December 13, 2018

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December 13, 2017, was another day at the office. Not a particularly bad day, but also not a good one. I didn’t have many good days anymore, just slow, uninspired days, sometimes with bright spots. For weeks, the dread of going to a job that was unfulfilling flattened me. I felt it every morning as I quickly scanned my emails, before I was even dressed, to anticipate what fires may erupt when I got to the office, and every Sunday when I wondered if everyone else felt so stuck in their careers. And, I felt it in this moment, sitting at my desk, between morning meetings and sending out holiday-themed pitches.

I opened up the journal that I take almost everywhere with me. I hoped that a few minutes of writing could snap me out of my fog so I could focus on finishing my tasks. When the pen reached the paper, I did not exactly what words it would produce but the pen moved quickly.

I promise, my scratchy writing read, that by December 13, 2018, I will no longer be in this job.

It’s not like me to make such bold predictions, and on the surface it seemed foolish, but deep down I wanted it to be true. I maybe even believed that it could be. I didn’t know how or why or where, but I had the ambition to start searching for those answers, and I guess that was enough.

Well, it’s December 13, 2018, and I am not sitting in an office that is too cold responding to work emails. Rather, I am on my couch, with my dog at my feet, and enjoying the site of my small Christmas tree. Not a terrible place to be at 10 a.m. on a weekday morning.

One year ago, I didn’t have a specific plan to apply for schools, but the desire to become a therapist had been brewing for about 10 years. That little note was a permission slip to take a chance on a dream and myself, to make big sweeping changes for a shot at being happy. Over the next few months, I began doing little tasks that lead me to where I am now, a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling.

My first semester of graduate school was, simply, wonderful, and life as a student comes with some nice perks, like a six-week holiday break. My classes pushed me to levels of uncomfortable that are necessary for professional and personal growth, and I started to my swim in an identity outside of the one as a communications professional. Many times, specifically when I was practicing my counseling skills, I felt a deep reassurance that I made the right decision, that I was going to be a good counselor someday.

However, leaving my job has not come without repercussions. We’ve endured some setbacks this fall that did make me think for a second that this dream chasing was foolish, that maybe I should return to the 9-5 with stable paychecks and benefits. I could suffer through a job I didn’t like if it meant that I didn’t have to worry as much.

Except, I couldn’t. I worried a lot back then too, so not do what I want and just try to keep the worrying at bay? I tried that, and a year ago I vowed to never let myself get that stuck again. Even though I love being a graduate student and working towards becoming a therapist, things are not perfect, but they never will be. Instead, I have to focus on all the good that I have, and when I look back at where I was last year, I feel so grateful. I took a risk on myself, and it was worth it.

A new year is coming, what permission slip will you write for yourself?

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A Year in My Body – A Year Later

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I started writing “A Year in My Body”* about a year ago while sitting on my couch, my leg locked into a machine that moved it back and forth. My body and I have been through a lot together, from throwing up meals on abandoned street corners to running for seven hours in the African foothills. However, it seemed like that one year, from my 32nd birthday to my 33rd, held some of its greatest ups and downs, so I wrote down those moments, being as brutally honest as I could in hopes someone else could relate.

Following the final posting, I had hoped to write a long, nuanced blog about what has happened in the last year, but, to be honest, I don’t really have the time for that. Between school, my graduate assistantship, and the part-time job I picked up, time dedicated to writing has diminished. Even so, I wanted to give you a quick wrap up as to what has happened in the last year during my recovery and finding a new normal in my body.

So, from my 33rd to my 34th birthday, here is “A Year in My Body: The Condensed Version”:

  • I was on crutches and in a body brace for a month. In that time, I worked mostly from home, and spent most of the time on the couch. Ethan was unemployed at this time, and although we had just got engaged, it was a really low moment for both of us.
  • In December, I went wedding dress shopping. I could have lost 20 pounds, and still not had the body I wanted for this activity. Going into that weekend, I knew that the hate I had for my body would likely try to dampen the experience, which I didn’t want to happen mostly for my mother. Buying her daughter a wedding dress is something my mom has waited decades for, so I tried to put behind any feelings of grotesque I held toward my body as not to ruin this for her. In the end, it was a great weekend and we found a dress that complimented my body type well.
  • At the beginning of the new year, I bought a fancy gym membership and went four to five days a week. The goal was to shape my arms and whittle my thighs through strength exercising. I was biking and using the elliptical, with the blessings of both my surgeon and physical therapist. I even got the green light for a few minutes of running and yoga.
  • My hip pain disappeared for a week, but then came back with fire. It could have been the running, or a yoga class, or even an intense water aerobics class. Whatever it was, it set my recovery back two months. I had to start from the beginning.
  • The person I saw the most, outside of my husband and co-workers, was my physical therapist. I know about her dating life, she knows the details of my wedding. She is a wonderful therapist, and I like our chats, but I desperately wanted to stop seeing her. A few friends have small injuries that need PT attention; and I was jealous that their stints with the therapist are so short.
  • I did not run on my wedding day. It’s May, It always seemed natural to me that before I slipped into my white dress, I would put on my running shoes and take one last jaunt as a single woman. But, because the hip pain was persistent, that could not happen. I cried for days. In losing running, I’ve lost a friend.
  • My friends took me to a psychic for my bachelorette party. Before she gave me the reading, she asked me to think of things I must know. I had three questions: 1) Am I marrying the right man? 2) Should I quit my job and go to graduate school? 3) Will I ever run again? Yes, yes, and no. She told me I am done with running and I should focus on water sports.
  • To tame the pain, my PT used dry needling. In front of the other clients doing exercises and waiting their turn on the table, she stabbed me with small needles, repeatedly. She said this releases the muscle and tissue tension. It hurt, and I made faces of pain, but it worked. My hip pain lessened with each session.
  • Swimming is not running. I know that I was a swimmer before I was a runner, but it is the not the same. The basement pool at my fancy gym is nice, but lonely. I do not have the same feelings of strength and belonging in the pool that I do while running. I did a few swims, but I can’t commit to it. Then, one day at the gym, I learn that there is a rooftop pool that is open for lap swim. Maybe I will try that.
  • I woke up wanting to swim. I sometimes can’t sleep because I am so excited to get back into the pool. In the early mornings, I took a bus from my house to the gym so I can swim in the rooftop pool. Something about being outdoors in that tiny pool reminded me of summers at the Pierre City Pool when I first fell in love with swimming. I love the way the light hits the water, the site of my stroke as I turn to breathe, how my body still knowns how to do a flip turn after all these years. I feel strong in the water. I feel like I belong.
  • Two weeks before my wedding, I cut out carbs, sweets, alcohol—basically everything but vegetables. I lost eight pounds, reaching a weight I haven’t seen high school. It is a crash diet, and I regained all of those eight pounds after the wedding, but I did not care. I just needed to look a bit thinner for my wedding day. Not too thin that I get sad each time I look at my wedding photos, but just thin enough. My wedding day came, and it was OK that I didn’t run. I spent the morning drinking coffee and chatting with my friends. And, when I put on my dress, I felt stunning.
  • I moved my swims to Lake Michigan. On Saturday mornings, when I would have been doing long rungs, I did long swims. I entered the lake at the beach near my house, in Rogers Park, and then swim until I see Loyola University. It’s a mile and half, maybe two. Maybe it’s dangerous to be out there alone, but I love it. Me and the water, spending time together under the sun.
  • In August, just as I was running out of appointments that my insurance will cover, I have my last with my PT. She gave me the clear to start running again.
  • It’s been a year since my surgery, and I wanted to acknowledge this day, I am running again and feeling good, so I decided to run eight miles to celebrate how far I’ve come. The last time I did that was in February 2017, and it was after that run that I understood someone was really wrong with my hip and made the appointment to see my doctor. So, on a Saturday morning, I set out on eight miles. At one point, I consider 10, but decide against it. I no longer do things just to see if I can. I have to listen to my body if I want to make sure running stays around. By mile six, I was happy with the eight, because while my hip feels great, my fitness is lacking. I can run the miles, but not fast. I finished tired, but there was no hip pain.
  • On the morning of my 34th birthday, I was a bit sad with feelings of insecurity around my relationships. To shake it off, I went for a run. Four lovely fall miles. My mood brightened; running can still lift my soul from the depths of anxiety. Thinking back to last year, spending most of my birthday in pain, it’s already a better birthday. I have a new husband, a good family, close friends, a new career path. And, I have running again.

