Reshaping the Shape-Shifters

30 Dec

mental illness

This is a blog entry I never thought I would write.

One thing that everyone who knows me is clear on is that I value my privacy. Highly. Like, REALLY highly. I refuse to have a personal Facebook page, I close the curtains long before it even gets dark, and I choose my confidantes as though they may one day have my life in their hands. Because they just may.

So it goes against my nature to publicly share something as personal as my own overlapping medical conditions. But the point of this blog is to share information about fitness and exercise, and to remind us all that every day is a challenge AND an opportunity. So here I am, writing a public blog about…me. This is really weird.

About 2 years ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroid disease. Long story short: my thyroid anti-bodies are constantly attacking my thyroid itself, making it extremely difficult for it to do its job and regulate my metabolism appropriately. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, difficulty controlling body weight, stiffness and pain in joints and muscles, some muscle weakness, and depression.

Just as I was figuring out how to work within the confines of my Hashimoto’s, I was diagnosed with a genetic mutation called MTHFR. (My nurse practitioner conveniently pointed out that while MTHFR technically stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, it may also stand for “motherfucker.” I think she’s on to something.) Symptoms here include chronic anemia, an increased risk of cardiovascular events and dementia, blood clotting, and depression and other mental diseases.

You might notice that depression is on both of these lists. And that’s the piece I’m actually writing about today: mental illness. Our otherwise modern society still fosters so much anachronistic stigma around mental illness, and it’s so hurtful to so many people. Having depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia shouldn’t feel any more embarrassing than having diabetes or osteoporosis or shin splints. And yet, we still treat these things differently, as though it is somehow someone’s fault they have a mental illness. As though it is my fault that I have one. It’s not. But I do.

I have had major depression for well over a decade now. Some of it is definitely hereditary, and some of it undoubtedly comes from my aforementioned dual-diagnosis. I guess its origin doesn’t really matter much in the day-to-day maintenance of it. I just know I have to keep a close eye on it, because mental illnesses are absolutely shape-shifters: as soon as I think I know what mine feels like and looks like, it changes itself up and becomes something just different enough that I don’t notice it until it slaps me upside the head and I have no choice but to pay attention. At first, my depression was the garden variety type: lack of energy, hopelessness, wanting to just hide under the covers all day. Then I started getting pseudo-manic episodes during which I would do things like uproot 20-year old shrubs (with 20-year old root systems) from the front yard with my bare hands; I felt like if I stopped moving, even for a minute, I would literally die. Lately my depression has introduced me to the fascinating world of acute anxiety attacks, the type that leave me gasping for air and sweating and clutching my Ativan bottle. I have, at various times, been utterly self-destructive in my mental illness.

To be perfectly clear, mental illness sucks. It sucks hard. And sometimes it feels like all the pharmaceutical advances in the world can’t make a dent in the desolation it creates.

But make no mistake: I’m not writing this because I have a sudden need for a pity party, or because I have decided I look good in righteous over-sharing. I’m writing it because even with the seriousness of my illness, I have found some kind of hope worth passing on. And of all places, I found it on a treadmill.

There is a growing body of research that proves what many people have understood for years: exercise is a key piece in the treatment of mental illness. KEY. I’m not saying a bench press can cure schizophrenia or that enough squats can cure bipolar; exercise can’t guarantee a clean bill of mental health any more than it can guarantee a clean bill of physical health. But it can help – it DOES help. It’s a bit of a paradox, because when depression really attacks, the last thing anybody wants to do is throw on some trainers and head to the gym; it literally feels like a Herculean task. But on the depressed days I can force myself to do it, I never, ever regret it, and I have never once not left the gym feeling significantly better than when I got there.

I’m a bit of a wellness autodidact, so the science isn’t intuitive to me. But here’s what I have learned:

• Even a moderate 15 minutes of exercise will immediately release endorphins into the system, which create feelings of happiness and even euphoria. They don’t last forever, but when it comes to managing depression, “forever” isn’t usually the goal – it’s more about getting through the next hour. Endorphins are a no-brainer way to make that happen. In fact, recent studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as SSRI’s in managing depression;
• Exercise also increases the body’s concentration of norepinephrine, which is a chemical that helps moderate stress levels. For those of us who also struggle with anxiety, norepinephrine is a godsend;
• Exercise has also been proven to boost overall brain function by increasing the body’s levels of BDNF (brain-derived proteins), and it works with the hippocampus to improve memory and slow down the overall brain degeneration that happens naturally with age;
• Finally, exercise can reset the circadian rhythms of the body, which regulate sleep patterns, among other things.

