The Next Best Thing to Stopping Time

At least once a week I grumble to myself, “I wish I could make time stand still. Why can’t the world stop spinning for just one day?” Then, I picture people freezing in place while I get caught up on my errands, so that I can eventually unwind.

That word eventually is key. For some reason, my brain is convinced that I can’t truly enjoy relaxing or doing something fun unless I have nothing important hanging over my head. And my definition of important is generous, so it’s darn near impossible to achieve the state of tranquility I’m seeking.

I might even delay going to the bathroom in order to put on a load of laundry, answer a couple emails, and wash a few dishes—until my bladder is about to burst.

A couple weeks ago I was standing in the kitchen, agitated about something, when I said it again: “I wish I could stop time.”

Instead of bemoaning my lack of magical powers, I decided to explore that yearning.

For as long as I can remember, being responsible has felt like carrying a backpack full of bricks that I cannot put down. Those bricks represent all the things I need to do or think I should do, plus my concern with performing each task to a precise standard.

While I was pondering this self-oppressing sense of obligation, I remembered that I was about to celebrate four years of sobriety on May 12. Aha! The connection between the two emerged in a flash.

For decades, I used drinking to stop time. Not really, of course— I know alcohol doesn’t prevent time from moving forward. But consuming vast quantities of it puts you in a bubble of sorts where time marches on around you, but you stand blissfully still.

I thought about all the times that alcohol allowed me to switch off my brain and cast time aside. I might be out at a restaurant with my husband waiting for a table, but as long as we were having drinks at the bar, the time ticking away didn’t seem so bad.

Or, I might be hanging with friends, and as the booze took hold, we didn’t care that we had some place else to be (including bed). All that mattered was the alcohol-induced timeline we were inhabiting and the way it was slowing down and stretching out endlessly.

If I came home from a stressful day at work, sitting on the couch with a glass of wine that I kept refilling made the night feel longer, looser.

Stopping time with alcohol worked temporarily, but it introduced its own set of problems—not the least of which was a net increase in my anxiety rather than a decrease.

In the years since my last drink, I’ve found healthier ways to relieve my stress—I write a lot about those strategies here on my blog.

And without realizing it, I’ve also been experimenting with pausing the world. I discovered that Pilates, yoga, hiking, kayaking, and paddle boarding give the over-thinking part of my brain a breather. Engaging in these activities truly is the next best thing to stopping time.

Removing alcohol from your life is not the final answer. Being sober is for figuring things out. Every year or so, a new question or a new answer presents itself.

So, this year I’ve acknowledged that only I can grant myself permission to chill and have fun without running through a gauntlet of chores first. And finding healthy ways to slip from the mental bounds of time is critical to my well-being.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: One Year Since Losing a Friend

Tami and my cat Gretchen

About 10 years ago my friend Tami and I were in the basement of my townhouse so that she could visit with my cat Gretchen. My other cat, Mo, was up on the main floor. The two cats had become incompatible, so my husband and I were rotating them every 24 hours, and it was Gretty’s turn to be in the basement (which I would like to point out was a finished and relatively pleasant basement).

Tami was holding Gretty, and she looked at me and said, “You know, this situation with the cats is more about you than it is about them.”

I was flabbergasted. My reply was weak and forgettable—probably something like, “Um, ok, whatever you say.” Then I changed the subject because I did not want to argue with her.

Over the years since that trivial incident, I have crafted sassier comebacks in my head—none particularly worth sharing. I’m not sure why that remark bothered me so much. Now that Tami is gone, having passed away a year ago today, it still lingers in my mind alongside weightier memories.

A woman in my grief group told us how her therapist often asks, “Why do you think that bothers you so much?”

So, I’ve asked myself that question. Why did her comment bother me so much that I still recall it clearly ten years later? The answer is that Tami was at least partly right. When the cats would fight, I couldn’t bear to hear Gretty’s cries—she sounded like she was seeing the very gates to hell. That sound made my bones ache. I did not have the guts to let the cats duke it out and settle their conflict.

A reunion did happen gradually and by accident, as people came over and left the basement door open. For a couple blissful months, the cats coexisted again. And then Mo startled Gretty one day, and the truce was over. Sometimes Gretty would pee on the floor when she was afraid of Mo, so I don’t think the decision to keep the cats apart was entirely about my own neurotic tendencies.

Tami’s remark to me that day echoes as I grieve her loss. Her death haunts me, as the unexpected death of a 54-year old woman is likely to do. I am sad. I feel guilt. Most of all, I am mad. Mad at a long list of people, including her. I hate being mad at someone who I loved and who is no longer on this earth. My anger feels righteous, earned—but as Tami might argue, it really does say more about me than it does about her.

My reactions to her life choices were largely due to my own insecurities and angst. I was afraid we would lose her, and we did, but my fear did nothing to stop that.

A part of me wants to dig through both of our failings, turning them up like soil, letting them sift through my fingers as I try to glean something of use. There will be plenty of time for that later.

