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Why the Incredible Hulk is a Poor Role Model for Stress Management

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In a previous post, I made the argument that post-apocalyptic strategies for motivation like inducing the fight-or-flight response, our bodies’ emergency system reserved for life-or-death situations, is not the most efficient use of our psychological energy. It is akin to setting off the fire alarm in your house to wake up in the morning.

Despite its inefficiency, it is still our go-to response. Perhaps it’s a product of our culture, where being stressed and overworked is a sign of being important. We’re always rushing to meetings, trying to make deadlines, eating lunch while we work.

Perhaps it’s because we value the warrior mentality. We like the idea that we can push ourselves to the limit, overcoming Mother Nature, physical exhaustion, and psychological duress. This is the premise behind many reality TV shows. It’s what makes sports and war movies entertaining.

I, too, like the thrill of pushing myself to the limit. I take great pride in channeling my inner warrior on the court. Which I did last night in the deciding game in our tennis match. And it was worth it, because now my team advances to districts.

Even the role models for our children idealize using extreme psychological states for motivation. Take, for example, the Incredible Hulk. In the TV series (my favorite version), the Incredible Hulk got his powers from a Jekyll and Hyde-type experiment in which Dr. David Banner was trying to figure out how to summon superhuman strength after his wife died in a car accident. However, his attempt to capitalize on the fight-or-flight response lead to an accidental overexposure to gamma radiation. Afterwards, whenever he became angry, the ordinarily mild-mannered Banner turned into the gigantic green creature with superhuman strength that we know and love.

In addition to his less than desirable appearance, the other drawback to the radiation overdose is that his rage is uncontrollable and usually leads to random mass destruction. Luckily, most of the time his rage hits the target and the bad guys pay the price. But it is far from an effective strategy for what Banner had originally sought, which was the power to save lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the Incredible Hulk. I loved the TV show. I’ve even seen several of the movies. And, admittedly, a mentally stable person who is committed to self-care and psychological energy conservation probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting Marvel comic book hero. Certainly not someone you would put on a t-shirt.

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But in real life, having a superhero complex is detrimental to your well-being. I’ve spent my life trying to save my family, friends, romantic partners, and clients. Sometimes even random strangers who happen to attend a presentation. It’s pretty taxing. It has lead to numerous depressive and anxiety episodes. I don’t recommend it.

Despite my commitment to non-catostrophic motivational strategies, I’m still prone to pushing myself to the limit over things that are not life-or-death. Like playing tennis 7 days in a row in 100 degree weather for no good reason. Still, I am more selective about who I try to save, what fires I choose to put out, and what challenges are worth taking on. And it has really helped with my depression and anxiety.

So it turns out that giving up post-apocalyptic strategies has been a life-saver.

No Way Out

Last week I gave you my reflections on my brother’s heart surgery. Today he’s feeling well enough to share what this ordeal was like for him in an effort to share his epiphany: regardless of what you may have to lose in the process, it’s always worth it to choose life.

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In “The Walking Dead” Season 6 debut, former allies Rick Grimes & Morgan Jones share an uneasy reunion. “I’m sorry for all this,” Rick says to Morgan, shyly apologizing for having to lock his old friend into a cell until he can get the man acclimated to the new community he has just joined. Holding no grudges, Morgan replies: “It’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.”

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Fast forward to August 30, 2016. I’ve missed a couple of days at a new job. Inexplicably, I can never feel fully rested & suffer from painful gas that seems to get stuck in my chest. After weeks of combating my symptoms with sleep, stubborn cardio workouts, & Gas-X—something told me I needed a different approach this time. So I call out sick & plan to see a doctor in order to get an excuse for a couple of days & a prescription for some real medicine. Because of my reference to “chest pains”, the walk-in clinic refused to see me & referred me to the ER instead. “This will be an expensive bottle of Tums,” I thought to myself, the seriousness of my situation not yet setting in. A day later, I’m in a hospital room in my region’s premiere facility for heart surgeries. I’m told I have severe blockage in the arteries feeding my heart. They need to operate on me—TOMORROW. Doctors, nurse practitioners, & everyone who has seen my test results regard me with such astonishment. They wonder aloud how I’d been walking around.

“Oh great,” I think to myself. I’m going to have to call work again. They’re going to think I’m playing hooky.” I must have still been in emotional shock. That night, my stunned older sister calls me & tells me to quit my job—to stop forcing myself through unduly stressful challenges. “They don’t care about you! They don’t appreciate you! They have no idea how valuable you are! You don’t owe them another minute of your time. You hear me? NOT A MINUTE!” She also brought up examples of other people who should have been more concerned with my current crisis than they appeared to be. She wondered why I wasn’t more disappointed.

