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Archive for the ‘Awareness’ Category

April was a bitch, and so was I. For much of it I felt as if I was in a communication black hole and this was intensely distressing. A glimpse into the last few weeks:

  • Text messages and emails from friends were never received
  • Posts on professional and personal Facebook pages vanished without a trace
  • I received some surprisingly harsh criticism of my book – was called cruel and inhumane – and could honestly not understand why
  • I anticipated giving a much-dreaded talk to an audience of my peers, for which there were many unknowns
  • We had house guests for 3 weeks, all of whom spoke a language I’m studying but in which I am not fluent, meaning it was never 100% clear if we were understanding one another
  • A friend with whom I was developing a workshop severed our relationship with nary an explanation, just a pseudo-spiritual quip

At the same time, wonderful things happened:

  • Those same house guests were people I love deeply and felt lucky to spend time with; I enjoyed sharing many quintessential New York and American experiences with them
  • I began working with a wonderful business coach and started to take the next steps in building my business, one of which is getting comfortable with public speaking (oh, and the talk went fine)
  • Several clients experienced important breakthroughs in their work with me
  • I received an email from someone who had read Drinking to Distraction and was helped by it
  • A woman I met at another nutrition talk I gave decided to stop drinking as the result of a conversation we had (and now has several weeks sober!)
  • My parents spent an enviable 10 days in Paris and had the time of their lives
  • I spent a weekend with my beautiful sister and nieces, who just adopted a 10-year-old miniature poodle
  • I made a wonderful new friend of the no-BS variety
  • A friend with whom I was developing a workshop severed our relationship with nary an explanation, just a pseudo-spiritual quip (think I dodged a bullet here)

Though my formal meditation practice waned during the month of April – all of the “not knowing” drove me away from my practice rather than toward it – I was intensely aware of the ups and downs as they occurred. But I felt a greater allegiance to the stressful aspects of that time – the ways in which I, ME, MYSELF was suffering. I experienced a form of anxiety that was deeply physical – feet feeling as if they weren’t touching the ground, stomach in knots, zero appetite (beyond rare for me), a light-headedness that at times felt as if I might just lose it altogether.

Uncertainty is something I continue to grapple with. Intellectually, I get the concept – I might even be able to speak on the topic with an air of confidence and comprehension. But the actual experience of uncertainty – not being sure if someone has understood me, not knowing whether I did something to bring about a negative outcome, not having exclusive access to the cocoon in which I hide – can be distressing to the degree of questioning my sanity.

I heard myself say more times than I’d like to admit (using both my inside voice and my outside voice), “I could really go for a drink right now.” The degree of discomfort uncertainty provoked created a deep desire to obliterate myself and completely disconnect. One morning I even found myself chugging a kombucha (something I already had mixed feelings about due to it’s 0.5% alcohol content) wishing it were a fizzy cocktail.

I went to a handful of AA meetings and couldn’t stop crying. I felt drawn in by the copious one-liners and promises of peace. I have always left the door to “the rooms” open. Though it has not been part of my recovery so far, as I approach 7 years, I am more than willing to incorporate the fellowship if that is what I need to maintain my sobriety.

But while I feel desperate for that level of certainty, I’m also suspicious. I wonder if the solution is finding more certainty or becoming better at tolerating the uncertainty. This is a question for anyone who regularly attends meetings, particularly those who have also used meditation to support their recovery.

As I have settled back into my practice, I have also been rereading some of my favorite dharma books. Not surprisingly Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty was my first stop. On turning arrows into flowers, she writes:

Devaputra mara involves seeking pleasure. Any obstacle we encounter has the power to pop the bubble of reality that we have come to regard as secure and certain. When we’re threatened that way, we can’t stand to feel the edginess, the anxiety, the heat of anger rising, the bitter taste of resentment. Therefore, we reach for whatever we think will blot it out. We try to grasp something pleasant. The way to turn this arrow into a flower is to open our hearts and look at how we try to escape. We can use the pleasure-seeking as an opportunity to observe what we do in the face of pain.

Where I go from here I don’t know yet…cue the uncertainty-related anxiety. Do I begin to incorporate the AA fellowship into my sobriety? To try to find like-minded others on that ill-defined path of recovery, meditation, and meetings? Trust that there is so much more to the program than the catchy phrases and free coffee?

Will the pain of not knowing drive me to wake up or go to sleep?

