December 31, 2013

Recovery on the Run: Schizophrenia

My brother has schizophrenia.

It was noticeable when he came back from Bosnia, though my mom and I suspect the signs were there for years. He went through Hell and came out brutalized, faced tremendous discrimination following the Virginia Tech shootings, and continues to butt heads with the VA seeking both the medical and mental health treatment necessary to keep his illness in check, without sacrificing his mental clarity and physical health to the side effects of antipsychotics.

He's one of my heroes.

For all of the stigma and discrimination that he has faced, my dear brother maintains a faith in the goodness of humanity that is unparalleled in this world. He opens his home and his heart to anyone in need, because he understands what it's like to not be given a chance. All he wants in this world is to love and protect his son, be good to others, and find a woman who will treat him with the same level of compassion and honesty with which he treats others.

But for someone with schizophrenia, finding love is no easy prospect, and since schizophrenia affects over 24 million people worldwide, that can be a lot of lonely, stigmatized people who are facing a chronic illness with extensive social, health, and economic implications:
•Premature death (15-25 years earlier than the general population)
•Diabetes (2x rate of the general population)
•Cardiovascular disease
•Staggering rates of unemployment (80% unemployment in UK)
•Smoking (2-4x higher than general population)
•Obesity (80% of people treated with anti-psychotics experience rapid, significant weight gain)
Because of the additional stigma associated with obesity in the United States, people with schizophrenia face additional barriers to finding and attaining healthy relationships. And because people who have schizophrenia are bound to their drugs to stay mentally healthy, they can feel trapped by the weight gain, adding to their anxiety, victimization, and low self-esteem. So you can see that it’s impossible to unwrap one symptom from the other; each complexity of the illness plays into the creation and sustenance of the others.

And Yet…
Exercise can mediate each of the comorbidities associated with schizophrenia spectrum disorders

Psychoeducational interventions and cognitive behavioral therapy have both been proven ways to decrease body mass index (BMI), lower blood pressure, and improve healthy behaviors. It's also shown to increase feelings of Hope, Self Esteem and Self-efficacy, which are integral to recovering from schizophrenia.

And herein lies the secret: Social Support is KEY to recovery from schizophrenia. I know that for my brother, having his group of guys that he hangs out with regularly has been instrumental in getting his self-esteem back, finding a job, having people who validate his feelings, and knowing that he doesn't have to go through this hardship on his own.

And that's where running comes in. Group exercise would give someone like my brother both the social support that he so desperately needs, help him manage the weight gain from his medications, and even cut down on his smoking (because any runner will tell you that running is a helluva drug for anxiety!)

Shoot, maybe he'd even meet a gal.

And that, my friends, is what Recovery on the Run is all about. It's not just my steps toward personal healing, but the steps I hope I can help others take in their journeys toward wellness, too.

2014: Doin' It.

2014. It's a Banner Year, folks. 

This past year was a litany of successes, but my health has consistently deteriorated and I want it back. Like, bad. I'm agonizingly slow, constantly tired, and half-checked out most of the time, but my partner agrees that there's been progress these past few months since ceasing my birth control. My asthma attacks are about twice a month instead of a nightly occurrence, my body is no longer covered in hives, and the fog is lifting from my brain. I'm finally allowing myself some hope about my continuing improvement, and after reflecting back on the run of 2009, I feel like it's time for some lofty goals. Isn't that what the New Year is all about?

I've given myself a challenge:

2014 in 2014

That's 2014 kilometers in 2014, or approximately 24 miles/week. The 2009 runner in me said, "pfffsht, No problem, Woman!" But I'm a 2013 runner, and 24 miles/week sounds not just daunting, but darn near impossible. Problem is, I've always been a Go-Big-Or-Go-Home gal, so the added part of this challenge will be learning to run within my limitations.

Histamine Intolerance has made me a Woman of the Moment. Because I never know when I'll get hit by a flare-up, or how severe it will be, I know that each moment that I feel well can't be wasted. 

It has come to define my life.

So 2014 will be my reclamation. 

And Gumbo, for one, is ready for it.

Artist's Rendition. (Microsoft Paint is HARD.)

Let's do this.

December 30, 2013

A Testament and A Toast: To Where I've Been

(It seems silly, the notion of beginning the New Year by looking back so long ago, but on New Year's Eve, 2009, a promise was sparked by the portentousness of a moment, my metamorphosis. I couldn't even begin to imagine, as I stared into the shuddering, pink sky, that the whole of my existence was on the verge of such change.)

