A competition with myself

There’s two things you need to know about me before reading this.  One, I like to measure success with numbers. Two, I am good at procrastinating.

Perhaps unfortunately, the way my brain works is to compare all things in life on a numerical scale.  What grade did I get on that test? How much does that job pay? How fast did I run that mile? Rationally, I know that thinking of things in these terms isn’t ideal.  It’s possible to not have the top grade in a class but still understand the concepts and be competent.  It’s possible to find a lesser paying job and still enjoy it. And it’s possible to enjoy running and not always be getting faster. I know these things on a rational level, but my first instinct is a different story.

Running is something that as of the last 2-3 years I’ve been trying to get into. I’m not a traditionally athletic individual.  I’m woefully incompetent at hand-eye coordination and I didn’t grow up playing sports. However, running is something that seemingly anyone should be able to do without significant training. I like the idea of not needing equipment and being able to just get up and go whenever the whim hits me. I like being outside.  I like being alone with my thoughts. I like feeling like I’m getting stronger every time I run.  It’s good, it works for me.

But ever since I started running, I was disappointed to learn that I’m not good at it. I have tons of friends who are exceptional runners.  My boyfriend, Adam, can run a marathon at 6 minute flat pace. Gross. Literally all of my friends in college ran the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in 2014 with respectable times. And I’m friends with several other people (Catie, Arty, Erica) who have run full marathons with amazing times (in my opinion).  It’s pretty motivating to be surrounded by talented and dedicated runners but it’s also slightly demoralizing to know I’m so much slower.

On a good day, I can run a 10k in an hour, on a bad day it’s slower.  And by bad day, I mean, a day where I haven’t been eating well that week, a day where the humidity in Houston is up to 90% and the ambient temperature is also in the 90s, a day where I took a break the week before and I’m feeling lethargic, etc.  I know that not every day can be fast, but that doesn’t make me like it. I often get discouraged when my pace doesn’t get faster.  I realize that part of the problem is I don’t really do any sort of track workouts or interval running, I just try to run as fast as I can every time.  Remember guys, I’m new at running. I just learned how to pace myself for longer distances last year.

Sometimes, I will let what seems like a lack of improvement, based on the numerical results from my GPS watch, get to me and I will stop focusing on running so much.  In addition, I will let my excellent procrastination and excuse making skills get in the way.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used an excuse to let myself be a lard for that day and not just get out there and run some distance at any pace.

I’m tired, I feel sick, I have terrible cramps and I feel like my insides are being torn apart (you know you’ve been there), I’ve had a rough day at work and I just want to sit in my bed and eat my feelings, whatever. I will let myself use these excuses and then be inactive rather than have what I would categorize as a mediocre run.

So I decided for April, to motivate myself by setting a numerical goal.  It’s important to know how your brain works so you can trick it. My goal in April was to run at least 3.1 miles every day in the month, NO MATTER WHAT.  A 5k a day, if you will.  And I did it!

While my pace hasn’t gotten significantly faster (the way I generally measure improvement), I definitely felt much better! Knowing that I was going to do all this running, really made me focus on eating well and sleeping well (to the best of my ability).  I think I had my most consistent dietary habits during this month.  I would eat a fulling breakfast every day and a good clean vegetarian lunch. Breakfast and lunches haven’t been an issue for me but I sometimes tend to slack in the dinner department.  Previously, if I had been feeling particularly tired after work I would sometimes eat only cereal for dinner or just ten thousand snacks but never a full meal.  During April, I always made sure to have a hardy snack before the run (usually a banana PB smoothie) and a real dinner.  This really helped.

This goal kind of became something I looked forward to completing and checking off each day. There were days where I really didn’t want to do it. I woke myself up out of naps after work at least 5 times and forced myself to go for a run. When running a lot, it’s important to get enough sleep and I think that was something I wasn’t necessarily doing the best job of. I even woke up early one morning (think 5 am) before work to get a run in so I had the evening free to hang out with friends. This is absolutely absurd because if anyone has tried to wake me up in the morning, they know it’s not pretty.  But I really committed.