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wineFull disclosure: I don’t drink anymore. More than 6 years ago, on my 33rd birthday, I drank my last glass of wine. It wasn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that it marked what I sometimes think of as the beginning of my new life. More on that later.

For many years before that last drink, and ever since, I have spent a lot of time thinking about alcohol and drinking. Before I quit, that thinking came from a place of guilt and shame, and the mounting worry that I had a drinking problem. Since I quit, my thinking about alcohol has been more objective; it has come from a place of curiosity rather than obsession. And it is from that place that I would like to share some potentially unpopular, but very honest, thoughts about drinking.

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So, let go, so let go

Jump in

Oh well, what you waiting for?

It’s alright

‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

So, let go, yeah let go

Just get in

Oh, it’s so amazing here

It’s all right

‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown

~ Let Go, Frou Frou

 

It’s been more than three years since I began the Drinking to Distraction blog. I remember setting it up the morning after Thanksgiving, my boyfriend asleep in the other room. I was still in Boston then. “Hello world” was the automated first post. I’ve written more than 100 since then.

What I have shared on Drinking to Distraction has always been first-person narrative. “Here’s what happened to me, maybe you can relate?” I never did get over the nausea of hitting the publish button after I had revealed some very embarrassing or personal aspect of my life: my obsession with alcohol; my cowardice; my fears, selfishness, and small-mindedness.

At times I attempted to write in the voice of someone else: quirky Jezebel-variety snark or a more philosophical tone. But whenever I did that, the posts fell flat and went nowhere. My friends might have read them; my mom probably printed them out and added them to her binder. But they didn’t really touch people’s hearts.

On the other hand, when I wrote ‘Why bother?’ gets a firm answer, Have I told you lately that I love booze?, Meditation, medication, and where I’ve been lately, Practicing imperfection, or the most popular one ever, Can we break free of the perfection prison?, something different happened.

These posts were unilaterally preceded by what I would call a total breakdown. As I was writing them, I cried, I thrashed, I felt desperate. I felt physically weak, as if I had hit bottom and just couldn’t fight the truth anymore. I typed them as I might scrawl an S.O.S. message in a bottle: PLEASE SEND HELP! And somehow, after clearing away all of the bullshit, by cutting through to the purest of emotions and struggles, I helped both myself and a few others.

You might imagine that once I noticed the potential beauty in such a breakdown, I would attempt to stay there. But you would be wrong. While I might dwell in it for a short while, my defenses soon take over. I try to distance myself from that vulnerability. I resist it, try to outsmart it, mistakenly thinking I can access such truth and harness that power without feeling the freefall. But I can’t.

I have yet to embody the bravery necessary to stay in this brokenhearted and open state with any regularity. In general, I know what I need to do: to practice meditation every day and to stay deeply in touch with the genuine heart of sadness, to build compassion for myself and for others by observing without judgment, by noticing how I feel and remaining curious. But sometimes I’m just too terrified.

Since I launched Eat to Love about two months ago, I have struggled to find my voice. Rather than the recovering alcoholic (quack?) who supports her non-AA recovery through meditation and writing, I feel compelled to sound authoritative, to portray myself as the registered dietitian who has her healthful shit together, who practices what she preaches, and has something to say that hasn’t already been said 8000 times before. I try to resist the regrettable trend of putting a number in my blog post titles – “Do these 10 things in the next 60 seconds to make your life 100 times better” [GAG!] – but then I give in.

I know that the things I fear revealing about myself are exactly the things that uniquely position me to be of real help to people: My experience with quitting drinking, my own dieting history, my day-to-day struggle to stay in the moment, to become more comfortable with discomfort, and to deal with my anxiety without medicating with food, Bravo TV, or neurotic thoughts. To share these things in a meaningful way, I know I have to go to that fearsome place of vulnerability, openness, and heartbreak. While I haven’t yet figured out how to stay with what Pema Chodron calls the soft spot of bodhichitta, if history is any indication (and if I can manage to keep getting my butt on that cushion), I suspect I am heading for another breakdown of sorts where I can’t help but face the beautiful truth.

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The following is what is becoming my annual post about seasonal affective disorder, written from my new platform at Eat to Love. Previous posts on the topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll be following up with a recipe for my favorite anti-depressant stew and some more thoughts on nutrition for depression.

