Helping our inner child find the way

When you are a child, the eighteen years you spend as a child feels like eternity. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I can’t wait until I’m out on my own. Until I can do whatever I want. When you’re an adult, the years you spent as a child grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and all those worries and desires seem insignificant compared to the worries and desires of adulthood. However, something I’ve observed and learned in my own experience is that the years we spend as children drive the trajectory for our adulthood, maybe forever.

Recently I cried myself to sleep. I don’t say this for pity or sympathy or to be dramatic. It’s just a fact. I cry a lot – when I’m sad, when I’m happy. Basically anytime I’m moved emotionally, I cry. Sometimes the most appropriate and safe time for me to show that much emotion is in the dark, amidst the white noise of the fan, wrapped in blankets and comfort. While I’d cried myself to sleep many times in my time on Earth, this most recent time felt new. Instead of spiraling down, down, down to the pit of hopelessness, I began telling myself a narrative, a story if you will. I began parenting myself.

We all internalize the narratives and stories that our parents tell us, either verbally or nonverbally. They weave narratives with their actions, words, stories about their pasts, how they react to our transgressions and moments of impatience. We go out into the world with these stories that seem to be complete. As time goes on and we experience life for ourselves, we begin to find the incongruencies and missing parts of those stories. This can happen whether we grew up in the most loving, supportive household, or if we fled from an abusive home when we were young, if only mentally. It’s not a matter of the type of home that bore us as children; it’s the activation of our unique DNA, which can experience and receive a story from our own lives.

I looked at The Other…fragile, exhausted, disillusioned. Controlling and enslaving what should really be free…trying to judge her future loves by the rues of her past sufferings.”

By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, Paulo Coehlo

I found myself soothing myself in my own head. I soothed the four-year-old Elizabeth who couldn’t quite grasp abstract concepts and reasons for “why,” and I soothed the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth who, with her smart mouth, drummed up a retort to pretty much any comment or directive. By soothing all the versions of myself, my almost-35-year-old self could then take a deep breath formed around a resolution and drift off into a restful sleep.

I’ve been in touch with the young Elizabeth more in the past couple of years than I ever have been. Maybe it’s the distance that makes young Elizabeth clearer; maybe it’s the reflection and retrospection I employ to look at my life in the past. As I soothe those other long-gone versions of myself, I feel a healing taking place. A rebirth, a mending.

Just as I need to reassure my inner child, I also need to steel my present self. Recently during a yoga practice, I was astonished by a meditation given at the beginning of a practice. Esther Ekhart, the yoga teacher, brought attention to her legs and arms and body and made the point that when we remember how strong our bodies are, we can remember that we are adults and we are able to take care of ourselves. When we aren’t in the present, we’re stuck in the past and in the future. For us, our inner child sometimes lives in the past and reminds us of past hurts and follies.

Paulo Coehlo, renowned and beloved author, says in By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, “Remember that human wisdom is madness in the eyes of God. But if we listen to the child who lives in our soul, our eyes will grow bright. If we do not lose contact with that child, we will not lose contact with life.”

Therefore, we cannot ignore the inner child and we cannot let them play us like a violin, either. There has to be a balance. Just as a parent shows their children a balance of love and discipline, we must do the same for ourselves. It’s a way we can become whole.

Feeling at home during COVID

I’ll be honest: I’ve always scoffed at people who walk to get exercise. 1) Being honest is all I’ve got, and 2) I was a pretentious asshole. I mean, I’ve run marathons. What benefit could there be to walking over running?

I remember being a teenager and going for walks occasionally through my neighborhood. I’d lived there my whole life essentially, so there was nothing new to see. I hadn’t yet become aware of what “being present” felt like, so it really was just boring.

In college my friend and I would get together in the late evening and walk at the park. The city I grew up in has a beautiful park with a man-made lagoon. The sidewalk around it measures about half a mile, and we would usually do 4 or 5 laps. And she walked fast! Then, I walked because it was a good way to get exercise and socialize. Same when my husband and I were dating – there were very few places we could hang out and be alone in peace, so we went for walks in parks.

It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I started going for walks. It even felt different coming out of my mouth at the end of a work day, words winding their way up the stairs while I put my headphones in, “Babe, I’m going for a walk.”

Last year, I took a running sabbatical (mostly). This means I didn’t train for any big races or have any sort of plan for my running. I ran when I felt like it. Like so much in my life, I got burnt out and figured since the earth was groaning and yearning for a change, so was I. So in the beginning of COVID-induced quarantine, being outside was one of the safest activities there was. I put on my running shoes and went out the door.

Before I knew it, I was walking for about an hour. That’s how long it takes to walk down to the water and back, even at a good clip. And because nearly all the streets in my town are north-south, east-west, there are endless routes to take to the Bay.

The weather improved as spring gave way to summer, and my body craved the calm but industrious energy that walking brings. Running doesn’t do the same thing – your heart and lungs and legs are working too hard. When I run, my thoughts really don’t have the space to wander – they’re usually too focused on pace and cadence and not tripping over perfectly flat concrete (yep, I’ve done it).

But with walking, the world moves by a little slower. I had the time to really look at the neighborhoods I was walking through, at the houses new and old, but mostly old. Some run-down, most with an addition or two. Some with balconies and crazy colors that could probably be seen from kayakers on the river. Some with garden decorations or old paint-chippy fences. All molded by character and curiosity.

A most valuable experience was walking the same neighborhoods as seasons changed. I wore the same shoes, but first donned a hoodie for fall and finally a coat for winter. I found that I could “run errands” during a walk, too. I could pick up or drop off a book from the library. I could stop at the post office to get stamps or mail a package. I could patronize my local coffee shop…. (yes, that counts as an errand – gotta keep local businesses afloat!). Some afternoons in the winter as we approached the solstice, the angle of the sun indicated it was almost time for twilight to meld into darkness fit for a cozy sleep.

Before COVID, I hadn’t really settled in our town, despite buying our own old-but-updated house. But walking allowed me to breathe the same air, wave to and chat with neighbors, and really feel like I am a part of this city. And for such a crazy year and having moved around as an adult, feeling at home is what I really needed.

Choosing to not drink is easy; sobriety is hard

I don’t mean that the act of not drinking is so difficult. I mean, it can be, especially on the Saturday of a long weekend where I just feel good all day, and what could make it better besides a lovely cocktail or two? In all honesty though, overall it hasn’t been difficult for me to choose to not drink.

That said, after posting this at the beginning of November, the de facto start to the American holiday season, I did imbibe on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Neither time was crazy. I had maybe two glasses of good wine. No hangover, not really any disrupted sleep. But it felt empty. Kind of pointless without the high.

So since Christmas Eve, I’ve abstained. And the difficult part has been the actual state of being sober. The fact that I’m not using alcohol as a proverbial lidocaine to numb my feelings feels a bit like drinking water from a firehose. Emotions are no longer dampened or delayed. They scream in your face, wanting attention, wanting to be dealt with and examined. Right. Now.

Sobriety and self-regulation go hand-in-hand. In my experience (your mileage may vary), you can’t navigate one successfully without the other. It doesn’t have to be sobriety as in abstinence from alcohol, either.

Back in March of the ill-fated year of 2020, I remember feeling like finally all my hard work in therapy had paid off because the world was closing in around us (that’s quite hyperbolic… but that’s 2020 for you) and I felt sober of mind. I felt like I could see the world from up above, and observe my own actions and thoughts rather than be my actions and thoughts. And it was freeing and overwhelming at the same time.

I remember thinking that even beyond work done in therapy, I had come a long way, being able to withstand an undetermined amount of time of isolation at home. Uncertainty everywhere else. I’d come a long way from the child or teenager who when she just couldn’t stand it anymore (pick whatever it you want) she went to her room and slammed the door. Or walked out of the house and slammed the door. I slammed doors a lot.

The slamming of a door, proverbial or literal, is a symptom of emotional dysregulation. As a teenager, I let the annoyances, sadness, and frustrations pile higher and higher because “You will be Little ladies,” and “You don’t need a nap during the day,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and “Do you want an attitude adjustment?” Instead of trying to enter the conversation, I was intimidated by whatever consequence awaited me (and I assumed there would be from prior experience). So I just grinned and bore it. Or didn’t grin. But definitely had to bear it. And then it would get to be so much that eventually I would yell so loud and slam the door so hard and cry so uncontrollably as I walked as fast as I could to my friend’s house across the church parking lot and present my emotional dysregulation volcano or dumpster fire or whatever metaphor you want. I made it someone else’s problem because I wasn’t given the skills or the safe space to practice. There was very little room for error, and especially since I was a high-achieving, super motivated student and responsible member of the family.

So now as a grown-ass adult, I am doing my best to realize when I am getting ready to slam a door, and being completely sober can make it even more difficult. But I don’t like slamming doors, or yelling, “I hate you!” or “I never want to see you again!” or “You don’t understand me and you never will!” so I try my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.

I’m still learning how to self-regulate. The third week in January, a four-day work week I might add, was one of great emotional dysregulation. By that Friday night, every single grief, worry, sadness, emotion was turned up loud. And the only way I knew how to navigate it was to just pull the plug from the wall. I’m still learning how to turn the volume dial.. like back in the day when you got a new boombox and the volume or tuner dial were oh-so-sensitive. Or when you accidentally gun the rental car out of the airport parking lot. Nothing under 90, amirite?

The problem with using alcohol or any substance to soothe is that the practice of regulating yourself is delayed. You might think, Yeah, I need to work through this, but not tonight. It’s been a week. I’ll relax tonight and deal with it another time. But doing that is only putting a kink in the hose. It’ll straighten itself out at some point and then where will you be?

I think one reason I don’t turn to alcohol when I’m confronted with negative experiences or emotions is that it isn’t my only coping mechanism. I think this is key. I write. I read. I go for a walk. I go for a run. I message a friend. I have other ways of turning down that dial, and those things have aided in my entire journey with alcohol.

Spending time with Past, Present, and Future (no, this isn’t my version of A Christmas Carol)

I look at houses online, a lot. Maybe too much. Sometimes I look at houses in my neighborhood, sometimes in my hometown. Sometimes I look at houses in places I’ve lived before. I pore over lot size and price per square foot and judge the lighting or staging I see. But mostly I imagine what my life would be like in another place.

If I were to sketch a pie chart that shows the time I spend living in the past, present, and future, it might look like this:

Past and Future live in my head rent-free, and they never leave. Just like I have been for the past almost-year, they are hunkered down, their butts have made inroads on the couch cushions, and they’ve been raiding the pantry. To be fair, I live there with them. I even made them food and bring it to them while they remain couch potatoes. I bring them a blanket when they’re cold, and water when they’re thirsty. But if I’m being honest with you, Past and Future need to be evicted.

It is difficult for me to settle down and live in the present, and the time I spend looking at houses online is a symptom of that. If I have a goal in my head that I want to read on the couch with a cup of tea in the evening, it will take me at least a couple hours to get there. And even when I physically get there, it takes me more time to quiet my mind. (I know you’re going to suggest meditation…. line up behind my therapist for that one…)

Once I’m in the present, I enjoy it. But there is a constant buzzing in my head, maybe anxiety, maybe not. It’s like I’m afraid of getting caught in the Matrix again and losing my awareness. I’m hyperaware.

I was thinking about why I might be like that.

Growing up, I was always thinking about the future. It was an imperative put on me by my parents. We talked about it a lot – how to be successful in school, how important college was, how education was the way to have financial success (we did not have a lot of money for a long time). I think that mindset paired with an active imagination served with a healthy dose of anxiety spurred my mind into overdrive, and thus creating thought patterns that stuck with me for 30+ years.

I think it’s time for new thought patterns. Ones that allow me to fully enjoy the present without worrying about tomorrow. A caveat is that yes, it is important to think about the future at times – that’s how I keep things like my car maintained. I can’t just not get an oil change; I have to plan it. Or keeping food in the house so I can cook good meals. Or adding money to my investment accounts so we’re not broke in retirement.

But truth be told, those action items do not take much time. The energy I spend taking care of those and similar things can be compressed into minutes, honestly. Maybe a couple of hours. But not during the day when I’m trying to focus on work, or at night keeping my awake during a holiday break.

I see the habits and ways I’m spending my time right now as how I will spend them, forever and ever amen (a-woman? JUST KIDDING). For example, if I really dive into reading more books for 2021, in my mind I think, I cannot “let myself go” because I will become addicted to reading and then I won’t want to hang out with people so then I’ll lose friends and then I’ll be really upset and lonely.

Um, what? All of that doesn’t even make sense. It’s irrational at its core. Each part of our life is a separate phase – a season – a gift. I am in a new season right now where we are in a, say it with me, glo-bal pan-dem-ic. There is a lot happening that is not “the norm.” And it won’t last forever.

I read a lot of memoirs and biographies. Currently I’m a bit obsessed with the quest for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic in the mid-1800’s and all the fun and folly that come along with it. There are sailors who devoted upwards of 40 years to their sailing careers. Some of them were lucky enough to live into their 70’s and 80’s. While they spent 40 years doing one profession, per simple arithmetic, they didn’t spend their whole lives doing the exact same thing at the exact same pace in the exact same way.

I think having that realization can help me get over this hump of spending so much time with Past and Future. If I stop my irrational spiraling way of thinking in its tracks, I can probably spend a lot more time with Present. Let’s try it. And maybe my pie chart will end up looking more like this:

Simple life in 2021

If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that we humans make life so much more complicated and difficult than it needs to be. Is there anything more basic to life than waking up with the sun, eating, and observing life around us?

As I write this, I’m taking advantage of (probably) seasonal spring-ish weather in the Mid-Atlantic – 50* on a random day between Christmas and New Year’s. Just a week ago we were anticipating a torrential rainstorm followed by a hefty shift in the temperature. The result of this warmer weather is that I’m on my porch with a hot cup of coffee, noticing that the sun’s angle is behind me (I’m facing east) and maybe just a little bit higher than it was only a week ago on the Solstice. I can see the Susquehanna River, its waters a little lower than a few days ago. No speed boats, no tug boats – just a wide swath of blue.

Peaceful. Just sitting and observing is peaceful. And simple. But necessary. Do we really need to sit with a screen in front of us upwards of 8, or maybe 12, hours a day? I know the science is out there – that can’t be good for our brains. It certainly isn’t for me.

To take a wider view, my week-to-week activities BC (before corona) were busy. So busy. So many activities, driving here and there, so many long-term commitments that I didn’t sleep on before agreeing to. Sure, my mind says, Oh, that will only take an hour each week… without adding up the time driving to and from, prepping for said activity, and alllll the mental space that said activity would take up.

I’ve realized a lot about myself this year, and one huge realization is that I really can’t focus on so many things at once. When I’m involved in so many “people-y” activities, I not only spend time doing all the things I mentioned previously, but then add on replaying many interpersonal interactions in my head later… while brushing my teeth, while getting ready for bed, while laying awake in the middle of the night.

At the core of its economy, being so busy and so committed is inefficient. I don’t get the return on investment most of the time. I end up being tired, worn out, and on the brink of throwing in the towel. That’s not good for getting returns on other things that really matter: the work I do every day for a living, close relationships with family and friends, things that keep my life moving forward like cooking and cleaning and maintaining our house.

I want a simpler life in 2021. This does include keeping so much off of my calendar… and actually, it would be nice to not be involved in so many things that I actually don’t need to reference my calendar that often. I have to make transition time in my day – time to grocery shop, time to eat, time to cook, time to clean up, time to relax and unwind…. really relax and unwind, preferably without a screen.

This means that I might fully give myself over to books. My mind, a fragrant offering, if you will. Reading is something I love to do, and more than that, I love the conversations and new ideas that transpire as a result. I love transporting myself to new worlds and new lands, meet characters I never knew existed. And understand myself and my fellow humans more than I did than when I initially opened the cover.

Reading Goals and Contemplations for 2021

Here we are, another day, another post about reading. I’ve never really regularly written about my reading… ever. I think when I was younger, I was so unsure of myself as a reader, and trying to pretend I loved reading when it was all I could do to pay attention, read the Cliff Notes (for some books), and regurgitate information in class.

I was actually in the high-level English classes in high school, but I think it was because I was a really good test-taker. If I were to be asked to provide exposition about a particular book, I’d fall flat on my face. I relied on my smart classmates to provide that for me so I could jot it down in my notes for the eventual test.

To be honest, I’m not sure what all has changed in the past few years that I’ve been so interested and devouring books, especially this year. Maybe I’ll do a post soon about my 2020 stats. I’m still balls-deep in the Mistborn trilogy. Today is my first day of winter break (perks of being a teacher!) so I will definitely spend a chunk of time reading. I have so many thoughts…

Besides perhaps being more mature, one thing that has helped immensely in my rekindled love of reading is that people are out there talking about books. Some of our Maryland friends are huge readers and so they talk about things they read. I have discovered BookTube. My husband has been reading fantasy since he was a wee lad. My immediate family are big readers, too. So I have a lot of great influence and accountability, if I want it.

