Health, WOMEN'S HEALTH

WASHING MACHINE HEAD

Does your brain ever feel like it is on the spin cycle of a washing machine?
Some people refer to it as “crazy brain,” but I don’t care for that label. My partner refers to it as crawling out of his skin.

There are lots of reasons for this mind twirl. Full moon, mercury retrograde, too much sugar, not enough exercise, too much on my plate, too many lists, too much time on my hands, too much on the computer or on the phone, not enough fresh air, not enough creative output, not enough go within time.

I know myself well. I know that if I miss exercise for a few days, I am not myself and this creates havoc in my thinking. Exercise is the course correction without fail. Every time. An hour at the gym or an hour outside on a brisk walk in the brisk New England November air grounds me like nothing else and it is a habit I seldom break. But when I do, like this past two weeks of over scheduling, I notice fast.

What I notice is that it is hard for me to stay focused, I wake up after going to bed with a concise list and then find myself wandering aimlessly barely able to complete one item. Perhaps this is the result of an entrepreneurial brain; most self starters I know struggle with spinney head. Just too many ideas, too many sticky notes on a wall and this can be a recipe for feelings of overwhelm therefore not getting anything done.

I am the queen of lists and sticky notes. My brain is a busy one and I enjoy its momentum for the most part especially when I use it for the creative force it directs me to. But sometimes, like this past week when I went to a three day conference and I missed exercising for almost a full week with barely a walk, the ramifications are not pretty.

As I drove to the gym for my first 7:00am workout in a few weeks, I already began to feel peaceful. The gym is my therapy space. Not because I am one of those bad ass gym rats pumping iron and walking around with her abs showing, (these days they just show all the time when I sit down and look down and wonder what the hell has happened to my stomach, but more of that in some other self deprecating piece later). Going to the gym is like a community gathering. Most times it is many of the same people, mostly women, but also some men sprinkled throughout, and there is a familiarity, a comfort as we grab our spots on the floor or the cardio equipment.

I have two go to spots I usually take and they are in the front of the room.
I used to be the person who looked for the furthest back corner, the spot completely away from the mirror as I not only didn’t want to see myself in it as I struggled to catch my breath with every screaming beat to the rap music, but I also didn’t want to see everyone else. Back then when I first started dragging myself to the gym, I was always comparing my inadequacy and lack of fitness to all of the other chicks (usually skinny and blonde driving a Range Rover or something) who seemed much more fit than I surely would ever be.

But then something magical happened. I started feeling incredible. Forget about the shape of my body shifting, the discovery of muscles I didn’t know were there, the definition of muscles from the never ending burpees and planks that began rearing their beauty. I had mental clarity like I had never really had before. It was the biggest surprise from the workout and I started to depend on it as my mental equilibrium. And I began making my way to the front of the room, not so much to look in the mirror, but to stand up front and proud of my climb on the fitness confidence ladder.

There is all kinds of proven research on what exercise does for us physically- it lowers cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and a multitude of other lifestyle ailments. I wish that the prescription of exercise would be one of the first courses of action for doctors to give to their patients complaining of anxiety and depression because for me, this has been a game changer for the past ten years. It is seldom that exercise becomes the go to remedy for the many people who struggle with this type of bubbling mind.

Washing machine head, my brain on the spin cycle, goes away from one hour of exercise. It never fails me. I always feel better after I exercise. My mind is clearer, my heart is happier. And this doesn’t have to be from an hour at the gym, it can be a walk on the beach with the wind blowing into my lungs; it is just movement, off the couch, away from my computer, my phone, my desk work and up and out.

No matter how much wine I have had or sweet dives into oblivion and all of its effects on my brain with the fogginess it creates, an hour of movement clears the cobwebs. Exercise saved me when I had breast cancer too. I am convinced that because I went to the gym, my recovery was as strong and solid as it was because of my fitness level before hand.
I used to think, “I am the fittest and healthiest I have ever been, why did I get breast cancer twice?” But when I saw my resilience and my fast recovery, I knew I had to shift my thinking to gratitude for the fitness FOR and TOWARDS the recovery.

As a matter of reflection, the gym was part of my recovery because it became a goal for me to get back there as soon as possible. I had missed its silent camaraderie among my fellow gym chicks. We are friendly with each other, saying our morning hellos and our quick goodbyes as we run out to start our days in our sweaty workout clothes, but we don’t spend time chatting. We are all there to feel better. To roll our eyes when Kathy, our fearless trainer, barks another order out at us and says at the same time, “This next move is going to suck.” Yes, she says this and she means it and it does suck. But we all do it because we can.
Because we can. To me this is the significance of exercising regularly.

