In a very brief conversation with Nathaniel Comfort, an author on, among other things, genetics, I was inspired to write a bit about determinism and responsibility. The basic concept of genetic determinism as I understand it (spoiler alert: not well) is that the information coded in our genes is responsible for nearly everything about us. And because it’s coded at the cellular level, there’s not much we can do about it.
For example: my mother and my father both had blue eyes. I have blue eyes. There is nothing at all that I can do about this short of gouging my eyes out or buying colored contacts. I was born with blue eyes. I’ll die with blue eyes. And in between those events, I’ll live with blue eyes. Like it or not.
The problem is when people take this too far. Our bodies and our minds are remarkably plastic. We are designed to change in response to essentially every single stimulus we encounter in our lives. Our genes may determine how rapidly, significantly, or dramatically we change, but change we will. Our genes influence how we can change in addition to things that don’t.
I am an alcoholic. It seems uncontroversial at this point to say that there’s a significant genetic component to this. It runs on both sides of my family. My brain and my body behave differently in response to alcohol than do the brains and bodies of about 90-95% of humans. However, my genes do not govern how I choose to respond to my alcoholism. They can’t control my behavior. I may be an alcoholic. But I don’t have to drink.
Not drinking for more than seven years now has caused my brain and my body to change in significant, important ways. When I first stopped drinking, I had terrible cravings. I no longer do. I used to fantasize about drinking. I rarely do now. I used to suffer from major depression and engaged in self-harm. I no longer struggle with those. My blood pressure is lower. My cholesterol is normal. Stopping drinking has had incredible influence on the way my body and my brain function.
Similarly, I am genetically predisposed to obesity. It runs on both sides of my family. I was obese for more than a decade. And working not to be obese has been difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. But my genes – despite being hardwired for morbid obesity – do not have the final say in my body composition. I have the ability to affect it by how hard I work and how carefully I eat.
As a result of investing enormous amounts of time and effort, I am now only modestly overweight. But that’s what it takes for me. For me to be only modestly overweight, I need to run 20 miles a week, and walk 20 miles a week. I need to go to the gym. I need to eat less in the way of things I like to eat than I would like to eat. I need to spend more money on healthy foods that I would need to to eat less well.
In order to live my life the way I want to live my life, I need to put in enormous efforts that some other people don’t need to put in. People with a luckier draw at life’s genetic lottery don’t have to worry about addiction. They might have better metabolisms and not have to fret about diabetes and obesity. But that’s the hand I was dealt, and eventually, I learned to play it.
Genetic determinism is seductive. It would be easy and pleasant to simply say: “I don’t have the genes to be fit. I give up.” It would be easy and compelling to say, “I am an alcoholic. I drink until I die. It’s in my genes.”
But my body is plastic even if my genes are not. My body responds, as it is made to, to running and to sobriety and to proper nutrition. It may not respond as rapidly as others, or as completely, or as robustly. But it does respond. Slowly. Surely. Eventually. The more effort I put in, the more I get the result I desire. And my desire is the key.
If I want to have the life I envision for myself, a life of sobriety and fitness and reasonable comfort, then certain kinds of effort are non-optional. I have to run. I have to abstain from alcohol. I have to work. The fact that some other people seem to get these things without having to put in the effort I have to put in is immaterial to me. Sometimes it doesn’t feel fair that my friend Chicago Joe is 6’2″ and 160 lbs no matter what he eats or how little he exercises. That’s just the genetic draw he got. But it means nothing at all to my life.
My genetics make it harder to attain my goals. They make it impossible for me to indulge in some things. But they don’t control my life. Genetic determinism is seductive because it tempts me to see my challenges as entirely out of my control, and therefore I don’t have to put in any effort to overcome them. Well, sure. I can’t change my genes. But I sure as hell can change my fitness, and my alcohol intake. And I believe that that is true for most people.
Some things are immutable. But most things in life respond to effort and time. My genes require more effort from me than others’ do of them. So what. Comparing myself to other people – who are exerting their own efforts I might not see – is a useless game. I compare myself today to the self I want to be tomorrow. And then I do what I can do today to become that.
I’m in a bit of a strange spot with my running. I really want to be running further. I want to get into the 18 mile Saturdays, the 40 mile weeks. I want to be doing three-hour runs every weekend and kicking out 150 mile months. The kind of running I’ll need to peak at for my marathon prep in the fall. I want to be an endurance athlete. I want people to look at me and admire the kind of work I can do. I’m vain. I want people to see what I do and think that I’m exceptional. I want to be exceptional.
