21KM – WHY??

 

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Half-marathon today, running with a great friend.

 
I’ve been running half-marathons for years and I still keep being asked the same question: why? For those not used to endurance sport, it’s hard to fathom why one would get up at 4:30am on cold winter Sunday to go run a 21KM race.

So today, as I sit up in bed with a pillow under my legs, I decided to write a poem to try to explain why I’m out pounding the pavement when people are still cocooning under their blankets.

Poem: 21KM – Why?

The blinking stars remind me I should be in bed

The gusty Autumn wind leaks through my jumper

I want to bring my broken body home

Because it’s hard and it hurts, and it’s too early and it sucks

But I strive for a goal, for an experience

 

It’s not for a throne, for wealth or even health

The steady repetitive strides

Along the endless roads, tracks and trials

Lift my mind beyond my limits and denials

And yield a sense of completion and joy

 

In a leafy road that goes uphill

I pound the pavement until my mind is still

And silence the little voice that doesn’t believe

So, I keep going accumulating miles and blisters

Because I’d rather run battles than sit and watch

 

Call it endurance, stubbornness, stupidity

But when I look past the finish line

I see that the way has been paved

For a world of great achievements

Because the mind can take you there

– Rosana Wayand
Copywrite 2017

Forgotten memories, unforgettable lines

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I first feared that mum’s memory lapses were more than old age forgetfulness in a brief moment of vanity last summer. I was staring at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall, pushing up my cheek muscles to hide the smile lines around my lips. Mum was watching me and said, “You are too young for Botox.” I chuckled. I wasn’t considering cosmetic intervention but at 43 and in Brazil, the land of Botox, I didn’t think that I was too young for one.

“How old do you have to be for Botox injections?” I asked giggling.

“40” she replied and I could feel deep worry wrinkles cutting into my forehead. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.

“And how old do you think I am, mum?”

“Aren’t you 34?” she replied dropping her gaze.

“Mum, this makes me younger than my younger brothers.”

“Are you…36?” She asked hesitantly and I realised she had lost track of the age of her offspring.

Mum’s confusions didn’t seem normal so I took her to see a neurologist, who, after examining and asking her a few questions, explained that it wasn’t uncommon for elderly people that don’t live active lives to become very forgetful. Since my father passed away, almost ten years ago, mum has become increasingly insular, so, I put her mental confusion down to her sedentary lifestyle and lack of social life.

Despite mum’s reluctance, my siblings and I tried to help her become more active. We insisted that she used her hearing aid so she could participate more in conversations, hired a physiotherapist to improve her muscle strength and mobility and took her on outings. But unfortunately, her memory continued to deteriorate. Medical exams were scheduled and the results weren’t good. This summer when I came to visit I asked her again how old I was. She had aged me a little. According to her, I’m now 40. The inaccuracy didn’t surprise me. This time I knew that her mental confusion was revealing more than her way of living. Mum is losing her sense of time – she has been diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Vascular dementia is caused by problems of blood circulation in the brain, which in mum’s case was triggered by mini-strokes in the brain (transient ischaemic attack). These strokes cause damage in the area associated with learning, memory and language. The prognosis isn’t great. If the degeneration continues to occur at a rapid rate, the life expectancy is about 10 years. As the disease progresses she will become more forgetful, frail and, confused.

It hurts to see mum not being mum, not remembering to do the things she enjoyed to do for herself and for us. I wasn’t prepared to face her old age like this and I’m still learning to accept that our roles have been reversed and that our lives and our relationship are never going to be the same.  I miss the smell of her chocolate cake but now if I want to bring that memory to life I have to do the baking myself. At the moment it’s the small things but I sense that mum is gradually being dragged to a different dimension, a world where time doesn’t matter, a planet without a past or future. And she will increasingly spend more time at this place, often confused, frustrated and alone.

Because of the nature of the disease, I don’t know if she will ever realise that she has embarked on this journey and I wonder if she will be scared. Because I am. I’m pretty frightened to see my mum slowly being transformed into a different person. I’m scared because I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow her into her new world. I’m worried because I feel hopeless. I want to rescue mum from there but the wrinkles in my forehead are getting deeper and longer as I know there is only so much I can do. I can help slow the process but I cannot stop it.

I’m starting to unknown my own mother. Mum used to be predictable, consistent and calm but her behaviour is changing and she is losing these precious parts of her character. Now, one minute she agrees to go out with me but by the time I get changed, she’s changed her mind.  Or forgot she had agreed to anything.  Mum’s confidence is being whittled away, along with her memories. She is often responding to questions with other questions, uncertain of her own words, of facts or figures. “Mum, how much did you spend at the bakery today?” I’ll ask and she will reply “Didn’t I spend nine bucks?”

