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?
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.
The blog post I wanted to write was about early pregnancy – particularly early pregnancy right after a miscarriage. It was about overcoming my anxieties, exhaustion and nausea, about gradually feeling more and more confident that everything would be okay.
But I never got around to writing it. This is a different post.
This post about how the skills I’ve learnt from meditation over the past 10 years seem to have equipped me to deal with a second pregnancy loss.
The week before last I was 15 weeks pregnant. My husband and I went in for a scheduled ultrasound excited to find out if we were having a boy or a girl. Instead, we found out that the fetus had a serious defect in the skull, and were advised to terminate the pregnancy.
That was two weeks ago now, and somehow here I am on the other side of it all. The shock of the diagnosis. The weight of telling friends and family (on my birthday, no less). Through three horrible days of feeling fetal movement and knowing what was to come. The procedure itself. Hours of sobbing.
And somehow, I’m ok. We’re ok. Our little family is stronger than ever. And the sky is still up there. Somehow.
I’ve been going back and forth about how to write this post. How to word it so I’m best understood. And today I realized – everything that got me through this experience, I gained through meditation. Through dozens of Vipassana retreats and Dharma books. From the wisdom of teachers who brought Buddhist contemplative practices to the West. And from the simplicity of meditation practice itself.
Through meditation I learned the power of being present. I’ve learned how to center myself in the moment and to find out if everything is ok – and I’m yet to find a moment where it’s not. Once I filter out all the bullshit, all the noise in my head, everything is always ok. Even in that terrible moment, when the ultrasound technician shook his head, looked up sadly and said “the head hasn’t formed properly, I’m sorry.” Even then, somehow, everything was ok.
Through the practice of Vipassana I’m learning to come to terms with the reality of my human body. That it will get old, it will decay. Just like everyone else’s. That shit will go wrong. And rather than being sad and horrifying, that knowledge can be a comfort. Liberating, even. The knowledge that my body is just like every other body. That things that happen to other people – random, horrible, unwanted things – can happen to us, too.
But it’s more than just accepting my body. Through this practice I’m learning the art of accepting reality as it is. Even when I don’t like it, and I wish it was otherwise. I’ve learned how to identify when the pain I feel is stemming from my refusal to accept the facts of my situation – from wishing something was different than it is. Something out of my control. And conversely, I’ve experienced the release and freedom that comes from surrender. From giving up the fight that doesn’t really exist to begin with.
Through meditation I’ve been exposed to the art of gratitude. To focusing on the “what is” rather than the “what isn’t.” I’ve been constantly surprised by just how much gratitude has naturally come up in my heart and my head during this whole experience.
I’m grateful to live in this age of medical science that can detect defects (relatively) early on in a pregnancy, and provide safe options for termination. Thirty years ago, this pregnancy would have continued to full term and the defect would only have been discovered at birth. The baby would not have survived. Thirty years ago, I don’t think my meditation practice would have done shit to make me feel better.
I’m thankful for my beautiful little family. For my eternally supportive, patient, rock of a husband and our beautiful son. We want another baby and I’m sure we’ll have one very soon, but even if we never do – that’ll be okay too. It’s not a tragedy. The three of us are healthy and happy – so happy – and that’s more than enough.
Through meditation I’ve learned that nothing is solid. I’ve practiced looking deeper and deeper into sensations – physical and emotional, alike – only to discover that everything is always flickering. Even in the midst of despair there are moments of happiness. With this understanding, I’ve learned to feel sadness when it arises, to be with it and acknowledge it and let it run its course, and then to leave it and move on with the next sensation that comes up. To be with my pain when it arises, and then to equally be with the pure joy of our 2-year-old son whenever he bounces in the room. I’ve learned that while I don’t have the power to control what emotions arise, I can take responsibility for my reactions to them.
To be clear: this diatribe on the glory of meditation is not to say that this situation doesn’t suck – it does. It sucks big-time. There have been many moments and minutes and hours of sadness and disappointment. Tears and sobs that come from deep within, seemingly out of nowhere. That sinking feeling of “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” The unfairness of it all. To have to terminate a pregnancy right after a miscarriage. I mean come on. But when these moments pass, they pass. I take a deep breath, wipe my face, and then move on (usually to a block of dark chocolate).
Sometimes, I feel like I’m kidding myself. Like I haven’t cried enough. Like maybe the worst is yet to come. Like this whole line of thinking is all bullshit rationalization and bravado and that actually I’m so broken inside that I can’t even see it.
And that might be so, I suppose. Only time will tell. But right now, in this moment – this long, eternal moment – everything is ok. For once, it seems like my mind is on my side.
