Friday, February 22, 2013

Pink, Robots, and Racing

Last weekend was one of the most instructive experiences I have ever had on a bike.  I participated in the Bike Sebring 12 hour bike race where cyclists compete to see how long each can ride in 12 hours.  Those who ride the furthest in their respective categories win medals and the respect of their peers.  In the end, things went remarkably well for me, and I ended up medaling with a 3rd place finish.  But, the medal is nothing compared to what the real takeaway was for me...

Preparations for the race began months before with the formation of Team Grayson Pink Robot Racing.  The name sounds strange, but let me explain and it will all make sense.

I have a beautiful little boy who is eclectic, creative, imaginative, and fun.  He has a wide variety of interests from robots, to Star Wars, to his animals, mermaids, blasters, drawing, and more.  He loves pink too.  It's his favorite color.

One day, about eight months ago, Gray came home from Pre-K and in the course of a conversation I was having with him, I asked him, "What's your favorite color?"  To my surprise, he answered, "Blue".  I asked him why suddenly he liked blue and not pink.  He then said with a hint of shame in his voice, "Boys don't like pink.  Boys like blue."

Now, I know my little boy, and I know that he loves pink, and I knew immediately that somebody, somewhere had decided that it was up to them to tell Grayson what color he should like because boys are supposed to like pretty much anything but pink.  Of course, I got down face to face with Gray and told him in no uncertain terms that he was allowed to like pink, and in fact, Daddy loved pink too.  Pink was a cool color and boys could certainly love pink.  Pink rocks.  The little guy seemed validated and relieved.

But beyond the pink issue, I was concerned.  I took it to heart that Grayson had experienced perhaps his first run in with another person manipulating his self-determination.  The very idea that some other random person has the gall to decide for another person what that person should like, or be was an affront to basic human care and value for others I thought.  You are lesser than me unless you are like me.  This, I believe is the root of bullying and ostracizing behaviors.  I am not okay with that concept and even less okay when that concept is forcefully imparted upon my son.  You may have noticed that I am an activist, so the little talk with the little guy just wasn't enough for me.

So we made a bike team.

Grayson and I made our very own bike team called Team Grayson Pink Robot Racing.  As excerpted from the team's Facebook page, he's what the team is all about:

Team Grayson Pink Robot Racing exists as an athletic (cycling) team to support and validate those who are different and vulnerable to bullying.

Team Grayson Pink Robot Racing is a cycling team created to support those people who have experienced or are vulnerable to experiencing bullying, judgment, and being ostracized for being different. The name of the team is diverse, and its mission supports and celebrates diversity and self-determination.

Being different is not a weakness. It is strength, and self-determination is the right of ev
eryone. This team exists as a home and rallying point for those who are made to feel lesser-than. Here, you are everything this team is about -- we will show those who think we are weak, that we are STRONG and we can and will accomplish great things and outstanding achievements.

Today is a bike team, and tomorrow it will be so much more. Our color is pink, WE are the engines for our machines and WE determine the distance we will take them. We are pink, unstoppable robots! Let's roll!

Fast forward to February 16th and the team hit the race course for 12 hours.  Racing for the team were of course me, and I was joined by my friend to be referred to as Female Racer 1 or F1 because she didn't want her real name used in the blog.  Crewing were of course the little Gray-man and my wife, Connie.

Without going into the turn by turn details of the race, there was one outstanding factor that definitely defined the race.  The wind.  Not just a little breeze or a few occasional gusts.  No, this was a sustained 25mph headwind for miles and miles, accentuated by 35mph gusts.  Some riders were so beaten down by the hours of relentless winds that if they didn't get blown off the road, they quit long before the end of the race.  There were times I wanted to quit too, but I had come to the race with a purpose.  I wanted to show Grayson how tough pink was.  How important individuality was.  Dad would wear sissy pink and grind out 12 hours on a bike and crush the concept that pink, or softness, or caring, or gentleness were anything but brave, worthy, and rock solid concepts.  Actions, not words, drive me.  I could tell Grayson pink was cool, or I could show him.

As I pressed forward into the blistering winds, I had ample time to think.  I thought about how people and especially kids, who suffer at the hands of others, and are beaten down like the wind wore down the riders, could eventually reach that breaking point.  That point where they give up or lash out.  The point where the pain of living becomes greater than the fear of death.  When suicide becomes an option.

You see, Team Grayson Pink Robot Racing is inextricably linked to the mission of suicide prevention.  When a child is reduced and invalidated by others to the point that they are driven to find a way out, any way out, it is especially sad.  To me, sadder even that an adult with a mental illness, like me, because adults even with such an affliction, are adults and more apt to understand and deal with what it happening to them.  Children are not equipped in the same way.  They take the abuse, internalize it, and slowly dissolve.

I pressed on.  I pressed on because my friend F1 was with me and she stuck with me, and I stuck with her.  Our crew poured out their love for us and their support.  The wind kept blowing, even getting stronger as the day wore on.  But as fatigue and pain would set in, I remembered the mission and indeed, I could not forget it, because after each lap he was standing right there in his little pink crew shirt, cheering his Daddy and F1 on.  In pressing on, I thought the following, which I posted this week on the team's Facebook page as well...

Sometimes it's hard to think you can go the distance in life, in school, through pain, or ridicule. Cruelty can feel like it will wear you down to the bone. But don't give up. You can go a little longer. You can press a little farther. Not because it's easier than you think. It is hard. But you are stronger than you think and importantly, you are not alone. We are freaks too. We are different. We stand out and we will stand up. For you and for ourselves. Our revenge is our success and our proof to others that we can do great things, and that the greatness that we aspire to is of our own choice and direction. Be yourself. Embrace yourself and chart your course not along the beaten path, but along a road of your own. Each cobblestone you lay bears your imprint and inspiration. And you know what you will find? You will not be following the path worn into the ground by others. No, instead you will be leading those that will follow you on your road, because those that stand out and stand strong are the beacons for others who are finding their own strength.

