Can We Talk About Jealousy?

This post continues exploring a theme I first addressed in Wrestling with My Inner Mean Girl in Honor of #MeToo.

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A seemingly satisfied goose at England Acres Farm in Mt Airy, Md.

Several months ago The New York Times ran a style piece about a woman in her 20s who creates designer ice cubes. As I read the article, my mind lit up with envy. The subject, Leslie Kirchhoff, was being celebrated for capitalizing on something I recall doing as a child—suspending objects in ice.

But frozen water is not her only medium. The article relayed her first big break: “While studying abroad in Paris during her sophomore year at New York University, Ms. Kirchhoff learned how to D.J. at the hip nightclub Le Montana, which led to a regular Friday night gig at the Top of the Standard when she returned to New York.”

How exactly she managed to score D.J. lessons at a trendy French club wasn’t explained.

One of Kirchhoff’s other claims to fame is co-creating the buzz-worthy “Drunk Crustaceans” calendar, which features shellfish in twee settings, such as a shrimp lounging in a miniature bathtub with a tiny bottle of wine. And if that’s not enough, Kirchhoff is also a photographer, with credits that include Vogue.com.

In the photo that accompanied the NYT piece, Kirchhoff is revealed to be tall and slim with long blonde hair. She is the kind of woman Paper magazine photographs in designer clothes and dubs “The Coolest Girl in the Room.” To sum it up, I hate her.

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Metal flamingos at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

Jealousy is a common human emotion, but you don’t hear many people eager to unpack it. Copping to envy is like admitting that you’re insecure, and possibly vain and petty as well. Who wants to explore how crappy it feels to be covetous and resentful? Surprisingly, I do!

But why? Well, let’s face it, the world is often unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Most of us encounter numerous inequities, both big and small, throughout our lives. When this occurs, initially we might feel bad about ourselves—maybe we don’t deserve to have good things happen to us. This feeling is quite uncomfortable, so often we transfer the blame onto the person who has what we want.

Thus, envy hardens into animosity toward people we assume have an unearned leg up or are gaming the system. This line of thinking can affect how we treat others. Sensing you’ve been cheated can lead someone to think, say, and do foolish, spiteful things.

A closer examination could help prevent jealousy from degenerating into ill-advised words and actions, and I believe that’s an opportunity worth seizing. So, let’s dive deeper.

I sat down and drafted a lengthy list of things that make me jealous. Then I grouped the items on the list into three main categories, borrowing from the well-known Serenity Prayer for my framework. Every example below comes from my own messed-up (in other words, human) mind.

Things I cannot change:

 This first list comprises circumstances that are usually referred to as luck or fate.

  • Being born into wealth
  • Belonging to a family with connections to powerful people who can offer life-changing favors
  • Looking like a fashion model
  • Possessing the talent of a brilliant singer, dancer, painter, or other creative genius
  • Having siblings who can share the responsibilities involved in caring for aging parents

There is very little wiggle room in changing these circumstances, so getting peeved about them is a poor use of one’s mental energy. However, we humans like to be in control, so our lack of control here can be particularly annoying. When faced with the arbitrary nature of the universe, our minds can go to some unpleasant places.

For example: Upon reading about a woman who is beautiful, talented, and successful—a less charmed person (let’s say me) might wallow in the unfairness of the situation. Why wasn’t I blessed with such good fortune? This jealousy can lead to villainizing the woman to soothe my feelings of inferiority. Her parents are no doubt rich and well-connected—she probably doesn’t deserve her success at all. This tactic might make me feel better temporarily, but it does nothing for my long-term satisfaction.

The best remedy or antidote to the “things I cannot change” brand of envy is simple gratitude. For every quality you envy in a person who seems to have hit the birthright jackpot, think of something for which you can be grateful. I’ve been trying this, and it really can help. But sometimes it’s also best just to take quick note of someone’s prodigious gifts and then move on with your life.

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It would be silly to envy a beautiful flower; we simply appreciate it instead.

Things I can change:

The items in this second grouping feature characteristics that don’t come naturally to some of us but aren’t impossible to develop. 

  • The ability to relax and not stress over the small stuff, like housework, bills, deadlines
  • An inclination to rely on the big stuff turning out okay—not worrying about getting cancer, dying early, or going broke
  • Exuding genuine personal confidence
  • Being in good physical shape
  • Actively developing new skills, learning new things, and chasing life goals

I try to be delighted that there is so much to accomplish here—room for progress is good, otherwise we stagnate. The trick is not to dwell on how much improvement is needed, and instead jump in and get to work.

We may whine to ourselves that some of these things seem hard. When you’ve spent most of your life worrying, like I have, about dying in a car crash or losing my house or saying something stupid, it’s hard to imagine going through your days without such creeping dread. But you can control your thoughts and actions. You can become what you envy.

Here’s a simple example: My husband is way more chill than I am about things like yardwork and the cleanliness of our house. My feelings about this are a combination of frustration that I end up doing most of the work (which is my choice, after all) and envy transformed into anger. So, I decided to try learning from him. I’m reconditioning myself so that I do fewer chores that might make me resentful; instead I read, write, or take a nap—things that make me happy. I will never be as relaxed as he is, but I’m starting to see positive results in my attitude.

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Trying to chill in my kayak on Lake Linganore, Md. Those eyelids still look a little tense.

Things I may not want to change:

This last category contains items we only think we want. 

  • Ambition that results in big promotions and a rising career
  • Frequent travel to faraway places
  • Leading a wild life without concern for adverse consequences
  • Being super positive and cheerful all the time
  • Never second-guessing yourself or struggling to make decisions

The same feelings of resentment bubble up when you see someone exhibiting these desirable traits or behaviors. But if you’re completely honest with yourself, it becomes clear that you simply aren’t one of those people.

This is great news! You are off the hook from not being more driven or perky or decisive, and you can stop resenting those who are like that.

One more example: I have friends who make it a priority to travel twice a year—every freaking year—to exotic locations. I always get a twinge of jealousy when I see their photos on Facebook. But a couple years ago I began reminding myself that travel is not a priority of mine. I could save up the money and set aside some vacation time and travel more if I really wanted to, but I have other preferences that mean more to me. Now I just say to myself, that’s so great that my friends figured out how much they love to travel and are making it happen.

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When I do travel, I usually end up missing home, because why wouldn’t I?

If envy haunts you, make your own list. Once you place each jealousy trigger into one of the three categories, you’ll realize that there’s only one group that should have an impact on you—the things you can change. Now you have a manageable list for self-development.

When jealousy starts invading your brain anyway, reject the usual script and try out a new internal dialogue. Here’s how I might react differently to that same article about the luxury ice cube creator:

Smile upon other people’s good fortune: This woman studied abroad in Paris, and not only could she get into a hip club, but someone taught her how to D.J. while she was there! Now she’s getting rich making ice cubes! How awesome is that?!

Identify their effort: According to the article, Kirchhoff “spent four years developing her own ice-making method and turned it into a business.” Good for her for having the dedication and the belief in her vision to put in the time and energy.

Remember your dreams and your skills:  Ice cubes aren’t really my thing. I want to reach people through my writing. I’m not half bad at it, and I will only get better if I make it a higher priority.

Find inspiration: What an amazing world we live in—if people will buy designer ice, surely there is an audience for my writing. I just need to find my niche.

Commit to immediate and ongoing action: I’m going to spend two hours writing tonight instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media. And I will make room in my schedule for regular writing in the morning.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being jealous now and then and confessing to it as a way to expel the shame. If we don’t let it rule us, we can learn from envy and use it to propel us forward.

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I am grateful for many things, especially red velvet ice cream in a chocolate-dipped cone.
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Putting the Self-Care in Caregiving

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Fields of lavender (Mom’s favorite color) at Springfield Manor in Thurmont, Md.

My mother fell about a month ago. I was there by her side, but I didn’t have a good grasp of her hand, and suddenly she was falling, and there was nothing I could do.

She hit her head hard, so we called 911, and the paramedics took her to the hospital. Everything checked out okay, but a day later her face looked like she went 12 rounds in a boxing ring.

For the past four weeks now, when we go to one of her doctor’s appointments, I make sure our fingers are intertwined as we walk to and from the car. The intimacy of this hand-holding is almost unbearable—it exposes a vulnerability I’d rather not acknowledge. And it harkens back to childhood and innocence, before our roles were reversed.

Last summer my mom’s kidney doctor began preparing us for the fact that she would need to start dialysis treatments in about six months’ time.

Anyone caring for an aging parent or seriously ill family member knows the feeling that comes with this moment. Life is about to change, and your control over it is precarious.

My entire body clenched, and I was immediately transported back 10 years, to when my mother still lived hundreds of miles away.

“My doctor says I’m going to need dialysis soon,” she told me on the phone in 2008. When she was a young girl, an appendix operation had revealed that one of my mom’s kidneys was not functioning and would need to be removed. I was aware that my mother’s single kidney would eventually wear out, but I was hoping it would be much later in life.

She added: “I’m not going on dialysis. My friend Carol told me terrible things about it, and I won’t do it.”

“So, you’re just going to let yourself die?” I asked. No answer.

I realized that I would need to make a swift and assured transformation from apprehensive daughter to protective parent figure.

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At the Kapok Tree Inn restaurant in Clearwater, Fl., with Grandmom and Mom on my birthday.

I went to visit Mom in Georgia, so we could see her nephrologist together. I had previously tried to communicate with this doctor via phone and email about the status of my mother’s condition, but all I got was an envelope in the mail containing a printed page about kidney disease that I could have Googled myself.

In person, the doctor assured me that dialysis was not yet on the horizon. My mother had misinterpreted or imagined the whole thing. Relieved as I was, I did not see this misunderstanding as an encouraging sign.

I went back to Maryland and tried to put my concerns out of mind. There was no health emergency to speak of, and I hoped that I could continue to monitor the situation long distance.

A year later my mother confessed on a call that she had not left her apartment in over a week, and no one in the senior living facility had noticed. No friends or family in the area had called to check on her. When I was in my teens, my mother had suffered a severe depression, and I feared that she could be on the brink of another major episode.

My husband and I had a long talk that night. I was in my early 40s at the time, which seemed too young to be taking in a not-quite-elderly parent. My husband and I had been married less than two years. We had just bought our first house together, and we were enjoying being homeowners. Together, alone.

I was anxious at the prospect of my physically and emotionally demanding mother coming to live with us. Would it be a disaster from the start? Would I fall apart? Would my spouse slowly grow to resent me over the years?

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The dog gets lots of long walks.

My husband and I will never know if we made the “right” decision. To this day, eight years later, I occasionally review the pros and cons. And on most days, I conclude that the choice we made makes the most sense. But sometimes, when Mom calls upstairs at midnight to ask if we have an extra roll of toilet paper, I entertain second thoughts.

Acting as my mother’s health advocate, which is akin to a part-time job, is certainly easier with her under our roof. I manage her medications and go with her on all doctor’s appointments, taking detailed notes. Fitting her care into my work schedule is challenging and requires an understanding employer.

My mother has had three long hospital and rehabilitation stays and numerous out-patient procedures since she came to live with us. Both of her knees have been replaced (at the same time!), and a few years later she fell and broke a hip.

My heart goes out to every caregiver who has ever stalked the hospital halls looking for a nurse who has time to listen, who has worried about how many painkillers their parent is taking, or questioned if they should call the doctor’s answering service yet again.

When dealing with a family member with long-term health issues, self-care is critical. Caregivers must be proactive about their own health and well-being.

In addition to making sure I don’t put off my check-ups, I try to exercise, meditate, and spend time outdoors regularly. Writing and other forms of creative expression are real sanity savers. And sometimes, I simply need to be alone, even if it’s just to go shopping by myself.

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Out on Lake Linganore in New Market, Md.

My husband has been patient, and I am grateful that he is so supportive. But I can’t take his kindness for granted—I must prioritize partner-care alongside self-care. Is our relationship strong enough to weather any condition? We’re about to find out, because the storm is a comin’.

This time my mother’s kidney really is failing, and she has agreed to go on dialysis. Mom and I have attended a class, and she has been through multiple procedures to prepare for the upcoming treatments.

I will soon explore support groups for caregivers, and I have committed to start putting “me time” on the calendar so I remember to relax, reflect, and recharge.

At the top of my list is boundaries. I have never been very good at drawing and patrolling a proper perimeter between the two of us. Much like our hands when we walk to the car, our lives have become unavoidably entangled.

But as every good caregiver should, I will now strive to steady my mom while keeping my own feet firmly on the ground.

Next time: Something different!

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Mom and me outside the house in New Market, Md., where her bionic knees help her walk up and down lots of stairs.

Resistance is Futile: Embracing the Parent Within

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Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

Recently a friend shared a clip on Facebook about the secret to living longer. In the TED Talks video, Susan Pinker claims that social integration is the top factor associated with a long life. She describes this practice as “how much you interact with people as you move through your day . . . not just the people you’re really close to who mean a lot to you, but do you talk to the guy who everyday makes you your coffee, do you talk to the postman, do you talk to the woman who walks by your house everyday with her dog…?”

My first thought was, OMG my mom is going to live forever. You see, my mother talks to strangers. All the time. Sometimes this practice is charming, and sometimes it’s not.

Whenever we go to one of our favorite pizza places, mom stops the manager as we are leaving to compliment their hard-working wait staff. Sweet, right?

Then there’s the time we were on a road trip and stopped to use a public restroom. A woman close to my mother’s age was brushing her hair, and as she stepped away from the mirror, my mom said, “You look beautiful.” The woman laughed at the unexpected compliment and said thank you.

If the scene had ended there, it would have been a nice moment between two 70-something women. But as the other woman turned to exit, my mom added, “Now you’re supposed to say the same to me.” Ugh.

Most of us start out adult life confident that we will never turn into our mother or father. Most of us—possibly all of us—are proven wrong eventually. If you are vehemently disagreeing with me right now, let that resistance go.

Maybe you won’t actually become one or both of your parents. But one day you will hear that goofy expression of your dad’s come out of your mouth. Or you will catch yourself doing that thing with the paper towels that your mom always does.

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Me and Mom on my 11th birthday.

I was close with my mom when I was growing up, a closeness that sometimes felt more like a straightjacket than a hug. There was no dad or significant other to act as a buffer, and her emotional state was loosely knitted together. I loved her, but I was eager to wriggle out of the grasp she had on my life. As soon as I graduated college, I moved a thousand miles away in an effort to build an identity separate from her.

From most angles, it appears that I’ve succeeded. Our lives have been quite different, and our personalities even more so. When my mother first moved in with me and my husband seven years ago, I became assured that I was thoroughly unlike her.

Mom arrived in our state with a driver’s license and Social Security card that had different last names on them. It took us at least five trips to the department of motor vehicles, plus a trip to the Social Security office, before she finally got her new driver’s license. About a month later, mom informed me that she had lost this license. The birth certificate we had to order online was also missing the next time we needed it.

I, on the other hand, work hard to stay organized and feel itchy at the thought of not being able to find something.

Not long ago, my mother was out with a friend shopping and, on impulse, she purchased a mattress and box spring. She did not need them, nor did she have the money for them. She opened a credit card at the store, even though she knew that she wasn’t supposed to apply for any new credit cards. It took me endless calls and tweets to get the order canceled.

Meanwhile, I grow sweaty upon making major purchases and avoid going into debt at all costs.

My mom has been banned from watching football with my husband because she mostly reads magazines and then looks up and asks what just happened—repeatedly.

She talks over doctors and nurses as if she knows what they are going to say. She doesn’t really listen to them, which is why I always go along to take notes.

My mother also has a “creative memory.” In one such case, she has a completely different recollection of the days after my grandmother died—a memory of what might have been rather than what actually happened.

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Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

Despite all these differences (and there are many more, I promise you), my husband can attest that I do share a few traits with my mother—like our tendency to tell long stories full of unnecessary details, our inclination to overreact to minor frustrations, and our penchant for commenting on how poorly certain celebrities are aging.

And I hear her in the passive-aggressive way I talk to my stepson sometimes. Suddenly I am transported back to my own childhood, hearing my mom’s frustration with me hidden behind a manipulative question or a sarcastic comment.

However, as the days and years go by, I realize how important it is to focus on the positive, to be grateful for the attributes that I don’t mind sharing with my mom: her love of music and dancing, her fondness for laughter, and her genuine interest in people of all kinds.

Whether we like it or not, aspects of our parents’ personalities—good, bad, and complicated—are bound to show up in our own. Maybe it was always meant to be, that an echo of those who raised us would ultimately reverberate in our own bones.

