The Gift of Five Alcohol-Free Years

Today I am celebrating five years of sobriety. Six years ago, if you had told me I would one day use the words “sobriety” and “celebrating” in the same sentence, I’d have laughed out loud.

But a quiet part deep inside me would have been elated to learn that change was possible. Part of me had been hoping I would eventually find the courage, strength, and determination to give alcohol the boot.

Drinking was a big part of my life from the age of sixteen. I couldn’t imagine going out to dinner, starting the weekend, or marking an important occasion without an adult beverage. Feeling happy? Have a drink (or two). Feeling sad? Have a drink (or two). Stressed out? Have a drink (or two). Kinda bored? Have a drink (or two). And once I had a couple glasses of wine in me, it was likely that many more would follow. I didn’t do this every night. But I did do it often enough. Consistently. For decades.

When I finally decided to quit, it wasn’t a life or death matter. But it was a quality of life issue. For what seemed like ages, I had been running the cost-benefit analysis of drinking in my head, and the trend was not headed in a good direction.

I wanted to write. I wanted to be more active. I wanted to try new and interesting things. But I was most certainly not doing any of this.

So, on May 12, 2017, I decided I had had enough. It was time to give sobriety a try.

At first, I concentrated on resisting the cravings, and I gritted my teeth when everyone else was getting buzzed and I was consumed with FOMO. I paid attention to my triggers and slowly dismantled them one by one. (A completely unexpected trigger still pops up from time to time!)

As the years went on, the journey became less and less about drinking. Removing alcohol from my life was like discovering a door to a whole new wing of my psyche. I uncovered other coping mechanisms that I was using to soften the edges or distract me in the short term—fixations such as TV, social media, and shopping that did not produce positive results in the long term.

Sobriety ended up being about so much more than declining to put a substance in my body. It was and is about emotional growth, building skills that last, and developing hard-earned confidence. At last, I was able to focus more productively on my anxiety, fear of death, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. All the stuff I thought alcohol was offering me—I had to learn how to give those things to myself.

And I kept the promise I made to myself: I committed to my writing. I ended up writing and self-publishing a book about my experience, in which I explored the patterns and stories that had kept me idling in place for so long. I tried all kinds of new things, including meditation, Pilates, aerial yoga, spin class, zip-lining, flotation therapy, paddle boarding, pole dancing, indoor rock climbing, and much more. I still do several of these activities regularly.

Not everything I tried to do was a success. The drum lessons I took at the beginning of my sobriety came to a quick end. My husband and I pursued two small business ideas—I even attended a six-month course related to one of these ideas—neither of which panned out. I started to build an online course in habit-shifting that I thought had real potential, but it was too much to take on at the same time as writing and editing my book. I did end up sharing it on this blog—and who knows, maybe one day I will get back to it.

The gift (there’s another word I didn’t think I would ever use in this context!), the gift of sobriety has been the ongoing process of unearthing who I am. “Coming into your own” is a phrase I never fully appreciated. But now I can tell you that it feels like bursting forth from a long dormancy, like opening up and reaching toward the sky.

What Sobriety Means to a Former Gray Area Drinker

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in October 2018. I am reposting it here in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir, which will address this issue at length.

When I decided to stop drinking in May of 2017, I knew I would eventually write publicly about my journey. Even before I made the choice, I started jotting down my thoughts about alcohol—the hold it had on my life, the challenges of drinking moderately, and the reasons why quitting was starting to look like the obvious solution.

Three months into my recovery, I revealed to Facebook friends and my blog’s tiny audience that I had managed to stay sober for the longest period yet in my adult life. I posted again at the five-month mark, at which point a few people suggested that it was time for me to congratulate myself and move on.

I don’t think so.

I’m rarely shy when it comes to sharing stories about my life. Nearly two decades of working in communications for a political organization helped me develop a pretty thick skin. I learned that no matter what a person says or how they say it, someone is going to find something in their words to criticize. But that shouldn’t keep us from speaking our truth.

My concern about writing on this topic stems not from a fear of being judged but from a suspicion that I don’t belong in the recovery community. You see, I’m what’s called a “gray area” or “high bottom” drinker. While I believe that I had an alcohol dependency, my habit never escalated to the level typically associated with people who quit drinking.

