It’s been a rough few months. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing that ripples past the inner circles of me and my little family, just a tough transition. From maternity leave to full-time work for me. From home to daycare for Little A. From private to public kindergarten for GG. From summer to a new year. From known to unknown. From comfortable to oh-my-god-what-have-I-done-I-don’t-know-if-I-can-do-this.
And somewhere in all this, my old friend anxiety raised her ugly head and came back for a surprise visit. The whole bit – panic attacks catching me unawares, largely imagined health scares, loops of negative thoughts plaguing me night and day.
But the last week or so, things have started to feel different. Lighter, more manageable. Possibly just because time passed, because all things come and go, and possibly because I so desperately needed to push this weight of anxiety off my chest that I tried everything I knew how.
And maybe one of those things worked.
So here they are, in no particular order:
You’d think I’d know this by now – meditation works for me. It clears space and grounds me. As usual I don’t manage to sit as much as I’d like to, but whenever I do, it helps.
At the moment it’s walking and yoga. In the thick of anxiety getting sweaty makes me feel like I’m bringing it all to the surface. Whatever “it” may be.
I’m blessed to have a supportive therapist that knows me well, who I can check in with when times get rough. Sometimes just talking helps, and other times we’re doing what feels like real work. Reaching down into the depths of the bullshit, making some order and releasing what I no longer need.
4. Rescue Remedy
Maybe it’s just a placebo, who knows. It seems to help at times.
6. Getting a check up
When my anxiety gets bad, I pretty much always decide something is wrong with me. I have some crazy physical symptoms and then the cycle of worrying gets started – and it gets ugly in my head. This time I decided there was something wrong with my brain – sparked by a spat of dizzy spells and weird sensations up and down my arm.
As it turns out, I have carpal tunnel syndrome. And probably not a brain tumor causing numbness in my forearm and fingers and electric tingles. I think, oddly, that diagnosis probably did more to lift my anxiety than everything else on this list combined.
And apparently I’m somewhat sleep deprived. Which brings us to.. .
Not like we’re getting full nights or anything crazy like that, but I’m doing my best to prioritize rest.
8. Recognizing anxiety
This is a big one for me. I think I was having panic attacks for a couple of weeks before I realized – hang on a minute, I’ve been here before. This is anxiety.
And it helps, calling a spade a spade. Knowing that it will pass, that it has passed before and it will pass again.
I didn’t know it would be my last drink at the time.
It was a fun night, a spontaneous party at our rooftop apartment in the middle of Tel Aviv. It started with hamentashen – traditional cookies for the festival of Purim – and whiskey sours. Because all social events revolved around alcohol for me those days. Not that weird for a 30-year-old single woman, living and working in a grungy, beach-side city perhaps, but I think for me the two were a little too closely linked. Like the socializing was an excuse for the drinking and not the other way around.
The party started when it was still light, with a few good friends sitting around chatting. It ended with a purple wig, lots of tears and an empty bottle of Glenlivit – and I don’t remember doing much sharing. Well to be honest, I don’t remember that much at all. Things started light and fun, got really fun, and then got messy – this was often the case when I partied. A deep conversation with a good friend from out-of-town had me a blubbering mess, I have a vague memory of arguing with my boyfriend about cleaning up, lots of vomiting (let’s not forget that I was pounding a cocktail made up mainly of single malt and raw eggs)… and that’s about all I can remember.
I have much more vivid memories of waking the next morning, feeling like death warmed up. I spent the entire day trying to keep fluids down and running back and forth from the toilet to bed. And with the physical hangover came the emotional fallout. The sick feeling in my stomach as snippets of ridiculous things I’d said and done the previous night came back to me. The cringing regret. The long, nagging black holes in my memory.
It was 7pm before I managed to keep down some juice. I don’t know if I managed to eat. I didn’t care. I just felt so wretched and sorry for myself.
And it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. Not by far.
This sort of thing had been going on for a long time, around 15 years. Every party, holiday, meal and meetup was an excuse to get drunk. I drank when I was happy and when I was sad, to celebrate and to commiserate. Part of it was about dutch courage, part was about enjoying the physical sensations of getting wasted, part of it was just pure fun. I fancied myself as a connoisseur of whiskey, wine and beer – but at the end of the day it was all about getting drunk. There were a bunch of other party drugs involved too at different points, along with I can’t even begin to imagine how many cigarettes and joints.
And yet despite how trashy that must all sound, my life was ostensibly in pretty decent shape at that time.
