Contending with Our Inner Critic

I started my day, my week, in defeat. It’s a rainy Monday, and I’m tired from an active weekend. I was hoping that the yoga workout I did this morning would help me feel stretched out, energized, and renewed – but it was too advanced for me (Sorry, but four crows?! And a side plank where you hold the big toe of your top leg and extend your top leg straight?!) and left me feeling like a failed yogi. I got stuck at the car dealer getting an oil change that took two and a half hours, and left my snack in the car. The hanger was real, y’all. Not to mention I am on day two of my cycle so all I really want to do is ignore everyone and read books and nap all day. But I CAN’T. BOO.

Cue my inner critic. It was truly a perfect storm for her: I’m on my period, had a crappy workout, the weather sucks, and I got stuck at the car repair shop. Without snacks!

There are different ways to deal with negative self-talk, or your inner critic. You can invite her along for the ride, but make her sit in the backseat (a la Elizabeth Gilbert). Maisie Hill, in her book Period Power, has several recommended strategies including standing up to her, challenging her, and killing her with kindness. You don’t have to use the same approach every time. Today, because I was stuck at the car dealership, I couldn’t say “F off” and go hop on my Peloton bike or meditate or snuggle my dogs. I couldn’t even reach for a snack to quell my ever-increasing hanger. So, because I wasn’t poised to fight and I couldn’t kill her with the kindness of self-care, and perhaps because I was at the car dealer so the metaphor fit best anyway, I let her sit in the backseat.

Oh hi inner critic. Here you are again, rearing up when you know I’m stuck somewhere I don’t want to be on a rainy day, having just gotten my period, feeling tired from the weekend and acutely hungry and thirsty because I’ve been sitting here with no access to food and just my one water bottle for two hours. It’s Monday, there are two weeks of school left, I’m feeling tired from the weekend and overwhelmed by everything I have to do. So guess what: I’m not surprised that you decided to pop into my brain today. This is no sneak attack. You’re not that good.

Because I don’t have the ability to expel you from my brain, or meditate, stretch, snuggle, or snack you back into submission, please just have a seat – in the back, no shotgun for you. You can buckle yourself in.

Now, I am going to continue to go about my day. My car will be done at some point, and after that I am going to eat a snack and start ticking off the annoying errands and other to do’s that have to get done today so that I can clear my conscience and focus on the good stuff for the rest of the week.

And that’s what I did. And by the way, I had this conversation by typing out my words to her. But you can also speak to yourself, silently or out loud; dictate or type into your notes app; or write in a journal or even just on scrap paper. Just put the words out there somehow.

With my inner critic in the metaphorical backseat, once I got back behind the literal wheel, I was able to start all my irritating errands. And once I started, it became like a game. How many annoying errands can I do before I need to be home to let the dogs out? My gas tank is about 2/3 empty. I’ll fill it so I won’t have to think about gas the rest of the week! There’s a non-urgent prescription that is ready at the drug store. I’ll get it now! I also had to mail a letter at the post office (gas station, drug store, post office – I meant it when I said I was stacking irritating errands!). With each task I accomplished, I felt my mood lighten. Cheer started to replace the gloom that had dominated my morning. And while these errands plus the world’s longest oil change ate up most of my day, getting them done also relieved some pressure from my week’s packed calendar.

By the time I got home, I felt almost triumphant. What I realized is that my inner critic thrives when I feel stifled. But guess what: vice versa! As soon as I started to exude more gratitude and good cheer than doom and gloom, the air in our metaphorical car became too stifling for her. And that is a win I’ll carry with me into the rest of this crazy week.

When I was drinking, I would let days like today completely defeat me. Instead of sitting with the discomfort and directly addressing my inner critic, thoughts of my first glass of wine would eclipse anything else. Wine was my coping mechanism, my escape. Once I became a non-drinker, wine was no longer an option so I turned to food or social media scrolling instead. Now I am in the process of becoming an intuitive eater, and I am taking my power back from food in a way that is similar to what I did with wine. I also set time limits for Instagram and my News apps, to curtail my scrolling – and because I’m a rule follower, it’s working!

This is all to say that I am starting to be able to sit with the discomfort. To have my inner critic in the backseat without driving off the road. It’s hard. It’s not fun. It’s work. Icky work, not welcome work. But it’s WORKING. And that feels pretty great.

How do you face your inner critic? Do you struggle with staying present in discomfort? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Checking In at Mile 24

We have collectively hit weary.

Brené Brown, March 27, 2020 (!!!)

Real talk y’all. My days have been more down than up lately. Even though we are (FINALLY, truly… seemingly?) coming out of the pandemic, even though I am 1,063 days alcohol-free, even though I am loving my coaching program, even though we’ve had beautiful spring weather (well, except for a rainy and cold Memorial Day Weekend – not that I minded the excuse to snuggle up, read, and relax!)… even though there is so much that is good and for which I am grateful every darn day, it’s just not clicking.

My pandemic-pummeled brain feels foggy and scattered. My cortisol-crammed body feels heavy and slow. I’ve read articles about how pandemic fatigue is legit, and in my recovery coaching coursework I’m currently learning how the human brain is malleable and resilient even under long-term stress. So I know why I’m feeling this way. And I know I will – if not bounce, then crawl back to a better-functioning state… eventually.

My foggy brain is the result of too much time spent in fight-or-flight mode, which is the brain’s cavemanesque response to heightened stress. My brain doesn’t know a pandemic from a plague. All it knows is that I feel stress, so it releases adrenaline just in case I have to sprint away from a saber-toothed tiger. And because my brain can’t tell my body, “Chillax, this is a little stressful, yes, but don’t worry, you are not going to starve,” my body is pumped full of cortisol and holding on to every fat cell that it can in order to survive.

The fact that this high-stress state has lasted for over a year is, frankly, fucked up. And just bad news for our brains and bodies. Prolonged fight-or-flight is an unnatural state, and a huge hormonal load for our brains and bodies to carry.