Because I can.

And as long as I can I will. Missing days makes me miss them now, not the other way around. In the past I would miss them because I didn’t feel like it, these days I only miss them because work or a too jam packed schedule didn’t allow the workout time. I am really going to make a conscious effort to improve that. I may not always be able to get to the actual gym, but there is always a walk on a blustery day to shake the garbled brain to a more serene one, movement is so important as I approach my real life mid fifties.

My partner, who is 72 goes to the gym every day. Every day. I am not kidding. He is my role model and my mentor for gym attendance and its value on the soul. When we went to Quebec a few weeks back, we both didn’t realize the stair factor. If you can’t do stairs, you can’t enjoy Quebec- that should be their tagline because to take the stairs is to really appreciate the landscape. As we blasted up and down the stairs for a solid week, as fit as I am, I still had a quickening of my breath. Not my partner, he flew up the stairs and I didn’t hear one speck of short winded huffing.

If that wasn’t a reminder to me that the gym is fitness security, nothing is. What I love about movement is that there is no time like the present.
All we have is the present.

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TO BE HEALTHY

TO BE HEALTHY

“Pick up the weight and swing it between your legs in a squat, then up over your head and straight up, Arms straight! Lean Back!” Kathy exclaimed with the sound of a woman enjoying this (or a sound somewhat close to the familiar shrill of Aunt Lydia from The Handmaids Tale depending on your mood in the morning). Was anyone else in the class today finding her commands amusing?

I am almost fifty four years old standing in a class filled with women, some my age, some far younger and was struck by how fast time had flown. It was just yesterday it seemed that I was the twenty two year old head to toe in Jane Fonda aerobic tights, thongs and goodness knows what else was the eighties workout fashion of the moment watching a woman in her fifties teaching the class thinking , “Wow, she looks good for her age.” Hard to believe that this was almost thirty years ago and now I am that woman. I felt like we should all have pictures of ourselves on the wall with our age and life experience next to it to explain why I was finding it necessary to use some of the time to just hang out in child’s pose instead of one more over achieving push up.Why wasn’t anyone else resting, sweating, stretching in between change overs?

Yes I signed up for this, yes I paid for this, continue to pay for it, and actually as much fun as I make of it, love it. Can’t really live without the wackiness of the almost daily routine of the grind, pound, move, and an accelerated heart rate that astounds me all these years later. Who actually enjoys this? I do. I love the camaraderie of mostly women thinking that we are in some sort of control of our health, our lives and this in itself makes me smile. I smile a lot in these classes because I so often am in utter disbelief that I am one of the insiders, one of the regulars, not a stranger showing up quivering filled with potential embarrassment that I may have to give up. Nope. Not me. There is no giving up as I jump and twist and burpee and mountain climb my way through an hour of my life. “If your shoulders can’t take any more spider man twists, then there is no shame in lying on your back and doing bicycle crunches,” Kathy yells. I peek out the corners of my eyes to see if I am the only one too happy to take her suggestion, tired shoulders or not. Any excuse to be on my back for even a brief moment I relish in.

I will never be one of those workout chicks who have the discipline of an army general. When I am on, there is no stopping me. Deliberate, consistent, clear headed gym girl. Then I feel really good, really fast, like in a week, and then I start to go down the path of least resistance, but I have learned to semi enjoy this despite the fact that I know I will have what I refer to as spinney head. Or as I have heard in countless Alanon meetings, washing machine head. It is okay to take a break from myself and for myself, it is okay to rest once in awhile. I don’t know how often I try to convince myself of this. I know there is a distinct rhythm to habits. Wake up, check the clock, make sure it is at least 5 am, brush my teeth, wash my face, put moisturizer on, walk into the kitchen and make coffee. This is definitive every morning, never breaking from the routine. Once this all happens though, there are lots of am choices for me. Workout? Write? Type? Watch the news? Read the paper? Read a few pages of my latest book? They are all vying for a segment and this is all before the start of my day at around nine am. Waking up at five am gives me four full glorious hours, and each one of these choices feeds me and in a unique and stimulating way and this is where my discipline usually goes out the window. Lately I haven’t been writing as much because the morning gym takes so much time. I have to fit work in there too, paperwork takes a lot of time, and I forgot to mention that I have signed up and been taking three different writing classes each week. I love working out so this has been my morning priority lately. And as a result my morning writing has taken a hit.