In hindsight, it was probably because I knew I didn’t have time to be disappointed. It was all happening so fast. I came in for painful gas, maybe some acid reflux, & they offer me open heart surgery instead. My head must have been spinning. But on some level, I knew there was no time to be disappointed or sad—it was time to be strong. Resolved. Focused. That was it. “I’ll be fine,” I reassured the only member of my family who, at that point, seemed to acknowledge the gravity of my current crisis–including me. “I have to go. The nurses just told me I had to take 2 showers with surgical soap; the first one tonight before bed.” It was already past 11 pm. It had been a long day; & the next day would be worse. I rang the nurse to get me unhooked so that I could take this shower with “surgical soap” & about 5 different washcloths intended for different regions of my body.

“Did you sleep well?” The surgeon asked me around the crack of dawn. “Yes I did,” I replied. He was stunned & said so out loud. Truth be told, I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. And it was probably better that way. Had the details of what was about to happen been revealed earlier, I probably would have escaped! The surgery was nerve-racking. I actually woke up a couple of times after the surgical team had injected me with anasthesia. I saw myself in that horrifying environment under the blue surgical shroud. I had seen things that I had never asked to see. But the aftermath was the worst. I wouldn’t wish my experience on a sworn enemy—not even the Devil himself! I’m sure the Devil deserves punishment; but what kind is not for me to decide. Holed up in bed over the next 3 days in a state of constant discomfort, I realized how the powers both to inflict pain & subdue it are both sacred & require severe checks & balances.

I’m 40. If you saw me on the street, you’d think I look closer to 20. Yet here I was. A “kid” facing “real man” problems. But I’m recovering quickly. My vitals are consistently good. Even in the hospital, the staff seemed surprised at how well I was handling recovery. “If this is what you call ‘good’ I’d hate to see what you call ‘bad.’ “ They’d laugh at me. It was just humbling for me to be so dependent on so many people for so many things.

I always thought of myself as “tough,” but I never really knew for sure. Even after what I went through, I don’t feel tough or brave or strong. In fact, when I think about how severe the pain was & how terrifying everything seemed & how long the discomfort lingered long after the the violent pain had dissipated, I marvel that I got through at all! It took a lot of intervention from my Creator, but also some personal resolve. This wasn’t a challenge that I chose for myself; but once recognized, I was seeing it through. I was strong & brave not because I am all the time, but because I had to be right then.

Like Morgan said, “Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.” Yes, well said, Morgan. All life truly is precious. Given everything I’ve had to endure over the last 2 weeks, my life is not only precious, but sacred to me now. That was a choice that I did have to make for myself. But now that I have, I’m as happy on the inside as I’ve been in a long time–maybe ever.

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Darkness and Light, Part 3

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Now that I am at the end of my summer break, my sleep cycle is officially fully out of whack. I go to bed at 4 am and often wake up after noon. I’m getting better at not berating myself for this because this luxury is about to end in a few days. And because, since I’m a night owl, I feel the best in the wee hours in the morning. This is when I have my moments of clarity. When my demons lose their power to convince me that I suck. Ironically, for me, seeing the light happens in the darkness of night.

It got me thinking about all of the good/bad dichotomies. Darkness and light. Angels and demons. Joy and pain. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading all these books about God, trying to understand what it means to be good, and the answer seems to be to accept everything about ourselves–even our sins and our vices. I write about acceptance all the time, but I guess in my mind self-acceptance was still something more along the lines of, don’t hate this thing about yourself because it’s a part of you. But it’s still bad. I mean, how can you think of something like depression as good? How can I embrace something that causes me so much suffering?

Although lately I have had a better appreciation of my depression. I pride myself on being mentally tough–on being a warrior. My greatest strength in tennis is not my athletic ability but rather my mind. My determination to not let my opponent get in my head. To fight, even when I’m down 0-6, 0-5. To be able to see what I’ve done well in a loss and to learn from my mistakes.

One of the things I take the most pride in is that players on my team appreciate me as a captain, and continue to be on my team even if we lose every match, because they think I’m positive and encouraging. I mean, I award a Player of the Game and Honorable Mention in matches where we’ve lost 0-5. That is really looking on the bright side. But my bright side would not be possible without my dark side. My mental illness has strengthened my character. It has shaped the parts of me that people admire the most.

