On Grief and Flannel Sheets

Two months since I’ve been here. In that time, I became a kickboxing instructor. My son started kindergarten. I celebrated my 10th wedding anniversary. Summer faded into Fall. I lost one of the most influential people in my life. Today was his funeral.

Today I was fortunate enough to be able to mourn the great loss of my dear friend and mentor. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt fortunate to attend a funeral before but that is how I feel today, in these moments of exhausted, head-spinning reflection as I walk my dog around my neighborhood and await the arrival of the school bus and with it my two children, who will be the recipients of extra-big hugs today.

I thought I had cried all my tears. I thought I knew the marvel of a man this man was. But the service today – heartbreaking and beautiful and so utterly fitting as it was – opened me to a greater depth of both grief and gratitude.

I am feeling layer upon layer of feeling. I am enveloped. It is the emotional equivalent of those icy days last Thanksgiving, our first extended stay at our crumbling farmhouse, with a dodgy old furnace inside and subzero temperatures outside and windows frosted over in a Disney-esque geometry of sparkling snowflakes. During those mornings I would wake feeling toasty warm, impossibly warm, in my cotton cocoon, while the air in our bedroom was cold and the air outside was below and beyond freezing.

So enveloped am I today in my feelings, coping with the loss and the celebration of the life of this great man.

Today, it is gratitude that is closest to my skin. Gratitude: my flannel pajamas covering me from head to toe, worn soft from many, many sleeps. I am so grateful to have known this man, to have worked beside this man, to have witnessed his brilliance and his humor and his drive and his heart. I am so grateful to know his family, and for him and his family to have become so close to me and mine.

On top of my gratitude there is determination: the sturdy flannel sheets of my cocoon. I feel sturdy in my determination to do what I can to help continue his legacy and to help his vision inch ever closer to reality. But I am also determined to live the lessons that he embodied. I will stay true to myself. I will do work that fills my cup. I will put my family first. I will not compromise my values and I will act with integrity in all areas of my life.

Ah, grief: the itchy wool blanket that may not feel good to the touch but nevertheless is an imperative layer to seal in the warmth. Grief: the inescapable heartbreak, the desperate disbelief, the sadness I feel deep into my bones. This is important too. It’s the underside of love – the side that reveals itself when love is lost. I am very, very sad. It weighs on me, it punches me in the gut. But it’s necessary. When I feel pummeled by my grief I remind myself that it’s because I loved this man and was loved by this man and that makes the grieving damn well worth it.

Love is love is love is the big ol’ duvet that covers my grief and makes my cocoon complete. Love is the thick, final layer protecting me from the bite of the bitter cold, from the icy chill of fear of cancer of death of all that is unknown and inevitable and out of our control.

Gratitude, determination, grief, love: my emotional cocoon in which I will continue to process my feelings, nurture myself, and grow into a changed-for-the-better person for having known and loved and lost a very special and now sacred person.

This is where I live now, in an ever-shifting cocoon of layered emotions, continually evolving. I feel all the feelings instead of hiding beneath my flimsy old alcohol blanket. That blanket never kept me warm, at least not for long. And it never protected me from the cold unknown. Beneath my alcohol blanket I shivered with anxiety, with fear, with shame.

What a gift it is, to grieve without the splintered crutch of alcohol.

What a gift it is, to love without the restrictive harness of alcohol.

What a gift it is, to feel it all, unencumbered, unlimited, authentic, honest, and free.

449 days and counting.

 

Ripping Up a Perfectionist Foundation

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Yesterday my husband and I tiled two backsplashes in our house: one in the kitchen and the other in our kids’ bathroom. I am an archaeology nerd who has always loved mosaics and ceramics, so I have always wanted to learn how to tile. My husband, perhaps motivated by pipe dreams of restoring our farmhouse by ourselves, is a handy guy who was willing and able to teach me. I mixed thin set, learned how to use the giant rectangular trowel (much different from the nimble triangular one I wielded during my archaeological fieldwork days), laid the tile, and used spacers to make it even and level.