Perhaps this recognition is an invitation to forgive and accept our mothers and fathers as fellow human beings. Rather than be embarrassed or in denial about the qualities we have in common with our parents, we can choose to see this as an opportunity to embrace them in all their tender messiness. And to love ourselves at the same time.

One day the two of us were walking out of a sandwich shop, and my mother stopped at the table of a young woman who was sitting alone. During lunch mom had noticed that this woman looked sad. So, she went over and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said something encouraging to her. I don’t know what my mother said because I was getting the heck out of there.

In the car, I was about to tell her what a terrible idea it was to physically touch a stranger these days, to presume to intrude on their personal space and pain. But I bit my tongue and said nothing. My mother meant well. And she did something not many people would do—she reached out to someone even though it would have been far easier to just walk by. It won’t be the end of the world if one day I find myself doing the same. Minus the touching, of course.

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Me and Mom at Christmas 2016.

 

Wrestling with My Inner Mean Girl in Honor of #MeToo

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Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers” (known online as #MeToo) as its Person of the Year for 2017. While many women and men were thrilled to see Time honor those who spoke out against sexual harassment and assault, more than a few people’s second thought was, “What the heck is Taylor Swift doing on the cover?”

While it’s true Swift sued a radio DJ for groping her and stood up to him admirably in court this summer, the singer is one of the biggest stars on the planet, and her inclusion on the cover comes across as crass.

Swift, like Lena Dunham and Gwyneth Paltrow among others, is one of those celebrities whose self-promotion often hits a sour note. Let’s face it, successful people make it almost too easy—and so satisfying—to pass judgment on them. Not only do the rich and famous appear to lead charmed lives, but they have the privilege of a vast platform from which to lecture the rest of us. It only seems fair to take them down a peg or two on occasion.

A couple decades ago reality television came along to capitalize on the human instinct to gape at attention-seeking people with a combination of envy and distaste. We might secretly wish to possess the good luck of these TV personalities, but we also revel in the fact that they are far more messed up than us unknown folk.

My favorite guilty pleasure in this arena is CBS’s long-running Survivor. I both admire and resent the contestants for having the guts to follow their dreams, the great fortune to make it onto the show, and the toned bodies that only get leaner as the season progresses. When a strong competitor grows too confident about their control in the game, it feels so gratifying to see them get blindsided.

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Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md.

More recently, social media has risen to both fuel and fulfill our desire to shake our heads at people who dare to be too perfect, too desperate, or too clueless. And this time around, anyone with an internet connection is invited to broadcast their persona to the world.

This penchant we have for making people famous only to rip them apart often involves women as both the targets and perpetrators. This is understandable, of course. Women grow up with the knowledge that they are being compared to each other and rated on their attractiveness, femininity, clothes, likeability, home decor, marital status, and mothering skills. In addition to mastering these attributes, many women are also expected to be crushing it at the workplace and involved in our community, church, or political party.

This sense of constantly being under the microscope can make women frustrated, tired, and resentful. A quick hit of disapproval aimed at another woman is so tempting. And what do you know, now we can log on to Facebook or Instagram and tsk-tsk at the moms who think their kids are perfect angels. We can sigh at yet another update from the woman with the life that looks like a Vanity Fair spread. And we can scoff at all the women who humble brag about their busy jobs, their killer workouts, and their cooking masterpieces.

Whether you’re talking about celebrities, reality stars, or social media users, they all choose to put themselves out there, so it’s ok to give their lives the side eye, right? At the same time, most of us realize that critiquing others is usually a sign that our own ego needs some boosting. The thing about looking down on others is that it doesn’t build any kid of permanent confidence. You must continually practice the art of the snicker if you want the cheap payoff of fleeting superiority.

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Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md.

While social media increases the opportunity to flex our internal bitch, the inclination can surface at any time or place. Recently my husband and I went out to dinner, and we ate at the restaurant’s bar. At one end, a woman sat alone with a glass of wine. She had a flower above one ear, a stiff smile, and a far-off look in her eyes. She reminded me of a character that Kristen Wiig might play—I could picture her suddenly grasping the bar with both hands and yelling “We’re all going to die!”

I texted a friend who shares my sense of humor to relay my observation. She asked for photographic evidence, so I took a photo of the woman while pretending to snap a selfie of myself and my husband. I followed this up by taking a picture of a second woman sitting directly across from us who was wearing a red and black lingerie-like top. I nicknamed her Moulin MILF, high on my own supply of cleverness.

When I got home, I felt mortified about my behavior. I deleted the pics and the texts and asked myself what inspired me to take photos of these strangers and then forward them on for my and my friend’s amusement.

To be honest, I think I was jealous of the woman in the slip top. She had long straight hair, which I’ve always coveted, and she had skinny, defined arms and shoulders, another thing with which I am not blessed. I was struck by the “green-eyed monster,” as my mom used to say. I can’t tell you why I was so preoccupied with the Kristen Wiig character-like woman. I don’t know if I was envious, but the delight I took in her certainly had an air of condescension.

I don’t want to admit that I am shallow or judgmental. But clearly there is a strain of petty viciousness running through me. This strain runs through all humans, I believe, but some of us are better at rejecting it than others.

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Emporium Antiques in Frederick, Md.

So, how do I quiet my inner mean girl? And why, as we are honoring the #MeToo movement, is it important to take time to focus on women being cruel toward other women?

I believe that I can be a far better ally to women if I can refrain from sizing them up, looking for flaws. If I’m going to support my sisters, I need to stop seeing them as competition. I’ve come up with a five-point plan to help guide me:

One:  Reflect on my behavior, explore my motives, and create accountability by documenting my thoughts. Check!

Two:  When I catch myself thinking or saying something unkind, try to turn it around right away. Replace bad thoughts with positive or at least more forgiving thoughts. So, instead of “Jeez, doesn’t Taylor Swift get enough publicity as it is?” I can change it to, “Taylor Swift has a ton of young fans—it’s great that they will be exposed to #MeToo because of her inclusion.”

Three: Reduce my social media consumption. Unless I’m looking for news or posting something creative, I will limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day of random scrolling and clicking. I know from trying this before that limiting my social media time means I spend those minutes more wisely.

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Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md.

Four:  Focus on building my own confidence in as many ways as possible. This will not only decrease my need to feel better-than-she, but it will keep me too busy to engage in pointless snark and gossip.

Five:  Celebrate the awesome women in the world who deserve to have a little more light shed on their efforts, like Tarana Burke, who started Me Too 10 years ago.

That insecure girl inside of me is on notice, and I’m sure Taylor Swift will rest easier.

Five questions at five months

 

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A makeshift bridge to get over a muddy area on the path around Lake Linganore.

This post is a follow-up to Saturation Point, which introduced the subject of my relatively new sobriety. You may want to read that piece first, if you haven’t already (but you certainly don’t have to).

A couple years ago I started writing about my drinking. Scraps of paper, abandoned journals, and unfinished computer files contain those first attempts at documenting my relationship with alcohol. That was back when I wasn’t sure if quitting drinking was in my future.

One exercise I created at the time was a series of five questions designed to nudge me toward making a decision. What would it be: Ditch the booze altogether or try harder at moderation?

During this period, I completed several Whole30s — a program focused on eliminating certain food groups from your diet for a month, including alcohol. Thanks to Whole30, I discovered that I felt much better when I didn’t drink. Yet I couldn’t wait to pour that first glass of Pinot Grigio every time I crossed the 30-day finish line.

I contemplated my answers to those five questions over and over again in my head, but I never got very far writing them out. Now that I’m five months sober, I’m finally going to answer them, as a promise I’ve made to myself to continue exploring the path I’ve taken and to shore up where I’ve landed.

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That dorky little cheerleader is 14 years old. It would take another couple years before I looked like a teenager.

1. Why did I first start drinking?

As a shy girl who matured late, I missed out on those early years of adolescence when my friends were holding hands with guys and learning how to French kiss. I was short and scrawny with big frizzy hair, so I spent a lot of time watching from the sidelines as my friends flirted and boys circled.

By the time boys started noticing me, I was painfully behind in experience. If I wanted to catch up, I was going to have to jump into the deep end of the pool without ever trying out the shallow side. Alcohol came along at just the right time, when I needed some manufactured courage.