On her podcast “Unlocking Us,” Brené Brown said, “We have collectively hit weary.” And indeed we have. Yup, she said that in March. OF LAST YEAR. So if we were weary then (and if Brené says so then it is so), what are we now? Wearier? Weariest? Whatever we are, it’s not pretty and it’s not fun.

This is mile 24 of the marathon, my friends. We’ve hit the wall but we’re still not done. This is knowing the finish line exists but not being able to see it. This is wanting nothing more than to cross that line while simultaneously fearing the shape you’ll be in when you do. And this is also feeling not quite ready to be done with the race because not knowing what’s next is almost harder than just continuing to put one foot in front of the other.

Is anyone else hesitant to take off their mask? I still wear mine to the grocery store or Starbucks, and if I’m with my kids at the playground I’ll wear it because they have to wear theirs and the mom guilt propels me to mask up. But now it’s getting awkward. Because if I wear my mask in an effort to be courteous to those around me, are people just going to think I’m unvaccinated? Not to mention if I take my mask off I have to start worrying about bad breath or something being stuck in my teeth. I haven’t missed thinking about those things for the last year. This ambiguous, in-between time is tricky.

Is anyone else’s social stamina shot? A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to work the polls – not the pole, the polls, people – on my town’s local election day. My shift was two hours. I sat at a table with another volunteer, a mom of two elementary school-aged kids. She and I had enough in common that our conversation was perfectly pleasant and fun and interesting. There was a steady stream of people coming in to vote, and we checked them in one by one. There was never a crowd, and people were polite. I saw a few friends and even my kids’ nursery school teacher. WE even HUGGED, which was a joy. But the next morning I felt like I got hit by a train. I felt hungover. I felt utterly devoid of any energy. It took me awhile to connect my miserable state to having to be “on” for two hours the day before. My social stamina is minimal. It’s negligible. It’s in the toilet. And that is hard.

Is anyone else missing those early locked-down days maybe just a little? I AM MISSING THEM MORE THAN A LITTLE. There. I said it. Do I miss the endless stream of terrifying national and international news that seemed worse and worse every day? No. But I do miss that feeling of hunkering down with my kids, my husband, and our dogs on the island that was our 241-year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire, to which we fled last spring and again in the summer. I miss the simplicity, the quiet. Now that the world is opening back up – and, don’t get me wrong, that is a wonderful thing! – all the “should”‘s and “have to”‘s are popping back up on my calendar and to do list. A suddenly full calendar after a year of a mostly empty calendar has given me an unexpectedly jarring jolt.

I’ve been treading water for over a year. The constant treading hasn’t been easy, but the water itself was quiet and calm. Now, all of a sudden, huge wave of responsibility is heading toward me, starting to crest. I know I am capable of clambering up onto my paddleboard and coasting into the shore of New Normal. I just don’t feel ready. But I also know I can’t tread forever.

So, it’s June. Four weeks left of the school year routine before my kids once again audaciously bound back up into my business for the summer. I’m hoping to recover some positivity in these next few weeks. I’m determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other, or to hoist myself up onto my board and hold on tight – considering this post is now home to two metaphors. I’m going to try my best to limit the “should”‘s, tick off the “have to”‘s, and maintain boundaries as best I can. And I am going to focus on stress relief – because the clarity and energy for which I am so desperate can only be summoned once I migrate back to the front of my brain from the rear. And I can only do that by decreasing my stress.

How will I do that? I can’t end the pandemic. But I can change the way I respond to it.

I can move. Every day, I am going to aim to move my body in a way that makes me feel good. No bigger workout plan other than that. I have found during the pandemic if I mismatch my workout to my mood (including where I am in my cycle or how tired I am), it does not go well. With our bodies under so much stress for so long, this is just not the time to kick our asses. The pandemic has already done that. So if I feel like sitting on my bike, I’ll do a ride. If I feel like slowing down, I’ll do yoga. If I feel strong, I’ll lift. I will try my best to ignore calories burned and other stats, and just MOVE.

I can rest. This is probably the most critical and basic stress-soothing tool. But I don’t just mean sleep, though I will endeavor to get my 8+ hours every night. I mean rest. I mean sitting on the couch to read a book. I mean laying down in bed to watch the “Friends” reunion or the new P!nk documentary. Sleeping is a daily necessity; but rest is important too. I struggle to let myself rest without guilt, but I’m working on it. I read a book in two days over the weekend and I hope to take this non-moving momentum with me into June.

I can connect. This is a time to embrace (literally! YAY!) the cup-fillers and set a firm boundary with the cup-drainers. I have recently gone for two outdoor runs with a dear friend, and the combination of challenging movement, fresh air, and IRL companionship has truly given me life. I am going to continue to make an effort to connect with the friends who fill my cup. I need them right now in a big way, and I know my brain benefits from these joyful connections.

I can stay grateful. The power inherent in gratitude is boundless. Last month I started writing nightly in a gratitude journal again. And it’s amazing how the simple act of writing down three things for which I am grateful on a given day can flip my mindset from exhausted and down to picked-up and positive.

I can breathe. Meditation, or even just a simple breathing exercise (breathe in for four, hold for two, breathe out for eight) gently forces us to slow down and be present. I wish I wanted to meditate for 20 minutes a day, and maybe someday I will; but in the meantime I can meditate for five. And on days when even that feels like too much, I can breathe for a few minutes. When I do, I feel an immediate calming and clearing effect in my foggy head.

Move. Rest. Connect. Stay grateful. Breathe. Then do it all again tomorrow.

Life at mile 24 is not easy, and in many ways it’s more complicated than it seems like it should be. But none of us is alone in this marathon. And we are all going to make it.

Crossing the marathon finish line is glorious and emotional and vulnerable and complex. But as weak as we may feel when we get there, we’ll be stronger for having run the race.

A Primer on Cycle Awareness

I first drafted this post and spoke about this topic on my podcast last week, in the throes of PMS – which, I swear, has gotten markedly more mood-swingy and roller coaster-ish since I turned 40. I decided to finish and post this today, since I am now in the “spring” of my cycle and heartily embracing imperfection. So here goes. Inhale curiosity, exhale judgement. Read on.

I realize this is not a sexy topic. But it’s an important one – for all women, and also for men who know/like/love/work with/hang out with women. Knowledge is power, people!

Cycle awareness has been an instrumental part of my recovery, of ditching diet culture, and embracing my 40s, with my childbearing years behind me and perimenopause (EEK) on the horizon. Having a better understanding of what my body is up to, and what my strengths are at any given moment has proven to be empowering, comforting, and motivating. I now wear the pants in the relationship between myself and my uterus. And by pants I mean something with stretch and an elastic waistband, obviously.

Why is cycle awareness so important? Well, if you have an irregular cycle like I do, the more you can understand where you are, the easier it is to deal – and even thrive, at every stage of the month. My cycle has been irregular for most of the 12 years or so that I have been off the pill, since trying to conceive our first child. It took us 15 months to get pregnant the first time, in part because I never knew exactly when I was ovulating and my period lasted anywhere from 25-35 days in any given month. Our journey to conceive our daughter was utterly agonizing. These days, my irregular cycle is more of an extreme annoyance. I no longer have the pressure of baby-making weighing on me and my hormones, but it’s still deeply irritating to never know when I’m going to get my period or how long my PMS is going to last.

Even if your cycle is regular and reliable, it is still helpful to know what your particular strengths are in any given week. Much of what I now know about cycle awareness I learned from the book Period Power by Maisie Hill. I love this book. I highly recommend this book.

With her vast knowledge and experience, plus her British charm, Hill expertly holds our hands through the process of learning about the female body. She divides the phases of the monthly menstrual cycle into four seasons:

  • Winter – from day one of your period until the end of your period
  • Spring – from the end of your period until just before ovulation
  • Summer – pre-ovulation to post-ovulation
  • Autumn – post-ovulation to the last day of your cycle (basically, PMS)

Winter and Spring comprise the follicular phase, from menstruation to just before ovulation. This phase is dominated by estrogen, or “your Beyoncé hormone” as Hill calls it. During Winter, which is when you have your period, you may feel tired and anti-social, but this is also a powerful time for introspection and listening to your gut. “Consider how you can clear out the old to make way for the new and shine the spotlight on what’s important to you,” Hill says. “When you make space and are present during your Winter, you’ll find yourself gifted with insights and creative solutions to problems you’ve been stewing on for a week or a decade.” If you feel run-down, rest. If you feel heavy and uncoordinated, steer clear of tabata and HIIT workouts. Try meditation. Being present during this time can pay off in a major way, as you are setting yourself up to maximize the potential of the next few seasons of your cycle.

Enter Beyoncé. As your period wanes, your estrogen kicks in and you start to feel like a million bucks. Spring has sprung! Your skin is glowing, you’re waking up before your alarm, and a workout that seemed impossible just a week before is now an endorphin party for one. Embrace your curiosity, your zest for life, your playfulness. “Spring is not the time for perfection, in fact, sod perfection and aim for incompetence,” encourages Hill. This is the season of giving no Fs. Enjoy it.

Summer and Autumn make up the luteal phase, from just before ovulation to the day before menstruation. This phase is dominated by progesterone, which Hill accurately and hilariously calls “The Great Sedater.” Summer starts right before ovulation and lasts until PMS sets in. This season is a bit of a roller coaster, as you may feel like an invincible rock star before you ovulate, and then crash and feel miserable after you ovulate, only to bounce back before crashing again during Autumn. But despite the curveball of ovulation, Summer is an ideal time to tackle big, audacious projects or goals. Challenge yourself. Stay brave. Strut your stuff in the arena. And don’t forget to prioritize sleep, especially after ovulation.

Autumn is the doldrums. This season is also impacted by your stress level – so if you’re going through, say, a global pandemic, or any other big stressor in your life, your Autumn may cut Summer short. JOY! NOT. Autumn is the pits, but it can still be a productive time once you’re aware of your strengths. This is the time to bask in your assertiveness (Tell it like it is!), explore your ability to concentrate more deeply, and focus on your priorities. This is a great time for reviewing and editing, or embracing your inner Marie Kondo.

Autumn is also when your inner critic comes out of hibernation. You are at your most vulnerable and your inner critic knows it. Hill recommends several strategies for dealing with your inner critic (feel free to tweak the pronoun as necessary):

  • Hunt her down.
  • Stand up to her.
  • Grill her.
  • Challenge her.
  • Kill her with kindness.

However you decide to navigate your relationship with your inner critic, know that Autumn doesn’t last forever. Eat regularly (yes, your body will want more food (read: ALL THE CARBS) during this time and yes, you should feed it) and rest up. Try to keep boundaries intact and don’t hesitate to say no. Once you get your period, this all starts again! Yeehaw!

As I said at the start, I wrote the first draft of this post during my Autumn. I was not in the mood to put photos on social media. Writing felt clunky and even tedious because the words did not flow as smoothly and confidently as they do during other times in my cycle. My inner critic was having a field day, telling me I’ll never make it as a coach or a writer, telling me I’m fat, telling me all the nasty things. But because I was aware that I was in my Autumn, I told my critic to F off. I purposefully drafted this post during Autumn because it’s more research-y than my usual blog posts, and I knew my capacity for concentrating was high.

I am finishing this post in the early days of my Spring. I know it’s not perfect. It’s not my best writing, I could have gone further in depth, blah blah blah. But you know what? I’m also in the mood to just fling this out into the world and hope it helps someone, so I can move on to the other projects on my plate today. Also, the huge, red volcano of a clogged pore that I picked during my Autumn has now settled and almost completely healed. Life goes on.

