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.

Sugar, We’re Going Down

So…I’ve been watching more documentaries. Does this mean I am posed to write another hippie manifesto? Not exactly. I am having a hard time relaxing when I have a few hours of free time. One evening this week, I had to pull out a mindfulness coloring book because I just could not settle. I desperately needed to unplug and anchor myself in the present. Spring is dragging its feet here in New England. Getting centered will be easier once I can spend evenings walking outside. However, with a windchill below zero one night and rain the next, adult coloring pages and educational Netflix respites have to suffice.

I’m a little stressed. It’s fair to say that I have been stressed since I entered the work force at seventeen. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s not because I’ve had “bad” jobs. It’s just that my A.D.D. is debilitating. Recovery has made coping easier – and now I can hold down a job for years at a time and be considered “good” at what I do – but the past fourteen years have felt like a prison sentence in the realm of gainful employment. While I look like I am functioning on the outside, on the inside I would rather be locked in a cell for eight plus hours a day because at least my mind would be free. Instead, I wage a daily battle against my own brain, essentially forcing it to focus by mental violence. As a result, I feel sad, irritable, discouraged, and dishonest. Why dishonest? Well, despite my A.D.D. diagnosis, I am able to thrive when I utilize certain intrinsic skills. Life has necessitated I ignore these skills for the sake of survival, societal contribution, and “productivity”. Surviving has required me to wear a mask even when every atom of my being fervently resists. I am unable to be myself or feel my true feelings.

This is what A.D.D. feels like in a nutshell. However, I have also heard other addicts describe this experience. When we are not using our natural talents to help others, we feel trapped, disingenuous, and unhappy. Helping other addicts keeps us alive. I recently heard someone say that addicts are divinely chosen because we are not only strong enough to handle our disease, but also because our primary purpose is to be a beacon of hope for others. This resonated deeply with me.

Now that I know my fourteen year struggle is coming to an end, my bottled up resentment has exploded. I  was stifling one heck of an angry baby bear. One would think it would be easier because the end is in sight, but I never dared hope that my dream job would be possible. I had resigned myself to mental imprisonment. I tried to be grateful and kind despite my inner struggles. Now that I am aligned with my true purpose, accepting anything less feels unbearable.

The stress of this transition period has highlighted my last remaining active addiction: Sugar. The subject of sugar addiction has been serendipitously popping up over the past few weeks and the significance of the problem was cemented by the last two documentaries I watched. (You would think the significance of the problem would be cemented by a trip to the gastroenterologist and an endoscopy but…it takes what it takes.)

Sugar is literally a poison. It is a classified liver toxin. It changes the brain like a drug and most of the population is hopelessly addicted. I know I am a certifiable sugar junkie.

I remember when my wife, J.L., came home from the gym one morning and brought up the idea of attending a nutrition class. I got irrationally angry and then I cried. That is not a normal reaction. More disturbing still is that J.L. didn’t ask me to make any changes and yet I still felt threatened. It is no different than defiantly clutching a bottle of booze to my chest. The only difference is that this type of addiction has less visible societal consequences.

When I eat an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s (after eating nothing but junk all day, BTW), the only person I’m killing -albeit slowly- is myself. But is that really true? My unhealthy lifestyle does impact society at large because I add weight to the overburdened, ineffective healthcare system and I support an unsustainable food system. Therefore, the consequences of food addiction are arguably just as severe as the opioid epidemic – if not more so.

I keep saying this over and over but addiction is the Achilles heel of our modern civilization. If we don’t treat this prevalent disease and start making changes, we will destroy ourselves. We are ruled by the 1%…and they profit from our sickness. But I digress.

As I’ve also been saying, no one else is responsible for my recovery or my life. Nor can I count on the 1% (or the 99.9999%) to change. I simply must change. And that is not going to be easy.

I recognize that I am not ready. First of all, I am still working in an environment where junk food is readily available. It is a recipe for failure. It would be like trying to get sober while tending bar. If you can do it, all the more power to you, but I cannot. However, that particular circumstance will change by mid-summer. The other issue is my upcoming vacation in May. There is a milkshake and waffle bar in St. Augustine…and I’ll be damned if I’m not eating there twenty five times before we leave. As far as the stages of change are concerned, I am only in the contemplation phase.

It’s hard not to feel a little angry. I’ve given up alcohol, drugs, toxic relationships, credit cards, and more. Now I have to stop eating my favorite peanut butter M&M’s? Mint Oreo ice cream? Chips? Cookies? Pies? My enflamed digestive system says: “Yes”. My broken-out skin says: “Yes”. My exhausted body says: “Please. Help”.

