A Matter of Endorphins

I was uncharacteristically sad yesterday. There wasn’t any reason for it, I was just plain sad. I wasn’t down-in-the-dumps sad. I wasn’t depressed, or grieving, or heartbroken, or lonely. (My word, but there are a lot of beautiful shades of that emotion). I was just… blue. Down. Maybe a little melancholy.

The sadness continued this morning, meaning it lasted around 36 hours. I woke up and went through the motions of using the restroom, washing my hands, brewing my coffee, then reading a bit in a biography while it brewed. But the whole time, I felt like looking out the window and just giving a sigh, like those two kids on the opening page of the Cat in the Hat who can’t play outside because it was raining too hard. A breakfast of Greek yogurt with blueberries, a hot shower, a clean shirt, a hug from my boyfriend, still sad. I blended my lunch of protein powder and fresh vegetables (spinach, carrots, broccoli) then headed into the office, listening to NPR on my way, still sad. I saw my first client and talked about overcoming depression with him, still sad. And then I thought, “Okay, that’s enough. I don’t want to be sad anymore.”

I took a long walk through the park during a quiet hour from work, my office being just a block from a major city park. The birds were singing, there were hot shirtless runners, there was a light breeze, and the sun was shining perfectly. There was a lot to be grateful for. As I felt my body slowly come awake, I felt a familiar stiffness in my bones, and the blood flow through my muscle groups felt amazing. My bones popped, my spine expanded, and my head cleared as I breathed it all in, quickening my pace a bit.

I took a moment to take stock of my melancholy. On Sunday, upon leaving Philadelphia, I’d woken up sad. The night before, I’d had dinner (an incredible mushroom shepherd’s pie), drinks (two Old-Fashioneds), and dessert (chocolate creme brule) with my boyfriend as we listened to incredible live jazz music. I’d felt so alive. But then Sunday morning I’d woken up sad. I packed my suitcase, showered for the day, and then spent four hours at the local art museum before heading to the airport. A two hour wait and a four hour flight basically meant six hours of reading (a new biography on Tennessee Williams), and then finally home. Yet sad the whole time.

And then Monday, healthy food, several hours of work, and then a long evening of play time with my sons, who I hadn’t seen in five days. I gave them new animal toys to add to their toy zoo, a harpy eagle and a sun bear, and we played together in the backyard, laughing and having fun. I made them dinner, we played Twister, they were hyper and silly and it was a wonderful night. But the entire time, still, blue, and knowing it the entire way.

As I walked through the park, I did a little therapy on myself, as I often do when I have something to puzzle out. Were I to come to myself for therapy, with this set of problems, how would I counsel me as a client? What would I have to say? I would ask me to describe the sadness, what kind of sadness it was, and what I had to be sad about. Then I would remind myself that sadness is a natural state, that all humans are sad, even when life is really good.

It’s a matter of endorphins, I would say.

I would remind myself that the brain produces endorphins (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine) naturally, but it produces best in optimal conditions, with healthy nutrition and hydration, ample sunlight, low stress, and good sleep. And I would remind myself that if the brain has been producing endorphins at high amounts for a few days in a row, then it is natural for it to produce lower amounts for a period of time afterward, as a balancing measure. It is also normal to have a low when one hasn’t been sleeping well, or has been drinking a lot of alcohol, or has been eating a lot of sugary or salty foods, or has not been exercising. No one gets to be happy all the time, and blue has its place. Blue is safe. Blue is okay.

I just got back from vacation. I ate a lot of food, drank and danced, traveled, and hadn’t slept a full night in several days. Blue was normal, and it didn’t make my life any less wonderful. Even when sad, all of my joys were there: my children, my partner, my work, all of the things that give me balance and happiness. It was a blue hour, or perhaps a blue day, not a blue life.

I finished my walk around the park, ready to resume. I felt a little bit lighter (meaning my brain was producing just a few more endorphins), and I knew that after a nice meal, I would feel even better still. The world around me remained beautiful.

Blue sky, blue water, blue blood, and me.

Blue

Gusher

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It’s four am and I’m listening to NPR as I’m driving down a dark windy road in north-eastern Utah. I’m sure the terrain all around me is absolutely beautiful, given the signs I’m seeing telling me I’m in a national forest, but it’s pitch black outside. My headlights illuminate the windy roads around me, and I navigate them with speed. I rarely see other headlights, not at this time of day. When another driver comes toward me, we both courteously dim our headlights from bright to standard, then turn them back to bright as we pass each other.

