If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning. – Catherine Aird
This post is not about exercise. But in the end it is about how exercise saved me from myself.
This is not easy to write because I have to reveal some uncomfortable truths about myself. But if I can save one person from depriving themselves of opportunities the way I did then it’s worth it.
Cry Me A River
From as early as I can remember I felt anxious when I had to interact with anyone I didn’t know. More than just shy, I was always panic-stricken to some degree. And if there wasn’t some familiar adult around, preferably one of my parents or grandparents, to keep things from spinning out of control, it was a nightmare. What if someone asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer?
But, in general, until I started grade school, it didn’t come up that often. So I had a typical happy childhood in 1950’s Arkansas from as early as I can remember, and even after I started school it was really an issue only when it came time to leave in the morning. As I recall, the school wasn’t far and I walked with kids from my neighborhood. It was only half a day and we didn’t start school back then until first grade so it was really a pretty easy gig. But every morning I would be terrified. I guess you’d say I was a Mama’s boy, but it was really more that. I didn’t like being separated from my entire family. It felt so safe at home when we were together. But what might happen if we were not?
Now who knows if I really felt that way? I can only tell you what I remember. For instance about the time I started grade school I went on a group swimming thing to the local boy’s club. I remember being terrified the whole time. What if I didn’t understand instructions and did the wrong thing? Everything about the pool was scary, gotta keep track of the pin with the locker key, gotta walk through the foot disenfectant. Gotta understand which group of kids I’m supposed to be with for instruction. Gotta understand what the instructor wants me to do. And what if someone yells at me?
And I wasn’t some Casper-Milquetoast kind of kid. I ran around and played cowboys and native-Americans, cops and robbers, got different body parts caught in different furniture parts – kids, don’t stick your arms between the metal bands of those old fashioned porch gliders. It won’t go well. I hit myself in the back of the head once with the claw of a claw hammer when I was trying to use it to break off a limb or something when we were building a clubhouse. And I broke bones in everything from sandlot football games to fist fights. Not proud of it, just saying.
I was great at fun and games, but not anything that had consequence. As a coping mechanism I adopted the strategy of avoiding interaction where possible by not being present to be interacted with. For instance by playing sick as often as I could get away with. I actually enjoyed the feeling of coming down with a bad cold because I probably could get out of school the next day. And I was lucky enough to be afflicted with chronic bronchitis for several years which would often get me out of school for a week at a time.
Which brings me to the first reconizable symptom:
“I have to get out of here at any cost”.
Sometimes on the first day back to school after having been out a few days I would feel so overwhelmed that I would pretend to be sick and my mother would have to come pick me up. Let’s hope this is cathartic, because that’s really, really embarassing to reveal. Even more embarrasing is that I was in the tenth grade and may have had on the cast I got after breaking my thumb(?) in a fist fight. But I literally did feel that I had to get out of there at any cost. Consequences didn’t matter, just get out as quick as you can.
Now the thing was I got good grades most of the time and I didn’t get in fights all that often. I ended up getting really good SAT scores and was a National Merit finalist. I actually turned down a half scholarship to go to Pepperdine – STUPID, STUPID, STUPID – because I just had to go to Case to study Biochemistry of all things (I have no idea why I thought I liked chemistry – I should have realized that having chemistry sets from the age of eight onward means nothing if you never really get into the chemistry part – but they looked pretty cool when you had them all set up – and pouring two clear liquids together to make red – that just never gets old). So it wasn’t that I was a problem child, and I wasn’t completely un-motivated. But I was terrified of the real world.
It may be more accurate to say I was terrified of the future. I had come to recognize that I couldn’t get my act together outside my own personal little world. I was always flustered when dealing with anyone who wasn’t family or friend and always had the feeling I was obligated to please them by saying the right things – which meant I had to figure out what the right things were – and of course I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible, so having a conversation where I actually had some sort of goal was difficult.
Events in the future caused ridiculous amounts of dread. For instance let’s say Christmas vacation is coming up, but first you have to do a book report. YOU – LADDIE – STAND STILL – YES YOU – HOW CAN YOU GET TO CHRISTMAS VACATION IF YOU HAVE TO DO A BOOK REPORT FIRST??? It would never occur to me to go ahead and just do it. My philosophy, if I had thought about it, was Never do today what you might never have to do if the world comes to an end first.
School and homework and even Sunday School and church were all bound up in that world outside the family where anything might happen and you had responsibilites and acts had consequences. I didn’t want to live in that world. I wanted to live in that happy place I lived in before I turned six and had no responsibilities. And no common sense – I remember running back and forth trying to get a kite to fly when there was no wind until it was shredded.
Which brings me to the second recognizable symptom:
The id-driven personality.
