Often on the first Friday of the month, I trek out to an open art studio event in the East Bay (which is pig Latin for "beast", a fellow San Franciscan always like to point out). My friend and I jokingly call the event Suburban Mom Craft Night. One night we ended up having a discussion with some of the other ladies about my minimalish lifestyle, during which I'm pretty sure everyone concluded that I'm insane. To be fair, even in SF, where many folks live in small spaces, and where you can come out as a swinging pansexual vegan aerialist burner without anyone batting an eye, minimalism is treated a bit like a disease. Anyway, Suburban Mom Craft Night is a bit of a misnomer, because it's technically coed-last time there was one dude there-and maybe there are even some other kidless folks present. There certainly aren't any other urbanites, though, and thus I am a bit of an odd one out.
The two women who own and run the studio are lovely, and it's a chance for a date with a dear friend of mine from high school, who is the only one from my hometown who has moved out here to the Bay Area to stay. She's often the only woman of color at the studio, unfortunately, so she is actually the odd one out in a much more visible way. But it's a great opportunity for creativity (we've done stuff we haven't for decades or ever- watercolors, screen printing, embroidery, glass etching) that would cost a gazillion dollars in the city and allows us to make messes in someone else's place- a bonus for two neat freaks. So even though it can involve a two-hour drive for me (a route that would be 40 minutes if it weren't a Friday evening), and the cost of a toddler-sitter for her, it's worth it. On the way, I usually catch up on a podcast or some 90's hip hop on 102.1, and feel very American in my Ford Escape cruising over the Bay Bridge with the Friday commuters. As a daily bike commuter who lives and works in SF, this monthly ritual holds a novelty for me that I hope never wears off. I mean, a novelty that lasts forever is probably an oxymoron, but hush. Don't jinx it.
That particular Friday I arrived and left my car on the street, which is 100% vacant. She has a driveway (so luxurious!), but I never know if her husband has pulled in yet from work, plus I gotta show off my parallel parking skills to these suburbanites. I generally run past her to the bathroom when she opens the door, then sit down to whatever amazing Indian dish she's made me that month. Or if it's not ready yet, her toddler and I have band practice (me on the ukulele, her on the xylophone) or a dance party.
Though it's true that a large home and suburban life are not things I'd choose for myself, I'd be lying if I said that I don't enjoy the contrast when I visit my friends and family members who are pursuing the American Dream in a more traditional way than I am. Sure, it often reminds me of what I don't want (more rooms) and why (more isolation, more costs, more cleaning), but also gives me a chance to stretch out and indulge in things like using more kitchen gadgets and watching TV in one room while someone is playing video games in another and attending cookouts with a long list of guests who provide a huge variety of tasty treats.
A few months ago, I hosted the coworkers who are in my weekly ladies ukulele lunch circle (I swear I also hang with non-ladies sometimes too). They came over for an evening jam sesh. Though I am really happy with how our home looks since we recently redecorated, I always feel a little embarrassed about how small it is (a 490-square-foot studio). Also, one of my many stereotypically feminine habits is that I apologize profusely for shit that I need not. So I kept thanking folks for coming and cramming in, saying sorry if it wasn't comfortable. But my guests kept oozing compliments, a few of them saying that they would love to have a smaller space, less stuff, etc. How relaxing it is. So much so that I decided to believe them. I mean, another stereotypical woman thing is that we love to affirm each other no matter what, but they seemed pretty genuine. And I ate it up. Because the truth is, I could sing the praises of tiny home living, minimalism, and capsule wardrobes till your ears fall off.
Simplifying my life is something, like many folks, I've always said I wanted to do, but it wasn't until it was sort of forced upon me that I committed to it. It is simply way out of reach financially for anyone other than the very rich to own a single-family-multi-bed-and-bath house in San Francisco. And for now (and maybe forever), my feeling is that I did not move across the country to live two hours outside the city. I moved to live in SF. So ten years ago when my partner and I were incredibly fortunate to able to get a couple of grants (one for teachers, and one for having relatively low income) and purchase a condo, we should have known that it would not be a "starter home" for a just few years. Because in San Francisco right now, there is no moving up to something bigger. Only moving out.