All of this science is directly relevant and beneficial to people suffering from mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety disorders. I have to remind myself of this on a regular basis, because the tough reality is this: I’m a person with a mental illness first, and a person trainer second. I was reminded of this fact just this past week, when I had an anxiety attack in the middle of a training session, the event that prompted me to write this blog entry. Like I said, shape-shifters.

I don’t know if I would have a mental illness if I didn’t have Hashimoto’s Disease, or if I didn’t have MTHFR. But what I know is that I do have a mental illness, and that it requires constant supervision, constant compassion, and regular body movement. I can’t cure my illness through exercise. But if I can reshape my brain’s own shape-shifters by creating new neuropathways, one hour at a time, then I can survive. And surviving is the first step to thriving.

Lily-Rygh Glen

Look it up

22 Nov

                                            nothing looks as good


I read an article recently, illuminating the link between obesity in women and occurrences of endometrial cancer, that really pissed me off. The article highlighted a researcher named Dr. Elisa Bandera, of Rutgers University, who is quoted as saying, “Women who are obese have two to three times the rate of endometrial cancer. People who are more active regularly tend to have a decreased rate of endometrial cancer.”

And here is where I take issue with this obviously well-intended article: why is it that even doctors, doctors who are pioneering research on the links between obesity and various medical conditions, still assume that obesity and inactivity are one in the same, as though one automatically represents or explains the other?

If Dr. Bandera had said something like, “People who have lower body weight tend to have a decreased rate of endometrial cancer,” I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But the fact is that even a knowledgeable doctor is using “obesity” and “inactivity” as weirdly-inappropriate little synonyms.

The fact is, they aren’t. Sure, one can make a reasonable argument that most people who are regularly active in their bodies aren’t obese, because regular activity (or at least regular strenuous activity) is going to entail the burning of calories, etc. But nothing is one size fits all, including the body’s response to activity (or inactivity, for that matter). As a personal trainer, I work with quite a few women who would be considered clinically obese. For that matter, I’m pretty sure that I,myself, am clinically obese! And yet, we are showing up to the gym and working our asses off, sweating and grunting and lifting to muscle fatigue, all in an attempt to gain that precious and valuable lean muscle mass…you know, the stuff that works to ward off, let’s say, cancer! My clients aren’t what I would call “inactive.” And neither am I.

So the article becomes confusing, in that I wonder if the real link is between cancer and obesity, or cancer and inactivity? There is a growing school of thought around the links between obesity and diabetes (A/K/A The Holy Grail of Fat Shaming), a link that is considered virtually sacrosanct in the media and in society at large. These new medical researchers and thinkers are questioning if it’s the state of obesity that lends itself to diabetes, or the lack of lean muscle mass that often (but not always) accompanies obesity. (If this argument can happen around diabetes links to obesity, it can and should surely be happening with cancer links as well.) And while it sounds like a bit of a “chicken and egg” semantic argument, it’s really more fundamental than that. Because this argument is the one that will ultimately determine if it’s possible, even theoretically, to be both fat and healthy.

I believe that it is. I believe that muscle mass and stamina and endurance and agility are possible at any size and at every shape. I believe it’s possible to be both obese and active, because I am surrounded by the people who prove me right every day. I believe it’s high time that the medical establishment get its act together and start using its words more carefully and precisely.

At its best, this article is confusing and therefore not very helpful. But at its worst, it’s adding fuel to the fat-shaming fire, a conflagration that, frankly, doesn’t need any more stoking. Inactivity is one word. Obesity is another. There’s a reason they have two different entries in the dictionary. Maybe it’s time for the medical establishment to look it up.

Lily-Rygh Glen
Flexible Fitness

Here’s the original article, if you’re interested:

The Best Part

21 Sep

crater lake

Last weekend I did something I had been wanting to do for almost 7 years: I went to Crater Lake. For those of you who don’t live in Oregon, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, formed at the top of a volcano, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. I guess I had imagined driving around the rim, talking photos from the air-conditioned comfort of a running car, watching other people do whatever it is that other people do.

