Privilege

It has been almost one year since J.L. and I decided to change our eating habits. Looking back on where we started and where we are today is a fascinating exercise.

In April of 2017, I burst through the dietary gate chomping at the bit. “No more added oils or high sodium content,” I declared. “Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Period. Anything else will just not be available in our house”.

I’m smirking as I write because, needless to say, my fervent declaration did not stand. But this is not an altogether bad thing. Today, there is still no meat or dairy in our house.

So, while I may think raw kale and whole wheat pasta is disgusting – and I may enjoy Earth Balance, soy “chick’n tenders,” and homemade vegan cupcakes – we have accomplished what we set out to do: eliminate meat and dairy from our household. If we can accomplish and maintain that change for a year, what can we do in two?

I have learned that there is a difference between a plant based and a vegan diet – and that it’s possible to be a “junk food vegan”. I tried the unpalatable cheese substitutes and the large assortment of mock meats… and I got 90% of it out of my system. However, when I look at our dinner menu this week – as compared to a year ago – it’s completely different. A year ago, I would have needed four pounds of cheese and a carton of heavy cream to prepare for our meals. This week, we’re having roasted cabbage steaks and turnip (a belated nod to St. Paddy’s Day), chipotle tofu burritos, Mediterranean chickpea-veggie wraps, and cajun cauliflower pasta (sans the heavy cream and cheese!) Most of the ingredients will come from the produce department.

I’m not a vegan. I don’t know that I ever will be. That being said, I would like to continue to grow. What’s next for us on this food journey? Well, we’ve drastically reduced our sugar intake, but this year we’d like to push that envelope further. Most of the candy I enjoy isn’t dairy free, so that was easy to give up…I don’t even crave it! However, there are still some surprisingly delectable vegan treats. I guess I’d like to see dessert reserved for holidays. I’d also like to persist in steering away from the meat and dairy substitutes, and the frozen convenience foods. We have our go-to frozen meals – vegan pizza, arrabbiata pasta, and chik’n – but I don’t want to add anything else to that rotation. I tried everything under the sun. Now it’s time to move on and continue to build our growing repertoire of healthy homemade recipes.

When we started this process, I wrote about how even considering these changes denotes an incredible amount of privilege. The subject of privilege is something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately.

I remember a time in my life when I prayed for even a quarter of the things I have today. I can vividly recall crying in a Kmart parking lot because I couldn’t afford a $5 package of underwear. This week, my greatest dilemma was whether or not I wanted to splurge on a reduced-price satellite radio subscription. Since I find today’s mainstream music to be revolting, I decided the subscription was worth it. This is a testament to how far my recovery has taken me, but also a reminder of the advantages I enjoy. While I decide which stations I like best – and delight in the fact that I can listen to 40s jazz, opera, and reggae in the space of ten minutes – many of my fellow humans spend their time wondering where their next meal is going to come from, nevermind if it’s “organic” or healthy. I haven’t forgotten the day when I shared that very same anxiety.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs demonstrates that people must have some very basic needs met before they can even contemplate the ultimate human aim: self-actualization. The task of self-actualization goes hand-in-hand with societal progress. Unfortunately, many of the people who are primed for Maslow’s uppermost tiers are too busy pursuing “more” to reach their full potential and, therefore, further societal progress. These same people expect those who don’t even have their most basic needs met to improve themselves. The hypocrisy is astounding.

Since my job is to focus on me, regardless of what I perceive other people to be doing wrong, it’s important that I don’t forget how privileged I am to have my basic needs met… and to pursue Maslow’s uppermost tiers: love & belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Some of you already know that I love the Frugalwoods blog – and that it inspired me to make some big changes. I’m certainly not in the same realm – by any stretch of the imagination – but I am debt free and only just starting to invest about 55% of my weekly wages into savings. One of the greatest criticisms of Mrs. Frugalwoods is that she is misleading about her privilege. I find this to be curious. One of my favorite things about her is the way she directly confronts the benefits she has enjoyed in all aspects of life. Moreover, she is doing things differently from her well-appointed position.

