Fundamentals of Depression Recovery: Exercise

I could easily link to a dozen articles telling you that exercise will help with depression. The Mayo Clinic says so; Harvard Health says so; WebMD says so. There are about a million (<–hyperbole) small studies proving it, looking at different cohorts of people, exercise amounts, types of exercise, and so on, almost all of which conclude that yes, exercise helps alleviate depression symptoms in a statistically significant way.

Actually maybe not a million — maybe 19,175, which is how many records this meta-analysis of the research found in November of 2020. The meta-analysis, however, discarded the vast majority of them and kept only the fifteen studies that included more than 3,000 people and followed up with them for at least three years or longer. In other words, longitudinal studies with lots of participants, the best kind of study for accurate data. Their conclusion: “Relatively small doses of physical activity were associated with substantially lower risks of depression.”

This does not, of course, mean exactly the same thing as, “Relatively small doses of physical activity will cure your depression.” But close enough, for my purposes.

There are lots of interesting theories about why exercise helps; some biological, some psychological. One older one struck me as entertaining: the thermogenic hypothesis suggests that exercising makes our core body temperature rise which leads to muscle relaxation and a reduction of stress. I like it, but wouldn’t a hot shower do just as well then? And wouldn’t it be lovely if a hot shower or bath could cure depression? Maybe not good for anyone’s water usage, but so satisfying. Alas, I don’t think that’s it and I’m thinking researchers don’t either, as more recent studies don’t mention that possibility. Instead they consider the effects of exercise on neuroplasticity (the hippocampus again), inflammation, anti-oxidants, the endocrine system (ie, runner’s high), plus the psychological factors of self-esteem, social connections, and self-efficacy, ie feelings of competence.

Fundamentally, though, it doesn’t actually matter to me WHY it works. All the research confirms that it does work. If you’re depressed and you want to feel better, exercise.

But! Super good news for those of us who are lazy and hate sports and sweating and gyms: “exercise” in this context does not mean organized reminders of high school phys ed. All of the negative 1980s messaging about “feel the burn” and “no pain, no gain” is bullshit. For this purpose, exercise just means moving your body. Even a little bit is sufficient. Two and a half hours of walking a week will do. Yes, preferably brisk walking, but if you don’t want to walk briskly, that’s fine, too. Any walking is better than none.

One theory for why walking is so good is that being outside helps, too, especially if you can walk in different places. Those 700 neurons that we create every day only stick around if we use them, and we use them to build memories, so the more stimulation and variety you can include in your exercise, the better. Walking outside should actually be more helpful for your mental health than going to a gym. Also — and as a lazy, gym-hating person, I love this — moderate, relaxed exercise might be better for your mental health than intense exercise. In at least one study, intense exercise raised participant’s stress and cortisol levels, also increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Moderate is good, you don’t need to stress yourself out about it.

Random side-note: do you know why we all think that you’re supposed to walk 10,000 steps a day for optimal health? Ans: Because a Japanese clockmaker in the 1960s made a pedometer with a name that in Japanese looked like a walking man and translated as 10,000 steps meter. (That link might be behind a paywall, but it takes you to a story from the New York Times of July, 2021.) There is no science behind the 10,000 steps and in fact, while it’s not bad for you to walk more, the health benefits of walking top out at about 7500 to 8000 steps a day. If you live your typical life (and it includes an ordinary amount of random movement) and also walk for half an hour a day, you will have reduced your chance of dying early by 40% – 50%.

Back to depression, though, and specifically my own depression: once I realized I was depressed and decided that it was time to do something about it, I adopted two exercise strategies.

The first is the simplest. When I think of it, when it occurs to me, at random moments during the day, here and there — I stand up and stretch. I touch my toes, I reach toward the ceiling, I take a few deep breaths. Maybe I pick up the arm weights that are sitting on my dresser and move them around for a bit, maybe I try to balance on one foot in a tree pose for thirty seconds or a minute. I’ve done a downward dog or two, too, but I don’t push myself and I don’t get ambitious. Just a little tiny bit of movement. And then I say, “Shine on, self,” and go back to being a depressed, unmotivated slug, spending too much time reading the news and worrying about the state of the world. And if I manage that once a day, fine, but about two weeks into my current depression recovery plan, it’s more like six or seven or eight times a day. That’s a lot of shine.

The second is more substantial: every time the thought crosses my mind that I could be taking a walk, I get up and do it. There’s a self-help guru named Mel Robbins who has a 5-second rule, which basically boils down to “when you think it, do it,” although, you know, in 5 seconds, and I guess I’m sort of using that. But I’m not worrying about the length of my walks or being goal-oriented about where I’m going to go or how much time I’m going to spend walking, I just… walk. When I think of it. Does this mean that I’m walking vast distances? Nope, not at all. Sometimes my walk is literally around the block, which is probably not even 1000 steps. It’s a small block.

But check it out:

step count from Apple Health

1) The week I realized I was depressed.
2) The week I decided to do something about it.
3) This week.

Knowledge is power.

Is it working? Yeah, it is. I’m still struggling with my sleep, but I feel better than I did two weeks ago. Maybe I’m growing my hippocampus, maybe I’m filling up my brain with subjects more useful and helpful to me than reflections of the past, maybe I’m just getting more fresh air. But I don’t feel stuck, trapped in grief, and I don’t feel like I’m stuffing those feelings, either. I just feel like I’m having them in a healthier way.

I’m even getting glimmers of story again. Not full-fledged chapters, not even paragraphs, but yesterday I opened up a file that I thought would have notes for a story I’d wanted to write and discovered that it contained exactly two lines. I laughed at myself, rolled my eyes, and moved on, but before I closed the file later that evening, I wrote a third line. Word by word, that’s how it’s done, right?