Coming to terms with the new priorities in my life over the first year of parenting has been and continues to be a huge challenge for me. I’m finding it hard to accept that if I’m going to be the type of mother I want to be – mindful, present and intentional – other things need to give.
In practice, it’s all been pretty natural – my family is number one, health is up there – exercise, sleep, meditation and food alike – and though it’s at a slower pace than before my career is definitely still a factor.
So what does that look like in practice? Let’s start from the morning – though sometimes I still feel like there’s no real night and day, just the constant flow that I first met almost one year ago when Gadi was born. We wake around 6am and spend an hour or so together as a family. We eat, get ready, chat, cuddle, sometimes dance. This time is precious – crucial to anchor us all together in preparation for our days apart. We head off to daycare and our respective workplaces, where the baby has a ball and my husband and I do our best to do our little bit of good in the world (read: try not to fall asleep at our desks). On the three days a week that I pick Gadi up, we have about two hours together before bath and bed time.
That two hours feels like nothing. Not nearly enough time to properly reconnect, to ask and tell each other about our days – without words for now. To cuddle and play and eat and wind down. So I put my phone aside, I try to forget about work, and about all the things I want to get done once he goes to sleep. All the phone calls I want to return, blog posts I want to write, work calls I have scheduled for the evening. I want my attention on him 100%, and I want him to see that. Even if I’m just watching him play. I want to teach him about doing one thing at a time, about being where you are – and I think the best way to teach is by example.
Then we start the bedtime routine – which is sometimes easy and sometimes a bit more challenging and pretty much always exhausting. He’s asleep by 7pm. And to be honest, half the time I fantasize about snuggling up in his cot with him. I’ve been meaning to work out how much weight that thing can support for months now.
Evenings are important, too. Because when I say that family is a priority – I don’t just mean Gadi. The time that Uri and I spend together at the end of the day is a huge part of what keeps me sane and grounded. What keeps us together. What has made this past year the most amazing one of my life. Often all we manage is eating dinner and chatting on the couch before we both start to fade, but those moments are precious, too. Same goes for an episode of The Big Bang Theory or whatever we can manage to keep our eyes open long enough to watch. We collapse into bed together every night, exhausted but happy, and wake up – once if we’re lucky and three times if we’re not – through the wee hours to feed Gadi and help him get back to sleep.
One or two nights a week I might “make it” out of the house to meet a friend for dinner or a walk. I keep scheduling yoga classes in my diary for 8pm but I haven’t made it yet – once I’ve got the baby to bed it’s just so hard to get out of the house. I know my body would probably thank me for it but… I just don’t seem to manage it. Maybe once we’re sleeping through the night – if that ever happens. At this point I make it to one afternoon class and one weekend class – and that will have to be enough for now. My semi-regular meditation practice could do with some work too and ditto for running… but c’est la vie.
And weekends? My priorities don’t change. We love our time just the three of us. Sometimes at home, sometimes out and about, often eating. Most things in our household revolve around food and cuddles – and Gadi’s sleep. We enjoy time with friends and family, too – but nowhere near as much as I used to.
But my point was neither to share our routine nor to complain about it – I love every moment I just described. That is, unless I slip out of the moment and start thinking about the opportunity cost. About the phone calls I haven’t returned and the parties I don’t attend and the type of friend I used to be. Hour upon hour of phone calls helping my friends and family sort out their issues and mine. Minor and major alike. Bottles of wine. I loved those hours, and I miss them dearly – but I just don’t have them at the moment. Instead I’m choosing to spend them on real, present time with my family, on sleep, and on my own mental health.
It’s not my new priorities that I struggle with per say – it’s what I’ve had to let go of to put them into place. And I guess in some way I’m still coming to terms with the opportunity cost. I know that this is the way to be the type of mother and wife that I want to be – but at the same time, I miss the me of one or two short years ago.
When I do finally catch up with the dear people that I used to have so much more time for, I feel pressure to complain. To complain about being tired, and about how hard it is to be a mother, and about the laundry. But honestly, that’s not it for me. My challenge is learning to accept where I am right now, to respect it and embrace it.
Otherwise, how can I expect anyone else to understand?
The resting pose at the end of pretty much every yoga sequence, Savasana (pronounced ‘Shavasana’ – the corpse pose), is surprisingly difficult to master. Far harder than a headstand, a complicated balance or an intricate bind.
And yet it’s a crucial pose – said to allow the body to absorb the benefits of the yoga practice, restorative for the mind and body.
