Week 29: Things I would tell my 21-year-old self

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This week, a reporter from The Collegian, at South Dakota State University, interviewed me for a piece she was writing about a recent grad going into the Peace Corps. She asked me why I decided to go to Peace Corps and what advice I would give to the young man who departs for service in a week. We started talking about her life and her ambitions. She told me that she was going to be managing editor of the newspaper the following semester, worked at Daktronics as a marketing student, wanted to write for non-profits, and was considering the Peace Corps but the length of commitment intimidated her.

Throw in that she spends too much money at Cubbies on the weekends and you’ve essentially got me at the age of 21. In April of 2006, wrapping up my junior year, I worked at Daktronics, was going to be the ME at The Collegian, was leaning toward non-profits (that changed my senior year when I decided I wanted to go into newspapers after college), and thought on and off about the Peace Corps. It seems so impossible to me that that girl became this woman – a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and living in Chicago, writing and working at a non-profit. I would have told you then that I do want the life I have now, but couldn’t see the path from there to here, probably because it’s full of zig-zags and out and backs.

Later, after talking to the reporter, I messaged two of my dear friends, who knew me then but are better friends, despite distance, now. They had plenty of jokes regarding advice I could give this mini-me, but it did make me think what I would tell myself back then, knowing how my life turned out. I don’t really have a lot of regrets in life, and I am of the belief that everything that has happened to me and every choice I made has helped build the person I am, but I think there are a few things I might look at differently.

So, I wrote this list of things I would tell my 21-year-old self and thought I would share with you all. When I look at these nuggets of wisdom, I can see these are still things I remind myself of because I haven’t completely learned from the past. Anyway, enjoy.

Things I would tell my 21-year-old self

  • Don’t drink so much.
  • Don’t take it so personally.
  • Maybe don’t drive in that puddle.
  • Bite your lip when you want to say something that would be considered gossip.
  • Journal. Even if mundane, write down your days.
  • Worrying about money and how fat you are will suck joy from your experiences.
  • Stay away from Scotts and Bens.
  • Prioritize the people that matter.
  • Stretch after you run.
  • You will not be able to control everything, so it’s better to accept the situation as it is than run yourself ragged trying to fix it.
  • People will disappoint you and you’ll disappoint people. It’s a fact, but do your best anyway.
  • Cry when friends leave your life, but don’t hold on.
  • Call your mom.
  • Remember the things that are important to you; they’ll be the reason why you got to where you did 10 years later.
  • When a guy named Ethan messages you on a dating app, don’t wait two weeks to respond.
  • Breathe. It’s all going to work itself out.

P.S.  Both Peace Corps and The Collegian have very specific chunks of my heart, and I can directly link most good things in my life back to those two experiences. It’s sort of reassuring to remind myself of my foundations and where I’ve gone and where I can go because of them.

 

Week 28: On finding gratitude

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A month or so after I moved to D.C. in 2014, the District experienced its first spring day. I was still getting acquainted with the city and wanted to seize the opportunity to explore. I rented a bike and went from the Sculpture Garden to Columbia Heights to Logan Circle.

At one point, while biking around U Street at 3 or 4 p.m. I rode past several bars, most of which had recently opened up their patio spaces to accompany all those wishing to be in Mother Nature’s delight. One after the other, they were packed with women wearing floral dresses and men in khakis and button-up shirts, everyone wearing Ray Bans. Their hands were occupied with a glass or can. They laughed, chatted loudly. What a lovely day, I imagined they said to each other.

I didn’t know many people in the city at the time, and even though I was slowly making friends, they weren’t calling me for day drinks. It didn’t matter if they did, though, because I didn’t have much money. My rent, a small bedroom in a house shared with three other women, cost me exactly half of my month’s salary at a small non-profit. That day, I had packed my own lunch because I knew that I couldn’t afford to eat along the way. I kept going, hoping to get away from those bars and the reminders of what I didn’t have.

Spring in Chicago is my favorite season because the entire city lights up and there is an energy that wasn’t there in March. Last night, we made our way to Southport Avenue, where restaurants had pulled out their patio furniture so men and women wearing only single layers, mostly Cubs attire, could enjoy their meals outside. We found our way to the end of the stretch, a bar with outdoor seating in the front. Our friends were there, pulling up chairs for my love and I to enjoy. We laughed, told stories, I ordered a soda instead of a beer – it was a fantastic night.

Life amazes me sometimes.

 

I bring this up because I often come to this space to vent our my frustrations and hash out all the things I think aren’t going well in my life. The truth is, that if you and I were to have a conversation, I wouldn’t likely talk so frankly the way I do on this blog. I’d sound chipper, a bit more optimistic. There is more to who I am each day than the things I complain about on this blog.