Every time I felt that I “forced” myself to run, I ended up feeling really happy about the decision once it was over.  It was nice to feel accomplished for the day and I could feel myself getting stronger.  There were some fast days and many slow days. Yet as whole, during the rest of my day when I wasn’t running, I felt 10x better.

Towards the final week of the month, I realized that 3.1 miles a day would only total 93 miles for the month.  And math-minded Julia decided that that wasn’t good enough and a nice round number like 100 miles would be better.  I was literally so tired from all the running by the last week and I had also given up on consistent stretching by this point (oops) that going more than 3.1 miles a day was a bit of stretch goal.  I managed to slug out those extra 7 miles and completed the month by being able to say I had ran at least a 5k a day for 30 days in a row for a total of 100 miles and I am really proud of myself!

I’m pretty pleased that I’ve found a different way to motivate myself.  Setting numerical goals is something that works for me. I will admit, that after April ended, I had a rather hectic week at work and took four days off from running to sit in my bed and feel stressed and sorry for myself (lol).  I like to call these days #larddays.  I suppose that’s a testament to the power of setting goals and I’m in the process of setting some running goals for myself for the remainder of May.  I’m planning to run a half marathon in January so I’m trying to keep at it even during the terribly hot Houston summer. ­­­­­­


Another perspective: College and mental health

Life can be hard, change can be hard, Carnegie Mellon University can be hard.  My time at CMU brings back some difficult memories for a few reasons. During the first year, I had an exceptionally hard time adjusting to college life.  During the remaining years, I was stressed beyond comprehension.

I wore the same hoodie every day for what feels like the entire first semester of college because I was sad.  I slept more than 8 hours a day because I was sad and it was a way to pass the time. I didn’t put much effort into doing my hair or my appearance because it felt like it didn’t matter because I felt like I didn’t matter.

These actions weren’t the usual chain of events for me. Growing up, I was a relatively happy child.  I had loving parents, a privileged life, and generally no complaints. However, I was an anxious child. The smallest discomfort or unfamiliar situation would send me into bouts of tears.  This wasn’t because I was a brat, this was because I didn’t know how to deal with my anxiety-ridden emotions. Social situations were never my forte.

I’ve never considered myself the type of person who is good at making friends. It takes me awhile to form a bond of friendship with new people. Like everyone else, I distinctly remember going through the middle school years feeling like I didn’t fit in. There were girls I had been friends with since elementary school who no longer seemed to want to talk to me. There were cliques of kids who didn’t want to let anyone else in.  I remember spending a lot of these years lonely and wondering why friendships were so hard for me.  Luckily, during these years was when I met my lifelong friend Evie who helped ease the awkwardness of this life stage. I’ve always been exceptionally grateful for her kindness. Throughout these years, I also always had my sister, Angela, and my cousin Heather as default friends. I’ve always been thankful for the closeness of my family.

By the time, I entered high school things were looking up.  I no longer felt as isolated as I did in middle school.  I had corralled a small group of friends who I could hang out with on the weekends and during lunch period. I was never the girl with thousands of Facebook friends or the girl who would get the most carnations on Valentine’s Day, but I was okay with that, as long as I was happy.

During high school, I also had my first boyfriend for about a year.  Due mainly to the fact that I was young and didn’t know how to date someone or how to stand up for myself in a relationship, this inevitably ended. As if someone’s first heartbreak wasn’t hard enough, I distinctly remember reading snide comments on social media by his friends not-so-subtly insulting me. Thanks social media! Anyways, that was something that brought me right back to how I felt in middle school, like I didn’t fit in to these groups of friends everyone else had already formed.  If I recall correctly, I think this actual friend group called themselves “the group”.  By naming themselves, you knew whether or not you were in the group.  I was not.

