Easing back in

When COVID restrictions were finally eased enough so that I could get back into the gym, I struggled to complete “workouts” that before the pandemic had been “warm-ups.”

In my younger days, my primary and preferred way of staying in shape was running outside. That begin being more difficult in my 60s and nearly impossible in my 70s. My knees and back rebelled, and with age came less tolerance of cooler and warmer temperature. I did more walking, which can be boring to a runner. Another drawback is that it takes longer to burn off calories than running. And that too has to be restricted to my ever-narrowing window of comfortable weather.

So I’ve grown to depend on the climate-controlled gym, with its variety of equipment that allows me to measure how much work I am doing. During the pandemic, it became too easy to vegetate. I began to enjoy being lazy. Eventually, though, I did not enjoy getting out of breath merely walking up a few stairs nor the extra pounds that far exceeded any amount I’d ever imagined possessing. Then I began to remember and miss how good I used to feel after a thorough physical workout.

Yet, of course, I couldn’t pick right up where I left off. The less exercise you do, the less you can do. I had to start slowly, increasing workouts by small increments. I don’t have a timetable for getting all the way back to where I was, but I’m moving toward it.

The experience is similar as I am becoming able to shift from Zoom to in-person encounters with others of my species. I’ve always enjoyed interacting with other people in a variety of contexts, but I’m among those whose social interaction batteries run down more quickly and need longer to recharge. I find now that, just as with my heart, lungs and muscles, my battery needs to build back its strength. I can’t immediately fill my social calendar as full as it was before the days of sheltering in place. I’m sure this is true for many other people.

I admit that the sheltering may not have been as difficult for me as for more extroverted individuals. It was, to an extent, a respite from social anxiety. Eventually, though, I began to miss specific people and specific activities. I remembered how good it felt to be together in person. I’m sure you know what I mean.

So as I gradually increase the time on and speed of the treadmill, bike and elliptical machine, I’m incrementally increasing the frequency and length of opportunities for human contact. In both cases, getting back into shape to be able to enjoy it once again.

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UPDATE, Oct. 19, 2021:

Easing back into exercise is going as well as I’d hoped. Easing back into in-person encounters is more difficult, so far, than I had hoped. No major problems, but more social anxiety at times than I’d prefer. And my interaction batteries aren’t holding a charge very well.

I posted a brief comment recently on Facebook, referring to this blog post and noting that it is proving more of a challenge to return to social interactions than to get back in the gym regularly. I took it down after the first two people to react used “ha-ha” emojis. This told me I had not communicated well. I failed to make it clear that this is a disappointment rather than a whimsical comment. I don’t find any humor in the struggle.

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UPDATE, April 2022

I suspect that many others have had and are having similar experiences. Now, our calendar has started to look more like it did pre-pandemic. At this point, four social events in five days leaves me feeling emotionally similar to the way I feel physically after that same grouping of vigorous gym sessions, though I can recover more quickly from the gym.

What I might say about my mental health

If I wrote my own mental health confessional, I would begin by saying I’ve struggled with depression most of my life. I would note that for many years this condition went undiagnosed, but therapy brought to light indications of the illness going back at least to when I was 9 or 10. I guess I would admit that the first time I seriously considered suicide, I was 10.

I would talk about difficult feelings I was having by the fourth and fifth grades and beyond, even up to the present. About making decisions, some more significant than others, that weren’t the best choice, even though on some level I often was aware they weren’t the best when I made them. About feelings of despair and low self-esteem. About difficulties in processing feelings and accessing relationships. About hurts that lingered.

I would include something about the unhelpful things I’ve heard from an early age. One was a bemused “Now, don’t be bitter.” Another, “You’re too sensitive.” How about “we’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing with you” — when I was not laughing? “Snap out of it,” was the commonly suggested cure for people with conditions such as mine. Similar are “get over it” and “suck it up.” One parent once lamented, “I don’t know why you have to be so different.” The other once complained that I was “always miffed about something.”