Anyway, I might have a few more blog posts to write on this subject before I get back to whatever my blog’s usual random minutia is. Or rather a few more posts to write on the related subject of how to be happy, because I’ve been thinking a lot about that, too. There is so much stuff in life that is out of our control, the things we can’t fix, can’t change, can’t heal. My son threw me away and I know that more than one of you reading this have shared that experience. Grieving for those losses doesn’t make us needy or codependent or sick. A therapist using cognitive-behavioral techniques would probably try to get us to reframe the experience, ie someone else’s behavior doesn’t make you a failure, this experience doesn’t dictate your self-worth, blah-blah-blah. But the acceptance and commitment approach is more like, “Yes. And…?” That happened. We can acknowledge our pain, feel our grief, and still have an excellent, awesome, fantastic, happy life. Our emotions aren’t an either/or proposition; either we’re sad or we’re happy. We can be both at the same time (okay, maybe not the same minute, but the same hour, definitely.) And I think I am probably going to write some more about my own approach to happiness, because apparently I have more to say. But since this blog post has gotten long, and since I could be talking a walk, I’ll save it for tomorrow!

Fundamentals of Depression Recovery: Nutrition

Let’s assume for the moment that my problem is not the roosters that live within wake-me-up distance. The second fundamental ingredient for depression recovery is nutrition.

If I was writing a book — say, maybe, something like a memoir about depression and grief and estrangement? — I’d spend some time wading through the science to give you lots of facts and chemistry info about how our food intake works on our brain. There’s so much data available, and some of the current research is truly fascinating.

But let’s start with the basics. First of all, the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression that we all believed back in the 20th century — ie, that you’re depressed because you don’t have enough serotonin in your brain — has been largely disproven. If our brains worked that way, then taking a pill that increased our serotonin level should help us feel better right away, but actually SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, ie Zoloft, Prozac, etc.) take several weeks to work, and that’s if they work at all. For more people than not, they don’t. In fact, according to a meta-analysis of a few decades worth of research, people with depression don’t have lower levels of serotonin than people without depression, anyway. Oops. It was a theory, and it hasn’t panned out.

The current theory is that depression is caused by something going on in the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain that affects memory and learning, maybe imagining the future, maybe a whole lot more. Neuro-imaging studies (aka brain scans) of people with major depressive disorder show noticeable differences in the volume of the hippocampus between depressed people and healthy people. One two-year study reported that the hippocampus showed signs of atrophy in people with long-term depression, and concluded, “Hippocampal atrophy is associated with greater and persistent depression severity.”

I am less than delighted to know that my depression might be shrinking my brain. Of course, it’s also possible that my shrinking brain is causing my depression. Again, is it a chicken or an egg? Either way, the obvious answer is to look for ways to a) stop my hippocampus from atrophying and b) help it grow again. But wait, you say, isn’t your brain fixed? Nope, not the hippocampus. It’s one of two regions in the brain that is continually undergoing neurogenesis, ie forming new neurons. Supposedly you get 700 new neurons every day, although apparently a lot of them quickly die.

And thus we come to nutrition (and eventually exercise.) Why do those neurons die? Well, maybe because we eat crap. A typical Western diet is high in saturated fat and processed sugar. When researchers fed rats a high fat, high sugar diet, and then looked at their brain cells, they found that their neurons had fewer synapses and shorter, thinner dendrites than the rats fed a healthier diet. They also found that the rats showed markers for inflammation in their glial cells, and inflammation in the body is never a good thing. (That link is fun, fyi, because it’s the kid-friendly version of the study — significantly more readable for the layperson than the official study.) One recent study found that insulin resistance (when your cells fail to effectively absorb the glucose in your blood, resulting in higher blood sugar levels) more than doubles your chance of developing major depressive disorder.

There’s also lots of random (and sometimes questionable) evidence about nutritional deficiencies and depression: “omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B (e.g., folate), and magnesium deficiencies” all have at least some evidence indicating possible links to depression. Bi-polar disorder has also been linked to Vitamin C deficiencies and anemia.

So what you should you eat if you want to protect your hippocampus and fight your depression? The obvious: plenty of vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and seafood. Some dairy, but not daily. As little processed food, red meat and refined sugar as you can. And processed food does not just mean chips and candy bars: bread, pasta, granola bars, luncheon meats, salad dressings, tortillas, white rice, even peanut butter, is all processed. Technically, of course, cooking something is a form of processing it — so is chopping it! — but if you’re depressed and you’re eating anything that came wrapped in plastic, with added salt, corn syrup, food stabilizers, or preservatives, you should probably stop.

Frankly, that is a lot easier said than done for a depressed person living in America. Depression and sugar go together like peanut butter and jelly, cheese and crackers, popcorn and butter. I know diet matters, I’ve been doing all this research to prove it to myself, and yet I’m still craving sugar. And of course, sugar does make you feel better for the brief window of the immediate energy high — right before you crash and burn. There’s actually one study that suggests depressed people might crave carbs for their “serotonin-mediated psychotropic effects,” ie, we want them because they make us feel better. Sadly, only temporarily. In the long-term, it’s pouring gasoline on a burning fire, hoping to put the fire out. Not gonna work.

But, of course, depressed people have a motivation problem. It’s the classic catch-22; if you’re depressed, you probably don’t have the energy it takes to make healthy food choices. What to do?

In my case, I’m keeping it super simple: I’m trying to eat ten vegetables a day. Morning is when I have the most motivation, so I am veggie-loading in the mornings with a breakfast hash, basically a bunch of chopped-up vegetables sautéed in my wok. This morning’s included red onion, sweet potato, carrot, cabbage, napa cabbage, arugula, cilantro, leafy green lettuce and pea shoots. I’m keeping it easy by using the food processor to shred several days worth of vegetables at once, and keeping it interesting by varying whatever I add for protein and flavor. Today it was ground beef and serrano pepper sauce, but I mix it up as much as is realistic.

this morning's breakfast

And I’m doing my best — my highly imperfect best! — to avoid sugar, and especially to avoid it in the evenings because, of course, eating sugar in the evening makes it more difficult to have restful sleep. It’s a double-whammy for increasing depression.

It’s not easy. Honestly, my step 2 of depression recovery — deciding that you’re going to do whatever it takes to get well — is really hard. I’ve joked about wishing I could force some young relatives of mine into my depression boot camp, because it’s so obvious from the outside that they’re making the wrong choices. And it’s not like eating vegetables for breakfast is a miracle cure. It’s not working any faster than the several weeks it might take for anti-depressants to kick in. But then again, all the side effects will be beneficial, and the vegetables alone are just one piece of the puzzle. Next up, exercise.