So… 2021. What’s on tap? With a gift card I received for Christmas I’ve ordered The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and Ship of Magic. These are all well-regarded books in the adult fantasy genre, ones that I’ve heard mentioned over and over. I generally don’t buy books, especially hardcovers, when I’m not sure if I will like it or not. A house project we have coming up is to install better bookshelves in the front room – so, of course more beautiful books to fill them won’t be a bad thing.

With the books I mentioned, I will delve into the writing of three new-to-me authors: V. E. Schwab, Scott Lynch, and Robin Hobb. I don’t know much about V. E. Schwab other than her books are lit. Scott Lynch wrote the introduction to a book I read recently for book club (Dragon Waiting by the late John M. Ford), and I won’t lie: I was so excited about his writing style that I wished the actual book had been written by him! I have also heard nothing but great things about Robin Hobb, a female author. Maybe I will also read the Farseer trilogy that she wrote.

I have also preordered the new Sarah J. Maas book that I think will be released in February, A Court of Silver Flames. This is the fourth book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series that I absolutely devoured end of 2019 through the beginning of 2020. Naturally, because it will have been a year since I completed those books, I should reread them, not only to have the events and characters in my mind, but also because they are such fun books to read.

I anticipate that I will read much more fantasy. Who knows.. maybe I’ll get into more of the Cosmere and read Way of Kings et al. I will be beginning two series with the Scott Lynch and Robin Hobb books, so I’ll have a natural TBR set up if I like those. I might continue with the Outlander series since I’ve had the fourth book on my monthly TBR for, well, months.

And then, of course, is the book club I belong to where we read award-winning fantasy and sci-fi. The first book of 2021 will be A Memory Called Empire, a space opera with indigenous Mexican vibes. I’m here for it. Never thought I’d say that about a fantasy or sci-fi book, but here we are. I will probably get started on it soon after I finish Mistborn.

As far as a number of books to read, I’m unsure about this goal. In 2020, my goal was 40 books, which for me at the time was realistic but still pushing it. So far, as of December 23, I’ve read 64 books. What. The. Heck. That’s more than a book a week. Even if I don’t include my DNF’s, that’s still more than a book a week. I guess 2020 was made for reading.

In 2021, I will also aim to discover more about why the genre of fantasy has appealed to me so much outside of the fact that it’s a convenient and fun escape from the current world we live in. It’s certainly not the only reason, though. Stay tuned!

Running is for humans

Early on in my running journey, I did anything and everything I could to not think about what I was actually doing with my body. I kept abreast of cracks in the sidewalk and gusts of wind. But if I could distract myself from the physical duress I was voluntarily enduring, I did.

Many times, though, I was convinced that my choice to run was not voluntary. It was some sort of cruel punishment for eating too much, or in anticipation of eating too much (Turkey Trots, anyone?). It was to get my body ready for a very long race that I had impulsively signed up for: marathons come to mind.

At first I felt so self-conscious running up and down University Street, a very busy thoroughfare with four lanes. I thought, surely people are wondering why this tall slightly overweight girl is flailing her arms and legs about. But what I learned is that no one cares, or very few people do. And the ones who do aren’t worth my time. I have my music up so loud I can’t hear them anyway.

I grew accustomed to the feeling of badassery and triumph upon completion of a run, whether it was 2 miles, 5 miles, or 15 miles. I’m a purist, so I relish the roundness of the number on my round watch face. I also loved the self-confidence that running imparted to me.

At the beginning I spent a lot of time choosing specific songs to add to my playlists, first on an iPod and finally on Spotify on my regular smartphone. There were many times, either running outside or working out at the gym, where forgetting to charge my phone or headphones would leave me mentally unable to hang with the planned activity for the day. And then guilt would enter, and then the next day I would work twice as hard to work off my guilt, and so on.

The other day I had an absolutely beautiful run. When trying to decide to go for the run or not, two things were not factors in my decisions. I ignored my slightly sore legs from walking and hiking the few days prior, and I ignored the blustery wind I saw from my home office window, bringing down the next-to-last stubborn leaves, not quite given the opportunity to complete their cycle.