What I hadn’t imagined was actually getting out of the car, walking around, climbing up on rocks and tree stumps to get the best views. I hadn’t imagined actually BEING at Crater Lake, only, I dunno, seeing it, like some sort of real-life post card.

But when I spent time there last weekend, I found myself fully engaged with the experience. I DID climb up on things to get better views. I DID pay such close attention to the smell of the air and the color of the water. Basically, I wanted to be IN that experience, not watch other people be in it.

And that’s when it occurred to me that I had discovered the very best part of the fitness journey I’ve been on for the last 2 1/2 years. I mean, it’s been gratifying to lose some unwanted weight, and to notice triceps where I had never felt muscles before, and to complete a triathlon and a marathon. Of course that’s been rewarding and inspiring and has its own intrinsic value. But somewhere along the line, I think I forgot the whole point: to be able to live life fully, without feeling held back by my body. I forgot that I first hired and trainer and went to a gym because I was sick of feeling like I didn’t have a place in the world, like my body was holding me back from the things I wanted to do. I was tired of hearing about people doing all these fun things like hiking and kayaking and camping and traveling, and bemoaning the fact that I was too out-of-shape to do them, too. Eventually, I got tired of telling myself that I would do those things One Day, when I had lost enough weight or gained enough endurance or felt just a little bit more comfortable in my skin. One Day, I would actually be alive instead of just living.

Fuck that.

Because here’s the real truth: There’s no such thing as One Day, not in the way I meant it. There is no day during which we are perfectly ready to tackle the world. There is no such thing as waking up feeling 100% strong enough and pretty enough and capable enough and smart enough and talented enough and and and and… There’s just today, this day, the day we’ve been given. Right now. And that’s plenty good enough.

I don’t think I would have realized that without my fitness journey. Getting stronger physically has allowed me to appreciate my body in ways I never thought I would. I still have a lot of extra weight I would like to lose, and I still have areas of my body that need more strength development. And you know what? Who cares. WHO CARES. Because I had the energy and the agility and the confidence to run around that mountaintop, in awe of the amazing beauty of Crater Lake, and that experience felt like it belonged to me every bit as much it belonged to everybody else. It felt miraculous and liberating and perfect. And it was absolutely the best part.

Lily-Rygh Glen

What’s More Important?

4 Sep

This is what $380 looks like

I had an experience today that’s got me thinking.

I was recently told that I needed a blood test to determine if I have a rather ominous-sounding genetic mutation that could pretty drastically alter the rest of my life. My nurse practitioner stressed its importance, so I never considered not getting it done. I also never considered that my insurance wouldn’t cover it.

Welcome to the medical industrial complex.

When I finished the blood draw and the receptionist handed me a bill for $380, due immediately, I almost cried. $380 is a lot of money, particularly for someone whose business is in its infancy and nowhere near profitable. I handed over my “for emergencies only” credit card, fake smiling and panic-stricken, already thinking about cutting yet more corners and pinching yet more pennies. Feeling a bit sorry for myself, I texted a wise and honest friend who replied, immediately and succinctly, “that sucks, but what’s more important?”

She was right. I mean, what is more important than taking care of my health? What possible could be? Absolutely nothing, of course. Nothing at all.

And yet, how few of us actually prioritize preventative healthcare? How many of us easily spend $100 a month going out to dinner and to movies and to concerts, but consider $30 too much to spend for a gym membership? How many of us happily fork over $7 for a latte but won’t spend an extra $3 for organic vegetables…or on any produce at all! How many of us get downright giddy over a $40 pedicure but won’t spend $40 to work with a personal trainer? When did honest-to-God healthcare become a less justifiable expenditure than a night drinking PBR tallboys at The Doug Fir?

I’m not talking about people who simply don’t have discretionary income – as Grandma used to say, you can’t get blood from a turnip. I get it, and I don’t expect anyone to buy a set of dumb bells and a hula hoop at the expense of making rent. But for those people who are lucky enough to have more than what they need to cover the essentials, when did actual healthcare (not all the psychosomatic, trendy Celiac diseases or the “I only eat local food but drive around in a Toyota” menus) become less important than a weekend at the Coast?

