I’ve had 3 formative events in my life.
They all sucked.
BUT I wouldn’t change a thing. Here’s why—my story and the lessons I learned.
When I was 15 years old, I started to become depressed and tired all the time. I was on the high school wrestling team and I felt like an old man.
I’d feel beaten up and never seemed to recover from the practices the way the other wrestlers did. I’d always get sick during the season, and by the end of each academic year I’d use up most or all of my sick days.
In the morning it would take a monumental amount of will just to get out of bed.
I felt like I couldn’t enjoy anything and had no drive to involve myself or participate much. I felt like everything was too much—that life was overwhelming. Suicidal thoughts would keep popping into my head.
One of the most difficult things was how it affected my libido…
I’d go through phases like this for a few months at a time and it continued when I started college at NYU.
I was beginning to date this girl, Jill. I was really into her and wanted (so desperately) to impress her… and I could never keep it up…
I remember one time I couldn’t perform… I was so frustrated that I clenched my jaw and punched the cinder block wall of her dorm room. For a moment, I felt so much rage welling up inside of me, but then it just turned to tears.
I was so embarrassed and felt so bad about myself—I was only 18 and felt like less of a man.
I’d never been so vulnerable and Jill could have crushed me or just gotten frustrated and left me at some point. But she stayed with me and dealt with this on and off for over a year.
She told me that it never made her love me less, and that it was all going to be ok.
I’d already been seeing doctors and had been getting regular blood work done since I’d first started feeling this way. But the doctors had never figured anything out…
So I didn’t know what to do about my “problem”—it just seemed hopeless.
Then during a midterm exam I started getting a sharp pain in my forehead behind my eyes. Looking at the exam I saw a blurry smudge on it.
It was like having an oily spot on a lens. As I looked around, the patch would move, distorting whatever was in the bottom right of my visual field.
The pain was intense, so I rushed through the exam, and went right to my dorm room and put my head under the pillow. I’d had to deal with this a few times over the next couple of weeks and it would last up to an hour.
I went to the doctor. I got an MRI and they found a small tumor on my pituitary gland.
The pituitary gland sits near the base of the brain and is close to the optic nerves. It’s a little pea-sized nothing that has a huge influence over your hormones.
My pea had a sprinkle-sized tumor called a pituitary adenoma. It affected my hormones and as it grew it began to irritate my optic nerve.
And suddenly the years of blood test results began to make sense.
My results typically came back within the “normal” range. A consistent pattern over the years of regular blood work was that I’d have high end of normal and occasionally slightly above-normal prolactin levels. On the other hand, my LH (luteinizing hormone) and testosterone showed up on the lower side of normal and occasionally slightly below range.
(Only later did I find out that the “normal range” doesn’t take age into consideration. My low-normal T levels when age adjusted were more typical of a 60 year old…)
My endocrinologist diagnosed me with hyperprolactinemia. She explained that the elevated prolactin levels suppressed LH levels which led to lower testosterone production.
She gave me a prescription for a drug called Cabergoline.
Within just a few weeks my life started to change in ways that I’d never imagined…
I noticed myself spontaneously speaking up more in class, or participating more socially. I’d only later realize how differently I was acting.
I saw the world more optimistically, and felt like “myself” for the first time in a long time.
And people who had no idea of what was going on even mentioned that I seemed “different”.
My energy had never seemed higher. I was able to push myself and make faster progress than ever before at the gym without feeling beaten up afterwards.
Walking the streets of New York, my eyes seemed drawn towards attractive women like magnets. It was such an unconscious and automatic reaction that I began to catch myself doing it all the time.
I was still with Jill and we’d always been pretty happy together. But now I felt more secure and it wasn’t just because our sex life was going through a renaissance period.
I’d find myself having exceptionally vivid random sexual thoughts of other girls just pop into my head. For the first time in my relationship, I had to control myself to keep from being flirtatious.
Most of the self-doubt and anxiety in my life just seemed to evaporate.
Blood results showed my Testosterone levels had more than doubled. It even tripled compared to some of the lower measurements I’d gotten previously. I was at the high end of normal (appropriate for my age). And the other hormones also reversed sides on the “normal” spectrum.
I’d always been into exercise and nutrition. Now I was driven towards researching endocrinology, psychology, and eventually neuroscience trying to understand this transformation that seemed to impact me on every level of my life.
I began to see how much of the benefits of exercise and nutrition weren’t just physical.
Our lifestyle has a huge influence over our hormones and neurotransmitters. In turn, this has a profound impact on our psychology.
