Stress, Suckage, and Sickness: a primer for when life punches you in the face

I woke up a couple of days ago all raring to get after some seriously heavy squats in the gym – maybe even lay down a new personal record! Hell yeah!!

barbell

But what actually happened was that I started into my warm-up sets, and realized when I got to about 80% of where I had planned to go, that 80% was 100% of what I had for that day. Definitely no PR’s in sight. Bummer – but was I disappointed?

Nope. Last week was a pretty stressful week. It started with a sleepless night, a day of testing at the hospital (including the dreaded brain MRI that I wrote about earlier), and included a series of other mishaps that really can just be chalked up to parenthood and life in general. The point is, shit happens and when it does, the mileage piles up on your body: sleep loss, less than optimal nutrition, and stress – particularly stress – all contribute to decreased performance in the gym.

So I did my work sets at 80% and enjoyed it. I even videoed a few of the sets just to see how they looked, because they felt like a grind and a half…but when I reviewed the videos, what I saw was a whole bunch of really fucking good squats – weight moving well, consistent depth, control – all skills that I totally didn’t have at this time last year. Win!

stressmeme

Progress is usually not a linear thing; everyone has days (and sometimes weeks) that are up and down. How you deal with them is a marker of progress too: can you accept the down weeks and roll with them? Or do you let the down weeks drag you down more by getting upset or angry or discouraged? If you picked the latter, you aren’t alone – we’ve all been there.

Here’s the thing though: excessive stress sucks. It’ll suck the life and drive right out of you if you let it. And if life is kicking you in the teeth, the last thing you need is for your outlet to turn into a stressor, right? Right. So let’s talk about how to keep making progress through injury, illness, and suckage.

  1. Sleep! No matter what the setback you’re dealing with is, you need more sleep. Hell, you probably need more sleep anyway; most people do. Aim to hit the sack 30-45 min earlier than usual, and turn off the screens one hour before that so that the blue light from your phone/tablet/laptop doesn’t keep fooling your body into thinking it’s time to be awake and getting shit done. If you’re still having trouble falling asleep, do some light stretching, meditation, or foam rolling…and if you’re still staring at the ceiling, there are some good supplements out there that can help as well – my go-to is ZMA, a zinc/magnesium/B6  supplement that’s available at most health-food stores. I’m not a doctor though, so if you are under medical supervision or on other medications it’s best to check with your physician before you start popping pills. Just saying.
  2. Hit the gym. Yep, you’re sick/injured/stressed, I know – but falling into the habit of skipping workouts when the chips are down is not going to help over the long term, and doing what you can may just help you feel better. So. If you’re sick, here are my rules: if there’s fever, bodily fluids rocketing out of orifices, or you are just so freaking tired that the thought of putting on pants is exhausting, stay in bed and take an extra dose of point #1. If your symptoms are above the shoulders – sniffles, headache, etc. – go to the gym and do what you can. You may only be able to do 60% of what you normally do, and that’s okay; it’s better than nothing. Wash your hands on your way out and feel good about it. If you are generally feeling shitty about life, take your frustration and baggage and malaise to the gym, and again – do what you can. You may find that it’s the best release of stress ever. Or, you may feel like you just can’t deal with people, the comparison game takes over what little headspace you had to yourself, and it makes you feel worse – in that case, go outside and move, take a class somewhere that you don’t normally go, or find a workout you can do at home on YouTube. I promise moving will make you feel better. Now – as far as injury goes – that’s going to differ from injury to injury and from person to person. My best advice if you’re injured is, get some instruction and do what you can. Injuries are a bummer and can really mess with your head. Talk to professionals that you trust – (shameless plug alert) a good trainer knows how to read the signs and can help you through whatever funkiness life is throwing at you.
  3. Listen closely. Hear that? That’s your body telling you what it needs. Now, actually hearing that little voice is a learned skill that takes practice. If you are accustomed to drowning it out with comfort food, it is veeeerrrry easy to think that you need some delicious combination of sugar and fat, but we want to keep getting stronger, leaner, fitter, and more awesome, no? So before that ‘fuck-it-all’ moment happens, press the ‘pause’ button and listen a little more closely for a minute – I promise you that junk food is not the answer, and chances are you will feel worse afterward. I mean, it’s only food, right? It can’t actually solve any problems.

loveowl

In a nutshell, show yourself some love when life is sucking a little bit. (Um. Take that however you like – actually showing yourself some love can’t hurt either.) Listen to your body and treat it with the honor it deserves; it does lots of great stuff for you most of the time and if it’s struggling, you need to pay some attention to it to get things rolling toward awesomeness again. Setbacks are temporary and can be really great learning experiences if you approach them with curiosity and care.

**PSA: If you are down, or sick, or injured for more than a couple of weeks, SEE YOUR DOCTOR. There is help out there and you aren’t alone. There is NEVER shame in asking for help.**

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Fear the Tube

It’s two o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Is it too early to make the switch from coffee to wine?