For today, I will say that only a friend like Tami can challenge you in that way, and I miss her dearly. 

Standing Up to Cravings

When you do the hard work to break a bad habit or addiction—like smoking or drinking—you will likely recognize the same thought patterns that kept you stuck as they pop up around other behaviors.

For example: I am a salt freak. I cannot adequately stress how much I love salt. My placemat at the dining table is covered in salt. If I eat tuna salad on top of lettuce, I will probably salt it at least 10 times throughout the meal.

My blood pressure has never been high, so I wielded that salt shaker with abandon for decades. Recently I read that there are other negative health risks associated with sodium besides high blood pressure, so I decided to experiment with cutting back on salt in my diet.

In addition to reading the labels more closely on packaged food and reducing the amount of salt I add while cooking, I promised myself I would refrain from using any salt on my meals until my taste buds were restored to their factory settings.

This experiment started about a month ago, and it’s been a challenging four weeks. Suddenly, a salt drama queen was unleashed inside my head. You want me to eat cooked veggies without salt? she screamed. Wait, no salt on scrambled eggs?! What about a baked potato? Surely, we can make an exception for chicken salad. A little bit won’t hurt!

My salt queen has been describing everything I eat as boring and bland. She has even suggested that all the color has been drained from my (our?) life. How will we survive this wasteland devoid of salty goodness?

More black pepper? Yes, please, but not the same. Mrs. Dash? Nope. Maybe hot sauce? That seemed promising until I checked and saw that most of our hot sauces contain a fair amount of sodium.

My salt abstention is reminiscent of giving up cigarettes ten years ago and alcohol four years ago. In all three cases, the physical cravings were amplified by the mental and emotional links that had solidified over time.

Each time, my mind did not want to go through the readjustment period required to break those links. To me, so many foods are supposed to taste like salt. Just like long phone conversations with friends were supposed to be accompanied by cigarette after cigarette. And dinners at restaurants were supposed to feature a free flow of alcohol.

Not only that, but my use of alcohol and cigarettes had become deeply intertwined with each other. When I first quit smoking, I didn’t think I could drink a bottle of wine without going through a pack of cigarettes. Well, I proved myself wrong—I went on drinking smoke-free just fine. Then, when I quit drinking six years later, I found a way to continue eating nice meals out without alcohol.

So, now I find myself disentangling the consumption of myriad foods from copious amounts of salt. It sounds like a minor thing, but sadly it is not. My salt queen has calmed down some, but she still thinks our meals have been downgraded to black and white.

When you try to remove a longtime habit from your life, you realize how important it has become to you. How it has grown like ivy, spreading and twisting itself around many parts of your life. How a voice inside your head has been put in charge of its defense.

Deeply ingrained habits can be detached from your life, but first you must stand up to that stubborn voice, and you must be willing to sever every last vine.

The Non-Magic of Making and Breaking Habits

Drinking coffee was not a regular thing for me before 2020. Caffeine has an intense effect on my nervous system, so for decades I rarely consumed coffee.

With the pandemic lockdowns, I suddenly had more time each morning, and the soothing ritual of grinding, brewing, and sipping coffee appealed to me. So, I found a local business that roasts flavorful half-caf and decaf blends and started ordering their beans.

This custom became part of my day pretty quickly. Before I knew it, I was already looking forward to my morning cup of joe in the early evening.

My new coffee habit emerged organically, but those that don’t can be challenging to establish.

A couple months ago I decided to initiate a pre-bedtime routine of using the Waterpik, brushing my teeth, and then rinsing with mouthwash. At first, I wondered when this practice would ever become automatic. I resented the extra time and effort it took when all I wanted to do was slide under the covers.

Even now, as the habit is finally taking root, some nights I negotiate with myself: What if I skipped tonight and went to bed with fuzzy teeth? Would just one time hurt?

Once a habit has solidified, it can be tough to quit. Three and a half years ago, I decided to remove alcohol from my life. I hadn’t intended to build a drinking habit, but the ongoing repetition in my late teens and early 20s ensured that it took hold. For decades, I drank several times a week. And then I tried to defy all that training.

At first, there were so many triggers that made me want to drink again. Birthdays and anniversaries, dinners at nice restaurants, Friday evenings after a long week—all of these markers were intimately linked with alcohol. I had to power through each one to break the habit.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I was working on a craft project and out of nowhere came the thought that I should have a drink after I finished.

For most of my adult life, long holiday weekends were for drinking—this pattern included drinking earlier in the day than usual and consuming alcohol for three or four consecutive days (something I didn’t usually do). For me, this merriment typically started off fun but did not end well. Yet here was an echo, surfacing after nearly four sober years, telling me a drink was in order. Talk about power!

For many years, I taught my brain that multiple glasses of wine paired well with talking on the phone with friends, that beer went hand-in-hand with playing darts, that alcohol was part of brunch and eating oysters and dancing at weddings and sitting by the fire.