The Fundamentals of Depression Recovery

Three words: sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

I guess I didn’t need a whole blog post for that after all. 🙂

But actually, I want to write about all three of these things in more detail, because…well, why? I don’t know, maybe for the memoir I’m not really writing? Maybe because I know these things in bits and pieces and I want to organize my own knowledge? Maybe because writing them reminds me of what I know and I am actively working on my own depression recovery right now. Maybe for the sake of whoever stumbles across this post and needs to know this exact thing.

So, sleep first.

Messed-up sleep and depression are a chicken-and-egg equation. Are you depressed because you’re not sleeping enough or are you not sleeping enough because you’re depressed? Or are you sleeping too much, and again, are you depressed because you’re sleeping all the time or sleeping all the time because you’re depressed? I suppose there might be a few people out there who know the definitive answer for their personal depression — I might actually be one of them* — but science doesn’t know the answer for the majority of us.

Sleep problems have been known as a symptom of depression for centuries. Literally, The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, covers sleep issues, suggests remedies, and quotes Ovid to demonstrate that the Greeks understood the connection between sleep and mental health, too. The author, Robert Burton, declares that sleep is “sometimes is a sufficient remedy of itself, without any other Physick.”

a quote from Anatomy of Melancholy

Meanwhile, some very solid longitudinal studies — the kind that last for decades and include hundreds or even thousands of people — have shown that insomnia predicts depression. When you don’t sleep, you’re increasing your odds of developing depression. No one in this century seems quite ready to say that insomnia causes depression, but the evidence that ongoing insomnia predicts a relapse of depression looks quite solid. Ditto the fact that treating sleep apnea with CPAP can also resolve depression symptoms. When you sleep better, you feel better.

It sounds so logical when you spell it out, right? Sleep is restorative, it rejuvenates us. We all know we can’t live without it, but we think of it in terms of a single day, a single night. Sure, I didn’t sleep well last night, so I’ll feel lousy today, but what happens when you don’t sleep well night after night after night? For me, at least, it becomes familiar. I stop noticing that I’m still tired in the morning. I start taking the way I feel for granted and I don’t look at the bigger picture of what that lack of sleep might be doing to my overall state of well-being.

I had a great therapist for a while who started every session by asking about my sleep. At the time, I was working full-time and home-schooling R, which I managed by staying up late and getting up early. I probably averaged about four or five hours of sleep a night. If you’d asked me if I was tired, I would have told you I was fine, I was used to not sleeping. At that point, I hadn’t slept for more than a couple hours in a row for close to a decade. Spoiler alert: I was not fine.

So, we’ve known for at least four hundred years that sleep can be a cure for melancholy, and yet, is focusing on your sleep the first thing that comes to mind when you’re depressed? Probably not. And if it is, how seriously do you really take it?

Here’s a question or three: how old is your mattress? How old are your pillows? How soft are your sheets? Is your sleeping situation really comfortable or is it just what you’re used to? If you’re waking up multiple times in the night, do you know why? What can you do to change it?

The internet has vast quantities of advice to improve your sleep: get on a consistent schedule; no electronic devices (television, computers, phones) in the bedroom; limit caffeine, alcohol and sugar; get plenty of physical exercise during the day; make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature; etc, etc.

Some of the suggestions are impractical for me: I live in a one room tiny house, so the electronic devices are staying in the room, and so is my dog. But I’ve stopped drinking tea after 8, and by 9PM, I’m dimming the lights in my room. At 10, the lights go off. Do I like this? Nope. I hate living on a schedule, using a clock to structure my life. But I also hate being depressed. And I know that consistent, regular, plentiful sleep is a starting place for recovery.

* You know how I said that depression and sleep are a chicken-and-egg equation? Writing this has made me realize that in my case, it might be the chicken that came first. 

Last summer’s batch of chicks unfortunately included two roosters. They are beautiful birds. But we have, since August, been saying, “We’re going to have to do something.” The coop is too small for two roosters; the neighborhood is too residential for any roosters. And roosters crow ALL the time. Roosters who are fighting with one another are noisy all day long; roosters in general start crowing around 3AM and if they’re in the mood, they don’t stop. I told Suzanne recently that if a fox or raccoon got in the chicken coop now and the ladies started squawking, I probably wouldn’t even react; I’d just assume that the roosters (Ringo 1 & 2) were trying to kill one another.

So when I take a step back and look at my current depression, I’ve got to wonder whether spending three months with two crowing roosters approximately thirty feet away from my bed might have something to do with how I’m feeling. I couldn’t tell you the last time I slept through the night, but I bet it was when I was in Mexico.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to re-home a rooster. No one wants them. I think we’re pretty much reduced to figuring out how to kill them humanely or rather (vastly preferably!) how to find someone else to kill them humanely. Yesterday I was researching vets online, trying to figure out if anyone euthanizes roosters. Ans: not around here. I eat chicken — I ate chicken for breakfast! — so it’s not like I’m morally pure here. But I have just not been able to bring myself to actively take steps to kill a healthy animal that I’ve been chatting with for months. Ugh. The very thought is, ha, depressing. 

Detecting depression

I keep checking my blog to see if it’s still up, and so far, so good. I think I’ve successfully transferred it to a new host, although WordPress appears to believe I’m still at my old host. Customer support tells me to clear my cache and see if that helps, but eh, I think I’m just going to wait patiently and believe that all will be fine. I seem to remember from past experiences that clearing the cache often means needing to figure out passwords and such, and even though I don’t feel like I’m using the internet much these days, I don’t want to have to re-do a whole bunch of passwords. Laziness, pure laziness!

Well, or maybe depression. I’ve been thinking a lot about depression recently as I contemplate the memoir that I’m not really writing. Depression has been a feature of my life, enough so that I consider myself a pro at living with it and recovering from it.  My last blog post worried a few people who love me, but I’m not worried about my current depression at all; I know I’m experiencing it, but I also know that I’m going to get through it. It’s sort of like having the flu, I guess. Well, no, it’s not like that at all. Hmm… well, this isn’t an analogy that makes a ton of personal sense for me, given that I don’t know anything about engines, but it’s like having a car that won’t start when you’re an experienced mechanic with a complete set of auto repair tools. It isn’t scary. Tiresome, yes, and not fun, yes, but I know what to do.