Fuck it – it’s definitely wine o’clock.

wineoclock

It’s beautiful outside today: one of those gorgeous fall days where it’s sunny but cool, there’s a stiff breeze blowing the yellow and orange and red leaves off the trees…a perfect day for a run/stairs trip with my dog, except that she is stupid and makes a hobby out of trying to chomp wasps out of mid-air. Sometimes, like today, she actually catches one and gets stung on the inside of her mouth, and when that happens she develops a mortal fear of the outdoors for a few days. You’d think she’d figure it out. Oh well, it’s a good excuse to sit at home and drink chocolate-infused red wine (delicious but I’m not sure I’d buy it again – still on the fence about that one) and write.

So. I’m doing my best to try not to think about tomorrow. If you read my last post – my epic overshare that I’m still not 100% comfortable with leaving on the internet – you know that tomorrow’s MRI day. And I AM TERRIFIED. Not of whatever they find on the MRI of course; that will be fine either way: I’ll either still have a tumour and life will continue as it is, which is pretty damn good, or I won’t have a tumour and things will change a bit but for the better. No, what I am afraid of is actually going into the tube. Ridiculous, right?

mri-scan-room

Logically yes, it’s ridiculous. But I have a good healthy case of claustrophobia, and having my head locked into a frame (that they have to close with a screwdriver!) and then getting slid into a noisy coffin-sized tube where I can’t move a muscle for 45ish minutes sounds like Dante’s seventh circle of hell to me. I mean, I can barely handle being in a crowded movie theatre, for cripes’ sake! Other things that simultaneously push my terror and hatred buttons include (but are not limited to) airplanes, carnival rides, crowded buses and trains, and those weird hairdryers that fit over your head. Nope, nope, nope. It’s not that I won’t do those things (that would really interfere with life) but boy do I ever hate them. My hairdresser used come get me from under the dryer and find me all pale and sweating bullets. “Was that nice and warm and relaxing?” she’d ask. “Yeah!” I’d lie enthusiastically. “It’s like nap time in there.”

clausturtle

If I have to get on an airplane I usually drug myself beforehand in anticipation of the fear, so that right around the time that they seal the doors shut (gah) and the plane starts taxiing down the runway, my urge to freak out and tear my clothes off and jump out a window is superceded by the urge to fall asleep. Whimpering and trembling segues to snoring and drooling.

Given that I am aware of this, do you think I tell the hospital staff about my neurotic tendencies and ask for sedation?

Nah.

Weeks beforehand, I always think to myself that it’ll be fine, I can muscle through this one more time. This will be my third brain MRI so it’s not like it’s a new experience. But the other thing that I cannot bring myself to do unless it’s in the most extreme of circumstances is ask for help.

So, tomorrow morning at ass o’clock, I will be getting locked into the head thing (with a screwdriver! Gah!) and sliding into the tube drug-free – which is good because afterwards I have to get in the car, probably have a panic attack, and then drive to the gym to throw some heavy stuff around because that always makes everything feel better.

happylifting

Ok guys, talk to me – what are you afraid of? How do you deal with it? Either comment below or email me; I’m always listening!

It (actually is) a Tumor

Seriously lifting – putting as much weight on the bar as you think you can *maybe* handle, and then not letting it crush you alive – is pretty much the best thing ever. It’s also a good metaphor for life in general.

arnie1

The phone rang at 11:06pm.

When you see your doctor’s name in the call display at that time of night you know it’s not going to be good news. I was already bracing for the worst when I picked up.

Things hadn’t been feeling right for a long while at that point, and I had already gone through a lot of trial and error treatments (which all turned out to be errors) and misdiagnoses. I knew that this was it: a few days before I had spent a gut-wrenching 45 minutes in an MRI tube with my head in a weird white Darth Vader helmet, trying like hell to curb my claustrophobic instincts, so I was kind of excited and relieved that there wasn’t going to be any more guessing.

It’s as I suspected, my doctor said. You have a tumour on your pituitary gland.

Gah. Tumour? In my head?

She went on. It’s not cancer, but it is active and producing hormones. You need to get treated for it right away. She kept talking for a few minutes about what had to happen but I was in kind of a daze and missed most of it. She wouldn’t be supervising my treatment; I’d have to see an endocrinologist for that, and it would be a long haul to get better.

arnie

Tumour. Needs treatment. Not cancer. That’s all I really remember about that conversation. Give me a break, it was…holy shit, that was almost six years ago. Okay, so six years’ worth of on-and-off treatment isn’t going to make for an interesting read, so for brevity’s sake I will skip most of the gory details. My endocrinologist’s proposed course of treatment was supposed to last 18-24 months. He warned me that the first 6 months to a year might be rough.