For some, the intimation of privilege is an affront. I used to feel that way. How dare you presume to know anything about me? Today, however, I firmly believe that we’re not going to change our broken systems until the defensiveness stops. Recovery requires a willingness to embrace constant self-evaluation – no matter who you are. I had to learn that lesson the hard way (sadly, most people do.) And recovery isn’t just for addicts. It’s for all of mankind. It’s a reclamation of our best and healthiest selves. Acknowledging privilege isn’t akin to accepting an insult. It’s acknowledging where we have been blessed abundantly (and it may not be in every arena!), exercising gratitude, and accepting an invitation to use our stature (whatever that entails) as a launching point for benevolence and mindful living. To me, mindful living means recognizing that some people don’t have their most basic needs met…and evaluating how I might be unwittingly complicit in that. Over the years, I’ve been surprised and dismayed to discover the ways I am participating. By constantly working toward being the best person I can be, I hope to become less and less complicit.

No matter where we fall on the privilege spectrum, our natural reaction as human beings is to become defensive when confronted by someone who lives in a way that challenges our belief systems. We resist looking at ourselves. We dismiss the skills we could apply because some of them don’t apply. We instinctively view the idea of any kind of change – the slightest suggestion of improvement – as a direct attack on our value as a person. We buck the idea that we could possibly share common ground with someone who isn’t exactly the same. This is an ancient kind of wiring…and it has lost its usefulness to our evolution.

Growth is one of the very things that makes us human. Change is the only constant. I have come to believe that the more we resist, the less human we become. Recovery has allowed me to stop running from my humanness – or to at least slow down and consider my pace and direction. I used to see being in recovery as some kind of deficit. It meant there was something “wrong” with me. Now I view recovery as it truly is: a privilege.

Musings on Food and Freedom

When your body is craving sugar and dairy, it’s amazing where you can find it. Take, for example, the caramels I bought last Halloween for the purpose of melting over apples. They sat in the pantry for months. However, once they were the only available option, we annihilated them. I also dug out a restaurant gift card that had been sitting around since last September. I gluttonously seized the opportunity to inhale two plates of Alfredo and a huge serving of fried donuts with chocolate dipping sauce. When in Rome, indeed!

If I look at things through the lens of these examples, I could conclude that no progress has been made on our healthy eating journey. However, that’s simply not true. Over the years, I have learned that growth and progress tend to be slow…and this experience is no different.

First of all, our grocery cart has been looking ridiculous. And by ridiculous, I mean awesome. I wanted to take a picture for you, but I was afraid people would think I was crazy. However, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t bursting with pride as I admired the bounty of produce and whole grains. I have discovered that I really like whole wheat pasta, sprouted beans and lentils, very suspicious looking Fire Engine 2 veggie burgers (with stir fried vegetables, guacamole, and sprouts), whole wheat frozen pizza crust, and fiber-rich cereal with banana.

I have also discovered that I do NOT like crispbread crackers… nor do I find kale to be particularly appealing. It might have been because I doused my kale creation in so much sriracha that I nearly got sick…but more shall be revealed. Also, don’t talk to me about chocolate almond milk. It belongs in the trash. Don’t make something into a health food if it’s only going to be vaguely-chocolate swamp water.

Bland crispbread and rage inducing “chocolate milk” aside, traveling is going to be much more of an obstacle than I initially anticipated. We recently went on a three day road trip and I got a little out of control. If I want to travel wisely, I’m going to need to start packing snacks. If you set me loose in a service station full of twinkies, candy, and chips, I am going to have an apple hand pie for breakfast, followed by a Hershey bar, chocolate cookies, and honey roasted cashews. (Yes, that happened.) Restaurant eating isn’t easy, either (as you may have already gathered from my opening). On our trip, I chose a salad for dinner…but I also had to have a side of cheese stuffed breadsticks. The following morning, breakfast went straight to hell, too. I regressed right back to my favorite stand-by of ketchup-doused scrambled eggs and corned beef hash. I didn’t even consider a less offensive, cow-friendly pancake.