The id-driven personality actually causes the first symptom: “I have to get out of here at any cost”. The id doesn’t understand consequences and wouldn’t care if it did. The id is strictly “I WANT I WANT I WANT I WANT” on and on and on. Everyone is subject to hearing from the id from time to time. But when there is no good reason why you have to get out of there other than your anxiety and you start trying to come up with feasible excuses so you can get out of there, then you may suffer from id-driven personality.
I’ll just cut to the chase on the last symptom:
“Something bad is going to happen”
It’s probably not surprising that I developed a feeling of general dread. I don’t mean I went around all gloomy. To the contrary I was alway trying to joke around, I loved watching television and going to movies. I read a lot and it was mostly stuff teachers would approve of but it was all fiction and a way to escape the real world.
But when it came to real things I just couldn’t see how it could work out. I could get good grades in school and on tests, but when it came to putting those things together so you had the knowledge to actually “do” something? That could never happen. Therefore, inevitably, there would come a time when everything would fall apart and I would be revealed.
Fortunately I went away to college so I could let everything fall apart all on my own with no one looking over my shoulder except through letters, which gave me time to make up excuses. I went to great lengths to fail by cutting class, not studying and generally screwing around. Eventually I dropped out of school and moved to California, and a few months later, in October of 1969 I got drafted. And of course I was terrified for the next two years. Not so much by the fear of going to Vietnam, which didn’t happen, but the day to day of getting through two years of the army without getting in trouble. This was a job I couldn’t just quit when I felt overwhelmed.
But what do you know, I made it all the way through, and I was actually a sergeant when I got out. Sad to say, they were so hard up that just trying to stay out of trouble got you promoted. And on the happiest day of my life (sorry honey) September 21, 1971, I was released from the Army with an honorable discharge. The happiest day of my life, but no prospects really, and I was carrying around the same old emotional baggage. Getting through the Army was just a fluke – and I still feel guilty for failing an IG inspection just before I got out. They caught me using a layout technique I had been using the whole two years – and didn’t even know was not allowed – that made me feel even more stupid.
Zoom Zoom Zoom
Flash forward 41 years (I certainly did) and now I’m now a 65 year old computer programmer and somehow I got married to the most wonderful woman in the world and in general have a wonderful life.
How could that have happened?
I’m not sure really, but here’s what I think.
At some point in early adulthood I adopted the strategy of acting as though things actually were going to work out even though I couldn’t really believe they would. When I lived at home I just had to get through day to day of going to school and getting good enough grades to keep my parents off my back. Schoolwork that took more than one day was problematic, but somehow I would scramble around at the last minute and get it done.
I don’t know when I stared noticing that I didn’t just die when some insurmountable task came and went. Usually I would actually end up getting it done – through high school. But once I got to college I could just throw my hands up and do nothing – in the 60’s that got you from college to the U.S. Army – but life will go on. Life will go on and whatever you gave up on – that’s not going to happen. Not that I thought I was doing nothing. Cutting class just today won’t matter, waiting to study until the last minute for just this test won’t matter – it matters, because it’s never just today and it’s never just this test.
How do you think I felt in 1968 or so after a twelve hour shift at a service station in Idaho Falls, Idaho when it’s well below zero, and I could have been in a cozy dorm room. I felt like I wished I had gone to all my classes and studied for all my tests – that’s how I felt. Ever try to project yourself back in time? It doesn’t work, even if you try really, really hard. But fortunately at 21 years old what you can do is to jump in your car, drive to California, and stay there. I was encouraged by a friend who made it sound better than it was, but thank God he did. It wasn’t heaven, but in spite of being broke all the time it was the best ten months of my life so far – then I got drafted.
So as I said, you can give up, but you don’t just die and you have to live with the consequences.
And how do you think I felt on my first night in the Army standing fire guard(at least I was warm). Actually, I felt like throwing myself down the barracks steps, but even more I felt like I wished I had gone to all my classes and studied for all my tests – that’s how I felt. Ever try to project yourself back in time? It doesn’t work, even if you try really, really hard – and repeatedly.
So as I said, you can give up, but you don’t just die (at most I would have broken a leg and I’d still have been in the army), and you have to live with the consequences – repeatedly.
Even when you’re pretty sure you’re going to fail, as it turns out, a lot of the time you’re wrong. Part of it is just the id trying to get you to avoid anything that’s unpleasant. And if you give up now you don’t have to go through all that dreary trying. Part of it is fear of failure – I mean do you really fail if you don’t even try? And then you can say you really didn’t care anyway.
There are all kinds of coping mechanisms to excuse yourself from giving up, or not trying, but in the long run you just guarantee personally missing out on something you had a chance at. Maybe you would have failed anyway, but maybe you wouldn’t. And even if you did, who knows what would have come out of trying? Nothing comes out of quitting except maybe you become better at making excuses.
But somehow excuses, as comforting as they are, don’t make up for the things you miss out on.