Cycle awareness has helped me in so many ways, the most critical of which is that I am more kind to myself. Where I used to be severely lacking in self-compassion, I am now positively brimming. If I feel more hungry than usual, it’s probably because I’m in my luteal phase and my body actually needs more food, so I eat without guilt. If I have a crappy workout, it’s probably because I’m doing something that is too strenuous on top of my hormonal load, and I can choose to change it up or, if I stick with it, modify without guilt. Case in point: I had scheduled a 45-minute full body strength class during my Autumn. I knew this was not great timing, but decided to go for it anyway. I felt sluggish and heavy, so I modified by using lighter weights and doing fewer reps. I commended myself for doing the best I could and reminded myself that if I do the same workout in my Spring or Summer, I’ll feel like a total badass.

I used to blame myself for not being able to crush a workout or for being too hungry on any given day. Now I know that this is my body and my hormones doing exactly what they have evolved to do: protecting me and optimizing my system to be able to grow a human. Which I did. Twice. Now I know that my body deserves grace, not grief. These monthly hormonal fluctuations should be honored, not fought against. Cycle awareness has helped me learn to listen to my body without judgement; and in the process I have come to appreciate my body more than ever before.

Now I realize instead of denying the messages my body is trying to send me, it’s much more helpful to listen and respond. It’s not weakness to take a nap because I’m extra tired during PMS. If I want to tack on that extra strength training workout during my Summer, I go for it. The more in tune I become, the more inner peace I feel. That may sound crunchy-granola, but it’s true.

If you want to start becoming more aware of your cycle, here are four quick tips to get you started:

  1. Educate yourself! Again, I highly recommend Period Power: Harness Your Hormones and Get Your Cycle Working For You as a great starting point.
  2. Track! I use my Apple Health app to track my period days, and I also jot notes in my bullet journal daily. Once you have a few months’ worth of notes, you can clearly see patterns and gain a deeper understanding of how your body handles each season.
  3. Balance your to do list! Make sure that along with all the have to’s there are activities that align with where you are in your cycle: workouts, down time, social time.
  4. Remember gratitude! We all know someone our age who no longer menstruates – perhaps a breast cancer survivor or someone who has dealt with early-onset menopause. Stay grateful, friends. As much as your cycle can feel physically and mentally irritating and even excruciating, appreciate that your amazing body is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

I would love to hear your thoughts on cycle awareness, and how your relationship with your cycle has evolved. Please leave a comment! The more we normalize discussing things like this, the more grace we will give ourselves and each other. Be good to you, my friends.

Take the Compliment and Run

I made this post a podcast! Woohoo!

May 2021. A quick update:

1,034 days alcohol-free. 14 months into the pandemic. 7 days since my second vaccine (and still feeling fatigued, but grateful! Yay science!). 8 weeks to go in my kids’ school year. 2 giant jars of Nutella sitting in my pantry. 1 new office space in a niche off my bedroom that has me feeling super inspired and recommitted to this blog, to writing with a lower case “w” (#recoveringperfectionist), to putting myself out there more often in the hope that someone finds solace in my vulnerability and feels a little more inspired to just keep going.

Just keep going. Just do the next thing. That is enough.

Sometimes the next thing is a small task: brushing your teeth, packing a school lunch, walking the dog. And sometimes the next thing is a big ol’ leap. I did one of these big next things a few weeks ago when I finally decided to enroll in a program I’ve been pondering for the last couple of years, the IAPRC Certified Professional Recovery Coach dual certification program. By November(ish), I will be a Certified Professional Coach and a Certified Professional Recovery Coach. And I swear I didn’t just do it so I can add a lot of acronyms after my name:

Jennifer B. Butler, AB, MBA, CPC, CPRC

Although that looks pretty awesome.

My gut made me do it. This pesky gut of mine keeps clinging to wanting to write a book (yes, that is still on my bucket list and yes, it still terrifies and intimidates me on a daily basis); and, since becoming alcohol-free myself, wanting to help others ditch booze in a professional, entrepreneurial, mom boss kind of way.

I am absolutely loving the program so far. It has been like yoga for my brain. I feel more limber and stronger for having applied myself to the modules, worksheets, and practice exercises. I feel the invigoration of a long-overdue, much-needed mental stretch. My inner critic is having a field day trying to come up with ways to sabotage me (most involve scrolling Instagram – so unoriginal) but I have kept her at bay so far.

Just do the next thing.

When I was a wine mom, my inner critic was living large, spitting a constant barrage of abuse that sent me to my wine fridge on a daily basis. Wine crippled my ability to stand up for myself. Wine made me feel incapable of weathering discomfort. Again and again, I chose to numb. I didn’t believe I was strong enough to stand up against that voice that told me I wasn’t good enough, thin enough, smart enough.

Yesterday, in the midst of lingering fatigue from receiving my second Covid vaccine, my inner critic once again tried to get the best of me. “You will never be able to start your own coaching business. So many smart, pretty, successful women are already doing it. You’ll never actually be able to find any clients. You’ll wimp out on this, just like you’re doing with your book.” (That last one is a particularly low blow.)

I heard her. I felt hurt by her. But I did not open a bottle of wine. I did not even open one of the giant jars of Nutella. Instead of slinking away and numbing myself to those words that slashed me from within, I talked back. “Oh hi, inner critic. My, how vocal you are today! You make me feel pretty awful. But you are just a voice. You have no power. And using alcohol or sugar will only give you the power you crave. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to acknowledge that you’re there and try my best to do nice things for myself until you fade into the background where you belong.”

I took a nap. I took a shower. I walked my dog. I read a magazine. I meditated. I jotted in my gratitude journal.

I took my power back.

And today, I took more of my power back my taking some compliments.

I have an email account tied to this blog, but I rarely check it. Over the last few years I have received some really wonderful, heartfelt notes from people who have read this blog, or found me on Connect or Instagram, or read my posts on Motherly or This Naked Mind.

I never wrote anybody back.

This is VERY unlike me. I am a good correspondent. I keep in touch with people. I like writing emails. But for some reason, I just could not bring myself to respond to these very kind emails – some of which have been sitting in my inbox since 2018.

This morning, I sat at my new desk in my new office space – a bright, happy, vibrant office space fit for a life coach – took a deep breath, inhaling who I want to be and exhaling my inner critic’s b.s., and I wrote everybody back.