My inner perfectionist, whom I am at present attempting to disempower, did not enjoy this process. It’s hard for me to learn something new if I’m not good at it right away (which is most new things). I much prefer to show a gifted talent for every hobby, skill, or sport I attempt. And then there’s the fact that, of course, the tiles never fit the designated area perfectly, and so once you get to the ends of rows, the tiles need to be cut. My husband is very good at this. And yet of course these end pieces did not look as perfect as whole tiles, which gave me an anxious zing.

At first I was disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the tiling more. But when I thought about why, I realize this is not a bad thing. It’s starting to click for me – 383 days into my alcohol-free life – that one of the reasons I drank was to alleviate the pressure I put on myself to be perfect. I have been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. The only child of parents who divorced when I was four, I grew up not wanting to ruffle any feathers or let anybody down. I followed rules. I invested my energy into areas where I could naturally excel. Anything that was too hard at first was not pursued. And once something got too hard, I gave up in pursuit of the next thing.

Wine o’clock was my escape hatch. As those crisp, cold sips of sauvignon blanc washed over my tongue and down my throat, I felt the weight of striving for perfection lift from my hunched shoulders. I felt free. Easy breezy. Everything’s fine, whatever, I’m fine, it’s all good. But the pressure never actually dissipated. It faded from the foreground as my wine buzz set in, only to return tenfold when my wine buzz wore off. So I drank more. Fade out. Fade in, feel worse. Repeat.

Now I know that there is no quick escape from perfectionism. It is so deeply ingrained into my being that the only way to deal with it is to deal with it. To do the work. To get my butt in the arena and do hard things – some of which I will do well, some of which I will not do well, none of which I will do perfectly.

Because perfect does not exist. And I believe, now, finally, that I deserve better than to hold myself to a non-existent standard. I don’t need to hold myself to any standard. Because I am already enough, and I will always be enough.

Some days this is easier to believe than others. Recently I have been stuck in a slog of self-doubt. But that needs to change, and it needs to change now. A big week just got bigger and I need to be ready to take it on. This week is going to put a big ol’ crack in my perfectionist foundation. This week will not be perfect. It will be great.

Social Media Invincibility, Real Life Vulnerability

My One Year Alcohol-Free is over. I am still taking it all in (and going strong – 371 days and counting!). The simple fact that I did not drink alcohol for one full year is still settling itself contentedly into my brain. At the same time, I am emerging into the world as a non-drinker. My legs are a bit wobbly but I can feel that they are strong. I’m ready to stand, to walk, to run into this new life I’ve created for myself. What I’m finding, though, is that toggling between social media and real life is raising my vulnerability to a simmer.

After I posted on July 4, I celebrated Independence Day (both the national one and my own) with my clan and our extended family in New Hampshire. I took a couple of days to read and respond to the comments that were left on my Connect and Instagram posts, both of which had trended for a hot second. Thousands of strangers (and a handful of IRL friends) took the time to read my words and hundreds wrote messages of support and celebration. I was just chuffed. Weeeee! I did this amazing thing and all these people are so excited for me!!!

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When we got back to New York on Sunday, I went to the grocery store and ran into two friends, each of whom congratulated me on reaching my one-year milestone. These congratulations felt different from what I’d received online. I may have blushed. I stifled the urge to downplay my achievement or dismiss their compliments, instead blurting out “Thank you so much!” Inside, I was not doing the happy dance brought about by strangers’ praise on social media. Inside, I was flailing, trying to hold onto my pride and confidence as these face-to-face interactions kicked up a gnarly dust cloud of insecurity.

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Yesterday, the social media maven from my kickboxing gym messaged me on Instagram to ask if she could repost my photos from days 364 and 365. I replied, without hesitation, “Yes of course!! I’m proud of it! Thank you for asking!!” Once again I felt the chuffed butterflies in my stomach. I was being recognized and celebrated for accomplishing an awesome goal. Good for me!