So what do you do if you want more space and you can't move out? You move your stuff out. I really wanted to say "you throw shit out", because it sounds rebellious and punchy, but it doesn't accurately illustrate the situation. And it perpetuates a misconception about minimalism: that you only get rid of garbage. (Clothes that you've grown out of or grown to realize are hideous. Happy Meal toys you never wanted in the first place. Bike tires with holes in them that you thought you were going to use to make belts, like that eco-designer you know). The truth is, you also have to get rid of perfectly nice, useful, and sometimes very expensive stuff. We all accept that there is perfectly nice, useful, expensive stuff out in the world that is just NOT FOR US. What seems to be harder to admit, is that there is perfectly nice, useful, expensive stuff in our own homes that is also NOT FOR US. And thats ok. Maybe it used to be for us. Maybe it never was. But it's time to let it go. One of the helpful lines I've heard in the minimalism social media world is "Don't cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of money making it" (a saying I've also heard with "time" instead of "money"- both work). I've also found it useful, when I'm struggling to get rid of something, to think of a happy new owner of a particular object or article of clothing I have- a person for whom the item IS right for. Sadly, the real truth is that many clothes we donate do not find a new owner (it's best to talk to friends and try to find that new owner on our own, and then buy less in the future), but that doesn't mean it does us any good to keep things we don't need or truly love.
I'll write more periodically on this topic of minimalism, which can really be adapted to any lifestyle- suburban family life included!- and which has truly helped keep my space and mind clearer, and has been one of the pillars of keeping my mental and emotional health stable (clutter, and even overpacked Tetris-like organization, is a big trigger for stress and anxiety for me). Equally important is that I now get that "wearing my favorite clothes feeling" every single day, because I only keep my favorites. (Incidentally, "only keep your favorites" is good rule when minimalizing friendships as well, but that's a topic for another day.) In the meantime, if you are interested in getting those "wearing my favorite clothes" and "on vacation with one bag simplicity" feelings every day, there are tons of great books and resources online that can help you. I recommend you start with what I consider to be the two holy books of minimalism, Marie Kondō's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Courtney Carver's Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More.
Every year I make the resolution to dance more. And every year I fail.
This year has been different, due to a few things, not the least of which are hangover-free weekends and the support of others. Still, since I stopped doing dance performances as a kid (shout out to my mom for sending me these sweet hilarious pics today, and for starting my dancing journey at age three), my dancing career has consisted of lots of solo work in my living room, two flash mobs, a handful of Zumba sessions at the gym, a smattering of one-time studio classes, and going out to a club a couple times a year with friends, for experiences ranging from wonderful to horrendously grabby, most landing on mediocre.
So when I was invited in February to attend rehearsals with a group to prepare to dance in San Francisco's Carnaval parade, I balked, despite the fact that I knew a weekly commitment would make this the first year that my resolution had a fighting chance. Is this something I could do, with my anxiety disorder? Is it something I should do, as a white person? Would I be pulling the group down, with my gaps in dance experience? Would I be taking up space that should be occupied 100% by people of color?
When I was finally successfully encouraged (coerced) to show up each Sunday, I soon found an addictive and radical and electric community in Latin Dance Grooves. A place of hard work, shouts of joy, tears of pain, and honest conversations about race and gender and injustice and ancestry and spirituality.
Still, I told next to no one about it, figuring that freaking out and dropping out was inevitable for me.
Fast forward to yesterday's parade, and one of the greatest days of my life thus far. I am so grateful to have danced alongside so many amazing humans. I'm grateful to my friend Christine Maog, who is inspirational in her own dedication to the art of dance, and who listened again and again to my doubts and gripes with tenderness and without judgement. I'm grateful to my encouraging neighbor Lindsay Penrose, who has lived above me for ten years without our ever knowing each other prior to this, who practiced with me in our home and the hallways of our building. And I'm grateful to Elizabeth Soberanes, who created this amazing community long ago- where women of color are at the helm and on the mic- who models unapologetic fierce love with power and emotion, and who refuses to do what so many others do: Separate art away from history and politics and social justice, just to make her dance classes palatable to folks who show up only to get a workout or feel sexy (her students get that too- trust me! But they also get so much more).
Just like when I was that cute (awkward) kiddo, dance brings me joy and new friends. But as a 38-year-old woman, dance also brings me all kinds of things that the kid in those photos didn't know she would one day need from it: a way of working through grief and anger, a way of working with new understandings of my own and others' cultures and histories, a way of working out the weariness of this world.
And, yes, a way of working off cheese and bread.
I smile so big when I think about how much more dancing and learning I have ahead of me in this life.
Best resolution I ever made. (And made. And made. And made again.)
My curls look pretty good today. Maybe I'll take a confidence-boosting selfie.
Ugh. My hair looks so dry and frizzy.
My mouth is just huge. And crooked.
My skin maybe looks a bit smoother after the treatments on my scars. They were worth the money.
My hair is so greasy.
How does anyone ever look past this ginormous nose to make eye contact with me?
My skin actually looks pretty dewy and clear.
This is the longest I've ever gone without picking my skin. It shows. That feels good.
I look old.
I look sad.
I look tired.
My body feels and looks strong.
My skin is so bumpy.
This haircut really feels like me. I'm going to keep it forever.
Everyone must just stare at that scar all the time. I guess it's nice that they've never mentioned it.
I like my outfit today. I finally really like my wardrobe. Feels like me.
Should I get plastic surgery? How much would it cost? Could I bear the humiliation of the consultation appointment? There is no plastic surgery to make mouth or head smaller or my face less long and wide, so I might as well save my money. A smaller nose and mouth would just look stupid on this ginormous face anyway.
My teeth look straight and white.
My teeth look huge. If I don't smile, it looks better. No huge teeth, and my nose isn't stretched as wide.
All of these 30 or so photos look completely hideous. Every. Single. One. I'm done.
I share these very personal thoughts I had recently (all in a matter of about 10 minutes) because, though they don't represent reality all that well, they are very real. At the time. And powerful. Wow are they powerful. So convincing. Day-ruining. In fact, week-ruining, if followed by a skin picking session, like they almost always were, in the past. And though thoughts like these are not constant, they are frequent. Maybe they ring true to some folks out there. And the shame I feel at the vanity and frivolity of them (the wasted time alone! UGH) when facing them in black and white like this, may be relatable as well. Relatable to my fellow folks suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (an estimated 2% of the population). Relatable to my fellow folks suffering from the patriarchy (an estimated 100% of the population). But maybe they aren't relatable to you. Just believe me, then. That's all. And know that for SO many folks- folks who suffer much worse from our racist sexist ableist gendered thin-centric sociatal rules of how to look- it is SO much worse. Just trust. And don't feel bad if you laughed a little at me, at the roller coaster ride of positivity and insecurities in my brain. I can sometimes laugh a bit too, when Iooking back. If I'm looking back from a good place.
This morning at 10:30am I had a dance class. Which meant that my first brainwork of the day was listing all the things that could go wrong, all the ways in which my dance skills don't measure up, and all the solid excuses for skipping the class. (It's pretty amazing how swiftly I can compose three mental lists right after waking up. My brain is POWERFUL, y'all.)
And while I love all the pro-mental health memes about it being okay to cancel things to stay home and take care of yourself, the memes that tell you that believing every thought and worry you have is dangerous business: those are also true.
I don't know that there is anything in my life (save cuddling my dog) that brings me pure joy as quickly and consistently as dancing.