The problem, of course, is that I’m not ready right now for that. I can’t go from 22 mile weeks to 40 mile weeks overnight. I can’t just get myself prepped and ready and not expect to burn out or get injured. I need to be circumspect. I need to plan and be careful. And I need to allow myself the right amount of rest.
And I need to train for the things I have coming up. In two and a half weeks, I have the Providence half-marathon. It’ll be a slower race that the last one I ran for two reasons. First, there are more hills in Providence than in Virginia Beach. And second, I’m running it with a friend for whom it will be his first run of that distance. His goal is to finish, not to put up a time. My goal is to run with him and with BB the whole way and enjoy myself. I don’t want to overtrain for this race.
So I’ve been running in a little bit of a new way. One thing I’ve always enjoyed is incremental progress, and so just like last year, when I added gym work, I am now adding hills. In ECC, the path I run on is mainly along a river, but there’s a big hill up to a museum that I used to pass by. Now I run up it, and back down, twice on each run. It’s not a long hill – maybe a tenth of a mile – but it is very steep. It takes my wind out and reminds me that I have a long way to go, fitness-wise.
Yesterday I ran with a friend from work. He’s a younger man, only 26, and pretty fit. He’s training for a 10-mile run in May, and so we went out for a 10K yesterday. For an hour, with hills, we ran and talked. At a 9:32 min/mi pace. Which is right about my personal-best half-marathon pace. It felt good. It especially felt good that this young man wasn’t smoking me. He was sucking wind from time to time, and I could tell that it was a challenging run for both of us.
We talked work and retirement planning and relationships. He clearly wants something of a mentoring relationship, and I’m happy to participate. I enjoy networking with people who are technically behind me on the career ladder, in addition to those supposedly higher. It’s valuable to make connections all over; I never know who’ll be relevant to future career plans.
So I’m running a little harder. Saving my distance training for later in the summer. And beginning to make additional fitness goals for myself. My ability to run hills. Body fat percentage. Strength.
But soon, I’m going to run further. I want to be able to look at myself, the me I see in the looking-glass, and see an endurance athlete. There are many things I never was, and will never be. But this is something I think I can do. I can be. I will never be a champion. But I am a finisher. I can finish things that the me I used to be never even contemplated starting. I can run a long way. And I have a lot further to go.
I just renewed this domain name for another year. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m beginning to feel more and more the way I felt several years ago when I deleted my Facebook account. I’m not really enjoying my online experience. I’m not contributing what I’d like to contribute. I’m not making wise investments of time or energy. As a result, I’m not getting the kind of returns I want to get.
My life is objectively good. I’m usually happy. I have little to write about. I have a lot of work to do in the next three months. I’ll have less time than usual to write here and elsewhere. But I’m starting to think that’s ok. For six years I’ve been writing about sobriety and work and relationships and running and health and travel. A big, stupid diary for the world to read. I’m not sure why I ever thought the world should want to read it.
I’m tired. All the work I’ve put in, and I’m a mediocre engineer and researcher. All the running and working and I’m still flabby and slow and soft. I have to work harder. In all my things, I have to work harder. To get where I want to be, I need to go further and harder. And that’s at odds with my great indolence.
It’s too hard for me to control what I eat. It’s too hard for me to work hours without stopping. I don’t think as well as I used to. I lost so much intellect through drinking. I squandered so much time and thought. I hurt so many people and I surrendered so much industry to liquor. I will never be what I might have been. I wonder who that person is?
It’s spring. It’s spring and I’m a little lost. All these little green things erupting from the ground and I am simply dull grey waste.
I’ve been thinking about the Germanwings flight. Everyone has. How horrifying. A pilot, apparently suffering from some kind of chronic mental illness, chooses mid-flight to take this opportunity to end his own life and the lives of 149 other people. He seems to have implacably locked the other pilot out of the cockpit, set the autopilot to a cruising altitude lower than the height of the mountains, and calmly waited for the plane to burn in. A calculated act of mass murder. A terrible suicide.
Now there’s been a great deal of debate about what Germanwings’ parent company, Lufthansa, knew or should have known. The pilot, Lubitz, had been seen by health professionals, who had told him he was unfit to fly. He had ignored those proscriptions. And I understand that. Having a physician or a psychologist tell me I can’t do something makes me bristle, immediately. I think I’m unremarkable in that regard. I think we all do that.
It is natural to conceal our illnesses. I mean that literally. I used to own a small parrot, and one day, when it was sneezing, I took it to the vet. I noted the sneezing and said that I hadn’t noticed any other behaviors that indicated illness. The vet said I wouldn’t. As a prey animal, it is crucial that they continue to behave normally no matter how they feel, he told me. You won’t notice a bird acting sick until it’s at death’s door.