Finally, at the end of the day, I hope that Grayson learned the lesson that he, like the rest of us, can and should determine who he will be.  He is a beautiful individual and in being an individual he is not alone (irony?), and when others push back, he can push through, stronger than the winds of ignorance and intolerance.  The headwinds in life will not weaken him.  They will make him strong.

Press on.  You can do it too.  You are not alone.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Guts n' Stuff

Dealing with depression isn't popping a pill, going to a therapy session, or reading Psychology Today.  It is living with a constant awareness of your state of mind, and endless micro adjustments to your interaction with the world, other people in your life, and how you understand yourself.  It is a frustrating process, never being quite in control of when symptoms are going to crop up, but you become better at recognizing them and "cutting them off at the pass".  In this sense, the disease makes me much more self-aware and more aware of my relationship with others.  I think in this way, it may make me a better person in some aspects, in that it definitely pays to be on top of my cognition of everything I do and say, every second.  With the preamble complete, let me tell you about my week, or rather my weekend.

This weekend was a tough one.  The kind where you say stuff that you end up apologizing for later.  Depression in men especially has the added fun tidbit of unhinging your mouth from your brain and when you may disagree with someone, or if you perceive you disagree with someone, the result can be an explosive launch of verbal insensitivity and offense that seems to spill out like Jell-O flipping out of a bowl.  Once it goes, it goes, and in the end, nobody is happy.  It can be triggered by stress, environmental factors, not taking your meds, not eating right, or whatever, but it can be triggered.  Well, this time, it was dealing with negotiations with the ex-wife concerning after school child care programs.  Doesn't sound like a profound, impacting, life event?  Doesn't have to be.  Remember, depression is a mental illness - it's not a rational thing.

So, here's how it goes (and nope, not going to bash anyone - I have depression, I'm not stupid).  My ex got a new job which will require her to put our boy in an after-school program on her weeks.  That's understandable, but some ideas she has don't jibe with some concerns I have.  I discuss with my current wife and total wonderful  love of my life (she reads this), and she gives me a few pieces of input, which I am conflicted about.  Now the particulars don't really matter, and in the end everything worked out fine, but at the time when I was discussing with her on the phone, my response was, and I quote, "Why don't I just do what everyone else wants me to do?!!  What about what I want?!!!  F*** it!  Just f*** it!  I have to go.  Bye!" [Click]. 


Yeah. That's why depression can ruin relationships among other things.  That's what I mean when I say you apologize a lot when you have depression.  The other thing is that after a slight little overreaction as illustrated above, you often snap out of it and realize that you just peed in your Wheaties.

This is where an understanding of the disease both by the afflicted person and family and friends can make a huge difference.  Of course, the goal is to manage the disease so these little incidents don't happen, but every once in a while they do.  Well, Connie didn't leave me.  She didn't file for divorce.  We sat on the bed and talked.  I told her I felt very alone.  I didn't mean this as an insult to her and she knew this.  It was a description of a symptom just like, "I have a runny nose".  I told her some other things too that I was feeling.  She laid her head on my chest and said she was there for me.  That made all the difference.  She knew what I was experiencing and knew what to do.  She reassured me and made sure that I knew that she was in my corner and wouldn't abandon me.   That's like Penicillin to depression.

Now, that doesn't mean that depression goes *poof*.  I still felt bad throughout the weekend but I knew what I was dealing with.  I communicated more readily with Connie.  I told her that I was moving slow, my back hurt, and I didn't feel motivated.  She stepped in and motivated me, and she knew enough about depression to know what works for me.  "Jim, why don't you go for a bike ride?"

So, I rode.  I rode hard, and although it didn't cure me, it did feel a little better and had an accomplishment in the bank.  Sunday I did the spin bike, and ramped up the climbs to double what I usually do.  The hard workout was a good shot in the arm.  Today, I visited my massage therapist and that carved out a good hour of "Jim time", to take care of my sore legs, and tight neck and back.  Once you get in a depressive state, it needs to work itself out, and it can take a while.  If you are treating the disease, it may take a few days.  If you are not treating the disease, it may take a few weeks, or it may kill you.  Fortunately, I treat it, and live with it.  Key words - live with it.

Depression is a disease that you learn to live with, and the learning part takes a long time to master.  I am still learning, but every day I get stronger and this affliction has less power over me.  One thing I know for sure is that had I not gone to my doctor the first time, I would have learned nothing, and there is a very real possibility that I wouldn't be around to write this.  Depression is a silent killer, so I talk a lot and I talk loud about it.

You may recall, that when I started this blog, I promised to share everything about my journey, and you can see that the journey isn't just about miles on the bike.  It's the road that I travel not as a cyclist, but as a human being with a challenge borne by millions of others.  I'm like you.  I slip.  I get up.  I keep going. 

I almost feel like I am writing to someone in particular tonight.  So, I'll finish with a message.  Don't give up.  You are allowed to make mistakes.  If you have depression or some other mental illness, remember that you didn't ask for it and you don't deserve it.  It does things to you and you can get tired.  You can slip.  Maybe it will get the better of you at times.  But it is okay to forgive yourself (someone who suffers will understand what I mean).  It's okay to acknowledge that you are not okay, and it is okay to ask for help.  It is okay to tell someone you love that you feel vulnerable. It's okay to accept support from someone who wants to help you.  You are not weak.  You live and move forward with a weight that a lot of people don't have to haul around.  You are strong.

And it takes guts to live with it.