Hitting Pain: Speed Bumps on the Road to Less

If one is lucky, a New England summer might yawn and stretch lazily into fall.  This year, however, the morning air became abruptly crisp. A smattering of ambitious leaves turned defiantly against the waning sun before the calendar could even declare September’s arrival. Personal growth happens like that, too. Sometimes it languishes, with little to no forward movement, and other times it feels like someone stepped on the accelerator without asking for permission.

My growth game has been languishing until very recently.  Since starting a new job, I’ve fallen into some of my old spending habits: Starbucks whenever the whim strikes, compulsive splurges on superfluous snacks, and etc. I know something is off when I walk into Whole Foods for cereal and quinoa cookies and leave with $75 of vegan junk food. Speaking of veganism, I’ve managed to twist plant based eating into: “This candy is made from plants, so it’s fine”. You know, the old “chocolate salad” logic. If I had used the aforementioned logic on my other issues, it wouldn’t have been long before wine coolers turned into liquor. Or “friendly” coffee with a woman I shouldn’t see turned into a tangled, painful mess. All that being said, I have made strides in the right direction. I don’t cry at dinner anymore. (Seriously, eliminating cheese from our home was ugly business.) Our weekly grocery list no longer contains four pounds of cheese and a carton of heavy cream. That’s noteworthy progress, if I do say so myself. I’m sure my arteries thank me. Also, Starbucks and snack binge(s) aside, I haven’t been blowing cash left and right. I have a Stevie Nicks tattoo to finish and several more tattoos in the queue. In addition, we finally turned our junk room into my walk-in closet and home office. We don’t have room for my addiction to Michael’s holiday decorations. My choices, overall, are more in line with my values.

It’s in my nature to do the “two steps forward and one step back” dance. But, sometimes, life necessitates that I suck it up and tango. I wouldn’t say that life has forced me to tango, but I have been “hitting pain”, as they sometimes refer to it in 12 Step fellowships, and pain is the great facilitator of change. A long time ago, I remember writing about how the word “no” is worthy of its own blog post. However, I haven’t been able to write about it because I am still learning how to use it. In fact, not only am I learning how to speak my truth, I’m still discovering what, exactly, that truth is. It is a complex process and it isn’t always pretty to behold.

In the beginning of August, I had an unsavory experience which forced me to make adjustments to my recovery meeting schedule. As a result, I decided to start attending a women’s meeting. In the past, I was resistant to the idea of gender specific meetings. To be completely honest, the idea of spending time with women feels about as appealing as throwing myself to a family of malnourished tigers. Don’t get me wrong: I love women. Well, one woman in particular. But being around a gaggle of girls has never been my scene. And that’s an understatement. I’m not really sure what that’s about – and why it’s an issue I haven’t been able to resolve in eight years of recovery.

Someone with substantially more recovery wisdom pointed out that maybe I don’t need to be someone who enjoys running with a clique of chicks. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. However, I’m also an introvert. I crave human friendship – and my relationships are important to me – but I like meaningful one on one interaction. Anything else is painfully over or under stimulating (and sometimes both at the same time). It drains my spirit.

I’m going to stick with my women’s meeting; I know for a fact that it’s helping me grow. It’s also my responsibility to pass on the gift that was so freely given to me. However, I need to shut the door on the idea that there is something wrong with the way I operate in the world. The fears of my inner sixth grader aren’t calling the shots anymore. I am a strong, vibrant, nearly-31 year old woman. I don’t need a clique of chicks to have relationships of meaning and value. I am part of a diverse tribe. And, by and large, I enjoy meeting with said tribe members on an individual basis, thank you very much.

Too often, we live our lives based on what we think we “should” do. I know I am certainly guilty. I’ve come to realize that living from that platform is a debilitating form of existential dishonesty. It’s also frickin’ exhausting. My new life’s mission is to live my truth – and a huge part of living my truth is going to be exercising the word “no”.  If other people don’t like it, that’s too damn bad. The response of others is neither my business nor my responsibility. If someone has a problem, that’s their own shit. My only responsibility is to be honest. When I am in the wrong, it’s because I’ve been dishonest. I know my dishonesty has left casualties in its wake and I am working on making sure I don’t repeat the same mistakes.