If boot camp prepares soldiers for war, then depression is the boot camp for hardship. When I look back on each depressive episode, I realize how strong I was, even though I thought I was weak at the time. How hard I was trying, even though I thought I was being lazy. How much hope I had that things would get better, even though a part of me was telling me to give up–that life was not worth living.

Having said all of this, I can’t say that I have fully embraced my depression. I’m not thrilled when it shows up. But I’m trying to accept it in the way people sign up for the military, knowing that it may cost them their life. Or the way that people choose to get married for richer or poorer, in sickness and health. The way parents choose to have children, knowing the heartache that comes from loving so deeply.

Joy and pain. Angels and demons. Darkness and light. I will choose all of these, because I believe our task in this life is to fully embrace what it means to be human.

Weakness? I Don’t Think So

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I talk a lot about how I pride myself on being a warrior on the tennis court. Evidenced by the fact that, despite having several conditions that lead me to throw up on the court every now and then, I continue to play. Giving up tennis is not an option.

Admittedly, sometimes I take this to an extreme. It’s probably better to retire from a match when you’re having an asthma attack. But I didn’t say it’s always smart to be a warrior. Sometimes it’s smarter to know when to walk away.

But it’s hard to know when to fight and when to accept defeat. Especially when you struggle with a mental illness. It feels like you should be able to will yourself out of it. Even though no one would accuse someone with pneumonia of being weak when they can’t will themselves out of it. But we are not always fair in our judgment of other people. Or ourselves.

It wasn’t until I started my blog 2 years ago that my family and friends found out how debilitating my depression has been at times. So I was able to hide it somewhat. Still, there were days I would wake up and know I wasn’t going to be able to go to work. No amount of shaming and screaming at myself was going make me get out of bed. So I would stay home and spend the rest of the day feeling like a loser.

If you are an avid tennis fan, then you know that Mardy Fish played his last match as a professional tennis player yesterday. It was particularly meaningful because he has not played for the past 3 years after developing panic disorder. He was unable to leave his house for 3 months. And even though his disorder is better controlled, he still has difficulty traveling and sleeping alone. So being a professional tennis player has not been an option.

Despite how paralyzing his anxiety disorder has been, Fish decided he didn’t want it to dictate how his career ended. So he faced his fears and entered the U.S. Open for one last tournament.

And what a match it was. He was serving for the match at 5-4 in the 4th set but double-faulted 3 times because of nerves. He ended up losing in the 5th set because he started cramping. Not exactly a fairy tale ending.

Still, choking and losing leads are part of the game. It happens to the best of players. Being a warrior doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win–just that you’ll fight until the bitter end. And Mardy Fish did just that.

Fish demonstrated his strength of character when he decided to end his career on his own terms. But an even greater testament to his strength is that he shared his story with the world. Our demons grow in darkness and silence. Only the most courageous are willing to show people their vulnerabilities.

Which is why those who are open about their mental illness are among the strongest people I know.

Angels and Demons

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I thought of something I can say to the part of me that tells me I’m undeserving. In fact, I say it all the time. It’s “Shut up demons! You don’t know me!”

People usually think of that little devil on our shoulder as the part of us that tells us to do something bad, like “Go kill that person!” Plus some less extreme things, like “Call that ball out! You’ll win the game!” From a mental health perspective, the devil tells clients to do things like “Get black out drunk instead of staying in to study. And then miss your therapy session so you don’t have to talk about it.”

Sometimes that little devil will disguise itself as the angel and will try to make us believe that we are doing something good when we are actually hurting ourselves. Things like “There are people starving in the world, and here you are eating all of this food that someone else needs more than you. You really shouldn’t be eating at all.” Those are the most insidious messages of all.

When I was depressed I went around yelling at my demons all the time. They were constantly telling me that I should kill myself for stupid reasons. But I didn’t want to die. I knew it wasn’t coming from me. So I would literally go around the house telling the demons to shut up. Which I found hilarious.

My psychiatrist, on the other hand, did not appreciate my sense of humor. When I told him I had started yelling at my demons, he did that stereotypical psychiatrist thing where he just looked down and wrote something on his legal pad. Probably something like “She’s f@%ing crazy!” But whatever. It worked. All that warrior training paid off.

I was really tired on Sunday and Monday. I had been obsessing about my Halloween party for weeks because I have an anxiety disorder. I am in the midst of the busiest part of the semester and rarely have an hour to myself, unless someone doesn’t show up. I’m playing on two tennis teams and am captaining one of them. And the weekend before I drove 4 hours to watch my beloved UVA team blow another lead to lose the game, which was both tiring and depressing.

