This morning, the thermostat clocked in at a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit here at ATAO. The dogs are nestled into their straw beds, dreaming of breakfast and running and bones with the marrow still on, and other important things. The ground is fully frozen now: the final summer projects I hoped to complete will have to wait. By the time I get to those things, I will have run Iditarod. I will be different– or maybe not so much.
So far this fall, we haven’t run into any porcupines, thank god. The dogs are muscly and fired up, and only getting stronger. They are so strong that when they want to go– even with just a twelve dog team– the four wheeler brakes are obsolete.
I juggle my work and my dogs and the social media of it. My boss, who has always been above and beyond in this way, works with me to find a schedule to fit with what I need for the dogs and that will give me some room for rest myself. Today is an off day, and I have a long list: Upgrade gangline. Sort booties. Re-label harnesses. Check feet and muscles, and care for any sorenesses. Create camping spot for the weekend. Go to town? Get a bunch of needed items. Run dogs. Fix dryer??
That’s already more than a full day and there’s so much more to do. Such is the life of a kennel! Or a farm or homestead or what have you. One thing I have learned managing ATAO is that some of the things I’d idealistically like to do myself, like cutting firewood, I don’t actually have time for. And that it’s okay to pay for pre-cut firewood. I’ve learned to make some trade offs like that so that I can continue working, because I have to keep the operation going. I enjoy the puzzle of how to make that work, and I think it’s good for me to have to swallow my pride now and then about certain things that I associate with some level of egoistic identity. So we pay for firewood (and we have enough for a while, right now!), and we pay to get some household things fixed, and if and when I have time, I do what I can. So I fix our dryer (or attempt to), and my several hours of that hopefully balance out the cost of a new one. It’s always a balancing act between time and money, and that’s certainly not limited to ATAO. The factor that gets funky with mushing is that as you train and build up in miles, you suddenly start losing a lot of time for other things. Your time becomes entirely about training. This weekend I’m hoping to do some camps. Even with very short camps, the time from leaving the house to getting back inside the house will be over eight hours, likely. With my current running schedule I need to do this three times– so that’s Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And of course there’s all the other things on the list to balance against that.
On a larger scale, the time to Iditarod wanes as well. There’s much to do. Besides training and keeping up the kennel, there are things to acquire, plans to set up, equipment to ready and test.
And maybe most of all, there’s me.
As I am heading towards this feat, one I’ve worked towards and dreamed of since I was a young child, things about myself come into focus. A lot of it is overwhelming. Particularly my struggle with executive function. I doubt myself frequently.
I used to view my higher functionality under the direction of a leader as a weakness. “Oh, I am just a follower.” In the individualistic and alpha oriented model of western society, being a follower is “weak.”
I’ve realized two things in the past few months. One, I am not necessarily just a follower. What I am is wired differently than the “norm,” and what that means is that without the structure of a team or a boss, my brain has an amazingly difficult time executing certain functions. The idea of the Iditarod is both so vague to me as to be unusable as a goal to strive towards, and so big that it’s overwhelming.
I’ve been working with a sports psychologist for the past few months– something I’ve wanted to do for about a year now, and something that is already extremely helpful. Something that we’ve started zeroing in on is ADHD.
I’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety since forever. Many of the therapists and psychs I’ve worked with have said, hmm it really seems like you have ADHD as well, but it’s always been a side dish. Yes, I’ll have an extra large order of depression with a small side of ADHD. Obviously topped with anxiety, why would you even ask!
However, as I am doing work in the context of achieving the goal of Iditarod (and having the work be in that context is clicking into place better than years and years of therapy has so far), it’s becoming rapidly clear that ADHD is not a side dish, and may actually be the main course.
When my issues with executive function meet pressure, and I either buckle or force myself into action, at some point I spiral. I have always viewed this as being a fundamental failure on my own part. Looking at this as something that happens for me not because I am bad, wrong, or “lazy,” but because my brain functionally cannot, for instance, hold a large and distant goal as a reality, has been a game changer. I can intellectually see that I am not achieving what needs to be done: like, cleaning a room. I see that other people are able to achieve it. They just decide to do it and that’s that! But I have this room that needs to be cleaned, and it’s been that way for months, and so far it is not cleaned. The voices harangue me: Do you actually WANT to have it clean? Why is it like this? You’re just lazy. What’s wrong with you.