This is my truth, in all its raw and gritty glory: I do not want to attend a girl’s night out with a group of women. Hell, chicks or dicks, I don’t want to attend any rambunctious night out. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a person on the autism spectrum, but I imagine the kind of sensory overload I experience is not entirely dissimilar to a trip to a noisy store. For the record, when three unrelated people text me at once, I have a meltdown. I’m not built for it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I also will not spend one second of my time tolerating homophobia – or bullying masquerading as politics – for the sake of being polite. I will not put myself in those situations and, if I find myself unwittingly subjected, I will leave immediately. And no, I probably don’t want to take those family photos. I enjoy doing individual, outdoor portraiture for a good cause. Unless you’re an individual who wants outdoor/natural light photos done for a cause, I can’t help you. On the other side of that coin, I reserve the right to take photos for whomever I damn well please. If I decide to make someone exempt from my usual standard, that choice is mine – and mine alone.

Perhaps most importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind. In five years, reading educational material about studio lighting may not bore me to tears. Maybe I’ll want to invite ten women over for a pajama party. Maybe I will actually initiate a group text rather than contemplate throwing my phone down the garbage disposal. And all of that will be okay because I am a constantly evolving human being with unique preferences and a voice that deserves to be heard.

Uncovering these things has made me a little angry – mainly at myself – because I have denied my voice for so long. I have been afraid of offending or inconveniencing others. I have asked: “What will other people think?” I have been a people-pleaser. I should have been asking: “What do I need?” Nobody else is responsible for meeting my needs. And it’s not selfish to meet them myself. In fact, it’s the self-caring, healthy thing to do. Ultimately, the more I deprive myself, the more I end up harming other people, too.

At the end of the day, I am aiming for simplicity. I am striving for less. If you think about it, “less” is the antithesis of addiction, which is the craving for more. And the road to less is paved with the word “no”.

 

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.

 

 

Fear

“I don’t know what my body needs right now,” I just said out loud, as I pushed my laptop away and reached for my steaming hot cup of tea. There’s a part of me that wants to write, but there’s also a part of me that just wants to finish season two of the Golden Girls…or even stare off into space. The part of me that wants to write won out. (It usually does.) The last couple of weeks have been intense and – through the overwhelm – the reigning emotion has been fear.

Fear might be “the big word” to talk about when it comes to addicts and alcoholics. I have never once met an addict or alcoholic who has not conceded to being a fear-driven creature. People say: “I felt like a square peg in a round hole”. Others describe it as a feeling of “not being okay”, “not belonging in the world”, or “being the only one missing the guidebook to life”. When we drink, use drugs, or engage in our compulsive behaviors, our sense of existential unease magically disappears. We suddenly “fit in”. We can be confident and interesting and appealing. We feel like “ourselves”.

Ugh. What a lie this disease spins for us. I had NO idea who I was and I didn’t want to know, either. Figuring that out would be way too fucking scary. I would have to leave the safety of my sick little comfort zone. God forbid I discover I was “just like my father”. Come to find out, I am like my father in that we share a disease. That’s where the similarities end. Today, I have healed enough to say that perhaps we would have had more in common if he had been able to get well. As it advances, addiction shrouds anything beautiful in ugliness. Unfortunately, my father died before he could break free from the shroud, but his suicide showed me where a fear-based life leads. Today, I understand that his children may be his only opportunity to show the world the light that existed underneath the illness.

I felt as if he was with me when I wrote that. “Hi Dad,” I said. “I’m still mad at you but that’s okay. I see you”. Obviously, I don’t literally see him. When I think of him in memory, I actually feel nauseated. It’s because I don’t see a man, I see the embodiment of total sickness. It’s repulsive and it is the very thing I do not want to become. When I think of him as a spirit, however, the disease is gone. He is whole again. I can honor that wholeness of spirit. In fact, that wholeness of spirit is what I strive for today, except I am able to do so here, amongst the living.