Here’s what I know though. I am off kilter when I am not healthy. My mind starts to spin and takeover in a way that doesn’t serve. My partner has a sign hanging in the house that says, Don’t believe everything you think. When I am not writing or moving or eating healthy, my mind takes me hostage and I have been known to go into a tailspin. This may not be obvious to the people who are not in my inner circle, the ones who really know my insides, because there is the outside alayne and the inside one. As much as I try to speak the truth 24/7 sometimes I need a nap from the incessant mindspeak that is my brain (likely my closest friends do too). Health, meditation, creativity, movement, eating well are the cures for a calmer head. I know this is part of who I am.

The entrepreneurial spirit I have been blessed with is sometimes a hindrance, but most often it is a welcome creative force to be reckoned with. The question I often ask myself with the wisdom of hindsight is what is the spark that ignites the tailspin? When I take a deep diaphragmatic breath, you know that breath that cleanses you from top to bottom, that delicious calming and soothing free meditative sigh, I know. I know it has to do with the pain of loss, grief that still lies within like that little shard of glass you know you missed when the dish dropped on the floor and shattered. There is always one fragment left to be found by a bare foot some time in the future when you have forgotten all about the broken dish. Grief will never be something I can check off my to do list and it is an absurd notion to even consider this as a possibility. What I always know is that working out and writing and being in nature are the trifecta of calm and better energy for me. Though wine and sugar feel so fucking helpful at the time going down, they are smothering band aids staving off the air necessary for healing. But it is so much easier and fun to wake up, stay in my pjs, buy typewriters (or cars), make chocolate babka and drink wine in the afternoon. My perpetual cross to bear isn’t so bad when I say it like that.


a small rainbow that still takes my breath away. Nature is always a salvation.
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THE PRIVILEGE OF HEALTH

THE PRIVILEGE OF HEALTH

ME: Grandpa, do you want to go lie down for a bit? (he had been falling asleep at the table after finishing breakfast this morning)

GRANDPA (AKA HERBIE): That may be a good idea.

ME: Yes. Why not.

HERBIE: Yeah. I got time.

Herbie, my grandfather is 100 and four months. This is a positive outlook at its best. Everyday he wakes up it is another day he wakes up. This must seem like a surprise to him, but I don’t know that. It has never been a surprise in my consciousness until this visit as I consider that every day he wakes up is another day I get to have him in my life. I don’t usually think in terms of the literal day to day appreciation of waking up. Sure I am grateful for each day, but because I am young and healthy, for the most part I get to assume that tomorrow will be available to me and the next day. When you are 100, I am guessing that this may not be the case.

I suggested that from now on we have a birthday cake every day to celebrate his life because seriously every day is, well, every day.

My grandfather is a bad ass I have decided. Not the kind that you may think of like my friend’s grandparents who grew up in the tough neighborhoods or were boxers or fighters, but the type of fighter that has the grit in his core. I love this trait. Grit. He is the son of a man who made his way alone to America from Russia in the late 1800s. His mother too was a Russian immigrant and because I was born to such young parents I actually knew both of them. My grandfather was drafted in WWII. He was an entrepreneur, a textile mill owner in Fall River, Mass back when Fall River made things. A fiscal example of frugality, but intense generosity, a charitable mix of practicality and reasonable behavior, my grandfather’s approach to life is summed up by his favorite five words, “It is what it is.” At my brother’s funeral he at 78 having lost his first born grandson who was only 25 to a rare form of lung cancer got up to speak at our informal gathering. “Michael was too young to die, but he did.” I will never forget those simple words filled with the essence of his belief system that life goes on despite itself.

It is interesting to sit on my perch and watch the de-birth of someone. His body curves naturally into a fetal position as his shoulders hunch a little more each time I see him. His baby fine hair easily mats and he gets messier every time he eats. He sleeps a lot and his appetite grows smaller each day. It is like watching a new baby but opposite. He needs the walker more and when his legs are causing more and more discomfort, he uses the wheelchair more often to alleviate the pain. It is backwards infancy. This is the only way I can explain what I am witnessing. I am a voyeur of sorts as I get to watch this without having to do anything other than be in his company. He has 24/7 care and my visits are nothing but love and cooking for him. This gives me the gift of a vacation as well as a visit and I feel really lucky for his conservatism with money all those years before now.

