On Achievement and Mental Health

I am going to write this without getting too personal. If this is triggering, please skip, though it's not at all graphic.

 

 

I think a lot of us have the idea that if you reach the top of the mountain - whatever your conception of that mountain is - you will instantly feel like a champion and all problems cease to exist.

We make fun of the many athletes coming forward lately to admit their struggles with mental health, and we say, under our breath or in private, having millions of dollars must be so hard.

Or we speculate, when someone harms themselves or attempts to, that this shouldn't have happened because of their many achievements.

We have a lot of problems in human society (and this is not really an American thing), but this idea that the only thing to strive for is achievement is harming us all. It harms the ones who don't achieve in socially acceptable ways, and it harms those who do achieve by denying the validity of their struggles.

It's hard to get out of this mindset. We spend tons of energy (and money, so much money) on keeping up with the Joneses. If we don't manage to keep up, we feel bad. And if we do keep up - or if we become the Joneses others are chasing - then we feel bad because we still can't shake what we feel.

Mental health is health. Or, to paraphrase a quote about something else, health is mental health's last name.

Any of you who is over the age of, I dunno, twenty knows that you will not see your health remain exemplary without effort. Your choices matter for your physical health, even if you are lucky enough not to have a serious chronic illness or injury. You know if you eat certain things your body will feel pain. You know if you don't exercise that walking up stairs will be a challenge. And you are free not to care (I am not judging anyone). 

Yet we don't prioritize mental health, making choices specifically to improve how we feel, unless we absolutely have to. And then we play catch up, and it's harder to win when you're coming from behind.

I make no proclamations here. Literally none of you know what leads to another person's health struggles, be they external or internal.

The only thing I can say is, unless they tell you - or, perhaps, unless you tell yourself - we can never assume someone feels the way they want to feel. Depression lies, and it never stops lying. You definitely know someone who is being lied to by their brain, even if they haven't told you as much.

Be as kind as you can be, within the limits of what you as a non-professional can do. That's really all you can do.

And for anyone who has struggled, whether or not you are what society would consider a high-achiever, just know that although the fight may never truly end, it's worth it to keep going, even if it doesn't seem that way.

I hope this is useful to someone.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Fiction

I always wanted to be a writer. I suppose I still do, in a way, just that, if I pull it off, it will likely be due to my more professional work in adult education.

But I really wanted to be an author. I just couldn't get out of my own way.

I did manage to finish two novels.

The first one was, basically, a fictionalized version of my post-college life, which I thought was just true, emotionally, but I re-read it recently, and boy, there's a lot of ugliness in it. Not just in the prose, which is pedestrian but better than EL James, but I had no idea how down I was clearly feeling at the time, and my despair was all over my writing.

I am not sure what I hoped to get out of it. Really unpleasant stuff happens in the book, and I can say now that I was trying to condemn it, but I'm not sure I did so strongly enough.

If I had ever been published, I might have been seen as a gross Brett Easton Ellis type, even though I was trying to critique that sort of thing (and failed).

But anyway.

I wrote a second novel in Korea (well, I wrote most of the first one there too. I had a lot of free time).

That one was better, but I ran out of gas. The first 100 pages is pretty good, aside from my Big Ideas being kind of simplistic (I was still only 23).

I should have explored the world more. But I tried to put every idea in it, on top of trying to be more clearly progressive than the first novel.

It's good they never saw the light of day.

But I want to write again. Really just for fun, I think. I feel I've got something to say, perhaps more in the fictionalized real life vein of the first novel but without the unexplored anger and sadness that squeezed the joy out of reading it.

I know I'll soon be in school and out of time. But if I can manage a few pages a week, and work on it over several years, it might end up being the work I always wanted to create.

We'll see.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Mileage Check

Haven't been writing much. That's probably good, means no wild swings in anxious thoughts? But also I have no races for a while, and school is still months off.

Anyway, so it's the last day of May. That's five months into the year. Let's see how many miles I've run.

Miles in May: 233. Highest of any month thus far this year, which is great since I had two races and thus ran less those weeks. June will be lower, as I intend to deliberately back off a bit, also going on vacation where I really only plan to run just once at most, and also, birthdays and such. Marathon training can begin on July 2nd.

Miles in 2018: 1093. You know, it's not the insane 3,000 mile pace I hit in 2015, but now that I know so much more about my body and what I need to do to be both faster and healthier, this is good. Far above 200 a month (indeed I only need 107 next month to stay above 200 a month for half the year), and this is before my higher mileage training begins. I only need 2000 a year (well, 2018, but still) to feel like I'm running enough, and consider the year began with a series of injuries that jacked me up into March, I'm running well, and going to get faster through the summer.

