Connecting + Writing = A Happier, Healthier Brain

Recently I watched an eight-part docu-series about the brain from Dr. Mark Hyman who, among other things, is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. It was filled with words like mitochondria, neurotoxins, and glutathione. Each episode would expire after a short period of time so I watched them intensely over the course of the week.

Of all the things I heard, there were a few stand out concepts that made a big impact on me. In discussing exercise, one of the doctors used CrossFit as as an example but not only due to the activity but also because this group in particular supports each other within that culture—it’s a sense of community. Her research suggests that being cared for could cause the brain to release chemicals that inevitably lends itself to healing (biological changes in the body) and happiness.

Since hearing this I felt compelled to reach out to a few old friends that I love but let the business of life grow distance between us. Because why not—I want a brain that’s full of happy pathways free of plaque. I didn’t expect the outcome of relieving a bit of my self imposed isolation, nor did I see that this would make for a more powerful writing experience.

First I texted a friend from high school that I miss and adore. In the past 20 years our attempts at making plans seem to be few and far between. In the quick text exchange I learned that she recently celebrated her eight year wedding anniversary. She and I also have dogs that look so much alike they could be twins. And it turns out she’s been stressed and busy with her aging parents. She said hearing from me was just what she needed, that she could really use a chuckle from an old friend. I felt that so much too. In an instant, mini replays of our high school antics scrolled through my memory, some making me laugh out loud and others placing me in her car with the smells of my Imposters Primo perfume and big 80’s hair. I know if we have the chance to get together that hours could fly by with repeated use of the phrase “remember that time.” And yes, we made plans to get together when our caregiver schedules align. Meanwhile, the time I spent with a few texts meant a lot to me and reminded me how important it is to stay connected to old friends.

screenshot of a Facebook post that reads "It has been a day of never ending smiles."
Typical upbeat post from my very happy friend – and she means it!

I also reached out to a Facebook friend to inquire about her amazing and constant positivity. Paula updates her Facebook status routinely using the phrases “…I can’t believe how lucky I am” and “everyday is a wonderful adventure.” I know Paula, and this isn’t FaceBook fluff. She’s the real deal.  Paula is a retired school teacher, but she keeps busy. She has lots of love from her kids and grandchildren, but she lost her husband within the past few years and I know she loved him and their life together. I had to ask about this optimism because I totally buy into it from her, and yet I see so little of it anywhere else. So I posted a request, but where else, on her Facebook wall asking for a little “Paula Perspective” (quietly giving myself a little pat on the back for coining the phrase). I asked how she stays so upbeat and if one has to be retired to feel this way. She replied with the witty response reminding me that positivity is a choice. She also shared that she’s been criticized for being so upbeat, that she actually works two jobs, and suggested we delve into the topic more in person. We quickly set a date and I can’t wait to see her, catch up, and hear more about her decision to be happy.

My last (re)connection was with a previous boss I’ve been meaning to visit at his old family grocery store where I worked through college. Mr. and Mrs. Fisher owned Main Street Market for as long as I can remember and their son Louis hired me when I was about 19. For the past four months or so Louis has been popping up in my dreams in a comfortable, nostalgic way that leaves me waking up feeling safe. I think he’s in my dreams because I’m potentially making a career change and I feel apprehensive. Louis was the boss that had the greatest positive influence on me without having anything to do with the work. He had this way of making me feel like being around him was a growing experience. I used to make time to visit him with my bigger life changes such as getting married, or for him to meet my children. I think I let about ten years go by since the last time I saw Louis.

I pulled in to my old parking place at the market, smiling with anticipation while I walked to the door. The store looked exactly the same, truthfully no notable upgrades since I worked there in 1988. I walked down every aisle until I found him in the last one stocking TastyKakes.

I gave him a big hug hello and wondered if he realized that at age 19 when everything felt so uncertain, he was someone solid I could count on. He was probably wondering why I was hugging him and not letting go.

I teased him “Louis, shouldn’t you have people doing this for you?” I knew better because Louis’s presence was always felt in the market, and for some reason I was more comfortable when he was there. He looked the same but a bit more like his father. And I wondered if Louis was thinking I looked more like my mother. I found myself squeezing him and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was the feeling of life’s unpredictability in the presence of a kind, solid human that I knew exactly where to find.

And there in the TastyKake aisle he gives me a life lesson: He did a favor for a vendor and accepted more of their product than he needed. He assumed the vendor would rotate the product so the older dated items would be front and center but instead left a stack of boxes in the middle of his already narrow aisle.

“Sometimes if you want it done right and right away, you have to do it yourself. But I love it, I don’t want to be any place else,” he said.

Well DAMN. At that moment I wanted to work at Main Street Market again.

I actually don’t.

But I loved hearing how happy he was. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, or it goes the way it should all the time, but he wouldn’t change it.

My “mini quest” to make the time to reach out to friends in the name of brain health brought more connectedness than I ever imagined. Each relationship a story that could have been written on it’s own. I noticed how the interactions provoked writable emotions, scenes, and characters that could live in literature in some form.

The way Louis feels about work is the way that I feel about writing. It’s work, and it doesn’t always play out the way I plan that it should. But I love it, and while it’s not my primary job, I can’t have a life that doesn’t include writing.

So in this way I do have bliss. My brain’s neural pathways are so thankful.

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