And, I have to remember that, too. It’s always my goal to practice more gratitude, but I never get really far than saying, “Yeah, I should do that.” But as the seasons change and life comes out from underneath winter’s shadow, I’, reenergized, hopeful even. I struggle with demons that I know and don’t, but I also am rewarded with gifts beyond my comprehension. These are truths, so is that I have the power to ever be thankful or complain.

As I continue to struggle with sobriety and my purpose on this Easter Sunday, I remind myself of what I’ve gained in previous challenges. I made it out of those hard, lonely times better, and I will this, too, if only for grace and gratefulness.

P.S.

I’ve decided to discontinue the best and worst parts of my week. They began to repeat themselves and seemed forced most weeks. Maybe I’ll bring them back, but because I am now halfway through this journey I decided it was a good time to break. 

Week 27: Halfway

 

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As a drinker, I tended not to keep beer and wine at my house, mostly because that would lead to drinking every day. I couldn’t have a beer in the fridge and not drink it, the same way people can’t have cookies or ice cream around (I also don’t usually keep those stocked at home, either).

And, yet, I still loved when I knew there was a glass of wine or IPA to be had. As I drudged through the work day, I would think about that beverage waiting for me, my own little medal at the finish line. Then, when it was time to indulge, I would savor that beer, often eliminating other distractions so I could give it my full attention to the beer.

Now that I don’t drink, I still look forward to that moment when I can indulge at the end of a long day, now it’s just with a La Croix and piece of dark chocolate. I wait all day for my La Croix, and at home after dinner has been made and cleaned up, I pour it into a wine glass and savor. Sometimes, I trick myself into thinking it’s just as good as a beer.

Tomorrow, will mark six months left in my journey of sobriety. It does feel like a long way to go, but it wasn’t easy sailing to get this far. I am changing from a drinker into a non-drinker and finding pride for my sobriety. This challenge came with much more emotional investigation than I anticipated, but I am glad to be on this journey. No matter what happens in six months, the bareness of sobriety has helped me go a bit deeper into who I am.

On to the next six months.

Best part of sobriety: This post is short because I am consumed with my book right now and trying to get the next draft done in six weeks. Waking up each morning early and with a clear mind is necessary to keep on pace.

Worst part of sobriety: I can’t run, again. My hip issues are a mess, complicated further by insurance and a doctor who is moving practices. I am still hopeful I can run this summer, but that may or may not be marathon training running.

Week 26: Moving the Goal Posts

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My plan, as I leave the house, is to run four miles. Nice, smooth four miles. My first mile feels strong and a voice pops up in my head, “You know, I should go for six today.” Six is a respectable distance, so much more than four. I could treat myself to a donut after six. My Garmin beeps with paces after every mile, but it doesn’t matter because I look at it every three minutes to make sure I am on pace. Each mile needs to be under a 10-minute pace, or 9:45. Maybe I can get a couple at 9:30.

My abs tighten, my legs pound. My nice, smooth four miles has now become six tempo miles.

The above scenario is one that happens frequently and what E calls “moving the goal posts.” He’s noted that I’ve been doing it a lot lately. But, what we both know is that I’ve been doing this for most of my life and now we just have a catch phrase for it.

I move the goal posts on pretty much every ambition I have. I want to run a marathon? Great, let’s do it in 4:20. Want to write a book? You have three months to finish it. Need a break from alcohol? How about a year? I push myself to go a bit extra, to do more, so that I can say look what I did.

In theory, it’s good to set loft goals and wrestle your motivation into accomplishing them. Moving the goal posts is how I became an ultra marathon, drove a U-Haul by myself through a snow storm in the mountains, started telling stories on stage. Yet, when you keep resetting your goal so it’s a bit further away, you end up always chasing, never enjoying.

Now that this habit has been named, I notice how much I do it. Earlier this week, I realized that I didn’t have much planned for the week and I was excited about the idea of hanging out at home, writing and reading. Then, Saturday, I woke up panicked thinking that I have too much time on my hands and I should be doing something with friends.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “I am moving the goal posts.”

I set up goals and plans so that they are nearly impossible to accomplish and then I am automatically let down by my own abilities. I can’t have a completely free weekend and be social, there has to be some give and take. Certainly, I can relax and see friends in these two days, but I can’t visit with all of my friends and spend the weekend alone. And, yet, I tell myself that I must try, and I obey.

I’ve spent a lot of time with therapists talking about perfection. I know that one can’t be perfect and that perfection isn’t attainable, and yet I still find myself reaching for it. If only I work a bit harder, do a bit more, strain myself a bit further, all that I want can be grasped. And, that’s why I keep moving the goal posts, to get a bit more perfect with each rung of the ladder that I scale.