So… those weren’t shining moments for me. But here’s the thing: When we came home, I got right back on the horse. That’s because our home is a healthy environment. When I don’t have access to unhealthy food, I don’t eat it. Since our environment has changed, I have also noticed some subtle shifts in my thinking. I don’t salivate over the processed shit at the grocery. I have a list and I go right for the things I need. I have also started to consider healthier choices when we go out. Before, I wouldn’t even look at a salad. In fact, the last time we were at that particular restaurant, I had a basket of chicken wings with extra dipping sauce.

These are the key things I have learned thus far:

  1. My home is a safe place and I should eat there as much as possible.
  2. Meal planning and list making are essential for success at the grocery store.
  3. I need to pack snacks if I’m going to survive five hours of driving or a layover at the airport.
  4. I should try to find vegan or vegetarian restaurants as much as possible while traveling.
  5. When I get crazy, it isn’t an excuse to give up. I simply must get back on track as soon as possible.
  6. It’s important to be gentle with myself. It’s about progress, not perfection. I’ve probably consumed more fiber in the past few weeks than I have in a year. And that is most certainly a good thing.
  7. My wife, J.L., reports that routine has been essential for her. She eats certain foods at certain times of day, and her body has adjusted to this schedule. When she deviates from her routine, the day doesn’t go as smoothly.

I’m struggling with the commitment piece but I am determined to follow through, especially since I have my spouse cheering me on. Oddly enough, it’s not the sugar that’s getting to me, it’s the butter. Right now, I feel like the hardest things to give up are butter (on my toast, pasta, and vegetables), plain greek yogurt (SO GOOD in chili), and feta (my salad feels so sad without you, buddy). If push comes to shove, I might have to give Earth Balance a try. The whole “oil free” or “no added oil” thing – while it makes perfect sense from a health perspective – is a little too extreme for me, and, as we all know, I am wary of extremes. However, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are also extreme…so I should at least try to put my best foot forward.

J.L. and I went on a date tonight and it struck me how profoundly privileged I am to even be making these changes. Some people don’t get anything to eat, let alone a choice. Others aren’t educated enough or mentally sound enough to consider these issues and make rational decisions about their health.

We went to see a documentary called “God Knows Where I Am”. It’s about a homeless woman who died in an empty house just twenty minutes from our city. She was mentally ill and refused to take her medicine because she suffered from psychotic delusions. She didn’t think she was sick. (To be fair, it is an outrage that anti-psychotic and mood stabilizing medicines are still so harsh and debilitating.) She starved to death over the course of approximately forty days. The house she died in was about five hundred feet from other residences… and no one even noticed she was there. I expected it to be a disturbing movie, but I didn’t expect it to resonate with me so personally. There were a lot of parallels to the life and death of my biological father. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it, but I certainly remember his delusions, his stays in mental hospitals, and the electroshock therapy. He also died in a very sad, gruesome, and lonely way.

You can’t have a parent like that and not be impacted, but I think that so many people choose to let this kind of trauma define the rest of their lives. That makes me sad…and also a little angry. I acknowledge and accept that I have witnessed and been through some very tough stuff. However, I choose not to be a victim of my past. I realize that I have no control over my other family members, I ask for help when I need it, and I work tirelessly to improve myself. I think it’s a slap in the face to my deceased parent to do anything else. He didn’t have the opportunity to experience freedom from his own mental imprisonment. He was too sick to properly advocate for himself…and so was the woman in the film. You can’t advocate for yourself when you’re psychotic and suffering from morbid cooccurring disorders. I do have the opportunity to advocate for myself and I choose not to waste it.

