Friday, May 31, 2013

#465: What We Are Not Now

It's getting to the point where I'm no fun any more. I am sorry.

Yesterday's session with Mike, my  therapist was especially difficult. Tearful. Which probably means that we were on to something. Let me try to wrestle with what I think that might have been.

Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud, "I am lonely,"

The tears are evolving. A few weeks ago, they were tears of shame. Tears of grief. Tears of loss. Now, they are tears of fear. Of loneliness. I cry because I feel like an empty cup where love and laughter once overflowed. Then, I grieved for the loss of people I loved. Now I ache in the empty places where they once lived. The suffering is still real, but it carries a kind of hope along with it. Pain can change, can soften over time.

Remember what we've said and done and felt about each other.

Because we are human, we cannot choose but to remember. When the wounds of loss are fresh, reflecting on the past can sting like alcohol on a skinned knee. The pain of remembering is worse, more intense than the pain of the loss itself. It isn't just the emptiness that hurts. It's knowing that those beautiful times are gone and will never be repeated. No, we cannot choose but to ache at those memories, but what we can choose, and time is our friend in this, we can choose how we respond to them. 

Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now. 

And there it is. Stephen Stills' words have been ringing like his guitar in my mind for the past few days. He wrote Suite: Judy Blue Eyes as an expression of his own grief at the imminent loss of his lover. If you let yourself get caught up in the musical hooks of this great song, it feels like a toe tapping celebration. But I hear something more. I hear a man fighting for his life against an enemy I know well.  Depression is a murderer; he is also a liar. One of his favorite lies is that our past and our future are the same. The things that have gone badly for us, the patterns we discern are doomed to repeat themselves. The good we have lost will never return, and whatever good may come in the future is bound to be lost as well. 

Tearing yourself away from me now, you are free and I am crying,
This does not mean I don't love you, I do
That's forever, yes, and for always.

And there is the first part of the answer. Though the loss is forever, so is the love. Depression wants you to believe that the love leaves with the beloved, but that is not true. Love is the force at the center of the universe. God is love. Love, once given, can never be withdrawn. Even when a relationship comes to a stormy, angry end, the love that was set into motion in that relationship remains, like a child born of a short lived romance. Love lives, even without the company of the lover. Presence can come and go. Love is for always.

Something inside is telling me that I've got your secret,
Are you still listening?
Fear is the lock, and laughter the key to your heart
And I love you.

"Fear is the lock..." And so it is. Fear shuts our hearts up tight. Keeps us safe in our fortress. Fear remembers only the hurt, not the love. Fear has not hope for the future, only dread for a past that is fated to repeat itself. But laughter, true laughter shakes the heart's doors open so it can receive the things only an open heart can know. Compassion. Delight. Serenity. Yes, even pain. Only an open heart can be hurt, but the price of letting fear lock up our hearts is so much greater than pain. Because a closed heart has no way for love to come in. And a heart that holds no love is wasted space.

I am yours, you are mine,
You are what you are,
And you make it hard.

The things and people we lose... they are never really gone. If we loved them with truly open hearts, then they changed us, we changed one another in ways that will never go away. Life happens. Tragedy. Happiness. Celebration. Grief. Each moment, no matter how dark or frightening, is a blessing to be savored for itself. If we let fear fix our gaze on yesterdays gone, terrified of tomorrows that have not yet come, then we let our hearts be locked against the beautiful possibilities that today has to offer.

Did I lose a job once? Yes. I can work in fear of losing this one, or I can work with an open, loving heart, drinking every sweet blessing that today's work has to offer.

Did I lose a friend? Yes. Each of us has our own ship with its own course. We travel together for a time, and then life may part us. If we are wise, we will not waste a second of our journey together travelling in fear of separation. Since I'm preaching from the book of Stills today, I'm reminded of another lesson. "Love the one you're with." God sends us people for a time, and sometimes takes them away again. Let the few precious moments we share be filled with laughter and love, not fear.

Have I lost my mind? Yes, I have lost control of my thoughts and emotions. sometimes for weeks at a time. i can look back and see patterns, but my past does not have to be my destiny. Thoughts can change. The way we cope can change. Mike is helping me to understand how my thinking produces the episodes I experience. Is my depression partly orgainic? Yes, probably. But it can be fed and thrive if I keep my heart locked up and fearful. Bad brain chemistry can give me a bad day or two. Bad thinking can send me into the shadows for months. Healthy thinking, loving mindful living can help me to live each moment as it comes, grateful for the blessings of the past without being fearful of the possibilities the future holds. I can learn. I am learning.

We are learning together.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

#464: How Much is TMI?

TMI? Too Much Information? For someone with an exhibitionist streak as wide as mine, it's a more difficult call to make than it should be. How do you know when you've said too much? More importantly, how to install a filter that will keep those nuggets of TMI from escaping into the air or the blogsphere in the first place?

There are some easy cases. Does sharing the information violate a trust or an assumption of privacy? Is the information yours to share? Does it belong to you, or was it given to you in confidence. Even if it wasn't intended to be kept between you and the giver, is sharing it going to do harm to your relationship? My training partner might share something personal with me on a run, but  "My friend Julia says that running in cotton panties always make her crotch break out in a painful rash," is probably not something she intended to read about on my blog.

Another easy case: Is the information appropriate to the audience? A personal blog offers a lot of latitude. People come to FMR expecting to read about fitness, running, mental health, cancer, and the kind of sentimental jibbering that is sort of my specialty. I'm not sure where the line of inappropriate content might be here. We've covered a lot of ground together over the years. I hope most readers know that going in. And there is also the very important fact that it's easy to stop reading if you want to. Walking out on an after dinner speech or a eulogy at a funeral because you don't want to hear f-bombs or a the details of a recent colonoscopy could be tougher to do, and I think a speaker should take that into account.

There are times though, when the ice gets a little thinner. What if sharing something could harm your reputation? During my treatment for cancer, I could say just about anything. For one thing, people cut you a lot of slack when they think you might be dying. I once wrote a post about admiring women's bodies on my way to my daily radiation treatment that would be down-right creepy in any other context. Since I've starting writing about my mental health, I have to be more vigilant than ever about the shades of gray in this area. I might be having a bad mood swing one morning when I sit down to write, and people will think that I'm tumbling completely off the deep end toward suicide. I have invited my bosses at the Y to use these posts as a barometer of my ongoing healing, and that has backfired sometimes, too. I know that people worry about me because of many of the things they read here. I understand that. I worry some myself. I wonder if I would be better off if people knew a little bit less about my illness and my struggles.

There is one final case that springs to mind, and it is the only one that has lead me to actually censor myself by pulling down posts that I had previously published. There are times when information is true and important  and maybe even valuable, but sharing it is harmful to someone I love. If people judge me because of something I write here, that's their problem, and maybe mine. But if by sharing my own pain, I expose someone I love in a way that is humiliating or embarrassing or just unkind, than I have crossed a very important line. Though I don't think I have ever written anything here with the intention of hurting anyone, I know that people have been hurt. I don't mean they were insulted or offended. I mean, they were treated with disregard or disrespect. That has happened, and I regret it. I have taken the steps I felt were necessary to make amends, including pulling some posts off the blog.

A few days ago, I wrote about conversations I've been having about professional/personal boundaries. How much is TMI when the context is a professional relationship? One of my friends was a little upset by the things I said. She felt that my cancer story was in important part of who I am, and a very valuable way to let clients know that I understand their struggles from a point of view that is much like their own. I have to admit, it's something I'm still struggling with. When am I sharing to help make a client's training more effective, and when am I sharing in hopes that a stranger will trust and like me? I think that's as good a description of the boundary as any. But it's hard to recognize when I cross it sometimes.

I think it's a struggle that I'll continue to have: learning what's appropriate and what's TMI. It may be that only the experience of getting it wrong a few times will teach me how to get it right. In the meantime. I'll do my best to be as open and as honest as seems necessary at the time.

But you might have to wait for a while to read my illustrated guide to missing toenails. Sorry to disappoint.


Monday, May 27, 2013

#463: 10 Mountain Miles

Yes, there are beautiful places. The Rockies can be so beautiful that words stick in your throat. Sunset over the Pacific can bring you to tears. The icy waters of Lake Superior on an August afternoon on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan can make you feel like you're stepping back in time. I love all these places, but my God do I love my Kentucky.

Today, I ran 10 miles in a little more heat than I would have preferred. We didn't get out of the house until late, and it's a good hour's drive to Cedar Hill in Nicholas County, so it was almost 1:00 and 75° when I finally strapped on my hydration pack and hit the country roads.