In her book Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes has a brilliant and hilarious chapter on taking compliments (and how many women suck at it). She reminds us:

“No one is obligated to compliment you.

“They do it out of kindness.

“They do it because they want to.

“They do it because they believe the compliment they are offering.”

Today, finally, I chose to receive these compliments. And I wrote everybody back to acknowledge them (well, and to grovel a bit for my tardy replies). I created a folder in my email called “Gold Star File” and I moved all of the wonderful emails there. Then I printed some of them out, to keep these compliments at hand for the next time my inner critic dares to pipe up.

But I think, if I keep on this path of believing in myself and my ability to be a great coach and a great writer, my inner critic’s pipes will fade to peeps. And I’ll be able to focus on my life’s work instead of drowning in self-doubt.

Truce.

Not starving, still strong.

Around this time last year, as news about COVID-19 was starting to spread and tensions were starting to rise, I noticed that my weight was creeping up. With the mounting stress of the soon-t0-be-named pandemic, I should not have been surprised. Cortisol, the stress hormone, loves to puff me up. But instead of giving credit where it was due, I blamed my inability to control my eating. Once my weight surpassed my WW Lifetime weigh-in window, meaning if I stayed at that weight I would have to pay for my WW membership at my next monthly weigh-in, I decided to seek the help of a nutritionist. The woman I chose to work with had transformed the body of one of my kickboxing clients. In a matter of weeks this woman had gone from having a thin mom bod to a lean, strong physique that I confess I completely envied.

So I made an appointment to meet with the nutritionist at the beginning of March and ponied up $300 for one month of supervision. I remember going to meet her at a personal training gym, feeling so deeply ashamed as I told her how I could not stop eating sugar and crappy food, and feeling utterly humiliated as I undressed down to a tight gray tank top for the “before” picture. In the photo she snapped with her phone, my eyes were closed and my mouth was stretched into a hesitant grimace that I had meant to be a confident grin. She took the picture before I could rally a smile and suck in my gut, and did not offer to retake it.

Perhaps that should have been my first sign that she was not the right fit for me, that she would allow my “before” picture to be so completely unflattering. But I didn’t ask her to re-take it, either. In that moment I handed her control of my body for the next four weeks.

I knew her nutrition program was strict. I knew it would strip my diet of all the junk. But I did not know just how aggressively she would also strip my diet of calories. I followed her program to a T, because she was a certified professional, because I had seen the results in my kickboxing acquaintance, and because I had forked over $300. The hanger was real and I hated it, but the few times I did question her method or try to communicate how hungry I was, she would immediately dismiss my feedback.

In addition to the restricted eating, under her orders I ramped up my exercise so that I was working out for 90 minutes each morning. “Strength training doesn’t count unless it’s at least 30 minutes. Same goes for cardio,” she said. So I ran, cycled, and lifted my ass off (literally) and then refueled with three egg whites and half a cup of oatmeal made with water and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I was not allowed to eat again for the next five hours until lunch, which was lettuce, three grape tomatoes, 1/3 of a cucumber, a tablespoon of olive oil, a sprinkle of vinegar, and a few precious ounces of protein.

I remember on my son’s birthday, about half-way through the program, when she told me I could not have any cake. I started to cry as I lit the candles. Tears streamed down my face as my husband, daughter, and I sang “Happy Birthday” to my newly minted six-year-old son. At my husband’s compassionate encouragement, I ended up eating a slice of cake. It was freaking delicious. It also reawakened what I interpreted at the time to be my inner sugar demon (and what I know now to be the “binge” part of a binge/starve cycle). Over the next couple of days I voraciously snuck several more slices and could not hide it, as my daily weigh-ins plateaued. The shame was overwhelming. I felt shame for bingeing, for not being able to control myself with the birthday cake. I felt shame when I looked at the number on the scale. I was stuck in a lose-lose situation. Either I starved myself and lost weight; or I gave my body the calories it craved, gained weight, and faced the judgment of the nutritionist.

How I yearned for the approval of this woman who didn’t even care enough about me to use spell check on my weekly menus (“1/2 cup oatmeal cook n water add cinnoman with 3 egg white omelete” – I had to fight with autocorrect to type that!). On the days I emailed her my weight loss, she replied with a smiley face. On the days I emailed her with the same weight or a gain, she didn’t. I based my worth on those numbers.

I based my worth on a smiling emoji.

COVID lockdowns began around my son’s mid-March birthday. I was so tempted to abandon the program, because the thought of starving myself and exercising for an hour and a half each day during this pandemic panic was almost too much to bear. But the nutritionist wouldn’t let me stop. She pressured me to press on, and I let her. I stuck with it for two more torturous weeks, and by the end of the four weeks I was the lowest weight I had been in almost 20 years. I felt svelte and proud and fucking starving but thrilled with the way I looked. I took some “after” pictures and emailed them to her (since meeting in-person was no longer an option). She FaceTimed me to discuss my body weight and measurements. I was ready for hearty congratulations, and while she said she was happy with my efforts, I still had “around six pounds” to lose.

I smiled and nodded and thanked her. Then I hung up the phone and said, “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING BITCH” (not my usual lexicon) and promptly went downstairs to open the jar of Nutella I had bought for the occasion.

The four-week program concluded at the end of March, right when my period was due. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t get my period again until the end of April. My body had been so starved that my period stopped. I was so starved that after I lay in bed to read to my kids at night, standing up again made me feel so dizzy I had to hold on to the bed frame to catch my balance.

Once I was off the hook of the nutritionist’s dreaded meal plans, I promptly started bingeing to a degree that I have never binged in my life. Granola by the bag. Nutella by the jar. Ice cream by the pint. I gained back all 17 pounds that I had lost, and piled another ten on top of that. Pandemic pandemonium, of course, added to the stress and my need for comfort food. I have never felt so utterly powerless over food. Once I started eating, some other force took hold within my body, shoveling in as much food as I could and stopping only when I started to feel sick and sometimes not even then.