The first step, though, is noticing that I’m depressed. That can be a tough one. Depression is so familiar, such an ordinary state of being for me, that if I’m not paying attention to how I feel, it can be really easy to drift into the gray and then the dark. You know those depression checklists that your doctor gives you? I always wonder how many people they miss because the feelings are so normal to them that the person doesn’t realize that normal doesn’t equal healthy.

Here’s a story that will probably horrify my dad. (Sorry, Dad.) Sixth grade was the best academic year of my life. We moved at the beginning of the year, and my new teacher was great. Long before gamifying was a word, he gamified his classroom so that his students were rewarded for achievement, both co-operative and individual. When the class as a whole read 500 books, we got a popcorn party. Every Friday, we spent the afternoon playing a team social studies game. Spelling and grammar involved a test at the beginning of the week, and then only working on what you got wrong on the initial test. Math was individualized, work at your own pace.

I loved it. It was the only time in my childhood where my peers appreciated my strengths. I don’t think I fit in, particularly, but standing out was for once not a negative. Yet sometime during that year, I read a book — I think it might have been by James Michener — and discovered the concept of suicide. I think I was eleven. It was a new idea for me, that you could decide to end your life. And I vividly remember my reaction, which was, “Oh, that’s a GOOD idea. How do I do that?” Fortunately, I suppose, it was not so easy for an eleven-year old in the 1970s to find the means to kill herself. But did I know that my reaction was not normal? That thinking “life isn’t worth living” was a symptom of depression, not just how things were? Nope. Not at all.

Fast-forward a lot of years and I have held on by my fingernails more times than I can count. My dog saved me once in high school by whimpering outside the bathroom door when I was holding an X-ACTO blade to my wrists inside the bathtub. Fully dressed, having spent an agonizing amount of time trying to decide on the proper attire to get all covered in blood. In retrospect, I’m not sure why that mattered so much to me — it’s not like anyone would have tried to get the blood out — but it did. Fortunately, it also mattered to me that my dog was upset. I guess that’s another story that will probably horrify my dad. Sorry, Dad.

Anyway, I personally don’t find the depression checklists all that useful, especially when depression and bereavement/estrangement get mixed up. Example questions from one of them: have you felt guilty, like a failure, or sad recently? Sure. But I’m estranged from my son, who is the person I love most in the world, so I think it would be pretty weird if I didn’t have feelings about that. Under the circumstances, I think those feelings are normal. I also believe that it’s much healthier for me to acknowledge them and do my best to accept them as what they are — just emotions, fluid and fleeting and insubstantial — then it would be for me to label them a symptom and treat them as wrong. I’m not wallowing, but I don’t try to talk myself out of feeling the way I feel.

On the other hand, there are other symptoms that let me know I’m depressed, not just sad. I mentioned one in my last post: ignoring trash. I’ve written about that before, I think. Oh, ha, I went looking and yes, I have: depression checklist. Yep, not picking up trash, bad sign. Also a bad sign: not folding laundry when it is warm from the dryer. Folding warm laundry is the single nicest household chore there is. It feels good, it smells good (assuming you like your detergent, and I do), and it’s satisfying upon completion. Also it’s easy. Folding laundry a day later, when it’s cold and wrinkled, is just not the same. And not folding the laundry at all, just getting dressed out of the clothes basket while the dirty clothes pile up in a corner, is a terrible sign. It means I’m struggling with motivation on a basic self-care level. In the same category: making my bed and flossing my teeth. If I skip either of those things, especially if I do so without noticing, it’s a sign that the depression clouds are surrounding me.

So the first step, I said, was noticing that I’m depressed. Done. The second step is hard for a lot of people and has been close to impossible for me at points in my past: it’s deciding to do something about it. It’s really easy when you’re depressed — especially when depression is so deep-down familiar that you know it in your bones — to feel as if the way you feel in the moment is endless and never-changing. That you will feel the same way forever, that there’s nothing to be done about it. Depression feels hopeless. Random related side note: people with bi-polar disorder kill themselves at about double the rate of people with major depressive disorder, because they do it on the upswing, when they see the depression approaching. Depressed people are often so stuck that they can’t even muster the motivation to end their depression the ugly way.

So, step #2 is deciding to do something about my current state of depression. Done. But this blog post is getting long, so I think it’s gonna have to come in parts. Tomorrow: the fundamentals of depression recovery.

Meanwhile, have a picture of a cute dog. Who could be depressed for long with her around?

a cute dog

A wannabe rainbow

I got an email from my web host a couple days ago: if I want to keep my web sites alive, it’s once again time to pay for them. Cue much mental debate. Do I want to keep my sites alive? I barely use the “business” site, certainly am terrible at updating it, and I haven’t posted to this one in a month. Common wisdom is that no one reads blogs anymore, and as far as I can tell, that’s true. I was inspired to look at my traffic stats and my blog’s best traffic year was 2015. And “best” was nothing to write home about. Or to be more specific, nothing that would have earned me more than pennies if I wanted to “monetize” my audience, which I never did, never have.

But… I haven’t given up on being a writer. I think about it sometimes, but always come back to it. I still have plans for future books, intentions of writing more. I’d also have to delete a lot of links in the current books if I wanted to kill that site. Plus, the email address from my business site is tied to a number of useful accounts. It would be a PITA to try to change them all. Points that strongly suggest just paying the money to keep that site alive. And then my blog, well, ups and downs, but I never have been writing for anyone but myself really. Do I like my blog enough to spend some money to keep it alive? Yeah, I do.

But not as much money as my provider wants.

Every web host seems to do this thing where you get a good rate — under $10/month, usually — for an introductory period, and then the rate doubles or triples. My current web host would like $650 or so from me for the privilege of keeping my sites running for another three years. And no. I’m just not going to pay that. The last time around, I called them up and spent a good long while patiently explaining to the customer service person that unless I could get the introductory rate, I’d be moving on to another provider, before finally getting her to agree to that price, and I don’t think I want to go through that again. I could spend the same hour moving my site. (Okay, that’s probably unrealistically optimistic. But hey, it might be fun to do a site redesign anyway.)

