Mohawk/Kanien’kéha word of the week

This week’s Mohawk/Kanien’kéha word of the week is ken’niiohontésha – strawberries.  We are approaching strawberry season. I wonder if you have ever had strawberry juice? I remember drinking it at powwows and at events at Concordia University, often with a side of fry bread. It is quite good with lots of sugar, all blended up. I understand that the Kanien’kehá:ka hold strawberry festivals in June in some communities. Sounds great to me!

Here is an old poem that I wrote many years ago. It’s inspired by attending the Kanehsatake powwow.

Traditional

No stars tonight, but a sacred fire in the woods and moonlight in the clouds. Oomkwaihoomwai means real human beings, the way we all were once, before we lost the sounds of the fiddle and the drum when they disappeared inside a machine. Tonight we sit in a clearing, the strawberry season moon lighting our path, shadows of friends dancing in a circle round the arbour, as we once danced to celebrate the holidays, with a fiddle finding the tune, guiding our merry feet through the wedding garden of long ago. We sang songs of the old country, of ships lost at Grosse Isle, of famine that took our ancestors. The drum and the fiddle and the deep living sound of a finger-strummed guitar, here and now in the pow wow round where the Longhouse keeps the fire, our feet are guided by the drum in a dance that the fiddle led long ago; we make a path in the meadow garden of this new, old country.

Inside of mood

dark-soul-cloudsI recently read a book by Jonathan Rottenberg, who describes depression as part of the mammalian mood system. The human mood system is designed to drive and shape behaviour – it pushes us in positive directions and away from bad ones. For example, if a bear is fishing for salmon in a spot that is usually really good and no fish appear, that bear will experience frustration and unhappiness. This mood state will cause him to stop trying to fish in that spot and look for anther one. If he finds fish elsewhere, his mood system will reward him with positive emotions.

With humans, if you set yourself difficult-to-achieve goals, or undergo extreme stress, your mood system will shift downward. It’s trying to tell you something, but you may not be as in-tune with your moods as the bear is, and you may not listen. If not, the mood system will downshift your mood again and again, until eventually you either adjust your goals, or become totally incapacitated by your mood. If you don’t pay attention to low moods and learn from them, they will stop you in your tracks.

The mood system knows much more than we do. It has inside information on the health of our bodies, information that we don’t have access to. If, for example, we are deficient in an essential nutrient, or we are severely sleep-deprived, or we are being bombarded by too many demands, our mood system will take all of these elements into account. If we set crazy, unrealistic goals, our mood system will do everything it can to stop us, and turn us onto a better path.

We are sometimes like a frog in a pot of  water that has been set to boil – the water starts out cool, but over time, it gradually heats up until we are boiling. Our mood system knows that pot of water is going to boil eventually and, if necessary, it will scoop you out and toss you to safety, where you might lie for months, wondering why you feel so bad. But at least you’re alive! The mood system gives you signals meant to influence your choices so that you survive and even thrive.

While our mood system sees clearly, and sends us clear signals, our society often places greater value on other signals that override these vitally important ones. Many of these other signals come in the form of prescriptions – you should be successful; you should be happy; you should be rich; you should be thin; and so on.

To go back to the bear analogy – what if the bear could be convinced that if he just kept on fishing in the unproductive spot on the river, he would one day catch the biggest salmon ever? What if the bear believed that if he didn’t catch that salmon it is really his fault – that he wasn’t a good enough fisher? What if he thought he was weird for feeling depressed about his situation and then started worrying about not being happy?

If the bear listened to that kind of talk, he would probably persist in fishing at that unproductive bend in the river until eventually he became so depressed he had a nervous breakdown and crawled into a hole for a long time. When he came out later, he would hopefully find a better place to fish.

But here is the hard part: we don’t always know we are doing things that are dangerous to our well-being. As Rottenberg points out, we live in a time and place that is a perfect storm for low mood.

We hardly get any sunlight and spend all our time indoors. We get far too little sleep, on average. Our diet and exercise patterns are poor. And I would add that modern living forces us to synchronize our biological rhythms to a very fast-paced work world – we have to show up on time, every day, week after week, year after year. All of these factors, and many others, affect our mood.

For these reasons, Rottenberg says that we are now experiencing a depression epidemic. Depression may protect us from futile, often dangerous behaviours, but it is a very costly adaptation. Depression can be even more difficult to deal with than the situation that triggered it. To recover you need help from doctors, therapists, friends, family and often medications.

It is a very difficult, but productive process, where you learn about yourself and grow as a human being. By listening to depression, you discover yourself and the world anew. Ultimately, Rottenberg’s understanding of depression is a very optimistic one, because although he makes clear that there are many ways to become depressed, there are also a great many ways to recover from it, and all of them offer the potential for growth and renewal.

Keep calm and wear a red suit

I just read an article about how Facebook can cause depression – at the very least, it tends to make people feel they are missing out. And it’s true – as I take in the sometimes carefully-curated FB profiles of my connections, I will inevitably feel I am less: less interesting, less connected, less successful.

ImageI quit Facebook a while ago, but set up camp there once more, this time with a completely open profile, with no security settings. I did this in part because I wanted to use the FB feed to follow news and features – I find the feed easier to use that Twitter – and because FB is the only way I stay in touch with certain friends and family who live overseas or across the country. The lack of security settings is to ensure that I don’t forget that there isn’t really any privacy to be had online, and there is no point in posting a bunch of photos of your kids in the bath and then fiddling with the security settings, thinking they provide any real protection. Better not to post those images at all.
Red Gi

However, recently I was feeling really excited about my progress in Karate, which I study at Douvris Martial Arts, in the west end of Ottawa with my senseis Fortunato and Domenic Aversa. I took a couple of photos of me in my gi and with Fortunato and posted them on FB. But doing so did not give me the chance to write the narrative that goes with those images: the story of how, after many years of “one step forward, two steps back,” I have finally started to get back into real physical shape – ten years of struggling to raise a child, and deal with asthma, weight gain, and stressful work schedules. This real story might reassure Facebookers seeing the images that I don’t have a perfect life, and I don’t sail through my days wearing a red suit and smiling.

Most people in my country and in western countries in general live with hectic, sometimes crushing schedules and stress related to work, family and finances.

And after the years of freedom I spent as a university student, I really expected better, and I was disappointed! It has not been an easy lesson, learning that as an adult, you always have to choose – will it be a house with a mortgage in town, or an apartment, which is more affordable? Will it be a house in the suburbs and a long commute, but you don’t have to work as much? Regardless of the choice it’s not really easy. Who knew that when I was a student and travelling around the country becoming a writer and an activist, I was really just preparing myself to get a job sitting all day in a cubicle with no windows? I mean some of the work in those grey-walled cubes has been interesting, but still. But I could do an activist job, or freelance…and then we could sell our centrally-located house near my son’s school, five minutes from transit! Ah well, such is life. Not much likelihood of finding a job as a feature writer making good coin. Not these days. Not unless you’re a well-established yuppie like Margaret Wente. But I’m not bitter.

But Karate makes it so worthwhile – having the chance to learn something beautiful, difficult and challenging with the two most humble teachers in the world, with a bunch of fascinating people ranging in age from 10 to 70, with professions as diverse as rocket scientist, doctor, boxing coach, programmer, patent researcher, violist, writer.

quappelle_valley_saskatchewan_WV04599
The Qu’appelle Valley: one of the stunningly beautiful places I visited in my youth, the better to disappoint me during endless hours in cubicles.

Thoughts from the continuum

I would like to challenge the notion that there are “mental” illnesses and “physical” illnesses – that certain illnesses are biological and others are psychological.

For example, what are the causes of high blood pressure? Well, according to WedMD, it is caused by the following factors, most of which are no less “psychological” than the causes of depression or anxiety disorders:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Too much salt in the diet
  • Too much alcohol consumption (more than 1 to 2 drinks per day)
  • Stress
  • Older age
  • Genetics
  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Adrenal and thyroid disorders

And if you look at the list, you will see that many of these “causes” of high blood pressure are the same as the causes of depression. The following all contribute to depression’s onset or its return after remission: stress, alcohol abuse, family history of depression, genetics, older age and lack of physical activity.

There are other known (and probably unknown) causes for depression, anxiety and high blood pressure, no doubt, but isn’t it interesting that people with high blood pressure are almost never sent to a psychologist for therapy, even though their condition would probably be improved by learning to cope better with stress, reduce alcohol consumption and change and improve lifestyle?

What about type 2 diabetes, many cases of heart disease and chronic pain? These conditions could also be improved through specific types of psychotherapy and counselling, often in conjunction with medication.

I have grown tired of the argument that people who suffer from certain “mental” illnesses like depression and anxiety should not take medications, but should instead see a therapist to get to the root of their problems.

These illnesses are not curable, as far as we know. They are conditions, just as high blood pressure and diabetes are conditions. Those who suffer from them have to manage them, usually with some combination of medication, exercise, stress reduction, nutrition and, often, psychotherapy. Why is it that people with conditions that can be measured with a blood pressure cuff or a blood sample are not so often told to get to the root of their problems?

And then we have scientists like Dr. Irving Kirsch, whose research into anti-depressant medications resulted in him confirming his own bias that the medications don’t work and are nothing but placebos. Imagine if you were a diabetic and had been taking a medication that helps you keep your blood sugar in check and a scientist publishes a study telling you that it’s all in your head?  “Guess what? Your medications don’t work! You just think they do!” That’s what Kirsch has done, and many media outlets trumpeted his message uncritically.

Scientists are in the midst of developing an antidepressant medication that works in hours instead of weeks. Perhaps if we start having medications that have rapid effects, the notion that antidepressants are nothing but placebos will come to an end.

We have learned that even our genes are influenced by our environment, with certain genes being turned on or off depending on the conditions in which we live. There is no absolute division between environmental and genetic causes of illness, just as there is no real dividing line between the psychological and the biological. It is all on a continuum. To believe otherwise is to create obstacles to wellness for people suffering from a great number of conditions. Why close the door on psychotherapy for high blood pressure problems? Why discourage sufferers from using medications for their anxiety?

I realize there is a problem with medications being overprescribed in many cases, but there is an even bigger problem with under-treatment of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain and anxiety disorders.

Just as there are biological and psychological dimensions to all diseases, there is a moral aspect as well. We can call on sufferers to improve their diets, manage their stress, get to the root of their problems. We can deny health coverage to smokers who develop lung cancer. We can discourage medication because we are so sure that sufferers can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But moral judgements won’t reduce suffering or lower the great burden of disease that society continues to bear. The costs to us are enormous in terms of lost productivity, social breakdown, medical expenses and quality of life.

Vitamin D

Have there been any studies on the changes in Vitamin D levels over the course of a year – presumably people will have lower levels in winter.

How do we know how much vitamin D people get from sun? Most of us are city dwellers and spend very little time outdoors, regardless of the season. On top of this, we have all been told to stay out of the sun or use sun screen to avoid skin cancer.

Recommendations regarding vitamin D supplementation have been cautious, but the same caution was not used in devising recommendations regarding sun exposure. We are told to avoid the sun at all costs and wear sunscreens, some of which contain chemicals whose safety is questionable.

Would it not have been more prudent to encourage people to get some sun exposure, but not too much, instead of encouraging us to avoid the sun altogether? We seem to have evolved to require sun exposure for our health, and there is still a great deal we don’t know about its importance to our wellbeing.

Vitamin D is needed for bone and cardiovascular health, as well as to prevent certain forms of cancer. Low levels are thought to play a role in the development of Multiple Sclerosis.  It is also important for immune function, and may explain why influenza levels are higher in winter.  Vitamin D also activates genes that regulate brain function, which may explain the high prevalence of depression in late winter, when vitamin D levels are lowest.

Check out Emily Deans’ blog, including this article on vitamin D and depression: http://evolutionarypsychiatry.blogspot.ca/2010/07/d-d-depression.html

Complexity – everywhere complexity

When it comes to such complex systems as the human body, I doubt there could be a single root cause for a problem like obesity. I know Gary Taubes (among others) tends to see the argument that obesity is multi-factorial as an excuse to do bad science. But even though much of what the average layperson knows about obesity and how to deal with it is inadequate and often based on bad science, that does not mean the problem of obesity can be reduced to one root cause. Reducing complex problems to the most simple explanation works better in math and physics; it does not work so well with human biology. Perhaps the best chance for success in treating obesity is to address the problem from many angles at once – diet, exercise, stress management, improved sleep, treatment of deficiencies, treatment of emotional problems, etc.

A litte progress on a long road

I rode 18 k yesterday and 17.5 k today. Finally my knee, which has been bothering me for a couple of months, has stopped hurting. I didn’t road ride for a couple of weeks, and only did one off-road ride that involved a lot of crashing, walking through rocks, and getting stuck (!) in mud.

So I was surprised to get on my bike yesterday and go faster and farther than I have any other time this year. It felt so great! It seems kind of strange that by not cycling I seem to have gotten better. Of course in the meantime I was walking 1 to 2 hours a day and doing yoga.

I still have not lost much weight, but I am back in the weight loss program that I was in before, weighing and measuring everything; logging all my food. I seem to have my calories back to the right level and I am never hungry, so hopefully things will start to move now.

Before I had my son, I was super-fit. I never expected that I would ever be that fit, but I actually achieved something I had only dreamed of. I really miss how I felt then – like I could do anything I wanted – try a new sport, run top speed for the bus, do a century on my bike, x-c ski with my super-fit friends (one is even a retired pro cyclist).  I hope to get back there again. I do realize that I’m older and it will be different, but just the same.

Other than when I’m writing – poetry, an article, or something else that really means a lot to me, exercise is pretty much the only time when I feel completely alive, as if I am in the right place at the right time and couldn’t be doing anything else. Of course, I don’t necessarily feel that way when it is 35 degrees outside and I am coughing up a lung on my bike and my knee is aching. But I did feel that way today.

I wonder if I will regain that feeling of so many possibilities – that  I could do so many things physically – I really miss it.