I look forward to coming home every summer but I’m starting to stress about my knock at the door being answered by a different person, by a new version of mum and that maybe that person won’t know me, or my story and the essence of who I am. I hope that day never comes, but if it does, I’ll offer her a smile because she taught me that a smile and kind words can heal a broken day. And I’ll come in and look at the tall, vertical mirror on her bedroom wall and will forever cherish the smile lines I gained because of her.

Why I keep writing

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Fellow writers publishing North Shore Pieces


I have always written a bit of copy as part of my marketing jobs but I never saw myself as a writer. I used to think of writers as eccentrics endowed with a genetic ability and immense creative power. They sat in somber rooms with a pen and a notepad with bent corners or a rusty Remington typewriter and popped out words for hours, inspired by some supernatural force. And in my mind the end result of their creative process would always be an original story in which the depth of their talent shined through.

Then one day I realised that writers are grown not born. I started to write about my observations of life and its many transitions and the things I don’t quite understand. I wasn’t confident in my ability as a writer and was only using the mighty pen to make sense of life in times of trouble and awe. But little by little I noticed my writing getting stronger and the words flowing more naturally.

You see, I was using writing as therapy. My thoughts often travel at the speed of light and they pass through my brain without giving me the chance to fully interpret and reflect on them. Sometimes I only notice that they touched me when it’s too late and I’m there covered with the cosmic dust of anxiety. In these moments the pen can be my best friend as it helps me watch as the stars collide and particles of reason evaporate from my awareness. With a notepad in hand many times I’ve been able to translate the sensorial explosion into emotions and rational thought and bring myself safely back to earth. I don’t think I was particularly good at writing but it became a habit, and like it is with any passion or hobby, I wanted to learn more and improve at it. So I decided to take my writing more seriously and joined a writers group (WPG – Write Publish, Grow).

When I joined the group I thought I’d only have the capacity to write about things that existed in the real world so non-fiction was a genre that made sense to me. I’m naturally drawn to facts, reason and reality as these elements save me from the tricks my mind plays on me. But being exposed to the group helped me appreciate other genres too and now I’m starting to explore life in short stories, combining fiction and reality in my narratives.

My journey with the mighty pen has been an amazing experience. Not in my weirdest dreams I contemplated the idea of writing a book, let alone a book in English, my second language, but here I am less than a year from joining WPG publishing an anthology with my fellow group members. The book will be available in November and it’s a testament that writers are a product of hard work, passion and practice. I feel confident my writing will continue to improve and I hope my stories will encourage others to have a go at sharing theirs. We are all storytellers capable to inspiring and challenging our fellow human beings and the more with write the more beautiful and impactful our stories become. All we have to do is write. Just keep writing.

R U OK?

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Today is R U OK Day – sharing my story


I’m ok now, thanks for asking, but eight years ago I wasn’t. That was when I heard of my father’s passing on the other side of the planet and realised that the world wasn’t like I understood it. What someone believes makes up who they are as a person—I felt disoriented. Only when I was able to look at the content of my beliefs and accept the new reality, I started to find my north.

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience with anxiety but it takes a lot of mental energy to visit the past. While I gather energy and time to write, I’ll share here a story I wrote for the WellBeing magazine. Hope it will help someone feel ok.

Story: Calm beyond the storm

Not sure how to ask someone if they are ok? See the R U OK? website for guidance.

Happy birthday dad, although you can’t hear me

This is the time of the year that I wish I was like those people that believe the dead are watching over us, can see and hear and connect with the living—although the thought of my deceased friends or family hovering over watching me in the shower or bedroom is quite disconcerting. I didn’t have the chance to say good bye to dad, so every time it’s his birthday that sinking feeling of disappointment and frustration with myself comes out to haunt me.

So dad, although you can’t read these words, that insane part of me insists in writing that I have always loved and always will. And there isn’t one day that passes that I don’t wish I could change history and be at your dying bed holding your hand and saying that your life mattered.

I know your life wasn’t perfect dad, but I loved you with all your prejudices and imperfections. You tried your best, you were one of the unsung heroes of this world that survive dysfunctional families, poverty and mental health issues. These heroes don’t make the headlines but they are the people that, like you, get out of bed in the morning for their daily toil, to simply do what is right.

