Heavy thoughts and why I love endorphins

I finished reading Fast Girl by Suzy Favor Hamilton this morning on the bus to work. The author is a former professional runner (I’ll admit that’s what prompted me to pick the book up) who lost a brother to bipolar disorder as a teenager, endured severe anxiety and an eating disorder during her running days, and began showing symptoms of bipolar disorder herself after giving birth to a daughter. She began leading an extreme double life to stay high and considering suicide several times when extremely low. S.F.H. writes the book as a description of the events and her internal dialogue at the time of these events through her life, with accompanying sections on mental health and her present day interpretation of her past actions, illness-influenced ideas, and advice to others who have a mental illness or have family members with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses.

The author’s writing was vivid and filled with courage and grace. I devoured the book over 2 days, drawn in by her story. However, the book left me in a fairly low emotional state because it forced some recent events back into the forefront of my mind. One of MountainMan’s cousins, and then a couple months later one of his uncles, succumbed to depression/bipolar disorder this Summer/Fall. These deaths were doubly brutal on MM’s family because of the difficulty in understanding how someone with a loving family and a decent life could reach the point of ending that life. Mental illness is so much harder to fathom than something like cancer or physical injury. There were warning signs, but the appropriate care was hindered by health system delays and bureaucracy, and probably a fair bit of denial of how bad the illness had become. Reading about Suzy Favor Hamilton’s family history brought to mind the patterns that have gone through MM’s family, and the fears triggered by the low points I’ve seen in both MM and myself, which weren’t as severe but were worrying in that context.

Anyhow, I had that on my mind all morning and then had to go down to the cadaver lab to get some ankle specimens – which in this case meant entire lower leg, or tibial plateau to toe – for an imaging study. I was fairly nonchalant until I started palpating one of the specimens through the wrappings to try to determine whether it had an embedded metal tag (have to remove for MRI, as metal can produce a distortion or big dark spot in the image). Something about the feel of curved toes and the delicate points of the malleoli (bony bumps on the inside and outside of your ankle) under my fingers jarred me. Unwrapping the specimens was pretty uncomfortable too, as the human calf is pretty unmistakably human – no pretending this older male cadaver calf is something else when it looks just like the calves of so many very much alive middle aged male runners that I’ve ran alongside in running club meet-ups and races.

The second specimen was only 35, not much older than many of my friends and a smaller guy, only 140 lbs by the specimen description. When cutting through leg tissue with a pair of scissors to remove a metal tag from a cadaver it’s really unhelpful to have your mind drift to comparing the specimen to the skinny legs of your former teammates. Cadaver lab back in school brought with it only mild emotion, so I don’t usually get nervous about how I’ll feel around the specimens, but I was unsettled enough in this case that I avoided unwrapping the feet (feet and hands are tough, even according to my boss, who had to make it through dissecting a whole human cadaver back in the day during med school) and forgot to put my equipment away after bagging the specimens and before leaving the lab (just realized, hopefully can clean up tomorrow a.m. before it’s in anyone’s way).

So basically, I spent all day with rather morbid, sad thoughts floating through my head and wasn’t in much of a mood to do anything once I got home. However, the calendar declared today a skiing day, so I gathered my gear, queued up my most distracting podcasts, and pushed off into the dark of the nordic ski park. I must have stopped every 400m for the first 20 minutes, but those last 10 I finally sank fully into the podcast that I’d picked, got into a rhythm, and just thought about my balance over my skis and the warp-speed visual of snowflakes flying past in the beam of my headlamp.

My legs and arms are stiff and my face is chapped from the cold air, but the thoughts are fainter now. There’s still a feeling of grief over the reminder of the sadness that my in-law relatives must still be feeling, but I’m tired enough and full of enough endorphins that I’m no longer agitated by the things drifting through my mind, and I’ll be able to sleep. In the morning, I’ll get up and work to make the donation of the two people who donated their bodies to science/medicine worthwhile.

I’d still recommend the book, in spite of the emotions it stirred up. Suzy Favor Hamilton’s courage in describing the symptoms of bipolar disorder, and her resulting actions is amazing, and she does an great job of highlighting the importance of understanding and treating mental illness as an illness, not a character flaw. If more people share stories like hers hopefully more people will realize that those symptoms line up with what they see in themselves or a loved one and ill folks will be more likely to receive emotional and logistical support, an appropriate diagnosis early on, and be able to work towards an effective treatment.



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