Will I hit my PRs? I want to PR in the five mile, the 5k, the 18 mile, the 10 mile and the marathon this fall. I won't succeed at all of those, but that's my plan. And I think, by never skipping a week at the track (aside from the week I'm away), and then gradually adding my longer runs back in in July, I should be all set to do at least some of that.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Teachers

I am not sure I knew I wanted to teach until I stepped into my first classroom in South Korea. I went there to try and change my life, but I wouldn't have had to fully pursue a career in education for that to be the case. I could have done what many of the people I knew there did and used the time primarily to travel and party.

(I certainly did those things, of course.)

I mention this because I went to my 15th high school reunion on Saturday (yes, after the race), and while it was nice to see my classmates and some of the staff, and also to hear the way that things have grown and changed, I was, and this is always true, mostly struck by how much I had learned from my teachers without even really knowing it.

I have known how much influence my professors in grad school had, since that was a professional degree and I remain engaged with them on a regular basis. And I regret how little I reached out to my professors in college, but there isn't much to be done about that now.

Yet those fourteen years beforehand, I was really being shaped and guided by exemplary educators.

I spoke to a few of my teachers, and, as usual, they remember some very specific things that used to astound me. But of course, I've been teaching (one way or another) for ten years myself, and I sure do remember many of the things I did when I first started doing this, and probably always will.

Not to get heavy, but I was going through a lot emotionally, like a lot of kids. I was smart but I lacked confidence and was very hard on myself when I didn't succeed. Indeed I often wouldn't put full effort in when I thought I'd fall short.

My teachers saw things in me that I couldn't see in myself, things I'm really only coming around to believing these days. So many people aren't lucky enough to have teachers who believe in them, especially not students of color, and I think, or I hope, that my belief in my own students, even though they're adults, means as much to them as it once did - and does - to me.

I just want to be as good of a teacher as the teachers I had. It's why I want to keep learning, reading, and writing, and eventually to make a real impact in the field. Whatever I end up doing, none of it would have happened if I hadn't had teachers who saw a kid who couldn't stop making jokes and goofing off in class and figured out that underneath was a fearful boy who just wanted acceptance. And they accepted me, annoying as I'm sure I was, even if I didn't realize it at the time.

 

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Guess who's back? Back again. JG's back. Tell a friend.

Ran 1:23:17 today.

That's slower than my 1:20:16, 1:21:44, and 1:21:59 halves, but faster than all the others, and certainly faster than any half since my body started fighting me in summer of 2016.

I got tired in the second half of the race and did slow down to low 6:30s. But I can work on endurance.

The key today was, when I felt my chest get tight, I consciously controlled my breath, and then pushed back when the ground flattened out. I didn't let myself get down when people passed me on Ocean Parkway, and I finished happily.

I haven't been this happy with a race result since my half PR in early 2016. 

And most importantly, if I had run this right before a marathon I'd be in good position to get back under 3, yet it's May, and I have 5 months, and an entire training cycle. I can't wait to attack those two marathons this fall.

 

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

A Nice Little Race

Yesterday I ran a 5k on Roosevelt Island, and it went well. I almost won, couldn't quite stay with the leader, a college sprinter fellow, and came in second overall. I'll be mailed a prize eventually.

What encouraged me, though, is that, just like the 10k where I got my stomach in my chest, I was at or near (and in this case, below) a 6:00 pace without much trouble. I got tired eventually, yeah, but I didn't slow down, it just got more difficult to maintain the same speed, which is the same way I feel on the track after several repeats.

Will this mean I am suddenly capable of a Good-for-Justin half on Saturday? I hope so.

I have three tiers. My 3 best halves are under 1:22:00. Anything in that range is great. 

My middle tier is between 1:23:00 and 1:27:00. I have 7 halves in that range. 

And then there are the worst 5, from 1:27:04 to 1:35. 

Honestly, if you broke it down further, the 5th best is 1:23:47 (SI 2014), the 10th best is 1:26:56 (NYC this year), and the worst is my first in 2014.

I'm aiming higher than merely reaching my top 5 though. I haven't reached my top 5 in 2 years now and it's high time I get back to running the way I truly can. (And mentally, getting to the sub-1:22 range means I can feel like I won't have too much work to do to get back to my best marathon times from 2015.)

Reach goal of a PR? I dunno. The main goal is to persevere through the hills in Prospect Park and come out not feeling totally wrecked, and then just keep going without getting discouraged, because once I get discouraged, there's no telling how bad it can get on Ocean Parkway - that's a long slog if you're not hyped.

We shall see.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Headwork

My wife always tells me to pick my head up when she happens to see me racing.

My coach tells me to look up from my watch.

They are both right.