 

Feeling S.A.D.? You’re Not Alone. Here Are 6 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Feel Better

The holidays are upon us, there’s an invigorating chill in the air, celebrations to enjoy, but you’re feeling anything but festive? Does your body feel heavy and leaden, your mind sluggish and unclear? When you wake up in the morning, do you look forward to the moment you can get back into bed? I know I do.

If this sounds familiar, you might have seasonal affective disorder. S.A.D. is a type of depression that hits about the same time each year. The exact cause of S.A.D. is not 100% clear but it is likely a combination of seasonal changes in your circadian rhythm and your body’s levels of melatonin and serotonin. Women, people who suffer from depression, and those who have a family history of S.A.D. and/or depression are at the greatest risk for S.A.D.

I have struggled with S.A.D. since I was a child, yet every November I’m surprised by it. I feel like the tin man on my yoga mat, my eyes sit at half-mast, and if I open an email from the Humane Society, I am reduced to a sobbing puddle for 20 minutes. After the initial shock and indignation wears off (it usually takes me about 3 days to say “It’s happening again…”), I put on my big girl panties and deal with it. The following is a list of the things I have found most helpful in managing S.A.D. [Continue reading]

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P1000078On December 28th of 2012, I was laid off from my job as a medical writer at a biotechnology company. I was with that company much longer than anticipated since the job, at the time I got it, was an escape hatch from the disastrous job I started right after I quit drinking. I planned to be at the biotech company only a year at most while I collected myself and began to understand what life was like sober. One year became four years and, during that time, I had what looked like a promising career with a handful of successes and a solid salary. But I knew there was something else waiting for me.

As the 28th of December approached, I was facing a world of uncertainty when “the perfect job” landed in my inbox. But after a whirlwind interview process, I didn’t get it. I remember getting the call. It was nighttime in Sicily. I walked out of my boyfriend’s parents’ house into the backyard to find a little bit more cellular reception and looked out across the Mediterranean as I heard the words “we decided to go with the other finalist.” But as I walked back into the house and told everyone my news with just a shake of my head, I knew that this was the right thing.

Working one job or another since I was 12 years old, I now had an opportunity to explore my own wants and needs without an obligation to an employer. Between the safety net of severance and savings and, more importantly, a supportive family and partner, I decided not to do what I thought I “should.” Instead I left myself open to the possibilities. And in the last year, those possibilities have included:

  • Traveling back to Sicily and Paris and exotic Upstate New York
  • Taking continuing education classes, attending conferences, and completing a free “How to start a small business” course in New York City
  • Networking, opening up to people, making new friends, and reinvigorating old friendships
  • Visiting friends and family near and far
  • Formalizing my commitment to Buddhism
  • Translating/interpreting a children’s book from Italian to English
  • Taking care of myself physically and mentally, attending ballet barre and yoga classes, going for acupuncture and therapy
  • Volunteering with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger
  • Cooking, sleeping, watching trashy TV, and cuddling with my boyfriend and our fur children, Rufus and Darwin
  • Writing a book based on the Drinking to Distraction blog [Stay Tuned!]

And deciding to start my own nutrition counseling business. Some of you already know that my education and early job experience was in nutrition and that I have long wanted to get back to that field. Given the time and space I was fortunate enough to have during the last year, I came to see starting my own business as a risk worth taking. And about two weeks ago, I launched my mindful nutrition business, Eat to Love, which integrates meditation, therapeutic approaches to addiction, and Intuitive Eating.

Besides taking an inventory of what the hell I’ve been doing for the last 11 months, I’m writing this post to acknowledge that none of the things I have done in the last year would have been possible if I had not quit drinking nearly six years ago. That was the first step out of my own cocoon, my coming out of hiding. A process that was furthered by beginning to meditate, by beginning to write about my experience here, by not trying to keep making all the “right” moves in my life or to please everyone else. Starting this business is taking the next step.

Gradually I will begin to spend more time on this new venture, which opens up new possibilities for the Drinking to Distraction blog. I always viewed the blog as a shared space where readers could post their own stories about drinking, mindfulness, meditation, and coming out of the cocoon. Now, more directly I invite you to submit your story, to experience the therapeutic release of writing your own narrative, and to help others by letting them know they are not alone.

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“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement”

~Suzuki Roshi

This past weekend, I attended a meditation retreat at the New York Shambhala Center. The focus of the retreat was “The Art of Being Human” and getting in touch with the concept of basic goodness. One of the exercises we did involved recalling a moment of basic goodness, a moment that was remarkable for its detail and brilliance, a moment in which we were fully present. My moment occurred to me immediately. In fact, I’ve written about it here.