I realize I’m standing on a rather obvious soapbox here, and I may be preaching to the choir. But I consider myself a member of that choir, and I still needed today’s reminder: no matter what else I would like to do with my money, there’s nothing I NEED to do with it more than protect my health. In my NP’s office, in the gym, in my dentist’s chair… there is simply nothing more important.

Lily-Rygh Glen

Everyone’s Worst Nightmare

15 Aug

I had a conversation the other day that really threw me for a loop.

I was talking with a friend who is the personification of a Portland woo-woo type: she gives astrological readings, knows a practicing shaman, assumes all jerks are really just hurting people with no healthy outlet for their pain, and always wears comfortable shoes. I don’t know that I have ever heard her pass actual judgment on anyone.

We were discussing a friend of mine who is really having a horrible time controlling her weight, to the point that her life is in rather immediate danger because of it. I was sharing my fears for my friend, wishing I could do more to help her, and talking about how desperately hard it is to feel that you are so out of synch with your own body. Her response was as surprising to me as it was profound:

“It’s everyone’s worst nightmare, to be fat.”

She said it like it was a given, a foregone conclusion that the worst possible fate that could befall anyone was to be fat. She said it as thought it was emotionally sensitive. She said it as though it was apolitical. She said it as though I wasn’t fat!

The sad thing is that a lot of people, far more than I care to admit, would probably agree with her. I remember reading about a study many years ago, in which elementary school children were shown drawings of 5 or 6 different kids: one was blonde, one was black, one was in a wheelchair, one was short, and yes, one was fat. The test subjects were asked which of the kids in the drawings they would like to be friends with. In every single case, the fat kid was chosen last. While sad, this is unfortunately not all that surprising. I mean, we all say it: kids can be mean.

But it was shocking to hear such a hardcore sentiment coming from an otherwise intelligent, sensitive, savvy woman. “Everyone’s worst nightmare.” I mean, really? Worse than, I don’t know, being paralyzed in a freak accident? Worse than losing your family in a car crash? Worse than being caught in an earthquake or a tsunami? Worse than Asthma or Arthritis or Cancer or Herpes? Worse than weekly dialysis or chemotherapy? Worse than telling your legs to move while they sit stubbornly still? Worse than watching someone play a guitar without being able to hear it? I mean, come on – there are a lot of deeply shitty things that can and do happen to people. Being fat is the worst of them?

As a fat person, I don’t think so. And that’s why I go to the gym and work out at home and walk marathons and lift weights: because all of those things could happen to me, at any given time, and I want to live as fully as I can, while I can. The truth is that being fat is a detriment only when it comes to being a fashion model; I don’t see myself on the cover of Vogue anytime soon. You can still be healthy and strong and capable in a fat body. There’s no need to put off going to the gym until you lose weight. There’s no reason to think you can’t do distance fitness events. There’s nothing stopping a fat body from being a healthy, fit, active body.

Because at the end of the day, not being able to move my body at all, not having the choice to be active…that is my worst nightmare.

Lily-Rygh Glen


Found Exercise

18 Apr

“Find what you love, and do it.” Sounds like just some cheesy slogan on a poster hanging in a high school career counselor’s office, complete with a visual of some hiker on top of a mountain. While it’s a laudable professional goal, few of us actually get to earn our money doing something we love. But this cliché slogan can be redeemed from its relative futility, because it is also perhaps the most oft-repeated exercise advice. In this case, however, it’s true and reasonable and attainable.

A long-term commitment to exercise requires a lot of experimentation, repeated kicking of the tires, in order to find what feels good to you, today. Typically, it may not have anything to do with what feels good to you tomorrow. So it’s important to have a lot of tools in your proverbial belt. And while variety is the key, one thing needs to be consistent: find what you love, and do it.

Let me be clear what I mean by this. I’m not talking about going into a gym, trying a few grueling things, and deciding what you can tolerate, what is bearable. This isn’t about choosing a chest press over a lateral tricep press. It’s not about deciding on crunches instead of push-ups…unless you actually enjoy chest presses and crunches, in which case, knock yourself out. Because while some of us may develop a love for gyms and weight lifting and repetative cardio, many of us never do. And that’s okay, because there’s a whole world of possibilities out there.