Despite appearances, it’s more that just flopping on the ground like you’re dead. Yes, you need to relax your body. Unclench every muscle, let your feet flop out to the side, really become one with the floor. Surrender the weight of your physicality to the forces of gravity. But the key – as in most things – is in the mind.
The mind must stay active, present, sharp. And yet restful. Whereas throughout the yoga practice you’ve been noticing your breath, your muscles, your alignment, in savasana you pay attention to the space in between, the resting, the tingling feeling of nothing – of the absence of movement. You seek out that delicate, exact concentration that sits between thinking and letting your mind drift, and hold it steady on the most subtle of sensations.
So simple and yet so incredibly complicated.
For many years, savasana was a battle in my mind. Without the active, dynamic flow of yoga on which to to pin my focus, the thoughts came flooding back. And as I ostensibly relaxed on my mat, inside my head I was taking up arms, a metaphorical sword and shield, bravely trying to fight off each thought as it arose. Convinced that this was the game – stopping my thoughts dead in their tracks.
And then one day a few years ago, I just got it. My mind finally found where it was meant to be and somehow slipped into place.
I should note that for others – perhaps less Type A than me – the tendency is to drift off to sleep in savasana, rather than to get lost in thought. It’s the same, really – just the other end of the spectrum. Sleep is just as far from the point of this posture as my warrior-like thought fighting.
Yesterday I was settling into savasana at the end of a fantastic Ashtanga class, and I realized what it is: You need to make your mind “body-shaped.” Instead of letting your mind swish around in your head, where we tend to imagine it lives, you need to pull it down into your body, let it flow down your neck and spine, along your arms and your legs. Squish it into your fingers and toes and allow it to pool in your lower back and buttocks. And then let it settle there and observe.
Because when it’s “body-shaped” rather than “head-shaped,” your mind can “think” about your body, rather than your thoughts. It can really notice the release in every muscle, the feeling of the body touching the floor, the slow, rhythmic rising and falling of the chest and abdomen. It can be totally aware of the physical relaxation.
And now I realize – this is true for all mindfulness practice. If you want to be mindful of washing the dishes, you need to make your mind “hands-shaped.” You can’t feel the water on your skin with your head – you need to “think” with your fingers. Same goes for mindful walking, mindful showering – anything you want to do mindfully.
It’s a mental shift that changes more than just change your “point of view” – it changes the very nature of your mind. From being primarily concerned with thoughts and other mental phenomena like emotions, to noticing the changing sensations of the body. As the father of quantum physics Max Planck is quoted as saying:
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
It’s a small, conceptual change, but it has tremendous power.
And in case you’re wondering, no – the irony of my mind imagining up blog posts while it’s meant to be down in my body, focusing on savasana is not lost on me.
Stay tuned for natural (to me) continuation of this post: How to Make Your Mind “Baby-Shaped.”
At a bit of a loss for what to do with myself between packing up our apartment (moving this week), playing with Gadi (currently sleeping) and listening out for the next rocket warning siren (last one in Tel Aviv was about 18 hours ago), I decided to sit down and shut up. I usually end each meditation session with a few minutes of lovingkindness (metta) meditation. Here’s what I did today:
May I be happy;
May I be peaceful and harmonious;
May I be liberated from suffering;
May I be healthy and free.
May my family be happy;
May they be peaceful and harmonious;
May they be liberated from suffering;
May they be healthy and free.
May everyone in Tel Aviv be happy;
May they be peaceful and harmonious;
May they be liberated from suffering;
May they be healthy and free.
May all Israelis and Palestinians be happy;
May they be peaceful and harmonious;
May they be liberated from suffering;
May they be healthy and free.
May all beings be happy;
May they be peaceful and harmonious;
May they be liberated from suffering;
May all beings be healthy and free.
And for bonus points (NB: points not redeemable for anything tangible):
If I have harmed anyone, intentionally or unintentionally, I ask forgiveness. If anyone has caused me harm, intentionally or unintentionally, I offer peace. If I have caused myself harm, intentionally or unintentionally, I forgive myself.
Practicing metta meditation is pretty simple. It’s not a magic spell or prayer; just about creating some good vibes (I’m buzzing a bit now). If you feel inclined: sit down comfortably, straighten upwards, and focus on your breathing for a bit to settle into the present and give your mind a moment to quiet. If you have a regular meditation practice you can also do that before or after – whatever feels right to you. Then repeat the lines above quietly to yourself, in your heart. Repeat or ponder if you feel like it. Bring your mind back if it wanders. Feel the lovingkindness grow in and around you.