Mental Illness, Mental Health, and the In-Betweens: The Beginning of an Open Discussion with Drew Canavero

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I’ve always thought that celebrities have one thing easy: they are blessed with a forum to make a difference in people’s lives in ways that the rest of us can’t.  While I can’t possibly fathom the complications and downsides that counterbalance the positives of life as a celebrity, it seems to me that a resounding upside is having the chance to make a meaningful difference for people, and it’s always very cool to me when one actually does.

Through my work on PsychologyWOD, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from a number of people about their struggles and victories and the inner workings of their own “mental game.”  I’ve heard from readers who have great ideas for future articles.  I’ve had the great fortune of being told that my work has inspired people to do something new in their lives.  I’m no celebrity, but I’ll happily take advantage of this small opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life.

Last week I received a message on Facebook from Drew Canavero.  You may have seen Drew’s story recently documented in this artful video in the CrossFit Journal by Jay Vera (6/1/2013):

http://games.crossfit.com/video/fight-or-flight

Drew reached out to me to see if there might be a way that he and I could collaborate to spread a message about mental illness, mental health and wellness, and the importance of being able to discuss such content openly and without hesitation.  I am thrilled to have an opportunity to share Drew’s vision and to begin what is hopefully a long-term effort on our parts, through my blog, to raise awareness of mental health issues and to provide a forum where stigmas are dissipated if not removed—where we can all recognize ourselves in each other’s struggles.

Drew Canavero is 26 years old.  Born in Sacramento, Drew spent some of his childhood in the Ashland, Oregon area and has lived in Reno since he was fourteen.  He is the only child born to his mother, has never known his biological father, and was raised by his mom and adoptive father.  Drew is a CrossFit coach, a bouncer, a college student, a CrossFit competitor, a friend, a boyfriend, a son, a half-brother, and an aspiring writer.  He also has Bipolar Disorder, Type II.  Bipolar II Disorder is marked by alternating hypomanic episodes (euphoria, irritable mood, racing thoughts, grandiosity, distractibility, excessive risk-taking behaviors) and depressive episodes (low energy, black and white thinking, pessimism, automatic thinking, disengagement from activities, isolation, thoughts of suicide).  Hypomanic episodes are less severe than manic episodes characteristic of Bipolar I Disorder, which often lead to psychosis.  While Drew sometimes needs to remind himself, there is far more to him than his diagnosis.

Drew remembers being an active kid who played soccer, baseball, basketball, and plenty of other sports.  “Even as a young child I was competitive, and I remember practicing for hours in front of our apartment, throwing a baseball, imploring my dad to hit grounders to me at a nearby field.  Most pursuits had a tendency to evolve into near-compulsions, because I was driven to be better.”  He was also a driven student, with excellent grades and attendance through his junior year of high school. Drew’s grades plummeted during his senior year, and he engaged in excessive drinking and promiscuous behaviors.  He also suffered from significant mood swings and persistent insomnia and was ultimately diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder, Type II at the age of 17.

Drew reflects that a significant factor in the spiraling of his behavior during his last year of high school was his decision to attend the University of Reno (UNR) instead of the University of Iowa, where he had been accepted to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop earlier in the year with a “modest” academic scholarship.  While his parents had always been supportive of him and continue to be supportive to this day, finances were an issue.  It was decided that Drew would stay near home and attend UNR.  The decision, though arrived at jointly, initially contributed to Drew’s marked decrease in motivation and his engagement in self-destructive behaviors, including drinking and smoking pot.  He knew his grades were plenty good for matriculation at UNR, he had cultivated enough positive connection with his teachers, and he did just enough to “skate by” during his last months of high school.

After graduating from high school in 2005 with an Honors degree and fifteen college credits earned through Advanced Placement scores, Drew enrolled at UNR, where he lived off-campus freshman year and continued with his self-destructive behavior. This was easier in many ways, since he was now unsupervised and beyond the confines of high school and life at home.  On the flip side, he began playing rugby during his freshman year.  When the team partnered with a local CrossFit affiliate for training supplementation in 2007, Drew was initially “pretty skeptical,” but once the team started experiencing results, he developed a friendship with the trainer and within a year had obtained his Level 1 CrossFit certification.  He reflects that his introduction to CrossFit began the rebuilding of his physical life, but “mentally I was still a ways off.”  The physical results were clear: Drew went from 225 to 230 pounds in early 2007 to a lean 175 to180 by the summer of 2008.  CrossFit quickly became a focus, and Drew’s competitive aspirations were growing.  He recognized that this, unlike rugby, was something he could do beyond NCAA eligibility, and he also knew he was good at CrossFit and might be able to take it to the next level.  That he did.  After a first-place at the UT/NV Sectionals in 2010 (30th place overall in his region), Drew came in seventh place at both the 2011 and 2012 Southwest Regional, whetting his appetite for the 2013 season.

