a point where whatever you’re doing, day in and day out, is less of a coping mechanism, and the desire to do that thing or activity overshadows the frantic need to do it. Until that raw, open wound of true heartbreak becomes a more manageable – though lifelong – hurt.

I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m trying.

New Year's Resolutions and Getting Happy

I’d like to say I’ve been waiting to write until most people have either forgotten their New Year’s resolutions or, if they haven’t, are most definitely regretting them. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize until you get older; that instead of hopeful projections of what you’d like to accomplish by the next year, with age, New Year’s resolutions gradually turn into last desperate chances to fix your life before it’s entirely too late.

Resistant to adding more failure into my life than there already is, I haven’t made any resolutions in the past few years. But, like deadlines for the planning-impaired, it’s always when you’re least expecting it that things creep up on you.

Which is to say: it’s been a hell of a year so far, but such a good one.

postcard to jwj

A lucky break in December landed me a full-time job as a virtual litigation attorney. Eight years after graduating from law school, I am finally getting paid to do substantive legal work. A chance freelance editing gig has led to a great friendship; the kind where you get concerned if one doesn’t text back in an hour and plans for brunch always turn into 6-hour hang out sessions. A week into the Giro, I’m more worried about discovery deadlines and surviving the day’s WOD. That’s not to say I don’t still love bikes and pro cycling. Just that worrying about riding isn’t much of a priority anymore.

brunch
 Thanks for the deadlift bruises, CrossFit!

Thanks for the deadlift bruises, CrossFit!

Life is different, and I’m happy. Which is – to be honest – an incredibly weird feeling. “Different” and, in particular, “happy,” seem like things that require planning or, at minimum, some type of mental resolve towards a higher goal. I seem to have lucked into both with the simple passage of time into a new year. And that sometimes gives me pause; does my lack of planning mean that this is all temporary?

In these moments when my anxiety suggests I’m living a life I don’t deserve, I like to remember those New Year’s resolutions I’ve made. The ones that have been derailed by pastries or conveniently forgotten within six weeks. They’re a nice reminder that even with the best intentions, planning doesn’t guarantee the existence of a situation or condition, much less its relative permanence. For that, I’ve learned, you just have to work at it.

And because it’s a life that feels genuinely good, most of the time, and healthy, and maybe because it’s not a self-imposed New Year’s resolution that feels like a desperate attempt to get my shit together, I have been. It’s not easy all the time, but it’s the kind of life I'm working to hold on to.

[More stories coming soon, I promise!]

Bye, 2017

Like the Sram video I posted about yesterday, 2017 just wasn't very good. 

I can't say I'm sad to see it leave, but should thank 2017 for a year of forced growth, good friends, new ideas, better eyebrows, and more quality time with my dog. 

me and postcard from sage
me and kaede

Here's to a new, bigger, and better year!!!

Sneaker Friends

Like most people, I generally determine the value of my friends by the uncomfortable situations we’re willing to endure for each other. A few months ago, despite the ready availability of messaging apps, I agreed to a phone call with a friend. It lasted an hour, after which I understood how war unites veterans together for life. My conviction that experiencing discomfort is a critical part of any friendship also manifests – in those rare periods of self-clarity – in attempts to make up for forcibly strapping friends into the train wreck of my life via self-flagellation.

It’s not something new, like one of those dark and twisted things that come out in your 30s once you accept yourself for the person that you really are. Instead, it’s more similar to a mutation of prior tendencies to pair social activities with oxygen deprivation. Given that my aerobic capacity is currently capped at climbing a flight of stairs at a geriatric pace, I’ve managed to transfer the unique experience of bike rides that annihilate your self-esteem to sneaker lines.

sports lab by atmos bag

It works like this: a notice is posted online, including, recently, a dress code, and my Saturday starts at an hour that makes my lack of Friday night social activities glaringly obvious. In the winter, I pull on a base layer and my Woolie Boolies and join the hundreds of other people who apparently have nothing better to do on a weekend morning. We’re all waiting in the cold for the same thing, except that I’m in line not to buy a pair for myself, or as a reseller, but on the hope that I’ll win a pair of size 10 shoes for a best friend.

sneakerhead

To date, I have yet to pull out the winning ticket to a pair of anything special. My inability to absolve myself – at least, temporarily – necessitates more lining up for hours. Every time, I ask the universe to make me appear to be a better friend by gifting me a pair of atmos x Nike shoes. It never happens, which makes sense in a karmic way. Rather than bringing home the white whale of Nike collabs, I’m forced to learn how to be a less exhausting friend through the negative people I keep around in my life as cautionary tales.

“But I can’t,” they’ll usually say in those conversations I seek out, out of either a foolish sense of charity or as overdue karmic punishment, “I can’t get out of this situation that I’m choosing to stay in.”

flat fix

Cornering myself into becoming a cheerleader for a more positive outlook, I advocate for looking on the bright side, arguing that it isn’t really as dismal as it seems. You could argue that playing the alternative role – of approving of marinating in extreme unhappiness – would be irresponsible. That the natural human response to a friend’s voluntarily relinquishment of agency is to firmly tell him or her to snap out of it, if only to exonerate yourself of responsibility for any consequent dive into even deeper depression. Yet, there is nothing more effective than a tantrum of hopeless despair to trigger a natural sense of sustained optimism.

I emerge from those conversations with a desperate sense of possibility. Like rides that crush your lungs and shatter your self-worth, I make a mental note of that fact that there is value in the effort of becoming a better friend, however vain. That your friends can’t let you win the race to the next telephone pole or the town line unless you drag your ass to the starting line of that group ride. That there’s slightly more shame to a DNS than a DNF.

I try to remember that as I wait in line, shivering, hands practically numb, for the next pair of hyped shoes.