Friday, February 20, 2015

My Exercise Addiction

Am I addicted to exercise?   Has it become an obsession?   These are some thoughts that I have been pondering as I sit here at 3:00 am in a hospital room with my Dad.   I have been very torn lately between the need to be helping out my family, the need for balancing work/life  and the need to get in a daily dose of exercise.   Often, I feel that these  things are battling each other.   I feel guilty for taking the time to exercise when I feel I should be using that time to help my family or friends. I know my family, dating, and social life have been affected by the amount of training that I do.    Yet I also feel a sense of guilt or if I don't exercise...but that feeling comes from within, as if I am letting myself down when I don't do my workouts.   I almost feel like I go through a withdrawal if I don't do something.   And I feel very selfish sometimes when I put this first.     

My Dad has Parkinson's disease.   A disease he has been fighting the past 10 years.   And it is getting progressively worse, more advanced.    This is not something I openly talk about, but my close friends know that this has been happening.   He is now to the point that he needs almost total care.   It is challenging to see the progression of this disease and how it affects those you love,  both my father who is disabled physically and mentally because of it, and my mother who has lost her independence in having to care for him.   Both of them are shells of their former selves.   And I try to help them as much as I can.   But I have noticed that the harder things become, the more I want to run.  Or bike. Or swim.   I need to do something to disengage for a bit and reset myself, something to feel more free, to feel better mentally and to think more clearly.    But at what cost?   I know my family and their friends don't always understand this.   I often feel guilty for trying to get a workout done before going to console my mother, or help assist my father.   But I know deep inside that this is also what helps to keep me sane.   And I know that I need to stay strong both mentally and physically the more my father declines.    It helps me to think more clearly and maintain a better attitude when faced with some difficult decisions our family has to make.  

  I think all of us that can consider ourselves endurance athletes, train for a variety of reasons.   To be healthier, to race, to get away from something, to go towards something, for mental health and well-being,  to prove a point,  to full fill a bucket list item...I am sure the list could go on and on.    I know for me it is for continued health - both mind and body.   Exercise is truly something that makes me happy.   I discovered this in my 20's quite by accident.    In fact, if someone would have told me 20 years ago that I would be a 5 x Ironman, I would have laughed in their face and told them they were crazy.    But, yet, here I am.   

In my early 20's I was diagnosed with SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and clinical depression.   It didn't help that I lacked self confidence and was extremely shy as well.    During that time I tried many treatments to try to deal with this:  counseling, anti-depression medicines, journaling, lots of alcohol, surrounding myself with friends,staying as active as possible with intramural sport and also getting a dog.    Each of these things helped some, but nothing really seemed to  "fix" me.   Then a strange thing happened, I started running 2-3 mile distances to keep fit for soccer, but also to exercise my dog in the hopes that it would keep him from chewing up things and destroying the apartment I lived in at the time.   And it worked, my dog was much better behaved when he was exhausted after a run with me.    I also started to notice that I was feeling better as well after these runs.   I was exhausted too and really "hated" how I felt while running,  but I was starting to find I felt happier.   And I was able to wean off the medicine I was taking for the depression and continued to do okay.   The self confidence issues remained, but the feelings of despair, sadness, and just general indifference about life were much improved.  So as much as I hated those runs with my dog, I started to realize that they were essential for me and for him and I kept them as part of my life.   

In time, my friends convinced me to try some longer distances.   Which of course I said was impossible.   But with their support and training, I was able to pull off a half marathon.    And guess what,  my self confidence started to improve as I realized that I was so much more capable of doing something if I just focused on it.    This eventually led to triathlons, then a marathon, and finally the IM distance.   And with each new distance, I have found a little more clarity on who I am and what I need to keep myself happy and mentally clear to tackle life events.

 When I first started racing I used to get discouraged very easily because I had an ideal of where I thought I should be and I wasn't there.   Over the past year or so, though, my attitude has changed.  I now look at my ability to exercise as a gift.    I am now to the point where I look forward to my workouts.   Some think it is because of the races I sign up for that I feel this need to do my workouts.    But it is so much more than that.   It is now a part of me.  I look forward to each new workout as I know I feel better physically and I am enjoying trying to push my limits and see what I can accomplish.   Through exercise I have found a way to finally be more confident in myself and that is a really good feeling. It has allowed me to become much less shy in social settings and even become a mentor of sorts to others.   I have also found a way to keep myself happy and mentally clear without the use of medicines or other artificial means (including alcohol) that really just covered up how I truly felt.  When I workout it gives me time to organize my thoughts, analyze my feelings about things  and plan ahead for what is coming next.   It also helps me maintain a positive attitude...even when there are really shitty things going on in my life.  

  I have an addictive personality.   This is something I know.   And I think if I didn't exercise as much as I do, I would turn to alcohol, food, or recreational drugs to "deal" with all of my problems.    So, in answer to my I addicted to exercise?  I would have to say yes.   But, I do have to make sure that this addiction is not getting in the way of my life.   That it is keeping me more balanced.   As long as it allows me to handle with work, friends and family in a healthy and positive way, then I am on the right track.     And hopefully me being a more happy, positive, and balanced person because of it, that should be okay.