A2A, 38 mile finish line; 2011

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Relationship Status: "It's Complicated"

Like most people I know, my relationship with food is complex. One part of my brain fully realizes that food is simply fuel to make my body perform efficiently. The right fuel will create the best possible performance and keep my bones, muscles, and tissues healthy: while the wrong fuel will make me fat, slow, and cause health problems. I know this. It's the emotional and psychological connections to food that trip me up every time. In times of stress or depression I turn to food for comfort and relief. Certain seasons bring a sense of nostalgia and I long to re-create those times with certain foods; the smell of mom's rice meatballs simmering in a rich tomato based stew takes me back to my childhood so fast it makes my head spin. It's a nice place to visit, so I want to go there. My addiction to coffee is also primarily psychological - although I have to come realize that I'm actually addicted to the flavored creamer more so than the actual coffee. 

I've been making gradual changes over the years though. About 2 years ago I made the decision to give up fast food. No more McDonalds, or Burger King, or Wendy's, or Taco Bell. The primary reason with that wasn't just the complete unhealthiness of the food, it was also the quality. I was beginning to understand that cheap, low quality food is just plain nasty. For the most part I also gave up soda; although I would on occasion give into the craving for a Coke or a Mr. Pibb. If I ate out, I would eat someplace like Chipotle - it's a little bit better quality. 

As I've gotten older, my digestive system has gotten a lot more... Sensitive. The acid reflux kicked in about 2 years ago and has been a definite battle. At first I refused to change my diet to accommodate this issue. So a lot of my suffering was more than likely my own fault. A turning point was one night while having a 'movie and finger food night' (finger foods being all of those nasty processed frozen snack foods that you buy from the grocery store. Talk about low quality!) I was eating pepperoni pizza rolls. The next 2 days were pure agony. I have not touched a pizza roll since; and that was a bit of a wake up call. I need to pay attention to what I eat or else I am going to pay for it.

I would do okay for a while; preparing food at home, packing my lunches and avoiding sweets and overly processed foods. But I never took it that one step further (reading labels on things like salad dressing and coffee creamer - two of my favorite things) and I would always fall off the wagon. It would start slow, usually because I would get burned out or lazy. Prepping food is time consuming. Sometimes it's just easier to order a pizza. Or grab a frozen meal out of the freezer. It's mindless. And that's dangerous. 

About 2 weeks ago, I noticed that I was feeling really sluggish and sick, with a complete lack of energy. I was feeling unmotivated and lazy; and I had no desire to exercise. My clothes were fitting tight and I had that awesome thing known as a muffin top.... So I took a look at my diet. Yep. Eating out almost every day, eating convenience foods, sweets, and I was up to 5-6 cups of coffee a DAY - each cup laden with tons of flavored coffee creamer. My body was telling me 'DUDE. This is so NOT COOL' in some rather unpleasant ways. So I listened. And I decided to dedicate myself to clean eating once more. This time, however, I need to take it that extra step further, and I also need to find some new options to shake things up and keep me interested. My primary goal is to cut down on the amount of processed sugar I eat every day. Along with that is the artificial ingredients. I have also opted to give up red meat.

Even though I am one of those weird people who can eat the same thing every day for weeks at a time; even I get bored with my food choices after a while. I've been doing egg whites and fruit for breakfast for years and I was so bored with that. So I've switched to plain Greek yogurt with some organic granola and fresh raspberries. I'm still getting my protein (18 grams) but it also feels like I'm eating something decadent. (After I got used to the lack of flavor and tartness of the plain yogurt that is.) It's a refreshing change. When I do eat my egg whites, I add some fresh spinach and cilantro; that kicked them up a bit. I have not been able to quit the coffee 100% yet, but I am down to one cup a day with minimal creamer. Just until I lose the taste for the creamer. Then I'll switch to half and half or skim milk. (Hopefully. I have NEVER been successful at that.) For now I am happy to be at one cup instead of six.

My second challenge was salad dressing. The good news is that once I have my conscious brain aware of something I'm trying to avoid (high fructose corn syrup for example) as soon as I see that ingredient on a label I feel an aversion to the item and I put it back. Same with partially hydrogenated oil. (I switched coffee creamer brands due to that ingredient.) But salad dressing was a big one. I have a particular brand I like and when I actually read the label I was dismayed to see high fructose corn syrup. So I went on a quest to find a recipe for a salad dressing I can make myself. I found one. I've modified it a bit to suit my own taste (it called for minced garlic but I didn't like that, so now I omit that. It also calls for a teaspoon of white sugar, I added fresh berries for sweetness instead.) It's basically non-fat buttermilk, raspberry balsamic vinegar, some fresh basil and fresh raspberries blended together until smooth. It's fantastic! Hallelujah. 

I still have a lot of things I need to work past. I hate vegetables - so yeah. Major stumbling block. I'm finding ways to sneak them into things (like protein shakes) to hide them, but eventually I want to get to a point where I just eat the damn things. I also despise seafood, so that limits my protein choices a bit. I am giving tofu a try, so far it's been meh. But I won't give up. I have a great recipe for Tilapia that I want to try once I convince my brain that I don't hate fish....