Until a few months earlier I’d been living by myself – a life-long goal – in a cute apartment three minutes from the beach. I had a high-energy journalism job that I loved and lots of friends living in walking distance from me. I ran 5km a few times a week, practiced yoga regularly and meditated every day. And I’d just met a man who was different from anyone I’d ever dated, and things were going very well.
I guess this is why people squirm when I use the word alcoholic. It doesn’t quite fit. But it’s true. It’s just that I was a very high-functioning abuser.
The day after that horrible hangover was the day I headed off for my first long Vipassana course – a 12-day silent meditation retreat. It sounds like a cliché but there’s no other way to say it – those 12 days totally changed my life.
In order to take part in the course, students agree to take on the Five Precepts, or training rules, for the duration of the course. And so without thinking too much of it, I undertook to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and using intoxicants. The Buddhist tradition has it that accepting these rules gives the mind the moral freedom to properly engage in contemplative practice. Simple enough really, and it made sense to me. And then just kept on making more and more sense.
Somewhere in among the grueling hour-upon-hour meditation schedule, I found some clarity about these substances that had become such an integral part of my life. Sitting on a cushion, painstakingly bringing my mind back to the present moment over and over again, the cycle of craving that I’d gotten myself into finally started to make sense. I understood on a physical, visceral level that I was completely addicted to how these substances were making me feel, and I realized – it was time to take drugs and alcohol out of the picture completely. At least for now.
I’d known it for years, I think, but I hadn’t been ready to admit it. I’d played around with drinking “moderately,” with only smoking pot on the weekends. I’d stopped smoking cigarettes for a few years, then started again during a breakup and been so furious with myself that I’d been unable to stop again. It just wasn’t working.
And on top of that, I simply didn’t want to taint the purity of mind that I was just starting to cultivate with the mindfulness practice. I was finally working through so much of my shit – psychological, spiritual and existential, alike – and felt ready to fully apply myself to the task.
I also knew I would have the support of that promising new boyfriend once I got back home to the real world, because he’d already raised “my substance issue” a few months earlier (at which juncture I’d basically told him to get fucked, naturally).
And so I just did it. I came back home, reintegrated into most of my life, but just not the alcohol, drugs and cigarettes bit. It’s been over four years and I’m proud to say that I haven’t had another sip, drag, snort or pill since.
I thought the cravings would be the hard part, but actually once I stepped off the wheel, it was kind of like I closed a door and that was that. There are still moments when a beer would go down well, or a cigarette on a particularly bad day, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
The social bit was much tougher. While I did have real, close friends – not just drinking buddies – the substance abuse was an integral part of my very active social life. So I had to find social activities that didn’t revolve around drinking, and also to admit that without alcohol I actually didn’t want such an active social life. Time alone became far more tolerable, and sometimes even preferable. It was a shift that I didn’t expect, but ultimately it was quite welcome, and fit well with my meditation practice and an increasingly serious relationship, too.
So it’s been four years, and I feel like a completely different person now. That supportive boyfriend is now my dear husband and we have two young children. We bought a place in the suburbs. Meditation is still a cornerstone of my sanity but I definitely don’t fit in the hour in the morning and hour in the evening that I was doing in the months after that course. Life is good. Calm and happy and fulfilling.
But recently I’ve been thinking that it might be even better with a glass of wine in my hand at the end of the day, once the kids are in bed. And that maybe I’ve changed enough that I’d be able to handle it differently this time.
I talked it out last week, chatting with my mother and stepfather over a couple of glasses of San Pellegrino. They were drinking wine and beer, respectively. And to be honest I had half a mind that the conversation might end with me deciding to have a drink myself, but it didn’t – and here’s why.
I know that if I had a drink then – or right now – I wouldn’t end up drunk on a street corner somewhere. Of course not. I’d be able to have one drink, maybe two, and call it a night.
But I wouldn’t want to.
From that first sip I’d be thinking about the next one, and the one after that. About when and whether I could pour myself another. Even just writing about it now I can feel the craving starting to build. The metallic taste in my mouth, salivating at the thought of something I haven’t even tasted in so long. And at some point I’d start thinking about smoking too – because drinking and smoking really are such a beautiful match. I wouldn’t actually do it, but the mental suffering I’d cause myself in going over and over it just doesn’t seem worth it.
There are other reasons, too. Empty calories and all the crap I used to eat when I was drinking, drunk or hungover for one. Pizza after pizza, delicious of course but basically just clogging my arteries and making me miserable about my body. Clarity of mind is another. It’s bad enough that I can count the amount of full nights’ sleep I’ve had in the past three years on one hand – why add insult to injury? I’m about to go back to work full time – I need every brain cell I can get. And then there’s the emotional stability. Sure, I have my ups and downs, but they’re nothing compared to the serotonin crashes I used to experience even after a couple of glasses of wine.