How to capture such a beautiful experience? I started out strong. The beginning of the course is a gentle slope along the north bank of Crooked Creek. Then, just past the 1 mile mark, you turn right (on this course, you only turn right,) and begin your ascent on Johnson Road. This is no ordinary climb.
Elevation chart for the Cedar Hill 10 mile loop

Johnson Road climbs 236 feet in just over a mile. And those little bumps at the top of the ridge are no joke either. As I trudged along, I remembered the day, weeks before, when I had tried to top this ridge at the end of a 20 mile run. I wasn't making that mistake today. I wisely put it at the start of today's run. I passed a family working in their front yard, planing flowers. Dad was swinging an enormous pick, and I was happy to move along, however slowly. A trio of yapping dogs, the first of many little packs I encountered, raced to meet me as I ran. I didn't confront them or even slow down. I ignored them, maintained my speed, and tried to look liked the biggest, baddest dog in the woods. None of them saw fit to challenge me, though one bully looking fellow jumped up and nipped at me at one point, snagging my shorts and nearly re-enacting the famous Coppertone ad... only this time with big blue compression shorts instead of a pale, pink bum underneath.
Beware of Dog
 The south face of the ridge drops as steeply and sharply as the north face rises. Running downhill is always a challenge. Running down what amounts to a ski slope requires courage, luck, and the brains of an eggplant. Only an idiot would try it. So naturally, I made the descent my two fastest miles of the day. No walk breaks coming down the hill. I'm not sure I could have stopped if I wanted to.

Once you reach the bottom, you begin a long, rolling run along the north shore of Beaver Creek. The Saltwell United Methodist Church welcomes you into the valley where you'll spend the next few miles among the shady trees. It was noon, so I didn't see a lot of critters. On the other hand, there is next to no traffic on this road, so there isn't much road-kill either. The only time I stopped all day was to pick up a decent sized box turtle and move him over to the side of the road, away from marauding truck tires.

A man driving a tractor gave me a thumbs up as he passed, some kind of dangerous looking machine in tow. Farther down the road, after he had pulled into his driveway, he gave me a holler. "How far you going?" "Ten miles." called back. "Where?" "Crooked Creek," I answered, and was gone into the woods again. I wondered what made him so curious. Maybe he just doesn't see a lot of men in earrings and lime green shoes out here. Or maybe he was once a runner himself. A cross-country star at Nicholas County High School back in the 50s. I smiled at the thought that he just might have run this same route back in the glory days. Part of me wished he'd lace 'em up and join me. But I was enjoying the solitude far too much to really want to share.

Lucky for me, my bird wasn't in a fighting mood.
Just past the 7.25 mark, I started getting a little tingling feeling. I knew that there was a serious hill at the end of this course. My friend Sandy had warned me about it, but also promised a rich reward for the effort. The climb up the ridge on Gannett Road is just as high as the one on Johnson, only it gets there in half the distance. This isn't a hill, it's a pillar. Parts of it feel more like mountain climbing than running. But Sandy was right. The view from the top is really out of this world. Miles of rolling hills in all directions. Turkey Buzzards and hawks circling at eye level as they scan the ground far below for a little afternoon snack. As I crested the hill, there was a whoosh and a wild turkey flushed out of the tall grass about 10 yards ahead of me and flapped off toward the tree line. For a moment, I could look all around me and see nothing that had been built by humans. I wondered if this is what the Kentucky that Daniel Boone fell in love with looked like.

The hill from the gate to the house... don't suppose anyone
could just bring me down a bucket of ice and some Ben-gay?
The run back down the other side of this ridge isn't a run at all. It is a scramble. I was possessed by only one thought. "Don't fall." I said my prayers and gave myself over to gravity and the grace of God. I managed to get all the way back to the bridge over Crooked Creek with my Nikes pointing in the right direction. After that, it's one more brutal little hill that's steeper than a Pittsburgh Driveway, then a weary mile or so back to the cool porch, a cold drink, and a hot shower.

My friend Terry was waiting for me at the gate. "I can't believe you just ran 10 miles. I can barely walk from here to the house." I smiled, (I hope) and answered, "I am seriously considering driving myself up to the porch." I didn't. But I wanted to.

The Memorial Day cook-out was in full swing when I arrived. I grabbed a bowl of rice and beans, plopped an impeccably rare burger on top, and went out to select a rocking chair. On the porch, old friends chatted easily about ancient news and modern gossip. We laughed. We caught up. We listened to the frogs gallumphing down by the pond, and some kind of screeching bird that sounded for all the world like an angry monkey. Kentucky in the spring time is all green and blue and cool breezes and music. We had all of that and more. It was a perfect finish to a beautiful day.

Well actually, the apple pie and carrot cake were the perfect finish. I admit it. I am unashamed. Besides, holiday calories don't count, right?


Saturday, May 25, 2013

#462: Is There Another Story Worth Telling?

Who is the man behind those dark glasses?
I have had a couple of conversations this week about my story... well not the story so much, as about my telling of it. I believe that it  inspires people. That's why I tell it every chance I get. I want them to know that they can come back from a terrible place and be even stronger than before.

But this week, I have had a couple of people challenge me to think about helping people on their own journey without telling them about mine.

It's a hard thing for me to grasp. When practiced competently and respectfully, personal training is a healing profession. A good trainer has personal boundaries and limits just like any other professional. We handle confidential information. We meet people when they are vulnerable. We build relationships based on trust - trust in our ability to help our clients to meet their goals.

But, I have always used my story to help build trust between myself and trainees. Now I am being called to ask just how important that story is to my success as a trainer... and to whom is it more important: to my clients, or to me?

"You use it to build credibility," said one adviser, "but they don't come here for you to understand them. They come so you can help them to get back to life." Another put it this way. "Your professional competence has nothing to do with the fact that you've had cancer. If you're a good trainer, you'll earn their trust."

And so I wonder. Am I exploiting my story for my own sake, rather than for the sake of the people who are so "inspired" when they hear it? When I think of how my coaches earned my trust, it was through the compassionate, joyful practice of their profession, not because of their compelling life stories. Have I been making a big mistake, insisting on being "one of the family?" Or as another counselor put it, "You're making it about you, but it's supposed to be about them."

Am I holding on to the blessings of the past and missing out on the possibilities of the present? Two scary questions come to my mind. Am I a good enough trainer to succeed on my skill and knowledge alone, without the boost I get from being Cancer Boy? And even scarier, if I stop being The Boy Who Didn't Die, will I go back to being the miserable, Fat Man Running that I was before I got sick? Cancer gave me so much. It gave me someone to be. The Survivor. But have I let it become a crutch? Could I be a better trainer, even a more inspiring one, if I left the Fat Man at home?

I guess I've never believed I could be very interesting without a character to play. The actor. The manager. The survivor. Can I find the courage to stop play-acting and just be Bob? Do I even know how to start?

They've got me on a very tight leash at work. They don't want me to get sick again, and they want to be sure I'm well before I assume any real responsibilities. It frustrates me that I've fallen from being the lead trainer to a glorified towel boy. But the truth is, I'm lucky to still have a job at all. There are very few organizations that would have tolerated my illness the way the Y has. I want to be sure I'm well, too. But, how to tell when that time comes?

Maybe it will be the day that I don't need to tell anyone about my cancer - the day that I let my heart and my mind and body speak for themselves, without a superhero persona to hide behind.

It has been a brutal season of letting go, but the hardest could be yet to come. It may soon be time for me to put the dynamic duo, Fat Man and Cancer Boy away for good. Then maybe I'll see who this "Bob" guy is that everybody keeps talking about. They tell me he's worth knowing.

I wonder if they could be right.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

#461: Victory For Kathy

Today, I was a part of something beautiful. A woman's family and friends came together to honor and remember and celebrate her life with stories. They told about her love - fierce love, they called it - for her family. Her mother and her daughter both called her their best friend. We heard stories about her smile, and the way she made people feel. People spoke of the music that filled their house and their lives. Promises were made: to carry on. To look after one another. To remember.

I am always tempted to rise at these occasions. I never know if it is the prompting of the Holy Spirit, or my own ego calling me, so I usually resist. I resisted today. I didn't know Kathy. I only knew of her through my Coach... our Coach. Melissa described her as a woman of power and joy. And the person I met today, through the stories of her loved ones, was also a person of strength and courage.

Had I spoken... had God given me the words to speak... I hope I would have spoken comfort to Paul, Kathy's husband. After she passed, Paul had told a friend, grieving, "We didn't win." I wish I could have told him why I think he was wrong about that.

Kathy's doctor told us about her last hours in the hospital. She was suffering. She did not want to die. And her mind was on her family. Her last breaths were not spent on misery and despair; rather, they were spent on love, fierce love, love too strong for cancer to overcome.

