I recently read a Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker about Alberto Salazar. It has to be one of Gladwell’s finest essays—more elegant than usual, more poignant. Salazar, the famous distance runner, tolerated incredible physical discomfort in his quest to be the best. Now he excels at coaching. In 2007, Salazar suffered a massive heart attack, sudden death, and was brought back to life. He returned to work nine days later. The story seems nothing short of miraculous. A few nights ago I watched two of his protégés take the gold and silver medals in the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics. The camera showed a smiling Salazar mouth the words “I coach him!” about the gold medalist, Mo Farah. You have to admire that kind of dedication to running, the ability to run through pain and uncertainty, the competitive spirit that enables them to run marathons and race at the world level.
Perhaps it was timing, perhaps it was seeing Salazar, alive and well, smiling and feeling triumphant, but even I felt motivated! Not to run 10,000 meters or a marathon, mind you. My goal is somewhat less exalted. It is called Couch to 5-K.
In the past year, managing anxiety has become a constant struggle for me. It was a problem before—during my mother’s long battle with dementia-but I thought I’d conquered it. For some reason it is back with a vengeance.
I blamed the book. The year between selling it and publishing it took its toll on me. I worried constantly that people would judge me, that baring my soul would come back to haunt me. But the opposite occurred. People opened up, happy that I had shared my story. They were glad to have found someone with experiences similar to their own—a compassionate mate. I’ve received letters, emails, notes—all saying thank you. So the book coming to fruition was a blessing in more ways than I can count.
Once the book was published and the letters started to arrive, I thought I would finally relax. Instead, I am not relaxing. I have mood swings and worsening anxiety.
I have exercised to control mild anxiety most of my life. I have biked, done aerobics, taken brisk walks, all in an effort to keep my breathing normal and the unnamed demons at bay. But the usual tricks don’t seem to be working anymore. Bulging disks in my neck keep me off the bike, for the most part, and I’m too tired from working to get myself to the health club. I’ve worked through the most pressing issues with my therapist, so this resurgence of breathlessness comes as a bit of a surprise. But I can no longer deny its presence.
All in all, things are good. My life is where I want it to be, within reason. My kids are doing well. I have a horrible job, but who doesn’t? I have my little weekend retreat. What the hell is the matter with me?
My AHA moment came when I Googled menopause and anxiety.
It was all there, in black and white. All my symptoms. In a website about menopause. It mentioned mood swings. Hmm. And anxiety. The website reinforced what I’d been loath to suspect: there may be a hormonal reason for my state of mind. And a few relatively straightforward ways to deal with it: mind the caffeine, exercise religiously, meditate, dump the baggage, try yoga, and so on and so forth.
Hormones were to blame. Just as hormones have been to blame for many of life’s ills, for centuries.
My daughter Liz told me about a two-month interval-training program cleverly entitled “Couch to 5-K”. I looked it up online. You can download the original version, in which a lovely British voice tells you when to walk and run. Or you can wear a watch with a second hand and just do it yourself while listening to music. I prefer the second option. But I haven’t run in years. Not since I had two ACL reconstructions, one on each knee.
I don’t plan to run any real distance, mind you. I’m just trying to get off the couch and take a deep breath.
Will I ever run a 5-K? Hard to say. I’ve done the first few days of the program. I’m alive. My knees still work. And I managed a couple of deep breaths today. And while I really hate to blame my hormones for anything, they do tend to control us more than we like. Life is a constant series of trade-offs, e.g. sore knees vs. shortness of breath and a sense of impending doom.
I will never run like Alberto, but I understand what it’s like to be down and come back to life. I’ve done it before. If it takes sore knees, then so be it. I’m packin’ Aleve.