All of that is not to say that I am strong on my own. I am joyful, free, and mentally sound because I have a whole community of people holding me up. But I accepted that I needed help, asked for it, and I work on it every day. I may not be able to choose where I come from or the cards I have been dealt, but I am free to choose how I respond or whether or not I needlessly suffer in silence. I intend to cherish every moment of my freedom and live my life to the fullest. I am so grateful to be clean and sober and I truly believe that I am only fit to help others when I have thoroughly worked through my own issues.

If you’re out there wishing you could make a change, I hope you will stop selling yourself short and ask for help. You are worth it. There is no shame in admitting that you’re not perfect or that something is wrong. In fact, it’s only human. We all have flaws. I marvel at the fact that I am currently so content and well adjusted. Considering where I come from and the obstacles I had to overcome, it’s an incomprehensible miracle. If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for you. My life is pure magic today. The only way things could get any better is if I could help my wife retire early and we could get a dog. When I look out the window at the newly bursting trees and the gray Spring sky, my heart bursts. Some people try to rain on my parade, but I choose not to let them. Instead, I hope that they can find peace, too.

To Light a Candle

I am pretty proud of myself. I finally made an appointment to see the dentist. Granted, my bottom teeth are feeling alarmingly sensitive…but what really matters is that I have one foot in the door.

I know, I know: Not cool. But isn’t it funny how we only change when we are in pain? I think we are all guilty of it to some degree.

I wish I could say that pain didn’t motivate me to start looking at my eating habits. What I can say, however, is that it didn’t take much pain. I’m not waiting for the situation to escalate or for some awful diagnosis to develop from continued unhealthy eating.

We’ve been cleaning out our freezer and pantry – eating through the last of our non-plant-based food items – and instead of savoring the cheese and butter, I have felt almost annoyed by the chore of slogging through all the dairy. Last Wednesday, we went to see Stevie Nicks and the Pretenders. Before the show, I ordered one “last” roll of my favorite sushi. (For the record, we haven’t given up on our commitment to spend less eating out. We had a gift certificate. 🙂 ) While it tasted delicious, I was acutely aware of how heavy it felt in my stomach. I worried I would feel too queasy to watch my rock’n roll goddess perform. Luckily, I rebounded… but another door slammed shut on my doubt. My body is ready for change.

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Our beautiful sushi platter. The roll on the front right is vegetarian!

After a night of fitful post-concert sleep, my wife and I dragged our tired selves to a new vegan juicery and cafe. (Who the hell can sleep after being in the presence of Stevie Nicks?) At first, the clubby music and steep prices at the eatery raised my eyebrow, but when our drinks and breakfast arrived, I felt surprisingly satisfied and inspired. The food was yummy and filling. Best of all, I didn’t feel gross after putting it in my body. It gave me pause to think that people will buy four or five $10+ cocktails in an evening without batting an eye, but one comparatively priced health drink might be considered over the top. Which product should we really value more? If your answer is the cocktail, we might need to talk.

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My smoothie (cold brew, banana, nut butter, almond milk) & vegan granola bar.

It seemed like a good morning to continue our foray into the world of veganism, so we went to Whole Foods to replenish our dwindling supplies. Instead of feeling limited by the lack of choice, I felt happy and excited to be proactively improving our health. At the check-out line, I braced myself for sticker shock but, because I had done my research, stocking up only cost us what I would usually spend on a week’s worth of groceries. It really helped to be at a different grocery store, too. There were a lot fewer processed foods jumping off the shelves – or maybe I just didn’t notice as much because it was unfamiliar territory.