It seemed like almost everyone had started drinking by 16, so despite coming from a very conservative family, I didn’t much question whether to drink or not. I just did. And in addition to lowering my inhibitions and making even the most boring nights seem fun and adventurous, drinking helped me tap into some deep emotions that I had been stuffing down.

Yes, I was that girl — the one who frequently ended the night sobbing in the back seat of someone’s car. Alcohol allowed me to mourn the fact that I didn’t know my father, that my mother suffered from depression, that I didn’t feel normal. The stress of my home life would pour out through my tears, and being drunk meant I didn’t care who witnessed my meltdowns. Obviously this was not the ideal way to address those issues, but it felt good at the time — and thus the pact between me and the drink was written.

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Sign outside a local bar in my area. I took this photo four years ago and texted it to a friend who was having a rough day.

2. Why did I continue drinking regularly?

At college, drinking was practically a required subject. The drinking age was not yet 21 — it actually changed from 19 to 21 while I was in college, but for those of us who had already turned 19, the state of Florida graciously grandfathered us into the world of legal drinking.

We had a bar on campus, and alcohol advertising was everywhere. The fraternities and sororities took turns holding weekly campus-wide parties with low cover charges and all-you-can-drink beer.

No one in the dorms cared if you stumbled home late and threw up in the waste basket. No more sneaking out or worrying about your mom catching you. Not much driving was required — everything you needed to get trashed was within a small radius.

In other words, college was like an Olympic training camp for drinking, preparing me for an adulthood of medal-worthy alcohol consumption.

I moved to New York City right after college — a wise move for someone who wanted to be able to go out whenever the mood struck her, but didn’t want to drink and drive.

I loved that city. Among many other fabulous things, I loved the ability to go into a restaurant by myself, sit down at the bar, and within minutes be engrossed in a conversation with the bartender or someone else at the bar. The camaraderie that came with drinking created an instant connection. A warm buzz and a temporary new friendship made this insecure girl feel like the grown-up, sophisticated woman I wanted to be.

As I gained self-confidence, and the need to unearth my sadness diminished, drinking created a new purpose for itself in my life. I don’t think I explicitly used alcohol as a means to numb or escape, nor was I an every-day or an all-day drinker. But somewhere along the line drinking became a reliable release valve for ordinary stress.

After two or three alcohol-free nights, the pressure would build up, and I would need a night of drinking. Work was busy, whatever relationship I was in was complicated, mom was mad because I hadn’t called, the apartment was a mess, you name it. Good thing my friends were standing by to go out for drinks. And if they weren’t, I wasn’t afraid to drink alone. In fact, sometimes I preferred it.

After examining this release valve effect instead of just surrendering to it, I’ve come to realize that the alcohol itself was creating the pressure just as much as the daily stressors in my life. I had developed a dependency that needed to be fed every 72 hours or so. And when it was hungry, it was ravenous.

You know that feeling when you have to pee really bad, and how when you get to the bathroom, it gets infinitely worse? So bad that it feels like you might not get your pants down in time? Well, that’s how I often felt when it had been a while since I had last tied one on, and I was headed to the bar, and I knew that a drink would soon be in my hands. I could physically feel the anticipation welling up inside of me, my heart beating, my breath growing shallow and quick, adrenaline flowing.

This reaction was not unusual to me. My drinking seemed average, or at least in the high range of acceptability. For years I did not question that this hobby-slash-habit played such a prominent role in my life.

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Taken in the women’s room at Ottobar in Baltimore, Md. I was excited to see Heartless Bastards that night, but I got so drunk during the opening act, that I barely remember the headliner.

3. What are the reasons I should stop drinking or at least take a long break?

Starting from early childhood I was a worrier. As soon as I learned about serious diseases like cancer, I was convinced that I would develop one. So at some point in my early 20s I did worry briefly that I might have a drinking problem. But this concern felt like all my other fears and phobias of getting sick and dying — overblown and not based in reality.

Around the age of 24, I responded to an ad looking for volunteers to take calls for a suicide hotline. Why I thought this was a good idea given my typical level of anxiety is a subject for another time. Anyway, we recruits had to attend two day-long Saturday trainings before we could get on the phones. At the end of the first Saturday, they asked us to attend an AA meeting on our own time during the upcoming week, and then we would talk about our impressions at the next training.

I was excited to go to the AA meeting. Maybe this was what I needed, maybe I would realize I was an alcoholic and just keep going to AA meetings. But the people there sounded nothing like me. They had stolen from work, left children in cars while they scored, set fire to their homes, and been arrested.

I left that meeting feeling elated. I was not an alcoholic. I even bought a six-pack of tall boy Budweisers on my way home to celebrate my non-problem. (A quick aside: I never did complete my training for the suicide hotline. I called them before the next Saturday and chickened out.)

That AA experience sustained me for close to a decade: I was fine. My drinking was commonplace, dull even.

And yet, unpleasant incidents piled up over the years. Fighting with friends, embarassing myself in front of co-workers, public blackouts. Oddly enough, none of these occurrences were sufficiently unsavory to get me to stop indulging for any serious length of time.

What were the reasons that led me to finally say enough? Age, vanity, and the feeling of being stuck in a thick sludge of my own making.

As I reached middle age, I knew that I needed to start taking better care of my health. I quit smoking, started eating better, tried again to find a form of exercise that I could stick with, and began meditating. Alcohol consumption was the next natural target. Not only would quitting drinking improve my health, but it might slow down the visible signs of the aging process. Having looked young all my life, the idea of appearing old was not sitting well with me, and here was something that could help.

Not only that, I wanted to go to sleep with a clear head and wake up with a clear head. Never again did I want to stay up late listening to music in the bathroom, drinking my husband’s beer because I had run out of wine. Never again did I want to wake up in the middle of the night not remembering how I got from being passed out on the couch to being half dressed in bed, not remembering pouring that last drink now sitting on the bedside table.

Still, it was my desire to write more, read more, do more that convinced me I needed a break. I needed to make space in my life to fall in love with myself, and this decades-long habit was getting in the way.

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Wine tasting at Big Cork Vineyards in Rohrersville, Md.

4. Are there reasons I might want to try moderating my drinking instead of quitting?

First, there are the aesthetics. The sound of a wine glass being set down on a cool marble bar. The sight of pale wine poured into the glass, reflecting the light. The feel of the delicate rim of the glass against my lips. The taste of the dry wine after sucking down an oyster. Now and then, it would be nice to have a glass or two in the perfect setting. Why reject this magic dance of mood, color, texture, light, and sound, your sly brain asks.

Then there’s association. For many of us (and, let’s face it, society at large), the consumption of alcohol is tightly woven into many communal events: Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday parties, watching the Super Bowl, participating in drinking-friendly sports (bowling, pool, darts, poker, cornhole, bocce, etc), the list goes on. How does one celebrate a promotion, a new job, or a retirement without a drink? Why wouldn’t I want to be able to mark a truly special occasion by lifting a glass of an intoxicating beverage, as I did so many times?

Finally, there’s the social aspect. Drinking binds people together, almost immediately and with little effort (a sign, I believe, that the affinity is partly an illusion).

When others are drinking, and you’re not, something is lost. You feel separate. The laughter is slightly different on each side. And as the evening progresses, the difference grows. The experience of being the only teetotaler (or one of the few) is not the end of the world, but it is an adjustment. What a relief it would be to grab a drink and join the crowd. To sigh, to loosen your shoulders, to succumb, and see what happens.

This is going to sound pathetic to some, but it has actually saddened me to admit to myself that I will never again sit in a smelly pub and drink all day with my friends because we decided that the street festival wasn’t nearly as interesting as boozing and talking. I won’t squint at the daylight as someone opens the bar door. There won’t be that moment when we all decide to order yet another. No more tipsily moving onto our next haunt, then finding that drunk second wind back at someone’s place and staying up late, telling those same old stories one more time. I can’t lie, drinking is one of the easiest hobbies you’ll ever cling to, and it has its charms.

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Time doesn’t grow on trees, ya know. Taken at Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

5. Why would it be preferable to quit drinking entirely? 

My husband thinks that I’m not an alcoholic, and therefore he doesn’t understand why I would choose the sober life. Why would I deny myself the joys of drinking when I don’t have a serious problem?