One of the first pieces of advice I was given in recovery was to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. I avoided fear like the plague for my entire life. I’m a lot better at feeling it now, but I’m still far from fearless. Take the past couple of weeks for example: First of all, I had an endoscopy. It wasn’t the procedure that freaked me out – although having a camera shoved down your throat isn’t a good time – but the idea of the unknown. I do NOT like the unknown. I also do NOT like feeling out of control. I like it when I get answers on MY timetable…not the timetable of medical professionals. Why do I struggle so hard against the things I can’t control? Well, sometimes I still feel like an undeserving piece of shit, waiting for life to punish me for merely existing. You see, I was just hired for my dream job, so why wouldn’t life laugh in my face and then drop the other shoe?

Wait. I was just hired for my dream job? Yup. That brings me to example number two: I was just hired for my dream job!(!!!) Out of the blue, I received a message from a local recovery center. They were familiar with my work on Human Too and they were interested in how I could bring my photography, writing, and social media skills to the table. It is everything I have ever wanted…but because I don’t have an advanced degree, it’s something I thought I could never have. So while I felt an overwhelming sense of joy, my silly, silly brain automatically conceived all the possible ways I could be an inadequate pile of manure. Ridiculous, right? Furthermore, I have to work my current job until the middle of June. So my silly, silly brain automatically freaked out about how to handle both positions at once.

Long story short, I survived my endoscopy. While I’m still not sure what’s wrong, I am comforted by the fact that it looks great in ye olde esophagus. I am historically predisposed toward muscle spasming and tension, so if the test results reveal nothing else, it could just be another delightful way my body internalizes stress. I also gratefully accepted my dream job… and I love it. It is not work…it is my mission.

I know this position is going to push me to grow. I feel like I have already evolved so much this year and I am amazed that my growth game is continuing to expand in such a profound way. I guess I am ready. As for the sheer volume of things on my plate – including the need to organize foot surgery for this summer – I am surviving by keeping my focus in the day. I’m not going to reach the finish line any faster by worrying about tomorrow. I will get there by doing what I need to do for today and then doing that on repeat. I’d rather be a speedy hare but, gosh darn it, I am a tortoise.

My list of fears is swiftly declining. I obviously have the big ones: Losing my wife, violence enacted on my person or loved ones, cancer, spiders, fire, drowning trapped in my car (or drowning, period), ladybugs (okay, so that’s not a typical fear), bats, the mere existence of President Trump (sorry, couldn’t resist), salmonella, cruise ships, a world without Stevie Nicks (oh, my broken heart), and etc. But the list of “things I’m afraid of that other people are good at” has dwindled down to a handful. I’m afraid of flying alone (being out of control, getting lost), driving in Boston (being out of control, getting lost, claustro-fucking-phobic traffic), subways and city buses (I still don’t know where the eff I’m going, I get motion sick, not to mention other people’s germs), and attending events with large groups of people (I am too introverted for that shit; small talk makes me want to poke out my own eye with a stick). Ironically, if I have a PURPOSE for being at an event, i.e. speaking or hosting a table, I could care less. If I have to be there just to “be social”, I’d rather eat a grasshopper. It’s too overstimulating. I like one-on-one interactions or small groups, followed by a week of solitude. 😉

If I need to overcome these fears to improve my quality of life, the Universe will gift me with the opportunity. There is no quicker way to gain confidence than to do what scares you. Recovery has provided one opportunity after another. Clearly I don’t like feeling lost and out of control, so these teachers will appear when I’m ready to learn from them. Also, just because I have these fears, doesn’t mean I can’t live a full life despite them. I can hire a car, get a direct flight, or ask a friend for support or companionship. I think one of the biggest mistakes we make – whether we’re in recovery or not – is pretending that we can do everything ourselves. I didn’t get well on my own. I received help and guidance from literally hundreds of people. I can’t take credit for any of my success, either. There have been strange angels all along my path who have opened doors I couldn’t possibly unlock myself.

Fear has no power over you when you view yourself as a member of a benevolent tribe.

After my endoscopy, I was sitting in an Olive Garden parking lot while my sweetie ran inside to pick me up some fettuccine alfredo. (The nurse told me to drink a smoothie. Ha! To be fair, I asked the Docs permission. 😉 ) The sky was melting into an ephemeral pink and purple painting. Relief washed over me. I felt like the Universe was laughing with me instead of at me. “See, Autumn,” it said. “Everything is going to be okay. It always was. You are my beloved child. I have work for you to do”.

“Okay,” I agreed. “I just need to eat first”.