Soon I began to feel like I could take on so much more than just school work. I suddenly had the energy and confidence to stretch myself in ways that I wouldn’t have dared a few months before.
I originally felt physically unable to participate in anything beyond taking classes and hitting the gym a couple times a week, but I began to compete in Sport Tae Kwon Do, too.
Then I also decided that I wanted to start working at a gym as a personal trainer.
So during my junior year I was trying to balance classes, growing a personal training business, my own workouts, sport tae kwon do, and my 2 and half year old relationship with Jill.
Then at a Sport Tae Kwon Do practice (after the practice actually) a hyper friend with no ill intention gave me a little ax kick (dropping downward with the heel) as I bent over to pick up my gear.
He didn’t even hit me hard but I felt a pang of fear and was down on my hands and knees, and got up very cautiously.
I felt uncomfortable carrying my gear bag as I went back to my dorm. I woke up the next day feeling like my back was locked up.
I went to work and classes stiff and painful for a few days, and then I started getting electric zings and occasionally a bolt of pain down the back of my leg.
I ended up dealing with chronic back pain for a little over two and a half years.
Once again, I felt like I was trapped in an old man’s body.
At times the pain seemed so constant and disabling that I began to believe I’d have to deal with it the rest of my life.
Besides having to give up strength training, and trying to be a personal trainer, I was worried about jarring sciatic pain during a rocky subway ride or even just coughing.
Even sitting in a restaurant or theater led to painful tension that would only get progressively worse no matter what position I’d try to sit in.
The lower back pain never made me feel psychologically depressed the way that the hormone imbalance did. However, the pain also affected every area of my life…
Physical therapy and chiropractic treatments failed to provide long lasting relief. So I tried… literally, like, everything. And read even more about the body and exercise. And then I read physical therapy text books. Eventually, I started learning about the neuroscience of pain, which is when it all started coming together and I finally began to make progress with my back pain.
Until, I overcame it.
I seemed to begin attracting personal training clients who were also suffering from chronic pain. And helping them with what I’d learned was rewarding and motivated me even more.
I eventually realized that working with post-surgical/post-rehab clients had somehow become my niche. Over the last several years I have been able to become wholly self-employed by helping amazing people reclaim their lives.
Life was good and things with Jill were great. We’d been together for about 6 years and living with each other for over 2.
But then… One night she went out drinking with a friend and gave into their persistent pressure and tried cocaine.
Maybe you’ve heard that some drugs can trigger latent mental illness in susceptible people?
It turns out that Jill was one of those people…
She had a bit of a breakdown that night… She admitted that she’d experienced voices in the past. Trying cocaine brought them back and turned up the volume.
She tried cocaine once, but within a few weeks this girl who I had known for 6 years and had only seen cry maybe twice was having random crying fits over anything.
She asked off of work, and got a week and during that period she rapidly deteriorated…
As her week off continued I noticed that she was unable to eat, and that she was acting strangely. She became fixated on certain things, like this meta-theory about symbolism and hidden meaning in the show Mad Men.
I didn’t know what to think.
I almost drowned as a child. I’ve jumped out of an airplane. I’ve even watched my brother have a seizure and had no idea what was going on or what to do.
None of it touches the fear of watching the best-natured and most important person in the world lose her mind. And having no idea if she was going to come back.
The moment I knew I had to take her to the ER was when I was telling her something about my brother, David.
She asked me, “Who’s David?”
I was already worried, but this tipped the scale towards officially freaked out.
“David… my brother, David…”
“Oh… Ok… Did I know that you have a brother? Have I met him?” (She’d known him for years and spent tons of time with him.)
I called 911, and tried to put clothes on her when I realized that she was too out of it to dress herself.
She just kept rambling on nonsensically. She was unaware of my panicked state or that I was trying to get her to cooperate.
I had to basically pose her to sit her upright. I struggled to push her limp uncooperative arms through a t-shirt while she just kept talking about incoherent theories.
I couldn’t stop crying the whole time… I was so afraid that the Jill I knew was gone–that I had lost her.
Over the next 3 years, no pain has approached the pain of watching her have a psychotic episode, then fall into a lifeless depression, slowly recover over months, and then watch the pattern repeat itself.
The second time she seemed to become a different person… a nasty, paranoid, and aggressive person who refused to take her meds and actually frightened her psychiatrist in the ward.
Bipolar disorder and the side effects from medicine to treat it crippled this unstoppable force.
I had watched her balance jobs, internships, writing full length novels, not to mention our relationship, all on top of graduating summa cum laude from NYU in her 3rd year.