Now that I’ve seen the other side, I don’t know how I could choose otherwise. I feel ike someone turned the music on inside of me. Not all the time, of course. Life is still stressful and frustrating, and I don’t always react the best possible way when challenging stuff happens. I reserve the right (and ability) to disappoint myself — that doesn’t go away.

I’ve never experienced a serious depression, but my mother has. I live with the sense that there is a seed of darkness inside of me. I have long worried that the abyss could swallow me one day. The idea of letting go and sinking into the darkness is tempting — to let it take you over so you no longer have to fear it.

But that’s not who I am. That’s not who most of us are. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the message that we’re drowning, and sometimes we have to go under very deep. But we all have it inside us to pull ourselves into the light.

At first it was hard, making the adjustment to being a non-drinker. I reminded myself that I was doing this so I could have more time to develop new hobbies, new interests. I had given alcohol decades of my precious attention. I owed it to myself to find some more productive, fulfilling pastimes.

As the days and weeks went on, it got easier. Around the 90 day mark I got a surge of energy and satisfaction. It happened again at 120 days. Maybe that feeling is physiological — my cells coming back to life. Or maybe it’s my ego developing some swagger. Either way, it feels a lot like a wicked crush. Wooing yourself is far underrated.

I no longer spend time thinking about when the next drink is coming, contemplating whether or not I should have another, or bemoaning the fact that I drank too much last night. My brain, my body, and my soul are unburdened.

Why would I trade that for a drink?

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Taking the long view in Dewey Beach, Del.

Next time: Drinking as a feminist issue.

A new resource I’ve been devouring lately:

Take a Break from Drinking – Rachel Hart has a very different way of looking at drinking, which some may find controversial. Her podcast is full of lots of helpful advice, even if you don’t fully sign onto her philosophy. I do recommend going back to the beginning and listening to the first couple episodes before jumping around. Other key episodes include 7, 11, 13-19, 25, 28, and 32.

Saturation point

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I’m usually the one behind the camera, but when drinking is involved, I often become the subject. All photos in this post were taken by my husband.

In honor of the one-year anniversary of the launch of this blog, I am posting something very much out of my comfort zone. Publishing this piece is terrifying, but here goes…

One hundred and five days days ago I stopped drinking. If you’ve ever knocked back more than a few with me, I forgive you for suspecting that a messy, humiliating event must have precipitated such a decision.

Did I roll down a hill in my underwear at a company picnic? Perhaps I got lost coming home one night and woke up in a neighbor’s yard. Or maybe I got in a screaming match with a stranger at a party and threw a glass across the room.

I can’t deny I’ve spent a substantial part of my adult life weaving down the fine line between goofy buzzed chick and reckless wasted woman. Even I’m surprised that the end was not more explosive.

Mostly I grew weary of how alcohol saturated so much of my free time. My last post was about watching too much TV, and drinking is the twin bad habit that has consumed me. Together, TV and alcohol made my life not so much tragic as repetitive and dormant. For a person who has always fancied herself creative and interesting, my life looked pretty dull and routine on the outside. And my inner life was twisted in knots — when it wasn’t glazed over with booze and binge watching.

Alcohol can serve as a handy tool for avoidance, a means to stay put. It allowed me to do nothing without feeling too awfully bad about it. Drinking gave me permission to fritter away hour after hour, and it provided the illusion of being engaged in an activity while it dampened my will to do anything else.

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A common sight: drinking wine whilst on the phone.

Eight years ago I was out drinking with a group of co-workers. I had noticed around that time that my body chemistry was changing, and I could no longer predict how quickly I might go from tipsy to trashed. That night the switch flipped fast (I was only on my third beer!), and a friend took my car keys away from me. By the time I arrived home in a cab it was late, and my sleeping husband could not hear me banging on the front door. I hadn’t called to ask him to leave the door unlocked because I was in a blackout on the metro ride home and wasn’t fully aware I didn’t have my keys until I got to the parking garage.

I wonder sometimes if I would have driven my car home from the train station that night if my keys hadn’t been confiscated. Would I have had the presence of mind to take a cab if the option to drive was available? I prefer to assert that I would not have gotten behind the wheel, but I can’t be 100 percent sure.

Back at my house, I ended up using a tall ladder that was in the backyard to climb onto our high deck (there were no stairs on that stupid deck for some reason). Then, I had to throw pieces of used charcoal from the grill up against the bedroom window to wake up my husband. When he finally came to the sliding glass door to let me in, looking half asleep and exasperated, I felt small and pathetic. The next morning I had the honor of cleaning up the charcoal scattered all over the deck and then calling the most likely suspect to ascertain if she had my keys. I’ve only felt that crappy a handful of other times, and I’m pretty sure they all involve drinking.

So, I guess I lied earlier because right there is an embarrassing event that affected my drinking and might have been the first major milepost on my path to sobriety. Starting in 2010, not long after that incident, I cut back my alcohol intake significantly, and I set a limit of two drinks for when I was out and solely responsible for getting myself home (the only drinking rule I ever set and actually kept). My reduced consumption was probably still considerable to a non-drinker, and it did creep up again over subsequent years–though never back to my highest level. Just enough to keep me treading water.

In 2014, I read Ann Dowsett Johnston’s “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” and for the first time I began contemplating that quitting entirely might be in my future. I’m not talking about the thoughts that go through your head during a particularly hellacious hangover, but a real dawning that giving up drinking could be a positive, proactive choice. Maybe I didn’t need to hit rock bottom in order to take action on behalf of my life.

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How many hours were lost getting over a hangover? Also, I miss my cat.

Earlier this year, my husband and I were looking at our photos on the computer. Suddenly I was staring at an image of myself curled up on the kitchen floor late one night. For a while we had been in the habit of drinking, talking, and listening to music in the kitchen for hours after dinner. He must have snapped this shot on his cell, and it went into the cloud without me knowing.

Seeing a photo of yourself that you didn’t know was taken is so weird: It can feel disorienting and invasive. But most of all, I realized that I didn’t want to be the woman passed out on the kitchen floor anymore.

Right around the same time, a Facebook friend shared Laura McKowen’s blog post “Am I an Alcoholic?” Reading it, I felt a stirring in my core: Wake up! This was meant for you!

In quick succession I discovered the HOME Podcast, Holly Whitaker’s Hip Sobriety, Kristi Coulter’s “Enjoli” piece, and so many more recovery blogs, websites, and podcasts. I listened to episodes of HOME, Since Right Now, and Recovery Elevator in the car during my commute and on my headphones as I went to sleep.

“This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace delivered the final shove. On May 12, just six days after buying the book, I started what is now my longest run of non-drinking since the age of 16.

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I don’t have to be drunk to jump on a hotel bed, but alcohol certainly was involved that night.

Right before I quit, in an attempt to establish a solid foundation, I decided to treat this effort like a work project. First, I set a clear goal of what I wanted to achieve, and then I spelled out my strategy for getting there. The goal itself is simple: Don’t get drunk. Period. At this point in my life, the return on investment of getting plastered is pretty nil. The motivation, the rationale has evaporated.

The tactics at hand to achieve this goal basically are limited to either removing the risk entirely or trying to moderate a deeply embedded habit. If you’ve ever tried it, policing your drinking can be exhausting. You start out imagining a civilized montage that includes the occasional glass of wine at a nice restaurant, a beer or two on a camping trip, a festive cocktail on vacation with your sweetie. But those earnest intentions usually end up right back on the kitchen floor.

Instead, I decided I would eliminate the ability to overindulge altogether. No opportunity, no worries. Surprisingly, it seems to suit me. I feel clearheaded and calm, awake and relieved, as if a long haze has lifted.

During the last 15 weeks, I’ve stood up to some minor temptations. But bigger ones are up ahead. If I do cave in (maybe even incite that final ugly event to seal the deal), I will forgive myself and get back to business. I know what’s on the other side now, and it’s so much better for my state of mind, not to mention my body and soul. After decades of telling myself I deserve a drink, I can say at last: I deserve sobriety.

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Ending on a positive note with a sober shot. One of my favorites taken by my husband.

Next time: Why did I start drinking? What kept me coming back? What are the advantages of sobriety? What might cause me to abandon the dry life?

And then: It’s not just about me! Drinking as a feminist issue.

Sources of Inspiration…

Books:

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol – by Ann Dowsett Johnston

Drinking: A Love Story – by Caroline Knapp (a classic)

This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol: Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life -by Annie Grace (Warning: This book might irk you if you aren’t already close to quitting, and it might ruffle your feathers even if you ARE! Despite some of its odd tactics, this book worked wonders on me.)

Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety – by Sacha Z. Scoblic

Blogs and websites:

Kristi Coulter

Hip Sobriety

Klen&Sobr

Laura McKowen

Podcasts:

Editing Our Drinking and Our Lives

HOME Podcast

Recover Girl

Recovery Elevator

Since Right Now

The Unruffled Podcast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My original bad habit

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Playing on my phone when I can’t sleep is just part of the problem.

The television in my childhood home rarely went dark. We had a TV that sat on a stand with wheels so we could swivel it around from the living room to face the dining table during meals and then back again.

As I got ready for school, we turned on Channel 13’s morning show, and I would often stop to watch Ernie Lee play the guitar and sing “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucile” or “I wish I was a Teddy Bear.”  In the afternoons, I logged countless hours watching The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Merv Griffin Show, and Guiding Light.

After dinner, you could find my family viewing Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Welcome Back Kotter, the movie of the week…the list goes on. Sunday evenings meant The Wonderful World of Disney, The Lawrence Welk Show, or possibly 60 Minutes. I started watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live at a young age, often staying up late by myself.

My love affair with television burned long and strong for decades. Once, in my early 30s, I tried a “summer without TV”–but certain exceptions had to be made for Grand Slam tennis tournaments and other “special” events, and the whole thing fell apart rather quickly.

My husband and I first discovered binge watching way back in 2002 when we consumed the entire first season of 24 on DVD in about four days. Cable, VCRs, TiVo, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime–these have all been both a blessing and a curse to my kind.

As I started to write this piece, I asked myself: What is it about TV that has so captivated me over the years? As a writer, I appreciate great storytelling and compelling characters. The aesthetically inclined side of me confesses to being seduced by well-composed shots, the artful use of music, and gorgeous settings, clothes, and people.

But, the great Marshall McLuhan might suggest that I look deeper than the content, that I examine my habit and its impact on my life because “the medium is the message.”

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Fireworks on Lake Linganore, Md.

In January of this year, I attempted to go a month without television. Giving up my morning dose of The Today Show would be easy: After decades of dedication, I had been hate watching the show for several years (at least), so it wasn’t much of a loss. Fortunately I had already scaled back on mindless channel surfing–you know, the kind that results in watching the Home Shopping Network, marathons of Tiny House Hunters, or old Match Games.

All my “primetime shows” (oh, what a quaint term) did not have to be viewed in real time, so I could get back to them starting in February if I so desired. On the other hand, just saying no to The Daily Show before falling to sleep was going to be more difficult.

The objective of this experiment was to open up time to write and read and work on other more productive projects. I had recently heard more than one successful blogger-turned-author reveal on a podcast that they simply had to give up TV to make any progress toward their goals. As a bonus, I was also hoping to sleep better without any screen time before bed.

Social media was not exempt from this exercise. I decided to limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day. I would set the timer on my phone before jumping on Facebook or Instagram, and I had to stop when the alarm went off. Unless I was in the middle of reading a particularly enlightening article (yes, my life is full of loopholes).

Most likely, my experiment would be deemed a failure by any reputable scientist. I did not last very long before allowing myself to watch one hour of television in the evening with my husband. I did not write very much. I did not post on this blog at all between Dec. 31 and May 1. My one accomplishment was to give up TV in the mornings completely and permanently.

Maybe I’m selling the month short. I did learn a lot about myself, particularly through the social media restriction, which I am proud to say I maintained for all 31 days. With limited time for Facebooking, I tried to make the most of those minutes, which included refusing to take part in pointless political arguments. And I tried not to go on Instagram unless I had something to share that I thought people would genuinely like.

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Picking berries by Lake Linganore, Md.

So, what did I learn during my January experiment and the months since?

Well, I’m battling against years of conditioning. I watch TV out of habit and often without much thought. Patterns have been set through decades of practice, deep grooves worn in my brain.

The idea that I won’t watch at least some television every single day seems downright unnatural. And why shouldn’t I grab my phone a hundred times a day to check, um, whatever?

My brain hungrily awaits stimulation. It wants to be fed. I have trained my mind to be passive, cluttered, and consumptive. Even while researching this piece I found myself watching the “pivot” couch scene from Friends–a scene I have seen close to a million times.  The internet is a dangerous place for people like me!

It’s going to be an ongoing project to whittle down my media diet. As it went with smoking, I won’t be able to go cold turkey. I will need lots of time to ease myself into no longer being a TV addict.

When I reach a plateau, I must press on. Morning TV and channel surfing are gone. Reality TV, except for a few respectable hold-outs, is a thing of the past. Weekend TV and sports have been mostly excised. Next for uprooting is watching late night shows in bed. And then the big challenge, my evening fix of well-crafted dramas and the increasingly rare comedy.

I can’t say for sure that I will not make room for any TV in my life. What would life be without shows like Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, or The OA? And what about Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver?

Maybe I can get my habit down to five hours a week. Would that be so bad?

My goal is to shape my life into something more varied and creative. If I can find a way to combine TV with the life I want to lead, then good for me. But if I can’t, I know now which one has to go.

Letting Go of Low Self-Esteem

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An ornament hanging in Sugarloaf Mountain Park in Md.

For about four decades I questioned my worth pretty much every day of my life. I grew up in a household that was different than most kids I knew, and I felt lesser because of it. My family didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know my father. He elected not to play a part in my life, and that made me feel like there was a piece missing inside of me.

For most of my childhood I was smaller than the other kids, and I had crazy hair, so I felt weird. I was shy and constantly afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Being laughed at or teased, even if the teasing was meant affectionately, assured me that I was inferior. The only thing worse than being made fun of was being overlooked, which happened a lot.

Even within my own loving family I sensed a hierarchy, with my mother and I stranded several rungs below my uncles and their families.

Insecurity shadowed me for a very long time. I tried to overcome it, and I did an ok job most of the time. But sometimes I couldn’t escape feeling like I was on the verge of collapsing into my self-doubt. Throughout most of my life, I chose counterproductive and temporary ways to push down the doubt.

Many of the stupid things I said and did over the years were based on a suspicion that I didn’t and might not ever measure up. I struck out when I felt challenged. I argued with friends and significant others because being wrong or not being taken seriously felt like a confirmation that I was deficient, insufficient, insignificant. I craved validation but found it difficult to accept when it did come my way.

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From the BASK Mural (by Ales Bask Hostomsky) at Foolish Pride Tattoo Shop in St. Petersburg, Fl.

I knew I was smart and funny but didn’t believe I had enough of either attribute to make up for my faults. The slightest mistake on my part would get blown out of proportion in my mind–another piece of evidence that I was a loser and everyone could see it. The success of others was taken as a sign that I couldn’t possibly have anything to be proud of about myself.

I wanted so desperately to like and respect myself, but I didn’t trust that chick for one second. Did she really deserve my unguarded embrace?

On top of it all, I frequently feared dying in a horrific accident or discovering I was terminally ill. I know now that this dread was a clue that I could not bear the thought of losing control. And it was tightly woven into my lack of confidence issues, making them both feel central to my very being.

Fifteen years ago I started seeing my second therapist, and slowly things started to get better. Gradually, I replaced the rickety rope bridge that was my ego with a stronger, more solid pathway forward.

Over the last few years, I’ve explored additional strategies for making peace with myself. This blog is a record of the more recent steps in this journey. The path isn’t likely to reach a magical destination one day where I can celebrate certain victory over my self-esteem issues. But that’s ok. As long as I stay on the path (mostly–I’m not perfect) and keep passing milestones, I’ll continue making progress. Embracing the journey is necessary and, surprisingly, it’s not the arduous task it might seem at first. And, the process can be just as comforting as the result.

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Trying to be in the moment on a recent kayaking trip on Lake Linganore in Md.

Lately, I’ve found meditating very helpful. If I make time for it every day and take some of the practices into other areas of my life, I can feel the calming effects. It helps me avoid wallowing in my stress; gives me the strength to resist my anger; and encourages me to stop identifying with my negativity. I can still acknowledge those feelings when they arise, and then move on.

Just the other day I got that old panicky feeling that there’s something physically wrong with me, something that could lead to death and the great unknown. I momentarily felt out of control, like a fist was clenching my heart, but I was able to use techniques from meditation to get past it quickly.