But the cycle of craving is the main reason that I’m not having another drink. At least not for now. I’m making a conscious choice to live without a well-earned beer – so that I can also be free of that world of inner turmoil.
So, was I an alcoholic? Am I still?
It doesn’t matter. All I know is that for now – right now – I still feel good about that decision I made four years ago, and kept making every day since. And I’m eternally grateful for the conditions that helped me to come to it and to stick with it – the gift of meditation, my rock of a husband, and a significant amount of dark chocolate along the way. Gotta keep a vice or two hanging around just for fun, right?
Granted, I’ve been kind of off all day. The afternoon probably never stood a fighting chance. I woke up feeling weird, with shooting round ligament pain up my sides and a general blurgh feeling. The heat has been getting to me this pregnancy and last night was particularly humid.
I kept it together okay at work, with only minimal breaks in concentration to neurotically Google things like “stitch-like pain in right side 27 weeks pregnant” and to brush up on the signs of preterm labor. And then it was time to be a good mama for the afternoon.
I knew there was no way I could deal with taking GG to the park in the 34 degree heat. I also knew that the chances of my mood not eliciting a reaction from him were slim to none. I braced myself.
The first part of the afternoon was fine. We walked to the car slowly, stopped to get petrol on the way home (one of GG’s favorite activities), then made fruit ice blocks on the kitchen floor. I started to relax and we seemed to be in sync.
But something changed in the energy a few minutes later, and he started to lash out at me. Hitting and kicking and pulling my hair. Grabbing at my stomach and trying to bite me. Seriously this shit is hard to handle at the best of times but I’m fucking pregnant and hormonal and in pain and yet I so badly do not want to yell at him. I actually never have, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to it than I did this afternoon.
Summoning up my best self, the mother that I want to be, felt almost impossible. Oh – and did I mention he was laughing hysterically this whole time, more and more when I told him sternly that he was hurting me? My words were doing nothing. At least I had enough awareness to realize that. And I had no emotional energy to tap into how he was feeling, either.
So I used my hands. I sat next to him on the floor and I held him down, physically restraining him from hurting me. I told him I wouldn’t let him touch me like that. He tried again a few times nonetheless, and then gradually his cackles started to die down, his breathing calmed, and he asked me, “are you happy Mama?” This is what he asks whenever he can sense that I’m not.
“Not really,” I told him. “I’m annoyed that you hurt me just now and I don’t feel so great.”
After that he got up, tried to run off, tripped and hit his cheek on the carpet. He burst into tears, sprung up and melted into me. I was his mama again and he was my baby. We were no longer adversaries in some strange, uneven battle. We hugged it out. I thought all was solved.
But this cycle continued over and over the next couple of hours, right up until bedtime. Everything would be fine and then he’d start testing me again. He threw my phone across the room, watching me with an expectant grin to see how I would react. He tipped a glass of water on the floor during dinner with the same glint in his eye. Lobbed pasta in my shoes. Tried to pinch my nipple once or twice. I dealt with each incident as calmly as I could. I willed myself to stay in the moment, to react to each outburst as though it was the first of its kind today. Because I knew that GG was just reacting to my low energy, and I honestly didn’t know how I was going to be able to take care of him if I strung this series of events into a horrible story and started feeling sorry for myself.
So I did the best I could, for today.
Ultimately, I just had a hard day, and it continued into a hard afternoon – no surprises there. GG reacted to my vibe, on top of just being a two-year-old. Nothing to do but accept it and move on. To make sure I get a good night’s sleep and hopefully feel better tomorrow. To wake up a stronger, more energized mama, so my little son doesn’t have to test the boundaries quite so much tomorrow.
Okay that’s not entirely true. When my mouth is full of food I’m okay, as well as directly after (most) meals. A few minutes later I have a short window during which I’m just peckish, and then BAM! Starving again.
So what’s a girl to do, right? I’m pregnant, gotta eat. Especially after the first trimester – then if I let the peckish feeling go on for more than about 5 seconds I’d be rewarded with instant nausea. Gotta eat.
But I just realized – I’ve been eating crap, basically all the time. Somewhere during this emotional rollercoaster of the postpartum period, going back to work full-time, getting pregnant then miscarrying, getting pregnant again and having to terminate that one, and then this current pregnancy, I got stuck in the comfort food zone. And understandably so. I was just so focused on “taking care” of myself – being kind and giving myself a break – that I forgot about other way to take care of myself with food.