So Here’s The Deal
I can understand how the kid I was all those years ago was overwhelmed by anxiety in one form or another and just gave in. I can understand because I still have the same anxieties. I can’t explain them but fortunately I developed the tools to resist them. I work at home now, but over the years mostly worked in an office every day right up until about a month ago. Almost every day of all those thirty some years I would go through the “get out at any cost” scenario. As a kid, there were no real consequences, at the time, from giving in to that impulse. As an adult I have to make a living so when I feel like I just have to get out I just keep working. When I’m convinced I’ll never figure out how to get a program to work I just keep working. I don’t really have a choice unless I want to end up homeless. Somethimes I convince myself I’ll be fired and end up homeless anyway, but I’ve been convinced of that before, many times over the thirty-four years I’ve been a computer programmer, so I just keep working.
By now I’ve proven to myself over and over again that probably nothing bad will happen if I don’t “get out now at any cost”, and if I keep working on the program I’ll eventually get it right. But it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve proven it, part of me always believes “This is the time you’ll fail”, and I just have to respond “Maybe so, but I can’t give up until then”, and I just keep working.
And sometimes you do fail. But I can guarantee you this. If you keep trying until then, you’ll feel a lot better than if you gave up because you expected to fail. That’s pretty easy when you’re an employee. You just keep trying until your boss tells you to give up or try another approach. It must be really tough to be an entrepeneur because you have to realize when the reward is not worth the effort so you know when to cut your losses. My guess is most people prone to panic attacks don’t become entrepeneurs.
Everything so far is just advice from an old guy saying don’t give up when things seem hard or even insurmountable because you’ll be better off, even if you fail. If I had realized that earlier I probably woudn’t have a lot of the anxieties I have now. My hope is that young people going through the same thing I went through can get off that path earlier than I did by recognizing the same symptoms in themselves.
Did things work out for me because of exercise?
I think they did. I dropped out of so many things before I stared computer school in 1978. I probably would have dropped out of that as well, except I came up with a strategy that got me to ride a stationary bike every evening before studying, so I actually enjoyed it instead of dragging through it. I never in my life enjoyed studying except this one time in high school when I actually started my geometry homework before supper (who knows why) and it was interesting – then after supper, complete with dessert that was either pie and ice cream or cake and ice cream or cookies and ice cream – it somehow wasn’t interesting anymore. I realized even then there was a relationship – but what are you gonna do – certainly not eat less ice cream.
But the idea of getting the bike didn’t occur in a vaccum. In the mid 70’s I worked in production scheduling at Redken laboratories. Redken was in the San Fernando valley and I had to drive over the hill from West L.A. I hated the traffic, so I would drive in early to miss it. I couldn’t start work when I got in, so I would work out in the company gym. On those days I would feel absolutely great when I got to my desk afterwards. I had my coffee, I had my cigarette, I had my ten-key multi-function calculator, I had my stock status on green-bar computer paper and life was perfect.
On days when I didn’t work out I still had all those things, but confronting the workday ahead was just dreary. What could the difference be…
About five years before that, in army basic training, one day after PT (physical training) I had this wonderful feeling of well-being that I absolutely could not explain. I remember looking around to see if things looked different, like the back of the guy’s head in front of me in formation – but I don’t remember if they did or not. That feeling lasted the rest of the day – it kept re-inforcing itself because I was convinced my fears were gone and the army was going to be a piece of cake. That lasted right up until they woke us up the next morning and it was the same old horror show. I also noticed that after we ran in the morning and sat down to an army breakfast everything tasted great and I felt great in spite of facing a day of army basic training immediately ahead – in about 8 minutes as a matter of fact.
The difference is endorphins, or the hormone formerly known as endorphins, I don’t keep up. But the effect is real. In my opinion the primary symptom of endorphins is euphoria. That’s what I felt after PT that day and after morning runs, that’s what I felt when I got to my desk after workouts at Redken, and that’s what I felt when I sat down to study computer programming after riding the stationary bike at home.
It’s not all endorphins of course. You get oxygen back into your blood and poisons flushed out, giving you get several hours of feeling a lot better than you would have if you’d just sat around. And most importantly of all maybe, the bad thoughts and feelings that were in your head when you started the workout are gone. And for me, ever since that first day of first grade, an upset stomach and anxiety are closely related. If I’m anxious, I have an upset stomach and if I have an upset stomach, I’m anxious. Unless you’re actually sick or stuffed, a workout will take care of that for you. So if you want a tool to fight anxiety and probably depression, exercise is it. And if you can find something that’s as much fun as JumpRock is for me, you’ve got it made.
I don’t think it’s an exagerration to say exercise made my life worth living at age 65, and not just because I’m in good shape but just as much because it helps me keep my demons at bay. My life turned out great in spite of myself. If you have any of the same problems, I hope this article helps yours to turn out great as well.