 

*Read the first, second, third & fourth, and fifth installments.  

A Year in My Body: Part Five

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This two-piece essay is from a five-part series about the emotions, challenges, and events surrounding my body, from my 32nd birthday to my 33rd. Read the first, second, and third & fourth pieces in the links. 

Fall

My surgery is in a few weeks and I am trying to run as much as I can before I am forced to take a break for several months. I recently adopted a puppy, Annie, and she and I run up and down a stretch of four blocks near my house. I have never liked running with someone else before, but Annie is not judging my pace. She cares only about the array of smells around her. She couldn’t care less that I am there, and that’s why she is my favorite running partner.

These are not real runs, rather slight jobs with my dog up and down our streets. No, I lost running this year. In the year that I should be running for a marathon, my body has decided to quit on me. Entire Saturday mornings spent on Chicago’s Lake Shore Path are gone. So are the dreams of running another ultra marathon in the Pacific Northwest and maybe one day qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For years, I pushed my body to go further, to be smaller, to be better. I was never the fastest or thinnest runner, but I was the one who could run for seven hours without walking or stopping. I was the one who ran the races others couldn’t and wouldn’t. It was my edge over other people, what made me special, and now my body has taken that from me. It’s broken, aging, and sad.

My body also stole from me the only thing that made me feel beautiful. Even though I often treated running as a punishment for eating too much pizza the night before, running never made lose a great deal of weight. Rather, it made me strong and resilient. When I hit my stride and my legs were moving faster than the rest of me could keep up, I felt bolder and more courageous than any kind of mantra, yoga, or religion. Running was my spiritual practice.

Now, I don’t have it. I feel ugly, empty, and scared that I might never get it my back. My body has failed me.

I’m nervous about my surgery. I have never been under anesthesia before. I have been blacked out from drinking, but I doubt it is the same, and for some reason, this feels scarier. I am nervous that I will gain weight from lounging around the house and eating whatever I want. I am annoyed that from now on, when at the doctor’s appointment, I will no longer be able to speed past the medical history section. I worry that I am taking too much time off of work for the procedure but also not enough. My worst fear, though, is that I will have to ask for help. I will not be able to shower or put shoes on my own. I will need someone to bring me food and water. I will be forced to ask friends to come over to my house to socialize instead of meeting them where they are. I will be an inconvenience to people.

Two weeks before my surgery, my boyfriend of two years purposes. He takes me to  dinner then we walk along the beach, stopping at a bench. He tells me he wants to go on adventures forever, and then grabs my hand. Crying, I say yes. He then takes me for ice cream where a bunch of my friends from Chicago are waiting. I will order as much ice cream as I want, thinking to myself that this is the perfect night to indulge. I get a free pass for the extra scoop of double chocolate, everyone will say..

My friends snap a few photos of the evening. My face looks happy, but I am distracted by the girth of my waistline. No matter how loose my jeans feel or how small my profile looks in a slanted mirror, pictures always bring me to reality. I am definitely not thin, and it’s foolish to ever think I was. Losing weight before the wedding is a fresh worry planted into my head.

The following week, I attend yet another wedding of one of my friends Peace Corps. During two years as a volunteer, I wasted journal pages with emotional dribble about being the fattest in my group and grand schemes to get thin. Each time I met with my Peace Corps group, I waited for people to tell me how thin I had gotten in the last few months, for them to recognize that I was really a thick girl hiding under pounds of stress and discomfort in being an unfamiliar place. That was four years ago, and I have lost some weight since then, but not enough for pride. I had a specific weight number in mind that I wanted to be at that for this wedding, for no other reason that I didn’t want to be the fattest one again. I have not hit that number.

At the wedding, a couple of people do compliment my looks, saying I look great. “Oh, I am probably just losing muscle mass from not running.”

I drink before a full year of sobriety is up. Knowing that I would be heavily medicated with serious opioids when my birthday comes around, I flirt with the idea of ending my year-long sobriety at the wedding.

The wedding weekend kicks off with a welcome party at a brewery. My boyfriend and I show up late because of a delayed flight, so by the time we got there, I am so excited to catch up with my friends that I end up not ordering a drink. I wasn’t sure if I was going to (I decided to make a game-time decision), but seeing my friends seems more important than the drink.

The next day, though, when I am offered a glass of prosecco, I take it. I have another glass of wine at the wedding and then three beers. Five drinks in all.

Drinking again is underwhelming. I don’t feel changed at all after a year of sobriety. I feel guilty, sure, but mostly because I worry what others may think of me since I didn’t technically make it to the full year. Also, there is less joy in drinking than I remember, but I didn’t go as hard as I usually would under those circumstances. I guess there lies in the change.

What does one wear to surgery? I bring sweatpants specifically for the procedure and then I debate about which t-shirt to pair with them. Part of me wants to wear a race shirt from one of the marathons that I’ve run, to prove to the nurses that there is something special about me. But, most of those shirts are tighter than I probably need for surgery, so I select an old swimming shirt. When the nurses and doctor assistants ask how I tore my labral, I say running but immediately regret it. I don’t feel like a real runner who does so many miles she tore a tissue in her hip.

The nurse sticks an IV in me, and I tell the doctor that my pain is at 2, when it’s really a 5. My hand hurts with the IV, and I can’t stop thinking about how this is only the beginning of several painful months.

Eventually, I am wheeled into the operating room and the doctor’s assistant, the nurse, and the anesthesiologist surround me like I am something they are dissecting, and I guess I am. The anesthesiologist puts a mask over my face and tells me to take in big deep breaths.

