Endorphin Rush

My daughter and my eldest grandson, age 11.

This past weekend was the 5th anniversary of Michael’s death. I’ve been thinking about it for months, primarily because it still seems unreal to me. Of course I know that he is physically absent. I desperately miss my daily body contact with him. The interesting adjustments I’ve made to that reality are, however, remarkably buoying as I navigate life alone. I remember him telling me in the weeks before he died that I had no real idea of how strong I really was – I’ve learned that he was right. I hope my coping skills persist for as long as I’m still alive, something I share with all the rest of us aging people who dread our impending declines. In any case, back in January I was contemplating how to get through this weekend in the best possible way, immersed in memories of Michael but in a joyous way. So I made reservations for my family, my kids, their kids, my sister and me, to road trip back to the inn at Lakeside, Michigan, a place we all loved and which was a source of so much fun, so much natural beauty and limitless love. My eldest grandson, pictured above, made his first trip there when he was just under a year old.

So there we all were on a gorgeous empty beach, the bit of chill in the air limiting the number of people willing to brave the temperatures. Everyone was doing their own things, lounging, reading, wading, hunting for interesting rocks, the ones I’ve been collecting for years to decorate the brick pavers I place in my garden. I use those for edging the sidewalk or surrounding the base of a tree or shrub.

My son, who’s a pretty fit guy, was showing his nephews a few athletic tricks. Eventually he decided to go for a run, part of his regular exercise routine. My oldest grandson, who just adores his uncle, asked if he could go along as a companion. So they did a shorter version before my kid did his usual distance, not wanting to discourage this eager boy from feeling confident on his first lengthy effort. The two of them ran a mile. When they returned, my son took off to complete his route, while my grandson came to tell me about his workout. He was so excited that he’d completed a mile at the same pace(sort of) as his beloved uncle. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes glowing. I asked him if he could describe his feelings. He said, “I feel alive. I had no idea that as you ran along, observing the trees, the beach and the water, that you could feel so much more alive than usual.” I instantly realized that this sweet boy had experienced his first real endorphin rush, that remarkable sensation that fills you up from the inside and bursts out, casting a glow over what was ordinary life just one second ago.

I was trying to remember the first time I felt an endorphin rush. I think I was about five years old, astride my tricycle which I called “Silver,” after the Lone Ranger’s horse in the 1950’s television series. My handlebars had pink, green and white plastic streamers poking out of holes in each handlebar, which flew like the wind the faster I pedaled. The incline of that sidewalk doesn’t look very steep from the photo below, but from the vantage point of a little kid, it may as well have been Mt. Everest. As I picked up speed turning that corner, blazing down that hill and even taking my feet off the pedals for a second or two, I felt alive too, just like my grandson. I tingled from the top of my head to my toes.

My childhood home from the ‘50’s, heavily remodeled, but with the corner and the downhill slant on the parallel street pretty obvious.

How lucky is it when your body releases the natural highs that we’re all born with, just sitting there waiting for the triggers that will set them free? While chatting with a friend, we recalled that incredible sensation you could feel while swinging, stretching your legs further and further out in front of you, going higher and higher. I truly thought that if I extended myself far enough, I’d eventually make a 360 degree spin around the overhead pole, ultimately flying like an acrobat.

My inauspicious early swinging career

My instant response to my grandson’s joy was to tell him that when he was lucky enough to find an activity, something he could do on his own which would make him feel as fantastic as he did on this day, to use it as a resource to combat the inevitable negative feelings which everyone has at certain times of their lives. When I heard myself saying that, I realized that for some people, that’s a pretty simplistic, not to mention unreal, recommendation. We are all unique individuals, born with varying levels of neurotransmitters and hormones causing widely divergent manifestations in our behavior. People with adequate endorphins can have an increased risk for depression and anxiety, physical pain, moodiness, addiction and poor sleep. Maybe no matter what they do, they just can’t rustle up that comforting thrill. Mixed with those key components we can toss in powerful hormones like oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” connected to sexual arousal, a mother’s let-down reflex for nursing and bonding with a baby. That hormone is now thought to be a reinforcing element in creating trust, relaxation and psychological stability. Count yourself lucky if you have the right brain soup to take advantage of the opportunity to experience the rush and the joy of mental well-being.

At Lakeside with Michael, early 2000’s

These thoughts stuck with me as I wended my way through this weekend of the layered emotions of missing Michael. When the awful tragedy that unfolded at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas last week, like most people, I was stricken with despair. The gun violence in my country is tragic mayhem fueled by mysterious mental disorders, but enabled by the easy access to weapons that have no place in daily life. That giant indefensible permission to allow mass killing is another matter. I was struck by the story of the murdered schoolteacher’s husband’s death, the day after she was slaughtered. Why did that happen to him? Was his health compromised, the proverbial accident waiting to happen? Or did he have the wrong body chemistry which made him incredibly vulnerable to the grief thrust upon him so abruptly? I can hardly equate such a vicious loss with my long drawn-out cancer rollercoaster ride that consumed the last five years of my life with Michael. That was more like a glacially paced erosion, doing its damage in small daily pieces rather than one fell swoop. But I still wonder about my successful survival despite the deep sadness I endure. Why am I still here? Why did I choose a return to Lakeside to mark this anniversary? Maybe because being in or near the water was always guaranteed to stimulate an endorphin rush in both Michael and me during our shared life? Perhaps instinctively, my individual programming has steered me into choices that release those endorphins which allow for the organic condition of decent health. I truly don’t know.

Michael with our daughter in the kiddie pool
My pandemic pool
Kiddie pool in our driveway, 1976

The water has always been a high for me, since I was a little girl, as it also was for Michael. In all the years of my life with him, we found ourselves in it, next to it, under it or on it. We each had our own separate activities that we used to stimulate our often different needs, but I don’t think I can remember a year when we didn’t find our way to get submerged in some body of water. For me water is primal. I guess buried deep within my genetic code, is a dim connection to the past, where although having crawled out of it onto land, the urge to crawl back in remains. I remember when I felt safe enough to return to my public pool, after avoiding it before Covid vaccinations, that my body was awash in endorphins, almost as if I was making love, quite a remarkable sensation. When I swim, I often envision Michael as he looks in the following picture, going under, his hair parted at odd angles, getting ready to do two laps without coming up for air. A skill I could never match. He love popping up in front of me unexpectedly, smiling a boyish grin while invariably being a tad suggestive. I’m so glad I got this blurry shot of him at the pool at Starved Rock Lodge.

We swam through everything, with our kids, our grandchildren and his cancer.

So basically, every time I’m in the water which is generally five times a week, I’ve been bathing myself in an endorphin rush. After researching further about the causes of endorphin release, I discovered that I routinely employ a significant number of the recommendations for boosting the output of these neurotransmitters. Suggestions include exercise, listening to music, dancing, laughing and meditation, along with eating dark chocolate, acupuncture and sex. I’m not batting a thousand on these, but cumulatively, I’ve unwittingly created an interior world that is quite alive, including my continued sense of connection to the spirit of Michael and me. I wish I could say I’ve adopted these practices with intention but that isn’t true. I’ve been impelled toward them by a process that I’d have to describe as more biological than cognitive. I do believe that my survival stems from the same source as the pleasure my grandson experienced on his first run. Despite my old friend grief that is my companion, that wellspring of life is deeply rooted in me. I don’t know what can burn it out. If Michael’s death didn’t do it I’m not sure what will, except perhaps when life becomes too limited to sustain my inherent drives. I wonder how long this engine of mine will keep humming. We’ll see.

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