One of the stories that always plays in my mind is of your determination to go to university without any financial or emotional support from your parents. You came to value an education you never had access to. How hard it must have been to find the will to study when sometimes you could only afford two meals a day. You overcame dire adversity to later give opportunity to those in need. I remember you driving sick people to hospital and in many situations helping the poor improve their lives.

Of course, there were things I din’t love about you, like your blind devotion to your work, your jokes about people of colour or beliefs about the role of women in society, but I learned to read you between the lines. I knew these came from a place of pain, shame and hurt and not of greed or hatred—your family hurt you a lot. I can’t forget when your mum came to visit the tiny premature twins just out of the incubator and said “oh, but they are so ugly.” I can’t fathom growing up in home like this, where your mum never noticed you needed glasses, until an older sister realised you were being picked at school for being stupid because you could not read the blackboard.

This side of you thought me not to take people at face value, we all carry a lot of baggage and have our demons to face. And you did a great job at stopping the cycle of rejection and neglect. I think the four of us felt very much loved and cared for.

There is one particular line you wrote down in the copy of The Little Prince you gave to mum when you were still dating in 1967, quoting the author: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” You saw potential in myself and in others when sometimes we saw none. You showed us to hear the voice of the heart and to respect everyone, regardless of their colour or social status—you may have spoken about white supremacy but your actions told another story. I remember when my four-year-old brother threw the house keys at a distance and said to the nanny ‘it’s your job to get the keys’. You saw the scene and told him how to treat people and to go get the keys himself. You wanted to open a workshop to give disadvantaged kids skill to get a job. You had so many dreams.

But life presented you with a hurdle too high to overcome. The nasty captain of depression hooked and brainwashed you, forcibly inducing you to believe lies over truth. It’s a shame that eventually you stopped seeing your own potential and your successful past faded in the background, no matter how much we told you were worth it. 

Life is unfair and yours was cut short by cancer. You would be 72 today. I’ll always remember you as a generous soul with many dreams and a hero that thought me how to hear the whispering voice in my heart.

Chaotic day, got better, then… you tell me.

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I know you’ve had days like this too. Days sent to try you. In such days you just want to go back to bed and start over. These days for me tend to begin like a nightmare, tormenting me in the middle of the night, like when insomnia comes for a visit. But this time it was my youngster whispering in my ear “bad dream, bad dream”. It was cold  and I had no energy to take him back to where he came from so I made a slight sideway move and he hopped on between my husband and I and snuggles under my wings. Luckily I managed to get back to sleep. But not for long.

“My throat hurts, I can’t sleep.” I get up and go on a blind expedition to the bathroom to get the medicine box. Before I reach the power switch, ouch! When a 60Kg person steps on a mega strength Lego piece it hurt but 1am it hurts even more. When the evil ridges dig into the ball of my foot I scream so loud the dog wakes up— my husband surprisingly manages to sleep through it all. “Here darling, have a lozenge.” I walk my eldest to his bedroom and wait for him to fall asleep. Back in my room, the youngest took possession of every inch of my side of the bed so I retire to his. I bring my phone with me, I still hope I will wake up at 5:30am to go for a run. But child with sore throat still woke me up another two times before the alarm takes me from my slumber. Just 10 more minutes, I beg the universe.

When I finally woke up there was no time for exercise and it felt like I had already ran a marathon. I quickly got dressed and I rushed out of the house to catch the train before the rest of the tribe got up demanding my attention. My husband was in charge today but if the kids see me around they find a way to occupy me. I was excited that besides all the chaos of the night I was still catching an early train and thus would get a seat. But as soon as I reached the station and got my Opal card from my wallet I spotted the crispy bank notes I should have left in the kitchen bench for the cleaner.

I literally ran home and back to the station again, limping because of the Lego nugget I crushed. Magically I got a seat on the train. Ok, time for some meditation and gather energy for the the day ahead. I try to pull my headphones from my handbag but they are stuck. I pull harder and harder and two kiwi fruit fly out of the bag and go rolling down the carriage. I man next to me starts laughing, I look at him and smile —one’s got to laugh of his tragedies… I see passengers lifting their feet and looking down. To avoid further embarrassment I let go of the fruit.

Eventually I arrived at the office and put my porridge in the microwave while I recounted the morning to a workmate. The porridge overflows. “Not your luckiest day” my friend says. I wondered what more could go wrong today. Thankfully not much. The rest of the day ran smoothly, well, depending in your point of view. When I got home at night I learnt that the Liberals had officially won the federal election. I’ll let you be the judge.