“Think of a warm paradise,” she says.

I think of an old tree that was near my village in Peace Corps. I’d pass it when I was walking to a nearby village for supplies or to collect my mail. I always dreamt of sitting under that tree and reading a book or watching the clouds, but I never did. I never had time to acknowledge its beauty, or rather, I never took the time.

The next thing I remember is the nurse bringing me back to consciousness. I asked her about her ring and then I tell her that I am recently engaged. I am disappointed in her lack of reaction. She brings my body back to the real world, first by feeding it crackers and lemon tea, then by dressing me and finally putting me on crutches.

At home, for the next few days, I move from the couch to the bed. I strap an ice machine to my body to prevent blood clots. I put my foot into a machine that slowly moves my leg for four hours a day. I need my boyfriend to help me get up from every position. I am not strong enough to make myself a sandwich. I lay in my bed, getting more sleep than I’ve had in months.

Three days after my surgery, I watch coverage of the Chicago Marathon from my couch. There is less emotional pain than I thought there would be. I am not sad. My hip feels OK at this point, and after 11 months of pain, I start to think about what pain-free running would be like. Maybe I will run again. Maybe not marathons, but other races. Maybe my body and I can find that love we had for each other in physical movement again. Maybe I can remember running as something I did for my heart and not my waistline. That’s what I want more than anything.

It’s my 33rd birthday, and my goal for the day is to leave the house for the first time since the surgery to get a hot meal and ice cream. But, instead, I spend most of the day on the toilet. A rough bout of constipation leaves me in a weird limbo. I go to the toilet hoping for movement, and after an hour, move back to the bed where I sit in a fetal position. This lasts seven hours. I am nauseous and in pain.

In the next year, I will worry about my weight and the flubber of my arms as I prepare to walk down the aisle. I will try to return to running and yoga, but with persistent hip pain. There will not be a marathon, or even much running for me, in this year. Rather, my body and I will need to come up with a new agreement. I will push it and it will respond with pain. I will decide the only way to enjoy my body is to love it, and that takes way more acceptance of and kindness towards my body that I know how to give.

At the end of the day, my body no longer aches. The pills worked their way through my system and all the waste has exited. I pick at the sushi my boyfriend brought home for me, but a few hours later, I devour it. I crumble into bed like a soft cheese. My mother and boyfriend prepare me for sleep by strapping on an ice machine that inflates with a cooling water to my back. They then force both of my feet into styrofoam boots that are then fastened to a large cylinder with strips of velcro, all of this to keep me from turning on my side. I’m exhausted, mostly from trying to do normal things people do with their bodies every day. I fall asleep easily.

I am 33 today.

A Year In My Body: Parts 3 & 4

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This two-piece essay is from a five-part series about the emotions, challenges, and events surrounding my body, from my 32nd birthday to my 33rd. Read the first and second pieces in links. 

Spring

The sports medicine doctor, who was referred to me by my primary care physician, is very careful not to leap to any conclusions about my mystery hip pain. She is cognizant of costly medical exams and procedures and decides on a conservative approach. “Let’s start with physical therapy,” she said. “Three to four weeks, and if the hip pain doesn’t improve, then we’ll try an MRI.” She tells me my hips are weak, and I silently argue that I ran a 35-mile race with these weak hips, but I don’t say anything because at this moment I can’t run more than three.

I hate physical therapy. It’s a place for bodies that are aging and broken. Mine is neither. My body needs a real workout, one that will shed fat and tone muscle. These simple kindergarten exercises are not cutting it. It’s a waste of time, and I can’t run until my doctor and physical therapist approve, so I bike and swim and do yoga, but my heart aches to run again. Other types of exercise don’t give me the same freeing feeling, nor are they doing anything to help me shed those seven pounds. My weight hasn’t budged in the first few months of the year, and I tug at my leggings during PT to hide a slight bubble of flesh over the waistline. I go to PT and do the exercises, believing that my hip will be OK to start training for the marathon soon enough.

After a few weeks, my pain has waned and I am allowed to start a slow return-to-running program. Other times, I ignore these instructions and run too much too fast, but, the want to make it the marathon finish line is so strong, that I move forward with caution. Three minutes of running, one walking. I do this routine up and down the city blocks, staying away from my old running path until I am record more than two miles. Participating in the Chicago Marathon is still not out of the question. I may not reach the time goal I set when I registered for the race, but I am running again and my hip feels OK. My pace in those three minutes picks up slightly as I envision moving past crowds two or three people deep through The Loop and Lakeview. I make plans to motivate myself through mile 18. I envision myself crossing the finish, knowing I beat whatever this is.

Suddenly, one day, the hip pain returns like it never left. There is no sign of improvement after weeks of PT, rest, and precaution. It’s back, which means it’s time for the MRI.  

I own two copies of Geneen Roth’s “Women, Food and God”, but have not read the book until now. While I am commuting on the train to and from work, I try to hide the cover from other passengers. “That woman needs help,” they will likely say to themselves. It’s true, though, I do. I need help losing weight. I need help not turning to food in every crisis or celebration. I need help feeling like a normal person with a normal relationship to food.

Geneen suggests to eat with awareness, but it’s unclear how to do that. Who has the time for awareness? I eat while I am rushing to the train, at my desk, while scrolling through social media, sometimes over the sink because I am too lazy to get a plate.There is no room for awareness or the uneasy recognition that food is often the only way I can endure.  

Food is my greatest utility against shame, guilt, and self-deprivation. It’s really my only tool, with alcohol now removed from the roster. At dinner, when I would have ordered wine, I always get the side of fries over salad. I suggest ice cream to my boyfriend after particularly emotional couples’ therapy sessions. I go back for seconds and thirds of chips and dip at a party because my anxiety is pulsing through my veins and I need to keep my hands busy. I will consume every last morsel that I ache for because I am sober and I have no other relief. I deserve it.

At eight years old, I was called fat for the first time. I remember that moment vividly the way other women remember their first kiss. I remember who I was with, what I was wearing, the shame I felt.

It happened at dance class, while we were gathered in one corner of the studio to change from our ballet slippers into our tap shoes. Another girl in the class sat down next to me and asked if I had a pillow under my leotard, indicating that my stomach was not shaped like the other girls. It was the first time I understood that my body was different, and not in a good way.

A couple weeks later, in catechism class, another girl asked why I was so fat.

For the next 24 years, my body and I will not get along. It is the barrier between the life I have and the one I want. It will never be what I want it to be, and for that, I harbor a lifelong sadness.

“You see where there is an unevenness of the labral tissue?” my doctor says, pointing to an MRI image of my right hip. In the picture, my body was stripped down to white shapes and unfamiliar shadows. I do not know what she was talking about, but I nod yes anyway. “That’s a tear. You have a labral tear and hip impingement.”

She gives me two options. I could see a specialist to get a cortisone shot and hope that it, along with some core work, will be enough to keep the hip pain at bay and train for the marathon. Or, I could meet with a surgeon. Surgery is the only way to repair the tear.

Again, my doctor is careful not to input her opinion on what I should do, even though I desperately want it. I have had exactly one broken bone in my life—a left cheekbone that fractured when I fell out of a (slowly) moving vehicle. Even then, it healed on its own.

I discuss the matter thoroughly with my parents and boyfriend, and I opt to get the cortisone shot from the surgeon. It’s best to exhaust all paths, and hope one could still lead to the marathon finish line.

I take a break from sobriety during a 10-day jaunt to Europe that starts with my friend’s Italian wedding. This exception was built into vow of sobriety from the start, but I am not entirely sure if I will take it. Even after we land in Italy, I debate the pros and cons of staying off alcohol throughout the trip up until I am handed a glass of Prosecco at a pre-wedding social. I consume it with caution, then down two glasses of water before ordering another. I split two bottles of wine with others at dinner, and then drink a beer at a nautical-themed bar. My head is dizzy at the end of the evening, but I am not drunk. At the wedding, I reach a nice level of buzzed without tipping into inebriation. By the time we leave at 4 a.m., I am fine enough to drive (even though we walk home). This seems like a healthy way to drink, but I worry that people will think of less of me, that I won’t get the full effect of sobriety with a few days indulgence, and back in the U.S., I reclaim sober status.

At the end of the trip, I conclude that there is not much of a difference between drinking and not drinking, except the agony over not drinking.

 

Summer

My surgeon is the team physician for the Chicago Bulls, Chicago White Sox, and Chicago Fire, which I suppose adequately qualifies him to examine my silly torn labral. Our appointment is quick as he asks me to lay on my left side and raise my right leg. I was afraid that he would be pushy about surgery, but he is not. He tells me that an operation is an option, but only if I think that my pain is inhibiting my quality of life. Now I question if my discomfort is really that bad, of I could live with it for a few more years.

I express my interest in getting the cortisone shot, and he orders his assistant to start preparing me for the the injection. Before he rushes out the door and on to his next patient, I ask him the only thing I want to know.

“Do you think that the cortisone shot will allow me to run the marathon?”

“When is the marathon?”

“October.”

It hits me at this moment that the marathon is in four months, and I haven’t run more than 12 miles a week in the last six months.

“The cortisone shot is a quick fix,” he said, using his arms behind him to prop his body against the desk. “I do not think that the pain relief will last that long. If you were running the race in a few weeks, I’d say, ‘yeah, let’s get you to the finish.’ But if the race isn’t for a few months, you have a lot of training time in there and the cortisone isn’t meant to last that long.”

The doctor’s PA leads me to the x-ray room where they take pictures of my hip and stick a long need into my bone. Pain sears through my body, and I can barely walk for the rest of the day.

Three weeks later, when I see the surgeon again for a follow up, I schedule a hip arthroscopy surgery for four days before the marathon.

I will not be at the finish line this year.

Two of my friends from when I was a Peace Corps volunteer get married at a summer home in northern Michigan with unlimited dancing and booze. I, of course, don’t drink, although I am tempted when we first arrive to the ceremony and see everyone else grab dewy cans of beer from a canoe. I debate making a second exception for this wedding, but shame rights me back onto the alcohol-free path.

A few of my friends ask me about being sober and say things like, “Good for you, I could never do that,” and “That’s so incredible of you.” They are being polite, I know, but I feel foolish. I fear that they take my decision to stop drinking as smug. People often think that your own personal decisions are a judgement of theirs, like how meat eaters feel personally assaulted when you say that you are vegetarian (which I have am). Some of my friends have wondered if my decision to be sober reflects their own drinking habits. “I don’t think you drank too much,” they tell me. “You drank as much as I do.” I don’t like talking about my sobriety, mostly because I don’t know how to do so eloquently. I tell stories about my wilder drinking days—going to the bar five nights a week in college or drinking four quarts of beer in one sitting while a Peace Corps volunteer—to show my painted past with the bottle. I also feel it necessary to say how hard it is, and it is, but it is not a prolonged difficulty.

At the wedding, the urge to drink throbs for 20 minutes, and then it slows to a soft murmur that I ignore without difficulty. Throughout the evening, the other guests get progressively drunker while I stay the same. My Peace Corps friends are probably my greatest drinking buddies, and we have dozens upon dozens of drunken stories. They all know how smashed I can get and even named my drunken persona; Sherry, they call her. They miss Sherry, they tell me, as they twirl and stomp into the night, their eyes drooping and speech slurring. Many a time during Peace Corps, I was the drunkest, but tonight I am the sober one. I like my new-found role. It feels like I have stepped out of some restricting shell of my former self and into one less defined. Even though I do not have alcohol’s loosening powers, I feel more myself without a drink than with five.

After the wedding, I make a plan to go on a 30-day vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free diet. The idea is hemorrhaged from leftover thoughts of Geneen Roth’s book, and I figure I could eat with awareness if I am limiting most of the crap that I typically scarf down. My weight has changed little since the winter (I stopped wearing the FitBit once my hip pain reduced my workout capabilities and the static numbers made me feel worse about myself), so a drastic diet will have to be what gets the number on the scale to budge. I am not pleased by these circumstances, but not doing this diet doesn’t occur to me.

I am obsessed with restrictive challenges, like one year of sobriety or giving up nearly all foods for 30 days.That’s how I became a vegetarian nine years ago, on a dare with myself that I couldn’t eat meat for a year. I’ve imposed this limits since I was a kid, telling myself I could only watch four hours of TV a week or eat ice cream stand just once a month. I often instate them as a quick fix for something, most often losing weight.

This extreme diet seems like something that women with inspiring fitness Instagram accounts practice all-year long, which is actually a selling point for me. These are the type of women that I aspire to be: toned arms from daily yoga, calm minds from constant meditation, and 5 a.m. wake up calls that involve macha green tea. I’ve done all these things at one time or another, but they are not habits. Maybe an intense detox can lead me to that righteous spiritual path. I will give up whatever I need to be someone better than I am.

My mornings start with green smoothies, and sometimes yoga or running, as much as my hip can handle. For lunch, a salad with a homemade tahini and lemon dressing with no cheese or croutons. I snack on carrots and almonds between meals, but my big treat of the night is a frozen concoction of banana, almond butter, almond milk, and coco powder. After a couple of days, when all the sugar is out of my system and my palette has forgotten what it tastes like, this blended treat is heavenly. In sugar-free clarity, I claim it’s better than ice cream.

Like any detox, the first days are difficult and I am tired and run down, but my body adjusts. By the second week, I start to feel strong and light, like several pounds of have already disappeared. I vow not to look at the scale during these 30 days, so as to save the big loss a surprise. My stomach looks less lumpy in the mirror and my skin firmer. This diet might be just the key.

However, that high vanishes after just a week. My sleep and energy levels, after a spike, return to normal levels and I feel unchanged. I still haven’t ditched food as a coping mechanism, so after long days, I try to binge on non-junk junk food. I can eat blue corn tortilla chips and homemade guac, and nearly every night I stand at my counter, too bothered to get proper eating utensils, and gobble handfuls of chips with inches of guac until whatever worry I have is tucked away.

