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.
An afternoon to remind me of the power of one-on-one time. Of observation and connection. Of slowing down.
Straight after GG’s nap – when he’s often super grumpy – I took him out for a date. And yes, I totally bribed him out of his bad mood with ice cream, I’ll admit it. But watching him eat it was a meditation. He loved every lick, every bite of the cone. He was so in the moment he couldn’t even speak to me while he ate.
Every meal should be like a 3-year-old boy eating ice cream.
After the ice cream we ran around an empty mall. Hopped, jumped, fell to the ground at his whim. I showed him how to do somersaults in a baby play area. I fought the urge to play with my phone when his attention wandered from me, and instead kept mine glued to him. Yet another exercise in mindfulness. In staying in the present for once.
On the way home we stopped to fill the car up with petrol. He got out with me and asked questions. A million “why’s” that for once I had the time and the head space to answer. Or try to answer.
Why is petrol dangerous for little kids, anyway?
It was just an hour and a half, but we so needed that time, GG and me. Time together with no agenda, no bathing or dinnertime or bedtime battles. No baby sister or other adults. Just us.
When we got home, some kids from his new kindergarten were meeting in the local playground, so his dad took him to join them. And so it was just me and Little A at home. Again – a rare treat.
Babies seem simpler, but I think that’s just because we don’t pay them enough attention.
Every move this kid makes is an exploration, an experiment, an expression. Every turn of her hand is a preparation for her next move, or bite of food, or request. And I’m her mama, I know her back to front, I can preempt her requests before she’s even made them – but sometimes it’s beautiful not to. Rather, to lay next to her and see the world through her eyes for a few moments.
We ate, played, bathed. For once I wasn’t rushed as I washed her, fending off GG’s “help” in the form of buckets of water on her head. Instead I watched her examine each toy with her mouth, giggled with her, cuddled and marveled at how big she’s gotten, though it seems like she was born just yesterday.
It all sounds awfully flowerly, I know. But that’s really how it felt.
An oasis of joy in a sea of stress, emails, anxiety, drop offs and pick ups.
When I was first learning to meditate, I remember feeling so left out of this tiredness thing that the teachers were always speaking about. I’d see people on retreats falling asleep while meditating, standing up to avoid nodding off, asking questions about how to avoid it. And I just didn’t get it. I was so filled with energy, with movement. I struggled with the opposite issue – with restlessness, the urge to fidget, with excess energy.
I was so out of touch with what tiredness meant that I couldn’t even label it to observe it.
Now, some 7 years later, I’m a fucking tiredness master.
I am perpetually exhausted. I can observe the sensations of tiredness in intricate detail, I can feel it in every cell of my body. I can observe what it’s doing to my mind and my emotional stability. My sex life. My work. My relationships.
I’ve always been able to function on relatively little sleep. My father is the same, and his mother before him. Six hours and I’m golden. Eight hours and I’m diamond encrusted, sure, but it’s not a necessity. Even as a baby I had mega FOMO, always preferring to stay up to avoid missing any fun over getting my beauty sleep.
In recent years, largely thanks to my sleep-worshiping husband, I’ve learned to value my rest. To prioritize it when necessary. To identify the times when I’m tired and would be better off refueling than burning the candle at both ends, as is my natural tendency. I’ve intentionally rewired, in a way. A good way, I think.
Nonetheless, my ability to get by without that much sleep has served me well in the initial months with both my babies. Whereas I know many new parents suffer from exhaustion in the first days and weeks after bringing a new baby home from the hospital, I run on adrenaline through the Fourth Trimester and beyond. I relish the early morning hours up with my babies, the excuse to be texting round the clock, the afternoon naps. I’m tired, sure, especially the second time around, but not exhausted.
Until somewhere around the 6-month mark. that’s when I hit a wall.
And right now, I feel like I’ve been running into that wall, reversing, and running into it again, over and over, for about 3 months.
It was the same with GG. I put it down to going back to work, but I think it’s probably a combination of factors. A hormonal shift, developmental changes in the little one, and a sleep deficit so huge that I can no longer power through it with homemade dark chocolate and a good attitude alone.
This afternoon when I was driving home from work I was terrified that my eyes were going to give out. I guess I mean I was worried that I’d fall asleep, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like I just couldn’t focus anymore, that I could only see the dashboard and not the road. So I pulled over and set my alarm for 7 minutes – the most time I figured I could afford in order to still make it to pick up the kids on time – and closed my eyes. I woke up with a start to the timer going off, felt much better, and had a nice afternoon with the kids without passing out and leaving them to fend for themselves. That felt like a win.
This sort of exhaustion is something totally foreign to me.
If I stop typing right now and pause, I can feel it. In the aching headache always sitting just behind my eyes, like two tiny hands squeezing my eyeballs. In the almost unnoticeable lag in my vision, like my brain is only just keeping up with the information it has to process second-to-second. I can feel it pulling me downwards into the couch, like a sleepy gravity-booster. Willing me to just give it up, to lay down, to become one with the cushions.