So a couple things: 1) any recommendations for site providers from fellow bloggers? I’ve got almost a month to make this decision, so I’ll probably do it in a couple weeks, but I’m researching my options now. And 2) at some point, my sites and my email accounts are going to go down for a short period. I’m busy cleaning out my email accounts, because the last time I did this — six years ago, I think? — I lost all my emails. This time I’d like to make sure that I at least don’t lose contact info from people who have emailed me. I’ll post another warning before I actually take the plunge, but if I disappear for a bit, don’t worry about it; I’ll be back. But don’t send me any urgent emails, please.

In other news… wow, I just froze at that phrase. Felt the urge to run away from these words. Time to go hide, bury my head in the sand, play some solitaire? In thinking about my blog and whether I want to keep it, I’ve thought a lot about privacy and vulnerability, honesty and depth. I don’t want my blog to be a place where I only write about the superficial and the trivial, but I think I’ve developed a wariness about trolls that has been getting in my way.

So let’s try some radical honesty and see if I can get it out of my system. In other news, I’ve definitely been struggling with depression again. Oaxaca was awesome but the thing that I didn’t write about, couldn’t write about, was how much it hurt to be spending time with Suzanne’s stepson and grandson. I totally stuffed those feelings while they were happening. There wasn’t any room to feel them, and I didn’t want to explain them.

So when J was talking about still really wanting kids and hoping he can figure that out in the next few years and S said, “Yes! I vote for a granddaughter, please!” and I said, “That would be cool! I want to be an honorary grandma,” and J replied, “Oh, totally, you’ve been so great to my mom, I’m so grateful that she has you taking care of her,” I did not cry. I just smiled. I did not spend a second moment thinking about what it means to be grateful that someone is there for your mom.

It took probably two weeks more before I could say to myself, “Okay, you’re clearly depressed. You have seen trash on the patio for at least a week, maybe longer, and you haven’t picked it up and thrown it away, what’s going on with that?” And then the memory of that moment popped into my head, as vivid as if it had just happened seconds ago.

And I let myself feel the feelings. In the middle of Creamery field, a muddy expanse of grass and weeds where I had taken the dogs to run, I stood and threw the ball and sobbed and sobbed, ugly crying where I had to wipe my snotty nose on my jacket sleeve. Knowing that S’s son worries about her, cares that she’s taken care of, is grateful for her friends… it was a knife through the heart. Not jealousy, but bereavement. Mourning the deepest loss, the loss of a child. I did feel better when I’d cried it out, in the way that one does, but it wasn’t a miracle cure. There isn’t a miracle cure.

So I’ve been working on writing the sequel to Cici, thinking optimistically that I could finish it by the end of November, but it keeps veering into her relationship with her mother, which is not where I want it to go. Finally I decided that I was just going to have to write out this other stuff. The real stuff. To get rid of it. Maybe a book, a memoir, that no one else would ever get to see, just a purging, a way of processing. And that’s… well, honestly, really hard and painful. Eons ago, when I was getting divorced, I read a book that talked about how divorce feels like a failure to most people, and how we have to work through our feelings about having failed to recover from divorce. Divorce has nothing on estrangement when it comes to those feelings. It’s also a lot of looking back at choices and time and decisions and memories — in the long run, I hope this will be good for me. But it’s not fun.

Enough radical honesty, at least of the painful kind, and at least here and now.

More fun is that S is finally off crutches. Why is this fun? Because it means I’m walking only one dog, which also means I get to have so MANY more conversations with strangers. Which is nice, really. It’s terrible when you’re depressed to also be feeling isolated, and it is impossible to be isolated when you’re taking cute Miss Sophie Sunshine for a walk by herself.

With three dogs, my conversations with strangers were limited to two exchanges (many times, with numerous different people). From the dog-friendly: Wow, that’s quite a pack. (and variations thereof.) From the dog-wary: You’ve got your hands full. (No variations.) But most of the time, I was too focused on juggling the dogs and keeping my eyes on all of them at once to interact much with other people.

With Sophie alone, my conversations are much more extensive. In fact, twice recently, conversations at the park up the street have included introductions and hopes to see us again. Yesterday I probably spent a solid twenty minutes chatting with two elementary-age kids who asked to throw the ball for Sophie and I walked home feeling happy about the state of my world. (Helped, also, by the fact that it’s a beautiful walk home.)

Also more fun, learning Japanese. Why am I learning Japanese? I have no idea. NO IDEA! Seriously, I don’t know what I expect to accomplish with my ability to recognize Japanese numbers. Actually at the moment, I can’t really recognize the numbers, because I don’t know which is which, except for the easiest ones — 1, 2, 3, 4, and 10. All the others get jumbled. But will I ever have any reason to use this information, even if I do someday master it? Probably not. But it’s so absurdly hard. I make mistakes in Spanish because I get my articles mixed up or misspell a word that’s too close to an English word (beisbol vs baseball), but in Japanese I stare blankly at sentences that are completely mystifying that somehow the app thinks I should know. The app is usually correct that I’ve seen them before; wrong that I know them. So hard. It is the most intellectually challenging thing I’ve done in years. And so crazily satisfying when I get a question right because I honestly know the answer, not just because I made a lucky guess.

I should really post a picture of Sophie now, to finish out this rambling mess of a blog post. But on our way to the marsh this morning — literally the first time I’ve walked out to my favorite spot since sometime last spring — I had to stop and stare at the sky for a while, and then pull out my phone to take the below photo. A perfect wannabe rainbow.

not quite a rainbow

Duolingo

English is the only language I speak, and I’ve never really considered trying to learn another language. It’s not like I travel enough to think that it would be useful. In the past decade, there have been a few times when it might have been handy to know some Spanish and at least once when I wished my high school French wasn’t so completely rusty, but mostly… no. Not worth the effort. Especially because my memories of high school French are not the best. Even the thought of it stirs up anxiety, embarrassment and shame. (I cheated on a French test once — obviously, decades ago — and the memory still makes me flush with humiliation and guilt. Ugh.)