She once confessed to me, “I don’t feel like I’m the same person anymore.” She was afraid she’d never be able to function again.
Now she was not only unable to work for the better part of three years, but often couldn’t get out of bed.
She’s had side effects that have at times left her in bed for weeks and even months, before they figured out how to adjust the medication.
She’s had dizziness that’s left her gripping the walls for support just to get to the bathroom. Recurrent panic attacks that would spontaneously start and wake us both at 2 in the morning.
The most serious side effect was light sensitive migraine headaches that kept her blindfolded in a dark room all day every day for a couple of months.
The pain from even the tiniest bit of light was at times so intense that she’d throw up.
She tried heavy duty prescription migraine medication. They gave her a prescription for a drug to treat nausea usually for chemo patients. I’d have to drag her out by the arm sobbing into the light with a hat, sunglasses, and her eyes closed to go to her psychiatrist (who at first didn’t want to change the medication, because he was certain that it wasn’t a side effect), or to the ER for a brain scan as things got worse.
Nothing turned up and nothing helped.
I had her try guided meditation (that she couldn’t focus on), exercise, dietary changes, vitamins… I even dragged her out to get acupuncture from someone who one of my personal training clients said was a “miracle worker”.
Nothing helped her. I had to argue with her psychiatrist to adjust her medication.
The Risperdal she tapered off wasn’t the problem. So, then she started Lithium and tapered off of Depakote. Luckily, Depakote ended up being the cause of the all-day migraines that kept her two painful months in the dark.
Somewhere in the midst of all this I started having anxiety attacks and a crushing tightness over my heart (like having a boulder on my chest).
Even when she’s stable I wake up from nightmares of her being out of her mind, and have to remind myself that she’s fine and that it was just a dream.
It hurt, but I gave up on my dream to be a father. (Or at least a biological one. And for the indefinite future).
At one point, I held her hand and listened as she bravely admitted to the psychiatrist at the hospital how she had been planning to sneak out while I was at work, go to a public restroom, and kill herself… She didn’t want me to have to find her body.
She said she felt like a burden. I was emotionally spent, exhausted, and had to be full on caretaker of her at times. I paid most of her bills living paycheck to paycheck, borrowing on credit cards, and relying on family.
Once, she asked me why I stayed with her.
It was my turn to tell her that it never made me love her less, and that it was all going to be ok.
Like I said at the beginning…
But at the same time, there is a twisted paradox at work in the universe… out of the bad comes the good.
Nothing has made me realize how much I love her than facing the fear of losing her and watching her suffer. And that’s made me a more loving and appreciative person every day.
Nothing has inspired me more than watching her come back from mania and despair; to realize her strength as she tries to put her life back together and regain her independence despite the fact that she knows another psychotic episode could be around the corner.
Nothing has made me stronger than growing to be there for her, because I couldn’t possibly let her down.
Nothing has driven me more than to find answers to help her and everyone else who is at the mercy of their chemistry (which is all of us).
That’s my story.
I’ve uniquely both experienced firsthand, as well as witnessed, the profound effects that these chemical messengers have not only on physical health, but also on our psychology—who we are as people.
I’ve learned what’s at stake.
You and everyone that you love is just a fragile constellation of neurons amidst the delicate flux of neurochemicals and hormones that control the function of the system.
Your very perception of reality and thus all your resulting perspectives and behaviors are heavily under the influence.
Who you are on a fundamental level is in the balance…
But I’ve also discovered many of the buttons and levers that put us back in control.
I’ve witnessed the miraculous effect that a healthy lifestyle has.
Your sleep, nutrition, physical activity, mindset, and seemingly every aspect of your lifestyle feeds back into your system and ends up shaping the person you are!
Meanwhile most of our society focuses on the superficial benefits of fitness.
The problem is, everybody thinks that getting healthier takes the joy out of life.
That’s why so many people pursue fitness in the form of shortcuts and gimmicks (often at the expense of their health).
But health should be pursued for its own sake. It’s too bad that most often people don’t “get it” until it becomes painfully obvious that their life depends on it.
When you finally internalize the truth, which is that: your health is your happiness on a biological level, then it suddenly becomes much easier to change your lifestyle.
What I’ve learned is that the pursuit of health is inseparable from the journey towards happiness and personal growth.
That’s why to me fitness is about maximizing your life.
It’s a responsibility you have not only to yourself, but also, to everyone you love who deserves you at your very best.
*Currently (August 2016) Jill is stable. She’s been able to get and hold a short-term job (as a researcher for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and has been functioning with only moderate side effects thanks to Lithium and a disciplined lifestyle.