While on this crazy diet, I read Roxane Gay’s remarkable memoir, “Hunger.” I understand that our bodies are different and that I am offered more advantages because mine is of normal size and white, but I do relate to her disgust of her body and the idea that no one will understand. Even though I do not know what it feels like to be in her body, I do know what it feels like to be in mine. My body is a trap, an unfortunate draw, one that I can live with but not happily. I wish I didn’t have to go on this incredibly-restrictive diets, but I do. That’s the kind of body I was given.

“This is what most girls are taught — that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space,” Gay writes. “We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”

I want to be so small that I stand out and disappear at the same time.

Eating outside of my home is tricky. The world is not kind, nor short of judgement, when you are breaking from the Standard American Diet. We are bred to believe we should be thin, but also indulge on the fatty, salty, sugar foods of vices. “Enjoy life,” they say, while also judging the woman ordering curly fries instead of the salad. Over the course of the month, I have to decline invitations to ice cream, baked treats in the office, and pizza offerings. At brunch with friends, I ordered the most bland items on the menu: a spinach salad with berries and nuts, oatmeal with berries and nuts, or a fruit plate for $7.99.

Even though the benefits have waned in the final week, I still have high hopes that I have lost a good chunk of weight. But, I am nervous that it’s so many pounds that I will have to adopt this diet full time to stay slim. Again, there is not another option.

On the morning of Day 31, I weigh myself for the first time in a month. I take my time brushing my teeth and putting in my contacts. I have so much riding on this number that I want to take the process carefully. I step one foot on and then the other. Waiting for the number to calculate.

At first, I don’t believe it. Maybe something is wrong. But I blink hard. The number is the same.

144.2.

Thirty days of no sugar, dairy, alcohol and gluten and I lost just three pounds. Three fucking pounds.

The Price of Peace of Mind

El embarcadero

There are many reasons I am lucky to have my husband and his unending support while I am pursing my master’s degree, but one nice perk of marriage is shared health insurance. Obviously, I lost my health insurance when I quit my job, but because Ethan and I had recently gotten married, I could be added to his plan. This is a big blessing because my university does not offer health insurance for students not living on campus, and many of my classmates hold full-time jobs for the insurance.

Recently, Ethan’s company made a change to their plans, so all employees had to re-enroll. While there was one option for coverage, now there were two. (Side note, I can’t believe how expensive it is to add a spouse or a child. It’s like the health insurance industry doesn’t care about humans.) One had a higher premium and a lower deductible, while the other premium was $87 more a month with a deductible that was five times higher. Do we save money month to month and hope we don’t have any major medical expenses? Or, do we figure out how to deal without that extra money in our daily savings and not cringe every time a medical bill comes in the mail?

When I was signing up for health insurance at my last job, I also had the decision between two plans: one with a higher premium but covered more or lower premiums and higher out-of-pocket stuff. At the time, I was pretty healthy, but I really hated that feeling of going to the doctor and being more worried about how much it was going to cost compared to getting better. I went with the more expensive plan, and considering I needed major surgery a year later, it was a good choice.

We can’t predict the future. We may get pregnant in the next year, we may not. My other hip may give out, it may not. One of us may get in accident, we may not. We are still young and relatively healthy, but that doesn’t meant that could change in any moment. Money is tight for us, and a major medical bill could wipe us out. That wasn’t something I was willing to risk, so we decided to go with the higher premium, lower deductible plan. In the end, the premium wasn’t that much more expensive to have a deductible that was thousands of dollars lower.

It was a peace of mind purchase. Now, either one of us can go to the doctor without fear of it coming with a bill we can’t pay. To us, $87 a month was worth it.

I made another peace of mind decision this week and decided to take a second job. As I’ve written before, money is tight for us now that we are down to one income, and while we have a budget and a plan that’s working for us, it hasn’t stopped me from worrying about every purchase. The other day, I spent an extra $4 dollars at Walgreens and worried about it for hours. I love having dinner and drinks with my friends, but fret over how much we can afford to spend for days leading up to the event. I avoid using my credit cards by making my own coffee at home, always taking the CTA, and packing enough snacks to get me through the day. I don’t mind living frugally – it’s what I know – but it would be nice to have a bit of extra cash so that I can have dinner with friends or buy a needed item without the extra pressure.

One day, when I was having a standard panic attack about money, I stopped into a market near my house. It’s a cute healthy foods store, kind of like a co-op. They sell quinoa, essential oils, kombucha from the tab – even bottled pickle juice. I asked the woman at the counter if they were hiring, and she said they actually may need a person to do a shift or two a week, a filler. They called me for an interview this past Monday, and then offered me the job Wednesday. I start Saturday.

Immediately after I accepted the job, I was a bit panicked. Do I really have time for a second job (in addition to my graduate assistantship)? Shouldn’t I be focusing on finding some freelance work to keep my marketing and communication skills fresh? Was the standard retail pay worth the time and energy?

Yes, because it will reduce some of my stress about money. Oh, I will still worry, but the new job is an extra paycheck and that brings a bit of peace of mind. I also couldn’t ask for something more idea: two blocks from my house, nothing too taxing that will deplete my energy to do school work, and I finally get to work in health foods store like I’ve always wanted.

Sometimes we  make choices because of the peace of mind it will bring us. We see there may be extra challenges, but go that route anyway because, in the long run, we will feel better about whatever ails us. And, I think that’s a very vaild reason to make a decision. For me, my quality of life will increase because my financial pressures are just a bit lower, both with the new job and the better health insurance. And I value peace of mind, so I am willing to work a little bit harder for it.

A Year in My Body: Part 2

Silhouette of woman jogging at sunrise or sunset

This essay is from a five-part series about the emotions, challenges, and events surrounding my body, from my 32nd birthday to my 33rd. Read the first part here

Winter

My alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m., but I hit snooze twice because I have worked in the extra 10 minutes to allow this ritual, which feels like stealing candy. It’s above 20 degrees, and although I can run outside, I dress in two pairs of pants, a thermal long sleeve undershirt, a fleece zip up, and a scarf that covers my mouth. The exhaustive layering takes time that I did not build into the schedule.

This pre-dawn date with the gym does not happen every day. Some mornings I am up working on a book that will be rejected by 30-some literary agents later in the year while others I stay hidden under a pile of blankets until the last possible minute that I can without being late to work.

But, today, I am running before most people are awake, and I feel superior to everyone else until I see a middle-aged woman, with her lunch under her arm, stomping off to the bus stop.

At the gym, I peel off my clothes and do rounds of lunges and curls and other weight exercises that I either remember from my high school weightlifting class or examples torn out of women’s fitness magazines under headlines such as “Get that beach booty” and “Nail your vacation bod.” I know nothing about training but I have high hopes that these gym sessions will be what kick starts my weight loss, and subsequently, marathon training.

