Back in 2000, while I was working at a therapeutic wilderness program for at-risk kids, the nurse on staff got concerned with my blood pressure. She'd notice my red cheeks, drag me into her office, wrap a blood pressure cuff around my bicep, pump up, let out, then immediately tell me I needed to go see a doctor.
"I will," I'd always tell her. Every time. And then I wouldn't.
This cycle continued for months. Then one day after taking the cuff off my arm she said here's the deal. You head up to the doctor right now or I'm calling an emergency squad.
"You wouldn't," I told her.
She got three steps toward the phone before I said "OK, stop," I'll go see the doctor.
The doctor took my blood pressure and told me our nurse was a good nurse. Then we had the following conversation:
"Do you drink coffee?"
"Describe a lot"
Maybe 10-12 cups a day.
"Well you'll need to quit drinking coffee. The caffeine isn't good for your blood pressure."
"How about alcohol. Do you drink?"
Maybe 3 or 4 nights a week.
"And on those 3 or 4 nights a week, would you describe those nights as a drink with dinner or more heavy drinking?"
I'm thinking it would probably qualify for that more heavy drinking category.
"Well heavy drinking is bad for your blood pressure so you'll need to quit that."
"And finally, how about tobacco. Do you smoke?"
Finally, one I can get a little credit for. Nope, gave that up years ago.
"So no tobacco at all?"
Why don't these doctors stop when I'm ahead? I use smokeless tobacco on occasion.
"Describe on occasion."
Maybe 2-3 cans of Skoal a week.
"Well you'll need to quit that habit. The nicotine is awful for your blood pressure."
So let me get this straight, I said. I need to give up caffeine, alcohol and nicotine to solve this blood pressure problem.
"Yes, it's either that or go on medication."
Medication. Like pills. So what's the downside to medication?
Not a lot. Most people just don't like to take medication.
Well I don't like living without caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. Let's do this medication thing.
And that's the beginning of my relationship with blood pressure medication - followed soon after by cholesterol medications. I walked into a local pharmacy to fill the prescription for those medications and walked out with the two biggest crutches I've ever had in my life. Crutches I could lean on when I wanted to drink coffee to stay alert when I didn't feel like sleeping a lot. Crutches I could lean on when I wanted to use alcohol to numb myself from the stresses of life and work. And Crutches to lean on when I felt the relentless call from my mind to satisfy a nicotine addiction.
Those crutches gave me the health security I needed to continue some of the unhealthiest habits a man could have.
And that's what I did. For years to come I carried on my life just like before. Only there were no longer red cheeks and an angry nurse. The drugs did their job; they lowered my cholesterol and my blood pressure while I ate, drank and was merry.
And here I thought alcohol was the miracle drug.
In 2006 our first son Elliott was born. That's when I went from the frequent heavy drinker to a rare social drinker. It's also when I quit tobacco use once and for all. I flirted at times with giving up caffeine, but that habit remains with me to this day. Much more controlled - (most days) - but I still love my morning jolts of coffee.
Then, in 2014, I started running. In 2016 I started running a lot and ran my first marathon. And in 2017, I started a podcast. I use it to interview runners who often run much more than a lot, and a lot further than marathons. I've discovered many of them are vegans or vegetarians. The thing that's intrigued me most about their diets is every one of them talks about how much better they feel, how much more energy they have for running.
So I started experimenting with vegan and vegetarian diets myself. I've landed at a place where I eat very little meat and sugar and oils and dairy. I'll never get to a spot where I say none or never. But very little has worked well for me. I've lost 30 pounds. I feel better than I have in years. I've discovered more energy for running.
Early last year I decided I was going to quit leaning on the crutches - those medications that gave me permission to live an unhealthy lifestyle. I wanted to see what would happen to my blood pressure and cholesterol without the crutches. It wasn't that I was suddenly against medications, I just knew I no longer wanted to take the pills that were morning permissions slips to make all the unhealthy choices I wanted to.
I didn't get to the doctor as soon as I'd planned. That probably worked in my favor because I eliminated more meat and dairy from my diet in the mean time. But this week I made it to the doctor and had my blood pressure and cholesterol checked. My blood pressure was excellent. Like lowest numbers I can remember. My cholesterol numbers were better than or in line with what they'd been for 18 years on medications. In summary, my life choices were producing health results as good or better than the medications were.
Here's the thing. In spite of the numbers, the doctor was more than willing to refill the medications I'd been off for well over a year now. She encouraged it. She said it's always good to take them as a precaution since you have a history of high blood pressure and cholesterol.
No doc, actually, I have a history of eating a lot of crap, not running a 100 miles a month, using too much alcohol and tobacco, and pouring enough caffeine into my system to make a cocaine addict seem mellow. That's my history. That's what I've changed.
The argument the doctor uses, and a lot of our culture, is that these medicines help you live longer. Well, I get that, but I'm the wrong person to use that argument on. I have no longevity goals in life. I have a desire to live well while I'm here; I just feel no pressure to try to be here forever. I'm leaving this earth sooner than later. When I do I'll be hanging out with Jesus. That thought alone gets me far more excited about that day than one bit interested in delaying it.
But - as long as I'm here, I do want to have as much health and energy as possible to bring His shades of heaven to earth. To encourage as many people as possible to join me in the only longevity that matters to me: eternity.
Today I feel closer to accomplishing that health and energy than I ever have. I strongly believe the medications did me no favors in getting here. I personally leaned on them to keep me healthy at the expense of feeling any personal obligation to tend to my health on my own. I know that's not how everyone treats medications. But it's sure how I treated them.
Running changed that in my life. The more I ran the more I wanted to run. The more I wanted to do it the more I wanted to do it well. And the more I wanted to do it well - the more I discovered how much what I put into my body influenced how well my body responded to that desire. I should also mention it's easier to get a 210 pound body to move than a 240 pound one.
I don't know what the moral of this story is, really. I know not everyone's body responds to lifestyle changes and choices the way mine has. Genetics can be a tough beast to fight. I also know not everyone will have the means or desire to make the changes I made, so maybe medications are the best route.
All I know is this is my story. The story of a guy who'd been leaning on crutches all his life and finally tossed them to the side when he discovered it was easier running without them.
Life is like running.