Isolation and Finding Your Strength
The New Normal
Doesn’t it feel like the quarantine just started yesterday? But also that “normal life” was ages ago? With the weather improving, people have started to get more comfortable outside and around one another, making it all too easy to somewhat ignore the collective mental toll we’re experiencing. Moreover, it's easy to forget those first few days of turnover. One day, we’re showing up to work, mixing things up in our social circles, see the “flu’ pop up across the pond but think little of it… the next thing you know, a few hot spots turn into quarantined zones, businesses close, and we’re all supposed to stay 6 feet apart. The whole world gets turned upside down. This new normal has forced us to massively course correct and the implications are a lot bigger than our compromised immune systems or wallets.
All too Familiar
I wish I could say that this is my first rodeo with this type of scenario, but I know it all too well. 7 years ago, almost to the day, I was unceremoniously let go from my job, on the verge of graduating college, and was told that I would never succeed in my industry. I was told that I should give up and try something new. Like many people, my response was only as good as my coping mechanisms and underlying mental wiring. I broke down, mentally. The next day, I received my diploma: a tribute to all of my hard & the promise it was supposed to provide. I wanted to tear the damn thing in half. People didn’t appreciate what I had sacrificed to get myself there. Worse, stuck in my head was the absolutely useless story of: “what’s the point of working so hard if this is how it’s all going to end?” My learned helplessness put me in a hole for some time to come.
Two years before that, I was a C-student drifting though the motions, not a care in the world. I didn’t stand for anything, so I fell for everything. Impulse, instant gratification, you name it: I was a royal train-wreck. I didn’t believe I was capable of great things, so I resigned myself to playing it small and just seeking out what was fun in the moment. One day, that life put me in the hospital due to a drinking spell, with a fun little catheter souvenir. Needless to say, I dedicated myself to something different, something better. I was capable of more than that and I was sick and tired of underplaying my potential with this one shot I had at life. We don’t get these chances again, the clock runs way too fast. I made all the sacrifices: quit drinking, partying, and got it all together. I went from a consistent low life to the deans list, working 3 jobs, and I was in the best shape of my life – for the remainder of my college career. I thought I had it figured out: work hard until you prove to yourself, and others, that you can amount to something. I wanted to leave behind a legacy of excellence. People might forget what you did, but they remember your impact, for better or for worse. I got a job at a nice local gym, was fast rising up the ranks there and was on the verge of success… before the rug was ripped out from under me again. I was told by the people in authority that “I shouldn’t even bother.” …this sounded familiar. The truth is, I had no metric for success besides the people I trusted to validate me and when they took that from me, I wanted to give up.
From this, I drew a familiar parallel – what followed was the least proud segment of my life: months of clinically depressed isolation: too broken, wounded and torn apart to get off the couch. It wasn’t losing a job, I was seeing everything I staked so much on, to be proud of, get torn apart utterly and completely. I lost faith in the virtue of hard work and the intrinsic value I brought to the world. You start with that foundation, combine it with crushing isolation, along with a support system you either don’t have or won’t access, and you have a recipe for disaster.
What It Feels Like
Whether it was by a government mandate, or by my own shame, I was isolated indoors, not working, and was left alone with my thoughts and my bitterness and my shock. Perhaps a lot of people know what this feels like. To wake up every day, too angry to be tired and too tired to be angry. Hours spent lying on the couch, watching the day go by, slowly dying as much on the outside as you are on the inside. I felt powerless, unable to move & unwilling to be the architect of my own destiny. I relinquished my demand on the world for what I thought it owed me. And I wanted to call out for help, but I was too ashamed to pick up the phone. People expected me to be something, but it didn’t even exist in my head anymore. Men have a unique pressure to be perpetually unfazed in the presence of hardship. It’s a challenge to our masculinity to suffer and we either have to build a mindset that can’t be broken or pretend like its business as usual. I couldn’t land a job…. I could barely even speak to anyone. It remains one of the darkest points in my life… and it lasted for months. Logically, it was a “lost job” – big deal, move on. But emotionally, this meant more to me than that and it triggered my biggest insecurities – it took me to a place I couldn’t seem to get out of. All hope had died. This is what happens when you spiral, and are left to your own, undeveloped, devices.
The Other Side
But now?: Top 100 Trainer at Equinox, Successful Obstacle Course Racer, ambassador for Still I Run…. you wouldn’t even recognize me. This change didn’t come in one fell swoop, nor without a bunch of setbacks. What changed is that I able to go inward – to the deepest part of my soul – to find the strength to fight back outward. Step by step, inch by inch, breath by breath, with an unrelenting vigor to succeed and not be defined by my failures, motivated by a faith in a future I couldn’t picture but had to force myself to believe in. It came from finding a “tribe” in an obstacle course racing community and seeing the value of empowering yourself through exercise and having a group of like minded winners to share the load.
I’m fortunate to be on top of the mountain. I’ve got an income, a support system, and a roof over my head. More importantly, I’ve got a heart hardened through years of adversity and the all too familiar feeling of never really having security especially as your world gets turned upside down. I’m in the position of having “been there” and I know what the ugly side of it looks like. I see it with plenty of people, and these are only the ones who open themselves up to me. The ones that lose their jobs, are left with their unresolved thoughts, who don’t have a support system, and are too ashamed to do anything about it. This is the stigma we’re trying to break down. This is why we do the work we do. The future is ever more uncertain and the longer it drags on without effective coping mechanisms, the more people will descend into self-destruction.
A long time ago, I learned that you can’t control your pain, but you can give it meaning. The world can be a cruel and an unfair place full of injustices, but it’s also full of the liberty to choose how we are going to respond in every moment. The only thing certain about life is change itself. Whether a step back becomes a sink hole or a running start all depends on your attitude. Some people take out their angst on the people around them, or look for some sort of payback from the world for its inherent disservice to them. Others are so wounded that they just resolve themselves into hiding. I challenge you to take a better path: turn your pain into progress. Let your adversities build you into the kind of person who can be a role model to others, and use it to help people follow the same road map you did to dig yourself out of hell.
I’m simply here to remind you what you’re capable of – wherever you are in life – and that the human spirit is undefeated if you tap into it’s unlimited potential. It’s both the biggest service to myself, and my civic duty to help others find the strengths in themselves so that they can see yet. Focus on each action that is going to put you ahead of where you are, lean into your fears to dissolve them, and don’t ever let some hackneyed story limit your potential to the world
Why What Still I Run Represents is So Important
I’m not in that same spot I was years ago, despite the parallels. I’ve had time to reflect on a lot in the past few months (but that’s another blog post). Every run I push people through, every time we break the stigma on mental illness, flex our resilience in the face of disaster, every time we show our strength through our vulnerability, when we smile at a stranger, gift them with our abundance and show other people what a “community” looks like instead of an island, we give people a taste of what the Still I Run Community is all about. We honor the lives of the people we’ve lost to mental illness, and the ones going through it now. And we honor our own fight, and our strength to not only stand on our own two feet, but help pull others out of their own low points. That ripple effect pays itself forward and is its own reward.
We all have an opportunity today to be special, to be self-indulgent, to be afraid, to be apathetic, or to be anything else we want. There are no wrong answers. When you go up to the mirror, and see the face looking back at you, you’ll know the right decision.