Being sober has done little to my waistline. It could be all the chocolate, ice cream, and fries that I have green lit into my mouth because “I deserve it,” or it could be that I am not doing enough physically to burn the calories. A piece of me is resentful that I gave up such an accommodating vice like alcohol and my stomach haven’t seen the benefits. “Have you lost any weight?” a friend asked, and when I said no, she replied, “Well, that doesn’t seem worth it, so I am not going to stop drinking.” I’ve been sober for three months, and the scale doesn’t reflect the absence of empty liquor calories nor the handfuls of tortilla chips I eat in a drunken stupor. Still, I hold out hope that the weight will go at some point. It has to.

My runs to the gym are slow, but I am OK with that for now. When I am running 20 miles in the dead heat of August, I will think about these mornings and remark how the hard part is long gone. My newer body, which will be quicker and faster, will reward me with that reassurance.

My day-to-day life is digitized into sets of numbers. I have goals of how much water I should drink each day (two liters), how much sleep I should get (eight hours), how many calories I should eat (1,500), and how many steps I should take (10,000). These goal numbers were cherry-picked out of articles on sites like MindBodyGreen, Popsugar and Elle. I have no reason to believe that I can’t hit them daily. All of these targets were made to get me to a specific number on the scale.

For a couple of years, I stopped weighing myself as an attempt to forge a better relationship with my body, and it worked. With a long history of distorted body image, the scale determined myself worth. Down a few pounds? I could eat an extra slice of pizza and feel good in my tank top and jeans. But if I was a pound heavier than the day before, I ran an extra mile and spend most of the day looking at myself in the mirror to assess how bad it had gotten. Then, one day at a doctor’s appointment, I broke down in tears because I hadn’t lost as much weight as I thought I should while in the midst of marathon training. The nurse tried to assure me that my weight was fine, but I was so angry with myself that I wanted to scream. Hours later, after I had calmed down, I decided that I was no longer going to give power to the scale. I refused to buy one, and whenever I went to the doctor, I closed my eyes and asked the nurse to write the number down without telling me. Not knowing the number was bliss. I no longer had numeric evidence of my shortcomings, so I could no longer berate myself.  

When I moved in with my boyfriend last year, he bought a scale to curb his own weight gain. I stayed away from it at first, but like an addict, I thought just one reading wouldn’t hurt anything. I’ll only do it once, to see where I am at, and then go back to ignorance.

We’ve had the scale for four months, and I check my weight most days. It’s 147. My goal is to lose seven pounds, make it an even 140 and match the number on my driver’s license. There isn’t anything unhealthy about trying to lose seven pounds—my boyfriend does that in a month just by avoiding fast food. I bet that that I can even get down to 135, (which I haven’t seen since high school) if I am really careful.

A hand-me-down FitBit keeps me in line for my daily goals. The first thing I do when I wake up, is look at how well I slept. Too many thin blue and pink lines indicate restlessness, which predicts that it will be an arduous day. The black bracelet on my wrist reminds me to get up from my desk every hour if I want to hit my step number. Sometimes, I excuse myself to the bathroom and pace back and forth from one end to the other in an effort to add another 500 steps. I catch my image in the mirror as I strut. There has never been a mirror, window reflection, or shadow that I haven’t checked my shape in. I need to see how my belly protrudes forward and if the thickness of my waist has changed in the last 60 minutes. I do this over and over throughout a single day, for reassurance or justification or habit.

Below the fitness tracker, I wear a Garmin watch to track my runs. I need to know the exact distance of my runs and the mile splits. After each run, I upload the workout to both the Garmin app and Strava so I can proudly spout off my workout to a listening audience and judge my exertion and pace against others’ workouts.. On the Garmin app, I check my heart rate, which I’ve also been trying to acknowledge using the factory built-in heart rate monitor on the gym treadmill. My watch also tells me that heart rate is higher than it should be, indicating that I am pushing too much, but I won’t slow down. My mile times, even in these foundational runs, need to be quicker. I can only race quicker if I run faster, and I bury the voice in my head that suggests this kind of exercise could lead to added stress and strain on my muscles and joints. I don’t care, though. My body will be fine.

It’s 60 degrees in Chicago in February. It shouldn’t be this warm, we all know, and yet we can’t help but feel giddy with the tease of summer. In the Windy City, it’s a sin to waste a nice day, so I plan to run five miles after work before meeting a friend for dinner. I am supposed to ease back into a consistent running schedule before I ramp up to 30-mile weeks, but the nice evening and the eagerness to get to a higher mileage plants the idea that maybe I could run eight this evening. I tick off one mile then two and three, knowing I should turn around, but I only do so after the fourth mile so that my final total is eight. I keep going, even if the light hip pain I’ve had on my right side is throbbing now. The glory of telling my friend, who is far more fit than me with the toned arms of Jennifer Aniston, screams more than the pain.

At dinner my hip hurts so bad that I cannot sit without wincing. It feels like there is a  needle stuck inside my joint that the doctor forgot to take out. I have an appointment with my primary care doctor in a few days, and I will bring it up to her. I am confident that this will be my like my knee last year, when I did tests and saw a physical therapist but no conclusions were made. It’s probably fine.

I take off a few days of running, and my hip still hurts. I sit down, it hurts. I stand up, it hurts. I feel pain when I get out of the car, when I am sleeping at night, when I am walking the dog. The pain haunts me.

It’s nothing, I tell myself. It’s nothing.

Cash Money

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Please be less than 25. Please be less than 25.

I wouldn’t let myself look at the screen next to the cash register, nor the woman passing items under the barcode scanner. I stared down, waiting for it to be done.

“$45.76,” the cashier said.

Shit.

My stomach turned in knots as I handed her my credit card. I had gone to the store for just a few things, and did not expect to spend this much. How could you be so careless? I berated myself. I texted Ethan for reassurance, which he gave easily. I looked at our monthly budget and the numbers, and finally after a few hours, I realized it was just $20 more than I anticipated and not enough of an overage that we could adjust in other spending categories.

Money has long been a big stresser in my life. My family never went without the necessities but it wasn’t always easy for my parents.  I went to college on scholarships and loans and worked part-time jobs for rent and grocery money (I had three jobs my senior year), with help from my parents from time to time. In the professional world, I worked at newspapers and non-profits, which aren’t exactly lucrative employers. For three years, while I was in the Peace Corps, I didn’t have an income nor was I making student loan payments or contributing to a 401K. Since I got my first checking account, I have never not constantly worried about how much money I have and how much I am spending. However, if there was ever a time in which I could relax a bit, it would have been this spring.

I had recently got a promotion that came with a pay increase, making the best money I ever have, and after eight months out of work, Ethan got a job with a salary that was nearly double of what he was making prior. Also, I had no debt. I finished paying my student loans last October, and we never carry credit card balances from one month to the next. I had a nice savings built up and, while it wasn’t nowhere near the amount it should be for my age, I was making progress on my retirement. Now we weren’t swimming in money, Scrooge McDuck style (remember, we were also planning a wedding at the time), but we could go to dinner with friends or buy a new sweater without thought.