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When I arrived at my kickboxing class today, my first class since before the 4th of July, my instructor came over to give me a hug. “I’m not much of a social media person,” she said, “so I had no idea what you were doing. But I saw your post on our Instagram. Huge congrats to you, girl! That is amazing!” A few minutes later, after our warm-up, one of my classmates also complimented me, having seen the Instagram post as well. Fluster, flail. “Thank you so much!” was again my canned reply. Before I could stop myself, I added something like, “You know, my son is getting on the school bus in September and so I just felt like I wanted to achieve something big, something for me, before both my kids are in school full-time.”

I’m not sure what babble came out of my mouth. What I really wanted to say – to her, and to my instructor, and to my two friends I saw in the grocery store, and to my extended family with whom we spent the 4th of July – is “I SWEAR I’M NOT AN ALCOHOLIC! I DID NOT HAVE A SERIOUS DRINKING PROBLEM WITH A CAPITAL ‘P’! I WAS JUST A WINE MOM! NO BIGGIE! NOTHING TO SEE HERE!”

Except: it is a biggie. And I do want people to see me and know about my accomplishment. It’s just easier to put myself out there in front of strangers instead of family and friends. It’s easier to throw a selfie and some deep thoughts into the void of social media, where I can ignore or delete comments that I don’t like and bask in the glow of the ones I do, than it is to explain to a table full of my family members why I decided to embark on a year without booze and how I benefitted from it. No matter how proud I feel, talking about my journey in real life to friends and family is still hard. Alcohol is a fickle fiend that ingratiates itself with everyone differently. Alcohol is a loaded topic, and I feel a lot less in control and a lot more vulnerable when I talk about it in real time to real people.

Quick! Somebody call Brené Brown! I need to feel good about being so damn vulnerable!

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
-Brené Brown

Phew. Ok. That’s better.

People, whether online or IRL, are going to think what they are going to think. I cannot control what others will infer from or project onto me. All I can do is own my truth and share it.

I have chosen to share my story because it keeps me accountable and because I want to help others. I never want another mom to feel as broken and shame-swamped as I did. If reading my words gives one person the nudge he or she needs to commit to making a positive change, that is well worth putting myself out there – both online and in real life.

Life Lessons from My Kids, Part 3: You are Enough

My seven-year-old daughter competed in her first martial arts competition today. She came in fourth and was the top girl in her division. Her school hosted the competition, and students from four other schools attended. She went up against kids who were bigger, smaller, scrappier, weaker, more experienced, and less experienced. What a life lesson it was for us both.

She had had her eye on the prize: all week long the competition trophies – for first, second, and third place – were displayed on a table in the reception area at her MMA school. My daughter talked breezily about how she would win, and I did my best to manage her expectations by reminding her that she would be going up against kids from other schools and there was no way to know what her competitors would be like. At the same time, I admired her confidence and wanted to nurture it. She is 1000% more confident than I was at her age, and I hope she stays that way.

You never want your kid to face a single smidgeon of adversity, yet you know they must. These are the character-building moments that thicken their skin and push them out of their comfort zone, ultimately boosting self-esteem.

And yet, my heart sank today when I realized she would place fourth and not earn a trophy. I expected her to be upset, maybe even cry. She had trained so hard, and performed better in her matches today than I have ever seen her perform in class. But it wasn’t enough. I held my breath as they awarded the three trophies, and then gave medals to each of the other competitors. I craned my neck to glimpse the expression on my daughter’s face as the medal was placed around her neck.

When she turned to face us, she was not crying. She was perhaps a bit sheepish, but far from devastated. I took a deep breath as she walked over to us. We gave hugs and immediately started heaping well-deserved praise upon her. “Fourth place! Out of all these kids! And the top girl! You worked so hard and we are so proud of you!”