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Our new fruit bowl

To be fair, I still have animal products in my system… so I haven’t started the withdrawal process yet. The food in my work environment also continues to pose temptation. However, I am feeling cautiously optimistic and creatively inspired. Having a yummy vegan treat and a successful grocery experience really helped build my confidence. I also saw a comforting film this week. It talked about how perfection isn’t the aim of eating plant-based food – it’s improvement. Eating nutritiously doesn’t mean never, ever indulging. It means being healthy most of the time. I feel like I don’t have to say goodbye to our yearly batch of cut-out Christmas cookies (which we tend to give away) or a birthday sweet. On the rare occasion I do have something unwholesome, I just need to remember that I have’t given myself license to have all the unwholesome things. Embracing minimalism has also taught me that the rarity of an occurrence adds to its overall value. I think that philosophy applies to food. It tastes more decadent if you don’t have it every day.

The question is whether or not this philosophy will work in application. A complete abstinence approach has been the only way to treat my substance abuse issues. I’m on a mission to find out if food will be any different. I will adapt my methodology accordingly and report back to you.

The other interesting factor the film touched upon is the importance of a likeminded support system. I’m really blessed to have a wife who is on board. It would be much harder to make these changes with certain kinds of food still in the house. I also draw strength from watching documentaries and following online communities. It’s interesting how the tenets of recovery are the same regardless of how the addiction manifests.

We really just need to fill the voids inside us with genuine connection and community.

When I started following a personal finance blog last fall, I never knew I was about to embark on this crazy journey. First, I changed the way I view money and consumerism. Soon after, I simplified the way I relate to my possessions and the items in the space around me. I also started to prioritize activities and eliminate those that were not adding any value to my life. Next, I assessed how to lighten my footprint on the planet and be kinder to my global brothers and sisters. Finally, I examined my relationship with food and found it sorely lacking. One thing has become clear: Recovery is about so much more than stopping a behavior. It is about growing and growing and growing. It is about discovering the interconnectedness of all things. It is about wading beyond the shallows of life and finding joy and understanding in the depths. Recovery isn’t about stopping. It’s about starting.

I needed to open my mind. Putting down alcohol, drugs, awful relationships, and credit cards seemed like miracle enough. But the miracle was only just beginning to unfold.

This stuff is exciting. It is so much better than getting drunk or high. And if I can have it, so can you. I want you to know that it is not only possible….it is waiting for you.

Sometimes it still takes pain for me to change, but I’m finding that I am increasingly motivated by a plain and simple desire to be better than the person I was yesterday. When I got clean and sober almost eight years ago, I had a flame the size of a candle burning steadily inside of me. It was enough to keep me alive. Today, that candle flame has expanded into a blazing inferno. Every time I share with others, it ignites further still.

I have never been the kind of person who can sit down and shut up. It used to be about trying to control the world around me. Now I stand up and speak because I want to pass on the gifts I have been so blessed to receive.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

– Eleanor Roosevelt

You Are What You Eat

I am swamped right now. In fact, writing this is my way of taking a break. What I really should be doing is reading a book, taking a nap, watching Netflix, or mindlessly scrolling through Pinterest. However, making time for my own blog is really important to me.

Something crazy happened after I wrote Sugar, We’re Going Down. In that post, I said that I wasn’t ready to make a change in my eating… but I admitted I had a problem. I’ll tell you what, admitting the existence of a problem truly is the first step. After my admission, something unnameable shifted in my consciousness. For a whole week, information about nutrition and food manifested in my life. My readiness to open my mind transformed me into a magnet for things that support my intentions. I went from being totally unwilling to take action to actually taking action. J.L. and I previously declared we would do a sugar detox once summer arrived. Now we are making changes immediately. Over the next seven to ten days, we will be eating our way through our unhealthy pantry/freezer and restocking them both with new, healthful food. I have designed a recipe board, made a list of basic staples to buy at Whole Foods (which we will supplement with produce from a cheaper source), and created a list of bottom lines to guide our lifestyle change.

Through this process, I am going to write about my feelings and experiences. I have to admit that I am really, really scared. It sounds ludicrous to be scared about not eating certain types of food… but I really am. I bought a bunch of frozen vegetables at Target this afternoon and I thought: “No more macaroni and cheese?” It made my stomach ache with sadness. Later, I thought about milkshakes, root beer floats, and blueberry pop. I felt a little despair. I love those things.