I might mention but would not describe an incident in early adolescence when I was feeling so bad about myself that I expressed it in a way that engendered anger, making me feel even worse about myself. It left a deep scar. I’ve shared details only with therapists and my spouse. Therapists have said it was an obvious red flag. The first time I shared it with anyone was with my spouse. I became emotional and had trouble getting through it. That may have made it easier to talk about later in therapy.

Adventures in therapy

I would describe the first time I tried therapy and what led to it: During my sophomore year of college, I started noticing I was tired a lot, even for a college student. I continued to feel that way during the summer, the last summer I spent in my childhood home.

A doctor determined it was nothing physical and gently suggested seeing a mental health professional. When I returned to college for fall semester, I jumped through assorted hoops at student health, eventually landing weekly appointments with a psychiatrist.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the tiredness was a manifestation of depression, but you never heard much about depression in those days. It was not my diagnosis at that time. The doctor listened to me for 50 minutes each week for most of the school year, asking leading questions but offering few reflections on what I said. I got much more from one session with a college chaplain that summer. He was the first person who ever said to me in all my 21 years, “That must feel bad.”

As I would continue telling my story now, I would include reports of helpful therapy sessions. The first came many years later, when I finally shared with my family doctor how I often felt. I told him of the feelings listed above, as well as how I was no longer enjoying a number of things that had given me pleasure in the past.

He immediately diagnosed my condition as depression. My first thought? I was glad to know that I wasn’t crazy. That there was an identifiable reason for what was going on with me. A definable disease for which there was treatment. I knew intellectually that I “shouldn’t” have a lot of the feelings I did. This diagnosis provided an explanation.

So at this point in my imagined essay, I would talk about sessions of nearly a year each with three different psychologists spaced over several years. All were helpful, especially the first and third. I was not “cured” by any, though I gained some tools that helped me cope better. In time, I’ll go back for another tune up. Yes, I tried many prescribed anti-depressants, but I’m in the 40 percent for whom such medications are not effective.

I would want to note that someone with depression is not always down. We smile, we laugh, we enjoy. At times.

What would be the reaction?

It seems that more and more well-known people, including entertainers and athletes, are opening up about their own struggles with depression and other mental health issues. They want to help destigmatize mental illness. Some say it’s also therapeutic. As each comes forward, I ask myself if I would do well to do so, too.

Yet, I worry about how people would take it. What would they think of me? Would they treat me any differently? I wonder these things, even though I think more of people who share their struggles. And I don’t treat them any differently.

Or would they make light of it? Maybe the reactions would be similar to the unhelpful words I listed in the third paragraph above. Or similar to a reaction I often get on the rare occasion I dare to mention a physical health concern — i.e., “I have (or someone I know has) the same problem, only worse, and have (has) had it longer.” This response seems to devalue my concern.

Would I end up feeling better or worse?

Another barrier is that I haven’t completely stopped buying into the very stigma I want to counteract. That’s a little ironic, I guess, as is the fact that my depression-nurtured lack of self confidence makes it difficult to take this step.

The S word

If I did take it, I might mention suicidal thoughts. Or I might not. Or maybe just say I wish I didn’t know as much as I do about what it’s like to have them.

I could share significant difficulties I have with light deprivation. Or difficulties getting out of bed sometimes. Times of feeling bad that I feel bad. And how motivation can be a problem when feeling “what’s the use?” or struggling with low self-esteem. I could talk about a well-developed sense of “don’t belong,” which can crop up in almost any context.

That would probably lead to an acknowledgement of ever-present social anxiety. I could admit to worrying before a social event that I’ll say something stupid; worrying during that I am saying something stupid; worrying afterward that I did say something stupid. (Worrying now that this all sounds stupid.)

Then I might note how easy it is to be embarrassed by things others would just laugh off and humiliated by things others might just find a little embarrassing.

I would, if I could muster enough self-confidence, claim some ability as an actor. For the past few of my infrequent appearances in a play, when writing a brief bio for the program, I’ve thought of adding this to the list of past performances: Has portrayed a mentally-healthy person in everyday life 24/7 for many years. If I wrote my own mental health confessional.