“YOU ARE MORE THAN ENOUGH,”I wanted to tell her. But I think she already knows. She was a little bummed that she missed out on a trophy, and she complained a bit (rightfully so in my definitely unbiased opinion) about some of the judging. But overall, she is happy with her performance today. She wanted to win, but she enjoyed competing for the sake of competing. The challenge and fun of the competition were enough.

My daughter – whether by nature or nurture, whether because of her youth or her wisdom – knows that she is enough. She challenges herself for the fun of it. She does her best, and is proud of her hard work.

I wish it were so simple for me. But at least I have the best role model right here under my roof and in my heart.

A Candy-Free Easter

It’s hard to get psyched up for Easter now that I’m educating myself about sugar and also trying to lose weight this week –

As soon as that sentence flew out of my fingertips: lightbulb!

Hold up. Easter shouldn’t be about chocolate, should it? Just like Christmas shouldn’t be about wine, or a birthday shouldn’t be about cake (and/or wine).

[A note on religion: we are not particularly religious. My husband and I are still grappling with how to introduce and teach religion to our kids. So I’m writing on the topic of Easter acknowledging that it is a religious holiday that we do not celebrate in a religious way.]

So, taking religion out of it, what is left, besides chocolate? Family. Fun. And a little bit of magic, as my kids still believe in the Easter Bunny and delight in hunting for eggs around the yard (much more than I delight in waking at 5:30am to hide them).

Now, what is more important, family or chocolate? Easy question. So why am I so bummed to be on an Easter candy boycott tomorrow? I should be focused on having a lovely morning with my sweet clan, not on denying myself sweets.

It’s those pesky neural pathways! Just as I had always linked enjoying holidays with imbibing alcohol, so too have I always linked enjoying holidays with indulging in treats. And there is certainly nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence! But when removing the indulgence from the picture actually causes me to don my cranky pants, that is a problem.

I am on the sugar struggle bus. It is difficult for me to imagine enjoying Easter – or any other holiday – without treats. Tomorrow will be my first candy-free Easter ever. I know that if I were at my goal weight, tomorrow would be a cheat day. But I’m not. I’m 3lbs over my goal, with a Lifetime weigh-in looming. I could still choose to have a cheat day, but I know I would feel super guilty. So I’m going to take this opportunity to consider the possibility of enjoying Easter without chocolate.

This is not quite as scary as my alcohol-free birthday or Christmas. But it’s not easy to anticipate, either. I don’t want to feel tortured. I don’t want to miss chocolate. But I probably will.

And guess what? That is ok. This is a process. An experiment. All I can do is stay true to my commitment and see how it feels.

The boycott is on. Happy Easter to all who celebrate, however you celebrate!

Winging It

The thought of ditching alcohol used to scare me. A lot. I didn’t know how I could celebrate, commiserate, travel, or watch TV without it. How could I relax? How could I rev up? How could I go to a restaurant and enjoy dinner? Or lunch, or – gasp! – brunch?!

But perhaps most terrifying was the prospect of parenting without wine (or tequila) (or whatever was in the fridge). Alcohol was the key to surviving motherhood. There couldn’t be “mommy juice” without “mom.” How could I ever be the mom I wanted to be if I couldn’t drink to treat myself and unwind at the end of the day?

You all know the punchline: I never knew the mom I wanted to be until I stopped drinking. I never knew how much I could enjoy my kids; or, when enjoyment went out the window, how effectively I could work through conflict with them. In ditching alcohol, I have gained energy, patience, compassion, and clarity. I am a better mom, wife, and human without booze. And I can type that without hesitating now, because it’s my truth y’all.

Making the scary choice to go alcohol-free has indeed opened me up and given me wings. I am forever grateful that I somehow had the guts to listen to the voice inside when she finally stood up and said, “Enough.” I still don’t know where I will be at the end of this year, if I will be ready to commit to forever or just to day 365. But I’m not afraid anymore. A teensy bit anxious on occasion, yes, but I’ll take that over the profound fear that glued a wine glass to my hand for so many years.

Am I where I want to be? Heck no. I am still very much a work in progress, and I’m still scared. What scares me now, if not booze? Freaking sugar, that’s what! As the wine witch has receded to a mere wisp in my conscience, the sugar monster has absorbed her power and begun to attempt a coup. My reliance on sugar has grown since ditching booze, and it’s starting to spiral out of control. I am managing to maintain my weight but the “to drink or not to drink” quandary that bombarded my brain on a daily basis is starting to be replaced by “to sweet or not to sweet” – and the answer, too often lately, has been GIVE ME ALL THE SWEETS.

I am reaching my limit. I can feel it. I can hear my inner voice warming up her vocal chords as she prepares to declare a war on sugar.

There are many parallels between my issues with booze and sugar, but there are also key differences. I can’t simply apply all my alcohol-free tools to sugar. Sugar is a more complicated issue, more prevalent in #momlife and society as a whole, and more deeply ingrained in our family life than alcohol ever was. The path forward is a lot less clear.

So I’m reading. I’m learning about the history of sugar, its role in society, and its impact on the body. I’m starting to ponder going sugar-free for 10 days or possibly doing the Whole30 at some point. I feel like I need a clean break from sugar but before I commit I need to have more knowledge, and a strategic food plan in place.

THIS IS VERY SCARY FOR ME. Have I mentioned that? Sweets have brought me comfort since I can remember. But I have also struggled with being overweight since I can remember. So. Here we are.

Mama needs a second set of wings.

The Family Line Leader Gets Pricked

I went to the allergist yesterday afternoon. This is a first for me and something I have been meaning to do for years. Every spring and fall I am plagued by seasonal allergies, and I also had a scary allergic reaction when I was stung by a yellow jacket four times last August.

Although I felt like hypochondriac for rocking up to an allergist when I am currently experiencing no symptoms, the prick test showed pretty quickly that this was a much more important appointment than I thought it would be. It turns out my seasonal allergies are severe (4 on a scale of 0-4). I also require venom testing because the doctor thinks my reaction to the bee was indeed systemic and not just local. Yikes!

Prick test: before…
… and after. Yikes!

It has been a challenge for me to prioritize my health – especially since becoming a mom. With all these other humans and dogs to take care of, it’s easy for me to put myself at the end of the line. When I was drinking, the end of the line was where I wanted to be because going to a doctor meant having to fess up about how much I drank (and of course I always lied). I never wanted to have to answer that dreaded question and so I did the bare minimum in terms of my routine medical care. For me, that meant I never dealt with my varicose veins or my allergies.

This is all changing now that I have ditched the booze and learned the importance of putting on my own oxygen mask first. My varicose veins are gone and the discomfort – both physical and emotional – has disappeared with them. Within a couple of months my allergies will be fully diagnosed and under better control. Allergy season will no longer be a torturous crapshoot of medicinal bombardment in the hope of finding some relief. I will no longer have to hide my sheer terror of bees from my kids because I will have a better understanding of my reaction and what to do in case of a sting. Both my varicose veins and my allergies had been bothering me for years. And I never did anything about them until now. I don’t think this is a coincidence, do you?

I still sometimes slip back into my old myself-last mindset. Even as recently as February, I was so focused on my kids and husband coming down with the flu that I didn’t give any thought to my own bronchitis until we all went to urgent care and the doctor put me on three different medications. That was my reminder to reclaim my spot as family line leader.

If I don’t take the best possible care of myself, how can I take the best possible care of my family? Not to mention I now look forward to being asked, “Do you drink alcohol?” Nope! Gold star for me! The virtuous cycle of proactive healthcare is a gift that keeps on giving to me and allows me to keep on giving to others.