Do you know what it’s like to feel depressed?
If not, let me try to describe it for you (this is my account, though, and it may be different for another person who also goes through it).
You wake up tired. Your body hurts all over, especially your joints and muscles. It’s like the flu but it’s not the flu, and your temperature is normal. Sometimes your head also hurts; sometimes your chest also hurts. This is what I call a double whammy — when anxiety decides to join depression at the party, and they don’t care about what you need to accomplish, how you need to appear, what problems you need to solve, and who relies on you. This is especially true when people are used to you being the carer.
It’s deeper, more terrible than just being sad. It’s heavier and so much more painful than despair. You teeter on hopelessness that sometimes you feel like you are hanging onto life by a thread. Yet you manage to get up, dress up, show up, make people laugh. I am not an actress (nor do I aspire to be one) but I know that I deserve an acting award for making it through days, meetings, and confrontations — or life coaching sessions where I (the empath) am the coach — and not giving anyone a clue that, inside, I am crying.
So when you feel like this, you seek comfort. You seek an outlet, a way to deviate the pain so there is a physical manifestation of how you are feeling and a visible way for you to address it, where you actually see it get better or fixed.
Some people hurt themselves physically (please don’t do this). Some smoke, some drink, some over-exercise, some eat, some under exercise, some shop, some get piercings, and some get tattoos.
And I, my friends, all 5-foot-6-inches-zaftig-body-type that I am, find comfort in eating. The physical pain of depression gets so much that I can’t even climb the stairs (Mind you, on good days when my friend Sylvia — the name I gave a depressive episode years ago, after Sylvia Plath — is not around, I can easily go up 32 flights of stairs).
You see, I am a former tennis player in training. A former kickboxing enthusiast. A former runner. A former mountaineer. A former performer. Heck, I was even a songwriter and musical director. But depression buried her so deep I am struggling to find her, like a dog digging holes everywhere just to find her favorite bone.
But I’m still digging.
Wake up call
In 2015, I was diagnosed with MCA stenosis. I had experienced 10 straight days of debilitating migraine that affected my eyesight. After seeing an ophthalmologist, then an endocrinologist, then an eyes-ears-nose-and throat doctor (EENT), I went to Dr. Alemany, a neurologist, who had me undergo MRI-MRA with contrast.
The cross-section of the results showed the stenosis. He showed it to me. I was only 35, and apparently had probably already survived a stroke.
What caused it? Diet, a sedentary lifestyle, stress, birth control (artificial hormones may cause blood to clot), and genetics (my father passed away to stroke in 2001. It was a complication from diabetes.)
On one hand, it was scary to know I was at risk for stroke. Every night since that diagnosis, I would pray to thank God for the wins and losses of the day. I would pray that, in case I don’t wake up, my loved ones and rescued animals would be cared for.
On the other hand, it was a blessing. A have peers who have passed away to stroke or aneurysm, some younger than I. So I was given a warning, a sign that I needed to change things unless I want to go over to the other side and not meet my grandkids.
One foot in front of the other
The mission was simple: to stay alive. The way to accomplish the mission was to sleep right, eat right, exercise right.
Easy, right? Nope. Nope, nope, nope.
Depression (Sylvia) would go: You’d be the fattest in the gym. You don’t have nice clothes. Stay home, maybe you can go tomorrow. Maybe. The gym is 5 minutes away…that’s too far. Blah blah blah blah blah.
But as a single parent, I knew I had to beat bigger demons, so I decided to beat this one. Each time is still difficult, to the point of tears. But it can be done.
How to exercise while depressed
1. Set a bedtime alarm
I used to be nocturnal, but a stenotic person has to sleep at night. So I set an alarm on my phone to remind me about bedtime at 9 pm. Once I see the alarm, I wrap up my day, regardless of whether my to-dos are done or not. Life comes first.
2. Countdown to lift off
In the morning, I have two alarms: the first one to wake up and relish my time in bed; the second one to finally get up. I count down NASA-style: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…
Once I get to zero, no matter how I feel, I get up.
3. Take the stairs
I live on the 25th floor of a condominium building. It may sound high but it does not feel high when you’re taking the stairs going down, which I do. It’s not a lot but it is physical activity. It gives you a head start, and it does the same for your motivation.
4. Have a trainer who spots for you
I am a child rape survivor so I am picky about people whom I allow near me, especially physically. This goes for both male and female trainers.
I lucked out with Coach Ed Blanco because he cares not just for my physical strength but my mental and spiritual strength, too. We would pray before each workout session, and he would not take it personally if I just wanted to focus on getting the routine done without breaking down. No chatting, nothing else. He knew how to give the support I needed.
Coach Ed also sends me daily reminders on Viber to be strong — often Biblical verses — even after the gym had to close down during the lockdown. He still does it to this day, and I cannot wait to be back and work out with him even if it means he yells at me from two meters away (remember: physical distancing).
Remember the feeling
They say people remember us by how we make them feel. I say it’s the same with how we make ourselves feel. After a workout, I feel great not because I am losing weight but because, on that day, I beat depression. And with each day I went to exercise, I beat it again, again, and again.
I’m still the dog digging for my favorite bone, looking for the old me.
And I’ll never stop.