Suzanne, however, lived in Oaxaca for a while years ago, learned some Spanish, and wants to learn more. She plans to take classes, but meanwhile, she downloaded the Duolingo app and started playing with it.

It looked like fun.

Do I care about learning Spanish? Um, not really. Do I care about playing games, meeting goals, getting achievements, having cartoon characters tell me I’m doing great, and feeling the satisfaction of being first place in my league? Oh, yes, absolutely. Is learning Spanish a nice side benefit? I guess so! Mi perra es muy benita  y muy bonita. Is this a useful thing to be able to say? Um, well… it’s fun? (My dog is very kind and very pretty, to save you the effort of google translate.)

Also fun, learning Japanese. OMG, it is SOOO hard. Honestly, mind-bogglingly difficult. My Duolingo streak is currently 10 days long and during that time, I’ve made it halfway through Unit 5 in Spanish, including achieving Legendary in the first four units; my not-quite-forgotten high school learning zoomed me up to Unit 27 in French; and in Japanese, well… I’m struggling, at halfway through unit 2. I don’t understand how Japanese children do it. So many characters in their alphabet(s)! And so unrelated to one another. I can write the word sushi, and recognize the word teriyaki. When unit 2 included the words manga and emoji, I was grateful. I do not expect to become fluent in Japanese, no matter how many hours I spend playing with Duolingo. On the other hand, I’m enjoying the puzzle aspects of it very much.

Suzanne gently hinted that perhaps I might want to be writing instead of learning Japanese — which is certainly true — but I’m pretty sure they use different parts of my brain. They definitely use different pieces of time — a Duolingo lesson fits nicely in the five-minutes, here-or there time, which is harder to use for writing. (Although now that I’ve typed that, I’m reminded that I got a lot of writing done while I was both working at a full-time job and going to school part-time, because all I had was those five minutes of time. Hmm… a thing I should think about, I guess.)

Meanwhile, though, the whole reason I bring this up is because Duolingo lets you connect with friends and do friend quests with them. Suzanne and I got 100 gems each for managing 50 perfect lessons, go, us! But if you’re also playing with Duolingo, and want to be Duolingo friends, look me up! My name is Sarah Wynde, my user name is Sarah_Wynde, and my avatar picture is of a bird that I saw in Oaxaca. Not a pigeon, but some kind of dove. (I’m quite sure Suzanne knows exactly what kind of dove, but I don’t remember the specifics.) I’m not the blonde Sarah Wynder, nor any of the multitudes of Wyndes. Anyway, I don’t know how long my streak will continue — I might wind up getting frustrated eventually — but I’m having lots of fun with it right now and would love to connect with more people who are having fun with it, too. As Duolingo would be the first to tell you, people who play with friends play longer and learn more. 🙂

 

 

Oaxaca

I think that every time I went to write a blog post in September, I got distracted by the desire to post representative photos and the immense time suck of looking through my representative photos, of which there have been many. I mostly spent the month of September (2022), playing with dogs in beautiful places and cooking dazzling food.

That might have meant plenty of blog posts — I like writing about both dogs and food, since cute dog stories and recipes are dear to my heart — but I didn’t, because I was doing other things. Art things, photography things, dog things, food things… not writing things. So it goes. But so many beautiful photos! We played at dog parks, beaches, our local community center, a nearby field… my arm was often sore from throwing balls, but the dogs are good and happy and well-exercised dogs, which was the goal.

In the first week of October, the other things also included an incredibly nice trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. This trip was one Suzanne has been wanting to take for a long time and we’d planned it well before she broke her ankle. I mention that because honestly, traveling with a broken ankle that you are not allowed to put weight on, is… well, it has its challenges. She’d been hoping all along that her healing would be so miraculous that she’d be off crutches before the trip rolled around and I kept my mouth closed about thinking that unrealistic, because sure, it could happen.

It didn’t. She was on crutches. She was also very herself about it, which meant no whining, even when she was getting blisters on her hands from bearing her own weight on them with every step, as well as optimistically attempting to do ALL the things, sensible or not. Her cheerful “I can make it!” was often met by my own, “OR — we could catch a cab,” and, “OR — we could stop here,” and sometimes met by my own pessimistic, “How?” So instead of doing ALL the things, per our usual approach, we did a solid number of the things.

We went on a gastronomic walking tour of the local Oaxacan markets that included three different markets and SOOO much food; went to a Zapotec village, where we learned to make chocolate, visited a shoe factory and an artisan mezcal distillery; did a day tour that included visits to an immense tree, a place making handmade rugs with natural dyes and threads, some ruins, and another market; took a two-hour tour of the botanic gardens; and spent plenty of time wandering around Oaxaca. Honestly, any of these things deserves a full blog post of its own, because they were all great, especially the Zapotec village, but I’m being realistic — if I don’t sum it up, I’ll never get this blog post written.

We also ate some fantastic food. Oaxaca is clearly foodie paradise right now. One of our meals — the one I posted on Instagram, so you can see it in the sidebar — ranks in my top ten list of meals anywhere, ever. I’m not sure how high it is on the list, because I’m not sure what exactly beats it. Not much, because it was fantastic. Another meal was an omakase (chosen by the chef) menu at a reservation-only, six seat, Oaxacan-style sushi restaurant. That’s the kind of thing that would ordinarily feel way out of my price range, but not so much in Oaxaca. (With beverages and tip, it cost 2600 pesos, or about $130 for two people.) It was also extremely good, although I think some of the courses came closer to “interesting” than “delicious.” Not on the bad side of interesting, though, just not something I’d go out of my way to eat a second time.

The weather was perfect; the company, which included Suzanne’s stepson and grandson, was great; and every day Suzanne’s friend Jen sent us pictures of the dogs having fun at Woof Camp, aka having adventures with her two dogs. It was really just an ideal vacation. Well, apart from the crutches, and our return home, during which our plane, instead of landing, rather abruptly returned to the sky and then returned to San Francisco, the pilot having decided upon arriving in Arcata that the fog was too thick for landing. We wound up spending the remainder of the night in a hotel and then renting a car the next day and driving back to Arcata. I spent a lot of the drive reminding myself to appreciate the fact that 101 North is an incredibly pretty highway and that people actually travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to enjoy our redwoods. Vacation extension, not vacation annoyance, right?