As you do, I recovered from this trial and began building a new friend group slowly of trustworthy friends with whom I could enjoyably spend my time without feeling like I didn’t belong. After years of feeling alone in middle school and mocked by people in high school, I was so relieved to have achieved some sort of social stability.  Then, I graduated. Everyone moved to different colleges.  I felt alone again.

I was being forced to start over. Making friends and meeting new people was exhausting to me. I wasn’t ready for it. The first year of college I felt incredibly alone.  I didn’t put myself out there to make new friends at CMU because I didn’t think anyone would like me, because plenty of people hadn’t liked me before. I was completely miserable.

Along with the social stresses, the academics at CMU were something that I wasn’t ready for.  I graduated from high school as the Valedictorian without putting in much effort. I was naturally smart.  I could study the day before an exam and do perfectly fine. I didn’t take physics in high school because it wasn’t an AP class. I opted take a different AP class because I wanted the GPA boost (#nerdalert).  Going into my freshman year of college I remember taking my first physics exam, after studying the amount of time I would study for exams in high school, and getting a D.  I was devastated. I had never gotten a D before in my life.  I always felt that I was never the girl that was good at making friends but I was always good at school. Now I didn’t even have school.  I was literally falling apart at all angles.  If I couldn’t even succeed at the one thing I had always succeeded at then what good was I?

I eventually decided that I couldn’t be unhappy every day.  I swallowed my pride and enrolled in CMUs tutoring program.  I started to use office hours and peer study programs.  I was able to build myself back up and get an A in the class.  I also slowly started to interact with people more.  I began making friends at CMU.  My first friend at CMU was Kruti.  She was a chemical engineering major like me and lived in the dorm building across the courtyard.  We had met during the orientation activities that I literally hated but didn’t hang out much. Once I started to come out of my shell, she was one of the first people who would invite me to do things.  Again, so thankful for her friendship.  I met my second friend at CMU, Hari, by being group members on a class team. We met during the first day of classes and then worked together for an entire semester.  By the end of the semester we were more than just classmates, we were actually friends!  One by one, I began making friends again and most importantly, I began liking myself again.

Making the decision to not be unhappy everyday isn’t so easy for other people and that’s unfortunate. I remember going onto Facebook and seeing all of my peers posting about how much they loved college and I would wonder why I couldn’t be like everyone else.  When it looks like everyone else is happy, you start to wonder what’s wrong with you.  But the thing people have to remember about social media is that for the most part people are only posting the highs and you don’t get to see the lows.  Just because you don’t see the lows doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I know for me, it would have really helped to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with transitioning into college.

After I overcame the difficult first year of college, the next three years weren’t smooth sailing. I now had a network of people and a support system, but the stress to get good grades never went away. I know full well that this stress is something I placed on myself.  These are expectations that I set.  I think it’s that way for a lot of people who go to Carnegie Mellon.  The students are all bright and ambitious. At times this can be inspiring to be surrounded by so many driven people, but at other times it can be hard to not get caught up in the stress culture that has developed at CMU.

This article published in the Tartan in 2012 (https://thetartan.org/2012/12/3/forum/mentalhealth) says it best, that student’s parade their stress as a badge of honor.  The article states that in high school “we were at the top of our classes with minimal effort, and that mentality hasn’t changed. The more work you can accomplish without cracking, the more impressive you are. Unit count translates into intelligence.”

There were countless times were I would revert back to childhood Julia’s coping mechanism and just break down into tears when the stress was too much. I remember getting into a fight with my friend over when she was getting her passport renewed (like who cares?) because we were both so stressed out. I have another friend who always offhandedly mentions that “CMU broke him”. I have yet another friend that always talks about how he hated his 4 years at CMU.  There are innumerable other people who have posted on Facebook since graduating describing how Carnegie Mellon was a hard time for them.

We were all stressed. But no one was vocal about how difficult some days were at the time. Getting an education is important, but not at the expense of mental health.