I was doing well at work, and my personal relationships were intact, but my dreams were stalled. Drinking had made my life repetitive and stagnant. My writing career and love of trying new things had been put on hold. This went on for decades.

Like many gray area drinkers, I tried all the tricks designed to keep alcohol at arm’s length but still within grasp. I counted drinks, tracked how many nights in a row I stayed dry, diluted my wine with seltzer, only drank when I was home or only drank when I was out, and so on. Nothing worked. My mind was more preoccupied than ever with thoughts of alcohol.

When I finally quit, I did so with the knowledge that I didn’t have to hit a disastrous rock bottom to recognize the negative impact alcohol was having on me. As a writer, I am eager to share this news with the world. As a longtime activist, I want to help others make the same realization as soon as possible.

But I worry that by talking about my sobriety, I am claiming ground that belongs to those who have struggled more. The insecure, anxious woman who turned to alcohol for confidence and comfort is panicked at the thought of stepping on anyone’s toes.

Feeling like an outsider was a monster that haunted me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and into my adult years. The beast is clutching at my ankles again, even when I’m feeling my sharpest and bravest.

The only way I know to get past this fear is to march directly through it. So, I am sharing with you what recovery means to a gray area drinker like me.

Liberation

My drinking habit was like carrying a backpack full of bricks at all times. I could function, but something was always weighing me down. I often felt tired, cranky and frustrated with myself. Hangovers stole hours from me on weekend days when I should have been having fun or getting errands done. And when it had been a couple days since my last drink, I was consumed with thinking about my next one.

Taking off that backpack allowed me to wake up every morning with zero worries about what I’d said or done the night before. By the end of my drinking “career,” I wasn’t going out and doing crazy stuff anymore, but I was still capable of picking fights with my husband, drunk dialing friends and posting nonsense on social media.

Being clearheaded and liberated from the effects of alcohol is truly a gift.

Perspective

When I was deciding whether to quit entirely or continue trying to moderate my drinking, I worked hard to put aside my emotional attachment to alcohol and appeal to my logical side.

Despite overwhelming evidence that I felt better when I wasn’t drinking, I kept at it. What if I did the same thing at work, employing an ineffective strategy over and over? My boss would have taken me aside long ago and demanded that I try a new tactic.

So, as my own boss, I gave myself a “needs improvement” performance review and chose sobriety as the answer. The results were so successful that I am applying this lens to other aspects of my life. This means examining other deep-rooted practices and asking if they are serving me.

In the quest to live my best life, perspective is everything. Sobriety changed my vantage point.

Self-Respect

How many hours, how many nights did I spend drinking? Some of those events included laughing and bonding with dear friends, but many of them were more about getting drunk than anything else. What if I had spent even half of that time writing and taking on new challenges?

Alcohol allowed me to do things that would have been boring or foolish if sober. Some were minor infractions, like waiting at the bar for a table, getting buzzed and skipping dinner to get trashed. Some were more consequential, like barely making it to an early morning doctor’s appointment and then sleeping off a hangover in the back seat of my car.

Now that I’ve removed alcohol from the equation of my life, I find that I value my time far more. And what do we have if we don’t have time? In recovery, I’ve concluded that valuing your time is the highest form of self-respect.

Peace

Since girlhood, my brain has been full of obsessive thoughts—fear of death, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of being seen as unworthy of attention or respect. My first therapist put me on Zoloft to help me focus in our sessions. But alcohol was my favorite form of self-medication.

Drinking to slow down my mind was effective but not without serious side effects. Even worse, it was getting me nowhere. I was not learning how to deal with my stress or my penchant for latching onto a sense of dread and letting it flood my body and spirit.

Sobriety didn’t automatically bring peace to my mind. I had to take up meditation and yoga. I had to remember to pay attention to my breath in moments of distress. Taking away alcohol made space for these more productive solutions.

The transformation I am experiencing is slower and less noticeable than guzzling two or three glasses of wine. But one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced that panicky feeling in weeks. I still get lost in worry and self-doubt on occasion, but I have the tools now to acknowledge those thoughts and then carry on.

Sharing these breakthroughs is why I am proud to take my place in the sobriety community.

Quieting the Tyrant Within

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in December 2018. I am posting an updated version here because it addresses a topic that will always be relevant to my emotional growth.