Cancer doesn't come for your body. Not really. That's easy. Any germ can do it. It doesn't even want your life. Death is his own master and comes and goes as he pleases. No, what cancer wants is your broken heart. Cancer comes to kill your spirit, to steal your hope. That is what makes it so terrible. What cancer wants is for you to give up. Once you've done that, it doesn't really matter if you live or die. Cancer has won.

But not this woman. Not Kathy. She fought for her life, for her family, right to the end. When Death came for her, he found a heart intact, full of love, unwilling, but prepared for her next adventure.

We who remain, owe a debt to our sister. Though I did not know her, she taught me through her friends and family that life is for hope. For joy. For music. For laughter. For fierce, fierce love. Thank you, Kathy. You gave me a wonderful gift this morning. I look forward to meeting you when Jesus wraps me in the embrace that you are now experiencing. And I promise to carry on your legacy of love. Fierce love.

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Requiescant in pace. Amen

Rest eternal grant her, Oh Lord,
And let light perperual shine upon her.
May she rest in peace.


#460: What Job Taught Me About Depression

Albrecht Durher: Job on the Dunghill

I've been thinking about Job quite a bit. Not so much out of pity for myself, as much as a desire to make sense of all that I have lost in the last few weeks. Not that there is much sense to be made of it. Part of me believes that it's just a string of really bad events. Coincidence.

Job's story doesn't offer a satisfying explanation of why suffering exists; but it does teach us a way to respond to the pain of existence.

Job stayed faithful. So did God. When life takes everything away, God remains. Paul prayed to have the "thorn in my flesh" removed, and God's answer was, "my grace is sufficient for you." God isn't cruel and unfair: life is. But what God is, and this is a most radical and difficult idea, what God really  is, is faithful. Did God take away my friends? My health? I don't know. But what I do know is that God will not take away the Steadfast Love that is at the heart of the universe. When everything else is lost, God's love remains. If there is a theme that ties all of the Bible together, I think that is it. Life may be confusing and painful, almost unendurable at times. But it is a pain that we can endure because in our darkest hour, when it seems like everything we need or desire has been taken away, God's love remains.

In spite of the healing I feel every day, there are still times when it feels like the only reason it isn't getting worse is that I have nothing left to lose. But that is not true: my purpose remains. There are still people with cancer. People will find comfort and inspiration in the story I have to tell. People need to know that there is abundant life after cancer. People's lives can be better because of what happened to me.

My life's work remains. And where will I find the strength to do that work? It will be where it has always been. Even when I thought it was coming from smiling faces and kind words. My strength comes from God, who will never abandon me, not even in the deepest regions of the shadow lands.

People in the 21st century might find that a pretty foolish thing to believe. Many of the people I love find Job's story to be silly and superstitious. I can live with that. "Religion is for the weak," others will say. I can live with that, too. If this season of darkness has taught me nothing else, it has taught me just how weak I am. Healthy people don't need doctors. Strong people don't need God. Well, I'm not healthy, and I'm not strong. I need God's love to stay alive.

And by God, I'm staying alive.

A famous theologian, Karl Barth was once asked, "what is the most profound religious truth you have ever heard?" His answer was one that could transform the world, if only we would let it:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so,
Little ones to him belong,
They are weak, but he is strong;
Yes, Jesus loves me...
The Bible tells me so.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

#459: Losing Weight, Licking Cancer, Living Strong

As I've mentioned before, tomorrow I am giving a presentation that will test whether or not I am mentally able to function as a public representative of the YMCA. It's a crucial step in my rehabilitation and I consider it a make or break event for me. I'm not looking to hit any singles... not this time. I just finished a 2 hour walk where I finished composing my thoughts. Here's a sneak peak at the words and feelings that I hope will win be my job back in just a few hours. ~ Pennsy

They've asked me to make a speech today. The trouble is, I don't really know much of anything, so I'm not very good at making speeches or delivering lectures or preaching sermons or anything like that. Mostly, I'm just a story teller. They want me to talk to you about losing weight, licking cancer, and living strong, and it just so happens I know a couple of stories about those things. I tell you three, then maybe I'll shut up and you can tell me some of yours.

My sister Beth and Me
I was a fat boy. And I grew up to be a fat man. A fat boy. A fat, sad, angry, resentful, lonesome boy. I guess you could say I was really a frightened boy, because that's how I grew up. When I was young, I used to think I was sad because I was fat. Much later in my life, I learned that I had things exactly backwards. I was fat because I was so very sad. Like so many men, I lived for years before I learned that I had a mental illness called Bipolar Mood Disorder. Most of the time, you'd never know there was anything different about me. I might seem especially energetic some days, or particularly down on others, but you'd probably just think, "That's just Bob. He's an emotional guy." But every now and then I have more than just a bad day. Every now and then, every few years or so, I have a week or a month or a season where my emotions and thoughts seem to be totally out of my control. I can have enough energy to conquer the world at breakfast, and by lunch time be in such a dark lonely shadow that I can barely even think of getting out of bed without bursting into tears. Those of us who have this disease find many ways to manage it. Some of us get help from friends or doctors. Some of us try to help ourselves with smoke or drink or some other addiction. My addiction was food.

Eating was something I could control. I couldn't do anything about the grief and the rage that battered me like a hurricane, but I could control what went into my mouth. The more I ate, the more in control I felt. Being sad made me eat. Eating made me fatter. Getting fatter made me sad. And that's how addiction fuels itself.

60 inch jeans, XXXL shirt. 
Eventually, I found the people who could help me to tame the Bipolar monster... at least most of the time. They taught me new ways to think. They helped me find the right combination of medicine and activity to keep my emotions on a more even keel. But you know what? Life is sad sometimes. That's just life. And in my life, I had one way to manage sadness. I would eat. Every time. Until Friday, April 16, 2010 when I stepped on a scale at St Joseph's hospital. I was 49 years old. I was 6'-4" tall. I had a 60" waist and weighed 397 pounds. And that is the story of how a sad, fat boy grew up to be a depressed, morbidly obese man.

Now, here's my second story.

So, that's what cancer looks like...
You may be wondering how I can be so sure about the day and date of that step onto the scale at St Joe's. Well the truth is, I wasn't really in the hospital to get weighed. A few weeks earlier, I found a lump about the size of a raisin under the right side of my neck. Within a week, it was the size of a ping-pong ball, and I was on my way to the doctor. By the time I had had my third and fourth doctor visits, a CT scan and a PET scan, it was the size of my fist. It stretched from the base of my ear to my larynx and threatened to crush my carotid artery. "I can't tell you if it's cancer or not," the doctor said, "But if we don't get that thing out of there this Friday, you may not live till Monday.

Well, it turned out that it was cancer. Squamous Cell Carcinoma, a very particular kind of skin cancer that affects the inner linings of your body. It had started under my tonsil and grown into a 6 centimeter tumor. It had metastasized into the surrounding muscle and the lymph nodes in my neck. They removed 9 nodes, a portion of my neck muscle, my jugular vein, and several nerves; but they never found clean margins. The surgeon cut out everything he could find, but he was sure he hadn't found it all. I was going to need radiation. I was going to need chemo. It was going to be really, really bad. And then the surgeon told me these words that changed me forever.

"I've been treating people with cancer for almost 20 years. Some of they live, too many of them die. They have good attitudes and bad ones. They get angry or spiritual or serene or generous. They travel the world or they go home and call people on the phone to tell them they love them. No matter what their attitude, some live and some die. But the ones who give up... they all die."

"Your cancer has a 50% survival rate. You only have one chance, and that is to fight for your life."

But wait. I was the fat boy, remember? The unhappy kid? The depressed man? My life was miserable. Why would I want to pass up a chance for it to finally be over? It should have been the easiest question in the world, but it took me days to answer it. "Why do I want to live?"

The Hill in my dream
Then, one night, I had a dream. I am standing at the top of a grassy hill, near my grandmother's house in northern Pennsylvania. I can see blue skies and thick, soft grass as I begin to walk, then run down the hill. I look down at my feet, and I realize that I'm only touching the ground with every second or third stride. I am gliding along the top of the grass. Then I rise up. I am flying... no... not flying... I am running through the air, high above the trees and the telephone wires. I look down on herds of cows and fields of corn. It is the most beautiful day and in the dream I know that if I ever beat the heads you live/tails you die odds that the doctors have given me, if I can beat this cancer, then I am going to run. THAT's why I want to live. Because I want to run.