I have been prioritizing creativity more and more lately, and for the first time ever, have kept my yearly resolution of dancing (outside my home) at least once a week. And the rewards my body and mind and spirit and relationships are reaping are ENORMOUS.
Sending you positive vibes, dear readers, that you can carve out more time for creative expression, and push past the voices of doubt and insecurity.
Below, enjoy one of the undeniable wonders of capitalism. A commercial that makes my heart soar. (Full disclosure: I also love Levi's. So yeah.)
I was shocked when a number of friends reached out to me after I wrote about my skin picking disorder, saying that they suspect they have a skin picking disorder as well. Some folks who also pick at their faces, others who pick at their arms and legs, a few who tear up and bite the skin around their fingernails.
Maybe you yourself relate to the diagram above, maybe you are confused by it. Even if you are not someone with this or another disorder, if you are engaging in a behavior that you don't want to engage in at all, or at least it's more frequent than you'd like, and you are having trouble stopping, then that is a problem in your life (compulsive cell phone use, anyone??). Plain and inarguably simple. So I hope, as with all topics I write about, that my sharing can help a variety of folks, in some way.
And if your problem is more than just a little one, I recommend that you seek professional help. I've spent countless grueling hours and dollars gaining knowledge and tools from experts and from personal experience, and by all means, rake it in. But what I've received from working directly with doctors and therapists cannot be replaced by any blog. If you think you may truly have a skin picking disorder, or another BFRB (Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior)- which I introduced a bit at the end of a blog entry in the past- or any other habit which you are so caught up in that it is sabotaging parts of your life, please reach out to a medical professional. Truly. I know it can be a lengthy and daunting process to find the right person and maybe meds, and that access to care is not equitable. Perhaps it is some solace, though, that, nine times out of ten, some help is better than none. Also, as I've mentioned, skin picking was recently added to the DSM 5, the American Psychiatric Association's manual of mental disorders, so we know that the medical community is becoming more aware of it, and of related disorders. (It's even being featured in some celebrity-produced popular blogs!)
Important note for allies and supporters: sitting down to help research and call medical professionals is one of the most simple and concrete ways you can help a loved one who has a problem.
It's also important to note that skin picking, for me, is partially about my skin, but is also the output- the observable behavior and condition- that was cooked up with many other issues as the ingredients. These are specific to me (see my graphic above), but not unique (in fact, they are fairly common). You or other people, though, may have skin picking or another BFRB that results from autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), drug use, or hallucinations as a result of some serious mental illnesses. Point is, there's a wide range of folks who suffer from BFRBs, due to a myriad of reasons, and from various backgrounds.
If nothing else in my graphic applies to you, at least the human brain thing does. I'm sure you've experienced the feeling of a behavior providing you with some pleasure and satisfaction. The pleasure center of your brain has been lit up. Chemicals like dopamine and serotonin have rushed in. You've had an urge to repeat that behavior, to experience the pleasure again. Surely, we have to exert some level of control to stop doing almost anything that lights up our pleasure center. Eating potato chips is an example that resonates with a lot of people. And again, phone use. (The latter is an especially powerful one, as experts are specifically designing the hardware and software to manipulate your psyche and to activate that pleasure loop in your brain, and they're getting better at that every day.)
But back to skin picking. Just a few days ago, I heard my coworkers discussing the popularity of the YouTube videos of a dermatologist nicknamed Dr. Pimple Popper. It's just what you think. She records the work she does slicing, squeezing, and bursting all kinds of pussy skin bumps on her patients, and loads it on the Internet for the ogling satisfaction of hundreds of thousands. (Perhaps ironically, I have no interest in watching these). I think the fairly large universality of the appeal of skin picking means that many folks who don't have BFRB can relate to me and my condition a little more than they might relate to hair pulling (Trichotillomania) or even compulsive nail biting. This should make it easier for me to share about this, I guess...?? Anyway, so if satisfaction from skin picking is so normal, how do you know when your enjoyment of squeezing out your blackheads and whiteheads is no longer simply grooming? That's a hard question for me to answer for you, but I'm inclined to say, you'll know. Especially now that you are aware of the existence of these disorders. (When everything began in my teen years, I was not. I was convinced I was a disgusting freak with no self control, unlike anything the world had ever seen. It would have been nice if the Internet was around then, and I'd found blogs like this one).
