As a kid, I could not swallow pills. My mother had to pack them into food to get them down. I distinctly remember the acid taste of aspirin exploding on my tongue. And crying.
Likely that’s a product of my general anxiety. A born nail-biter, I also couldn’t pee when other people were present.
A good stint in the Army would have cured all that. I know that now. Pissing around with momma’s care is one thing. Having to get up at 4:30 and run around a pitch black Army base would have cured me quick of not being able to pee around other guys.
For all the reticence of the orifices as a youngster, life has finally bred it all out of me. Necessity tends to do that. And a bit of self-acceptance too. That’s the longest pill anyone of us has to swallow.
I’d depended on liquid painkillers through having my wisdom teeth pulled at age 20. Yet somewhere in those early 20s, I made up my mind that not being able to swallow a simple pill was ridiculous.
And then I had an experience that will never be forgotten. By reason of hormones or tension or some combination, a string of severe migraine headaches came along. They were fierce, like a layer of fire across the top of my head. Blinding and nauseating, the headaches came and went.
Likely they were triggered by caffeine, to which it turned out I was enormously sensitive. I even had to quit drinking Cokes in my late 20s because the caffeine seized up my prostate gland so I could not pee. The doctor had me cut out my Coke a day habit and the problem cleared up. He also prescribed frequent sex. By then I was married. So I asked him for a prescription. He wrote that out as sort of a serious joke. Too bad it was not deemed funny at home.
But that streak of migraines in my early 20s taught me a few things about pain relievers. A physician prescribed Tylenol with codeine in it. That helped the headaches. But it must have done something to my nervous system because my arm went completely numb. That sent me to the emergency room where they did a CT scan on my arm and chest. It turned out there was some kind of gas bubble in my chest cavity, but it went away that day. Likely it was caused in part by the narcotic effect of the codeine in some way.
And given that my body was no longer in pain, and my arm no longer numb, I still went to Chicago that night with my brothers and partied until four in the morning.
Burning it at both ends
Perhaps that pattern of behavior had something to do with my migraines? I was running 75 miles a week at the time, and getting a mere six hours of sleep on average. That’s called burning the candle at both ends. I was young, driven, horny and a bit crazy.
But I was starting to improve my 10K times. So what’s the problem? I was training hard and not recovering. That was the problem. Colds were a consistent problem too.
It took a couple years but I ultimately learned my lesson.
I also graduated to Ibuprofen as my pain reliever of choice. When headaches came on and I took Tylenol, literally nothing happened. Decades later I had this conversation with a nurse at a hospital:
“You know, I take Advil. Tylenol doesn’t seem to work for me.”
“It doesn’t work for anybody,” she told me.
“What?” I asked.
“Yeah. It may help reduce fever. But that’s about it.”
And so, a mystery was somewhat solved. To this day, it is ibuprofen or nothing at all.
During my recovery from the broken collarbone a few years back, and before that an ACL surgery, doctors told me to take lots of ibuprofen. It scared me. I’d read that it can harm your liver or kidneys, or somesuch.
The fact of the matter is that there is no drug that you can take in massive amounts and be perfectly safe. It is not necessarily recommended that runners or cyclists take ibuprofen before exercise. It does help after exercise, for sure.
Aspirin is also considered a helpful drug and can thin blood and make heart attacks and stroke less likely. For years I could not touch certain types of aspirin because of the caffeine content. It was not my imagination. The quid pro quo of caffeine to prostate problems was clear as day. So I avoided that.
With age some of these problems were abated. Probably my tightly wound prostate and a head full of headaches were the direct result of hormone overload. I don’t know about you, but during my 20s and into my early 30s it was almost impossible to think some days. It was like sexual ADHD. Distracted thinking.
And to that fact, I also learned later in life that my brain does has some ADD tendencies. I call it creative ADD, which is the desire at all times to be doing something creative. If life does not offer that, I get bored and distracted.
I have learned to focus and how to control those tendencies. Basically, it works like a reward system. If I’m writing for two to three hours at a stretch, or doing the same in painting, my reward is getting up to do something like play guitar, or go for a run, a bike or a swim. I waste far less time in these healthy pursuits than people without creative ADD because while I’m doing those activities, I’m also problem-solving. Often I come home from a run with a problem all figured out. It works in the morning, noon and night.
So endurance sports are like a drug for the mind. They can reduce the frequency and intensity of tension headaches too. That’s a better pill to swallow.
Of course, when life piles on heavy even the running, riding and swimming can fail you. During the many years of dealing with cancer in my late wife, there were times when an extra drug called Lorazepam was added to the mix. This was to reduce anxiety and stress. I used that drug once a day, usually before falling into bed, in order to prevent the difficulties of caregiving and other challenges from overwhelming my taxed mind. Basically, it was a long term life and death issue during all those years, and it had impacts on our lives that were ripple effects from the stress. Job loss. Financial problems. Cancer is no fun, people.
When the main ordeals were temporarily over, and things moved into remission, it took a few weeks to wean myself off that drug. Lorazepam was never meant to be taken long term. But I recall the sluggish feeling of waking with that drug in my system and trying to ride 60-80 miles and keep up. Some days it was all I could do to hold a wheel. The feeling of stress in my brain was like PTSD. I did not want any additional challenges beyond the stress of caregiving. Sometimes I’d just drop. Let it go. Ride at my own pace. Watch the tarsnakes under my wheels. Then I’d get home and my wife would ask, “How was the ride?” And I’d tell her, “Fine.” It was all I could do. Life was a horizontal vortex.
Air in the tires
I take a mild anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drug now. It “puts air in my tires” as the doctor put it. I feel it’s my responsibility to myself and those I love to manage any tendencies toward anxiety or depression. That and a healthy, long-term cognitive approach to managing and reducing ruminative thoughts has made me feel healthier mentally than ever before. I’m still competitive at times, and can be pouty at others. But that’s a product of self-perception and loss of perspective. It can be handled, and should be.
Sometimes the toughest pill to swallow is that fact that you’re not perfect. But that’s easier to manage when you realize that everyone else is in the same boat. Then it’s not so hard to take. It’s a pill that can be hard to swallow, but the effects are wonderful.