Boundaries

I don’t normally write for this blog on my work laptop and I usually have my Sunday post done by now, but my personal laptop seems to be dead. At least for now. Quite a bummer, too, because I was working on a very cozy vibe for a mid-autumn Sunday morning – complete quiet, a drowsy and cloudy sunrise, French press coffee. A few years ago something like my laptop completely kicking the bucket would have really thrown me off, but here I am writing about it.

I think we can all agree that in this time of the pandemic, having boundaries is good and helpful. Obviously we have the concrete example of a face mask, a literal boundary that we wear every day. We have “social distancing” as another concrete physical boundary. I hope that people also are beginning to understand the importance of work/life boundaries.

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to this practice of creating and enforcing boundaries. Long before infertility, long before moving to the East Coast, tunneling through time to when Aaron and I were first married, I had to set a boundary with work and life. He had been laid off and was in the process of joining the military, active duty. I was in my first year of teaching – which many teachers say that no matter what, is like this year for everyone.

In February of that year, Aaron took his last paycheck at the job that laid him off, and he was set to leave for basic training in April. Only two months away. I knew that it would be at least ten weeks from the time he left for Missouri to the time I’d see him again, and who knows after that. So I created a boundary with work, that I would get what I needed to get done at work, and come home at a decent hour so we could take advantage of the time we had together.

My memories of my first year of teaching are becoming fuzzier as I make room for more memories of teaching high school, but I do remember that not everything got done every day. My to-do list was long and never-ending, but I had to draw a line in the sand and say, “Done. I’m done for the day.” Because spending time with my new husband was more important. Because enjoying time we had together before an enormous change in our life was important. I was fortunate to have to learn about boundaries so young.

As the years went on throughout our experience as a military family, many boundaries were created, especially with time. When he would come home for a visit, such as Christmas break during Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or on leave from his tour in Korea, I would drop everything so we could 100% focus on being together – just the two of us and also with family. Yes, work was important, but our time and health of our marriage was more so.

As it turns out, this practice with concrete situations has really served me well throughout our time of attempting to add to our family, failing in the “natural” way, making decisions about which treatments to pursue if any, and then finally deciding to live without children.

It has not been easy, and for most of it I’ve been afraid of pissing other people off or at the very least, making them uncomfortable. However, at some point when you are so desperate for some peace and quiet in your mind, you stop caring about what people think and you just do what you need to do to feel safe.

I had not really considered that avenue before, as growing up I was taught to just deal with the feelings, push through, get over it… whatever phrases there were circulating from parents to children born in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, I heard it. I was taught to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I think that’s a good thing to teach your children, but it crosses a line when that becomes a detriment to the emotional safety of the individual.

Over the last six and a half years, since we officially started “trying” (those of you in the “actively trying” camp, please revise the list of jargon…), I and my husband both have had to lay down some boundaries.

Consequently, they have come in quite handy over the past few weeks. I’ve written a lot about church and the pressure on anyone who is not married with children to become married with children, be it single people, young married people thinking about becoming parents, or older people who have been widowed (minus the children part). I have a lot to say about the culture of the church, but I will leave that there for now.

There are many activities at church that just aren’t comfortable or welcoming for us. They weren’t even as young married people who weren’t ready for children yet. Trunk or Treats… small groups that are demographically alike… certain children’s ministries… They are all difficult, we have had to put our foot down about it. Sometimes we give a reason, sometimes we don’t. Mostly whether we give a reason or not depends on the apparent willingness to empathize of the intended party.

It had been awhile since I waved my infertility flag at church, probably since a Mother’s Day where I wrote in to the person who works on the service order and request that a single carnation be placed on the altar in honor of all mothers who could not become mothers for whatever reason. But I was asked to help out with a virtual “children’s/family ministry moment” and I had to decline, and in addition I have many feelings about the use of the word “family” in church vernacular.

Immediately when in my head I decided “Nope, can’t do it” all the justifications were running through my mind… Things like: ,Don’t get me wrong, I like kids but… or I just don’t have time right now…

But I didn’t use those to justify saying no. Instead, after reviewing the situation and the person asking, I decided to be honest and speak my peace. Having not done that in awhile, I was nervous… and this was over email! So I told the person something to the effect of, “Thank you for inviting me, but after our struggle with infertility, some things involving children are difficult and I cannot participate.” And guess what, my faith in humanity rose even the slightest bit with receiving a very empathetic and caring response.