And it’s not just my body. My mind is also a victim. I went back to work after a 6-month maternity leave 2 months ago, to a new job. A job at which a high-functioning brain is a solid prerequisite. And multiple times a day it’s like I can feel my mind trying to think and just stalling, over and over again. Like it knows what it needs to do but just can’t do it. At least not at the required speed.
And this tired mind of mine, it plays tricks on my emotions. It makes me sensitive and anxious and easily irritated. A winning combination for when I’m already feeling like the stupidest version of myself.
It’ll get better, I know. Little A will sleep better and I’ll settle back into being a working mama. We’ll all sleep through the night again one day.
For now, I take solace in being able to call a spade a spade. In hanging onto some last thread of mindfulness in recognizing tiredness and how it feels right now. I’m grateful for the rest that I do get, and I hail its restorative powers by pondering its very absence.
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?
Wow, some days parenting just feels so huge and heavy. Does everyone else feel like this too? Weighed down by the incredible responsibility of having small kids, of keeping them alive and making the right decisions for them? That, and finding the balance between taking such a responsibility seriously, while remembering that they’re their own little people. That I can’t blame myself for everything that happens to them.
Its like I’ve got the tiniest, most important part (or parts) of myself living outside of my body, exposed, vulnerable, sometimes even in a different city from me. Or, as my husband put it – it’s like having your heart in a microwave, with a toddler hell-bent on pressing all the buttons.
It’s fucking terrifying.
Today I’m particularly worked up, after taking Little A to the clinic to get blood drawn this morning. It’s a minor part of an ongoing saga – likely fueled by a couple of weeks of particularly shitty sleep and a bonus miserable toddler with a fever.
When Little A was about a month old she started showing signs of an allergy, and we’ve spent the past three months trying to figure out exactly what’s triggering it. She’s exclusively breastfed, so that basically means going through a painstaking process of eliminating foods from my diet to find the culprit. I’ve spent hours upon hours reading on the topic and consulting with various doctors, and generally feel informed and confident that this is the right course of action. And now it’s clear that we’re on the right track, but fuck it’s hard to stay sure of yourself when it’s your kid’s health that’s on the line.
There are moments when I completely totally lose my shit over this. She sniffles a bit after nursing and my mind starts racing to extreme allergic reactions and respiratory arrest and calling an ambulance and not remembering the number for an ambulance here and how I would even explain to them what’s going on and who would be with GG in an emergency situation anyway. And in the meantime Little A has dozed off on my shoulder and is quite obviously not having any breathing issues, and I’m halfway to a full blown panic attack.
The last month or so have been symptom-free – woohoo! – and I’ve been slowly able to add foods back into my diet. But I still worry all the time – that the doctors have missed something, that I ate something wrong by mistake, that I should have put her on hypoallergenic formula months ago anyway.
Is this sort of constant anxiety reasonable? I mean, seeing blood in a newborn’s nappy is pretty worrying so maybe it is. But when I think about it, I was worried before the intolerance presented. I was worried that something was wrong when she was teeny tiny, despite all the early checkups coming back fine. And through the pregnancy I had moments of being an utter wreck, too. I rationalized that this made sense – I’d lost the previous two pregnancies after all – but the truth is that I worried like this when GG was tiny, too. Randomly convinced myself that he’d stopped breathing, terrified that something would go wrong.
I guess this is just my parenting default status. A cool, calm exterior with a neurotic center. Awesome.
Back to this morning. It was a fairly routine test and I held it together for Little A’s sake, but when my husband called afterward I was in tears in the clinic bathroom, my head spinning with what-if’s, worrying that something was terribly wrong and that it was all my fault. Granted, it’s no fun to get blood drawn from a four-month old, but this flood of anxiety was more than that. It was about the existential terror of caring about another life more than your own. Fear based in the knowledge that so much is out of our control.
The thing is – the neurotic mess you’re picturing when you read this, I’m not that type of parent. At least I don’t see myself that way. These worries usually take a backseat – they’re not the driving force in my decision-making. But they’re always there, simmering under the surface, ready to spill out whenever there’s a crack in the exterior.
I don’t really see a way to stop these anxious thoughts from arising altogether – but I’m gonna do my best not to let them get the better of me. So I’m gonna finish this post, send it out into the universe, and then take a few minutes to meditate – before one or both of my beautiful babies wake up and set me off all over again.
My yoga teacher, like most yoga teachers, is always going on about how five minutes of savasana is equal to three hours of sleep. How they do that calculation I have no idea but this morning I could really do with an extra three hours of sleep. It’s been one of those weeks.
So I decided, screw it. Instead of spending another five minutes staring blankly at my screen trying to remember what I was working on, folding washing or throwing something in the slow cooker, I’m going to try it.
I opened my meditation app (which apparently needs to be updated because I haven’t used it in I hate to think how long) and set a timer for five minutes. I lay down on the ground, in the corpse position. It was quite easy, really – I kind of feel like a corpse most of the time anyway. I brought my attention to the tingling sensations of my muscles relaxing, the supportive feeling of the carpet beneath me. I made my mind body-shaped.
