Thursday, August 4, 2011

Running, Coping Skills, and Family Pain

My father and I have both worked hard to have the relationship we have now.  I don't want to go into details here.  If you want to know what it was like for me growing up, read Ashley's post about her own relationship with her father.  The details differ.  The terror was the same.

Dad probably has, or at least has had, an undiagnosed mood disorder of some kind.  John McManamy writes that depression may be under-diagnosed in men because it can manifest in anger or rage -- symptoms that don't appear on the DSM list.  My father raged.  Holy crap, did he rage.  Then, for no apparent reason, he would be in a good mood, and he'd laugh off my latest transgression.  Then he'd start raging again.

He was also incredibly hard on us kids.  His expectations for academic performance, musical performance, and general behavior were very high.  He also expected us to make fully informed, rational decisions at all times.  Given that we were teenagers at various parts of our lives, you can imagine how often he was disappointed.  When I was thirteen, I remarked to a friend that if I were to graduate from Harvard the following year with full honors, simultaneously recording a platinum classical piano album and winning the Nobel peace prize, it still  wouldn't be good enough for my Dad.

Now that our relationship has healed, I've come to realize that as hard as he was on us kids, he's at least twice as hard on himself.

My father is trained as an economist, works as a pension analyst, and handles a few investment portfolios: his joint portfolio with my mother, the portfolio belonging to their church, and my grandmother's portfolio.  My mom says that he was losing sleep over the looming debt crisis, because if Congress decided to render the government insolvent and wreck the whole economy, Dad would "be responsible" for the various investments being wiped out.

That's right.  It is my father, and not Congress, who is morally responsible for the mind-boggling stupidity of Congress.

Now that the debt crisis seems to be resolved, at least for now, he's killing himself worrying about my grandmother's situation.  He feels like "he contributed to it" because he's done a lot of work on Grandma's house over the years, making it look nice, and she really likes it.  He's concerned that my aunt and uncle will fail to "fix up" the fixer-upper they bought, and Grandma will be living in a space that's not as nice as what she's used to.  So Dad, in his mind, will bear the moral responsibility for her unhappiness by having made her happy for the last several years.  Assuming she even will be unhappy -- it hasn't actually happened yet.

When I got off the phone with my father and grandmother on Tuesday, I was feeling too many things to sit still.  It was exercise time anyway, so I decided on a whim to make it a good, long run.  I knew I'd need to walk much of the way, because I figured the route I had planned was about 7 miles, and the longest I'd ever run was 3 miles, and that on a treadmill (note to non-runners: treadmills are a completely different animal than concrete).

This is something I have in common with my father.  When stressed, find something physical to do.  Bonus points are given for inadequate hydration, nutrition, or working to the point of injury.

I set off on my run without sunblock and without water.  There were a few drinking fountains in the park, though it's hard to really get enough to drink from a fountain.  At about mile 4, I became ravenously hungry.  By mile 5, I was aware of blisters developing on the bottoms of both feet.  And that's in addition to the impact-stiffness in my feet, ankles, and hip flexors.

So, let's see ... points for inadequate nutrition and hydration.  Bonus points for getting sunburned.  And extra special points for the fact that I spent yesterday limping because I'd injured a muscle in the bottom of my left foot.

I've learned a lot over the years about how to care for myself, and basically it involves doing the opposite of what my father does -- I eat regular meals, I drink enough water, I don't beat myself up over things that could not possibly be my fault in any way, shape, or form.  I've learned to be conscientious about not overtraining.  I made the decision to go running knowing I would get a mild sunburn at least, possibly a mild injury, and would have to rehydrate heavily afterward.  I did rehydrate, and my sunburn was very mild, and today, my foot is much better.

But yesterday, as I limped around on my injured foot, I found myself wondering if my long run had been an unconscious way to share my father's pain.  To gain some insight into this person who raised me, who modeled such overreaching guilt and responsibility.  To try and understand why he still chooses to shoulder these impossible burdens.  From his vantage point, can he even see the path toward physical and emotional healing?


  1. Interesting post.

    "To try and understand why he still chooses to shoulder these impossible burdens."

    Do you think that's even possible? Maybe it's not a choice so much as a neurobiological imperative.

    These economic and political times are surely enough to mess with anyone's rationality. I know it's often hard for me to wrap my little brain around the pervasive nonsense. When one is extra hypervigilant/hyper-responsible, it must be so very hard.

    Good luck to you and dad....

  2. Hi Gina,

    Thanks so much for commenting and for your good wishes.

    To answer your questions, I don't think it's a neurobiological imperative. Neurobiological habit, perhaps. But my father has proven his ability to change: he got his rage under control once he realized how destructive it was.

    I don't think it's a case of simply directing it inward. He definitely changed his attitude toward life. However, he did this without medication or therapy of any kind.

    He's aware of therapy and medications and is aware of how helpful both have been for my sister and me. I just don't think he realizes the relationship between his thought patterns and the stress he feels.


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