I have always been drawn to high intensity physical activity. Growing up, I was obsessed with basketball. It wasn’t a game to me - it was far more serious than that. I would spend hours each day on the court, exhausting myself each night and loving it, needing it.
I was a child then, and recognize now that in many ways this was unbalanced and unsustainable. There was, however, a fundamental principle in it that I applaud myself for intuitively recognizing that I needed. Besides being good at basketball and the obvious desire to continue that, by working out to ridiculous levels, by challenging other people in the gym and working towards beating them, I was proving to myself that I can. No matter what, there is something I can do. I can work harder. I can learn from my mistakes. I can learn from my opponent who beat me. I can speak to the guy watching from the sideline. This translated to the rest of my life off the court - school assignments, difficult teachers, bullies, social awkwardness, family strife, whatever it was. I didn’t have a conscious conception of it at the time, just an embodied, intuitive knowing; there is something I can do in every situation.
Now, as an adult, and through the process of becoming an adult (which never ends), I recognize consciously what I knew intuitively as a child and use it to my and my clients' advantages.
Here’s how the concept crystalized. After the army, I wasn’t in a good spot (sorry for the cliche). I realized the only times I felt okay was when I was pushing myself physically. Long trail runs with scrambles, rock climbing, tree climbing, and other challenges. The complexity with which I viewed life was simplified in those moments: there is a challenge, and I can stand up to it.
I am running, I feel tired, I want to stop, but I can keep going.
I want to get to the top of that hill, but it is very steep, there are loose rocks and thorn bushes, but I can just keep going, keep trying, and eventually I will pull myself to the top, crawl to the top if need be, sweaty, bloody, grinning and triumphant.
The more I did that, just based on instinct because it felt good, the more I started to think about it. And talk about it. And then a friend or two would join me. And then they would tell their friend about it, and so on. I saw how it had the same effect on them as well.
At around that time, a very close family member who had struggled for a long time seemed to have found some stability. He had tried countless psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, medications, modalities, etc etc etc. Each practitioner and each center had their own reductionist pathology, pigeon holing diagnosis, or other fancy, expensive, and ‘accepted’ explanation for what was wrong. Obviously, none of it helped very much, if at all. Much of it, I would argue, made things worse because of the disempowerment of that framework. (I do think there is, in certain instances, a benefit to pathological diagnoses, but I think the way it is used for the general population harms at least as much as it helps).
The thing that worked, that finally clicked, was being at Spartan Races founder Joe de Sena’s house in the mountains, where he was running an intense Spartan style wrestling/training camp for teenagers. Essentially, they would wake up before dawn, jump in a cold stream, pick up a rock or a log, and hike up and down a mountain. There was more, of course, but not much more complicated than that. The kids would reach their breaking point, and then keep going. Because what that sentence really should say is ‘the kids would reach what they thought was their breaking point, and prove to themselves that they had so much further they could go.’ They weren’t doing this ‘for their mental health,’ a reductionist and fracturing phrase that pretends as if mental health is somehow separate from the rest of you. They were, in essence, proving to themselves that ‘I can’ is always true if you decide it to be. And, likewise, ‘I can’t’ is also always true, if you decide it to be.
I spoke with my family member at length about this, and felt the resonance with what I had been doing with myself and the handful of friends and friends of friends. I reached out to Joe de Sena, said I love what he does, and asked if I could volunteer at his camp the following summer.
Most of the kids at the camp were on his sons wrestling team. There were a few kids though who, like my family member, were there for other reasons. When they became too disruptive to the group as a whole, or it was otherwise better for them to not be with the group, Joe would send them off with me.
I’d talk with them, listen to them (very important), and then ask them a simple question: do you want today to be a success or a failure? I emphasized that this has nothing to do with right or wrong - the kids sent my way always felt themselves to be victims of some injustice by a fellow camper or coach - and is a purely practical question. Obviously, these kids always said they wanted today to be a success. I asked if they were then willing to claim responsibility for the outcome (because that’s what agency is).
Their eyes opened at this, because it had never been framed that way before: the result of your day is solely up to you. We’d then jump in the frigid river together, find the biggest log we could carry together, and hike it up and down the mountain far beyond the point we thought we could. I earned their trust, and they earned my respect.
As their initial breaking points neared (I was older, stronger, and in better shape than they were) that’s when the voices, the parts, would come out. The anger, the fear, the fear of failure, the shame. The feeling that things are impossible. As their defenses broke down, and since they trusted me and could feel that I respected them - we had, after all, been slogging for hours and days together now on what felt to be, and I believe to be, a mythological scale - a window of opportunity opened for us to do the inner work. To speak with those voices, those parts when usually they were too buried or too guarded or too implicit to be accessed.
Through doing that, through reconnecting these kids to themselves and being with them as they proved to themselves that they can, far beyond the limit of what they ever believed, they learned agency. That, in my opinion and experience, is the antidote to anxiety and depression. That is the recipe for living a good, meaningful, individually attenuated life. Simple, really.