It came slowly. There were days when I couldn't make it from my bed to the bathroom. On my 50th birthday, my mom had to help me to the toilet so I could wretch with all my might, as if I could somehow choke up the cancer along with the sick that the chemo was forcing out of me. There were days when the burns on my neck looked like charcoal, and the blisters in my throat felt like glass shards when I tried to sip water. I spent my mornings bolted to a table while they shot me through with radiation or strapped to a chair while they filled my veins with chemicals so toxic that the nurses had to wear haz mat suits to handle them. But through the Percocet induced haze, when I closed my eyes, I could look down and see those country roads as I flew past. I was going to beat this thing. I was going to run.

The first time I tried to climb the steps, I had to sit down on the third one and call for my wife to come help me back to bed. But I remembered what the doctor had said. The ones who quit, they all die. I refused to quit. I walked to the door and back. Next day, to the porch and back. Then the sidewalk. The corner. Around the corner. Around the block. Weeks went by and finally I was strong enough to try to jog a few steps. Jog two strides, then walk a minute. Jog 10 seconds, and walk two minutes. Never give up. Never quit. The day I jogged a mile for the first time, I felt as if I had just won the Boston Marathon.

I knew that day that I was no longer just a survivor.

I was a victor.

I hadn't just beaten cancer. I had kicked its ass. And I had become a runner.

My third story is about Living Strong. 

Now during the six months from the day of my diagnosis until my first clean scan, I lost about 90 pounds, most of it muscle. I could walk. I could jog a mile, but I was still weak as a kitten. I was determined to keep losing weight. I called it "cancer's silver lining." I kept walking. I ate more and more whole foods, fewer and fewer baked goods. I stopped eating french fries and burgers. No more chips and cookies. I found that my treatment had changed the way a lot of things tasted to me. Cake was like chewing rags. Tomatoes, a food I had never really liked before, suddenly tasted like an explosion of summer air. I learned to love foods that looked like food, not just shapes in a bag or a box. I kept walking. I lifted weights. The pounds kept falling, but I wasn't really getting stronger. I needed more, but I didn't know what.

When I learned about a program called LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a three month, free membership. I could use the pool, the weight room, the cardio equipment. I thought it sounded like a sweet deal. I had no idea how sweet.

The original Eight and our coaches
LIVESTRONG is about wellness, not just fitness. It's about training your mind and your spirit as well as your body. It's about nutrition. Learning how to eat so we can help ourselves to heal and prevent the relapse that is always hiding out there in the darkest corner of our imaginations. It's about exercise: Zumba, Pilates, yoga, aquatic fitness, weight training, walking, running, biking... everything that the Y has to offer. But mostly, LIVESTRONG is about us, the survivors. The things we know that nobody should have to learn... that nobody could ever learn unless they have walked the road we have walked. It's about surviving, and about how survival just isn't enough. I didn't want to be a survivor. I wanted to be a warrior. I wanted cancer to be as scared of me as I had been of it.

And three amazing women: Carrie, Chelsea, and Melissa, our trainers helped to turn us into warriors. When they looked at me, they didn't see a fat, sad boy. they didn't see an obese, depressed man. They saw - of all the crazy things in the world - they looked at me and saw a Marathoner. The first time they said it, I thought they were nuts. I thought so when they made me run twice as much as my classmates. I thought so when I was lifting weights and jumping and lunging across the basketball court. I thought they were nuts right up until the May morning in 2012 when I finished the Pittsburgh Marathon in 6:21. And I raised $3600 for the LIVESTRONG at the YCMA program. This May, I finished the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, cutting my time by almost 40 minutes. And I raised $7411 to help our program to thrive. And I did it because of my brothers and sisters in LIVESTRONG.

For Becky: in a nursing home this morning, her doctors are waiting for her to get sick enough to die, but she hasn't got the time. She's laughing, visiting with friends, joking, remembering fun days together. When Death comes for Becky, he isn't going to find her waiting. He's going to have to go catch her.

For Raynee: a young mother and wife whose life is being threatened by the cruelest cancer of all. The doctors removed an enormous mass from her brain. She knows that there is no such thing as  a guarantee of tomorrow. So every few weeks, she goes out and gets a new, beautiful tattoo. Her most recent? A gray brain cancer ribbon, wrapped around a pair of brass knuckles. Raynee isn't giving in to cancer without a fight.

For all of them. For John and Mary who supported one another through each of their cancers. For Emma whose greatest fear used to be stepping off of a curb. For Pam who beat stage 4 lung cancer and for Frank who never quit until he could finally bench press a 10 pound bar.

They will never quit. They are not "survivors." They are champions.

They know what we all know.

The cancer can always come back. The cancer can always kill us... but it can never defeat us. Not if we live strong.

And those are my stories.

Never give up.
You probably have some of your own. But let me leave you with this word. Don't wait. Don't wait until you are too fat to walk. Don't wait until you are ready to kill yourself to make the sadness go away. Don't wait until you get cancer to know how beautiful and full of possibility your life is.

The ones who give up all die.

Never give up.

Never stop fighting for your life.

Never stop living strong.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

#458: The Church: The Body of Christ

I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. Ephesians 1:18-23 

I once heard of a child who described the church as "Jesus... but with skin on." I don't think there could be a better picture of what we are called to be. I would go a step farther. Unless a group of people are acting as the physical hands and feet of Christ in the world, they have no business calling themselves a church at all. There is a word for a body devoted to its own pleasure. If all you are finding on Sunday morning is a great feeling of piety and warmth, then you are in a vibrant social club, but not a church.

A church should have blisters on its hands and scrapes on its knuckles. There should be sweat on the floor and tears in the corners of every room. It should be a safe place when you are in danger, and a challenging place when you are comfortable. It should make people better than they knew they could be. The church needs to be more like the YMCA.

When I lived in Brooklyn, there was a little Catholic church up the street from us. Old Italians would walk by and cross themselves on the sidewalk as they passed the front door on their way to the store or the train station. The church had such presence for them that it reached all the way out through the stone walls and heavy wooden doors. They didn't even have to look up. They could feel it coming. 

Today, our churches have a hard time being that kind of presence. Instead, they are closed clubs, tiny groups of people who gather once a week to agree with each other about how silly the people who think differently are. Even when that isn't the message  from the pulpit, (and far too often, it is precisely that,) even then, it is the gospel of superiority that inflames the hearts of the faithful. We gather together to mourn for the people who don't think like we do, worship like we do, love like we do. And all the while, the body of Christ hangs abandoned on the cross, hands pinned to the bloody wood - because we won't lift him down and do the work he did.

To feed.

To heal.

To wash.

To serve.

To love.

And this is why I love the YMCA... why I ache with hunger for her when I can't be there. Because at the Y - at least at the one where I work - Christ's hands are busy 24 hours a day. They are holding the shoulders of a child who has fallen and misses his Momma. They are bandaging skinned knees and stretching tight hamstrings. They prepare coffee and clean bathrooms and mow grass and all with love for the people who will walk in the door. 

These too, are the body of Christ. The guy who is drunk at 5:35 AM and needs a cup of coffee. The mom who doesn't know where to look for a safe place for her children while  she works out. The man whose job leaves him feeling hollow inside, who just longs for the feeling of a pounding heart and a sweating brow. The kid who can either hang out on the street, or play ball in they gym. The young woman who wants to feel the joy of exercise without the hassle of pick-up lines and smarmy remarks. The great grandfather who can barely walk, but still swims a mile a day. They are all the Christ who is hungry or naked or in prison.  Jesus walks in my door every day at the Y. And I do my best to love him with all my heart, every single time. 

People have told me that I "get" the Y. That I understand what the YMCA is all about. I don't know if that's true. All I know is what I've found there. Love at work. Holiness that sweats.

Jesus... but with skin on.


*I love the statue in this photo. Can anyone tell me where it is, so I can give credit where it is due? - Pennsy

Monday, May 13, 2013

#457: Put Me In, Coach

I don't have a lot of experience in the athletic world, but this spring has taught me about one thing... there are few frustrations in life like being sidelined by an injury. Last summer it was a groin pull that kept me from running for a couple of endless months. This spring, it's a very different kind of injury, and a very different kind of game.

When I pulled my groin, I was trying to press for more speed. I tried to go faster than my body was ready to travel, and wound up with a nagging pain inside my thighs that seemed like it would never go away. When it did give me a little relief, and I would test my strength, it kept coming back, sometimes as a twinge, sometimes as a pain strong enough to double me over. It took most of the summer and fall for it to mend completely. I'm a lot more vigilant about those muscles these days. I knew that if I pressed them when they were damaged, I would make things worse. I also know now that a re-injury is more likely, and could be much harder to rehab.

Now that I am past my April of discontent, I have finally decided to bring that same mentality to healing my injured mind. It's been a hard lesson, but the people at the Y have been gently trying to convince me of its wisdom. Like a pulled muscle, an injured mind keeps you from performing. It can strike with a twinge, or with crippling agony. Rushing back into action too quickly can re-aggravate it, and make things worse than they were before.