Nourishing my body.
My decision a couple of weeks ago to put my vegetarianism on hold for health reasons was the trigger. As I went through ways to get the most out of a few servings of meat a week – not eating meat with dairy and upping my veggie intake for example – I finally brought some awareness to how I’d really been eating. For longer than I’d care to admit. And as soon I had the thought, it was a done deal. There’s no point eating meat to feel better now and prepare my body for birth if I’m gonna keep downing pastries every second day and subsisting on a predominantly carb-and-cheese diet. Delicious as it may be.
Just like that, my diet changed.
I got back to eating nutritional snacks like nuts and veggies and fruit in between meals, and while my appetite is still mammoth it feel does like I have a bit longer between the crashes. I’m also craving healthier foods more often, and happy for a bit of dark chocolate here and there (ok every day but come on! It’s a superfood) rather than fatty, sugary desserts all the freaking time.
But what I’m eating isn’t the point. It’s not about diet and it’s certainly not about weight loss. It’s just about how when we open our eyes – and really look – everything changes.
I’m 19 weeks now, and I’ve realized that the only way to get through this pregnancy without feeling like absolute crap all the time is to prioritize. If I want to get 8 hours sleep every night – which I do – I basically have no option but to give my family, my job and my health top priority. Everything else has to take a back seat.
The truth is, I learnt this lesson a while ago. That if I wanted to live a conscious, intentional life – which I do – I can’t do everything. I can’t even attempt it. I learnt that in order to make space for quality time with my son and my husband, there needs to be blank spaces in my schedule. Time to listen to each other, to prepare healthy food, to do what we feel like at a given time. Time to be.
This way of living doesn’t come naturally to me. My gut tells me to go go go, all the time. To fit in catching up with friends and seeing family and chatting on the phone and going out and making it to three yoga classes a week and however many hours my job demands. My motto was always “I can sleep when I’m dead.” And it was a lot of fun for a time there – but that time has passed. Maybe it’ll return one day, who knows, but this life we’re building now requires a calmer pace.
Back to now. To be honest, my life right now is pretty repetitive. Wake up around 6am, spend a couple of hours with my boys, head to work. Come home, couple of hours with GG, get him to bed. An hour with the husband before I crash if we’re lucky. Repeat until the weekend.
On the weekend there’s a bit more room to breathe. I can generally make it to a yoga class, maybe catch up with a friend, and fit in plenty of slow family time. I do everything I can to take afternoon naps, in the hopes that they’ll fuel me through that urge I have at 2pm every other day to curl up under my desk and take a long snooze.
I also started eating a bit of meat (for the first time in over 10 years), which has made a big difference to how I feel overall. As an ideological vegetarian I still struggle with this decision, but it’s the right one for me for now. I was totally exhausted and suffering from two-day long headaches before I tried out the meat and now I’m feeling so much better. Again, it’s a matter of conscious priorities.
There are things that I miss. Time with friends, relaxing with my husband at night and jogging to name a few. But there’s a special feeling building at the same time, an excitement, anticipation. And slowing things down a bit gives us a few extra moments to really be in it. To honor this in between time before the addition of the next member of our family.
Even if I’m passed out on the couch for a good chunk of it.
I guess we haven’t always had the perfect relationship, maybe we never will. But I want you to know – I think you’re pretty awesome. This is a love letter.
Thank you for understanding when you weren’t my top priority and soldiering on regardless. I know I haven’t always treated you as best as I could, and yet you’ve held up pretty damn well. Thank you for being so forgiving.
Thank you for functioning on so little sleep. I know all those late nights I kept you up partying and chatting and breastfeeding can’t have been easy on you. They were important to me and oh so fun but I’m getting it now – we’ve gotta sleep. I’m on it, promise.
Thank you for sensual pleasures. Hugs, chocolate, orgasms and massages would be nothing without you.
You have many admirable functions, but lately my highest honor goes to the reproductive system. That is some seriously amazing work you do there. Thank you for growing our beautiful son, seemingly out of nowhere, and for birthing him so gracefully. Kudos too on bouncing back after our recent hard times. I can’t wait to see what wonders you have in store for us in that department.
Also – nice tits. Seriously. I knew we had a nice rack before but the last two years of breastfeeding have made me understand the true beauty of boobies. Not every woman has the smooth run we’ve had (no pun intended) – I don’t take it for granted.