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I launched this blog, ditched my corporate marketing job, quit drinking, started moving my body more, spent a summer trying new things from my bucket list, and started writing a book.

Then, I decided to take on a different kind of challenge. Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.

Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.

Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.

There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.

In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

Image of Jessica Lange from the movie Frances.

*****

When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.

At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.

Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.

I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.

*****

Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have whispered to me throughout my life. Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.

When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.

Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.

I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation, and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.

*****

We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.

When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”

In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side, I began analyzing why I’m so judgy. I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.

The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.

I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.

Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it still didn’t sound quite right.

When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.

The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.

My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility. It is brutal and confining.

If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.

And as I practice quieting my internal tyrant, hopefully I’ll grow increasingly grateful that I’m so darn stable.

My 2021 Year in Review, Part II

Just a few of the books I read in 2021: inward and clarity & connection by yung pueblo, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

When I launched this blog in 2016, I did so to “document my attempt to stretch myself and experience all the interesting bends and branches in life that are calling to me.” Five years later, I’ve pretty much kept to that original mission.

At the close of 2021, I am starting a new practice of giving myself a pat on the back for the stretching I’ve done over the past 12 months. This is the second part of my year in review. If you missed the first part, feel free to check it out first.

Reading

From childhood through my 20s, I was a voracious reader. But somewhere along the way my reading trickled down to a handful of books a year. I’m a slow reader because I like to reread lines several times and turn the ideas over in my head. For the last decade, I focused on reading political/social commentary, which can be exhausting, so I was taking long breaks between books. In 2020, I read a mere six and a half books.

So, I set a goal to read more books in 2021—no precise number, just to keep reading. I alternated fiction with non-fiction, which proved to be super helpful. Now, I’m ending the year having read 28 books!

I read books from genres outside of my comfort zone, works set in other countries and cultures, and books that addressed race, sexuality, and the natural world. Several books were challenging, but I persisted. And I did give myself permission to set aside two books to finish another time (maybe).

One of the books I’m counting toward my tally was the journal/workbook What’s Your Story? by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond. This book challenged me to write rather than read, though it also included some beautiful writing at the opening of each section. Instead of marking up the book, I typed up my responses in a Word doc, and when I looked back, I discovered that I wrote more than 40,000 words!

I created a fun graphic summarizing my reading for the year, and I’m going to post it on my Instagram profile. My profile is @lisamaybennett if you want to check it out.

I’m tempted to try to read even more books in 2022, but I’m not going to pressure myself—I’m just going to keep reading, book after book.

Connection

Looking back at the people with whom I’ve been in contact over 2021, I am immensely grateful to have so many wonderful folks in my life.

This was the year that I reached out to a wide range of friends and acquaintances to ask if they would test read my manuscript. I was delighted by the number of people who said yes, and we went on to have many interesting exchanges. I became good friends with a woman down the street through this process, and I connected online with an independent author who lives in the same town where I grew up.

My husband and I have gotten to know our next-door neighbors better this year, as well as other families who live on the block. I should probably credit our dog, Toby, with helping us make new friends—he is a great ambassador!

I am still in contact with two of the women I met through a Zoom grief group that I joined more than a year ago. My friend who passed away nearly two years ago had a pretty big family, and I have been in touch with two of her nieces and her sister-in-law, which has been a great comfort to me. And I continue to text and talk regularly with my closest friends.

Once we were all vaccinated, we had quite a few visitors out to the house this summer. I guess I’m what you might call an extroverted introvert (or an introverted extrovert?). I love spending time with people and talking with them, but I also value my quiet, alone time. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right balance, so I may have overdone it in 2021. But I can’t say that I would change a thing.

Media and Tech Use

This is the one category where I tried to do less in 2021 rather than more. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved watching television, reading magazines, and following celebrity culture. I was the perfect target audience for the internet and social media.

Over the past five years, I’ve been working on spending less time watching TV and scrolling on my phone. This year, my TV consumption finally settled in at a level with which I’m comfortable. I no longer watch TV during the morning, day, or early evening, and I only sit down to watch it when I know what show or movie I’m going to watch. My cable news viewing has declined dramatically, and I feel less tense as a result.