An athlete hates the sidelines. There is a special kind of shame that comes from sitting on the bench, watching your team mates struggle without you. You want to pull on your helmet, get on the field, and hit somebody. Four days after tearfully begging my boss for time off, I was standing in his office announcing that I was ready to get back to work. I believed it, too. I knew in my heart that the worst had passed: I had had a rough couple of days, but the Kid Was Back. Put me in, Coach. Cancer Boy is ready to tear up the turf.

My heart was wrong.

What I thought was the bottom was barely the beginning. What I thought was the worst loss of my life was just the tip of the iceberg. There would be many more days to come. Many more tears. Many more pain-filled blogs about shadow and despair. And through it all, my only wish would be to get back to work. I threw myself into my training, my fundraising, anything to take my mind off the fact that LIVESTRONG at the YMCA would be starting three new classes without me. I was suffering. But I was healing, too.

Three more times I returned to my boss's office. "Put me in, Coach. I'm ready." Like a careful training staff, they would ask me questions and listen to my answers. Whatever they heard told them that I needed more time. I never tried to bluff them. I'm not sure that I could have, even if all my acting skills had been sharp. I'm not sure I wanted to. But I was becoming more aware, more mindful. Now when they told me that I should take another week, my heart knew they were right. I was still hurt. And I knew that a re-injury would be much worse than the first one.

Last week, they heard something new. I was ready to start testing myself. Not with sprints, and not by jumping right back into the game, but by stepping onto the field to see how the grass felt under my feet. I would make a speaking appearance, one I had booked many weeks ago. A director would come with me to observe and evaluate my performance. I wasn't going to be side-by-side with my team mates, not yet. But I would be out on the empty field, learning and showing just what I could do.

And so the first test was in place. I began to prepare. I didn't know that God had already scheduled my first workouts.

Out of the blue, I got the call. Coach Carrie rarely calls me on the phone. I looked at the screen and saw her name. Was she calling me back to work? Just checking in? No, she was calling with a shocker. My last remaining Coach at the Y, the last of the three amazing women who had coached my class of Eight had gotten a new job. Coach Carrie was calling to tell me she was leaving. I felt my heart catch, and my eyes start to moisten, but then my weary brain pulled itself up and did something it hadn't done in a long time... it had a rational thought. "I'm disappointed, Coach, But I'm so happy for you. It sounds like a great chance for you and your family. You have meant so much to me. And I hope you have a great time in your new gig."

There is a training technique, one Carrie never used with me, by the way, where you put an athlete into a plank position, tell them to brace their core, and then whack them with your hands or feet, as if to knock them down. The challenge is to hold your stability, even though you don't see the blows coming, and don't know how hard they are going to be. I felt God putting a foot in my side as Carrie told me about her new job, and I felt my soul brace and straighten itself back up after the blow. I was getting stronger.

Later, there was another blow. A man I respect and admire, a warrior who had never been in LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, but who had fought the Damned Thing for 12 years finished his battle this week. He had never given up his love of life. He kept acting and directing. He loved the young people who came to him for guidance and inspiration, and he gave it to them with a sweet and generous spirit. And cancer had killed him. Another loss. Another death. A few loving tears. But no collapse. I loved him, and was able to love his life more than my own pain.

Finally there came news of a young boy whom I don't remember ever meeting. He was an actor. He had lots of friends. He cared about politics and justice and freedom. And a few days ago, he chose to end his own life. Such a cruel reminder of how easy it is for someone to slip out of the safe harbor of love and into the dark waters of depression. The grieving friends and family who are left behind may be filled with confusion and anger and even guilt, but the truth is that the tide was just too strong. The lonely swimmer was pulled out to sea. My prayer is that he now knows the peace and comfort that he could not find here. The church has always called suicide a mortal, unforgivable sin. Some of us know better. I do not accept that God will punish us for falling to a fatal disease. I believe that this sad, wounded boy is resting in Jesus' arms today. Finally resting.

The Y is going to test me on Wednesday with a speech and a Q&A session in front of a room full of strangers. But God has tested me already. Not so God can learn if I am strong again, but to show me that I am. It may not have been game speed or full contact, but I have taken hits and gotten back up on my feet for the next play. I can't say that I never went down, but I promise you that I never stayed down. The Y will test me. God has already shown me that I'm ready for the test.

There are going to be other tests. Other losses. For all I know, the worst is yet to come. But I know two things. I will not face them alone. My Creator will never abandon me, and will always send loving people to help me to mend, no matter what the injury. And I also know that there is nothing that can make me give up. The ones who give up... they all die. And I am in no mood to die. I am in the mood to play.

I'm almost ready. God has sent trainers with wisdom and experience to judge my progress. It wont be much longer now. Soon, I'll be back in the dust, mixing it up. Not wanting to come back off the field.

Soon, coach. Soon.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

#456: On Waking to the Sound of the Rain

rain in the dark
music of the night
bass notes of distant thunder
blowing branches tremble in the breeze 

here in a village of garden springs
where water rises like morning fog
from under the streets
the sky is buying the drinks tonight
pouring tenderly on spring blossoms
chirping in downspouts and down driveways 
to fresh swept gutters

singing things are sleeping tonight
too early in the season for cicadas
they have sought shelter in borough and nest
huddled and fluffed among twigs and feathers
silent tribute to God's symphony
rain in the dark

Friday, May 10, 2013

#455: Meta Cycles and Bipolar Disorder

I've been looking backwards a lot, lately. Looking for patterns. How does this disease work? What does it look like? How might I head it off?

I see cycles around 10 years long. These are the times I can remember my severe episodes.

1978 Break up with high school sweetheart
1982 Mono keeps me from national grad school auditions after breakup with second sweetheart
1986 Break up with third sweetheart
1989 Fiance goes on world tour

1996 Death of my Father
1998 Lose my job
2003 Disastrous contact with high school sweetheart
2009 Lose my job

2010 End of cancer treatment
2013 Lose my boss and mentor

Always losses. Big ones. But why these particular ones? We all experience loss every day. What was so special about these? To be sure, there are some biggies in there. Losing a parent. Life threatening illness. Lost jobs and lovers. Lost dreams. What is it that makes me react so powerfully to life's big losses?

Part of me really wants to know what I did wrong. But another part, the runner, the fighter doesn't care about the last episode. I want to know how to delay or prevent the next one. Exercise more? Eat differently? Change my thinking? Change my lifestyle?

The depression after each later breakup was like an echo of the first. I didn't see an event as a failure... I saw it as another failure. Now I see that they are connected. These breakups defined the first 30 years of my life. Too fat. Too poor. Until I met Mrs P, I wasn't sure anyone could ever love me. I was simply an unattractive man. When she went to the Soviet Union and Japan on tour, just months before our wedding, I went into a dark funk. Staying home. Not bathing. Watching TV. Eating Pizza. Gaining weight. It was as if I was sure she wasn't coming home. Certain she would meet someone actually lovable out there in the world and leave me. That fall, after we were married, a long quiet phase began.

My father died 7 years later, in February of 1996. February became an annual downswing for me. These were usually a week or two long, and I rarely anticipated them. I would find myself tired and unmotivated, bored and irritable, and then realize what time of year it was. By the second week of February, Dad's birthday, I would be fine again. But many of the subsequent episodes were colored by that pivotal loss.

The depressions after my job losses in particular were very much about my Dad. He worked hard, often at two or three jobs. He was respected and admired for his ethic and his integrity. Getting fired felt like I was soiling his legacy. As if I were reflecting badly on his life. I even tried contacting my high school flame, as if connecting to my teenage self could re-connect me with Dad. About a year after the second job loss, I was admitted into the mental hospital. There they taught me that I could change my emotions by changing the way I thought about things. I began to change the way I thought about my father. He wasn't a saint. He was a man. A good man, to be sure, but not a perfect one. I didn't have to live up to his standard. I didn't have to become him. And in time the arc of that loss swung to a kind of resolution.

This current episode doesn't have anything to do with a lost lover, though at first, it felt just like that. And it isn't about losing a job, though that was a fear I had at first.  Looking back, I think that the cycle I've been in this spring really began three years ago, when my cancer treatment was finished. The friendly caregivers all went away. Mum went home. Mrs P went back to work. The doctor visits went from once a day to once or twice a month. I was lost. I had no one. No wonder I got depressed. No wonder losing my friend and mentor three years later dredged up so many fears. Fears of death. Fears of life without focus or purpose.