So that happened shortly before Halloween.

Then Halloween arrived, and we were ready with costumes we bought from Walmart and full size candy bars. Yes, friends, we want to be those neighbors. Just like the folks who lived on Washington Street in our hometown gave out full size candy bars.

I really anticipated that I would be okay. The first few Halloweens of our infertility journey found me grocery shopping – all the kids would be out and about, so it was pretty peaceful to run my errands. For the past couple years, I sat on the fence, one foot in the tradition and one foot out – I would sit on my porch with candy, but have a drink in my hand. Alcohol does wonders for numbing feelings, let me tell you.

This year, I haven’t been drinking, so I’ve been having to deal with my feelings as they come up. It sucks when the feelings are in the “bad” category. And on Halloween, instead of participating like a “normal” human being (I’ve been lied to and tricked into thinking that alllllll Americans participate… and they don’t), I sat in my house, front porch light off, not dressed in my Halloween best, because at the last minute I had to draw a boundary. I didn’t anticipate it, but I whipped out that skill like a pumpkin pie out of the oven on Thanksgiving. (You can see where my mind is…)

So not only have I been running interference on boundaries, but my husband has as well on our behalf. It was pretty clear to him that I was struggling with some things and so when a situation arose with a family member, he shut it down. He didn’t even consult me first, and that felt really nice. Like he had my back. And that comes from me continuing to communicate about the boundaries I need and how I use them, and from his confidence in shutting down certain situations. We’re still a team, children or not, and that is worth its weight in….. candy bars? No, gold. It’s worth its weight in gold.

154 days

I spared a moment of generosity this week and placed my leftover candy in the main office at work. I’d been stealing “fun size” candy for days now, weeks. I had originally bought it for a meeting I had this month, thinking, “Yeah, Elizabeth, you can control yourself with candy in the room. Just three pieces a day. That’s it.”

I was wrong, and I knew I was setting myself up for failure, if eating more than three pieces of candy was considered failure.

The truth is, my body doesn’t tolerate dairy products well, but it’s mostly when they’re raw. When milk is really overprocessed into milk chocolate candy, I can handle it in small(ish) doses. So that’s why I gave myself the green light to essentially binge candy every day.

Now, do I have an unhealthy relationship with food, that is, bingeing? Maybe that’s for my therapist to say. But I know that sometimes I do, especially when it comes to sugar or junk food.

As a rule, we generally don’t keep it in the house. If we do bring junk food into the house, we know that it’s for a special treat and we don’t expect it to survive more than a couple days. This includes Oreos, pints of ice cream, a cake or pie I bake, et cetera.

But I don’t forbid myself to eat sweets. I think that could backfire pretty badly. I also am not prediabetic (according to recent-ish bloodwork). I’m at a healthy weight, I have good blood pressure (albeit kind of low) and I, in general, am a healthy person.

I know that sugar can mess with a host of body processes, including menstrual cycles and metabolism. However, right now it’s been kind of an outlet. An indulgence.

I think at this point in 2020 (almost to the end but who knows what 2021 will bring…) we’ve all found our vices. Maybe we’ve rediscovered them. Maybe we hate them; maybe we embrace them. Maybe like mine, sugar, I say hi, how are you, and move on, neither fixating nor ignoring.

However, one thing I have forbid is drinking alcohol. It’s been about five months since I’ve had an alcoholic drink. I know I’ve passed the 150 day mark.

Before May 2020, I had another dry spell around 2012-2013, when as part of youth leadership at a church we were encouraged not to drink, even in the privacy at our own home. (I have a lot of feels about that that I’m sure I’ll write about… at some point.)

I am genetically predisposed to an addiction to alcohol. I’ve known this for a very long time, but continued to play with fire. It’s very difficult for me to moderate. First, I have one glass of wine. Then, I start to feel a little uninhibitied and want to get to a good buzzed state, so I have another. Cue more intoxicated decision-making and I could polish off a bottle by myself over the course of a weekend afternoon and evening.

Same goes for holidays, though I completely viewed them as a free pass to day drink. Add on trips to wineries, one of my favorite pastimes. There’s something so cozy and “adult” about sitting on a stone patio overlooking rolling hills with a glass of wine in hand on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Late in May, after a particularly active evening of drinking whatever was available, I puked. Thankfully, not in someone’s house or someone’s car (both have happened, unfortunately), but it was enough to jar my brain into rethinking my relationship with alcohol.

I felt like absolute warmed-up death the next day. Missy, our dog, must have known how guilty and physically awful I felt, because she cuddled on the couch with me all day. I don’t have “normal” hangovers, I guess – my stomach feels bad and I have no appetite, not even for that sugary or fried junk food I mentioned earlier.

It was then I decided to see how long I could go without drinking. A long COVID summer lay ahead. First I got through Memorial Day. And then vacation, my first vacation in years that I had been 100% sober. And then a camping trip. Finally, I had made it through a sober summer and stared down the barrel of the beginning of everyone’s favorite shitshow of a school year. Well, now, that wasn’t too bad, was it? Now we’re on the verge of the holidays, and this will be my first holiday season in probably my entire life (since I was a teenasger) where I’ve been completely sober.

The first couple weeks, I felt like I was on Cloud Nine. I felt like all my ducks were in a row, as it were, and that I was in control. Slowly, the elated feeling faded away into monotony. Every day felt the same. Friday? Ok, great. Maybe we’ll order pizza. (No wine.) Saturday afternoon grilling on the patio? Nice, grab a sparkling water. (No tequila mixed drink.) Sunday afternoon, how about the winery? Oh, nevermind, I’m going to do ____ instead.

Throughout this experiment with sobriety, I’ve discovered a lot about myself. For one, I knew I had a poor relationship to alcohol. I’ve used it as a balm for pretty much everything – happiness, grief, weddings, funerals, regular ole days, Superbowl. No longer can I ignore my feelings, though. Friday nights can be particularly difficult as I anticipate the weekend ahead while considering the week behind me. Having a few glasses of wine or cocktails on a Friday night delineated my teacher-ness and my Elizabeth-ness. And now I don’t have that.

I have learned to work through my feelings day by day, which frankly, really sucks. It really sucks to have an intense moment of grief and no way to assuage it besides the meditative coping mechanisms in my mind. There’s no crutch anymore; just me.

I was very worried about appearing socially sans alcohol. I really thought it made me funnier, more charming, more witty. Turns out, I’m alright without it. Now, we also have COVID to thank for not having to navigate the social world in all its glory right now. That I am very thankful for.

I have to find other ways of sorting through feelings and having special moments. My “thing” right now is coffee + reading in the mornings before work. I’ve been making myself a French press every morning that I enjoy with whatever dairy-free creamer of my choice. On weekdays, I don’t have much time, maybe 20 minutes, to sit and read and contemplate the day. But on the weekends, I find I get out of bed with even more gusto than on a regular morning. I have found that I love enjoying my coffee with a book or some writing before the dog and husband are awake for the day. In the summers, I can sit in my chair in the living room and watch the sun rise in the east.

Waking up not hungover is probably the best feeling there is. No regret, no wondering if I say or did anything stupid. No guilt about Aaron having to take care of my drunk ass. And no waking up in the middle of the night, heart racing, sweating, worrying. That’s it, just worrying.

So you see, the sugar consumption is not the biggest deal in the world. Maybe I’m replacing my habit, but there are many reasons why not drinking is the right choice for me right now. And it has nothing to do with an external religious force that makes me feel guilty for imbibing. It has everything to do with my relationship to myself.

This week I felt a really intense craving for a glass of wine, the bottle of Chianti I have in the other room. I could see myself picking out my glass, opening the bottle to let it breathe, take a sip and savor it in my mouth. And then the daydream faded like it was a balloon being popped, and my rose colored glasses were simply just glasses again.

All I can say is that I’ve picked a hell of a year to stop drinking, and it’s not over yet.

Routines are hidden self-care

I have always thrived on routines. Though I held them with disdain as a child I know that children thrive on routines. It feels safe and comfortable to know what’s coming next in the day. The feeling of safety allows you to be more present in the current moment.

That said, shifting to a work-from-home play-at-home do-everything-at-home routine six months ago was not easy. It was touch-and-go for several weeks while we figured out what teaching might look like from home. I finally set up a proper office this summer, knowing that we were at least starting online. If anything, I imagine snow days will be a thing of the past – they could turn into online learning days. (Not sure how I feel about that quite yet…)

But now this week my routine changes again. I am willing myself to welcome my routine of driving to and from work. I am willing myself to welcome the routine of packing a lunch and leaving at a prescribed time. I am willing myself to think twice the night before and get everything as ready to go as possible for the morning, which are earlier for me than they ever have been.

When certain routines become more rigid, everything has to shift. Shower time shifts; bed time shifts. Wake-up time shifts. (I went without setting an alarm from March through August.) Planning meals and grocery shopping have to shift. Doing little chores as “brain breaks” throughout the day will have to shift.

But in the end, all these routines are good. They bring a sense of peace and normalcy in a very trying time. While I have been through many things in my life that have upended my routines, I welcome Routines in the Time of COVID.

On one hand, it feels selfish to engage in some of these routines, as they naturally diminish time I have to catch up with family or friends or volunteer for all the things. On the other hand, keeping certain routines sacred is necessary for my mental health. I know this time won’t last forever. At some point, fluidity will make its way back into my daily life.

As we enter into fall and winter with shorter days and cooler temperatures, into flu season and into more uncertainty about what regular life looks like, there are some routines I’m not going to budge on.

Coffee and reading before work. If this means I need to wake up two hours before I hit the road, so be it. I started this routine when I made a promise to myself to read more and have found it indispensable. (Check out my Goodreads shelf to the left.)

Physical fitness every day. Some days this looks like leisurely dog walks. Others it looks like yoga on the patio. Still other days will find me going for a run.

Cooking real food at home 95% of the time. So far, we’ve still been only ordering out once per week, usually pizza on Friday nights. I can’t not cook for an army of people, so there are always leftovers to heat up. Plus I gotta keep up my sourdough game… it was a little deflated this week if you know what I mean. Oh, I’m sorry, is my millenial showing?

Tea and reading before bed. I’ve been partial to Tulsi Turmeric Ginger with honey. So calming, earthy, and delicious.

These routines have proved to be a God-send as well as sustainable for the time going forward.

Three years later

I’m sitting on my porch typing with a bum elbow. It’s been hurting more today because I’ve been busy. In the kitchen. Like a good little wifey. Like the wife/mom combo I thought I would be.

I came out here with a glass of cab and a head full of thoughts, hoping to get something, anything, down. It’s been hard lately. I keep having all these things I want to write about, that bubble up. Adult responsibilities are getting in the way of my writing and processing. Recently I’ve wished for when I was 12 or 13 again, no responsibilities except for school. (I didn’t start working until I was 14.) Just checking chores, taking care of my sisters, and practicing piano off my to-do list.

Grown-up me had a substantive New Year’s Resolution – Be honest with myself. I saw the fruit of this resolution as me getting some clarity about life. But turns out the clarity I saw was through rose-colored glasses.

Three years ago, my husband and I decided to be done, really done, with trying to make babies. Turns out we really really sucked at making babies. We still don’t know whose ‘problem’ it was (most likely mine as I had uterine polyps and endometriosis… though I hesitate to put past tense on endo as there is no cure..). But we decided that we’d be done.

And three years later, I am just as, if not more, confused than I was about what I want in life. About faith. About my purpose on this planet. About God’s will in this. About the long-term implications of not parenting.

Frankly, sometimes it sucks, the not knowing. But here I am, being honest with myself. It sucks. It’s hard. I spent a good portion of this weekend in an acute and deep depression. Overall I was down in that pit for about 18 hours, but that was long enough. Fortunately for me, depression never gets to be a comfy place to be. So eventually something happens or I have a flicker of hope and I’m able to crawl up and out. It really is a horrible affliction, depression, and it certainly made itself known to me on the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month.

When we first decided to live childfree (or childless not by choice, lest I offend those for whom children have never been a desire), I was actually comforted by the not-knowing and transience of life. It didn’t much matter to me if we up and moved like we’ve been prone to do. I didn’t care if I had to make new friends or get settled into a new place or pack up some boxes. The thing that felt like a warm blanket was the not-knowing.

Now that life overall feels a bit more stable what with jobs and a house and church family and all, any threat to that stability could tear me limb from existential limb. At least today it would feel like that. Maybe not tomorrow. Probably not in a week.

And that’s one of the hardest parts about all of this… the un-knowing causes me to not be able to trust myself. But the thing is, I have to. Being honest and going with my gut are two strategies I’m using (if you can call them that). I can’t look too far into the future and hope that three more years from now all is well. I just can’t bear the thought of being just as confused as I am now.

There is a bird in our tree, stuck up high in an outer branch, its leg entwined in something. We couldn’t tell: we couldn’t get up high enough to reach it. It’s the saddest thing, really, to watch this animal try and try and try to get free. I know it will die… at least I think it will. Logic tells me so. But it’s not thinking about that right now. It’s not thinking at all. It’s just going off of instinct and trying to get away.

Maybe to outsiders I look a bit like that bird. I’m trying and trying and trying to get free. I will keep trying, because no one knows the future. I will keep trying, even if it takes me three more years.

I think mini backpacks are cool and I don’t care who knows it.

I’m finally feeling like myself again. It’s taken a shit-ton of work. Physical work. Mental work. Emotional work. Hours of therapy. Hours of running. Of listening and meditating on music that feeds my soul. Of advocating for myself and my physical health.

Recently I’ve been reconnecting with the Elizabeth that’s down deep inside, the girl who’s now grown into a woman and hopefully likes what she’s become. As my grandma, Mimi, used to say, “You have to like what you see in the mirror.” Maybe she meant that you like your physical appearance. But I know that mostly she meant that you have to like the person reflected in that piece of glass.

A previous post I wrote about finding my 8th grade journal has taken me on a trip down memory lane. The commitment to writing on this blog with this name comes from a visit to the young Elizabeth who wrote late at night. Wrote poetry. Wrote songs. Some happy, some sad. The girl who in sixth grade went through a very interesting “Harriet the Spy” phase and sat on a stoop at recess with a composition notebook, writing about what she saw. The Elizabeth who wrote a collection of poetry for a project in advanced English in 8th grade entitled “Declaration of Independence”. (I know that period’s in the ‘wrong’ place, btw.)

My language arts teacher mentioned that my poetry was dark and depressing. Fuck yeah it was. I was encountering mental illness for the first time and trying to wrestle with it. Writing was my outlet. I didn’t feel taken seriously, I guess, and I tamped it down and convinced myself all through high school that I hated English class.

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

All of these 90’s themes coming back have been a catalyst to coming back to young Elizabeth as well. I remember having high-waisted pants. Scrunchies (even ones my mom made to match some dresses/jumpers she made me). Those plastic rings you used to cinch a intentionally too-big t-shirt. Flannel shirts. God, so much flannel. Mini backpacks as a purse.

This one’s pretty cute.

I look at all these kids discovering these things for the first time and it makes me feel old. It also makes me sad that I ever let go of the things I liked. I’m trying to lean in to what I really like, and rediscover it. When you go through shit like infertility and crises of faith, you question your very being, your soul, your core.

So like I was saying in the beginning, I’ve been doing a lot of work to get back to myself. And dammit, I really like mini backpacks. I think they’re adorable. I really like taking running selfies with the self-timer on my camera and I just don’t care who sees me. I like wearing my hair down after a shower without drying and curling it. I generally am not into wearing a lot of makeup – mascara does it just fine for me. I like playing bluegrass really loudly when the windows are open.

Where did I get the idea that what I like to wear or do isn’t good enough? Where did I get the idea that I have to put on makeup and curl my hair in order to look “professional”? I got those ideas from society and culture, and they’ve been internalized. Somehow the cursory comparisons I made with other women got embedded in how I operate, and I’m sick of it.

I just wanna be me. I’m the same but different.

I turned 33 a few weeks ago, and I am so excited about it. 33 going into 34 is going to be such a great year. Maybe I’ll even buy myself a mini backpack.