One of my bottom lines is to be gentle with myself. If I fall prey to weakness – which I may – I am not going to punish or shame myself. Relapse is sometimes an unfortunate part of recovery. When it happens, you get back on the horse and move on. Moreover, this new lifestyle isn’t about deprivation; it’s about giving myself the precious gift of good health. I have been sickly for most of my life. Most kids don’t have a colonoscopy in their teens. Most twenty-somethings don’t have to withdraw from a physical dependence on Imodium. Most thirty-somethings haven’t spent almost an entire lifetime on antacids. Or…maybe that’s the norm in this day and age? Our diets in the United States are atrocious. Beyond atrocious, even. The word doesn’t do the debacle of our eating justice.

Let’s be clear. This is not a “diet”. I don’t need to lose weight. I need to get healthy. But what am I going to eat? I tried the whole gluten free thing for a year. I found out that I don’t have a wheat intolerance. I also found out that being gluten free did nothing to reduce my inhalation of processed food. So…what now?

Plants, baby. Plants.

We are about to embark on a journey of plant centered eating. No more meat. No more dairy. No more added oils or high sodium content. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Period. Anything else will just not be available in our house.

It sounds extreme. I don’t deal in extremes anymore, right? Truth be told, I think it’s extreme to know that I am incredibly unhealthy and yet do nothing. I think it’s extreme to know my risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer is astronomically high (due to making poor food choices) and do nothing. I think it’s extreme to know that the food industry is destroying the planet and the health of millions and do absolutely nothing. I think it’s extreme to rip a baby cow from its mother, steal the mother’s milk, and sell the spoils at the local grocer. I might as well kick the baby cow in the face, throw myself under its mother, and start suckling.

When I think of it that way, giving up the milkshake seems a little easier.

Good grief, I swore I would never become a torch carrying vegan. I just “can’t even”…as the kids say these days. I also swore I would never become that girl who regularly shops at Whole Foods. I’m about as hippie as they come…but I like people and things to have a down to earth quality. Whole Foods is supposed to be “down to earth” (haha, get it?), but on the few occasions I’ve visited, it felt kind of  pretentious. The older I get, the more I realize I need to examine my biases. Maybe people find my blog pretentious. When I have one finger pointed at someone else, I have three pointing back at me. I think that sometimes we are judgmental because we, ourselves, fear being judged. I am also learning that I should never say never. Like…ever.

I am not going to be militaristic. If I’m a guest at someone’s home, I’m not going to expect them to cater to my food preferences. Luckily, the changes we made when we decided to start saving more money for retirement have already reduced our take-out and restaurant habit – but if we do go out to eat and I make an unhealthful choice, I’m not going to spend the following week self-flagellating and saying Hail Mary’s. By the same token, as much as I am more sympathetic to the very serious plight of cows (and I mean that sincerely), I still haven’t given up the idea of the waffle and milkshake bar on our St. Augustine vacation. However, I’ve also looked to see if there are vegan options in town so we can make healthier choices the rest of the time. It’s progress, not perfection.

I’m not really sure what this crazy journey is going to bring. In two weeks time, I may have already failed. Maybe eating plant based food will make my heartburn worse rather than better. In May, maybe I’ll stuff my face with waffles and milkshakes every day for a week. Or maybe my skin will clear, I’ll have more energy, and I’ll feel like a million bucks. Maybe I won’t be willing to give that up for a morning (or seven) of gluttony. All I know is that when I look at J.L., I want to do better. When I bring unhealthy foods into the house – or plan less-than-nutritious meals –  it has an impact on my wife. Not only because we consume the same poisonous things, but because when I harm myself, I am harming her, too. When I don’t feel good, the look on her face breaks my heart. We have many years of adventuring and hand holding ahead of us. But we have nothing if we don’t have our health. Eating well isn’t just the self-loving thing to do, it is an act of radical love for my wife.