I, personally, love a good, old-fashioned skull crusher. But you know what I love more? Roller skating. There. I said it. Not an official “exercise,” not anything the bodybuilders at my gym would recognize as a viable alternative to a leg press or time on a rowing machine. But my experience tells me that it elevates my heart rate for long stretches of time, it works my quads like gang-busters, it forces my balance to take center stage, and I laugh like a fool while I’m doing it. In other words, I am getting great physical benefit while actually having fun! Find what you love, and do it.

I like to call this type of thing Found Exercise. Much like found art, found exercise is a happy accident or a coincidence. Or maybe it’s an activity that you deliberately set out to do because it’s fun, and then you get the added benefit of increased fitness. Roller skating is a great example. So is trampolining, even bowling. (My motto: the more ridiculous, the better!) Of course there are things like tennis and softball and football and soccer. But there’s also less obvious things, like gardening and water balloon fights and even shopping! Does it elevate your heart rate for 20 minutes at a stretch? Do you feel your muscles engage and maybe even burn? Do you find yourself feeling muscle fatigue the next day? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then congratulations – you have just exercised! You found what you loved, and you did it.

Keep doing it,
Lily-Rygh Glen

Day 1

6 Apr

I met Ann a couple of months ago.  She was walking around the gym with this completely bewildered look on her face.  Her eyebrows were crunched up and she was obviously concentrating on something, yet she wasn’t looking at anything specific.  I recognized that face immediately: it is the face of “this is my first time at the gym and while I want quite desperately to know what to do with all this stuff, the truth is I have no earthly idea.”  I immediately took pity, introduced myself, and offered to show her around the gym.  I lead her through a mini-workout that day, and the relief on her face was immediate and palpable.   She thanked me profusely and then I left.

I hadn’t seen her since that first encounter, but because my schedule changes all the time, I didn’t think anything of it; I assumed she was coming to the gym when I wasn’t there.  Then I saw her yesterday.  She was warming up on the treadmill and immediately gave me this big, radiant smile.  She victoriously exclaimed, “I’m here!”  She went on to explain that since that first day we met, she hadn’t been back to the gym at all.  “I really wanted to come, but my depression kicked in and I just couldn’t.  I tried, but…I just couldn’t.”  She said all of this with a look of resignation on her face – not sadness or even regret, just an acknowledgement of what had happened.  We ended up having a lengthy talk about how vile depression really is, in that the best thing for it is to be active, but activity is about the last thing you can contemplate when you’re depressed. It’s the ultimate vicious cycle of mental health.

But her depression had lifted and she was there, in the gym, because she now could be.  She was obviously proud of herself and ready to get started on improving her health, despite the delay.  She didn’t express any shame about her setback, just a determination to do what she could, when she could.

I think most of us have something to learn from Ann, myself included.  So many of us tend to get down on ourselves for the things we didn’t do: we didn’t work out today, we didn’t make the best choices at dinner, we didn’t respond as we wish we had when somebody told that offensive joke, we didn’t blahblahblah.  And while it’s important to take stock of the choices we’d like to make differently in the future, what I love about Ann is that she simple saw her choice to stay home and take care of herself as a necessary choice that eventually lead her to where she wanted to be: in that gym, on that treadmill, on that day.  She could have very easily allowed herself to spiral, used her depression as an excuse to never go to the gym at all, even when she was feeling better.  She could have guilt-tripped herself into thinking that she was a failure, allowed herself to be embarrassed, and just given up.  Worst of all, she could have engaged in what I call DET, or Donut Equivalency Thinking: “I already blew my meal plan by eating an extra carrot, so I might as well just eat this box of donuts.”   [Fact: I actually did this once, as a 17-year old bulimic who was constantly fighting against my body.  You really can’t make this shit up.]

But she didn’t do any of this.  She just showed up, when she could, with this really infectious pride and excitement.  She seemed to understand that today, like every day, is an opportunity to start over, to make great choices, to empower herself despite her imperfections and the previous opportunities of which she wasn’t able to take advantage.  She obviously understands that guilt is useless and shame is counterproductive.  She just gets it.  And it was an inspiring reminder to me, someone who is completely committed to my physical and mental fitness, but who still has those days of not quite getting it right.

So this is just a simple reminder:  Today is yet one more chance to get it right, whatever “right” is to you.  For Ann, and for all of us, Today is Day 1.