When they told me I didn't have any more cancer, I thought, "Now what? What if I've gone through this and wind up going back to the same miserable man I was before?" I didn't really understand how much I had changed until I met Coach. Losing her was like losing all that, too.

Tonight, I look at my life and find I am either at the end of a very short and intense meta cycle, or else I am in the middle of an issue that will haunt me for years to come. "What if my life has no purpose? What if I die alone, and for nothing?"

Could I have stopped the two previous cycles before they led to misery and hospitalization? I don't know. Probably not. For one thing, I didn't even know I was sick, back then. I wasn't even diagnosed until after my Dad died. By then, my habits were ingrained. It took 5 weeks in the nut house to start breaking them. No I don't know how I could have prevented the first two meta cycles. But I have a plan for cutting this third one short.

This time, things are different. I know what my disease is, and what it does to me. I'm learning how it works. I finally have a good team of mental health pros whom I trust. I have an amazing support system of friends, family, and co-workers who know about my illness and love me anyway. When you are used to hiding something like bipolar mood disorder, you learn to dread what might happen if anyone ever shines a light on it. What I've found is that people keep loving me, even with the disease. And that helps. A lot.

But the biggest difference is that I know that the fear in my depression's core is a lie. 100%. My life does  have a purpose. I am not alone. And I refuse to live for nothing.

This time, I can see the bastard coming. God didn't save my life so I could give it back to fear. I am here to kick fear right back to hell where it belongs.

Will this kind of thinking keep me from swinging back into the shadows again? I can't say. But there's only one way to find out.

Start praying... and start kicking.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

#454: Fixing The Plumbing

Original image at Dreamstime
An old college wag used to charm homely freshmen with the line, "Oh, hunny... you're just as pretty as you can be." I was reminded of this when a dear friend at the Y counseled me to stop thinking about "getting well" all the time. "You just keep hammering yourself with that, and you'll never be able to move on." "Wow," I thought to myself. "I'm just as sane as I can be."

I once took a course called Education for Ministry. One of the most important parts of the class was the TR: Theological Reflection. It was a way of analyzing any issue within the biblical framework of Creation, Sin, Judgement, and Redemption. You start by looking at an event or story or scripture and ask, "what is that like?" You develop a metaphor, then through the lens of the paradigm, you find insights into the source material.

So, here is the story:
While driving today, I thought, "I'm having such a hard time isolating why I feel so badly. So, when was the last time I felt really well? Mentally?" My imagination began the long, slow rewind, and came to rest at the most shocking, absurd place imaginable. It is a sunny afternoon. The breeze dances with the curtains in the open windows. Outside, kids are screeching. Dogs barking. Birds singing. Inside, I lie on my bed, looking out into the bright, July air. I am shivering. Thinking of Mrs P. Of Shakespeare. Of running. I am dying of cancer.
I have often wondered why I didn't get depressed during my cancer. It wasn't until my treatment was finished that I felt the wait of loneliness and shadow closing itself around my irradiated heart. Suddenly my day was no longer about this treatment or this bag of drugs or this feeding. It was about waiting for October when the scan would show if I was going to get well, or have to fight another round. When the news of my clear scan finally came... that's when the real funk began. I felt hollow and empty. The battle that had been my life's purpose for so long was over. What the hell was I supposed to do now? After a few weeks of apparently grieving because I was not going to die of cancer, I did two things: I made a date with a therapist, and I joined a gym. 
And in many ways, this current episode feels like the last chapter of a story that started on that day back in July of 2010: the last time I felt really sane.
Now, to find a metaphor. I bounced a lot of ideas around as I drove. What was it like to have something not work, to know that it once did, and to have to figure out how to make it work again? My mind zeroed in on our old house on the North End of Lexington. The previous owners had been big on Do It Yourself, but not so much on Know What You're Doing. The plumbing in the house was a disastrous combination of materials and Jerry-rigged solutions to simple problems. Consequently, it would fail pretty frequently on two particular occasions: when we had guests coming over; or when we were preparing to celebrate a major holiday. Mrs P once rinsed and prepared the Thanksgiving turkey in a stationary tub in the basement, because my midnight efforts to fix the kitchen sink had resulted in a broken pipe and a flooded cellar.

When the plumbing would go wonky, it was always tempting to try a short-cut. Pour something toxic into it. Shove a straightened hanger down the drain. Grab a rubber mallet and bang the pipes in frustration. In the end though, only two solutions ever worked. You could either call Roto-rooter, or you could carefully take the whole mess apart, snake out the gunk, bathe yourself in whatever black ooze gushed out of it, and then put it all back together again. After three or four tries at that, if you were lucky, it all worked good as new again.

And there we have it. A psychotic break is gunked up mental plumbing.

As they were originally designed, the pipes carried water and waste flawlessly, smoothly, silently. The pipes were clean and balanced. They hung straight and true at just the right grade. Lots of fluid  moved easily with only gravity pulling it along toward the treatment plant and ultimately back to the ocean. You just didn't give them a second thought.

And that's the way a healthy mind works, too. Ideas and intuitions flow smoothly through the mind. Waste is carried away. Thoughts and perceptions are clear and move with quiet efficiency as the mind carries them along, learning, gleaning, observing, and then releasing them into the great, universal ocean of thought. When it isn't broken, you don't even think about your mind.

But sometimes, even well-designed plumbing can go south on you. Maybe you pour some bacon grease into the sink, or you accidentally flush a wash cloth or a toothbrush down the toilet. A block forms. Crud gathers. Hair. Cat food. Vegetable peels. Gunk. The space inside the pipe gets smaller. Less water can flow through, and because of the smaller opening, more pressure is created when it does flow. Joints are strained. Long runs are thrown out of balance. Eventually, the pinch point closes completely. Nothing can get through.

Crud can accumulate on the passageways of your mind, too. Memories of failures past. The dread of repeating painful losses. Shame for falling short and letting down the people you love. These little blobs start to cluster together inside your mind like balls of grease and hair in the trap under your kitchen sink. Ideas get stuck. Obsessive thoughts begin to grow. You begin to look for quick, easy fixes - toxic thoughts to pour into your brain and blow the clogs out. And finally, like the clogged pipe, your mind can have so much fear stuck inside that no healthy idea can pass through.

And what does this sin filled world of plumbing look like? Wet. Dirty. Stinky. Cold, soapy water in the kitchen sink that won't drain. Black ooze dripping out at elbows and joints. Sewage floating in the bathtub. These are the consequences of allowing your plumbing to fill with sticky goo.

The mind also springs leaks. Good ideas trickle away unnoticed under the strain of keeping something flowing around the clogs. Soon, the smell of fear is so overpowering that nothing else can cut through. The focus is no longer on moving ideas, learning, observing, growing. Now all energy is focused on the blockage. Emotions explode outward, or are crammed inward in an attempt to force the negativity away. But as time passes, the clog becomes all that there is. The ball of fear not only stops healthy thought, it actually transforms it into fear. Unchecked, this once tiny clot of fear will consume the entire vessel. The mind grows sick and dies.

How then, can the holiday dinner be saved? There is only one way, really. First, stop. Don't panic. Look. Listen. Touch. Smell. Where do you think the problem is? Now, get the tools you need. The wrench. The saw. The glue. The bucket. Rags. Lots of rags. Then, carefully, one step at a time, start taking things apart until you find the blockage. Assume that it won't be in the first place you look. Keep trying. Eventually, you'll get to something that you can reach in with a glove or a screwdriver or a snake and shove out into your bucket. Cold nasty gunk will gush out onto your glasses and up your sleeve. That's OK. That's part of it, too. Now, put everything back together. Careful. Don't hurry. Don't over tighten and break anything. Have Mrs P turn on the water upstairs. It will leak. You knew it would. That's OK. That's part of it. Gently start tightening things until the drips stop. Turn the water on hard, again. Of course it will leak again. Move the bucket and sit down on the step for a while. When you are calm, snug up the wet joints one more time. Keep it up, carefully, calmly, until the pipes run the way they were designed to run. Flawlessly. Smoothly. Without a second thought.

And wouldn't it be great if you could fix your sick mind with a screwdriver and a greasy scrub bucket? There are many more parts here. Stuff you don't want to lose. If you're smart, you'll learn the difference between a Do It Yourself project that you can knock out in a weekend, and a serious problem that you will make a hundred times worse if you try to fix it without help. And sooner or later, you will need help. You can't just ram a snake through your mind and shove damaging thoughts out the other end into a dirty pail. You need to go carefully. There's a lot of pieces, remember? Things you don't want to lose. Things you love. Things you're proud of. Things you can teach to someone who needs them. Getting rid of a clog of fear means identifying the thing. What is it made of? Loneliness? Failure? Humiliation? Judgement? You can't just close your eyes when you clean our your mind. You have to look at the stuff, like a surgeon snipping out cancer around an artery. You're going to have to see things for what they are. Phantoms. Ghosts. Booger Men that you made up in your mind so your fears would make sense. The Things That Might Happen that overshadow the things that actually ARE.