In bed with the enemy –

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Tick, tock, I open my eyes and see dark—the enemy has come to his night visit again. I turn to my phone to check the time, anxiety settling in, crossing my fingers in hope it’s close to sunrise, which means I won’t be tossing and turning in bed for too long. Disappointed, I take a few deep breaths in and out trying to convince one hundred billion brain cells that 1AM is no time for a party. I continue with the pranayama breathing, I don’t know for how long, but my neurones are fired up.

I try all my repertoire of techniques for insomnia and wait for sleep to take me but nothing happens. I open my eyes again, the dark seems darker. I don’t feel tired but have no strength to get up and do something else—I cling to the hope that sleep will descend. Sometimes it does. Other times I fall into that state between sleep and wakefulness. That’s when I dream that I’m dozing off but my mind breaks the stillness of the moment and I’m again starring at the ceiling

This time I don’t dare to check the time or I’ll start to panic—how am I going to cope with the day ahead when my brain only had three hours of rest?! Paranoia starts to creep in, anticipating the non-alcoholic hangover. But after 18 months of suffering on and off from insomnia I’ve learnt the drill, I know that heroically I’ll survive the next day with the help of one or two doses of coffee. So, I surrender. I accept defeat and let go of the struggle with my mind. I just lie in bed with my eyes shut, doing a few rounds of meditation to keep the anxiety of the moment at bay.

When the dark is no longer as dark, I get up. Tonight I’ll sleep better, I tell myself. I change into my workout clothes and promise to run an extra kilometre hoping this might add a few hours to my sleep—although I know this equation doesn’t work. I open the door and see the sun rising in the horizon and I start running from the troubles of my life. The pounding on the pavement seems to finally calm my brain cells.

Run Rosana, Run

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No pain, no gain

What makes one pay $100 to wake at 4:45am on a cold autumn day, go pounding the pavement for 21km to inevitably feel fatigued and experience muscle sureness? A casual observer might conclude that this is a form of self flagellation. My friends for one, think I’m crazy. But 12,000 runners signed up for the Sydney Morning Herald half marathon, which took place today.  We can’t all be crazy or sadists. 

Running has impacted my life in a positive way, and I believe this is true for most runners. That’s why we keep coming back for more and sign up for gruelling races. When I go for a run I feel happier and less stressed – this is because endorphins in the body are released when you are running. Endorphins are hormones that create a sense of euphoria or a feel-good effect. So you may experience a surge of joy – even after running.

But running is not just about a flood of happy hormones. Another great satisfaction I get from the sport is that it pushes me far beyond my usual limits. Every race or training session is an opportunity to try a little harder and to set audacious goals – the impossible becomes plausible and sometimes even doable!

I remember the first time I tried to run, I was out of breath in less than 500 meters. But I persevered and every time I hit the road I set a new goal – soon I was running 5km. Then 10km and later, half marathons. Eventually I even signed up to the mythical 42.2km – a full marathon. Of course this wasn’t a goal that I set overnight. After a few years of consistent running, I started toying with the idea of this less than trivial undertaking.

From my experience I say that your results on race day truly reflect the hours you logged on the road. And to put the hours, you need a good deal of discipline to follow a training program. Rain or sunshine. You need resilience to continue when you aren’t achieving your goals and to overcome injuries. It’s hard work full stop. That’s why most people think that runners must have a few missing screws in their heads (maybe they dropped a few bolts on the road!).

In the age of convenience and instant gratification, I find running quite refreshing. In every run you earn the rewards from your sustained effort. Running is an adventure of conquering our own Mount Everest, of doing your own personal best and overcoming your limits. Not many people have the focus or patience to do it. But those that do, are always winners, no matter what they are racing up against.

I think this quote summarises well why we, runners, voluntarily sign up and even pay to endure a bit if discomfort:  “Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” Winston Churchill, January 1922

What I see from down here

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I see a lot of people living with fear, including me. But our culture tells us that this is a weakness of our personalities, we have to be strong and say no to fear to be a winner: “Say I have no fear, be a hero”. I’ve tried to be a hero. It didn’t work. For people living with anxiety or depression, being optimistic, reciting positive affirmations or trying to be the resilient person we want to be does not change our diagnose. What has worked for me was to accept that to have fear is part of being human and can be managed but not all fears are created equal – some minds create nameless, unreasoning, unjustified distress that can be paralysing and insurmountable if professional help doesn’t come to the rescue.