I still struggled with social media use in 2021. I no longer argue with folks in the comments, and on the rare occasion when I do, I am quickly reminded why I steer clear of doing so. But social media always seems to find a new way to grab me. I have never watched a single episode of any Kardashian show, and yet I find myself watching videos of Kylie and Kendall Jenner on Instagram as well as the dancing and fashion videos that are served up to me through ads and the search function.

In the first part of this review, I promised myself I would focus on how far I’ve come, not on how far I still have to go. So, I’m not going to go over the steps I want to take in 2022—I’ll write more about this next year. Instead, I will state for the record that I shifted substantial blocks of my time this year from media consumption to creative endeavors and other habits that I wanted to develop.  

Rest

For decades I have suffered from various forms of insomnia. Over the past five years, my sleep has vastly improved, but it still feels like the final frontier for me, health-wise. I ended 2021 strong by reducing the time that I typically spend watching TV in bed and replacing it with reading. This seems to be helping me sleep through the night better.

Even when I get a good night’s rest, I am still a big fan of napping. This was the year that I finally decided to accept that I love afternoon naps. I take one as often as I can, and I’ve released the shame that I used to feel about doing so.

There’s lots more I did this year, including helping care for my mom and managing home improvement projects (like an unexpected roof replacement). I even experimented with my usual holiday traditions and wrote a piece about it for Medium.

I highly recommend sitting down and giving yourself props for all that you’ve done in 2021. This includes the things you stopped doing and the boundaries you created and enforced. You are more awesome than you realize. I know because I talked to a lot of people this year, and I was consistently impressed with your strength, resourcefulness, and insight.

In case you missed it: Part I of my Year in Review

My 2021 Year in Review, Part I

Since launching this blog five years ago, I’ve made some big changes in my life and tried lots of new things. But some days I feel like I’m not doing enough.

I’ve been unemployed for more than a year now. Acting as my mother’s health advocate/personal assistant keeps me pretty busy. Plus, I’m trying to fulfill my longtime dream of becoming a writer. At the same time, I’m trying to accept moving at a slower, gentler pace, which seems to suit me. Still, it’s hard not to feel like I’m behind in a race, and I’m never going to catch up.

While scrolling through Instagram this morning, I encountered a post by author Glennon Doyle that suggested: “Instead of thinking about how far there is to go…consider how far you’ve come.”

So, I decided to review what I’ve been up to in 2021 and give myself credit for all the things I’ve done. Surprisingly, I ended up with so much stuff, I’m doing this in two parts!

If you’re not into me bragging on myself, then I’ll see you in the new year. Otherwise, let’s get started…

Writing

In case you don’t already know, I’ve written a memoir. I started 2021 with about 33,500 words already in my manuscript, and my book now stands at 64,500 words. With all the chapters I added and subtracted, there’s no telling how many words I actually wrote this year.

At the end of spring, I recruited a bunch of people to read my manuscript and provide me with feedback. A total of 10 people have read the whole book so far, including an editor who delivered a very thorough critique. I edited my book a total of five times, and right now it’s with a proofreader.

I joined the Maryland Writers Association and several online self-publishing support groups. I’ve reached out to other writers who have published independently and learned a lot from them. I even got started working on a cover with someone I met through one of my groups. Originally, I thought I would publish my book by the end of this year, but that didn’t happen. And that’s ok. Hopefully I’ll get it out in early 2022.

Since the inception of this blog in 2016, my posting has been sporadic at best. So, I set the ambitious goal of posting 40 pieces here in 2021. It looks like I’m going to hit 35, which is pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.   

Included in these posts was Snowed In, a six-part suspense story—the first time I’ve written fiction in ages! I’m hoping to do another serialized story next year, and it might even feature some of the same characters from Snowed In.

I’ve been working on developing a daily writing practice that’s just for me. Journaling has never been my thing, and I still have to remind myself to do it, but I’m getting better. I find that journals with prompts are really helpful. This year I completed What’s Your Story by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond, and next year I plan to do Get Untamed by the aforementioned Glennon Doyle.

All in all, I feel more like a “real” writer every day, and that is what’s most important (though a royalty check would still be nice).

Sobriety

This year I celebrated four years of living alcohol free. Removing drinking from my life has been a game changer.

First of all, I don’t think anything I just shared about my writing would have been possible without me embracing sobriety. Alcohol was a big hijacker of my time, energy, and brain space. Quitting was an investment I made in myself, and the returns continue to build.