Sometimes it takes more than just cleaning out the junk thoughts. Sometimes you have to change the kind of stuff you're putting into your mind in the first place. Look for physical comfort in exercise instead of substances. Find stimulation from carefully crafted ideas instead of cynical sound bites. Embrace the creature God made you to be, instead of struggling to become the fictional character you think will please someone else. Will yourself to ask for help instead of insisting on going it alone. Replace self-loathing with self-respect.

And that's how a greasy clog taught me the way back to sanity. It isn't going to be easy. Pipes are going to crack and leak. My shirt is going to get ruined. Dinner is going to be late. But if I am careful... and humble... and gentle... and loving with myself, I will be able to clean away the phantoms and ghosts that are blocking my mind. I'm going to make mistakes. I'll probably lose some things that I treasure along the way. I may even feel like I'm going backwards, sometimes.

But I believe in that dying man on his bed who dreamed of running a marathon. I remember him. He was barely awake, but his mind was clear. He knew why God had created him, and he didn't let anything else pull his attention away from that purpose... not even death.

Here on my bed, when I look out my window, I see men and women with cancer. Some of them are dying. Some will beat it. Some are already gone. They are alone and afraid that life is never going to feel good again, that their bodies will never feel like their own again. They are out there, outside my curtains, waiting patiently for me to heal so I can help them find their own way. That's why God saved me. That's why I'm not going to let a sick mind kill me any more than some sick cells could.

Because I need them as much as they need me.

And one day soon, I'll have another tee-shirt in my wardrobe.

One leaky pipe at a time.


Monday, May 6, 2013

#453: My All Too Public Private Life

I've entered a new stage.

My manic (or hypomanic) pole is characterized by grandiose thoughts and an over inflated sense of my own importance. Here, I am all courage and daring. Bold action, grand gestures. Good judgement? Not very often.

My depressive pole is dark and lonely, sad and hungry. Here is an angry place. A frightened place. I feel isolate from everyone here, even from God. Here, my judgement is even worse, because in this state of mind, it is impossible for me to choose at all. I might spend 15 minutes staring at the floor beside my bed trying to decide which pair of shoes to slip into.

But in this new place, I feel hyper aware. I see things in people that they might not see themselves. I see them afraid of me and the things I might do if I ever go really crazy. I hear them talking about me around corners and behind closed doors. I see them avoid me and cross the room of the hall. I hear them greet me with a smile, but behind their bright teeth, I can see entire monologues of judgement and condemnation being silently directed toward me.

Yes. I've finally made it. I'm in the crazy zone. I am paranoid and delusional. I rehearse imaginary dialogues over and over in my head. Today in the weight room, my mind was finally quiet. I think I know why penitentiary inmates lift weights. Not just so they can be strong and defend themselves, but also because weight lifting is the ultimate escape. You can't worry about anything when you lift heavy weights. You can't afford to be distracted for a moment or you can get very badly hurt. I found real peace under the bar. But then, I went to the pool.

I strapped on my flotation belt and tethered myself to a diving block. I started water running, jogging in place floating there by the side of the pool, and my mind began to race. Faces. Voices. Accusations. Betrayals. Mockery. Lies. Manipulation. I imagined confronting my accusers, flinging barbed wit at them, smashing them to bits with my incisive logic and immovable sense of justice. Before I knew it, my stomach was churning as violently as the water around me. And that's when I realized something terribly important about myself.

It isn't going to be enough for me to just look sane. I'm going to have to get well or I'm never going to be able to come back to work. I'll never really trust myself. I'll never trust anyone else. I'll never be sure that the things I do or say aren't coming from my disease instead of my reason. If I can't get well, I'm going to have to keep on lying about who I am and what I feel... and as it turns out, I really suck at lying.

But even worse than that. If I can't get well, I'll always have this suspicion that everybody knows, everybody cares, everybody is a little amused and even a little afraid of my feeble mental state.

I can't just sit tight until someone tells me that they think I'm all better. I need to be about the work of pulling the pieces of me back together again. Because I don't know how many second chances I have left in this life. The applause of strangers just isn't going to be enough, not this time. I need to work until I know that I am healed. Try and fail. Test the water. Accept the set backs. Do whatever it takes.

I asked myself in the pool today, "What if God is testing me? What if God takes away the Y? Could I accept even that if it were God's will?" I don't know how to answer these questions. Part of me wants to say, "Yes, Yes, Lord. Here I am. Do with me what you will." But then there is the part of me that asks, "What kind of monster gives you the happiest days of your life, then snatches them away for no reason? Are you a God who tortures your children? Who kills their parents? Who steals their sight, their health, their minds? Why would anyone ever want to serve you?" A lot of people wouldn't ask these kids of questions while floating in 10 feet of water, but I told you I was in a crazy place.

I don't know what the future holds. I don't know why God is allowing this to happen to me. I don't even know who I'm going to be when I wake up in the morning. But I do know a few things.

I love working as a trainer at the YMCA. Love it. It is the best job I've ever had. It gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment that I have never found anywhere else.

I can't work as a trainer as long as I am consumed by fears and depression and distorted thoughts and delusions of grandeur or paranoia. I can't help anyone else if I am in constant danger of bursting into uncontrollable tears for hours at a time.

The only way for me to get back to the work I love, is to find myself again. Again? I wonder if there ever was a time when I knew myself. A time when I wasn't focused on pleasing the grown-ups, being the smartest guy in the room, winning the heart of the beautiful princess. If I ever find the real me, will I even recognize him?

I don't have a choice. I have to try. My work gives me more than just a sense of mission and service. It gives me a sense of purpose. For the first time in my life, I have a reason to be alive. I feel in tune with the creature God intended me to be when I'm working at the Y. For the first time in my marriage, I feel like I have something worthwhile to bring into the partnership. If I lose that... If I lose that purpose, that reason to get out of bed, that reason to be,  I just don't know how I'll go on living.

I am not fighting for my job. I'm fighting for my marriage. I'm fighting for my life. I don't care what it takes, how long it takes, or how much it costs, I simply have to get well. The docs killed my cancer. But only God can take this thing away. I'm going to need all the pills and shrinks and friends that He can send me in order to get well. And I can't stop until the sickness is really gone, or else driven so far into it's hole that I know I can manage it for the rest of my life.

I can't afford to get this sick again. Not ever. There is too much at stake. My friends. My fellow survivors. My marriage.

My soul.

Dear God. I am so lost here. Please help me to get well. Please help me. I'll do my share of the work. I promise, but I can't do anything without you. Please, God. Please.


#452: 2013 Flying Pig Marathon, Addendum

Sometimes when I run, a phrase or word will come to me and will repeat over and over in my mind's ear, like a mantra or a koan. "Just keep going." "Light and quick." "F*ck cancer." All these have latched on at one time or another, in training or in a race. Yesterday I had one come that I'd never heard before. It shocked me then. It still does.

If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl. If you can't crawl, then die.

I don't know where these words came from, but I think I know what they mean. Just because you can't finish according to plan, just because you don't have the strength or the stamina to fulfill your dream right now... that's no excuse to give up. If you are willing to give up on your dreams just because you can't have them the way you want them, they you have stopped dreaming, and you might as well be dead.

I might never run a full marathon in under 5 hours or qualify for Boston. I might never run a 20 minute 5K or weight 200 pounds. I might never be able to afford a beautiful house or a beautiful vacation for Mrs P. But if I let the maybes limit me, if I let the worst possibilities define me and not my best hopes and dreams, then I'm dead already.

I will not surrender to the dread of what might be.

I am a warrior. I am a victor.

I will heal. I will be well again.

I may have to crawl to get back to my life at the Y. But I will never give up on that dream. I will not let it, or myself die of fear.


#451: 2013 Flying Pig Marathon, Part 2

When we last saw Pennsy, he had just kissed Mrs P goodbye and was heading down the stairs of the parking structure, toward what he remembered to be the starting area of the Flying Pig Marathon. He was travelling without his hydration pack because the weather and his physical condition could both be described as 'sloshy." But what our hero had forgotten was that in addition to 2 liters of sports drink, his pack also contained

  • Drivers license, Debit card, and insurance card
  • Cell phone in case of emergency
  • Interval timer to chirp out when to walk and when to run
The first was not missed. There was no need to pay EMT's or Emergency room doctors, or to prove my identity to any of the ubiquitous and heavily armed security personnel. On the other hand, I did have to borrow a phone to find Mrs P after the race, and not having my interval timer just may have cost me a couple hundred dollars in Buck-a-Minute donations. I decided I would just insert a walk break at every mile marker, but by mile 16, it was clear that that hadn't been enough. But we'll cross that bridge a few miles don the road. 