Just recalling my moment was viscerally calming. I was in a time of transition in my life. Uncertainty, self-doubt, and fear were very present. But I also had a sense of confidence or trust in myself that taking a risk was the right thing to do. I felt very aware of the past and the future, but not pulled in either direction. Instead, I was held by the present moment with a sort of buoyancy, like being suspended in midair without feeling precarious or in jeopardy, like I was hanging out in the most comfortable hammock.

In the exercise this weekend, we used our respective moments to connect with the sense of basic goodness, the fundamental heart of our existence. And as a result, my practice felt very soft, clear, aware, and heartfelt. But connecting with a moment of basic goodness when everything feels OK is one thing. Recalling it when I am sad or lonely or angry or restless, that’s another. When I fear I will be a failure or, worse, that no one will even notice, how can I begin to remember this foundational concept?

When I asked her this very question yesterday, my meditation instructor’s guidance was “to expand and include.” Since then I keep saying the words to myself. Expand and include. I understand them but at what point will I feel them?

In the recollection of my moment of basic goodness, I recognize my desire to be held. Often I try to simulate this feeling by grasping onto events in the past or by fantasizing about the future. I am seeking some ground on which to feel stable but it never seems to work. And never am I more vulnerable to doing this shimmy between the past and the future – never am I less present – than when dealing with strong emotions. My work, therefore, is to connect with that sense of being held, of trusting in the moment, when the going gets tough.

To do this, I will need to cultivate enough space and openness to allow “negative” emotional states to exist without letting them pull me under, similar to how I was aware of past and future in my moment of basic goodness but able to remain in the present. This will allow me to experience the pain that is very real, but also to remember that there is more than pain. That the pain isn’t the end of the story. Holding these two seemingly opposing views is what is so complex about life, where things are never black and white. The idea that in a moment of pain, I could feel as held by the present moment as I did in my moment of basic goodness, that I could feel as well placed, that I am exactly where I need to be, is something I can imagine. And from there, I can begin to practice.

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The rest of that saying goes “plus c’est la même chose,” which means essentially that “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” Every language seems to have some version of this expression, a resignation of sorts to the fact that people and situations can seem virtually immovable in many cases.

I have thought of this expression a lot lately, about how little I seem to have changed since I was a young girl. And how many of us also see familiar glimpses of ourselves as children as we go about our adult lives? The other night I was leaving an Italian class with a classmate, a successful lawyer and mother of grown children. She told me that she probably would not be returning because she found it too frustrating and intimidating to be among people she perceived as much more advanced. “I haven’t changed a bit since I was a kid,” she said. “I’m still so hard on myself.”

Like my classmate, my self-judgment doesn’t seem to have budged since I was a girl. I have a clear memory of sitting at our backyard picnic table the summer following 2nd grade. My father, a math teacher, was teaching me 3rd grade math that summer to prepare me to skip a grade in September. Each morning we sat at that picnic table and he taught me one lesson after another. And through clenched teeth and a protruding bottom lip, I pouted and struggled and fought my way through, not because I didn’t like what I was learning, but because I thought I should be “getting it” quicker. My dad told me, “It’s only easy if you already know how to do it,” the implication being that one must tolerate a certain amount of discomfort to make the mistakes necessary to learn.

Flash forward 30 years and it might seem that not much has changed. As I go about starting a business, I am facing a lot of new things, things that will allow me to conduct my business effectively. Things about which I would much rather remain ignorant. Things that elicit extreme emotions and mental choruses of “You’re stupid,” “You’ll never get it,” “This is beyond you,” “Everyone else got this on the first try.” Financial software, manipulating social media to be more efficient, iOS7. Hell, setting up our new printer had me stomping my feet such that the felines went a-scattering. We call these my “technology tantrums” and can usually laugh about them, but each one brings me back to that picnic table, to my vicious self-judgment and relentless self-criticism.

One thing that has changed, however, is the ability to notice myself taking a technology tantrum, to step back long enough to say “Hey, that thing is happening again where I feel uncomfortable because I don’t understand something yet. I should be gentle with myself and allow myself the space to learn something new.” In a way, flashing back to my 7-year-old self allows me to soften a little, to bring her some comfort, and to remind her to go easy on herself.

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