So for once, when I needed to sleep all day on Sunday and a good part of the day on Monday, I did so without beating myself up about it. Without trying to will myself to be productive. Without telling myself how pathetic I am for being so tired, when the average human being wouldn’t be. Instead, I tried to take care of myself. I would ask myself things like, “What do you need right now? Are you hungry? Do you need to go back to sleep? Would it help to take Advil? How can I make you feel better?”

Sometimes the little angel on our shoulder tells us not to do bad things. But more often, in my case at least, it encourages me to be more loving to myself. So I’m going to counteract messages about being undeserving with love. And by yelling at my demons.

Inner Children and Rock Stars

Tomorrow is our annual Halloween party. Which has more recently been referred to as our annual Decade Karaoke Party since some people claim they do not like Halloween costume parties.

In a previous post, I jokingly referred to myself as a karaoke pusher, but some people have accused me of being too pushy in general. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. When I want something, I’m relentless about getting it. It’s hard for me to take no for an answer. I will guilt trip people, wear them down, and resort to psychological tactics that are empirically proven to be effective in manipulating behavior.

I confess, my relentless pursuit of what I want has contributed to problems in my relationships. In fact, I am no longer in relationships with some of my accusers, and I’m sure that my pushiness contributed at least in part to the demise of those relationships. I am trying to be less pushy, but the truth is, I really believe that I am pushing people to do something that is good for them and that they want deep down.

In the 10 years that I have been hosting karaoke parties, everyone who has claimed to hate karaoke really did have an inner rock star. Sometimes it took more time and alcohol to coax that part out of them, but it was definitely in there.

I am even more certain that everyone has an inner child, because it is impossible to be an adult without passing through childhood at some point. And what child doesn’t like dressing up in costumes? None that I know of. And again, in my experience, when I have forced people to dress up for Halloween, they always enjoyed it in the end.

And in my defense, I may be pushy, but I am also patient. I don’t care if it takes them years before they fully participate in the festivities. I’m fine with them sitting there at the party pretending not to like karaoke and costumes for as long as they want. Because that is how confident I am that I will be right in the end. I mean, they keep coming to the parties, so they can’t hate it that much.

Although I have to admit, I have also been accused of always thinking I’m right. Which is also true, but I really am right most of the time, so I think those people are just sore losers.

Here are some pictures from past Halloween parties. Two of the people in the bottom picture claim that they don’t like karaoke, but you probably can’t pick them out, because they are all having a good time. More evidence that I am right about everything I just said.

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Excuses

I pride myself on being a warrior on the court. However, I’m beginning to realize that having a warrior mentality isn’t always a good thing.

I was feeling tired and run down all last week, which confused me. I hadn’t even played that much tennis. My schedule wasn’t too busy yet. What excuse did I have to be tired?

Yesterday I had no choice but to acknowledge that I’ve been tired because I’m sick. I needed to rest. But despite what I said in my last post about listening to my body when it said no, I decided that I should go to tennis practice, anyway, because I needed the steps.

And guess what? I played terribly. But my inner drill sergeant was relentless. Sickness is not an excuse to play badly. Did Jordan complain when he had the flu during the NBA Playoffs? Didn’t he continue to hit amazing shots? Now quit your whining and play better!

But I couldn’t will myself to play better. And I felt even worse when I got home. Then I started panicking because I was afraid that I wasn’t going to feel well enough to go to work.

My drill sergeant kept telling me that I’m not really sick. That’s just an excuse to get out of going to work. Would your colleges be lame and stay home if they were feeling the way you feel right now? Or your parents? Or your overachieving brother? They would not. So suck it up!

This is the problem with that warrior mentality of “no excuses.” Sometimes you push yourself so hard that you just make things worse.

If I had taken my sickness seriously, perhaps I would have gotten a sub for practice, since it was just practice and not the NBA finals.

And if I were being kind to myself, I wouldn’t let my drill sergeant get away with calling me a manipulative liar who is just trying to get out of work by claiming to be sick. Because that’s really not what I’m like at all. Not at all.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for drill sergeants. Like I said, I am all about being a warrior on the court. But if you treat every practice like the World Championship is on the line, then you’re just going to end up falling asleep on the couch until 3:30 am, having panic attacks, and obsessing about whether you are going to be able to make it to work the next day.

This is a picture of my mixed doubles team, represented by what are supposed to be jungle animals to signify our inner warriors. I am the zebra. Don’t I look intimidating?

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