Happy? Anniversary!

[This blog post will deal with issues of terminal illness and deep depression, as well as turning some of it around. Consider this a content warning. I promise it's positive in the end?]

14 years ago, my father died.

I remember, with crystal clarity, the moment leading up to the announcement. I remember being in school, sitting down with my friends at lunch, the vice principal coming up to me. I remember being told that my father had gone back into the hospital [something that I was confused about, even then, because he'd basically always been in the hospital since his diagnosis three months ago], that I was excused for the rest of the day. I remember my friend walking me to my locker to get my things, and me breaking down in the hallway, crying because I knew something was terribly wrong, more wrong than what I'd dealt with for the past three months. My dad had been shuffled from hospital to hospital, to nursing home back to hospital, without the vice principal ever coming to tell me. I remember assuming that my sister, who had driven us to school that morning, would be driving me home so I stood out in the student parking lot for 15, 30, maybe 45 minutes [my mind was good at exaggerating time] before going back inside and, finally, being picked up by a family friend with my sister in the passenger seat. They'd gone to pick my brother up at the middle school while I was "missing", and I sat next to him in the minivan.

I remember getting home, just a few minutes after that, and hearing the words "Your father's dead", maybe not those exact words but the sentiment, as I stood in our kitchen. I remember signing onto AOL, immediately after those words, and telling my closest friends at the time [Jamie, Gleebs, Beth, among others]. I don't remember much beyond that for over a month.

For years, I thought that day defined me. I guess it still does.

Ask anyone, on either side of my family, and they will acknowledge that I am definitely my father's daughter. All of my physical features, from my light skin and my blue eyes to my high cheekbones and deformed knees, are directly taken from my father's side of the family. In fact, most people are surprised to learn that I'm exactly half Polish; even those features that could be attributed to my mother's side could also be ambiguously part of my father's. Even my personality is a lot of my father's: my love for the science fiction and fantasy, my ability to sketch scenes in my head and on paper, my eternal wanderlust. The only thing that directly comes from my mother is my love of cats [and animals in general], but that's about it.
me and my dad
So, when my father died, prematurely and with barely a warning, I was shocked. It threw me into a deep depression, from which I surfaced every once in a while in the coming years, but from which I never really fully recovered. When I was good, I was really good but when my mood was bad, it was really bad. It went on like that for years, including subpar grades in college and, eventually, disinterest in everything in my life. Disinterested. That, as a whole, was what defined me.

I'd always had manic depression [later redefined as bipolar disorder but I still feel that manic depression defines me, personally, better] and the turn of events in 1999 didn't help. I went through periods of being on top of the world, nothing could bring me down, but then lashing out at anyone who so much as looked at me wrong. I routinely ignored my friends, even when they were trying to help me. I don't mean that I ignored their phone calls or messages, I mean that they'd sit down face to face with me, say they were worried about me, and I wouldn't, couldn't make myself react to what they were saying [my friend Micci referred to it as me "playing possum"]. In addition to shunning my friends, I gave up most of the things that I enjoyed just because they reminded me of my father [creative writing, science fiction, drawing]. It was a terrifying and dangerous time.

I eventually graduated high school, went away to college, made new friends, and succeeded and failed in new and different ways and, ultimately, still didn't really learn how to deal with my bipolar depression in a lasting way. [Spoiler alert: it's possible that I still haven't learned how to deal with it in a lasting way. But for right now, it's working.] After graduation, I moved to Chicago. Chicago was, for all intents and purposes, both good and bad. I met some amazing people out there, and I missed some amazing people back east. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about other people. I'm a better person for having spent four years in the midwest, but there are still some things that I'd do differently if given the chance. I think that's what that point of my life was supposed to be about and, in the end, I'm content with it. But, eventually, I had to accept that things weren't working out for me personally, and I moved back east to the home base of my family. And that's when things, surprisingly, got really bad. When I had friends to support me, to see on a regular basis who told me that I was great and doing great things, and a job to get me out of bed every morning, it was easy to focus on the good. When I was in a new city, among new people, without employment, it wasn't so easy. I quickly fell into "the depths of despair" and surrounded myself with depression. I didn't leave my house, talk to my neighbors, or try to make myself feel better. I just let the depression take over. From when I moved here in June 2011 until the end of February 2012, that defined my life. I was a failure, a depressed twenty something year old, who would never amount to anything else. I was unhealthy, depressed, predisposed to cancer [100% of my father's family who's made it into their 50s has had breast cancer, did you know? All of his sisters. My mother's family fares better but, as I've said, I take entirely after my father's side of the family]. And the only thing I knew was that I didn't want any of that for myself.

You may think this doesn't all relate back to the day that my father died and today's date on the calendar, and maybe all of it doesn't, but enough of it does.

A year ago, I decided to change my fate. I didn't want my actions defining my health and my self-esteem. But how does one go about doing that?

I didn't want to develop cancer at the age of 50, just thanks to faulty genetics and my own laziness. I wanted to do what I could to prevent it. Obesity was the biggest factor I could control [already being a vegan], so I went to work on that. I started working out, challenging myself with cycling distances and eventually becoming a runner. Regular workouts boosted my endorphins and helped self-regulate my depression. I challenged myself to stop being a shut-in and, little by little, I adapted to being out of the house to help my social anxiety [first by going on bike rides with a local meet-up, then joining an actual gym, and now volunteering at my city's library in addition to everything else].

Depression was the other big factor, actually probably the biggest. February 24, 2012: I went on an evening trip to Boston. I rode in a carpool with three other people I didn't really know to go see Mark, a person I only vaguely knew through the internet. There were going to be other people I vaguely knew at the event but, of course, me being me, I didn't talk to any of them. I talked during the car ride [mostly about my cats, oops?], and I took some videos at the event, but that was it. But it was enough, on a personal level. It started a chain reaction. I didn't want to have anxiety attacks whenever I even thought about going to an event [among people I'd talked to for months, or years, on the internet]. I liked how I felt among those few people in the car, even if none of us became lifelong friends.

And that was enough. From that one event, I decided to change things. Two days later, again on February 26th, I woke up with the decision to change. I started working on my anxiety, my depression, my fitness. It hasn't been easy, as you can see through the history of this blog [wow, it really hasn't]. I haven't even documented the tougher aspects of it [I don't like to blog when I'm feeling my most vulnerable, as is the case in the winter]. But I've made progress in the last year.

So here I am, a year [or 14 years] later and a new person. Today is the first anniversary of a new me. I haven't had a major depressive episode, or major anxiety attack, since last winter. I'm out of my house almost every day and I converse with people without [usually] thinking twice about it. I'm running miles and smiling most of the day. I love who I've become and love the path I'm on to still become. It's really not about the physical me; this has been much more of an emotional journey than a physical one. But it's all tied together, in the end, and I'm glad that I've improved myself on all levels. In the end, the Feb2013 update is vastly different and better.
I'm the goofy baby on the fence.
[As I tried to explain, regular posting was accidentally suspended with the onset of winter. It will resume shortly. I'm running 5Ks on March 2nd, 9th, and 10th so there will at least be posts for those. Thank you for tuning in during my winter hiatus!]