When one is born into a European family, has tasted Whipped Cream Chocolate Éclairs in utero, and lived a lifetime in New Orleans where food is love, I promise you will not be a member of the Waifs and Slenders club. Au Contraire! My young years were spent clothes shopping at “Joanne’s Chubby Shop” for girls. (What a horrible name!) Yep, that’s what happens when you feast upon delectable fried seafood, warm French bread with sweet butter, and perhaps a creamy Napoleon at midday. Enter Junior High school years, as I waddled my way through boys’ bullying and criticism. Even though I was never obese, I still was not a regular-sized child.
These painful, awkward memories often last a lifetime. There was a piano located in my school’s entrance, the one I had to enter each day, where the same mean boy would play a few ominous notes like a “Ta-Dah” as I arrived. Thank goodness today he is a retired radiologist who I enjoy imagining is bored and unhappy with a receding hairline, big nose, couple of divorces, and toxic personality.
Combine my childhood relationship with food with my highly frightening dysfunctional family and my personality morphed into a head-hung, don’t-look-at-me riddled kind of depression and anxiety. I took to riding my bike all over the city, many hours a day, just to escape my family and my toxic home and school. The bike was easy and fun, and soon thereafter, it occurred to me my brain felt better and my clothes fit a bit looser. At 18 years old, I joined a gym. Driving around the parking lot at least a half dozen times, afraid to walk in the gym, I finally landed inside like a scared bird. It was a world of perfect people where I was the only one out of shape. I developed my own non-aggressive exercise routine while being surrounded by people in extravagant workout clothes. I mean, who does the treadmill dripping with diamond jewelry? Is it a prerequisite to have good genes (or a good surgeon) in order to join a health club? Fearful and afraid, I spent most of my time on the treadmill and stationary bicycle looking away from everyone. Intimidated at the strange equipment, rules, and grunting, sweaty males, I started walking in my neighborhood. I was devoted to doing 10 minutes at a time until I reached 45 minutes.
I was unaware my body was releasing little magic drugs called endorphins, but these chemicals somehow eased my emotional pain. Walking took the edge off so something had to be right about this. To be brutally honest, exercise was not a panacea, and I still had to return to the dysfunctional aspects of my life. If you are clinically depressed and anxious, then you know willpower alone is not all you need sometimes, but movement can certainly aid in relief. Exercising outdoors was my travel guide to self-esteem but it was a rough road. I never had a friend or partner who wanted to exercise, so I had to tackle this journey alone.
In the beginning of using exercise to relieve depression, my mind would race to a black hole of family memories and I didn’t even see the world around me. So caught up in my thoughts I didn’t notice the houses in my neighborhood, birds, people, nothing. It was kind of like being in a depression coma. In fact, I was so entrenched in my depression, I could accidentally walk a totally different route out of my neighborhood and not even know it. It took time to feel better and after a bitter divorce, I threw myself into walking. I had the time, it cost nothing, and I needed to wear myself out to stop my brain from feeling.
There is no diet that relieves depression but my body requested lighter, healthier foods, so I wouldn’t have cement shoes while exercising. Also, as you find your clothes hanging on you, you realize you are doing something right. Gone were the days of fried foods, Gumbo, po-boys laden with oysters or shrimp. I actually developed a hankering for brown rice, tofu that didn’t taste like tofu, massive salads with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and lots of veggies. It was not easy when you live in a town where all the food is SUPERB, but you have to adjust. And while your friends order a big bowl of Gumbo and rice, you order the vegetable plate and deal with hearing “I can’t believe you’re eating that crap!” conversation. I laugh and say, “you hate it, cuz you ain’t it!” and the laughter would roll across the table. The picky little comments never end, but I always have my script ready … developed on long walks thinking what I shoulda, woulda, coulda said to that bully at school who used my weight to make himself feel better.
At this point in life, I am addicted to walking. I have accepted and will warn you too, exercise that creates a lasting impact on your health is a lifelong commitment. Freezing weather, blazing sun, snowflakes, or raindrops – there I am strutting my 4 miles. It is a must. And even still, my depression does appear at times and it walks beside me. That’s okay, too, I’ve realized. I said it was a lonely journey, but over time you can make peace with the black dog of depression as Churchill called it. It is your constant companion, and it too needs to be walked. And like dogs, a tired brain is a good brain. Take care friends, and enjoy the journey.
Photo Courtesy of Lorna Dancey, Lorna Dancey Photography