My mind got the message that numerous activities were not reward enough without a drink before, during, or after. Luckily, this not-so-magical trick is a clue to how we can sever old habits and nurture new ones.

We must look for the associations. They are the support posts that we put down along the way. If we want to disassemble an entrenched habit, we must detach it from these props. We can do this by repeating the action, like eating brunch, without the habit. Remember, this is how we got into said mess, by repeating the activity with the habit.

Our desired new habits will need their own support posts—even something as simple as a time of day, like my bedtime teeth cleaning ritual.

Not all habits will be as immediately pleasant as drinking coffee. But if we tether them to something sturdy, we will persevere.

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!

The New Couch

I love analogies and metaphors. By translating abstract concepts into relatable situations, analogies promote understanding. Analogies and metaphors typically work best when they use everyday examples. Like a worn-out couch.

Imagine you have a sofa in your living room that is faded and sagging. It’s uncomfortable to sit on and stuffing is poking out of the arms.

But this couch has sentimental value. You’ve had it for a long time—perhaps it’s the first nice sofa you ever bought, or maybe your grandparents gave it to you.   

You know you need to replace this couch, so if you’re anything like me, you do one of two things…

A) After an embarrassing incident when a visiting relative struggled to extricate themselves from your sofa’s caved-in cushions, you banish it to an extra room or the garage. You now have one chair in your living room and a big empty space. You know you need to go buy a new couch, and you realize that if you keep putting off this task, you’ll be tempted to drag that dilapidated old thing back into the living room. Still, you procrastinate.

B) You go furniture shopping and fall in love with a snazzy new sofa. You purchase it, and the salesperson tells you it will be delivered in four weeks. You have plenty of time to make room for the new couch, right? But you put it off, and the next thing you know the furniture store is calling to set up a time to deliver your new sofa tomorrow, and your old one is still sitting right there.

In both cases, your shabby couch may be a reminder of good times, but it’s not doing its job anymore. At the same time, you have a living room with the appropriate amount of space for one couch. Zero couches will only work for so long, and two couches won’t work at all.

If you haven’t already guessed, the decrepit sofa in my story is a stand-in for any counter-productive behavior that is taking up space in your life. Like, say, social media scrolling, maxing out your credit cards, or gossiping. You may be well aware that you need to scale back or quit this habit entirely. But if you give it up without a plan for how to reallocate all the time and energy it’s been sucking up, you might find yourself right back where you started, like the couch-banisher in scenario A.

Or maybe you do have something you’ve been dreaming about—traveling the world, learning how to play the guitar, or starting a small business. Like the couch-shopper in scenario B, you have to make space in your life for this passion, otherwise where will you put it?

A little over three years ago I realized I was living in scenario B. My writing had been pushed aside while I drank wine and watched TV. I finally had to ditch alcohol and reduce my media consumption to make time for my writing and all the other things I wanted to do.

If you can relate to situation A or B, I’m pretty sure there’s an amazing new couch waiting for you. But you have to do the work of finding it and clearing the way.

The Domino Effect

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Sometimes when I struggle with making a decision or writing a blog post, I “interview” myself. When I have some time alone, I ask myself probing questions and answer them, often out loud to hear how they sound. Does this make me sound nutty? Don’t answer that.

Recently, I asked myself what I thought was the most influential thing that I’ve done to improve my confidence and peace of mind. If I could recommend one big life-changing step to others, what would it be? This was not a difficult question to tackle, except I kept changing my answer—maybe it was quitting drinking three years ago, or maybe it was quitting smoking 11 years ago, or maybe it was something else.

Picture a long line of dominoes standing on their ends. When you push one it knocks down the next domino and so on until the final domino falls. Which domino would you say is the single most important piece in getting the chain from the beginning to the end point? The first domino gets everything rolling, of course. And the last one completes the action. But every domino in the chain connects the domino before it to the domino after it—each one serves a purpose and keeps the momentum alive.

That’s how it’s been for me this past decade-plus. Each decision I made to improve my life was often impacted by the decision before it and then led to a subsequent positive choice. After I quit smoking, I started exercising more. Feeling better made me want to live in a place where I could get outside more. When my husband and I moved, being around nature made me want to improve my physical and mental health even more. I started meditating and eating mostly Paleo. This led me to quit drinking, which led me to take a writing workshop. Writing more led me to leave my marketing job in search of something more fulfilling.

Each step of this journey played its part, just like each domino plays its part in the chain reaction. When we get stuck on one step, the way a domino occasionally fails to push over the next one, we can miss out on all the other great steps that are waiting on the other side.

So, I can’t really say what is the best life-changing action someone could or should take. But I can say that the most important thing you can do is identify the next critical action—whether it’s finding a form of exercise you actually want to do, leaving a stressful job, getting into therapy, moving on from a bad relationship—and take it, so that the domino effect of your life never stops progressing.