He wasn’t kidding – it sucked. I felt so dizzy and nauseous that I started missing work. I couldn’t exercise. I got depressed. I missed what was going on in my kids’ lives. After four months I decided I couldn’t live like that and stopped the treatment, which in hindsight was stupid, but I was so despondent that I couldn’t see any other way forward. For a while I felt better, then the effects of the tumour’s activity kicked in again. I gained weight at an alarming rate. I quit my job – I figured it would be easier to be self-employed while I dealt with this, also I couldn’t stomach (sic) being the overweight trainer in the gym; I felt acutely every sideways look and raised eyebrow (I think I was overly sensitive to this but my defenses were significantly frayed at that point). I sought out an alternative treatment plan from a private medical clinic. They put me on hormone replacement therapy to relieve the symptoms…which worked for a while, but also was very effective at draining our savings away. And, although the HRT was effective as far as mitigating the symptoms of the tumour was concerned, the tumour was growing. I started losing my vision. I swallowed my pride and went back to the endocrinologist.

funny-mistake-cat-in-jar-pics

For a guy whose treatment plan I had snubbed (I am a terrible patient, I admit it) he was really very nice about the whole thing. Frankly but gently, he explained that the original plan was the only way to deal with my condition with any certainty. In fact, he went on, it might not even work – but chances were good that it would be effective and in a couple of years I could be done with the whole thing. But I had to embrace the suck and see it through.

So, in early 2014, I started back at square one of treatment again. And again, it was rough. But this time, I found a project to work on that distracted me from the suckiness of the drug’s side effects.

Powerlifting

barbell

I started training specifically for strength in 2014. I wasn’t new to resistance training at the time; I had already been a personal trainer for years and had lots of experience with different training modalities, but up until then my prime goal had always been fat loss. Taking up less space.

Being smaller.

But I had also enjoyed the competitive element of trying to outdo myself, of testing and expanding my limits. Triathlon, martial arts, circuit training, obstacle racing – if it was mentally and physically challenging, then hell yeah, sign me up!

None of that fun stuff was in the cards anymore, at least not for a while. I was too dizzy and nauseous most of the time to train the way I used to, but this time around I knew what I was in for, I knew it was going to be a long haul, and I knew very well that I was going to spiral into depression again if I didn’t find a way to deal with it. So I stopped bemoaning what I couldn’t do and instead gave some serious thought to what I could do. And what I could do, I figured, was power training: very few, very hard reps with lots of rest in between. It would be a good band-aid for while I got through the treatment program. I didn’t expect to love it.

I totally did love it though, and not just because it was something I could do while I couldn’t do other stuff. I loved it because it satisfied my competitive drive. I loved it because it made me feel strong, as though I could handle whatever shit life slung at me. And I loved it because I had finally found something to do where I didn’t have to get smaller to be better at it.

Because you know what? Fuck being smaller. Once I shifted my focus to lifting bigger, all the pieces started fitting together.

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This is the first time I have told this story. I feel weird about it because it’s nothing compared to what people go through who have real, life-threatening illnesses and I don’t want to sound like a drama queen. On the other hand, my tumour’s effects have been real and life-changing…and I almost want to send it flowers or chocolates or something to thank it for the lessons it taught me.

Because about six months ago I started feeling okay again, and I had actually forgotten what that felt like.

I have an MRI coming up in one week and my endocrinologist expects that the tumour will be gone. If it’s not, I’ll continue with treatment (which my body is used to at this point), but if it is actually gone, then this chapter will be over. That’s kind of an overwhelming thought.

Donkey Ball Brownies

DB Brownies

Ok guys, you asked for it and here it is.

Now, before I get into the juicy deets of how to make these brownies, let me start by saying: I was a trifle harsh in my initial judgement of these brownies when I hinted that they tasted like equine gonads. I think that I knew they were full of unusual and improbable ingredients and I was looking for flaws…because seriously, everyone who has tried them loves them. After a night in the fridge the brownies seem to have lost the weird aftertaste I initially detected AND at this point I’ve tweaked the recipe so that it will never be an issue again.

You’re welcome.

Without further ado, I give you:

DONKEY BALL BROWNIES

(because Double Chocolate Zucchini Avocado Banana Quinoa Brownies is a long pain in the ass – see what I did there?)

  1. Cook a lot of quinoa according to the directions on the bag. Leftovers are good. When it’s done, set aside 1 ½ c and let it cool. Do what you like with the rest of it.
  2. Pre-heat oven to 350 and spray or grease a 9×14” pan.
  3. Mix the following in a medium-sized bowl:

1 c whole wheat flour

1 c cocoa

3/4 c brown sugar

1 tsp salt

½  tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

  1. In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine:

½ c strong coffee

4oz. Bittersweet chocolate

Nuke for 1min and stir until smooth.

  1. Dump these into a blender:

1 ½ c chopped zucchini

1 banana

1 avocado

2 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

The chocolate and coffee mixture

Blend them all until it looks like a smoothie.

  1. Pour your weird-ass (there it is again) smoothie into the flour mixture, add the cooked quinoa, and stir quickly. It will look too gloopy to be brownies. Don’t worry. Put the brownie batter in your prepared pan, stick it in the oven, and bake for about 45min or until the edges start to pull away from the pan.

6. Let them cool completely, add icing if you want to, and enjoy!

Per Serving: 72kCal, 12g Carbs, 2g Protein, 2g Fat