What happens is this, though. If I fall behind my pace by more than a little, my head drops. My head drops either to my watch (on the track) or to the ground (in a race), and my head starts with the depressive, "well I'm gonna fail at this so why put all the stress into it anyway, siiiigh."

My head is really what stopped me in NYC last year (the struggles in Boston really were weather). I was anxious so I couldn't keep anything down, and then I just couldn't have fun.

My very best races, I do look at my watch every so often, but I don't obsess. I only obsess when it goes poorly.

It's all in my head, so long as I'm in shape. And it's all in yours too.

Luckily I am healthy and fit these days. Here's hoping I keep my headgame strong next week in BK.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

2014, again

I think about 2014 a lot.

It was the year I really started racing, the year I first BQ'd, the year I didn't have an apartment that was the centerpiece of any social word, the year my friendships changed.

I think about 2014 because I was so ecstatic to finish races the way I did. I never really let myself down, and there were no expectations. I believed, fully, that, if I ran at a 7 minute pace over a distance, it was far faster than most, and that was worth cheering for. I remember finishing Brooklyn and just throwing my hands up in the air. That joy I haven't felt, unrestrained, on a race in a long time, and I'm working to get back there.

But. The rest of 2014 was pretty painful. I can go back and look on this very site, but, I had holes in my ceiling, I was depressingly stuck in loops of online dates, and I once picked up a teddy bear off the sidewalk after coming home from a bar because I just wanted a stuffed animal to hold onto. (yeah...)

I say all this to say, I should stop wishing for the fleeting moments of joy I had in my 2014 races. That stuff was fun, but to get back to it, the rest of life would have to fall back to where it was. I am enjoying my training a lot these days, and racing will either come back, or it won't and I'll still be happy with my life.

And that's what makes all the difference.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Almost There

Not a great race yesterday, and the cause was so clear. I ran the first two miles, including Cat Hill, at or around 6:00/mile. Then when I hit Harlem Hill, I really slowed down. And it wasn't the hill, it was my stomach - I felt like puking and I decided to slow down instead of letting it all go.

My wife thinks that I've become more efficient as I've aged. I used to eat a ton before running, and it wasn't a big problem - I just dealt with it. But these days, in the morning, I do hard workouts and I don't eat anything at all beforehand - just the calories in the sugar I add to my tea.

I get scared, if I don't eat enough, I tell myself, I'll fall apart late in the race. But that doesn't happen when I work out. I need more calories than nothing, but the bananas are too heavy, and I'm forcing myself to eat them.

I have other options, and will use them going forward. Because my speed is THERE. My strength is THERE. It's just time to prove I can be 2015 fast again, because my mind is ready, and I just have to line it up so my body is.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Where I Fell Short

At my last job, I was, among other things, in charge of a free ESOL program for adults.

As you might know, my students were basically two main groups: well-to-do trailing spouses of East Asian businessmen, and underprivileged parents from our preschool, who were usually Latin American but not always.

And as you might guess, the well-to-do students usually needed less help but showed up far more reliably. I wanted to help the other students, but our funders needed bodies in the room, and sometimes you just have to search for the students who will be there.

A lot of funding is this way, of course. Going after the truly neediest isn't sexy, and succesful metrics are sexy. And I knew that if I expended energy and money on trying and trying and trying various interventions on students who were likely to vanish, we would possibly lose the money paying the salary of the woman who helped me run the program and taught many of the classes.

I actually decided to go back to school for this reason, along with the simple desire to author my own studies and professional writing.

I think there's a way for such programs, free programs for adults with less means or time, to flourish, to keep students engaged, to keep them in the room, to prove themselves worthy of the type of funding other programs (particularly those for children) receive.

I'm reading yet another book on behavioral economics, and the book makes it clear that the way education is planned for the poor or otherwise challenged isn't really working. We can all point to a very dedicated student or two - I know we had some! - but we can't point to people who aren't present. I admit I got frustrated with the students on occasion - I really got mad when they wouldn't come. But I was ultimately annoyed with myself because I couldn't figure out how to make it work.

There is a way. The way is removing hassle factors, reducing cognitive load, and providing the concrete path towards reducity scarcity in their lives. WHICH hassle factors, HOW to reduce cognitive load, this will have to be studied. If what is distracting them is unpaid bills, does an organization offer short-term low-interest loans to students? Does it offer childcare? How close does it need to be to their homes for them not to find attending a hassle? What if the courses were shorter, so they didn't seem as overwhelming?

This can be answered. No one is truly asking (or maybe they are and I can talk to them). There is room for an adult education nonprofit that seeks to educate vulnerable adults in a way that isn't just throwing services at them but really meets them where they don't even realize they can be met.

Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality