CrossFit, Community, and Alzheimer’s

Like everyone, there are days when I just don’t want to workout. I spent years not getting much exercise at all beyond bouncing with a baby and “lifting” out of the crib. I was consumed with life – or, more accurately, life consumed me. Besides work deadlines that I shoved into limited daycare hours, the frequent illnesses of young children single-handedly and regularly kiboshed any non-parenting endeavor. Having food in the house, ideally and often elusively meant for the preparation of healthy meals, was one of my bigger parenting challenges. Woven within those typical life-as-an-adult constraints, I lived with bouts of intense physical pain thanks to my then newly-diagnosed and erratically behaving Rheumatoid Arthritis. My mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s amid the fray and buzz of a mother’s life with young children galvanized me to pay attention and spend as much time with her as I could squeeze in, but also laid heavily in my lap a palpable and early burden as well as long-enduring grief. Needless to say, I couldn’t find room in a day to exercise. And then the lack of exercise became the new habit, and it didn’t bother me anymore.

Which is sort of true. In hindsight, the truth is that while I had stopped feeling the yucky bloatedness that I used to feel when I hadn’t exercised for a couple of days, quietly and surreptitiously, toxic, emotional poisons that no longer had an outlet built up inside me. I never realized before this period that exercise provided a means to channel and process whatever was on my mind. I’d go for a run, burn out all the jitters, find calm and perspective, regain my center, and go on with my life. Without exercise, there was no way out for the very real and demanding worries I was facing.

During those years, I was scared, sad, and totally overwhelmed. Parenting in the pre-elementary school years can be isolating as is. Adding a couple of chronic diseases and sandwich generation caregiving to the mix engendered an emotional disaster zone (even for a pragmatic, organized realist). There were no clear answers: for parenting or RA or Alzheimers. Both RA and Alzheimer’s have these vague derivations and prognoses. No two patients are exactly alike; there is no timeline or likely outcome for either. Well, I suppose for Alzheimer’s there is a likely outcome, but there is no roadmap, no treatment plan, and definitely no cure. All this to say, it would have been really good for me to have an outlet and some exercise.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I found myself joining CrossFit Launchpad. It turns out that CrossFit is about much more than exercise and nutrition. The real surprise and what keeps me going back is how much CrossFit is about community. I know, a gym (in CrossFit lingo, a “box”) that’s a community? You are thinking, “What the ever-living (sugar-free) Koolaid are you drinking?” Trust me, I never thought I’d hear myself say those words. But, that’s what it is, and it is part of what has helped me to recognize myself and my life again. All of my responsibilities remain the same. And yet I am grounded, clear-eyed, and less likely to spend an entire workout (or an entire day) near tears. That is partially attributable to exercise, but also to my community. For me, place is all about the people. If I feel connected to a person, I feel connected to a place. It’s the people that keep me coming back.

In addition to running workouts, my CrossFit coach, Ronda, organizes outside-the-box events, including monthly baby blanket-making gatherings for the Family Nurturing Center (FNC) in Boston. I mentioned to her that I was hoping to make a large version of the baby blankets for my mom some day when I had time. With their taggie ends and soft texture (almost like a large twiddle muff), I thought the blanket would be wonderfully soothing as my mom becomes more cold-sensitive, tactile and fidgety. Without missing a beat, Ronda said, “Great idea. We’ll make blankets for your mom.” My jaw dropped. It would never have occurred to me to ask. My go-it-alone, do-it-yourself, never-be-vulnerable internal driver flared. Guilt and shame consumed me. I couldn’t possibly have people spend their time doing that for me. No. I declined. She insisted. Eventually I let go. For once, I let go.

And, you know what happened? I had two soft, beautiful blankets for my mom by the end of that day. I look at those blankets and I see both cozy comfort and love. By allowing help, not only was I able to focus on other things that I needed to do for my mom, but it seems I allowed my community to do something to show their love and support. The number of hands involved in creating those blankets grew exponentially by my letting it go, and simultaneously the number of people whose lives touched mine and my mom’s grew as well. Those involved in that blanket-making session told me afterward that they were happy to do it, and that seeing the pictures of my mom wrapped in her new blankets made them feel good. This turned everything I know about asking for help on it’s head – helping me can help you, too?

Life is an incredible teacher. Hope is restored in the most unexpected ways and places. This is universally true, if you are open to seeing it. Personally, here I sit, as fall descends around me, reflecting on this touching moment and the broader lessons it has to teach. The brilliant vermilion, bright orange, deep purple, golden yellow, and amber-hued leaves of yesterday are scattered in mushy, brown, wet clumps on the pavement, a recent storm having wrested them from their branches. All around me life is closing up shop and preparing for the dark, cold, and barren days of winter. And, yet, I wrap my mom in her new, warm blanket and simultaneously I am wrapped in love and hope. Pico Iyer writes, “Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.”

My truth, this journey, has tested me with its bleak mercilessness. Like the depths of winter, at times it has felt like it would never end. But the light in this truth is all the people who have loved my mom and me along the way, and held us in the light. The smallest gift, the heartfelt gesture, the simple acknowledgement that the journey isn’t yours to walk alone, matter. Genuine connection is the most important aspect of our humanity. Helping other people – and letting other people help you sometimes – are powerful antidotes to lost hope. Help each other. Be kind. Even on the darkest days there is light.

The Warning by Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Purple is the color for Alzheimer’s awareness. Purple also happens to be one of my favorite colors. You have been warned!

Check out related articles below or on my Resources page:

Is Alzheimer’s Diabetes of the Brain?

UVA Brain Discovery Could Block Aging’s Terrible Toll on the Mind

How Biogen Salvaged Alzheimer’s Drug After a Costly Failure

 

Finding Hope and Humanity

I’ve been meaning to write – for ages – but time is not on my side. Life happens and I have been swept along with it. I expected September to be a loss with the deluge of emails and activities that accompany back to school. But October seems to be well on its way to disappearing as well. I am not complaining, just explaining my absence!

So, where do I start? I wanted to share Jennifer DeLeon’s article Migrant Stories from McAllen, Texas: Finding Hope and Humanity at the Border that was published on WBUR’s (NPR’s Boston channel) Cognoscenti on September 5, 2019. I fully intended to post it then, but I am only getting to it now (life: see paragraph 1). It’s still relevant and what she witnessed there, plus countless new stories, persists.

Jennifer’s article struck a chord with me on many levels, but I especially love that her story’s title includes the words hope and humanity. I am always trying to find those stories. The whole original intent of this blog was to shine a light on stories of hope where you might least expect to find them. I have no doubt that the situation at the border, as well as the situation that migrants are both coming from and into, requires some fortitude and digging in order to find hope.

Hope, and compassion, come alive through authentic human connection. That’s part of what Jennifer experiences in McAllen. Authentic human connection. Meeting people where they are. Seeing the world through their eyes. It’s not easy. But it’s so rewarding, and so human(e).

Freddie is the name of the nine year old Honduran child that Jennifer profiles in her article. When my daughter was in second grade – about Freddie’s age – she brought home the artwork shown in the image below. It reads: “Show kindness. Avoid easy.”

Imagine a world where we were all guided by these simple tenets. Many adults seem to have forgotten the basic and common humanity and innocence that underlies what these 8 and 9 year old’s already know. Show kindness. Avoid easy.

Show Kindness Avoid Easy