Looking back, it’s now easy for me to see that this program of extreme body transformation was not the right fit for me. The pandemic, of course, only made it worse. I should have stood up to the nutritionist. I should have told her I needed more calories. I should have told her that I almost passed out on a near-nightly basis. I should have stopped working with her and let her keep the damn $300 because you can’t put a price tag on personal wellness and mental health.

Instead I blamed myself. “I am struggling to stick with this program because I can’t control myself around food.” “I am a sugar addict and I don’t deserve more food than this.” “If I hadn’t been eating so much before this, decreasing my caloric intake would not feel like such a shock.” “I feel like I’m going to pass out because I’m weak.” If I didn’t lose weight from one day to the next, I had failed. If I added an extra ounce of chicken to my dinner, I was cheating. The cycle of negativity was all-encompassing.

It has taken me almost a year to write about this. Because it has taken me almost a year to learn the lessons and make peace with my experience. I have not lost any of the weight I regained. But I have also gained perspective, and I am ready to move forward into 2021 a changed person. I am not just a different size than I was this time last year. I have a different, evolved outlook on my relationship with food and with diet culture.

My goal now is simple:

Truce.

I’m so tired of being at war with my body and with food.

Enough. Enough, now.

If 2020 taught me anything, it is that I am damn lucky to be alive, and healthy, with a body that is strong and functional. This body has kept me safe for 40 years. This body deserves to be honored. This body deserves to be respected. Revered. Every day, at every size.

Slowly but surely I am teaching myself to eat what I want when I want it. I am trying to think about how the food I desire will make me feel, and adjust accordingly. Some days, it’s: “If I eat that Nutella, it will taste delicious but then it will give me gas and make me feel lethargic, so I’m going to have some chocolate almond butter instead.” Other days, it’s: “If I eat that Nutella, it will taste delicious but then it will give me gas and make me feel lethargic, but I really want it so I’m going to have it.” Either way, no judgement. That is the goal.

My closet now contains comfortable clothes in several sizes so that I can always find something that feels good to wear.

When negative self-talk creeps up, I try to quash it like I’m the world’s greatest whack-a-mole champion.

Most importantly, I recognize that this is a marathon. I have been reduced to tears while on the phone with a friend, confessing to her that I am terrified I will go through this process of making peace with my body and with food… and end up being a bigger size than I used to be, than I want to be. But I also know that if I do this work, if I forge these new neural pathways in my brain, I will be content at any size because I will no longer base my self-worth on my size.

My worth is not my size. Say it with me now. My worth. Is not. My size.

I will never post another “before and after” photo collage. Because “after” does not exist. My body, every body, is constantly shifting. There is no “after” for me anymore. There is just “during.” Right now, this is me, during a pandemic, committed to ditching diet culture in my life and my brain, learning to listen to my body and enjoy food. Learning to nurture instead of restrict. During, and then during, and then during.

900 Days Alcohol-Free

900 days.

This is a big number. This is a number that would have seemed completely unattainable to me back in my #winemom days. But here I am. 900 days makes me proud. 900 days feels exactly where I’m meant to be.

900 days of alcohol freedom is the greatest gift I have ever given myself. And, as the cliché goes, it just keeps giving. The more days of sobriety I accrue, the better equipped I am to recognize its many layers of gifts.

Sobriety is like the nesting doll I received as a gift when I was a child, and I have spent these 900 days opening one doll after another.

At the outset of my AF journey I enjoyed the immediate, surface-level benefits: clear skin, bright eyes, less puff. Then I started to uncover some deeper joys: decreased anxiety, increased energy, more patience with my kids, more presence in my life. And now, 900 days in, I am getting to know my true self, ponder my life’s purpose, and pursue my goals with vulnerability, authenticity, and confidence.

I once thought alcohol made me more myself. I thought it brought me out of my shell, helping me emerge more confident, flirtier, funnier. Now I know it made me silly, short-tempered, and shallow.

In 900 days I have cracked open a lot of dolls, each revealing the next nestled deeper inside, each more complex, intricate, and awe-inspiring than the last. Each doll stands on her own, but when nestled together they create the complete gift that is my sobriety.

Have I made it to the center yet? To the last, smallest, solid doll? I don’t think so. But I’m trying not to focus on her, or on what happens when I get there. Instead I’m trying to stay right here, to stay with the gifts I’ve acquired thus far. To cherish each of them as I wait for the next to be revealed.

5 Reasons Why I’m Not Going to Drink on Election Night (and You May Want to Stay Off the Sauce, Too)

As election night approaches, tensions are running higher than third wave COVID infection rates and social media feeds are inundated with jokes and memes about drinking to survive all the drama. “I won’t hear anything on November 4th because, either way, I’ll be hungover,” proclaimed Stephen Colbert in his Late Show monologue on October 26. “Election Night Drinking Game: Drink. Then keep drinking,” suggests a meme on Instagram. 

How else can we be expected to endure the night (week?) (MONTH?!) that will be a climactic moment in the dumpster fire of 2020 other than with a bottomless wine glass in hand? Why would we want to? Election night is either a celebration or a pity party, depending on the outcome and how we voted. Either way, we drink, right? 

This November 3, I won’t be heading to my wine fridge – and I challenge you to think about going alcohol-free as well. Here are five reasons why I won’t be drinking on election night:

  1. Alcohol increases anxiety.

During my drinking days, I fully subscribed to the notion that alcohol is the ultimate stress-reliever. I drank to soothe my anxiety. I waited all day to pour my first glass of sauvignon blanc, and relished the feeling of warmth and calm that washed over me as I took my first few crisp sips. But even at the peak of my drinking I could admit that the more I drank, the farther out of reach that initial zen feeling became. As Annie Grace puts it in her book The Alcohol Experiment, “[A]s the alcohol is metabolized, we actually feel more stress than we did when we started. Alcohol leaving the body makes us feel worse. So what do we do? Have another! 

“It’s ironic that we drink to relax, because drinking actually adds stress to our lives.” Further, numbing ourselves to the source of our stress and anxiety – such as a high stakes presidential election during a pandemic – does not make the stressor go away; it will just make us feel worse when we get around to dealing with it. Facing the outcome of the election with a clear head in the moment is a proactive way to deal directly with the source of anxiety and ultimately better for our mental health.