Giving up this slight financial ease to go back to school was a rather difficult choice to make. And, for a lot of people, money is a big deterrent from things like graduate school. On top of that, those in the mental health profession don’t make great money, so it would be years, if ever, for me to get back to the salary I had been making at my previous job. But I made a promise to myself long ago that I wasn’t going to let money stop me from doing the things I really wanted to do with my life, and so I had to be willing to make sacrifices in other ways. There was an option to keep my job and go back to school, but to be a part-time student would extend my program from three years to four. I also thought about doing both full-time, at least for a year, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give my all to either and that’s just not how I wanted from my graduate experience. Thankfully, I did get a full-time graduate assistantship that pays for my tuition, and all I needed account for was living and school extras, such as fees and books.

Ethan will help cover some of our shared expenses, and I received some student aid to help cover my share of the rent and specific-to me bills, such as my phone and gym membership. While I also have a healthy savings and do receive a small stipend from GA position, it’s probably that I will the next few years, but for now I want to focus on school so we have to pare down. I may have to turn a friend down for happy hour, and Ethan will have to pass on a video game he wants. We will have to be more conscious about our groceries, and we likely won’t be going to many concerts or plays in the next three years. We are also trying to protect the things that we do want to spend money on by cutting other places. For me, that’s my gym membership, and for Ethan that is weekly trips to Chipotle. We met with a financial advisor, who assured us we are doing all the right things, and we made a budget that we go over every week. By most measures, we are in a good place.

The biggest struggle for me, though, is defaulting to the scarcity mindset and allowing myself to feel so much shame around money. I am panicked each time we spend money. I bought two pairs of leggings from Old Navy the other day because I live in black leggings and my others had holes in them, and still I was nearly in tears for spending the money. I have never been an extravagant spender and I have to still be able to enjoy my life, but I don’t know how to do that yet without having a near panic attack each time I use my credit card. At some point, I have to stop putting so much value on the money itself and giving it so much control over me. The thing is, I have worried about money my entire life and not once have I ever not been OK. I have many memories of being wonderful places and with wonderful people that are disrupted by financial anxiety. At some point, I have to say no, this isn’t going to bother me this time.

I am very lucky that I was in a financial position where I could quit my job and go back to school and that I have a husband who can support us. I understand that I have a lot of privilege working on my behalf. Even so, the next three years will have to be tight and we will have to say no on purchases we really want. That’s OK; that’s the sacrifice both Ethan and I agreed to make when I went back to school. The key, though, is reign in some of my worries about money and trust the plan we’ve put in place, and trust myself to make good money decisions. This is a pivotal time for me, and I don’t want to look back on it and only see worries over money, so I have to do the emotional and mental work around money. It’s going to take sometime, and I am not exactly sure where to start other than to talk about my fears around money on this blog, but I am willing. I guess that’s the first step.

It’s your turn to share. Money is a hard thing to discuss and something we often shy away from. What’s the best advice you received around money? What are your favorite budgeting tools and tricks? How do you deal with money anxiety? Leave a comment with your tips!

 

Ms. or Mrs.

Heather&Ethan-579

In the few months that I’ve been married, I’ve been asked the same three questions a number of times.

How is married life?

When are you going to have kids?

Are you changing your last name?

So, if you are dying to know, here are the answers.

Married life is great. People often say it’s no different than before, but I disagree. As husband and wife, Ethan and I are more accountable for each other. We are now each other’s first contact. We make decisions as a team, not as individuals anymore. Me returning to school has also redefined our relationship, as Ethan has the sole income in our house. It’s the first time since I was a kid that I am reliant on another person for my well-being, which is an adjustment that I am not making entirely smoothly. But I trust Ethan more than I trust anyone else, and at the end of the day, he is the person I want to hang out with on the couch doing nothing. So, yeah, married life is treating us well.

Question #2: Not sure. As I am approaching 34—the year before my fertility starts to shrivel—it’s on our minds, but I am in the midst of a big career change. We want kids, but again, we are down to one income right now. Ideally, I get pregnant my last year of graduate school, but I’d prefer to wait until at least after January, when we are going on our honeymoon. We are taking the “when it happens, it happens” approach.

And, for the final question, will I become Mrs. Fife? No, I am keeping my last name, but it was something I thought long and hard about and might still change.

You all know the show “Growing Pains”, right? In that show, Maggie Seaver is an adoring wife and mother who has a successful journalism career as Maggie Malone. That became my name goal – make a career as Heather Mangan, but privately take my husband’s last name. This theory was reassuring as I got older and watched many of my friends get married; I was still bringing Heather Mangan out into the world. I would be come a famous journalist or writer with my maiden name. It would be my public persona.

By the time I did get engaged, my name wasn’t exactly what I had hoped it would be. I didn’t author any books as Heather Mangan, and while I have gotten most social media handles and URLS under this name, it’s not the famed success I thought I would have. Really, I could abandon the name and not be any worse off in my career.

For months, I thought about whether I would take my husband’s name or keep my own. I went back and forth about what each would mean to me, and the person I would be with either name. Heather Mangan, I knew her. She stumbles from time to time, but she is resilient and she tells it like it is. There is still hope for her. Heather Fife would be a fresh start. She’d have to prove herself, but maybe that would be easier than scrapping together small success to prove worthiness.

I liked the idea of having the same name as my husband. I would be a few spots up in the alphabet and it was shorter. It would also stop the annoying habit some have of calling me Megan (Mangan sounds like Megan and so for much of my life people have thought that was my first name). It’s traditional, a solid choice.

Then again, I’ve have a lot of strong female friends who have chosen not to change their name. They stand proud with who they were at birth, husband or not. I admire these woman, believe in the same individuality that they do, want to be more own person. On the other hand, I felt a bit of pressure (albeit perceived pressure) to keep my maiden name if I wanted to an outspoken woman who supports other women.

In the end, what ultimately made my decision was time and money. It’s not cheap or easy to change your last name and then update all the necessary documents, and the fact that it falls on the woman is patriarchal. Ethan was very clear that the decision to change my name was my decision—and mine alone—to make and there would be no pressure from him. Also, he added that he would never change his name because of the work involved. So, that became my reasoning, too. I would stay Heather Mangan, at least for now. When we have children and for the sake being tied to them by name, I will likely add Fife as a second last name or hyphenate it, but the Mangan will stay with me. I have built whole life as Heather Mangan, and I am not going to change, married or not.

I am curious to hear from my readers. Are there reasons you decided to change your name or not? Any regrets in doing so or not doing so?

 

The First Week – Belonging

Wasbash-Building-entrance

I stood by the elevator, looking at the building directory. There was the dining hall, the book store, financial aid. I scanned the listings, and I stopped at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. My eyes moved to the right to find the room numbers, and it took me a second to stop myself.

Oh, I thought. That’s not me anymore. I’ve never had to know myself outside of the communications world, but now I do.

It’s Friday morning, which means I have officially completed my first week of school and my graduate assistantship. Actually, I should be doing homework right now – I already have a three-page paper due next week – but I wanted to recollect my thoughts from this week.