I’m appalled by the roadkill. I have seen at least a few dead deer, a porcupine, three rabbits, and two skunks, their obnoxious and cloying odors stretching a full mile around their tiny corpses. In addition, I have slowed my car at least four times in the last hour, once for some large bird, twice for rabbits, and once for another skunk, animals that scampered across the road at fast speeds. I roll my eyes at each of them silently, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier for them to just wait the ten seconds for my car to pass and then to cross, cause it ain’t like there is any other traffic out here.

I haven’t spent much time in this part of Utah, though it isn’t far from where I live, only a few hours drive. The whole state is packed with mountains and bodies of water, so I don’t have to look hard for beautiful places to visit. I know there are lots of camping areas here, several reservoirs, and a ton of hiking, but the towns are small.

The reporter on the NPR station I’m listening to is interviewing a woman in Canada, who is sharing her opinion on American politics. I can’t remember her exact words, but she says something like “American politics is the best reality show I’ve ever seen, only much more horrific. I’m on the edge of my seat wondering what they will do next. America is rather like the crazy neighbor who lives next door. Mostly I leave them alone, but on occasion, I have to peep over the fence to see what shocking thing they are doing next.” She voices her support for Bernie Sanders first, Hilly Clinton second, and then admits that Canada is mostly a nation of Democrats. She talks about Prime Minister Trudeau’s state visit with President Obama, and outlines some of the complicated trade history between the two countries. I navigate the turns with a smile on my face.

My eyes flash to the bright screen of my phone, showing the map of the area I’m driving through, and a few of the names of small Utah towns, some of them unincorporated, some just groupings of farms and houses, others cute little towns. I’ve never heard of most of these. Duschene (pronounced Du-shane). Strawberry. Myton. Ouray. Altonah. Neola. Randlett. Tabiona. And then Gusher. Gusher? There is a town called Gusher, Utah? A few houses, fences, barns, and cows are visible in the dark, then I’m already past it.

I think back to the history of this region, how it was settled by Native American tribes for hundreds of years until the fur trappers and gold miners moved through here. Then the Mormons came in the 1800s and settled in the Salt Lake valley. Brigham Young sent members of the Mormon church all over the region, for hundreds of miles, creating farming communities, mining industries, trade posts, and settlements. I’m not a big fan of Brigham Young, but I have to admit that his settlement of the state of the Utah at the time was absolutely impressive.

Later, during my long work shift, I look up some of the communities that I’ve driven through. I look into the origins of their names, some after Native American chiefs, some after early settlers, some after rocks or crops. But I am most fascinated by Gusher itself. About ten miles outside of Roosevelt (a much larger town for the area), it’s described as a “roadside settlement” rather than a town. I learn that when it was first settled, it was jokingly called Sober City, a name given by the locals, making fun of the town’s habit for getting drunk. They later renamed the town Moffat, after David Moffat, a railroad magnate, but the town wasn’t successful and it shut down for decades until, in 1922, a man named Robert Wood moved to the area and named the town Gusher, hoping to make a successful oil business there, though that never happened.

I think of the farmers that have lived there likely for generations, the same families there since the beginning. The demographics for the area list the residents as, literally, 97.99 % white, and well over 90 % Mormon.

Later, as I leave the city of Vernal, I take the same road back to Salt Lake City. This time, I can see the small houses, the barns and cows, the fences, the rolling hills and trees, the snow-capped mountains, and, yes, the roadkill. Gusher looks nearly the same in the daylight as it did in the dark, an eyeblink of small town Utah farms where families have built their homes and lives.

I pull my car over at one of the reservoirs and look out over the beautiful mix of rock and water, and I think of my grandmother, who spent over 90 years in a town in southeastern Idaho with a population of less than 500 people. And from her little space there, she had five children and dozens of grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. She worked as a schoolteacher. And from her little spot on the globe, she made the world a better place and impacted hundreds of lives.

I turn back from my spot on the road, from which I can’t see another human in any direction, and I wonder about my grandmother, and about Gusher, and about history, then I get back in my car and drive toward a different kind of civilization.