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.

The Slippery Slope

Self care is a slippery slope when you spend years neglecting it. Just when you think you’re getting ahead, something new pops up. Truth be told, that “something new” is more realistically a long ignored issue that is now too pressing to sweep under the carpet. It’s easy to shrug and say “Well, that was pointless. Why do I bother?” and sullenly backslide the ten feet you’ve managed to ascend. I haven’t been succumbing to that attitude lately. Somewhere along the way I went from saying that success can only be reached via baby steps to actually believing it. Those of you who have been following since the beginning of 2016 might remember that I chose “faith” as my word for the year. Life had different plans. At every opportunity, the Universe has asked me to exercise patience. Ironically, patience leads to success…and success leads to faith. It’s funny how that works. You have to be careful what you ask for because you just might get it – albeit in a very strange package.

So, no, I have not been back sliding down the slope with two fingers in the air… but my baby steps are tenuous. For example, I can’t even manage to get started on my goal of daily yoga. I have everything I need: a Wii Fit, a DVD, athletic clothes… My excuse was that we had a giant air conditioner in the middle of the living room and I didn’t want to move furniture every day to practice. (Aren’t those of us with addict brains MASTERS of justification?) I guess I must not want it bad enough…which is sad. Yoga and meditation make me feel great. However, I have been to the Doctor three times in less than a month to deal with x,y, and z. For the record, x ,y, and z are not crazy issues. It’s pretty run of the mill stuff that normal people take care of long before it takes a big chunk out of their ass. I’m just the woman who shows up late to the game with one or three missing chunks. Regardless of what it took to get there, dealing with x, y, and z has given me the momentum to move forward and deal with a, b, and c. Again, funny how that works. One step is all it takes to achieve a whole lot of empowerment.

What else has changed? I guess part of it is what still hasn’t changed. (Go me!) I’m still not quitting things or jumping impulsively into them. I’m getting better at minding my temper. (A big part of that has been realizing that the world isn’t bettered by my opinion.) I haven’t quit my job. In fact, I made some self-caring changes to my contract to make the year easier and POOF! my schedule lightened up even further on its own. (Funny how that works!) I haven’t quit my blog, business, or not-for-profit social media campaign. I have to be honest, though: I am putting my business on the back burner until I can reassess what product(s) I will be offering. Why? The short answer is that the market is over saturated with portrait photographers. The era of  profitably for the shoot and burn photographer is ending. If you’re new to photography, trust me, print product is the best way to make a living. The long answer (which I won’t get into fully here), is that business has cheapened my passion. It becomes about what people can take, and take, and take. So I am shifting my focus to things that fill my spiritual bank account.

My not-for-profit social media campaign, Human Too, is the most rewarding thing I have ever done outside of my recovery and marriage. I’m glad I started my business because it gave me the confidence to start Human Too. (There is a reason for everything!) What does working on Human Too entail? Well, I team up with volunteers who sit for portraits and share their firsthand experience with addiction. We try to get at the essence of what it means to be human and to share that with others. It is symbiotic and powerful. We give with no expectation of receiving and yet, somehow, we are blessed beyond measure in return.

Making money pales in comparison to the fulfillment I get from Human Too.

I’ve always had a very hippie-dippie attitude toward money. What I never understood, until now, is that it was never about embracing a fringe mentality. It is the pure and simple fact that I am best able to contribute to society when doing something I find neurologically engaging. I’m sure everyone feels that way to a certain extent but, for me, it is a matter of functioning/thriving v.s. barely functioning/failing. I am not lazy or unmotivated. My brain does not work normally unless it is engaged in very specific ways. Unfortunately, these ways have never coincided with the path to a million dollars. I’ve learned a lot about the way my brain functions over the last 45 days. I’ve also learned that my brain needs a little help to be “normal”…and that’s okay.

Just because I understand myself with a new clarity doesn’t mean that I need to be a slave to my brain’s selective whims. Now that I understand why I am the way I am, I can take measures to function better in situations I would otherwise deem intolerable. Money is, indeed, important and my ever-improving self-care philosophy aims to honor its significance.

As serendipity would have it, I recently stumbled upon an article on the Frugalwoods blog. (Don’t just walk over there and take a gander…run.) The Frugalwoods managed to retire to a beautiful homestead in their early 30s. Now, before you roll your eyes and imagine any semblance of sanity I have left whistling away on the wind, let’s get one thing straight: I am not impulsively jumping on the frugal bandwagon. I do not plan on retiring by 33, I am not going to share a toothbrush to save money, I am not going to start obsessively clipping coupons, and I am not going to make my own toilet paper from trees in the back yard. Extremism is not my friend. All that being said, the Frugalwoods really made me think about the value of things (or lack thereof) and my priorities. My laissez-faire attitude toward spending is not a self-caring approach. I don’t just mean in the addictive sense  – and I’ve definitely used shopping to make myself “feel better” – I mean that every time I piss away money on bullshit I don’t need I am robbing my future self.

I won’t lie. I had a blast at the craft store this week. I’m not even sorry. However, if I hadn’t used a gift card to treat myself to more Halloween decorations, that money would have been better invested in the pursuit of our retirement dream (a forever home in a beach town). Lord knows I don’t need more Halloween decorations. When I am not financially thoughtful, I send a message to my wife that our mutual dreams are not important to me. Why would I buy a $6 latte when I could invest in a day spent hunting for sand dollars?  That’s the only dollar I want to waste my life chasing.

I don’t prescribe to a deprivation ideology, but I definitely think that having a daily $6 latte, a weekly roll of sushi, or a new shirt whenever, tends to rob that experience of its value. It becomes commonplace. The first time I signed a lease by myself, I remember how impactful it was that no one could take my home away from me. (Well, no one but the landlord.) It was a safe place and it was mine. I was so broke I could barely feed myself but I was so happy. I specifically remember my mom giving me a bag of coffee – a luxury I couldn’t otherwise afford – and it tasted so good. Money can’t buy that deep feeling of appreciation.

The Frugalwoods inspired me to start savoring experiences and to get off the “more is better” merry-go-round. I may not shop compulsively at this stage of my recovery, but the pursuit of “more” – which is the popular pursuit in our society – is not healthy  for me and is not beneficial to my marriage. I brought the idea of making some lifestyle changes to my wife and she was very supportive. We are embarking on a “challenge” starting in October. One of the things we agreed to do is to tone down Christmas. In the past, our attitude has been “go big or go home”. Instead of feeling sad about a simpler holiday, I feel more excited than ever. My creativity has been sparked. On Christmas Eve, we are planning to camp out in front of the tree and watch Christmas movies. Creating these traditions together is so special to me. A central part of our marriage has been molding our identity as a family from scratch. I love who we have become as a family and I can’t wait to see how we will continue to evolve.

I think that’s really the key to it all…isn’t it? At some point, self-care stops being an arduous uphill battle and becomes a really cool adventure. Sure, maybe you only make it ten feet before a boulder pops up in your path… but you can take that moment to look around and reflect on the scenery. I guarantee that things will look a little brighter from even the smallest height.