Previously I would have been afraid to let go of the fear. Who was I without it? And what if I died suddenly, and I wasn’t properly in terror beforehand? What then, indeed? Releasing my attachment to this pointless distress has been a true gift to myself.

Putting the mindfulness piece together with a few other key pieces is making a real difference in my life. It’s not always visible to others, but I can tell you that the ugly chatter in my mind has subsided considerably. And it only took half a century to get here!

In the coming weeks I’ll write more about the other pieces of the puzzle.

Up next: My somewhat successful experiment with limiting media consumption.

Podcast Guest Appearance: Dear Sugar

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Mirror by Myrtle Grove Furniture, photographed at woodshop in New Market, Md.

Sometimes when I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts while driving to work, I imagine what it would be like to be a guest on Dear Sugar Radio, Call Your Girlfriend, Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, or Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert.

As a recurring feature on this blog, I will occasionally spin these fleeting thoughts into full-fledged fantasies. First up is Dear Sugar Radio

From 2008 through 2012, authors Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed took turns offering brutally honest yet compassionate advice in the “Dear Sugar” column on The Rumpus. Now they appear together as co-hosts of Dear Sugar Radio, which regularly rocks my world.

As a longtime advice column reader, typically I have no fewer than five questions rattling around inside my head begging to be sent off for diagnosis and remedy. Here’s the one I think is best suited for Cheryl and Steve to tackle.

Dear Sugars,

A while ago I read a letter in another advice column. The writer started by explaining how she and her family visited museums, went on hikes, attended the symphony, and did volunteer work. They all grew vegetables and made crafts together and didn’t watch much TV. I don’t remember what her question was, but the implied message was clear: This family was getting it done right.

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Taken at the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse in Cleveland, Ohio.

I’ve been thinking about this letter and its writer’s attitude for years: Was her family superior to families who don’t take part in more high-brow or down-to-earth activities? Is there something wrong with lounging on the couch and watching TV?

My real question is inspired by this letter, but it’s far more personal. The struggle that keeps me up at night concerns living up to my full potential.

I often question whether I should have done more with my life by now. Would my life be better if I had published several novels by the age of 30, as the young me had hoped I would? What if I had gone to law school or traveled more? What if I had tried just a little bit harder to “make something of myself”?

I did work at a nonprofit organization for nearly two decades—perpetually underpaid, overwhelmed, and very fulfilled. But that’s over now, and my accomplishments there (of which I am most certainly proud) are fading fast.

Currently I work in marketing at a company that helps families, and this time around my job doesn’t invade my personal time nearly as much. I try to expand my life with occasional trips outside my comfort zone. I finally started a blog this year, but the posts are already coming fewer and farther between. And my morning walks have dried up.

Maybe I should give up TV entirely and force myself to write every night. Maybe I should get back to taking drum lessons or start rock climbing or both. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

Some people seem to have so much energy and drive. Some people work endless hours to make their dreams come true. Why isn’t that me?

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A bridesmaid’s beautiful “do” at a Washington, D.C., wedding.

How do I know if I’m slacking off or just living within my limits? I see posts and memes on social media about how important it is to accept yourself, and then I see others about how important it is to challenge yourself.

I want to be happy, but I don’t know if doing more will make me happy. You can probably tell that I’m the type who drives myself to distraction questioning my motives, my abilities, and my worth.

Sugars, please help me decide what to do and how to do it: Should I figure out how to give myself a break for not being more accomplished? Or, do I need to get past my complacency to lead a life that will make me more satisfied?

Sincerely,

Possibly Not Good Enough

The format of Dear Sugar Radio makes this next step a little intimidating. Usually the letter writer is not invited on the show. Cheryl and Steve talk about the letter themselves for a while, and then they welcome on a guest expert to join the discussion. On rare occasions they call the letter writer, but in this case I don’t need to babble on more about the problem—I need a solution!

So, with all due respect and humility, I’m going to try to channel the Sugar spirit and conjure up what they might say. And, what I think my mind and soul need to hear.

The Sugars might start by dividing my dilemma into two parts. First, there’s the issue of my tendency to interrogate and berate myself for not being more successful.  And second is the issue of procrastinating and avoiding doing things that I really am interested in doing.

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Well-used sink at the Myrtle Grove Furniture woodshop in New Market, Md.

To address the first issue, the Sugars might recall a previous show they recorded live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a little over a year ago. Musical artist and author Amanda Palmer guested on the show and performed her song “In My Mind,” in which she imagines a future version of herself who is “someone I admire.” In the song, Amanda laments that she is not exactly the person that she thought she’d be.

As the song progresses, Amanda comes to suspect that “I don’t want to be the person that I want to be.”  As the song closes, Amanda proudly pronounces that she is “exactly the person that I want to be.”

A similar thought was circulated on Nov. 11, when author Elizabeth Gilbert shared a quote from the recently departed Leonard Cohen: “There is a feeling we have sometimes of betraying some mission that we were mandated to fulfill, and being unable to fulfill it. And then coming to understand that the real mandate was NOT to fulfill it. And that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself.”

The Sugars might point out that many highly accomplished people suffer from the curse of doubting themselves. You can reach the top of your profession, yet still despair that you missed out on that one award, or you aren’t making enough time for family, or you still can’t please that one withholding parent—whatever fuels your lingering insecurity.

One of my other favorite podcasters, Ezra Klein, is a pretty successful guy, and even he noted that a recent guest “makes me feel boring and underaccomplished.”

No matter what goals I manage to achieve, I would probably still engage in the pointless art of constantly looking back, obsessive worrying, and self-flagellation. The trick is to figure out how to stop being so tough on myself. The Sugars might recommend that I work on stopping these thoughts as I have them, over and over until I tame them. And that I be kind to myself and grateful.

There are a number of ways to do this. I recently started meditating daily to train my brain how to focus and live in the moment. The Sugars might be interested to hear that I am already starting to feel the benefits after 30 days.

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At the water’s edge at Elk Neck State Park, Md.

I have also adopted a ritual suggested in a TED talk by cancer survivor Sarah Trimmer (which I discovered via another post from Elizabeth Gilbert). At the end of each day, I ask myself to complete these five statements:

1) Today I am grateful for…

2) Today I helped someone by…

3) Something that made me happy today was…

4) Today I learned…

5) Tomorrow I will…

After encouraging me to agonize less and locate the grace in what I already have, the Sugars might move on to the second issue present in my letter. Cheryl and Steve, being writers themselves no doubt would want me to explore whether I really want to write. And if I want to, then I should darn well find a way to do so.

The only way to determine this is to carve out some time to actually WRITE. The Sugars might wonder aloud what I am currently doing with my free time, and they would glance back at my letter and easily surmise that watching TV is the main culprit.

To provide more inspiration to clear time on my schedule, they might point to several bloggers/authors whom I admire who have stated in interviews that they had to give up TV to find time in their schedules to do the work they wanted to do.

I’m not confident that the Sugars would point to the Cracked article titled “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” but they might have similar thoughts to share. The article is written primarily for an audience of young men bemoaning that they don’t have girlfriends. But it has wise advice for just about anyone.

The author, David Wong, states: “Do the math: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.”

And for those who need a real kick in the pants, he says: “The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict. . . . Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.”

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Sign in Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Luray, Va.

Who knows—maybe watching TV is not a distraction, but is actually what I really love doing, and I just need to embrace it. Or maybe I do want to write and take photos and challenge myself to do new things, but I’m stuck in a rut.

So, in an effort to uncover the truth, I’m going to take the entire month of January off from watching TV (gasp!). I’m also considering trying the More Social Less Media program, but in the meantime, I will limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day of social media consumption.

I imagine that the Sugars and whatever awesome guest they invite on to discuss my letter (maybe one of the people mentioned above or Glennon Doyle Melton or Melissa Joulwan or Dallas Hartwig) would be pleased to hear that I am taking action to find out what truly floats my boat and lifts my sails.

Now, on to a mindful and productive 2017!

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Motivation capacity
  • Progress update

Radio Writing Assignment: Still Rock and Roll

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My friends and I went to a lot of concerts; there are many more than these, including that Rolling Stones ticket stub that I can’t find anymore. 

Radio Writing Assignment is a challenge I created to nudge my blog into unexpected territory. The premise is simple: Turn on the radio (or any source that generates music at random), and then write something about the first song that plays. You could write about the song’s literal meaning, a personal memory the song evokes, or some deeper meaning you believe is embedded in the lyrics.