I wrote a lot about this in my memoir; it was extremely helpful to get my experiences out of my head and try to make sense of them. Hopefully my words can help someone else in 2022.

Habit Shifting

For years now, I’ve been tinkering around with a framework to help balance my life. Habit shifting is a big part of this, and in 2021, I developed a process called An Intentional Life. I contemplated turning this framework into an online course. Alas, I did not have the energy to do both that and finish my book. Instead, I wrote up the process and posted it on this blog in four installments.

Every week this year I updated my “Colorful Week” board, which helps me track the habits I’m developing. About two-thirds of the way through the year, I could see which habits had begun to stick and which ones were still sitting on the sidelines.

Two habits that started to become ingrained in my routine were yoga and meditating. I no longer had to push myself to do them—they were becoming almost as automatic as listening to my favorite podcasts.

But I needed to get more cardiovascular exercise, something I’ve long struggled to incorporate into my life. So, in September I joined a local fitness studio where I can take both yoga classes and cycle (spin) classes. Since then, I’ve been averaging four classes a week. I’m enjoying the indoor cycling classes way more than I thought I would, and I’m feeling great!

The last habit on my goal list that wasn’t getting any love was crafting. I’ve never been a particularly crafty person, but I wanted to start doing something that would hone my hand-eye coordination. And I was longing for a creative outlet that would be different from writing.

I tried knitting early in the year, but it was not for me, so I gave up on crafts for a while. Then, I ended the year strong by finally completing a gift for my mom that turned old jewelry into an art piece. Who knows if I will continue in this vein in 2022, but at least I gave myself the chance to see how much I enjoy working with my hands to make something beautiful.

Part II: Reading, tech use, and connection

Lake of Tears

Image of geese flying over Lake Linganore in Maryland (photo effects from Nexmuse.com).

Recently I was reading through the memoir I’ve written, giving it one more light edit before sending it off to the proofreader. About halfway through, something occurred to me: I am a big crybaby.

My manuscript covers the full scope of my life, with a strong focus on my childhood, teens, and early adulthood. Apparently, those years featured a lot of bawling. Out of curiosity, I searched my document for the use of words like “cry,” “tears,” “sob,” “weep,” etc.

I found no fewer than 14 descriptions of me wailing, gasping for breath, whimpering, or blubbering. Despite my embarrassment at all this lamentation, I decided to keep each and every reference to tears in my book. Though I come across as dramatic and self-indulgent…well, that’s who I am to a certain degree.

Over the past five years, I’ve tried to interrupt this inclination to lean into my emotions, particularly the self-pitying and indignant ones. I hear a lot these days about the importance of sitting with your feelings: We are meant to feel our feelings, not run or distract from them. At the same time, it can be unhealthy to get lost in our emotions—to let them sweep us away.

Last week, I was in a yoga class, and we did a number of hip-opener poses, which can help release stored-up stress and emotion. Toward the end of class, in our next-to-last pose, I found my eyes filling up with tears. It freaked me out at first. I held back, and then when I got out to my car, I had a good little cry and got in touch with what was stirring inside me.

As I sat there, I thought about how our emotions are like water. They are important, but their power must be respected. They can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful.

The lake where I live is beautiful; it serves as a water source for our county, as a home for countless creatures, and as a place for recreation and connecting with nature. But it can also be dangerous if you don’t practice appropriate safety measures. People have died in boating, swimming, and diving accidents in this lake.

Emotions don’t often kill us, but they can swallow us up. In addition to all the crying scenes in my manuscript, I also write about my issues with anger. I have been known to let my temper get the best of me, to fight tooth and nail to win an argument. This fury can lead me to say terrible things to others, to push the most sensitive buttons of the people I love, and to act in a way that seems out of sync with my values.

So, I’ve been working on locating that fine line between exploring my feelings and drowning in them. Meditation has assisted in this effort. Spending time outdoors helps put things in perspective. And sometimes simply thinking about the impact of our emotions, as I did in the car last week, and as I’m doing right now, helps bring everything together in a lesson that’s hard to forget.