My days on campus are concentrated to Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – the nights I have classes – and I’ve built my GA schedule so I only have to come downtown for those days (Roosevelt is in the Loop). Tuesday was not only my first day of class, but it was the day I received by GA assignment. I decided to go to school a bit early so that I could get my student ID and my U-Pass (as part of my student fees, I pay for an unlimited CTA pass, which is a nice student perk), and explore campus a bit.

I suppose I don’t need to state that Roosevelt University, an urban university with 2,700 students and a commitment to social justice, is different than South Dakota State University, a land-grant school that takes over an entire town with 12,500 students and my alma mater, but it is. Roosevelt is composed of just two interlocked buildings, which makes it slightly more confusing to navigate. All I had to do was find the registar’s office, but it took me 10 minutes and I eventually needed to ask for help. As I wandered through the small hallways amongst the other students in their shorts and sweatshirts, I became homesick for SDSU, for the familiar. I wanted to see the Campanile, Yeager Hall, the Barn. I wanted to go back where I belonged, which wasn’t at this campus where I looked more like a teacher than a student.

Eventually, I got my ID and UPass, went to the GA meeting and met those I will be working with, and finally, had my first class. To my surprise, it was just a syllabus class, but it was helpful in getting an idea of what to expect this semester. I came home exhausted and overwhelmed, but excited for the next day.

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Eleanor Roosevelt quotes are scattered throughout the university. I found this one on my first day and think it is an appropriate motto for the year. 

The following two days were more introductions to my classes and meeting the others in my cohort. There are about 38 individuals who are in the clinical mental health and school counseling programs, and these will be the people I will have all of my classes with throughout the duration of my program. There was one woman I sat next to in each of the three classes completely by happenstance. Walking into that first class, and seeing my cohort for the first time, felt very similar to when I met my Peace Corp groups for Niger and Lesotho. There is a lot of expectation that these people will become like family to you, but you will undoubtedly have complicated, intense, loving, emotional relationships with them over the course of the next few years. A big insecurity for me is that I am older than most of my classmates, by at least 10 years. However, there are a few in their 40s (I can’t tell for sure, but I may be the only one in my 30s) and the age difference will only become an issue if I let it. After three rounds of introductions, I am excited to get to know everyone a bit better, and as our professors tell us, we definitely we will do that much.

For my grad assistantship, I will be working 17 hours a week within the College of Education. Some of that time will be spent helping admissions staff and the rest as a TA in an undergraduate education class. The work shouldn’t be too taxing, especially coming from the professional world, but I am already a bit overwhelmed about how to get those hours in each week in addition to my class time and course work.

The last couple of weeks have given me a misguided perception as to what graduate school would be like. I figured I would have all this free time during the day to write, work out, take Annie on long walks, but the hard lesson I’ve already learned is that I am going to have some really long days. I don’t mind that, but I guess I had a slightly romantic idea graduate school life and now I must adjust. The good thing, though, is that I am really excited about what I will learn this semester.

After last night’s class, I knew my way out of the building. In just a few days, I’ve come to like the school’s dingy, narrow hallways – they remind me of the NFA basement. I had assignments for the weekend and even chatted with one of my classmates. It was the first time all week that I felt like a student. As I made my way to the train, people hustling home after a long day at the office, I smiled. I was right where I was I meant to be.

Back To School

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Every August, as a kid, my mother would take my brothers and I to Aberdeen, where my grandmother lived, for some back-to-school shopping. Our little one-way mall didn’t have much, and while Aberdeen’s shopping options were fewer than Sioux Falls or Rapid City, it was a good excuse to see grandma and get the must-haves of the season. We went to stores like Foot Locker, the Buckle and Maurices, picking out that perfect first-day outfit. We’d also hit up Target and Shopko for folders, binders, pens, and, of course, a three-subject Five Star spiral notebook.

As I got older, and I jammed my schedule with activities, back to school was more gradual than the one-day event in elementary school. In high school, cross country and band practice began weeks before the doors opened. As a college student, the first issue of The Collegian, for which I was an editor, was in residence halls just in time for move-in day, and the start of classes was consider a break compared to putting out a newspaper. Then, when I was a teacher in Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer, the first day of school was more of a date suggestion, and the students spent the first week cleaning the school’s premise while the teachers groggily prepared lesson plans for the semester.

That back-to-school feeling never seems to leave us entirely, no matter how long it’s been since we were a student. For many of us, those shiny folders and packs of pencils call to us, even if we have no real use for them. We get our own children and can relive our own first days through them, which is why Facebook is often inundated with pictures of cute kids holding signs and wearing backpacks. Back to school is part of our annual cycle (and marketing cycles) like holidays, and it brings forward memories of years gone and reminders accompanied that fresh start of a new school year.

It’s been 12 years since my first day of school as a student (five as a teacher), but today I go back to school as a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling, and it doesn’t feel like any other back-to-school send off parties I’ve previously have had. I haven’t bought any new supplies – not books (at the suggestion of other students in the program), not pencils, not even a backpack. Part of that comes from my husband lovingly telling me it’s a waste to get anything until I know what I need, but he is right in that I don’t know what to expect today. My first class is two and half hours, and while I imagine there won’t a pop quiz on the first day, I doubt it will be like the hand-out-and-go-over-the-syllabus first days of college. I don’t know if I should bring my computer or a notebook, and do I dress comfortably or more business casual? I am in the wilderness here.

I am nervous this morning. A part of me wonders if I forgot how to be a student, if I will be one of those “old students” who gets unnecessarily anxious about small assignments, if I have the capacity to learn an entirely new field. I am scared that I have set up graduate school and this new career path as another “if only I could do this and then I will be happy” scenario. I was a good undergraduate student, and I did well in all my major-related classes (macroeconomics, though, yuck), but I had been training to be a journalist since I was 16. I know I am good at writing, editing, communications, all of that, but I don’t know if I am going to be good at mental health ethics or understanding substance abuse (two of my classes this fall).

And, yet, that hope and excitement is still here. In the two weeks since I’ve stopped working, I have sort of got my life back on track. At the end of my job, I was drinking, eating, and zoning out on social media in an effort to get from day to day. I was not living, just holding on. But, this transition has helped me find the joy back in my days. I’ve got to exercise, see friends, remember my goals and dreams. School will no doubt be difficult, but it’s a challenge I am want to take, not something I feel like I have to do because it’s part of societal orders. I feel more excited about my future and the year ahead of me than I have in a long time.

When I walk into my classroom this evening, my palms will likely be sweaty and my stomach a bit uneven, but I anticipate I will be smiling. From kindergarten to senior year of college, I went back to school 17 times because I was getting an education like I thought I was supposed. Today, though, I am choosing to go back. I start this first day of of my master’s degree having made sacrifices to be here, and not truly understanding how difficult it will be in the next three years. But, this is the path I want to be on, and so I go back to school because I am following a dream. It’s going to be a great first day.