When I am visiting the weather is always an improvement from the north so outdoor running, walking and beaching is my personal threesome of love. I try to run each day to increase my distance because no matter how much I run on the treadmill in the winter cold, the pavement is completely different. The first step outside feels like I have done zero cardio for the entire winter as my heart speeds and my breath grows heavier with each stride. I wear no headphones or music, got rid of this nuisance a long while ago as I found it completely distracting. To each their own because I know there are many of my friends who can’t imagine running without sound. I enjoy the sound of my heart and my breath; it is meditative and allows for deep appreciation as I try for longer and longer distances each of the days I am blessed to be in sunny Siesta Key in the cold New England March of unpredictability. As much as I get out and exercise, I have found my thoughts interesting in the day to day decision making of going for the run. I don’t really love running, but I love the results of running and this is the draw.

On my way down here, I have all kinds of plans, run every day, train for a 5k, eat healthy, blah blah blah. This is my perpetual mantra and I strongly visualize myself at the tail end of the week completing all of my self imposed rules and regs. What strikes me is the mind fuck that happens as my brain starts its campaign on rationalizing why I don’t need to run. “I am achy from yesterday,” (boo fucking hoo). “I cut my finger cooking today,” (I know that one is a stretch, but complete transparency here). “I don’t want to miss a good parking spot at the beach,” (since the temperature gauge is reading 58 right now, I am guessing this is a non issue). “I want to get my writing in and the morning is usually the time,” (well let’s see, I woke up at 5:00am so I’m guessing there is plenty of time). “I want to cook for Herbie,” (read previous rationale). So here I sit, watching the thermometer slowly (very slowly) climb to a meager 60; the sky is clear and blue and it looks like it is about 75 out, but the air is cold. I have baked blueberry cake, prepped dinner for tonight, made my lunch for today and the weekend’s beach visits, gone for a run (2 miles thank you very much) and done some stretching and a ten minute tabata workout. And it is only 9:40am.

As I sit here writing this today, with the sound of my grandfather snoring over the baby monitor that has become the background noise of his house, I reflect on these excuses. I know that his example, combined with the loss of my brother so young as well as my own health bumps in the road, health is an innate privilege. When you have the freedom to move, the advantages are something that commands the movement. I have had the times when I have not been able to move at the pace I have wanted. Many promises pour from my soul as I make the pacts with the universe promising regular exercise when if and when I ever feel good enough to do so again. The privilege of health is my own connection with a higher power and despite the wacky brain excuses that arise, I usually find my way around them. I do this in honor of my brother, in reverence to my grandfather and even more the respect to my own health and body that I have been blessed with for these soon to be fifty three years.

Now I am ready for my beach day. So lucky and healthy and I can’t wait to do it all again tomorrow.


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BACK TO THE GYM

BACK TO THE GYM

“Full arm side plank with opposite arm extensions using a weight to curl under your body and then fully extend your arm and back!” Kathy yelled happily like she was telling all of us in the sweaty smelly studio that the Frosty Freeze soft serve ice cream shop just opened. I am destroying her official description of the last exercise of our sixty-minute class, but at this point who cares. I watched her and I watched the class watching her as I stood in my safe corner in the front right of the studio, closest to the exit in case I had to do the walk of shame (aka the door out). I laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes and I had to get a tissue to wipe them. This final exercise of the morning that my dear Kathy was enthusiastically showing us had me stumped for the first time in the class this early Saturday morning, my first class back after three weeks of gentle walks and easy movement. Was a modification even possible? So far, I had been using the treadmill for the cardio portion rather than the spin bikes, walking at a fast pace, using the incline at an eight or nine even attempting a slight, albeit old person shuffling, jog. For the never-ending weight portions, I used the embarrassing, but satisfying, two and three pound weights. Actually not embarrassing at all, I just had a fucking double mastectomy three weeks ago, survived early caught cancer twice, live cautiously knowing I have the BRCH 2 gene, I will, with bad ass pride, use whatever damn weights I want. There is no shame and I am so happy to be back in normal world.