Sweating the Small Stuff

My retired mom, who lives with me, came upstairs one day and told me she had had a very stressful morning. I asked her what happened, and she explained that she couldn’t find her cell phone. She looked and looked and finally realized that she had made the bed with her phone under the covers. So, she had to unmake the bed, retrieve the phone, and remake the bed. She wasn’t running late for anything, but she was huffing and puffing about what a setback this had been to her morning, and clearly it had affected her mood.

This was about 10 years ago, not long after my mom first moved in, and I remember at the time thinking that this sequence of events did not seem particularly stressful. It sounded exactly like that spilled milk we are told not to cry over. I even told this story to a co-worker and watched her eyes widen as she clearly agreed with me.

Over the past decade, I’ve thought a lot about my mom’s tendency to get flustered by life’s typical ups and downs. I reflected on how she often felt tired or unwell when I was a kid. It almost seemed like life itself was making her exhausted. Maybe because it was.

I’ve been trying to develop greater empathy for my mom, and my own current circumstances are helping me see things from a new point of view. After years of working at demanding jobs, I am currently unemployed. Now, when I get anxious, most of my stressors seem minor compared to my former work-related dilemmas.

When you’re an anxious person, like me and my mom, you often look for things to get stressed about. If you “require” a constant flow of tension in your life, your only choice is to find it among your daily experiences. The things that stress you out end up being proportionate to what you have going on in your life.

Some human beings are more sensitive when things going wrong. Even trivial mishaps and slights can mess with our day, and we want to say, “eff it.” Sometimes we do say eff it, and we give in to our worst habits and coping tools. These behaviors—like drinking, binge eating, scrolling on social media, or shopping—can be soothing in the short-term but not so efficient or healthy in the long-term.

I’m not saying we handwringers are a weak subset of people, but we react in extremes way to frustrating stuff. Some might call this a lack of resilience, but I think we’re actually a pretty resilient bunch. Maybe the issue is that we aren’t skilled at putting things in perspective, so everything feels like a good reason to throw up our arms. But I don’t think calling this a perspective problem is helpful, either, because it implies that we could get over ourselves if only we realized how insignificant our lives are in relation to others.

What if we decided, instead, that everyone’s emotional strain is valid? That stress is relative, and that’s ok. I think that’s a good start—by taking each of our anxiety levels seriously. By retiring the directive, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Then, if we want to diminish our reactions to stress and stop leaning on those short-term coping behaviors, we can work on that. We can take deep breaths and remind ourselves that this, too, shall pass. But, in the meantime, if we want to vent like my mom did that morning, we should do so without fear of being labeled a drama queen.

Scarcity and Participation Trophies

Three years ago, I wrote about jealousy, a topic that fascinates me. I shared my belief that accepting our feelings of envy and exploring them can be surprisingly freeing and insightful.

Last November, I was scrolling on Instagram and discovered a beautiful post by the amazing artist and writer Sophie Lucido Johnson. She linked jealousy with the concept of scarcity, which got my brain percolating.

Three months ago I decided to write about the 2012 frenzy in professional basketball known as “Linsanity.” Despite being a little late to the party on that one, I felt there was something to be learned from Jeremy Lin’s brief period of transcendence.

I think these topics are connected, that they have similar lessons to convey, and my mind has been slowly putting the pieces together over the years. Then, a random story I heard served as the missing piece that started to fill in the picture.

The story involves a girl who threw away her participation trophy and told her soccer teammates that they should do the same because the trophies were meaningless. Stories like this are meant to elicit cheers of “right on!”—but this one just made me sad.

Our culture has a complicated relationship with participation trophies in kids’ sports. Lots of people think these trophies diminish and deter achievement, while other folks believe they endorse and encourage effort.

When I was a kid, I was tiny and couldn’t throw or catch a ball to save my life, so I hated the team sports we were forced to play in gym class. As an adult, I haven’t had to deal with this issue much due to my lack of experience as a sports parent. When my stepson was young, he briefly played baseball and basketball, so I did attend a few games, where I had the opportunity to ponder the advantages of competitive athletics from a new perspective.

I now believe that, if handled properly (which is clearly a big ask), kids’ sports can have tons of benefits. Research on girls who play sports bears this out.

First, we have to recognize that the vast majority of kids who play team sports are not going to win “real” trophies, medals, or championships. They are not going to go on to play team sports in college or get drafted into the big leagues or compete at the Olympics.

Visions of elusive medals can help bring out the best in some contenders, but do we truly believe that athletics exist only to reward those who triumph?