When I ran the Chicago marathon a few years ago, I wasn’t happy with the race. My hydration was off, and because of that, I had side cramps and bonked in the last six miles. I wouldn’t consider it a good race. This baffles E. “You finished 20 minutes off the time you wanted, but you still finished a marathon. I don’t get how you can’t be satisfied with that.” I get what he is saying, but I am not.

My inability to not one up myself is worrisome, because it means I don’t take pride in what I do accomplish. I think about that a lot with this book I am writing (“If it doesn’t get published, will it be considered a failure? But then it does get published and not many people read it? Or many people do but critics don’t like it?” and on and on and on), Also, in relation to my sobriety. What if I am not magically changed by this alcohol-free year? Will it still have been worth it?

I want to say yes, but I really can’t. The best I can do is take it day by day and not care too much at what happens at the end.

Best part of being sober this week: I went out dancing at a bar with friends last night and I only had a ginger ale. It is incredible the things you notice and understand about the “clubbing” world when you are sober. About a third of the people I was with were also not drinking, which made it easier. Plus, I woke up this morning tired, but not hung over. I think I like dancing better when I am not drinking, which is a weird thing to say.

Hardest part of being sober this week: Having something to look forward to at the end of the day. I really liked having that beer at the finish line waiting for me.

Week 25: Taking up space

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“To Heather, Be Difficult – Roxane Gay”**

Through sobriety, this blog and therapy, it’s become painfully clean that I need to start dealing with my constant desire to please everyone around me if I want a shot at happiness. I’ve been trying to say no to others more and make myself and my wants a priority, and it seems to be working. I have a slight boost in confidence, and I’m feeling better about the world than I was a month ago. But when you think you’ve figured it out, the universe likes to send you a little test to see if you really have improved or not.

My hip is not 100 percent and I’m still unsure if I will be at the start line of the Chicago Marathon come October, but I’ve started running again. My physical therapist is allowing me to run/walk a couple times a week to gage the pain, and while sometimes I am confident that it’s a tear and I will never run again, there are days that I do think I am getting better and notice the pain is not as sharp. Saturday, after a really productive writing session, I went to the gym to run/walk for 21 minutes and see how the hip felt after not running for three days.

I am nervous every time I run now. I am scared that it will hurt, both in my hip but also in the way that running can hurt when you haven’t done it in a while. I am scared that 21 minutes will creep and I won’t be able to make it. I am scared that it’s been so long since I last ran that it won’t feel the same. So, I prepared by downloading a couple of hour-long podcasts (I know, this makes no sense) and then picked the treadmill that was closest to the TV that had the most interesting show on. The gym has a row of machines that face the window and three flat-screen TVs. Most of the machines only have a side view of the TVs, except one that is head on, which was playing some kind of cooking show. The two other TVs had golf and some CSI drama, so I picked the cooking show. That way, if my podcast can’t entertain me and the minutes feel like hours, I had the TV as a back up to distract me.

Only one of the treadmills was occupied, by a woman wearing a red tank top who was running so vigorously that her face was turning the same color. The treadmill I wanted, right below the TV with the cooking show, was next to her machine. Normally, I would leave an empty treadmill between us – like you do in public bathrooms – but I really wanted the insurance of the TV. Apparently, the women did not my like choice. As soon as I got on the machine, she said ‘no’ loud enough for me to hear it and then mumbled something about chewing gum (I was chewing gum, another distractor). She slowed down until her machine was off and then moved three away. She did NOT want to be next to me.

Red Tank Top’s passive aggressiveness bothered me and I felt guilty for encroaching on her space. I am actually still thinking about it, and it’s been more than a couple of hours. Why did I have to bother her so much? I should have just stuck to the unwritten rules of the gym and chosen a machine a few away from her. I was so inconsiderate.

This is a big fear of mine. To annoy, to inconvenience, to hassle someone else. I try to take up little space in the world because I don’t want to be in anyone’s way.

But, I wasn’t wrong here. I wanted to be near the TV and if she didn’t want to be next to me than that was her problem. There was no way I could have known that before I got on the treadmill. This was 100 percent about her and not me. I was taking up space, the space I earned by paying the same amount for a gym membership that Red Tank Top had.

It’s in these moments that I measure my progress. Do I, following her lead, say something passive aggressive to her under the heat of my breath (which I have done more than once)? Or do I continue on with my run and smile through the entire thing because my hip doesn’t hurt, the podcast is funny and it feels so darn good to be running again? I chose option two.

There were times when I would have believed that Red Tank Top was right, I hadn’t deserved to be there. But, I am slowly learning that as along as I am not hurting anyone or breaking laws, opinions of women at the gym really don’t matter. She can huff and puff and I will smile.

Best part of being sober this week: It was 70 degrees in Chicago on Friday and nearly half of the city wanted to have a drink on the River Walk. There was a line 40-people deep outside one bar. Instead, I read a book and people watched. Maybe I won’t need alcohol to enjoy the warm weather after all.

Hardest par of being sober this week: I still really miss having a beer after a long day at the office.

**I originally started this post linking something Roxane Gay said during a talk of her’s that I attended a few weeks ago. However, I later realized that discussing her struggles as an obese black woman within the context of my own, even if thin veiled and I acknowledge the fact that they are not all comparable, is a form of white privilege. So, I deleted the first several paragraphs and encourage you to go read anything you can by Roxane Gay because she is an incredible writer and better human. 

Week 23: What Self Care Looks Like

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Self-care is crucial to our well being, and it’s important to make time for it in our busy schedules. To truly take care of yourself, every day you should:

  • Sip tea near a window, allowing the morning sunlight to hit your face
  • Do at least 30 minutes of yoga
  • Meditate for 20 minutes
  • Write in a journal
  • Drink an organic green smoothie with flax seed, turmeric and chia seeds
  • Read a book
  • Volunteer for an hour
  • Spend two hours outside
  • Work on a side-hustle project for an hour
  • Sleep for nine hours
  • Throw your phone in the river so you aren’t tempted to answer emails or text messages
  • Buy a tiny elephant to bring you joy

Just kidding. That’s all bullshit.

I feel like every day I come across a list about tips for self-care or things to do be happy. Most of these are written by “entrepreneurs” or “life coaches” trying to sell you some crap with listicles of  things YOU MUST DO EVERY DAY IN ORDER TO EXPERIENCE THE MOST AMOUNT OF JOY. But if you don’t sip warm lemon warm and write down your top five goals for the day each morning before dawn, well, then you will probably fail at life.

Self-care – along with the likes of vulnerability and, for heaven sakes, authenticity – is a buzzword walking around pretending to be inspirational. Honestly, though, I’m a sucker for these lists and I carefully read them (well, just the bolded parts, I don’t have time for the entire paragraph) and silently commit to following each one because I, like anyone, want to have a better life. But what happens is that self-care, when presented with bullet points, tends to look more like a to-do list and less like suggestions on things that have worked for other people when caring for themselves. It becomes a formula and if you don’t follow it carefully it’s your own fault when things blow up.

When I was in the Peace Corps, options for self-care were limited. I couldn’t get a massage or watch a movie at the end of a long day. So, I ran, wrote and drank a lot, almost to unhealthy amounts (well, except for the writing, I don’t think one can write too much). In the vast comforts of America, I can take a bath, buy an expensive organic smoothie or listen to live music in the park. I have all the tools to be well rested, well feed, well cared for.

Sometimes, though, I am so overwhelmed by what self-care should look like and what must be involved that it becomes more of a chore than an actual means of relaxation. One Sunday morning during my first year in Chicago, I nearly had a panic attack trying to fit in all the things I “needed” to do for a relaxing day – read the paper, go to church, hang out at the beach, go for a run, write. Going to the beach should NEVER feel like work and, yet it did for me because I was more obsessed with ticking it off as part of the self-care routine than enjoying it.

But like everything in life, there is no one set of things for each of us to follow in order to achieve happiness, success or enlightenment. You have to do what is right for you and that can change at any point.

For example: As some have noted, the blog has been a bit of dreary place as I work through some emotional turmoil. I cleared my schedule last Saturday so for a self-care day and assumed I would do yoga, take a bath, read a book, all those things on the master self-care list. But, with my yoga mat rolled out, a scented candle burning and my body posed to fall into down dog, I got the sudden urge to clean. I followed it and used the next three hours scrubbing grime off the tiles in my shower, wiping away any unsightly dust bunnies and giving every loose pen, shoe and old bill a home. It was not all what I had planned for the day, but it was quite successful in spending my anxious energy.

The next day, I read, wrote and did yoga.

 

The list of things that make me happy, that help me hit the reset button, change often but they are also unique to me. I can’t be happy if I am following guidelines someone else set, and I know that’s elementary to say but I have always had a hard time living in that truth. It’s good to get suggestions and ideas from others, but we are the only ones responsible for our happiness.