Driving to work recently I turned on the radio, and Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” came on. The song isn’t too complicated to understand (unless there’s something going on under the surface that I’m not picking up). Joel is stating that despite changing trends and a tendency to focus on looks and fashion, good music is good music.

Thinking about the song inspired me to trace the influence of music on my life. I decided to review the different artists and the ever-evolving technologies that have come and gone over the years, while appreciating the common emotions and experiences music can provoke.

My earliest memories of music come from my mother singing me to sleep with songs from the 1950s and 60s. To this day, I can recall many of those songs almost word for word, and I can still hear the soothing tone of my mom’s voice and the exact way she sang each one.

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The Lennon Sisters were big in our house.

When I started listening to records, it was often a collection of Disney tunes from Cinderella, Snow White, The Jungle Book, and other animated movies. We had one of those stereos that was the size of a tall file cabinet turned on its side. You would slide the door on the top open and place the album down onto the turntable and then gently drop the needle on the record. It was almost like a sacred experience.

My mother and I lived with my grandparents, and we regularly watched The Lawrence Welk Show on television, which helped foster my love of music and dancing. We had a collection of albums from The Lennon Sisters, who often performed on the show. They were like the big sisters I always wanted. I can picture the cover of one of their albums so clearly – the photo is taken from overhead, and they are wearing blue pleated skirts that are fanned out on a red background. When I looked this album up online, I was delighted to see that it appears just as it does in my memory.

Another album cover burned into my brain is from Michele Lee, who is mostly known as an actress from the 1980s primetime soap Knot’s Landing, but who was also a singer. On the cover, she’s wearing a black miniskirt, tight turtleneck, and high black boots. At the time, this outfit seemed incredibly risqué to a young girl. Something about it felt naughty yet exciting, like maybe I wasn’t supposed to see it, but there it was in my totally square family’s record collection!

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The provocative Michele Lee album cover.

We also had a lot of soundtracks in our collection, like The King and I and South Pacific. I used to listen to those and dance around the living room to songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Getting to Know You.” The Soundtracks Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music evolved into Grease and Saturday Night Fever, all of which I played over and over. I loved the escape from my sheltered life that soundtracks provided.

We used to go out to eat at Pizza Hut sometimes, back when the chain had actual restaurants that were kind of nice. The one we frequented had a jukebox, and my mom would give me money to play songs while we waited for our food. I was going through a John Denver phase around this time, so we heard a lot of “Take Me Home Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

As I got older, I graduated to listening to records in my bedroom on a portable record player designed to look like it was covered in denim. I also acquired a white portable radio/cassette player the approximate size and shape of an old lunchbox. I could record songs off the radio, and I even remember holding it up to the television to record songs when a band I liked performed on an afternoon talk show. Hence, my obsession with mix tapes was born.

I soon discovered The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, still two of my favorite bands. For many of us, rock music serves as a guide to help usher us from childhood into adolescence. Suddenly music is all about desire and betrayal and jealousy and sex (and you realize that a lot of the songs you listened to as kids were about those themes, too).

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My friend Sally and I got t-shirts made at the mall to demonstrate our love of The Rolling Stones. They say “Shattered” on the back. I think we’re about 13 years old. 

In your teens, the music you listen to can make you feel cool, edgy, adult, dangerous. Music is also an invitation to start touching and exploring each other. I was a late bloomer, so I mostly sat on the sidelines watching everyone slow dance at our school dances. I wasn’t part of the action, but I can still hear the songs that were the most popular slow dance songs, like “Dust in the Wind” and “Stairway to Heaven.”

Once I started driving, that portable cassette player always came with us, along with my preferred tapes of the moment. As any of my friends can attest, I have always loved playing deejay—sometimes obnoxiously so.

Growing up in a boring small town, going to concerts was an important part of our lives in high school. I can’t possibly list all the bands we saw, but I am not embarrassed to admit that the first two concerts we attended (back when one of our moms had to drive us) were The Village People and The Jackson 5. From there we went on to see Pat Benatar, The Go-Go’s, AC/DC, Rush, Van Halen, Bryan Adams, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and so many more.

Music not only gives you permission to loosen up and get physical, it also allows you to express rage and sadness. Memories from my teens and early 20s are punctuated with the songs my friends and I used to nurse our broken hearts. Yaz’s “Don’t Walk Away from Love” is one I can recall singing loudly and defiantly.

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Mix tapes, I made a few…

By the time I got to college, Walkmans were becoming popular. Suddenly you could take your albums anywhere and have a whole private musical event going on inside your head. At my college in Florida, and everyone “laid out” by the pool in between classes to work on our tans. Freshman year, there we all were individually listening to The Police’s Synchronicity album on our Walkmans in the hot sun.

After going through a number of Walkmans and countless headphones, I was probably one of the last people to convert to a portable CD player—so late that I didn’t have my CD player long before switching to an early model iPod.

The ability to create electronic playlists, first on the computer and then on iTunes, was revolutionary. Early on, my enthusiastic need to create playlists became like a second job, and I had to step away because I was losing the joy of appreciating the actual music.

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So much music to love.

Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed all kinds of music. My friends and I share a love of Reggae, and we spent many a night dancing at clubs to Madonna and Prince. I’m fond of big band classics and singers like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, I adore Latin music. Anything that makes me want to jump up and down or shake my hips calls my name. I’ll give pretty much anything a try, but I’m mostly drawn to songs that make me smile.

Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to discover new artists that don’t get much radio play, and my husband and I have started a new tradition of listening to Beats 1 music shows on weekend mornings. But my love of soundtracks will no doubt outlive all genres and delivery mechanisms, because there’s nothing quite like an eclectic combination of songs that take you to another place.


In honor of this post I’m sharing a playlist that I just created for the soundtrack of my life. If you love music and enjoy trips down memory lane, I highly recommend building your own soundtrack.

First, I broke my life into eight time periods, and then I typed up lengthy lists of songs, musicians, genres, and movie soundtracks from those periods. This part was loads of fun. I did research on Google, Wikipedia, and Apple Music. I talked to my mom about the songs she used to sing to me, and we reminisced about the music we had in our home.

Once I had an abundance of musical touchstones, I narrowed down the list to a total of 28 songs—a respectable double album size. This part was hard, but the good news is that I can change it anytime I want! Some songs were chosen because they conjure up a specific memory, some because I listened to them so many times, and others because they represented the kind of music I was listening to during that timeframe.

When I have a chance, I plan to create a few expansion playlists, like an all-female influences version, an all get-up-and-dance version and an all rock bands version. I can think of worse ways of spending my time—as long as I don’t get too preoccupied once again.

Hope you have as much fun as I did creating your own soundtrack.

Lisa Bennett’s Musical Journey (through 2016)

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This poster of Andy Gibb hung on my bedroom wall when I was about 12 years old. Yikes!

Early childhood

1. If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake – Eileen Barton

2. Doll on a Music Box / Truly Scrumptious – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Pre-teen

3. Love Will Keep Us Together- Captain & Tennille

4. I Just Want to Be Your Everything – Andy Gibb

5. Summer Nights – Grease

Teens

6. Shattered – The Rolling Stones

7. Promises in the Dark – Pat Benatar

8. How Much More – The Go-Go’s

College

9. True – Spandau Ballet

10. Let the Music Play – Shannon

11. State Farm – Yaz

The NYC Years

12. Summer Wind – Frank Sinatra

13. Head to Toe – Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam

14. Boy – Book of Love

15. Johnny Come Home – Fine Young Cannibals

16. Lithium – Nirvana

17. My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) – En Vogue

Welcome to Maryland

18. Gel – Collective Soul

19. Never There – Cake

Single Again

20. On the Bound – Fiona Apple

21. Run On – Moby

22. Turn Off the Light – Nelly Furtado

New Chapter

23. Holiday – Green Day

24. Girl is on My Mind – The Black Keys

25. Take Your Mama – Scissor Sisters

26. Stung + You Belong to Me – Deer Tick

27. Mexican Aftershow Party – Kevin Drew

28. North American Scum – LCD Soundsystem

Bonus Track: Me in Honey – R.E.M. * possibly my all-time favorite song! *

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Here’s that faux denim record player, made by Sears.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Motivation capacity
  • Podcast dream guest appearance