Since his diagnosis, Drew has had a handful of suicide attempts and has been hospitalized twice (once by his own volition and once not).  He has been charged with reckless driving and has held “more jobs than I can recollect.”  His illness has affected his relationships with numerous people and has served as a significant obstacle en route to achieving his goals.  However, Drew is adamant that his illness not define who he is or what his future holds.  He has been in treatment with a psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Price, whose style works very well for Drew.  The two meet every two to three months for medication management and more regularly if a crisis emerges.  According to Drew, Dr. Price has been particularly “helpful because he was the first therapist who I felt talked to me on a personal level.  He has a very conversational, ‘un-clinical’ approach that I think has helped me to avoid continued over-identification with my diagnosis.”

Despite his recent success with talk therapy, Drew continues to also manage his illness with medications.  In his own words:

I used to resent taking medication and would often go off them in the past (usually with not-so-great consequences). My relationship with my mediation has evolved to a point where I see them less as a crutch than a tool – one of a number of instruments that allow me to better manage my life through improved symptom management. I’m hypomanic, and generally experience varying degrees of lethargy, motivation loss, or something I can only really describe as something like a “mental fog” or dissociative feeling. The medications help manage that and help me sustain an energy level that more closely approaches what I need to maintain high training intensities, and still be productive the rest of the day.

In March, 2013, after completing workout 13.4 of the CrossFit Open (the online qualifier event for the CrossFit Games), Drew decided to withdraw from the competition.  On April 9th, he wrote a long and detailed post on Facebook explaining his decision.  The heart of his message was this:

The past two weeks the thing that I loved, the thing that gave me an added sense of value and purpose (and for better or worse, identity) evolved into something I hated. I hated training. I hated working so hard to ultimately feel like I underwhelmed each Open workout. I hated that I had spent the past year dedicating myself to a goal that (1) I wasn’t likely going to achieve, and, even worse (2) didn’t even want anymore. I felt defeated. I felt lost. At any one time I didn’t know whether to cry at the pervasive sense of loss, or laugh at how comically tragic it all was. I often did both. I wasn’t sleeping well at night. Vivid ideations of suicide kept playing my mind. I couldn’t shake them. The medication I had religiously taken didn’t seem like it was working anymore. I didn’t know why. The same storyline was playing itself out, but this time I wasn’t authoring it. And this time I felt I had so much more to lose. Beyond the Open, Regionals, or the Games, I was terrified that I suddenly wanted to end the life that only days prior I had been so satisfied living. It’s a scary thing when your mind betrays you. I more or less suffered a nervous breakdown in the following days…The turnaround has been much quicker this time. No bridges burned, no irreparable damage done…I look forward to rediscovering dormant interests, things that have necessarily been superseded by training the past few years. Turns out, I’m good at a number of things aside from competitive exercise. I often fall prey to binary ways of thinking—black or white, love or hate, fully committed or not at all. This is my new challenge: to establish balance in my life.

Drew is now entering his ninth calendar year as an undergraduate, though he acknowledges that the first four years were marked by infrequent attendance and only a moderate capacity for learning.  He has been in a relationship since February with a woman he met through mutual friends, and he is enjoying himself working part-time as a coach at a local CrossFit affiliate and part-time as a bouncer at a bar.  He likes both jobs and is thrilled that he’s been at the same place of work for almost two years now (at the bar)—the longest he’s ever held the same job.  While the night shifts can wreak havoc on his training and study routine, he enjoys the social aspects of the work and takes his job seriously.

Asked what his top-five goals are, Drew chose these:

1.  Graduate from college (will be the first in his immediate family to graduate from a four-year institution)

2.  Become a published writer (Drew particularly enjoys writing poetry, and while he never sits down with the intention of having something published, eventually that would be nice).

3.  Travel outside the continental United States

4.  Earn enough money to leave his job as a bouncer, despite how much he enjoys the work and how seriously he takes it.  The lifestyle is challenging, given his other goals.

5.  Compete at the CrossFit Regionals and ultimately qualify for the CrossFit Games.

Now that you know Drew’s story, perhaps you can relate to parts of it and feel a connection that you might not otherwise.  You see, as I’ve written before, we all have a story, and we are all the result of our histories, which we are all also creating with every moment we function.  It is our hope that Drew’s story can be a starting point for an open, stigma-free, and productive conversation about mental health and the spectrum of psychological and emotional functioning, upon which we all find ourselves falling at various points at different times in our lives.  While we must acknowledge that there are extremes that are diagnosable and warrant differing levels of care and treatment, we should also acknowledge that our psychological experience falls on a spectrum, and each of us has struggles that may or may not cross some magical diagnostic line in our lifetimes.  Psychological turmoil and emotional angst are universal human experiences.  Some people may suffer more or talk more freely about their struggles, but we all have our needs and can all benefit from both self-reflection and help from others.  This blog is about the development of our psychological selves in relation to physical pursuits; one aspect of such a focus is the acknowledgment and awareness of moderate to severe mental health issues, many of which respond well to physical activity and the pursuit of a healthy body.

Given the importance of such a discussion, I am providing this forum for Drew’s message, stated quite eloquently:

We differ at the margins, I think.  And the margins of our collective understanding are often unexplored, and misunderstanding creeps in. Speaking only for my condition, the characteristics that can become liabilities if left unchecked or mismanaged – empathy, drive, intellect – can be our greatest attributes if channeled properly. And that’s the key difference – I often don’t know how to channel a surplus of thought and emotion into action; whereas most people are in an equally unenviable position of having any number of options, but a lack of purpose or drive to act on them. Opposite sides of the same coin, as it were. But in both groups (those with mental illness and those without), we see the effects of inertia…I hope we can be a resource for people to find, support, encouragement, and hope if they (or a loved one, co-worker, etc.) are coping with a mental illness.  I want our collaboration to be an avenue through which a more honest, candid and INFORMED discussion about mental illness can take place.  I want to help break taboos, and dispel the notion (as commonly held, I think, among people with mental illness) that those with mental illnesses are incapable of managing their own lives long-term, or thriving in school, the workplace, relationships, or CrossFit. I want this to be a springboard, a template that encourages others to follow suit in their communities–a diffuse network of distributed success, much like CrossFit, itself.

As I wrapped up my story on Drew, wearing my psychologist and blogger hats and admittedly coming from a place of concern for this new person in my life, I asked him about his competitive aspirations and how he plans to protect himself from having his CrossFit training become, once again, a source of stress and negativity.  After all, as we’ve explored in a previous article, physical endeavors can be exceedingly subtle as they serve as decoys for psychological material.  This is true in the absence of mental illness and may be particularly threatening and volatile in its presence.  Drew took some time to ponder the question and came back with the following:

I’m excited to compete again…I train with the intention to get back to Regionals and beyond in 2014, but it is no longer my all-consuming focus.  I love training, and while it would still be difficult, I could conceivably set aside my near-term competitive aspirations if it were best for my long-term growth. My goal, however, is to reconcile the two…I tend to thrive in competition because at that point, the preparation is over as is all the anxiety that accompanies it. I’m “free” to just compete at that point, because I’m able to divorce my performance from my expected result. I put forth my best effort and allow the chips to fall where they may (which is generally pretty well). At this point, to avoid the usual pre-comp neuroses and anxiety I’m consciously trying to leave the gym at the gym — I make the session as productive as possible — and leave it at that. I try to speculate, or forecast as little as possible. The variables I CAN better control – sleep, nutrition, effort – I manage as best as possible and try not to invest too much cognitive space to “what if?” scenarios. If I prepare as well as possible and compete as hard and as well as I’m capable, then my performance will generally reflect that. And if it doesn’t, then it won’t be attributable to a lack of desire or preparedness, but things beyond my present control (so why worry about them?)…When I (or my training partner or friends) notice a marked shift in my mood—increasingly irritable, moody, etc., I know I need to dial it back.  Usually that’s a day off, or a “re-set” day where I get outside to train without a set plan or structure.  I’ll also make a more concerted effort to get more and better sleep.  Usually poor sleep and mood disturbances are co-morbid for me. 

I’m sure I speak for everyone reading this when I say I’m rooting for Drew to be able to integrate gracefully and in good health his passion for training and competing with his life outside of the gym and his overall psychological wellness.  This is no easy task for anybody, and Drew knows that the cards are stacked slightly more tentatively in his case than in others.  He may have had harder lessons to learn and higher heights from which to fall, but he is doing his best to know himself and the boundaries of his healthy experience—an art we should all try to master.  Drew also knows there is more to him than his Bipolar illness, and he’s out to do what he can to live the life he wants, despite his challenges and by embracing the totality of who he is.  This is as good a perspective as any for all of us, I think: integrating our challenges and struggles with the positive attributes that allow us to thrive and outshine any darkness.  Hard work is a given.  Open communication is required.  Hope is a necessity.  Indeed, it is my hope that this post is the beginning of some kind of regular dialogue on the topic of mental illness, mental health, and all of the in-betweens.  Thank you to Drew for bravely and graciously spearheading this effort and for reminding us that we differ only at the margins of our experiences!

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“At times I feel like it would be helpful to remember where I was so I can better appreciate how far I’ve come and avoid similar pitfalls in the future. But it’s easier for me now to create my present and future than deconstruct my past.” ~Drew Canavero, Age 26

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Comments

  1. What a story! Having been diagnosed with moderate depression and anxiety — and encouraged to use exercise as a form of treatment — I’ve been in some of these same mental spots as Drew. I’ve had some rough times (recently) with crossfit dredging up my worst mental demons. Thank you, Drew, for being open to sharing your story and encouraging people to look at mental illness through lenses other than those of stigma and negative judgment. And thank you, Allison, for acting as a channel for Drew and this incredibly important conversation.

  2. Lindsay says:

    This is an awesome article. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Patty Flynn Elliot says:

    Thanks, Allison. Thanks, Drew. Tremendous article and tremendous honesty. Wow. A keeper for sure. Thank you!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Love Read–Mental Illness, Mental Health, and the In-Betweens. I thought this was a great post. Watch–Fight or Flight. This video is related to the article […]

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