And each time my mind started to wander, I remembered the subtle threat in my yoga teacher’s tone when she explained how the magic five-minutes-for-three-hours-time-swap works – you have to really do savasana. Not just lay there thinking about whether or not the baby’s about to wake up, or if she’ll take a bottle later today, or the blog post you’re gonna write in a few minutes. So I took heed and let it all go, melting into the ground, bringing myself back to the present moment time and time again.
By the time the gong went off I was actually totally relaxed, tingly and floating. I slowly stretched my neck, turning my head from side to side and took a deep breath. Left was the baby’s change mat, so I probably rubbed my face on poo. Right was a distinct aroma of urine, and I was reminded that my toddler had an accident in that very spot a few weeks ago. Oops. Back to reality.
Do I feel like I had three hour’s sleep? Who knows. I can’t really remember what that feels like to be honest. But I do like to think my eyes are stinging a tiny bit less than they were earlier, and I might just lay on the floor and pretend to be dead for a few minutes tomorrow, too.
I’ve been trying to write this post all week, about how being a mother has taught me not to be judgmental. About how I used to have all sorts of opinions about other mothers, but now I’ve realized that it’s so hard and everyone’s just doing the best they can and who am I to tell them otherwise. And so I never judge them.
But something about the post just wasn’t sitting quite right. I wrote and rewrote, moved paragraphs around, thought of a cute intro. Nothing was working. And then I realized.
It’s because it’s total bullshit.
I haven’t stopped being judgmental at all – I’ve just learned to be maybe a little less judgmental of people who are basically the same as me. Oops.
Here’s the real deal.
Before I was a mother, I had it all sorted out. I knew exactly how I wanted the birth to go, along with everything after that.
Same goes for how other people birthed and raised their babies. I knew exactly why things were going wrong and what they should have been doing differently. How unnecessary stress was creating pregnancy symptoms, that babies cried because their mothers weren’t emotionally connected, how all nursing problems could be solved if you believed in your boobs hard enough, and of course – that toddler tantrums were always the result of poor planning on the parents part and could be avoided by being totally in tune with your kid.
I knew everything.
What I’ve learned with the benefit of a few years of experience now is that shit doesn’t go to plan most of the time. So even if you planned to give birth floating in a pool of flowers wearing a tie dye bikini top, it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way. And so I learned not to judge women who planned a natural birth and ended up with something different.
But what about my cousin who didn’t have any interest in planning a natural birth in the first place? I wouldn’t say it to her face but the truth – the real, ugly truth deep down – is that a lot of the time, I’m totally judging her for taking an epidural. Hours and hours of very entertaining phone conversations with my girlfriends, judging our respectful-parenting-natural-birthing-baby-wearing-extended-breastfeeding-organic-cotton hearts out. Because there’s an arrogance in me that still thinks that I know better. That choices that don’t fit into my ideology are somehow less than.
A like-minded new friend tells me about her struggles breastfeeding her baby in the early months. How she had her best-laid plans to breastfeed into toddler-hood but the baby wasn’t putting on weight and crying all the time and everyone was freaking out. So she supplemented with formula and pumped round the clock for months and months, trying her utmost to make it work. Ultimately she stopped breastfeeding earlier than she wanted to, and she was devastated. Her story is fraught with regrets, doubt and sadness. Of course I don’t judge her – why would I? It’s so clear that she’s a mother like me, doing a great job, just trying to do the best she can for her son.
So what’s the difference between the two scenarios?
I guess it comes down to understanding. When I can easily put myself in the shoes of the other, understanding and compassion flow. And it’s just more natural to put myself in those other shoes if they look more or less the same as mine. The challenge comes when the world view is different – it takes more of an effort to garner the same level of understanding.
But it’s not impossible. I have close friends who are very different mothers to me, and I manage not to judge them at least most of the time. Because I know and understand them, and so it makes sense to me why my style of parenting wouldn’t work for them. I don’t have to work to comprehend the motivation behind every choice.
The ironic part of all this is that I know how shitty it feels to be judged for your parenting. That sinking feeling of being completely misunderstood, of knowing that someone close to you thinks you’re doing a bad job. I often feel like I’m being judged by family and friends and it’s so horrible. And yet as we just established, I’m guilty of it just like everyone else.
So, here’s the plan. I’m gonna try to do this less. It won’t happen overnight, but I hope I can use skilled compassion and understanding to judge other mamas (and papas) less. To notice judgement as it arises in my mind, and to consciously remind myself that everyone is fucking exhausted, emotional, and trying to do the best they can for their little people. Even if it looks ridiculous and misguided to me. Even if I know just the Janet Lansbury article that would sort them out once and for all.
There’s this sign on the fridge at my Dad and Stepmom’s place, it says, “TEENAGERS! Tired of being harassed by your parents? ACT NOW! Move out, get a job, pay your own bills while you still know everything!” It’s a dad joke, for sure, but there’s truth in it. As a teenager I really did think I knew everything. And while I’ve learned a lot since, the real wisdom I’ve gained is that I don’t know anything. Well, hardly anything.
So – more understanding, more compassion, less judging.