The Face of My Illness
I’m taking a bit of a departure with this post from my usual training related content to discuss something related, but quite different. I’m not going to discuss the benefits of strength training. I’m not going to present research findings or review an RCT. I’m not even going to talk about Star Wars. I am, however, going to shed some light on my relative, periodic, and very severe at times absence from most aspects of my adult life.
I have a mental illness. I’ve had mental illness, unbeknownst to me, for the vast majority of my adult life, in fact. You may wonder how I could possible not know I have a sometimes disabling mental disease? Well, it’s not that difficult, actually. You see, I’m also an introvert. Many of the symptoms of my illness are similar to those of a highly introverted personality. I cancel social events or choose not to show up. I prefer time alone or with a small group of close friends if I have to be social. I abhor social interactions and small talk beyond what is necessary to get through life. And I have called in “sick” to more days across more jobs and classes in my life than I care to admit (for which I would like to apologize to my past employers – if I had only known what was happening, my work life and your stress levels could have been so much better). If this was it, you might be able to stop me here and say that perhaps it is my introversion that is resulting in any mental pathology. Alas, there’s more.
As a kid, I was highly motivated in life, sport, school, and relationships. As an adult, I feel much lazier much of the time. I had changed. Sure, I am able to cope well enough to get through grad school, have a productive teaching/research career, get married, get divorced, get married again, and try to be the best dad I can possibly be, but there have been many sacrifices along the way. Combine stress eating with a periodic lack of motivation for activity and it’s no doubt my health has suffered (isn’t it fantastic that all of these coping strategies are exacerbated by poor health and vice versa *insert sarcasm here*). Combine procrastination with perfectionism and it’s bloody maddening trying to get work accomplished consistently; here is the main reason my training frequently stagnates, as does my writing.
So, I just chalked up all of those sacrifices above to being a lazy adult. We must get lazier and more apathetic as we get older, right? Don’t take that to mean that I embraced the change. In fact, it had become difficult to even look at myself in the mirror. I felt imprisoned by an invisible warden with whom I didn’t have the slightest clue how to communicate. I even had those “dark thoughts” about life or the lack thereof. But I sincerely felt that all of this must just be the responsibilities of growing up showing through. I must not have the will that others must to live motivated lives. I just didn’t have the gumption to adult properly.
I’ve discovered, over the last couple of years, how wrong I have been. Here’s the story: when I was 21, I suffered a relatively severe concussion while coaching rugby (yes, not playing but that’s a longer, less relevant story!). I told you I wouldn’t bore you with research in this post, but suffice it to say that there is a link between past concussions and mental illness. I even knew about this long before I had the wherewithal to recognize that this is the reason for my change as an adult.
Fast forward 20 odd years; about two years ago from the writing of this post… for the first time in my life, I had panic attacks. Three of them, to be precise. If you’ve never had a panic attack, I will tell you that they felt like heart attacks. Seriously. I swore I was dying. I won’t get into the details about what brought them on, but over the course of around 6 weeks, my life fell apart: work, relationships, social life, my sanity even, appeared to be at peril. And, thankfully, for the first time in my life, I finally talked with someone (or someones) about this. A counsellor. A therapist. A psychologist. A psychiatrist. I trial and error’d my way through meds. I opened up about everything over the course of a year or so. It took that time and longer (I’m still working on it) to be able to identify the ebbs and flows, the push and pull, the causes and effects, of this aspect of my life.
At long last, and with lots of effort, I started to be able to put a face to my change. I started to realize how real this change agent was. This was a thing. A downright scary thing, but a thing nonetheless. With that realization, came the awareness that I could do something about this thing. I could embrace it and control it. I could push it back when needed. I could even rely on the thing as I needed to. I could show others that the thing was real and visible. It was even beautiful at times. It was that thing I was staring at in the mirror; and that thing was part of me. I suspect it always will be and I’m ok with that. I just will work as hard as I can, when I can, to keep my life in focus and not succumb to the effects of this thing. So, for the last 2 years, where my career has suffered, my relationships have suffered, my sanity has suffered, I’ve been discovering my warden. And I’ve been fighting it back.
I have disabling anxiety, but most of the time, it doesn’t have me. Now, I feel like I’m lucky. I have an amazing support system with my wife, family, and close friends, but most of all, I am grateful for the panic attacks. They forced me to open the conversation and put a face on my illness. I can’t imagine where I’d be right now had I not started talking. So, for those feeling unsure, unwell, nervous, scared, in denial, or any other excuse – don’t. You can do this even when you think you can’t. Just find someone you trust and start talking.
About the author:
Scotty Butcher, BSc(PT), PhD, ACSM-RCEP, CF-L1
Dr. Scotty Butcher is an Associate Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Science at the University of Saskatchewan and co-founder of Strength Rebels. He holds a BSc PT and MSc Kin from the University of Saskatchewan and a PhD in Exercise Physiology and Experimental Medicine from the University of Alberta.He is certified as a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (ACSM-RCEP), is a CrossFit Level 1 trainer (CF-L1), and is formerly certified as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS); the latter of which he has formally relinquished.