And now… a dangerous temptation looms, ie looking for the ideal photo to accompany this blog post. Or, you know, the ideal ten photos. Or twenty.

A Oaxacan street with flags overhead

My favorite street in Oaxaca.

a list of ice cream flavors

A list of ice cream flavors. Someday, I’d like to go back and try them all, but I think over the course of the week, I tasted ten different flavors, so I’m off to a good start.

 

A big bowl of possibilities

bowl of vegetables

Red onion, brown bella mushrooms, ground beef, carrot, parsnip, sweet potato, cabbage, apple, dried cranberry, turmeric and mint, on a bed of power greens (aka kale, chard and spinach.)

Since Suzanne broke her ankle, I’ve been sharing my AIP breakfasts with her. It’s essentially the same thing every morning: a bowl of vegetables with a protein. I mix it up — some days it’s white sweet potato instead of orange; the herbs and spices change; and I will throw in random other ingredients and veggies — but mostly, it’s onions, sweet potatoes, and power greens, plus extras.

Every day.

Despite having reminded myself approximately 1000 times that I am incredibly lucky to be eating this food, I was whining/apologizing/both about the repetition to Suzanne recently. (Lucky to have access to so many different ingredients; lucky to be able to afford good proteins; lucky to have the energy, health, and physical ability to cook; lucky to have the facilities to cook… really, so fortunate. And yet — I would like a pancake. With maple syrup and butter, please.)

Suzanne said, “No! That’s the wrong way to think about it. This is a big bowl of possibilities.”

Ever since, I’ve been greeting her in the morning with, “Good morning. Here’s your big bowl of possibilities.” It’s a surprisingly helpful attitude readjustment. Yes, I still want pancakes and toast and yogurt and granola, but I like the scope of a big bowl of possibility. I like the idea that my healthy breakfast opens up new worlds for me.

Yesterday, I was walking home with the dogs from Creamery Field, which is the closest place where they can run off leash, and thinking that I was just wiped out, really ready for bed. It was probably 7PM, and I still had at least a few chores on my list: washing the dishes from dinner, closing the chickens up to keep them safe from night-time predators; but I felt like I could easily crawl under the covers and fall asleep.

When I got home, I looked at the step count on my phone: it was the highest it had been in all of August. I had one bigger day in July, but that was when we took the dogs up to Six Rivers National Forest and picnicked by the Smith River. Another bigger day in May, but that was when I went to Epcot. Yesterday was the first day since winter where just living my regular life involved three and a half miles of walking. (I say “since winter” — “since I got COVID” is equally true, although probably not related.) Yay! Shine on, self.

That said, there was dust on my computer when I picked it up this morning. Not like a day’s worth either. I am fairly sure this is the first time I’ve opened my computer in a week. I know I’ve said this before, but if I could fire myself as a self-employed person, I so would. I am a lousy employee. I used to be a great employee, very reliable and very hard-working, but apparently my current employer doesn’t know how to motivate me.

Of course, I’ve read enough self-help books to know that I shouldn’t be thinking about motivation, I should be thinking about routines: how do I change my routine to prioritize writing and publishing? But my current routine prioritizes well-being — mine, the animals, and Suzanne’s — and under the circumstances, that’s not a bad choice. It will be nice when I can prioritize well-being and also have some time and energy to make up stories, but I’m pretty sure that day is approaching fast.

It might even be today. I did a fantastic job of exercising dogs this morning — we drove to the dog park in McKinleyville — so they’re asleep, which means I could be visiting Tassamara right now. I think maybe I’ll go do that!

small dogs in a big dog park

Lots of room to run in the morning makes for peaceful afternoons.

 

 

August Ongoing

It is the middle of August already, and I feel like I’ve accomplished exactly nothing this summer. Except a multitude of the accomplishments that stop being accomplishments an hour after you finish them, like when the dogs leave muddy footprints on the clean floor, or the cat complains that she’s hungry again. Also full of accomplishments that lead to new chores, like, yay, I cooked a delicious meal! And did I really have to make all those dishes dirty in the process?

That said, I have done some serious nesting this summer. I don’t know why I’ve gone so heavily for the “carpe diem” mindset, but the past two months have been filled with me saying things like, “I think my life would be better with a dish drainer,” spending an hour researching online, then buying. I love my new dish drainer; it is exactly what I wanted it to be. I use my new wok almost every day to make the elaborate veggie hashes that I’m eating for breakfast. I’m making delightful things in my new air fryer/convection oven: fish pakora today, sweet potato fries yesterday, pumpkin scones on Friday. I’ve only cut myself once because of my new mandoline/veggie chopper, and it’s super handy for quickly dicing onions or evenly slicing cucumbers.

My new baker’s rack is the perfect place to hold both the wok and induction cooktop, and air fryer/convection oven. My new coat stand is a much more satisfying place to store all my outside gear, with more hooks than my old coat rack, and a shelf above the shoe rack on which to drop dog gear as needed. My new nightstand is actually a dog crate: Sophie doesn’t like it yet, but I hope she will eventually. And my new sideboard delights me — it gives me more storage, a convenient resting place for my laptop, and a great surface on which to place my farmer’s market bounty and a mason jar of dahlias from the garden.

Was all that spending a good idea? Well…no. I’m not earning nearly enough money from book sales to justify any of it. And, on the other hand, yes. Because my house is cozier and more comfortable and there’s not a single one of my purchases that I regret. (I suppose I might regret Sophie’s crate someday if she continues being disinclined to enter it, but it’s actually a pretty nice nightstand — lots of room on top for power cords and kleenex and things — so I might not, too.)

Also yes, because many of those purchases are geared toward making it easier for me to cook good things, and I have been cooking a great many good things. I should have reached the reintroduction phase of AIP but I haven’t really. I tried a sprinkle of black pepper last week on Day 31, but promptly got congested. I suspect that the congestion was more likely to be caused by moving some furniture and getting dust and cat hair in the air, but I didn’t try again.