As soon as work was done for the day, my physical body matched what had been going on in my head for a couple hours, and I stepped out the back door and pushed “start” on my watch.

Cue exactly 3.10 miles (I’m a purist, remember?) of bliss incurred by the combination of the autumn angle of the sun, a cool breeze off the river, the perfect pace, and the perfect music. I celebrated the best run I’d had in a long time and I’m sure my husband could tell you that my mood was elevated for the entire evening. I was high.

The high didn’t come from a manufactured experience like it did early on in my running days, nigh on a decade ago now. I wasn’t purposely trying to distract my entire being, physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional, from what I was choosing to put my body through.

No, I was one hundred percent present. I was present with the leaves on the ground, their crunch barely audible above the Mumford and Sons song blaring in my ear. I was present with my breathing, very labored at the pace I was maintaining. I was present with the contact of my shoes on the sidewalk, then on the board walk, then on the road. I was present with the fact that so many people cannot run because they are sick with this virus ravaging the human race.

And then, I was present with my own thankfulness running up and down Union Avenue. For being alive, for being at the very heart of it, human. And that’s why I run.

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.

Fooling myself

For a good chunk of my life I had no idea how to relax. I would be so excited for what seemed like endless amounts of time on the weekends or school breaks, and then it would feel like I squandered it by doing… I don’t even know what, exactly.

By the time I reached high school, I simultaneously was excited for and dreaded breaks or time off. Through high school and college, I suffered from depression during those times, especially summers. The lack of routine and set schedule really got me down.

Since then, there’s been a push and pull of priorities, some due to the privileges I enjoy now and some due to many years of creating healthy boundaries and “work-life balance.”

In talking with my therapist the other day, I discovered that in the times I felt depressed on winter [or insert whatever holiday] break, I didn’t trust myself. During the week or times of routine, I relied heavily on my schedule to determine the appropriate times for all my activities. I hadn’t quite learned self-regulation of my own schedule.

For instance, I have a history of starting a project and either getting so carried away with that I can’t stop until it’s finished, or I leave it to collect dust for a number of months until I remember my fondness for it and dig it out of the pile of Misfit Projects. I think many times I would abandon a project because I would get too much into my own head about “wasting” time on something that I actually did enjoy instead of engaging in something more “productive.”

This practice of never penciling in unscheduled activities came to a fever pitch when Aaron was out and about (either in the field or deployed) with the military. Whether it was for two weeks, a month, or our longest separation of 10 months, I found myself jumping at every last opportunity to be busy or spend time away from the house. It was just too hard to be there alone.

There’s a long path of steps up to my current level of self-actualization that could not have occurred without those trying times and bouts of depression, however. I needed to go through the tough things to appreciate the good ones. To appreciate myself for who I am – independent, worthy of relaxation.

These days I still have a list of projects, some that are completed with a feverish pace, and others that sit for months until I pick them up again. I always am caught in a flurry of hobbies and love immersing myself in creative things when I’m not working. But no longer do I feel guilty or weird if I spend, for example, two hours on a Sunday afternoon napping, or watching football, or cooking food for the week.

I think the key is that I can’t have so many boundaries for myself during my time off. I need to allow myself a large swath of time to ponder, explore, and create. It keeps me mentally healthy. I inwardly rejoice even upon waking up early on a weekend morning, or especially upon waking up early on a weekend morning. I see nothing but potential for the day, be it through a cup (or entire French press) of coffee, reading, cross-stitching, napping, cooking, whatever. The joy in the day is not derived by the activity necessarily, but in the agency involved in choosing the activity. And having no regrets for how I spent my time.

Life right now is not at all what we planned it would look like. Humans are kind of programmed to predict events, so this pandemic really threw a wrench into everything. Nonetheless, it gives us a perfect opportunity to see our habits and actions for what they really bring to our lives – either how they serve us or how they manipulate or cause destruction.

In the view of the finite breaths we all have left, it’s imperative that we take the time to reflect on how we spend our time and if it’s all “worth it.” We can take everything out of our pockets, lay it out on the table, and really examine every piece in an objective light.

For me, hemming and hawing about the way I spend an hour or two, or even an entire day, doesn’t serve me well. If I complete an activity and then spend time regretting it, that is a waste to me, my friends.

In fact, I guess you could say I’d be fooling myself….