It’s actually difficult to talk about this– even more than depression or anxiety. There’s stigma about mental health. For whatever reason, my own stigma about ADHD is really deep. It is very difficult for me to view my “failures” as functions of a differently-operating brain, vs as excuses for character flaws. That’s the bottom line for me. Each miss I make (and I make a lot) is like a tally against me.
Even worse is that I can, again, intellectually see all of this, but I see no way out. The pressure is immense. It doesn’t come from you or anyone but myself. And this combo of tasks to be done, brain shenanigans, and subsequent “failures,” pressure cooks together like an ominous instapot, and comes up with Depression ala Mode. (Do I capitalize ala? It’s a mystery.)
Sam the sports psych has finally helped me step back and view this in a slightly less judgmental way. I don’t know if I’ve successfully conveyed it as such here. It’s still hard for me to portray executive function issues in myself as anything less than the flaws of a Bad Person (TM). But if I take a breath and look at the logic that falls into place if I put ADHD into the calculation, it makes sense and it doesn’t = Bad Person (TM). It just = different route of success. The route is not 100% known to me yet. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But what I am learning is that the route doesn’t have to be wailing on myself for not succeeding.
Trying to figure this out is like finding out you’ve been walking on the wrong limbs your whole life and now you have to learn to walk on your hands. It’s all back to square one– but the processes you’ve been hardwired to go to are… hardwired. They are SO ingrained. Sam calls them my neurological “super highways.”
So far, the very best thing I’ve figured out to do is that when I recognize I’m on one of these super highways, speeding down thought and behavior patterns that lead to self-deprecation, spirals, and depression, is to stop the car. Maybe get out and walk or at least stand by the side of the road for a minute? I don’t know any other routes, and when I venture off the highway, it’s hella scary.
At the beginning of the season, I had a really good spell of taking some other brain routes. I focused on positivity. I recognized that one of my brain super highways was negativity. I tried to mitigate swearing so much. I love swearing, there are some great swear words out there! But I recognized that swearing was something that would onramp me to anger, despair, and general grumpiness. So instead, I said silly things when I stubbed my toe. This weirdly worked. Instead of getting more mad, I could say something silly, and then be amused at myself and/or just move on.
I focused on remembering why I like mushing. The anxiety of going on training runs is a Gravitron of fears that centers on worrying that I won’t go on the run. So my thought pattern is:
I need to mush
Lizard / comfort brain: (Ugh I don’t want to mush mushing is cold / hard)
Oh no if I don’t mush today then I will spiral what if I spiral
If I spiral I might spiral more and then I won’t mush tomorrow
and if I don’t mush tomorrow I will never mush or not mush enough
and if I don’t mush enough then the dogs will not have enough training
and if we don’t have enough training then we won’t be able to run the Iditarod
and if I don’t achieve this goal I’ve been working on my whole life then WHAT’S THE POINT [dramatic sobbing, possibly laying on the floor saying I CAAAAAN’T while Shawn looks on]
< That’s a spiral. It’s my most common spiral around mushing. It’s a spiral… About spiraling. It is honestly the most ridiculous but also most insidious of spirals.
Something Sam has helped me remember is that… I know how to mush. I have been mushing for a long time.
So when my lizard / comfort / fear brain says, “WELL WHAT IF SOMETHING HAPPENS HMMMMMM?” I can remember that– Oh yeah, I have actually dealt with a lot of stuff. And there will be plenty more ahead. Things happen in mushing! But I can deal with it. I can do it. Remembering that is vital (and not as easy as you might think).
Sam has also helped me by pointing out that the above spiral is probably one of my biggest super highways. (Even typing about it makes me really anxious. It’s so uncomfortable.) He reminds me that I don’t have to go down that highway. I don’t have to start building up that kind of momentum. There are exercises to do. Literally just breathing for a minute.
The best tool I’ve been able to utilize so far is one I’ve constructed myself, and I don’t exactly know what to call it or even how to describe it. It’s this thing I’ve always done about onramps to various super highways. I… Ignore them.
As I think about it, this is actually a thing you do with dogs who are suspicious about you. Like, potentially “aggressive” dogs who are trying to figure you out. If you worry about the dog being “aggressive,” you start to put off cues. You look at the dog, you breathe differently, your heart rate probably goes up a bit. The dog definitely senses this (“smells fear”). The dog is checking for signs that you might be a danger, and when you are nervous about it, that’s exactly what you look like: a danger. So both of your signals amp up as your nervousness amps up, and it’s a vicious cycle, and at some point the dog may decide to do something about it. What’s the best thing you can do? Ignore the dog. Or, ignore the dog as we’d perceive it. Look away from the dog. Make sure your breath is calm and even. Lick your lips casually. [Disclaimer I am NOT a professional dog trainer, these are things I’ve learned for myself and are not actually prescriptive.]
This is the same exact thing with your brain. Your lizard/comfort/fear brain? That’s the dog. And that dog has a worry. Is a bad thing going to happen? It brings up that worry. You can either start a spiral by looking the dog in the eye and worrying about the potential bad thing… Or you can look away, lick your lips, focus on your breathing. Doing that is not actually ignoring the dog. It’s acknowledging the signs the dog is giving and not feeding similar signs back. It’s saying, I see what you are saying, and I don’t need to indulge in that fear. I acknowledge the worry and then look away, not from the concern, but from the concern amplifier that together you and the dog create.
It’s not bottling, it’s not pressing things down. It’s gentle. It’s breathing. It’s acknowledging the feeling and not diving into it, or letting it drive or control the story.
It’s a very weird thing to do, to be able to see the thought and then carry on anyway. It’s so, so uncomfortable.
And, it’s working, at least to a degree.
Part of it is that sometimes I don’t mush. But instead of going down a different super highway when that happens (the one where I am really, really hard on myself), I let it be. I give myself grace. That also takes the edge off the worry of “what if I don’t mush.” Because aside from the big picture spiral of if / thens, there’s an underlying dread that if I don’t do the thing, I will punish myself. A big part of the work I’ve been doing is removing the power from the punishing part of my brain.
It’s empowering to start learning about ADHD and how it relates to me and vice versa. And it’s also terrifying. I long ago came to terms with the stigma of depression. I don’t think less of myself for dealing with that. It’s going to be another hurdle to give myself room and acceptance for this part of my brain. It’s a whole new can of worms. It’s also changing my perspective on a lot of things outside of myself, but that’s a blog post for another time.
So now, I mush. I put the dogs on the line. I tend to their feet and their needs, and ready them, and we run together, as a pack. I have not been listening to music or anything at all, lately, while we mush. I stay more present with the dogs without the headphones between us. There will always be time when music and podcasts and audio books get me through the long hours on a sled, but for now, whenever I feel the impulse to turn the music off, I follow that, and it feels good. I pay attention to little things my old mind has learned to ignore because we’ve seen it time and time again. A single leaf falling as we pass by. The look of the moss. How the clouds line up across the wide sky of Interior Alaska. The dirt and the ice. The breath and cadence of the dogs. I remember that all of this is the actual point. Not Iditarod. Not success or failure. Just the moment. The dogs and each footstep, step by step. The joy that they effuse, a gathering of light that travels with us as we go.
There is much to do. So much. So many steps before the race, and so little time to take those steps. The overwhelming fear of the spiral, that I breathe by and accept and let live with me, because it’s part of me, and also doesn’t need to be my leader.
I am a complicated, tenuous creature, something that takes more than basic algebra to figure out. I have a window of grace right now, a period where I get not to do battle with anything at all, but where I and the monsters that are part of me realize we’re a team inside my head. I am my own team. And I know that I can make it to the race. And from there it’s one step, and another.
That’s Onward. And that’s what we’ll do.
A small additional note: an element that I can only personally account for to a degree is the financial part of the race. As we get to the point where we have to buy booties, already more kibble, pay the bills for heating, fix the truck, etc etc etc, money becomes a big spiral factor. If you’re reading this, you probably already have supported ATAO, and that means the world to us. If you have a few bucks you’d want to pitch our way, that would be huge. Or, if you don’t (because of so many reasons, and the world is extra wild) sharing this post or ATAO in general would help enormously. Thank you for reading, and for all the love and care we can feel from around the world. The light isn’t just traveling from our little pack: it’s coming from you, too. We feel that every day. Onward.