Today’s good thing: AIP fish pakora. Cooked in the air fryer, so not actually fried, despite the look. The coating is cassava flour with a little turmeric in it, plus a cilantro-garlic-marinade on the fish. The fish was black cod, purchased straight from the dock. Totally delicious.

I wish I’d kept some kind of journal when I did this back in 2014, because… and wait! I did keep a journal, or at least a blog. Let me scroll back in time…

Wow, I sure posted a lot back in 2014. I think part of that was that I had three blogs: one for cooking, with recipes; one for writing, where I posted regular word count updates; and this one. At some point, I merged them all together, and quit posting on the cooking and writing blogs. But I started AIP for the first time on August 20, 2014 and when I hit 30 days, I wasn’t feeling well enough to start reintroductions.

So… I guess I persist. Well, I was going to persist anyway, even without that knowledge, but now I know that it wasn’t a miracle eight years ago either. And also that last time around, the way I felt better was to follow all the rules, including adding things to my diet, not just subtracting. Specifically, adding fermented food (sauerkraut), bone broth, organ meats, and increasing leafy green consumption to ten cups a day. Sigh. Organ meats are the hardest, but I do get sick of leafy greens, too.

Well, onward. And onward right now should be moving on today’s next thing: feeding Sophie, feeding the chickens, and figuring out what I’m making for dinner. Whatever it is, it will undoubtedly include leafy greens.

 

 

August Update

I said to Suzanne over breakfast the other morning, “You would have been fine if I wasn’t here. You would have made friends with the UberEats or DoorDash delivery guy; figured out how to wear a garbage bag over your cast when entering the chicken coop; gotten rides to the places you needed to be from our awesome neighbors. It would have all worked out. You would have managed. But I’m glad you don’t have to.”

Suzanne didn’t disagree with my assessment, but her, “Me, too!” was fervent.

She’s still waiting for surgery on her ankle, which… well, sucks. True recovery doesn’t start until after the surgery, plus she won’t know for sure how long that recovery is likely to be until they get in there and see the damage, so she’s in something of a holding pattern right now. Best-case scenario, I think, is no damage to ligaments, so another six weeks in a non-weight bearing cast, maybe followed by some more time in a walking cast. Worst-case scenario is, well, worse. We’re not thinking about that one. The surgery is currently scheduled for next Monday, so she’ll know more then.

Is it good news for her that she’s really great on crutches? Maybe. Ha. But she really is. I think it’s all the roller-skating; she’s got an excellent sense of balance. She’s managing to do a lot more than I think I’d be able to do, anyway. If I tried to carry my tea mug from her kitchen to living room while on crutches, I’m fairly sure I’d be wearing my tea. She makes it look easy.

It does mean that I personally am still kinda busy with things other than writing books, the biggest component of which is probably exercising dogs. When she was trying to get her surgery scheduled, Suzanne told the nurse that her daily step count base was 20,000 steps and the enforced inactivity was killing her; ergo, Bear’s former daily step count was probably pretty close to 20,000 steps, too. That’s not something I can achieve on a daily basis.

What I can do is take the dogs to places where they can run around until they’re tired. We’re playing lots of ball in the nearby field, and taking lots of beach trips. We’ve also found a cool new dog park, which we’ve gone to a couple times now, and Sophie and Riley got to try out doggie day care last week. (Bear needs one more vaccination first.) They’re not so exhausted that they can’t find trouble — Bear’s success of the week was helping herself to three pork chops from my counter while I was out playing with Sophie — but they’re not chewing on the walls, either. (I fully expect Suzanne to start chewing on the walls any day now. 😉 )

This is not a tired Sophie. It’s her posture when I tell her it’s time to go home from the field where we play ball. It’s more of a toddler no, an emphatic, “But I don’t wanna!”

I’m also cooking a ton. I’m three weeks and two days into AIP, so eating a lot of vegetables and a lot of protein. In the list of foods that I miss, coffee was definitely the hardest to cut out, but chili peppers in all of their various forms — red pepper flakes, chili garlic sauce, Yellowbird serrano sauce, smoked paprika — are definitely what I miss most in my diet. Sushi, too, of course, but at almost every meal, I have the thought, “This would be so much better with a little X” and the X is almost always a chili pepper based substance. Occasionally cheese, occasionally soy sauce. And really, long-term, I don’t want to live without yogurt or chocolate or coffee. But for now, I’m managing without all of the above, relatively painlessly.

Suzanne has the best of both worlds: I’m cooking two meals a day for her while she’s on crutches, but she’s on her own for lunch, so she gets excessively healthy food twice, but can snack on the occasional sugar, and have delicious gluten bread for lunch. Yes, I’m a little envious. But I am beginning to feel better, too. Not as quickly as I would have liked — I’m both counting down the days to the reintroduction phase and wondering whether I’ll be feeling well enough to start it on time — but getting there.

I did make an annoying discovery today, which is that Tazo Teas don’t guarantee that their teas are gluten-free. It is now entirely possibly that my entire summer has been shaped by my consumption of Tazo Decaf Chai Latte, which I discovered back in May, and was drinking every few days until committing to AIP. I think I mentioned that I thought I might be having a gluten reaction, but without the gluten. It never even crossed my mind that tea could be contaminated. Just… why?!? But since a) I don’t want to start AIP over if I’m wrong and the tea was not my problem and b) I’m still not feeling great and it’s been three weeks since I had any chai, I’m going to continue the restrictions. It’s not like it’s actually bad for me to be eating mostly vegetables and no sugar. It’s just boring.

And now it’s time for me to go take care of the chickens. I’m still trying not to get too attached — one of them has been crowing, which is just terrible news, given its almost inevitable fate if it turns out to be a rooster — but my new name for the baby ladies is “the young hooligans,” as in “those young hooligans are party animals.” They stay up way too late, in my opinion. But also… well, a picture is worth a thousand words.

chicken photo

This chicken is clearly a punk rocker, not a lady. We’re calling her Phyllis.