When I started writing Thanksgiving posts more than ten years ago, I didn’t expect that they would become a nearly annual tradition. The annual-ness of traditions aside, I didn’t do the first post with any thought that every year I’d have something different to express my gratitude for. I mean, how much can a life change from one year to the next?
Plenty, as it turns out.
That’s not half as surprising as what neuroscience is teaching us about our brains, ourselves. As it turns out, any repeated experience wears a kind of mental groove into your brain. Those who experience chronic pain become sensitized to it. Those who ruminate on past events trend toward depression. And those constantly fearful of coming events become predisposed to anxiety.
As it turns out, these grooves work the other way as well. A new study on gratitude shows that a regular practice of gratitude (meaning you don’t wait for today to consider what you have to be thankful for) changes the brain as well, elevating your mood, even when you’re not thinking about how your sweetie bought you that awesome jacket.
Last year, I didn’t write a Thanksgiving post. I had plenty for which to be appreciative, but my brain was circling a drain and my life, my relationships, suffered for it. I hit bottom at Christmas and with plenty of help from the good folks at Kaiser, as well as my family of choice, I began the slow crawl out of the hole.
A year later, much has changed.
Riding has been an indispensable part of what got me here, arguably the single most important ingredient. What I find amazing is that my regular practice of cycling led me to recognize an experience that had been a driving factor in my life—flow. I can trace a line from cycling back through drumming and skateboarding, and forward through writing to see how chasing flow served as a star by which I navigate.
What I find amazing is that my journey didn’t end there. In a manner of speaking, it was only beginning. Learning about the neurochemicals that define flow—dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, anandamide and serotonin—helped me begin to see pharmacology in a different light. I gained a fresh perspective on how brain states can be hacked, not to mention the value in judiciously doing so.
By divorcing morality from the discussion, I began to see stimulants like Adderall and antidepressants like Wellbutrin as tools. I was given an alternate understanding about opiates, cannabinoids and psychedelics, framing the benefits and dangers without the overlay of good vs. bad.
Then Michael Pollan published “How to Change Your Mind.” It came at an ideal time for me. I was working to extricate myself from what I thought was the second depressive episode I’d experienced in two years. In fact, they were just worse patches in what has been nearly lifelong depression. I new I needed more help than I was getting from my counseling. Talking to a pro wasn’t bad, but it was trying to stay in the group’s draft in the small ring while they are hauling ass.
So I went looking for someone who could treat me with psychedelics. To say I was desperate isn’t an exaggeration. I didn’t care which psychedelic; the first one I found was going to be the winner.
It’s possible that in some longer-term narrative, Ketamine has saved my life in an absolute sense. But in a more metaphoric sense, it’s no stretch to say that Ketamine gave me back my life. It handed me a chance to experience my life in a way I have not before.
A couple of months ago I wrote that the bike had taken me as far as it could, that the next distance I’d have to walk on my own. That was true, but it doesn’t recognize the importance of the bike delivering me to that point. Without the bike, I don’t think I’d have closed within walking distance.
So this year, my thanks go to the bicycle. In the bike I found a way to tap into flow and thanks to flow I was able to stay afloat in a sea of negative thought. I’ve half a mind to walk down to my garage and hug each of my bikes. I’ll hug my boys instead, because I can.