  1. Alcohol numbs the bad stuff – but also the good stuff.

At the risk of jinxing things, imagine for a moment that the election goes the way you want it to go. Visualize the numbers coming in for your candidate, the electoral map turning the color you long to see. Imagine the victory speech, the balloon drop, the pure elation and sweet relief washing over you. 

Of course, it could go the other way. And instead of elation and relief, you could be inundated with fear, dread, and disgust. You may want to don your alcohol armor to protect you from the risk of the night going awry (or, almost as bad, the night being too close to call). But if you numb out with alcohol to not feel these bad feelings, you won’t be able to feel the good feelings either. Alcohol does not allow your brain to discriminate between the happy feelings you want to experience and the crappy feelings you don’t. After the year we’ve had, I am ready for some good vibes, and I am willing to risk feeling horrible if that same risk will allow me to feel elation and hope for the future.

  1. Mocktails are a treat without the trick.

When I first stopped drinking, fearing FOMO, I steered clear of any zero-alcohol wines, beers, or spirits. What’s the point, I wondered, of drinking some calorie-laden concoction without the benefit of the buzz? But as the alcohol-free (AF) days added up, I missed the buzz less and less because I missed the after-effects of drinking not at all. I did, however, miss having something more special than seltzer in my glass to commemorate a special occasion. So I have started exploring the world of AF spirits and mocktails. Seedlip is a current favorite. And if I’m in the mood to toast the outcome of election night you better believe I’ll be sipping a Seedlip Grove and ginger ale. Mocktails are a great way to embrace a celebratory vibe without enduring a hangover the next morning.

  1. Alcohol ruins sleep. 

I wish I could count on one hand the number of nights I woke at 3am, having sweat through my pajamas, my mouth dry and sour, my heart racing, and my shame visceral. Alas, during my drinking days those nights were all too common. Improved sleep is one of the immediate benefits of not drinking, and the impact of solid sleep is profound. 

Many of us will probably not sleep well on election night, whether drunk or sober, Democrat or Republican or Independent. The evening promises to be charged with emotion no matter how it goes. So since it’s going to be a short, and likely fitful, night of sleep, I don’t want booze ruining my few precious hours to snooze.

  1. There is no parental low quite like hiding a hangover from the kids.

Right up there with sour, sweat-soaked 3am wakings among the things I don’t miss about drinking: hiding hangovers from my kids. “Mama’s tummy is just a little upset.” “Mama has a headache.” More like: “Mama feels like absolute crap and wants to hide in my closet until this shame storm passes, but instead I have to look you in the eye and pretend my malaise is not the result of my dysfunctional relationship with an addictive toxin.”

On November 4, many of us will wake up exhausted, and – if the night provides any sort of conclusion – about half of us will wake up depressed while the other half will wake up ecstatic. However I feel that morning, I will not have anything to hide. I will be able to talk to my kids about election night because I will remember election night. I want to be ready to discuss the election with my kids honestly and openly, no matter its outcome.

I vote for a booze-free election night. Of course, it’s easy for me to say all this with over two alcohol-free years under my belt. But there was a time when I could not imagine celebrating  – or commiserating – without booze. Nary a momentous occasion went by without alcohol. And that is why I have almost no memory of the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016, even though I am a diehard fan who watched Game 7 live in my living room. That is why most New Year’s Eves are forever a blur in my brain.

I decided to take a year-long break from drinking because I was tired of hangovers, fuzzy memories, guilt, and shame. My 365th day has long since passed, as has any desire to go back to the bottle. Showing up fully present in life is not always easy (especially this year), but it’s always worth it.

This will hopefully be the only presidential election during a pandemic we will witness in our lifetimes. It is also, in my opinion, a make-or-break moment for American democracy. I simply don’t want to miss it. Even if it feels terrible (EEK) to go through it, I want to go through it – not circumvent the discomfort with a booze buzz. I want to remember the tension, the anxiety, and, I hope, the excitement and relief. However this election pans out, I want to emerge as a more resilient and compassionate human for having witnessed it.

40 Years and 847 Days

I was born on my mom’s 30th birthday, October 19, 1980. So she and I not only share a birthday, but we share all our decade milestones. A little over week ago, the dumpster fire that is 2020 witnessed our 40th and 70th birthday – a milestone we had planned to celebrate in London, watching the Chicago Cubs play the St. Louis Cardinals in Olympic Stadium. But of course due to the pandemic, the trip was cancelled and the birthday plans of two diehard Cub fans were up in the air until the last minute.

Instead of flying to London (insert first world problem sigh here), we drove into NYC the weekend before our birthday and treated ourselves to visits to our favorite shops (Zabar’s, Strand Books, Fishs Eddy, Paragon Sports, abc Carpet & Home). For lunch, we ate my favorite sushi (Tenzan – if you don’t know, now you know) in my illegally-parked swagger wagon, its hazard lights flashing and windows down for air flow since we had to take our masks off to eat because this is apparently the world we live in now. But anyway. The sush was delish.

I returned home Sunday afternoon, ready to get back into mom mode while trying to manage my last-hours-of-my-30s anxiety/excitement. My close friend and neighbor had texted to ask if we could go for a walk. My husband decided to take the kids and dogs out as well, so we all walked together to the corner where my neighbor was waiting for me in her car. She ordered me to hop in, and proceeded to whisk me away to another friend’s house for an outdoor surprise party-à-trois. Balloons, pompoms, a Happy Birthday banner, gifts, food, cupcakes, a bottle of Töst, 40 cans of seltzer, me, two of my best friends in the world, and no kids: the perfect way for me to end my 30s.

On the big day itself, I reunited with my mom for more shopping, an outdoor family dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants, and a delicious three-tier red velvet cake baked by my husband. The Birthday, as we call it in our family, was a good one. A good multi-day celebration. A good reimagining of what a milestone birthday can be in a pandemic. A good use of our proximity to NYC. Good quality time with family and friends. Good food, great cake. And no booze.

