Trading despair for wellness

Spencer Shepard, Food Editor

During the 2020 fall semester, I was faced with the most challenging semester of my life because I had lost my job to COVID-19, and I was homeschooling my daughter while distance learning myself.  

  The semester not only tested me academically but also challenged my mental health in so many different ways that it began to cause a strain on my relationships and overall well-being. However, I decided that I would persevere and finish the semester strong, which I did but at the price of my mental health.  

  With anxiety and depression creeping in, I became a recluse and kept myself in the bedroom rather than enjoy family time. It was not until I listened to a song by The Grateful Dead titled “Deal” that I decided to get up and get moving. The lyrics resonated with me and motivated me to get healthy.  

  “Since it cost me a lot to win and even more to lose,/ You and me bound to spend some time wonderin‘ what to choose/ Goes to show you don’t even know/ Watch each card you play and play it slow.” 

  The lyrics told me that school comes at a price, and sometimes it costs a little bit of sanity to accomplish a class. And, sometimes, school causes us to feel like we’re going to lose and feeling lost. Additionally, questions like “Is it worth it” or “Maybe I should just drop out” arose as depression crept in; I had to choose to win.  

   I had to fight my depression and not let it define me. Also, I had an example to set for my daughter, and prove to myself that I could finish the Sisyphean fall semester of 2020.  

  “Depression is a common and disabling mental illness, prevalent worldwide across all ages, genders, and races,” according to the Journal of Psychological Medicine.  

  So, I decided to take my health and mental wellness into my own hands by figuring out how to climb out of my mental pit of despair. I started by just getting outside and enjoying the sunlight and fresh air. Sunlight for at least 15 minutes a day helps with mental health and our physical health.  

  “Best-known benefit of sunlight is its ability to boost the body’s vitamin D supply,” states the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.  

  The skin absorbs Vitamin D through a photosynthetic reaction and, in turn, promotes bone health and increases dopamine levels in the brain. And, an increase in dopamine levels allows for depression to subside. With healthy dopamine levels, people are alert, happy, and alive.  

  Additionally, students need a break from the monotony of life and school, so I chose to get more into hiking. Before campus closed to comply with the COVID-19 quarantine, Professor Matthew Woodman told his Friday afternoon Creative Writing class to “excavate reality” so that we could find what was real in the world. Those two words have stuck with me through quarantine as I attempted to understand this new life of mine.  

  To excavate reality, I had to find what was real, what was tangible, and something that brought me peace. Hiking brought me peace because I was no longer stuck to a WiFi signal, school did not matter momentarily, and life became real. As I hiked, I noticed the birds nearby’ melodic songs, and the sun comforted me like a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer. On my hikes, life became slower, and I could be a sponge to nature and learn from its quiet wisdom.  

  I told a friend about my new ethos, and he recommended Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature for me to read so I could continue excavating reality. Emerson writes Nature to explain the spiritual and personal enlightenment that only some can glean from the natural world. And, I began to etch every word Emerson wrote into my psyche because he helped me find peace as I began to understand his wisdom.  

  “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood,” states Emerson in Nature.  

  While hiking, I began to discover back and hip pain from being in a state of rest for so long. So, I began to search the internet for relief from my pain and discovered most of my pain was sciatic related. And, being presented with my self-diagnosed problem, I found Dr. Jo’s “Sciatic Nerve Pain Relief Stretches” on YouTube in an attempt to alleviate my pain.  

  The pain began after I sat long hours at a desk writing papers, attending multiple Zoom sessions in a day, and not doing a damn thing to ease it. Dr. Jo has a disclaimer warning that it is not medical advice; however, after following her workout video, I became hooked on feeling better. And I began to implement this into my daily routine along with 45 minutes of quiet mediation.  

  Diet also became a part of my health journey as I no longer found comfort from depression in food. I found comfort in foods that we high in sugar, loaded with carbohydrates, and left me wanting more. As I chose inner joy over food, I began to call these types of food “dead food” because they only helped when I felt dead inside from depression.  

  Another pivotal point in my longing for personal reform was having a hard time fitting into shorts and pants without sucking in my stomach. So, either, I could buy clothes that fit or make the clothes I had fit again. Being a broke college student, I was left with the choice to lose weight instead of spending money on clothes I did not need.  

  I told myself, “the only one holding you back is yourself.”  

  So, I found new hiking trails to explore and changed my diet drastically so that once the Spring semester of 2021 began, I would be ahead of myself from the previous semester. Additionally, I started seeking out ways to get nutrient-rich foods into my diet; and, I started by making smoothies twice a day as a substitute for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, I make healthier meals now while practicing portion control.  

  My smoothies usually consist of water, raw ginger, blueberries, non-fat plain Greek yogurt, local honey, and spinach because of their respective nutritional properties. For example, ginger helps with digestion, lessens nausea, and helps fight the flu and common cold. Whereas blueberries can help boost immunity and lower the possibility of diabetes, obesity, and heart diseases. 

 “Yogurt provides healthy bacteria for the digestive tract which can affect the entire body,” states Natalie Butler, R.D., L.D. 

  Eating well, thinking well, and acting well have become part of my mantra as I traverse life as a parent/student. Also, it’s something that will be a part of my life from now on because if I am not working on myself, I am not operating at my best. Personal growth allows mental wellness to flourish, and clean eating allows for a healthier life. So, get outdoors, eat some more fruits and veggies, and make better choices for yourself, so life is not so tumultuous. And, drink more water because it’s good for ya!