When asked the question, if I could go back in time would I choose Carnegie Mellon again, I think the answer would be yes. The friends I was able to meet through this school are invaluable. The network of people I’ve developed in my new home city of Houston as result of CMU is also something I’m very grateful for. The career I’ve been able to build from my education and networking opportunities offered by the school are another great benefit.  But if asked would I recommend CMU to a prospective student? I think my answer would be no. I’m not sure what that says.

All I do know is that going to any college can be hard.  Going to Carnegie Mellon may have been harder.  But as I’ve grown as an adult, I’ve learned that everyone has ups and downs.  It’s okay. I’ve also learned that if you feel like you have more downs than everyone else that’s okay too, but you need to talk to someone.  Mental health shouldn’t be a second thought, it should be a priority.

A Pittsburgher in Houston

As a child, I had a great affinity for the outdoors and adventure. Perhaps it was simply because I was a member of a pre-internet-pervasive generation or that my parents generally discouraged watching TV, but I spent most of my early childhood recreation outside. All of the neighborhood kids and I would constantly be gallivanting through each other’s backyards, climbing trees, riding bikes, making club houses. Even as I grew up and my family outgrow my childhood home and moved away from my neighborhood friends, I didn’t outgrow this sense of loving the freedom of the outdoors.

At my new house, none of the new neighbors had children who were my age and had my same interests.  At the age of 13, even my older sister was starting to lose interest in “playing outside.” I resorted to playing in the woods by myself.

The backyard of the new house we moved to had about an acre of woods on the property. These woods connected to all the other wooded areas of the other houses’ backyards.  Essentially in my twelve year old mind, endless land to explore. I spent countless days after school or summer afternoons heading to the woods by myself and going on nature hikes. I would attempt to build shelters or climb trees. Sometimes I would just sit and take it all in. Other times I would see how far I could walk through an area with dense brush before I became too tangled and decided to turn around.

Unfortunately as I got older and become more focused on my academics and extracurricular activities, spending time enjoying the great outdoors took a backseat. Additionally, my parents’ and sister’s idea of a vacation was usually going to a beach or tropical place of sorts and relaxing.  (I’m more of a woods and mountain terrain kind of girl.) So even in my free time, there wasn’t much outdoor exploring going on.

Moving on to college, I began to meet more friends with similar interests and learn that you can spend your free time doing things you like and it doesn’t have to be what your family likes. The caveat here being during most of the four years of college I had almost no free time.  I was able to have a few trips to hike in West Virginia, white water raft in Ohiopyle, and ski in Seven Springs etc.

Now, I find myself living in Houston, Texas. It’s been over a year. This is the first time I’ve lived in a city of this size. I work 40+ hours a week and live in a metropolitan part of town in a one bedroom apartment without a yard or even a porch. Transitioning to this largely indoor/urban lifestyle has been a bit disappointing.

I try my best to sustain outdoor activities. I attend a fitness bootcamp at a nearby park and I go for runs along the bayou. But that’s the extent of it. It’s a different kind of scenery though. It’s nothing like climbing up a rugged mountainside and looking out on a spectacular view.

Even on the weekends there isn’t anything in the immediate vicinity that screams adventure. There are some wildlife sanctuaries that make for a nice walk or some very flat parks that make for a nice run, but there are no great hiking opportunities. West of Houston 3-4 hours are some decent state parks that have a decent scenery but it’s all a bit lackluster in my opinion. Also driving 3 hours every weekend just for a mediocre experience, isn’t ideal.

While living in Western, PA for 22 years of my life I failed to take advantage of all the wonderful Appalachian landscapes available for adventure just a few hours from my home. There wasn’t enough time and for the early years I was subject to family’s interests. Now that I’ve moved away, I regret it and resent Houston for its terrible scenery. Luckily flights to Denver are pretty cheap…if only I had more vacation time off work.