Jumping plié squats with a weight? Not sure about my new post construction ta-tas, so I stand squat them rather then jump squat. Oh, Alayne, give one a try. Jump. Oh yeah, my new early stage boobs don’t move! I forgot! No problem, jump away! Burpees? Easy. Standing versions. Plank jacks? Mmmm let’s try some full arm planks on my knees. Yep. Check. Standing split squats, bicep curls, back lunges with side twists with a weight, front rows, (wait, I think that was my modification) all a big checkmark. Sit ups? I decided to try it with a bosu, (you know that weird half circle ball that some crazy ass fitness fanatic created for balance) for added support. Once down though, I forgot a few key issues, those pesky double eight inch incisions on my back for one, but also getting up from the floor without rolling over to get up, ix-nay on the sit ups at least for my first time back.

My first time back semi hiding in the corner, modifying almost everything was a whopping success if you ask me. First off there is so much truth to the phrase, “80% of success is showing up.” As I have written about on more than one occasion, going to the gym is so much more than a fit body. It is psychological satisfaction, emotional stability, heart happiness, soul confidence, a fit mind. The way I write about going to the gym may make some people who don’t know me think that I am a gym rat, an over achieving fitness freak.

The irony is I hardly ever seriously exercised seven years ago. Sure I toyed with exercise in my lifetime, I met my former husband and my present partner at the gym in my twenties at the first step aerobic and low impact classes. I played with yoga going to Kripalu in Lenox, Mass in my early thirties (before they had their “luxury” annex rooms and dorming it was the main option). I occasionally jogged, but my exercise was mainly walking and bike riding for pleasure.

I am not a gym rat. I was not a lover of physical exercise because how I grew up was you were either music and arts OR sports. So we went to museums, concerts, I played a musical instrument and physical fitness was for the other. What I am trying to say is that fitness was not instilled in my cellular makeup as a child except for my gymnastic classes and hula hooping. The way fitness showed up in my life was drudgery and a necessary evil. It was always surrounded with a negative connotation, like a chore so as a result I had a lot of cynicism when it came to gyms and over achieving workouts. Until I reconnected with my present partner who is eighteen years my senior. He is a fitness lover, loves to walk, run, bike ride, go to the gym. I realized quickly that if I was going to be fully present with this man in this relationship, I had better get some wind back in my body. So I began with the goal of a 5k and for the most part for the past six years have stayed with fitness.

I am completely convinced that fitness even more than diet is the reason I have been able to heal, repair and bounce back after three weeks physically and mentally. I like to say that we never know what shit will be coming at us, but it is highly likely that the toxicity we are surrounded with in our foods, in our environment and in our own self talk will result in some life changing physical ailment at some point.

I can’t stress enough how important exercise and a fitness routine is knowing what I know now. I also believe that what I eat is 80% of my body shape. So even though fitness has played a huge role in my going in and coming out of surgery, my food choices have and continue to play a role in the way my body shows up in the reflection staring back at me. I also know that life is life and that I have to live so exercise can never be compromised, but what I eat surely can as I continue to seesaw between my hard fast no sugar rules and jumping into my favorite pint of Susannah’s Ice cream from Sweet Berry Farm.

As I reread this, I realize that it has the potential of sounding a little preachy and that is not really my intent. My intent is to remind myself that the gym is a sacred privilege. I am reminded of an intense conversation I had with my beloved and very missed brother, Michael. Lying in his hospital bed in his apartment not able to move because cancer had taken over his bones and he was physically stranded at twenty four, he just wished for one more bike ride. He longed for one more opportunity to go outside and smell the earth, to see the sun, and smell our mutual love of summer honeysuckle as he looked at me feeling so screwed out of life. Obviously my health and cancer free world at thirty watching him lose his young life oddly wasn’t necessarily enough motivation to propel me into a strict fitness routine, goodness knows why, but it was a definite seed. It took me another fifteen years before I really got serious and fortunately it was well before I had a life altering diagnosis. For him, even though he had a strong fitness routine, it didn’t spare him, fitness didn’t even help his life quality, but his cancer was completely different and it wasn’t caught early. Maybe my father and my brother had something to do with mine being caught early, maybe they are having too much fun together and they are not ready for me to join them yet. I’ll take the extended stay on the earth though because frankly I am having too much fun trying to figure my shit out and I am not ready to give in. They had no choice so my life, my early diagnosis and my return to the gym gets to honor them and I feel so grateful to have at least one more opportunity.



My beautiful very fit very missed pre cancer brother, Michael and me with crazy Kathy before my double m (when I still had to wear a fitness bra, sorry lulu lemon)