I made my way around Paul Brown Stadium. You might have to be a Steeler fan to appreciate the humor, but there was an enormous logo for Heinz on the flashing billboard outside. I passed the starting gate, and began jogging the long walk back toward "Pigpen H," the last corral for people who estimated their finishing time to be over 6 hours. I was somewhere around Pigpen C when they had a moment of silence, then a piper played to honor the wounded and dead of Boston. Somewhere near Pigpen F, an accapella group from the University of Kentucky, of all places, sang a really lovely rendition of the national anthem. I had just reached the big flag that said "G" when the horn sounded to start the race. We were on a sort of side spur road, so I knew that the slow pokes would have to wait a long time while the quicker runners passed. I made it all the way to the end of the line, and decided to use the traffic to control my speed for the first few miles. Then the wait started. We smiled at one another. Chatted. Stretched. Then I noticed someone pointing up in the sky. They had search lights ballyhooing around the starting line like a Hollywood opening. I figured that's what people were seeing. When I looked up, I saw a miracle instead. At 6:40 in the morning, with the sky steely blue with cloud cover, reaching from Kentucky to Ohio, hung an enormous rainbow. I've never seen anything like it in my life. I stood with my jaw slack, amazed at this wonderful sign from heaven. It felt like God was blessing our run. It was a good thing. I was going to need it. 

I hit the starting line at 6:51, 21 minutes after the gun. I had prepared a very clear pacing plan with the goal of bettering my previous Marathon time by an hour. 10 miles at 13:00/mile, 12 at 12:00/mile, then the last 4 miles somewhere between 11:00/mile and "go like hell."  I had calculated my run/walk pace based on 60 second intervals. had to throw that out the window when I discovered I didn't have my timer. My first 10 miles were actually pretty good: Between 13:32 (the first and most traffic laden) and 12:22 (an ego pace because I knew that the Striders would be cheering during that stretch, and didn't want to get caught walking.) One big surprise in the early part of the race was mile 9. I was expecting "the Climb." it pokes up out of the elevation chart like the Matterhorn. It's a 300+ foot climb, most of which occurs during miles 7 and 8. I took it nice and smoothly, comforted with the knowledge that once this one was done, the rest of the course was a long, gradual down hill roll. Mile 9 disabused me of that belief. The hills along the rest of the course are only small in comparison to "the Climb." On their own merit, they are little assasins, one and all. Not enough to kill you, but enough to just make you want to throw up your hands and cry out, "Dear God. ANOTHER one?" I held my pace through 16 miles, but after that, the 1 miles splits start to slow back down into the 13:00/mile range again. By mile 18, I knew two things. I was not going to hit the wall, I felt almost no pain or cramping in my legs. but I also knew that I was fading. I would not be dropping an hour from last year's time.

One other thing about "the Climb" When you get to the top, you run around a really dramatic overlook called Eden Park. The valley spreads out around you and it feels as if you are looking down from the clouds. It reminds me a little of Mount Washington in Pittsburgh. I would like to go back there someday when I have a little more time to stop and look around.

Mile 21 was the first and only time I went over 14:00/mile all day. It was also right around the time that my 1 minute per mile walk breaks fell apart. I tried several solutions, and finally settled on counting. 10 strides running, 10 strides walking. My mind was turning to mush at this point, too. I would count out loud, and laugh at the idea of runing a marathon 10 steps at a time. I cursed at the devil. I called out to lost friends and LIVESTRONG warriors. I tried to avoid thinking of the things and people who made me cry. It was easy. When some unwanted thought would rise up from the deep, I would just point my consciousness back toward the sound of my feet and my breath. At Mile 23, with just 5K left to run, I started going hard. No more walk breaks. I was going to go for broke. All I could think of was the Buck-a-Minute team. If I could knock an extra minute or two off my time, another kid could take swimming lessons or a trainer could spend an extra hour with a survivor who wanted to learn how to swing a kettlebell or perform a deadlift. I wasn't going to hit my personal goal, but I wasn't going to let those people down, either. 

One by one, I started to pass the walkers. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't blazing by any means, but I refused to let up. I thought about Becky in her nursing home bed, waiting to get sick enough that they would take her back to the hospital. I remembered all of them, then. I heard Carrie saying "Don't quit on me, Bob." I heard Mrs P, "I believe in you, Bobbo." Hardest of all was Coach Melissa. "Remember who you are. You are that same Bob Johnson that I saw that first day at the Y." I ran, partly to honor them, and partly to escape the tears that I felt threatening to choke me. When the finish line finally came into view, about a quarter mile down Main Street, I hauled up onto my toes and sprinted for all I was worth. I sprinted the way I do when Carrie has me run hill sprints. My arms pumped. My breath rushed in and out with each stride. I gritted my teeth. My eyes flashed. I was running angry. I was racing cancer. Mine. Becky's, Everybody's. When I hit the finish line, I threw up my hands and praised God, just as my nephew the preacher had asked me to do. I don't know how many people saw me. There aren't many spectators left after 5 hours of a Marathon. But God saw me. I knew who had given me the tools to do what I had done. I was humbled, but also proud. I was the one who had to choose what to do with those tools. God had let me choose, and I had chosen to try to be my best self. 

I was spent. A worried little volunteer took my arm and walked me, first to the mylar blankets, then to the water bottles. I realized that I had no way of reaching Mrs P, so asked a volunteer to let me use her phone. Security was  much too tight for us to meet at the finish line, so we decided to meet back at the parking garage. I made my way through the gauntlet of bananas and fruit cups and water bottles until I left the post race area, I looked down and realized that at some point, someone had hung a finisher's medal around my neck. I had just run my second marathon. I checked my Garmin. 39 minutes. I beat my old time by 39 minutes. Pretty impressive, if not the miracle I was hoping for. About 40 bucks per pledge. Not a bad day's work.

It started to rain, and as I tried to climb the stairs from the river to the walk way around the stadium, I felt the first crippling cramps of the day. Here at last was the wall. I had pushed it back to 27 miles. But there was still a long way to go to the car and my legs hurt so badly that I cried out each time I climbed another step. Limping, bellowing, and soon soaking and shivering, I walked up into the city. Mrs P had given me an intersection to find. I could not remember what she had said, nor could I have remembered how to find it if I did remember. I was far from the handful of blocks we had seen on Saturday. Nothing looked familiar because everything looked the same. A panhandler with a cardboard sign considered me carefully as I wandered by in a daze. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had offered me a buck. 

Finally, I met another pair of runners who looked as lost and stupid as I was. "We just went all the way around in a circle. We can't remember where we parked." "Did you see the Millennium Hotel on your walk?" "Yes," she shouted, as if she had finally gotten an answer right on Jeopardy. "It's a block that way!" We parted, and I assumed we would probably see one another again as we spent the rest of our lives wandering like Flying Dutch Pigs around the canyons of Cincinnati. Instead, as I approached the hotel, a woman with a plastic bag full of clothes approached me, smiling. No crying, No, it was not a stranger. It was Mrs P. "How in the hell did you find me?" I asked, amazed and squinting through my bifocal-less eyes. "I told you to meet me here. I've been standing on the corner watching people limp."

She led me to the car where I put on a dry shirt and some warm pants. We rode back to Kentucky, and stopped somewhere for lasagna and a bowl of minestrone. Then I went to sleep and woke up a few minutes from our house. 

It should have been a great day. Dropped 10% from my Marathon time. Doubled my fundraiser total. Finished 26 miles at a full gallop. But bipolar disorder can blunt even great days. By the time I got back to Lexington and opened up the race website to confirm my official time, it was as if it had all happened to someone else... as if I had watched a Marathon, instead of running one. The tears I had been hoping for... the cathartic bursting of the dam at the finish line that would let all the pain and grief out once and for all... they did not come. Instead, there was just exhausted numbness. At night, in our bed, I sobbed while Mrs P held me. No longer crying for my lost friend, but for the fear of losing the Y itself. 

I am terrified. As frightened as I have ever been of anything. If I can't get well, if this thing doesn't go away, then I will never be able to go back to work at the Y... back to the best job I have ever had, and the only one I have ever really loved... 

Yes, I am humbled by the generosity of my God and my friends. Yes, I am proud of the things we have achieved together. I am proud that there will be so much more money in the purse of LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. But I am so afraid that I won't be able to be there to see the good it will do. God, help me. God, heal me. Please. I am so very very afraid.


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