I have to remember that for every one thing I have given up, I have gained unimaginable, unbelievable, downright miraculous gifts. I also feel so awake in a cosmic, spiritual sense. It seems impossible to feel any more awake. But then I continue to learn and expand. Endlessly.

While I am afraid to let go of sugar, I know what it’s like to purify my body of other toxic things. When I look at organic farmers and gardeners, I feel inexplicably envious. I want to eat food that is straight-from-the-earth fresh. I want to have a relationship with my food and with the people who grow it. I crave clean, green things. I want to be clean.

It’s just that staying sick feels easier…even though it’s not. It’s not easy to hold junk food in your hand and say “I don’t even want this,” and eat it anyway. I never pegged myself as sugar obsessed – I don’t think about it a lot (unless you try to take it!)  – but the compulsion and the powerlessness are certainly there.

I would love to hear from readers who have experience with food addiction. What are your suggestions? Do you intend to abstain from sugar forever (one day at a time, of course) or do you create bottom lines to measure and guide your recovery?

I guess all of the above is to say: “Hi, my name is Autumn, and I’m a sugar addict. I am powerless over sugar and it’s making me sick”.

I shared something today that said:”Healing is not linear”. Thanks for being on this healing journey with me.

 

 

Mangrove Musings

I don’t know much about Ernest Hemingway, but I can certainly understand why he chose to keep a home in Key West. Florida was never on my “must-see” list – I had always dismissed it as a tourist trap – but after visiting several times, I found myself surprisingly and unabashedly in love. If you can get beyond the strip malls and the dangerous highways, there is something both indescribable and intoxicating about the peninsula.

I love the South in general. The sight of Spanish Moss destroys me in the best possible way. I love the flowers, the birds, and the vague sense that everything is a little haunted…like energy from several centuries is trapped in the humidity.

After dedicating several trips to the Tampa Bay region, J.L. and I picked the Florida Keys for our belated honeymoon. At first, we questioned our decision. Although our rental house in Grassy Key was beyond breathtaking, the weather was initially very moody. The wind washed pungent seagrass onto our small beach. When the grass started to rot, the smell was hard to abide. Furthermore, we realized we had chosen an especially busy week. The traffic was so bad that we were unable to enjoy Key West or Bahia Honda park.

While we certainly encountered our fair share of challenges, J.L. and I were not about to sulk in such a beautiful place. I’m so glad we made that conscientious choice.  We may not have posed for a photo at the southernmost point of the U.S., but we did stuff our faces full of mahi-mahi, spend a glorious day in the Everglades, get acquainted with a crew of rescued dolphins, watch gigantic fish swim in the lights underneath our dock, eat cheesecake by the fire, and swim like fiends in our ridiculous pool. All the while, the air was filled with the perfume of tropical flowers and tiny lizards scurried over every conceivable surface.

Our very favorite thing, however, may have been taking the kayak out to explore the little inlets near our rental property. We saw so many birds – most notably a crane – and a prehistoric horseshoe crab. In one cove, we floated in one or two feet of water, while below us there were literally thousands and thousands of upside-down jellyfish. It was a surreal experience.

While I will never forget the beauty of the Keys – nor the novelty of seeing a sea turtle in the wild or a crab crawling out of a hole in the forest floor – I am still haunted by some of the pollution I witnessed.

In one of the state parks, there is a sign informing visitors that the Keys are on a well-traveled shipping route and, unfortunately, the passing ships are responsible for much of the trash that washes up on shore. As if the sign wasn’t disconcerting enough, the volume of trash I saw trapped in the mangroves shook me to my core. There wasn’t much I could do about it from the kayak – or without an army of helpers – but the image made a lasting impression. I don’t remember seeing nearly as much garbage twenty years ago as I played on the pristine, rocky beaches of Downeast Maine.

One of the most amazing things about getting clean and sober is that the world begins to open up to you. I have been very blessed to travel in recovery; this year I am looking forward to visiting St. Augustine, seeing Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, and celebrating my 31st birthday in New York City. Before I got sober, I had never even stepped foot on an airplane. Traveling is most definitely a gift… but it is also a teacher. It forces you to see the world with fresh eyes. When I was active in my disease, I was too absorbed in my addiction to think about how my life impacts the planet or my neighbors around the globe. Today, not only am I self-aware, but I am also aware of the world around me.

When I wrote Losing the Mess, I shared about how I am striving to cultivate an oasis of peace in a chaotic world. I think that sometimes we can focus on the problems around us rather than attending to the issues within us. It is the perfect cop out: “How can I possibly work on myself when there are so many problems around me that need to be solved? It would be selfish. No one would dare accuse me of making excuses when I’m being helpful”. This armor we construct around our fear is more transparent than we think.