I don’t think I even thought about drinking. Which, still, 847 days into my alcohol-free existence, amazes me. Because a few years ago, I could not conceive of enjoying a birthday, especially a milestone birthday, without wine, champagne, and tequila. The idea that I would happily, contentedly, turn 40 without a drop of alcohol would have been simply ludicrous to me if it had crossed my mind. Which it never did, because, like many events of 2020, a booze-free birthday was too far-fetched for me to even imagine. 

Yet here I am: 40 years into my life’s journey, 847 days into my alcohol-free journey, and more grateful every day to be exactly where I am. 

I still have a lot of inner work to do. This pandemic has sapped much of my creative energy, hence my absence from here. While I haven’t been blogging, I have been continuing to write – in my journal, mostly. I needed to take some time to record this insane year, to write myself out of anxiety and back into grace. I have also been reading a lot, and doom scrolling too much. I am still working diligently to rewire my brain out of its diet culture settings and into a more harmonious and attuned relationship with food. I have been taking time to breathe, move my body, and snuggle my family. Some days I barely manage to stay present, much less accomplish much else. Pandemic fatigue is real. But we have no choice but to carry on.

I hope to carry myself into my 40s with strength, self-compassion, and as much grace as I can muster. Entering this new decade as a non-drinker feels empowering, and I’m going with it.

Two Years No Booze

So here we are. Our first 4th of July in quarantine, and my second Independence Day from booze. On this day last year, I was radiant. Thin, fit, glowing. I had a fresh manicure. I felt like a million bucks. But this is not 2019. I can’t expect myself to glow while the world is sick and burning.

But this is also not 2017. If I were still drinking during this pandemic, I would be paralyzed by skyrocketing anxiety and bottomless shame. I would be risking my health (and my family’s health) and increasing my exposure to COVID by making trips to the liquor store. I would be prioritizing alcohol – an addictive poison – right up there with food as a necessity for quarantine survival.

This is 2020. I am not where I used to be, but I am also not where I used to be.

Today I give myself grace. I remind myself to be proud of where I am in the midst of all this chaos. I have not fallen from grace, I have risen up on its wings to take care of myself and my family during this unprecedented time.
When I start to compare myself with where I was a year ago, I remind myself to adjust my units of measure. Right now, life cannot be measured in kid-free hours, because there are none. It cannot be measured in kickboxing classes, because there are none. Right now, life is measured in quarantine days, alcohol-free days, miles run, yoga classes streamed. It’s measured in book pages read and journal pages written, as I attempt to stay connected to myself and record what life is like in this bizarre time that I can only hope, someday, will be a blur.

My life is not perfect and all my problems are not solved. I haven’t lost any weight. The pink cloud of early sobriety has dissolved and the magic of my first sober year has worn off. My anxiety is present again (thanks COVID). ⁣⁣
⁣⁣
And also:⁣⁣
⁣⁣
I strive to embrace imperfection. Perfect is a mirage that sets us up to fail. Imperfect is grace, humor, and life’s exquisite realness.⁣⁣
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I feel capable. Of accomplishing pretty much anything. A mountain of dirty dishes in the sink used to be enough to defeat me. Now I’m staying sober through a global pandemic.⁣⁣
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My quarantine weight gain is bumming me out a bit, but at least it’s not compounded by the shame I would feel if I were puffed up and hungover from boozing my way through all of this corona-craziness.⁣⁣
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My anxiety is present, yes, but it’s a shadow of the monster it was when I was a #winemom. ⁣⁣
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I show up, every day, just as I am. I’m learning to love this person. I’m even letting her gray hair grow out because I give so many fewer Fs. Which gives me so much more time and energy to invest in pursuits worthier than giving Fs. ⁣⁣
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And on a related note:⁣⁣
⁣⁣
I used to be uncomfortable with the word “sober” because I thought using it would imply that I had a Serious Drinking Problem and I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. Now I use the term because it’s:⁣⁣
⁣⁣
A) True⁣⁣
B) Concise⁣⁣
C) Not up to me what people choose to believe about me and my journey. ⁣⁣
⁣⁣
Beneath my quarantine puff and exhaustion, a quiet power is growing. Power that comes from freedom that comes from ditching my dependence on an addictive, toxic substance that never did me any good at all. ⁣⁣
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At two years AF, I may be in quarantine, but I am free. I may not be glowing, but I am grateful – more grateful for my freedom from alcohol than I have ever been. I am learning to lean into the power of my exquisitely imperfect, true self. ⁣

A White Suburban Housewife Takes Action

The world is infected and anxious and grieving and angry and burning. So much is wrong right now, it’s hard to know where to begin to try to help move any of the myriad needles that are so far askew.

I am a 39-year-old, white, stay-at-home mom who lives in a middle-upper class suburb of New York City. I am largely ignorant of systemic racism and I want to change that. I am tired of feeling shame around my ignorance and guilt around my inaction. I have chosen to look the other way, to scroll past too many headlines too many times. I want to do better, I want to be better, I want to be braver. 

I want to be part of the change, not just reap the benefits of a more just and peaceful country and world. I want to work for what so obviously and urgently must happen.

I am not going to do this perfectly. But I am going to do my best to educate myself and my children, to engage in difficult conversations when they arise, to add my voice to movements and my name to petitions, to donate money to organizations on the front lines of this fight against racial injustice.

I want to be an effective ally. Here is where I’m going to start. 

What I’m reading:

Organizations I’m Supporting:

Actions I’m Taking:

In My Podcast Queue:

  • Unlocking Us: Brené with Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist
  • Pod Save the People
  • Parenting Forward: Five Pandemic Parenting Lessons with Cindy Wang Brandt
  • Ten Percent Happier: Parenting in a Pandemic and An Uncomfortable (But Meaningful) Conversation About Race
  • 1619 (NY Times podcast)

In My Netflix Queue:

  • 13th
  • 13th: A Conversation With Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay
  • Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea.