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.

Standing in a Summer Shame Shower

I am eating frozen yogurt for lunch, topped with chocolate syrup, which I don’t even like that much, and chocolate chips, because the syrup was not enough chocolate.

It’s a “less than” day around here. I knew it might be, and it is. I tried to start the day strong. I woke at 6am to read, which is my current favorite way to start the day. I knew that starting the day on my own terms – instead of being woken up by my children, whose sweet snuggles inevitably turn into WWIII in our bed if I let them go too long – would give me the best chance to rally after a lovely but exhausting and dehydrating day yesterday.

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. He had the day to himself to indulge in one of his favorite hobbies, and I took the kids to the Bronx Zoo. I was in the supermom and superwife zone, able to wrap presents at lightning speed, clean the house and tape up some birthday décor with ease, and still have energy left to spend five hours with my children in 90-degree summer heat at the zoo – where there was a severe lack of water fountains and I refused to pay $4 for one bottle of Dasani. The three of us had drained our stainless steel water bottles within the first couple hours of our arrival, so we all ended up totally dehydrated, the empty bottles clanking uselessly in my mom bag.

The dehydration, along with junk food for lunch, sapped any remaining stamina and willpower I had left. So by the time I drove us back through the Bronx, up the Taconic Parkway into Westchester County and home at last, instead of drinking water and eating a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit, I dove headfirst into the jar of peanut butter. But what’s peanut butter without chocolate? So I scrounged in my pantry until I found the remnants of a bag of chocolate chips from an old baking foray. I undid the rubber band and dumped the rest of the bag into a bowl. I topped my spoonful of peanut butter with as many chocolate chips as would stick. Slurp, chew, suck the spoon clean because that would be my last spoonful I swear. Repeat. My now-refilled stainless steel water bottle sat on the kitchen counter beside me, undrunk.

This would have been bad enough. But for his birthday celebration my husband and I had decided that we would go out for ice cream after dinner. Our fridge is on the fritz (which is also contributing to my stress level, as I can only buy the bare minimum of groceries and I’m paranoid the food we do have is not cold enough so we are all going to ingest some sort of heinous bacteria and end up with severe food poisoning) so the kids and I did not bake a birthday cake for him this year as we usually do. Ice cream had been on the agenda for days leading up to his birthday – yet that did not stop me from making myself almost sick with pb&c. Or eating the ice cream two hours later.

So after too little water and too much sugar yesterday, I knew I would need hydration and grace to rally today. I did my 6am reading, dropped the kids at camp, and made it almost on time through the demolition derby course that is summer construction traffic to my kickboxing class. In a shocking turn of events, I felt like crap through most of the class. Heavy, slow, and uncoordinated. Surprise surprise. Glimmers of confidence were quashed by a glance in the mirror at my bloated belly, as I whiffed knees and threw wayward jabs.

After class I had to navigate additional construction traffic to make it to the grocery store. I am hosting dinner tonight for a dear friend from California who is popping into town for work travel with a mentee. My inner perfectionist is pouring on the pressure to make a beautiful, tasty, healthy meal with a fridge that isn’t cooling things properly. Oh, and I have to clean the house. And exhaust the dogs so they will be chill and not jump all over our guests. And strike the perfect balance between letting my kids rest after camp while I prep dinner and not letting them get so bored that they go insane upon my friend’s arrival.

I am standing in a summer shower of insecurity with intermittent downpours of shame. I can’t stick to healthy habits. My virtuous cycle is eroding back to vicious. I will never be able to conquer sugar, and sugar is now holding me back from my best self the way alcohol used to. I will never be as good at kickboxing as I want to be, never achieve a higher level of fitness because I can’t stick to healthy habits for long enough. I’m not going to feel svelte and energized when I leave on my big trip in 10 days. I can’t, I won’t, I’m not.

There are larger issues rearing their fugly heads here, too (as their usually are). This is not really about a chocolate peanut butter binge or the pressure of making a delicious dinner. I have felt adrift and scared since my One Year Alcohol-Free ended on July 4. I no longer have the composition of a daily social media post anchoring my schedule and giving me purpose. Now that my year is over I have nothing to do but walk the walk. No more anticipating, just doing. Sticking to being alcohol-free is the easy part. Sitting down to start working on my book is the hard part. I am still not quite sure what I want to say or how I’m going to say it. I am still figuring out my voice, in my writing, both on this blog and on social media, and in real life.

And beyond my writing is the rest of my life. Parenting as a non-drinker. Pursuing my interest in teaching kickboxing. Putting more time and effort into my volunteer commitments, which I admittedly half-assed during my OYAF because I prioritized my OYAF. No regrets, but half-assing things is not my style. It hasn’t felt good and it’s time to boss up.

I write because it helps me step away from the peanut butter jar and process what is really going on. I share my writing because it helps me believe that I am not alone in my fears and insecurities. When I put my writing out there, I think about you (whoever you are, thank you for being here) reading it, and I think about what you would say to me. “You are not alone. You’ve got this. Give yourself grace. You are making amazing changes in your life. You are stronger than you think.” And then I feel better.

I hit “Publish” and I close my laptop. I put on my shoes, grab my car keys, and step back out into the sun to enjoy this beautiful day.

Day 365: Independence Day

525,600 minutes
525,600 moments so dear
525,600 minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
– Jonathan Larson

I am one year alcohol-free. My life is forever changed. My body is forever changed. My brain is forever changed.

I am no longer beholden to a shame-swollen habit that once felt inescapable. This year has been an incredible journey –

From gray to technicolor
From isolation to connection
From guilt to grace
From self-loathing to self-love
From vicious cycle to virtuous cycle
From powerless to empowered.

This year of my life cannot be measured in hangovers or wine bottles or shame spirals. How do I measure this year? I measure in strength, in connection, and, yes, in love.

What comes next? I have spent this year recording, reflecting, and receiving. Now it’s time to take action. I’m going to start working on my book. I am ready to assume the title of writer/sober supermom.

Yeah, I think AF life is my jam. So I’m sticking with it. Life is just too darn awesome without booze and I am simply not interested in drinking anymore. It is simple now, not drinking – but starting this journey was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Difficult evolved into easy evolved into simple. I wasn’t sure it would be possible for me, but here I am.

I’ve got pride to spare today, and I offer some to you. Wherever you are in your journey – whether you have decades of sobriety under your belt or are sober curious or anywhere in between – please know that by reading my posts, and commenting with your feedback and support, you have had a direct and profound impact on me. You have helped me believe in myself. You have taught me the power of vulnerability and connection.

I still can’t quite believe I’m here. I used to envision Day 365 as the act of tying a big red bow around a box containing the gift that this year has been. But now that I’m here, on Independence Day (a delightful double connotation for me!), I realize that this year is not the kind of gift that can be contained in a box tied with a bow. Because I am not the kind of person who settles for boxed life anymore.

Alcohol kept me contained. Isolated. Alcohol kept my life small, my movement limited, my vision dark. Alcohol fed my shame and self-doubt as it starved me of confidence and self-worth.

This year blew the lid off my life.

Today is Independence Day, and I am truly free.

Looking Back on Day One from Day 360

It has been three hundred and sixty days since I last consumed alcohol (YAHOO!). Something about hitting this number spurred me to go back and read my post from Day One.

Here is what I wrote on July 5, 2018:

I woke this morning with a dry mouth and puffy face, the result of two margaritas and a few sips of wine: my last alco-hurrah before embarking on my 52-week experiment in sobriety. I had planned to drink one last glass of Sauvignon Blanc to say farewell to my drinking days. But by the time I got to it I already felt queasy from the margaritas and zillion tortilla chips (because ‘Merica) so I could only manage a few measly sips.

It was a good ending note, actually. I could have done without the nausea but it was reassuring (in an albeit unpleasant way). I had planned to have a few drinks, to celebrate Independence Day and my own impending independence from alcohol. But my body didn’t want ’em. There will be less to miss, I think, now that I know I’m no longer capable of “having a few drinks” the way I used to “have a few drinks…” every night.

I have had Sauvignon Blanc, my shining beacon of fabulosity, on a pedestal for the last several years. She has been my savior, my salve, my BFF. She has comforted me, chilled me out, lifted me up.

Except she’s a devil in disguise. A fraud broad. A knockoff handbag sold out of a trash bag on Broadway. At least that’s how she has been revealed to me. Everybody is different. But my body is onto her, even if my still-smitten brain wants to give her another chance. And another.

For the next 365 days, that won’t be an option. I’m locking the door to my mental trophy room and letting the key fall into the bottomless pit of my mom bag, to rest among the half-crayons, Hot Wheels, and used tissues.

Why am I doing this now?

My gut has announced that now is the time. I have a year before my son starts kindergarten. So, a year to figure my shit out so that I don’t feel completely gutted when he struts onto the school bus. That same September, in 2019, I’ll be celebrating my 10th wedding anniversary. I’m still a couple of years away from turning 40, but I want to lay the groundwork now to feel amazing by then.

I am closer than I have ever been to my best body ever. And I have been doing Weight Watchers for long enough now to know that I can’t effectively address my eating issues (read: battle the sugar-and-salt monster) with the shadow of alcohol looming over me. Willpower is a finite resource, after all.

As the phase of early motherhood comes to an end for me, I need to be able to think clearly and creatively about where I’m heading. I know I can’t do that if I continue to be seduced by Sauv B. Those days are over. For now. Maybe forever. But definitely for now. And I have a feeling that if I ever chose to open that door again, I’ll find Sauv B’s pedestal has crumbled to dust.

***

Reading this tonight, on Day 360, I am simply overcome with gratitude and relief. I am grateful to my 37-year-old self for being so damn honest and brave. I am relieved that so much of what I hoped to get out of this year has indeed come to fruition.

Best body ever? Check.

Daring to battle the sugar monster and salt hag? Check.

Increased clarity and creativity? Yup.

Figuring out my sh*t? On it.

En route to feeling fabulous at 40? Fo sho.

And the pedestal on which I once held my beloved sauvignon blanc? It crumbled weeks ago, the dust blown away by the winds of change. The empty space it left in my “mental trophy room” has been filled with beaming new beacons:

Self-confidence. Self-worth. Self-love. Empathy. Energy. Clarity. Creativity. Connection. Grace. And so much more.

My mental trophy room’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.

A Grenade, Not a Balm

The day started delightfully enough. Eight hours of sleep, and then my son woke at 7 and I snuggled him back to sleep for an hour. Alas, by 2pm I was hiding in the pantry eating Bark Thins that I could only half-taste because my congestion has worsened again. Ugh.

What sent me into my pantry was a big wave of life malaise that unexpectedly engulfed me this morning. My kickboxing class was cancelled, and my allergies blew up as I ran errands in lieu of working out. As I was driving around town, I was consumed by an overwhelming, sinking brain fog: I don’t want to be home, I don’t want to live in New York, I don’t want to see anyone, I don’t even know where to start getting back on top of things. It was intense and uncharacteristic and scary.

Here’s what I did: I finished my errands, came home to relieve my babysitter, and let my kids watch TV so I could do a Peloton ride. I was hoping for an endorphin boost but the ride didn’t do it for me. So I resorted to chocolate.

But here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t use this as an excuse to start drinking early. I refuse to dive into a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to distract myself from the discomfort of feeling these disturbing and depressed feelings. Yes, I fed my foggy melancholy with chocolate. But for me that is a much better choice than booze.

I finished the bag of Bark Thins while my kids played remarkably nicely. And then I started to get myself together a bit. I made an appointment with my PCP and also with an allergist. I got through a bunch of emails and updated our family calendar. I drank some water and took my vitamins. And I started to feel a bit better. My allergies also calmed down after spending a few hours inside.

The day improved from there. I made things easier for myself by taking kids out to dinner so I didn’t have to cook. I’m planning to go to bed with a book as soon as I post this. This day is definitely ending on more solid footing than I found myself this morning.

As unnerving as it was, I’m proud of myself for staying present with my sad state. I didn’t deny it, didn’t try to run from it. Bark Thins notwithstanding, I allowed my mood to just be, and I took the steps I could take to help it pass.

For years, I turned to wine in times like this. And that is how I lost myself. I thought wine was the solution to melancholy and anxiety. I thought wine was a balm to soothe my stress-induced cracks. To fill my life’s fissures until they healed.

But instead of putting me back together, wine broke me apart. Wine was a grenade, not a balm. Alcohol broke me into so many fragments it got too hard to piece myself back together every morning. So I stopped trying. And started living as an incomplete version of myself.

I could not operate at my full potential because I was not full. Pieces of me were cracked, broken, misplaced. Some pieces of the puzzle that was me were jammed into the wrong spot, warping the overall image and making it impossible to complete.

No one really saw this, I don’t think. But I knew it. Wine shattered me. I’d pick up enough pieces to get through the day, only to be reshattered again that night.

I have spent the last thirteen months painstakingly – but joyously – gathering and repairing and rediscovering the whole picture of me. It’s hard work, but besides carrying my two babies it’s the most important work I’ve ever done.

Today, the picture I see is someone who has color back in her cheeks but is nonetheless run down, anxious about my upcoming leg procedure, and tired of not feeling my best. I let my fatigue, anxiety, and frustration get the better of me for awhile. But I trust in my ability to come back from all this and I know I’m finding more of my pieces along the way.

From Plateau to Progress

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My Monday kickboxing class is different from Wednesday and Friday. The latter days are super fast paced, calorie-torching, muscle-scorching. My Monday instructor focuses more on technique, which makes for a great balance. His combos are also more dynamic and technically difficult, so even though the pace is slower I always end up sore after his class.

Even though I had a crappy night of sleep thanks to my Frenchie who was up throughout the night, and a hectic morning due to my mutt who had an early vet appointment (if it’s not the kids, it’s the dogs!), I made it to class today. I felt fresher than anticipated, and as the class progressed I felt strong and agile.

I felt strong. I am strong. I can do real push-ups now, with proper form and all. I can throw a Superman punch and I can kick someone in the head (you know, if I ever needed to). I am learning more, and feeling more natural doing these moves and combos, each week.

Each week I see progress. I am continually building physical and mental strength. I am becoming more confident as I progress not just in fitness, but in other areas of my life too. Parenting. Marriage-ing. Writing. Cooking. Volunteering. Connecting.

When I was drinking, I was not progressing. I was plateauing. Yes, life went on around me and I went with it. My babies grew into kids. We moved houses. I exercised with sporadic dedication. I took on various volunteer gigs. I did things.

I did things, yes. I had a wonderful life and I felt happy and lucky and all that. But I was only going to get so far with booze by my side. And the plateau that had held me for so many years was starting to crumble.

No one around me saw it. Or at least no one ever said anything. But I saw it in the mirror every morning. And I felt it, from my toes to my heart to my brain, every hour of every day.

At first, that plateau had felt like a slinky, sexy dance floor. But years later, it felt like a dance floor at dawn – sticky and suffocating. Still, I stayed. Because I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t know what lay beyond the confines of this dance floor that was once shiny and exciting but now disgusted me.

One hangover too many, and the edges of that dance floor began to crumble into quicksand. I jumped. Before I could be swallowed. I jumped with no confidence of my ability to escape the quicksand, but I knew I had to try.

From soft rock bottom to rock solid ground. No more dance floors for me (at least not metaphorical ones). No more plateaus, only progress.

Six Months Off the Sauce

Six. Months. Pause. Take a deep breath. Let this accomplishment fill your lungs and your gut and your heart and your brain. For someone who once struggled to make it for one day without drinking, half a year is truly monumental.

All those keywords that have captured various milestones along this journey apply to this one too:

Clarity
Pride
Contentment
Presence
Love
Peace

But what is different now? What have I gained that I didn’t have at one month, at 100 days, at four months?

One word comes to mind: steadiness.

Six months in, I am steady. I am not struggling, I am not wavering, I am owning my choice to be AF.

All those questions that kept me off kilter for so long – Should I drink today? Is it too early to start drinking? How much can I drink? What if I just have one more glass? How about I just finish the bottle so I can start with a clean slate tomorrow? – are gone. In their place is quiet. Space to be creative and curious. An inner calm that I never had when I was drinking.

The wine witch has diminished from Voldemort in The Deathly Hallows to Voldemort in The Sorcerer’s Stone. Almighty force to wimpy wisp. And I am one woke former wine mom who is too happily ensconced in my booze-free zone to ever let her gain power over me again.

Over the past six months I have experienced enough holidays and special occasions to be able to say this: I don’t merely survive them; I delight in the new normal of experiencing them without alcohol. And each and every one of these occasions has been – without exception – better and more enjoyable because I did not drink. I never thought that would be true for me, but, as my kids would say, it SO is.

Will I go back to drinking when this year is up? The million bottle question. My answer remains the same as it was on day one: I want to not want to go back. Yet I still can’t imagine my life without another sip of any type of alcohol, ever. So, when my year is up, I will either drink a bit on special occasions or I won’t. Either way, I will never go back to where I was.

I wish I was ready to say I’m done forever. I dream of writing a book about my journey that can sit on the shelf beside the other amazing “quit lit” I have read over the past year. But I’m not sure if my story has the same ending. If it doesn’t, does that make me weak, or make my journey any less significant? It probably makes me less likely to ever get published, that’s for sure.

Maybe my journey is not merely about answering the question “to drink or not to drink.” Maybe my journey is about unlocking the door to my true self – a door that had been locked for too many years. Ditching booze was the key and an old wine cork is my door stop. Self-acceptance and self-love swirl about in abundance on the other side, and I am never letting that door close again.

I’m only halfway through this year. I don’t know what I’ll be writing in July and that is OK. As long as I continue to move forward with honesty and without judgment I know that I will conclude the story of this year right where I belong.