The reason sports are tightly woven into education and communities is not to help funnel the top performers into future careers or to channel the energy of competitive kids and parents (though these objectives certainly play a part). We offer team sports to children because they are a hands-on tool for teaching collaboration, responsibility, dedication, and resilience.

If a child is putting in the time and supporting their teammates, a participation trophy can be a concrete way to acknowledge their undertaking. While kids are still developing both physically and mentally, taking a hard line on how there can only be one winner seems counter-productive.

And what if we carry this notion of scarcity outside the sports arena? We may find that school and work and even hobbies become far more stressful than need be.

A belief in scarcity can cause us to put off or give up entirely on a project because we fear that we will never be the best. Scarcity can make us jealous of the success of others, even our friends, because it seems as if there is only so much good fortune to go around.

We can and should pat ourselves on the back when we get a promotion, earn a degree, or find new ways to stretch and grow. But I would like to see every one of us embrace the spirit behind the participation trophy and give ourselves frequent accolades for all the myriad things we do to get through each day. Because maybe, just maybe, life itself is found in moments of pure participation.   

Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.

When Plans Change

Driving home from the grocery store, my eyes well up. They aren’t so much tears of sadness as a release of frustration. My upper lip trembles a bit, but no gasps or sobs emerge. “Worlds Away” by The Go-Go’s is playing, and it turns out to be the perfect song for a gentle, wistful cry.

My highly anticipated trip to Florida, which is two weeks away, is about to be deferred for the third freaking time.

I first booked this trip back in February of 2020, right before the pandemic got serious in the United States. One of my best friends had just died suddenly, and I was going to visit our mutual friends so that we could share memories and mark her passing.

But I was sick with giardia, and it was taking its sweet time going away despite the antibiotics. I did not want to get on a plane while this intestinal infection was lingering. So, I moved my flight to April, hoping that the coronavirus would blow over quickly.

You know what happened next. Businesses in our state started to close, and it was clear that a stay-home order was coming soon. In late March, I canceled my flight and accepted an open voucher from the airlines.

About a year later, I finally got vaccinated and started re-planning my visit. We settled on the end of July and booked a place on the beach for a long weekend.

Once again, nature stepped in. This time it’s something called red tide—a toxic algae bloom that is hitting the Tampa Bay area hard. Trucks are removing tons (literally, tons) of dead fish that have been washing up on shore. One of my friends, who lives in St. Petersburg, says it smells terrible. She is experiencing awful headaches and breathing deeply is a challenge.

So, this morning we decided to put the trip on hold. For the record: This gathering has been obstructed by a parasite in my intestines, a worldwide pandemic, and a “fish kill” in Florida. Ok, ok, I get the message!

As I hop in my car later, I decide to explore what caused my tears this morning. Yes, I am sad that another couple months or possibly a year will go by without seeing my dear friends. But I will eventually see them—I’m not worried about that.

And, if anything, I’m a little relieved that I don’t have to fly while the latest COVID variant is spreading and people are acting out on planes.

Before I reach my destination, I settle on two main causes for my irritation:

Control. Many grievances come down to control with me. I really don’t like it when things don’t turn out as planned. It reminds me that I do not have complete control over my life, and this scares me. I talk through this fear as I drive, and I remind myself that I have a pretty decent level of control over my life right now—perhaps more than I’ve ever had. I encourage myself to be grateful for the control and the abilities that I do have, like how easy it was to jump online and cancel my flight with the click of a button.

Stories. Of the many stories I have running in my head, one of the oldest is: I have the worst luck. I’ve repeated variations on this theme countless times. For so long, I was convinced that bad things always happened to me. Because I was stuck in this story, I couldn’t see how the good in my life clearly outweighed the bad. The result of this story was that I had a built-in excuse to give up, because why bother anyway? Ironically, I claim I want more control over my life (see previous paragraph), and yet I’ve used the power of this sad-sack story to relieve myself from taking control.

I’m still mad that this trip has been delayed three times, and I hope that I won’t have to wait too long to see my friends. But today I chose to explore my tendency to wallow in disappointment. As it often does, this kind of self-reflection got me out of the doldrums and onto my laptop to document these insights. The more consistently I do this, the less I get caught up in this kind of self-pity in the first place.