Obviously, it’s a huge and tenuous leap from parrot to human behavior. But I know that humans are almost universally interested in appearing robust, healthy, normal. So much so that we have words like “Munchausen”: disorders which describe people who want to appear ill. We consider it a badge of honor to work when sick. It shows toughness, dedication. Hospitals have to have starkly-worded policies against people coming to work sick, lest infection spread to vulnerable patients.
With mental illness, there are additional layers. Treatment avoidance is a common feature of mental illnesses. Addiction, alcoholism, depression, bipolar disorder*, all of these feature powerful internal obstacles to treatment. In the case of my own illnesses, alcoholism and depression, there are powerful incentives to avoid treatment. I like being drunk. And there is even a strange compelling vitality to my depression that I genuinely prefer to the feeling of being medicated for depression.
This is why I say again that I believe it is not inappropriate for employers to apply reasonable heightened scrutiny to employees with known mental illnesses that might result in workplace harm. As an alcoholic, if my job involved operating machinery or treating patients, it would be thoroughly appropriate for my employer to subject me to routine testing, etc., for alcohol. Even though I have been sober for 7 years.
Imagine if my job were to drive or fly, and I relapsed, and my employer knew that I was in recovery and had not instituted some measure to be assured that I were sober? Of course they’d be liable. Their only other option is to exclude me from those jobs: to discriminate against me due to my status as mentally ill. And I could not blame them for doing so.
It is not my fault that I am an alcoholic. That fault rests in genetics or epigenetics or some fault in brain structure or chemistry or some other peculiar error that arose in the womb. I didn’t choose it. I cannot change it. My choice rests solely in accepting the fact that I am an alcoholic, embracing my recovery, and confronting the consequences associated with my disease honestly.
Certain mental illnesses, like certain physical illnesses (and really, are we certain there’s a difference?), require an employer to take precautions against liability associated with an ill employee. They require me to accept that there are things I can’t do. These are just facts. They’re not fair, and they’re not just. They’re amoral. They are outside of judgement or shame. I am an alcoholic. I suffer from depression. Those diagnoses have consequences. The same as any other.
No one with epilepsy will be allowed to become a commercial pilot. It’s not safe. Now, I’m not asserting that depression and alcoholism are necessarily in that category. But I do assert that insisting without inquiry that they are not actually increases the stigma of mental illness, rather than reducing it.
My mental illness is, for some things, just as debilitating as a physical illness would be. My risk of relapse is real, and permanent. I have to accept that risk because I can’t do anything about it. But no employer of mine has to simply accept that risk without some means of mitigating it. And when I conceal my illness from my employer – as I have in my current position – they are not to blame if I relapse and cause harm in the workplace.
Saying that an employer has no right to precaution and risk management for mentally ill employees – that it cannot discriminate in reasonable ways – is the same as telling me that my disease is “all in my head”. It says that if I were stronger, there’d be no risk for my employer to confront. That I have total control over my risk of relapse. It says that my disease is my fault.
My disease is not my fault. But I, like many mentally ill people, am seduced by my disease sometimes. I enjoy it. I can revel in it. That’s a feature of the disease. It’s a symptom. I conceal it. Because even though I have no obligation to be ashamed, sometimes I am anyway. Because I don’t want to face unreasonable consequences, and I don’t trust my employers only to institute reasonable ones. Because I don’t want to face stigmas. And yes, because I don’t always want to accept the realities of my disease.
Mental illnesses are like physical illnesses: there are some things we can’t do. It’s not fair, but it’s not shameful either. And pretending that’s not true is false compassion. It’s dishonest. And it makes recovery harder.
*Edited from “manic depression” in original posting.
I have very little to write about these days. I run. I don’t drink. That’s been the basic state of this blog for the past year, it seems. I can only imagine my readership is bored as shit, and that’s borne out in the stats: fewer and fewer people are reading this. That’s fine. I’m not insulted. I’m just boring. For an alcoholic, a boring life is a good life.
Exciting things were always happening to me when I drank. I never knew when I’d decide to fuck it and leave the country. When I’d get in trouble. When I’d hurt myself. When I’d get arrested. Life was draining and miserable and eventful. As a sober man, it’s not like that.
Today my life is pretty ordinary. I have a house that needs professional work on a regular basis. I have a partner who lives in a nearby city with whom I get on very, very well. My health is good. My fitness is improving. I have a growing career that supports me. I have professional success and recognition. I’m comfortable.
I have challenges. I’m lazy. I’m sometimes dishonest. I’m quick to judge and often defensive. I have to face those attributes and work regularly to alleviate them. I regularly have to apologize. But I’ve found that addressing those things and apologizing when I fail isn’t the excoriating process it once was.