Like any other journey, this one is off to a hesitant start. I'm learning. Modifying. Giving things up in exchange for feeling better. I've already lost 3 pounds and I haven't even been exercising - that is JUST from the diet change. However weight loss isn't my goal here, to be quite honest my primary goal is digestive health. Then overall health. Then fuel for workouts. I want to be healthy and fit. And that begins with fuel. I want to get to a point where I don't say I 'can't' eat that but I 'don't' eat that. I want to find comfort in other things besides cupcakes and Halloween candy. Maybe seeing abs for the first time EVER when I look in the mirror would do the trick...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Bipolar Hitchhiker

A lot of people tell me that they admire the fact that I am completely open and forthcoming when it comes to the fact that I have a mental illness. I've had negative reactions as well - but tend to not focus on those because when it comes right down to it - I couldn't really give a fuck what people think of me anyway. I am who I am, I am WHAT I am - and part of it is due to the bipolar. I am an unmedicated bipolar 2, which means I lean more towards the depressive cycles with some cycles of hypomania. Hypomania is a 'gentler' ride than full blown mania. For the most part my hypomanic episodes are like frenzied bursts of energy and creativity, and I usually enjoy them. The depressive cycles aren't too bad - usually I just feel quiet and mellow, a lower energy level, an increased sensitivity to the world around me; and a desire to be introspective and introverted. I also have a tendency to rapid cycle; which basically means mood swings. Not fun, but usually brief and bearable. It was not always like this for me though.

In the past I have had a couple of episodes of full blown mania where I probably should have been hospitalized - and had I been properly diagnosed I most certainly would have been. As it were, I rode them out completely alone and completely oblivious. My version of full blown mania is not fun - it's a terrifying mix of paranoia, agitation, and insomnia. I'm grateful that I have managed to get my life to a point where I am able to avoid those types of upswings. The deep, dark depressive cycles have been a much more frequent part of my past, weeks spent sleeping my life away, not eating, not showering; not caring about anything except escaping from my pain. This too - is no longer a part of my cycles. Thankfully... 

I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in July 2000 and immediately put on Lithium and Zyprexa. I had complete trust and faith that my doctor knew what he was doing, and that he was going to fix me. I was completely shattered at that point - just two years prior I had endured the devastating losses of my brother and my mom. In hindsight, I honestly believe I would have benefited from just TALKING to someone. But as I was quick to learn, psychiatrists LOVE throwing the latest and greatest drugs at desperate people. Within a month I had gained 50 lbs, I had a constant tremor in my hands, I had hallucinations, panic attacks, and nightmares. I had choking fits that started for no reason and lasted until I almost passed out from lack of air. I had hair loss and uncontrollable muscle contractions. In August 2000, I had a full blown meltdown. I was completely unable to drive, work, or even THINK. I knew it was the medications so I begged my doctor to take me off of them and put me on something else. I had been reading about a drug called Lamictal and thought it would work better for me. My doctor accused me of being 'paranoid' and told me to stop researching the medications and just take them. That, my friends, is red flag #1. YOU are the first and foremost advocate for your own health and well being. NEVER just take a drug without doing some research first. 

I struggled for years after that. Going from doctor to doctor, one drug cocktail after another; sacrificing my identity and my humanity to achieve society's version of 'normal'. Instead, I became a dried out husk; a sun-bleached bone with no blood or marrow to nourish my soul. I felt no joy, no sorrow, no happiness; nothing. The list of physical side effects I experienced is endless - to this DAY I still experience some of them (panic attacks and involuntary muscle contractions for example.) In 2006, I decided I'd have enough. I weaned myself off of all medications and embraced the bipolar. I figured if I could not slay the dragon without sacrificing my identity, then maybe I could at least find some way to co-exist with it.

The key to co-existence is stability. As long as my life remains relatively routine and predictable; then so do my cycles. One monkey wrench in the works and I could completely lose my balance. Because I'm not completely stifled by drugs I still cycle -albeit a lot more gently. But the trade-off is that I am completely and fully alive, and in tune with my surroundings. When on an upswing, I experience life at a deeper level. Everything is more vivid; colors, music, foods. I feel like I am submerged in it - not merely existing along side it. I feel a sense of euphoria that 'normal' people take street drugs to experience. When on a downswing I feel quiet. A soft blanket of melancholy envelopes me and keeps me earth bound. I get introspective, and I feel more empathetic and connected to the quiet things. The gentle things. I don't mind it, I just don't like how low my energy level gets. This is when it is hardest for me to maintain any level of physical activity. But I'll take that over being an unfeeling zombie any day.

I have a lot of friends who are Bipolar. We tend to gravitate towards each other. I totally get that many of them do much better on the medications and that is wonderful. The drugs made things so much worse for me though. People with mental illnesses should always explore ALL of their options before settling on one. Vitamin deficiencies, poor nutrition, stress, lack of exercise - these things can exacerbate or even CAUSE symptoms of depression or mania. Pay attention to your body. Sometimes just a minor correction to a hormone or a vitamin can help tremendously! (I found that I leveled out even MORE once I was also correctly diagnosed with hypothyroid and put on Armour thyroid. My hysterectomy also helped.) Like it or not, this little hitchhiker is along for the entire ride that is my life. It makes aspects of  my life a little more challenging sure, but it also makes other aspects a lot richer. I embrace and accept who I am - finally.