Thank you for coming to yoga classes with me all these years, twisting and jumping and stretching and balancing. The practice we’ve built through all our extremes – big, smaller, fit, not-so-much, tired, energized and everything in between – is a testament to what we can do when we work together.
Which brings me to breathing. Thank you for inhaling and exhaling, no matter what. Even when I was convinced as a kid that I didn’t breathe. Even when I made it hard for you by smoking for all those years. On top of the oxygen and whatnot, this constant flow is a source of awakening for me. Always there, always available to bring me back to the present moment.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to find the point where I end and you begin. It’s a fuzzy line, I know. Often I forget it exists altogether, and I get myself all confused thinking that I’m you or that you’re me. And so instead of appreciating how I would be nothing without you, I get bummed out about stretch marks and a few extra kilos and some bags under my eyes. I promise to work on that, for all of the reasons above.
No one wants to admit it, but it’s true. This whole childrearing thing, it’s a veritable freak-show for the female body.
I’m thinking about blood today, having just got my first period since terminating a pregnancy for medical reasons just over a month ago. Oh – I guess this is the bit where I warn you that I’m going to talk about blood coming out of vaginas in this post. Anyone who wants to pretend this doesn’t happen all the time, or thinks it shouldn’t be spoken about should probably opt out around now.
So today, I’m filled with excitement and relief – seriously I think I might feel happier than when I last found out I was pregnant. How weird is that? It makes sense, of course – I’m relieved to know everything’s working, glad to stop wondering when it’s coming, excited to try again etc – but still, there’s something decidedly weird about it.
And this isn’t the first time I’ve had this realization either. When I started bleeding during my miscarriage earlier last year (yeh, it’s been a fun few months), I felt exactly the same way. I’d been concerned that the pregnancy might be ectopic and really wanted to avoid surgery and/or medication, so knowing that my body was sorting it out made me really happy.
As I celebrate today’s blood, I’ve been musing over this journey that ‘the fairer sex’ goes on with the red stuff.
In Western society, we tend to receive our first periods with a sense of dread. We learn about the equipment needed to deal with this annoyance. We read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. We hide what’s going on from the boys and men in our lives. We feel awkward and broken and alone.
A few years later once we start having sex, the arrival of our monthly blood comes with a sense of relief – we did it! We avoided getting pregnant and don’t need to admit to the adults that we’re having sex! And of course the awkwardness persists – we still hope swimming parties don’t fall on days when we’re bleeding. We master tampons. We avoid boyfriends during our time of the month so we don’t have to discuss our monthly disability. Or maybe we’re among the more liberated of women, and we do talk about periods – even to men. Maybe we like having sex during our periods, and we have to deal with weird looks and wives tales if we’re brave enough to talk about it.
And then five or 10 or 20 years down the line we start thinking about kids, and again, the blood takes on a different meaning. We get more in touch with our bodies and (hopefully) come to appreciate a regular cycle. We get off birth control and notice differences in our physical selves. Perhaps we start to appreciate this blood for what it really is – a part of our complex and brilliant reproductive systems, rather than just a monthly nuisance.
When we’re actively trying to get pregnant, the period takes triggers different emotions again. Now the blood signals failure, disappointment. It means we didn’t get pregnant, not this month. It means we’ll have to wait at least another month for that coveted positive pregnancy test.
All going well, at some point we do indeed miss a period, yay! But the thought of blood is still there at the back of our minds, always. As we tick off those days and weeks of the first trimester, holding our breaths every time we wipe, just hoping not to see anything red.
And meanwhile the blood is all just building up in there, providing a cozy home for little blastocysts and then embryos and then fetuses… until eventually we’ve got a baby in our arms, and week after week of bleeding that makes us cackle evil laughs thinking about how we used to complain about our periods.
And I can only imagine, on the other side of childbearing and childrearing, after menopause – what happens then? I guess I’ll have to write a follow-up post in a few decades.
Either way, it’s clear – this whole being a woman thing is a weird and wonderful journey. But despite the highs and the lows, the physical and emotional pain, and the gruesome nature of it all, I feel pretty grateful to be in this body, on this path. Every cramp I feel as I’m writing this fills me with a sense of hope and empowerment, and a connection with the women of the world – past, present and future.
One day, I hope to tell my imaginary future daughter: embrace this bleeding! Each and every time. Let it anchor you to the strong women in your life who inspire you, and to a future in which you get to join the sisterhood of mothers. It’ll be the most important, life-changing and empowering thing you ever do – and all that blood will be more than worth it.