I have less to say. I’ve stepped away from a lot of the culture wars. I simply don’t have much to offer there, and the world doesn’t really need another privileged voice shouting about what ought to be. I’m happy to follow new leaders there. Fine people have fine things to say, and I’m not usually able to add more.
I don’t have a lot of reason to write at the moment. I’m not solving great problems of identity anymore. I’m not struggling to maintain a new lifestyle. I’ve wrung the blood from all these stones. I normally write when I’m unhappy. But I’m almost never unhappy anymore, except when my house is leaking. And that will get fixed, like all things get fixed.
I’m 40 years old. I’m healthy. I have a life partner. I’m gainfully employed. And I’m happy. This is what sobriety does. This is how Alcoholics Anonymous helps us. It’s opened me up, so that I can experience all the wondrous things in the world. I am a better me, now. And I know how to live here.
My brilliant and incredible Aunt Julie can do anything. She got me a bib for the Marine Corps Marathon. So, October 25th, 2015, barring injury or apocalypse, I will run the 40th Annual Marine Corps Marathon in our nation’s capital. My partner, BB, will be running beside me. I’m so excited and happy. This summer is going to be a long, tough running summer. We are determined to not just go out and run a 5 and a half hour marathon. We want to be fit and ready and not be done and hate running afterwards. Which means running and running and running to train right.
Not just miles. Hill repeats. Tempos. Training well, carefully. Thoughtfully. Running 26.2 miles is not a trivial task, and requires careful preparation to avoid injury. Especially when you’re a 40 year old man without much of a history of fitness. But I’m on my way to being healthier, and likelier to avoid the diabetic-stroke fate of my father.
When we get closer to the date, I’m going to post a link to my Aunt and Uncle’s charity and ask people interested in my journey to contribute to their charity. They help the families of fallen warriors, especially Marines, go on with their lives. Including those warriors who die of suicide after they come home. It’s a very small charity but they do good work. And I love them dearly.
Tonight, I’m excited. I’m going to be a marathoner.
The last day has been a real series of ups and downs. Well, a lot of ups yesterday and a big down this morning. Yesterday, I received notice that I won a small grant to do my hospital simulation research. It will have enough money to pay a student intern and attend a conference. I’m incredibly lucky that my research doesn’t have animals or reagents or consumables of any kind. I just need access and some expensive software which I already own.
Then I got some much-needed data from a collaborator. This is really exciting because I get to be middle author on a very cool project. I would be justified in putting myself first or last (I’m going to do most of the data analysis and write the manuscript), but I’m going to make our project lead the first author. She’s never done any publishing. She led a hell of a project. And she’s eager to learn more and demonstrate herself in a new arena. It’s exciting to put her first. And frankly, my CV will be bolstered by a few middle-author papers. Right now, I’m first or senior on almost all my papers. I need more in the way of “plays well with others”.
I had a good run after a long day of work. A little more than four miles. My legs were a little tired, but I eased up around mile 1.5, and was able to put in a good 40 minute run only two days after finishing what was, for me, a very fast half-marathon. Today I run again, same distance, same speed. Trying to keep my legs and aim for sustained, long-term fitness. Managing fitness is a lot like managing sobriety. I have to do the things I have to do in order to stay where I want to be. Sometimes that feels arduous, sometimes it’s fabulous. But it’s simple and straightforward.
And then, this morning, I didn’t get in to the Marine Corps Marathon. BB did. She has a bib. I don’t. And I’m very, very sad. I feel really crushed right now. I wasn’t expecting not to get it, and I really wasn’t expecting to feel this bad if I didn’t. I’m sad and feel kind of hopeless and miserable. I know it will pass rapidly. There are other ways to get bibs. More expensive. They require luck too. I’m tempted to just snap-signup for a different fall marathon to fix it. But that would be a mistake.
I need to sit with my disappointment. Experience my emotions. I always drank to avoid feeling. I thought emotions were for weak people who couldn’t apply logic and stoicism. Now, I’ve realized that acknowledging and experiencing emotions is a sign of real strength. Façades of (usually male) bravado and perfectly even-keeled temperament are just ways to hide fears of weakness and vulnerability. But I’ve found that real vulnerability isn’t a weakness.
So today I’m sad about a thing that isn’t really a huge deal. Just a thing I wanted. I’ll find another marathon to run, or another way to run this one. And I’ll be perfectly ok. Because not getting to run one’s first choice of recreational marathons isn’t a real problem. It’s only barely a pretend problem. But I still get to be sad. I get to be me.