I have always been a very sensitive and altruistic person, so it took awhile for me to understand the concept of self-care and “wearing the world like a loose cloak”. When I took the burdens of the world on my shoulders, I didn’t realize I was adding to them rather than alleviating them. Working on myself is the best possible thing I can do to foster healthy relationships and heal our ailing planet.

It sounds counterintuitive… but most things that work are contrary in nature. Imagine if everyone in the world stopped fighting and worked on becoming the best person they could be. I think we might finally know peace.

I don’t have control over anyone else, though, so I can only focus on myself. This has become a key mantra for me in the past year: “Can’t control others, can only control myself”. Aaaaaand repeat. Because I forget just about every five seconds. Relating to the world from this perspective helps me maintain a sense of compassion. I am still far from perfect, but it has saved me from becoming an angry and jaded person.

In Losing the Mess, I talked about “skimming some of the murk from the swamp” by bettering the space within my control. I guess this post is about how I am continuing to explore that concept. It has been almost a year since my honeymoon and – coupled with the fact that I just recently watched the documentary The True Cost – I am beginning to push the envelope of personal change further still.

I never thought about the people who make my clothes. After watching The True Cost, I am a changed woman. I love documentaries – part of the work I do with the Human Too campaign draws from the documentary spirit – but I think it’s easy to walk away from these visual educations and think: “Ugh! Society sucks. Why can’t other people get their shit together? Human beings are gross. This world is doomed”.

Whelp, that attitude isn’t very helpful. And I don’t think that’s the kind of reaction filmmakers are trying to inspire, either. I admit, I looked at the footage of shoppers in various chain stores – and beating the shit out of each other on Black Friday – and thought “Murderers! Awful, awful people!” But then I stopped and thought: ” You’re the same. How about focusing on how you can do better?”

I don’t think I am going to single-handedly save the world by shopping from fair trade stores and rinsing out my plastic cups for recycling. But if I try to treat the environment and my global brothers and sisters with thoughtfulness and love, at least I can look back on my life and feel a sense of peace because I did the best I could with what I had. What more do we have to offer, really, than our very best?

Life feels so much better when you relate to it from a gentle place. I am interested in judging less and doing more. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It matters what I am doing. I used to get offended when people in recovery meetings told me to “mind my own business”. Now I cherish that advice because it refocuses my attention on the one thing I can control: myself.

Here are some of the changes I am implementing:

  • Giving up bottled water. Although I am not willing to sacrifice my favorite seltzer, there will still be a whopping 48+ plastic bottles/month that no longer come from my household.
  • Recycling more in general. I need to stop being lazy and rinse out my yogurt dishes, margarine containers, and rare iced coffee cups .
  • Buying fewer articles of clothing, i.e. not shopping for “fun”. (Seeing how much damage the garment industry is doing has taken the fun out of it for me.)
  • Researching earth and people friendly brands. Patagonia is my favorite. I also like the looks of Alternative Apparel for basics.
  • Giving up some of my favorite brands…like Victoria’s Secret. Vicky, the secret is out: You’re mean! We’re breaking up!
  • Simplifying holidays. There’s no reason we need to have presents stacked from floor to ceiling. (We got off to a pretty good start on this goal in 2016.)
  • Focusing more on consumable gifts. Experiences are much more valuable than things.
  • Adopting an attitude of longevity in spending versus an attitude of disposability. I do not need to replace perfectly good items just because it’s “trendy”. I will ask myself: “Is this item high quality and made to last?”

I’m not sharing all this on some mad mission to change the world. I’m sharing this because maybe there are people out there, like me, who are just trying to navigate this shit with some sense of dignity, grace, compassion, and peace. I know I don’t feel very peaceful when I’m railing against other people about what they “should” be doing. I feel peaceful when I make changes in my own life and share my story with others.

I think that’s what the process of healing often looks like: sharing your story and saying, “Hey, if you’re interested, I can show you how I got to this point in my life”. I know that’s how it worked for me when I was getting clean and sober.  No one said: “You have to do it this way,” or “Hey, you’re pretty fucked up. Why don’t you pull your shit together?” People just shared about how they modified themselves and, if I wanted to make a change, I was welcome to ask them to show me the way.

I recognize that I am profoundly privileged to be thinking about these issues. My life no longer revolves around some form of addictive obsession. I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a reasonable amount of mental and spiritual wellness. My heart is overflowing with gratitude.

It always amazes me that the happiest people in the world are those who arguably have the least. It’s not the millionaire or the king. I want to emulate the people who find abundance in “enough”. Now that I don’t have to chase substances or behaviors, I want to stop chasing “more”.  I want to honor the planet that sustains me and share my abundance with my brothers and sisters.