There are a lot of areas in my life where I need to stop listening to chatter from the outside world, but I think self-care is a good place to start. Instead of thinking, “Well, it’s a nice day to go to the beach and I should go because that will make me happy,” I can instead ask, “What do I want right now?” And if that’s staying indoors and watching movies, then who cares. This is my life and I get to decide how I want to take care of myself.

Hardest part of being sober this week: I had to excuse myself from planning a wine event for an organization that I am part of. I hate feeling like I am or could be letting people down, but I just couldn’t be involved in this event anymore. Thankfully, I work with some really amazing people who were very understanding, but I still weak in admitting that I couldn’t do it.

Best part of being sober this week: Instead of green beer for St. Patrick’s Day, I made us Shamrock Shakes and they were amazing. Ice cream > beer.

 

 

 

Week 22: Priorities

stormThe other night I made a list of all the things that require my attention in any given day. It contained 53 things. Then, I made a list of which of those items I actually cared about and enjoy. That list had six bullet points. I made a third list of things I need to care about for my survival and that came to seven. All of this to say that in any given day my thoughts are consumed with 40 different things that I do not enjoy nor are necessary in keeping me alive. Nearly each of those 40 things that I think about each day can be linked back to letting others down or failing to meet someone else’s expectations.

One day this week I woke up early to write, but instead answered emails and recorded my volunteer hours until it was time to shower. Work was work, and by the end of the day my soul had little fight left in it, despite that it would be several more hours before I could crawl back into bed and leave everything behind. Before an event that night, I went to a coffee shop and wrote in my journal every thought I had, hoping giving them space on a page would loosen their grip on my throat. Several times, I wrote how much I hated the woman sitting next to me, working on some kind of presentation. I didn’t share a single word with her and I don’t think she ever looked my direction after I sat down, but I could tell by the diamond ring on her finger and perfectly tailored blazer that her life was better than mine and that her demons were less persistent, and so that made me hate her. The most happiness I felt all day up until that point was fantasizing about throwing my phone in the river and wandering through a part of the city where I knew I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew.

Later, I walked to the event several blocks away and noticed every single bar along the way. One themed fancy cocktails, another Irish beers. Each one became harder to walk past. I could skip everything, I thought, still throw my phone into the river, and hide in the bar, drink and drink until I couldn’t stand. Alcohol wouldn’t fix me, but goodness I would feel better.

Of course, I didn’t do that, though. I went to the event, reaffirmed my commitments, and fueled up on other’s reassurance. The person inside of me who felt her wants weren’t being heard had been silenced again and I could go on without her pounding on my chest. She’d come back, though, I knew. She’s been coming more frequently lately.

I am writing this on Saturday, when I have made no plans and have decided to keep my phone shut off for the entire day. It’s my sober hangover day, and I want to use it to really listen to what I want and what I need to take care of myself. And, I don’t know how to do it. The voice of should and must are too close in tone and it’s hard to decipher what would be self care and what would be fulfilling expectations. Should I go to a movie? Should I clean my bathroom? What about work on that short story or go to the gym?

I’ve thought a lot about priorities this week and how I have little skill in managing them. I never not want my debts and responsibilities to be settled, and so I am left frazzled trying to accommodate every request and every inclination. I want the house to sparkle, all friends to feel loved and tended to, and all of my projects and ambitions set in forward motion.

But I can’t keep doing this. I have to learn the language of my wants and make them a priority. I have to say no, I have to care less about letting someone day, I have to start giving into my dreams. Or, I am going to have more days when I want to throw my phone in the river and one day I may just do it.

This blog hasn’t been a real cheery place lately and I tend to forget that this is a public space and not the insides of my journal. Confessional bloggers aren’t real writers they say, and yet here I tell you things that I would never say to you if we were sitting at a table, face-to-face. I keep thinking about a comment someone left on a blog (different from this one) years and years ago about how I can’t call myself a writer if I make so many grammatical errors and I should be ashamed of myself to not take more care when posting. Earlier this week I thought about closing the blog down or at least posting something more upbeat. But, I’ve been working on this particular post for more than an hour and I feel much better than when I opened the browser. I need this time to work out the emotional kinks, to open my chest, to inch closer to my own peace. So, in knowing the difference between what I want and meeting expectations, I am going to post this very personal account. I want it in the world and so it will be.

The hardest part about being sober: To explain my sobriety project, I always justify how much I used to drink. Right after telling someone I am not drinking yesterday, I told a story about drinking 10 drinks in a hour during college, more than 10 years ago. I don’t know why I have to tell people I don’t know well that I used to be a heavier drink and now I don’t as if saying I don’t drink is not enough.

The best part about being sober: Not drinking and wanting one more makes it so much easier for me to leave places when I want to leave, instead of getting sucked into empty a glass that always seems to be full.