When your neurotransmitters are not doing their job well and emotions have highjacked your brain they create fears that would be unthinkable for a ‘normal’ person. For example, a person who does not have a health anxiety won’t feel as threatened by the fact that 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85

And it can get worse. If you have a generalised anxiety, you don’t even need a trigger or a cause, you simply live in a constant state of worry and fear. You feel scared and you know that what you are feeling is irrational but you cannot help it and putting a brave face does not make dread go away.

When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety eight years ago, fear of dying of cancer ruled my life. For three months I had this all-consuming terror that stayed with me every waking moment and sometimes sleeping moments too as I woke up in the middle of the night in panic.

What I’ve learnt from my experience is that once you understand what anxiety is you can use a combination of tools to manage how to live with your fears. In my case, it made sense to start with medication to make the neurotransmitters do their work properly and reduce the chemical imbalance and the war raging in my brain. Once my mind became a bit calmer I was able to  incorporate therapy, meditation and yoga as part of my tool kit.

Unfortunately, no amount of coping mechanisms can change the fact no one is immune to health and mental illnesses and other tragedies of life. So, fear still pokes its ugly head. When that happens I pull the welcome mat (as well as the yoga mat) and let it exist. The simple fact of acknowledging it makes me feel better. I experienced this when my sister was being treated for breast cancer. Fear walked by my side during that period but thankfully I wasn’t paralysed by it. But if it wasn’t for the teachings of mindfulness meditation I’m not sure I would have coped as well.

I didn’t get to where I am overnight and some days are easier to manage than others. Sometimes I don’t even think I have anxiety but other times it’s clear that I do. I started sharing my story so that people leaving with fear know that they are not alone and that there is treatment.

I hope your fears are not so great but if they are seek help, the journey is not easy and it won’t turn you into a fearless super hero – but you will come out on the other side as a much stronger human being.

 

 

How much awareness is too much?

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for almost three years. Well, truth be told I have lapsed here and there, but for the last few months, I have managed to maintain some form of meditation everyday. Mindfulness meditation has helped me in many areas, but most notably it has changed my relationship with my anxiety. No, meditation hasn’t provided a miracle cure – I’ve read of people who swear they have overcome clinical depression and anxiety with meditation but I’m yet to experience that myself. But meditation has helped me manage the anxious thoughts better and gave me some control over how to respond.

A byproduct of the practice of mindfulness is that I became more aware and compassionate with the suffering that goes on in the world. The flip side to that is that sometimes I can feel overwhelmed – there is too much suffering and my resources to help are limited. So one area that I thought I could help was by becoming a vegetarian – at least I would not be contributing to the suffering of animals. I always found it hard to justify our meat eating habits and eventually I made a decision to no longer eat meat.

I’ve been abstaining from meat for over seven months* and although it requires more planning and I end up having to cook meat for the rest of the family more often than not, I’m happy with my decision.  During this process I also learnt that meat consumption contributes heavily to our carbon footprint – so an added bonus to the vegetarian diet.

The problem was that changing my diet made me more aware of the link between what we eat and our health. I did some research and I read a lot about the benefits of a gluten-free, sugar-free, low carb diet, rich in pro and prebiotics and how this diet contributes to a healthier gut. I’ve found the research around the topic quite compelling, specially around the correlation between the health of your gut and your mental health. So I decided to give it a try, removing gluten and sugar from my diet. I was hoping go on this diet for two weeks but only lasted 10 days.

Unfortunately, in 10 days I did not see any benefits – I was feeling weak and tired, sometimes grumpy and more constipated than I normally get. I understand 10 days is not enough to consider this diet a fail but I got really discouraged. I thought I would see or feel something positive after 10 days to keep me going. Maybe I should have planned more (gluten and sugar at the same time, what was I thinking?) or spoke with a doctor before even considering it.

But I guess the bottom line for me is that it got me thinking if I am becoming too mindful of too many things. There is a limit to how many causes one can embrace, how many fights one can fight and how many problems one can solve. It does not matter how much mindfulness I practice, I cannot add one extra minute to my day – 1440 minutes is all I have and I already have a lot in my plate.

I can’t help being aware of what’s happening around me. I still want to be compassionate. I still want to be there for my friends and help those I can. But this experience was just another reminder that I need to be careful and not bite more that I can chew. And maybe a bit of gluten or sugar is something I can swallow after all.

 

* Confession: I’ve had a bit of fish – as I’m lactose intolerant, sometimes I end up left with very little options, specially when eating out.