A Memory...

"The last run of the last night of 2009 ended not with a bang, but 10,000 crows. Two hours and 12 miles into the waning hours of one of the worst years of my existence, I was carefully plodding across the frozen driveway of my temporary home, tugging at my headphones, when I first noticed the sound – a great rippling through the trees surrounding my house, like the year tugging away from its seams. I looked up to see a full moon bearing down through pink city mist, and the tree branches full of dark shifting life. I heard the cawing before I saw them. The sky pulsed with the sound of 1000′s of crows circling my house, landing and shuddering and leaping back into the air in a great rush of wings. I was transfixed by the frenzy, and stood there open-mouthed at the sight of these barren trees come to sudden bloom, a home of 10,000 beating hearts and trembling tongues. I ran inside to grab my roommates, if for nothing other than verification that this was no omen, a reason for wonder, not fear. Video games apparently prove a greater hold over the minds of 20-something men, so my apparition remains my own, another moment frozen in winter’s solitude. I’m not superstitious, but as the final image in a year marked by grandiose change, this black circling cloud of life filling the sky above my house is a portentousness I can’t leave unheeded. After a quick stretch and another glimpse out the window, I Googled a meaning for my moment. Here’s what I found: The crow is a symbol of strength and transformation, here to remind us of the magic that fills our world and is so often overlooked. Crows are known as keepers of time, but living outside of past, present and future. They appear at times of drastic change, when our concept of ourselves, and those we may have loved and hurt, is at a necessary point of evolution. Life is shedding its previous form and we need to metamorphose with it. At the risk of sounding far more hippie than I am, that final run of 2009 was a series of moments fraught with magic. Each step felt like it drew energy from the Earth into my body, like I could run forever. Patterns etched in dirt and snow told the stories of those who’ve come and gone, and I danced across them knowing that I, too, would one day be trace elements in someone else’s imagination."

The above is my post from NYE, 2009. I was in the best physical shape of my life while my world (sometimes literally) crumbled around me. I had broken up with the man whom I thought I would marry, lost a home (but little more) to a late night house fire, and moved into temporary shelter with four strange men a decade younger than I with a penchant for drunkenly pounding on my attic bedroom door as the mice in the walls chirped their outrage. I was on the verge of losing my job and my mind, and running was my last great link to sanity.

By May, I was a Seattle resident, designing training programs for runners and volunteer teaching with the International Rescue Committee. I'd applied, and was soon accepted, to grad school at the University of Washington. And I'd soon meet a man -- THE man -- who left me breathless, the man I've been with for 3.5 years. It was a revolution, in almost every best possible way.

Except the cough.

...The cough that turned to persistent asthma attacks, chronic pain, and soon fatigue, nausea, migraines, hives, and constant anaphylactic reactions to everything I ate. I befuddled doctors, and went from 100 mile weeks to a slow crawl to the bus stop, a crawl that still ended in gasping pain.

And then my guy put it all together. The hives, the swollen throat, the blue-lipped late-night asthma attacks that left me trembling in my partner's arms--it had all begun within days of starting my birth control, back when my running shoes still left frozen footsteps on the brick roads of Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had developed a condition called Histamine Intolerance, a complex reaction to plummeting progesterone, imbalanced estrogen, and what I suspect may have been an underlying -- and much more subdued -- condition. I missed my last birth control shot in October, and am waiting out the more than 200 days until the drug should be undetectable in my system. I'm slowly beginning to feel my energy ebbing back, but I still suffer from chronic fatigue. Running has been, at best, inconsistent. I go out when I feel well enough and run as much as I can before my chalky lungs declare defeat. And Yet--

I'm beginning to have more good days than bad.

And that, for me, is HUGE.

Which is what brings me here. Back when I ran 100 miles/week, when I would ride my bike 34 miles round trip several times a week to teach in the neighboring city, when my heart was just beginning to mend and my body just beginning to break down, I wrote. Constantly. And it, along with running, was how I coped with my pain. I'm no longer coping with the same level of psychological pain (my partner has been instrumental in that process), but my daily frustrations for the past 4 years coping with chronic pain have sucked away my love for running, and that is a loss that I can not abide.

So in order to cope with this new pain, this physical pain, and to renew my profound love for running, I need to bring back my writing, as well.