Body Focused Repetitive Behavior disorders certainly involve a short-lived element of satisfaction and even sometimes enjoyment, (this is what separates them from behaviors associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which often involve no satisfaction- for instance, a person not being able to leave for work because they have to circle back to their street two dozen times to see if they've left a dead body in the road, because they are certain they heard a thunk when pulling out of their driveway). However, the satisfaction of picking or pulling a hair out is followed by an immediate "I need more", that is overwhelmingly powerful. We'll pick at anything- not just whiteheads and blackheads that are mature and "ready". And once a BRRB sufferer engages in more picking or pulling for a time, a trance-like state develops, during which we lose hours. After coming out of the trance-like state and surveying the blood, the wounds and the scabbing, the shame storm ensues. This stage is marked by horrendous feelings of guilt, panic, and self hatred. This stage can last for days, and is often especially powerful in the morning, when you wake and see a mirror or touch your face, and remember what you've done. This in itself can be a trigger for another picking episode. After awhile, often one can calm down and start making plans to achieve the goal of NEVER picking again. "That time was for sure the last time. I can never and will never do that to my body again." Maybe we'll even exact a punishment on ourselves to solidify the plan, and to feel like we are taking concrete forward steps. My punishments, as I've mentioned, were often "grounding" myself from a social event (which, if I really admitted, I wanted to skip anyway because I didn't want anyone to see my face).
In short, the stages are not subtle. The triggers can be a stressful day, a put-down from someone, the existence of a pimple, some alone time to process some thoughts about a long day, even a good day that causes excitement or nervous energy, and thus the need to perfect everything to make the day even better. But the other parts of the cycle usually aren't subtle. My pattern, which is a common one, looks like this:
If this pattern is not recognizable to you, though, and you still are worried that you or someone you know may have a BFRB, other red flags can include:
Also, this damn thing has been living in the draft folder for awhile, and needs to be set free. Monsters only live in the dark, right? Time to shed some more light on this sucker. (Note: Yeah, I've noticed that red line under "Dermatillomania" in the second diagram, that I forgot to get rid of. I'm going to leave it. An exercise in embracing imperfection seems appropriate here.)
Many of us humans spend an inordinate amount of time bellyaching over small decisions. We also spend a lot of time making the same mistakes over and over, having to spiral back to the same lessons repeatedly until we learn them. Allow me to free you from at least one issue tied up in both of these problems: Buy the damn concert tickets.
Just buy them.
This topic is a bit of a departure from my other posts, I know, and I'm sure you are all just dying to read part two of my skin picking story, but indulge me here. Because the universe is whispering "Buy the damn concert tickets" into my ear every day lately, even louder than it usually does. And so I'd like you, dear readers, to also benefit from that lesson.
Why should you buy the concert tickets? (Or gather around the street musician, or bring the guitar or the karaoke machine out onto your stoop, or go to the free outdoor show, or go to the sing-along musical at the movie theater, or go to the dance party at the festival, or go to the bar where your friend is spinning records).
Yesterday on my bike ride to work, I was listening to social worker and researcher Brené Brown's new book, Braving the Wilderness, which is basically a fiercely honest roadmap of the only way we might be able to dig humanity out of the mess of divisiveness we're in. I highly recommend it. I was listening with thoughts still lingering in my mind of my weekend of two amazing live shows- one of which culminated in the audience standing and singing We Shall Not Be Moved and Gracias a La Vida with Joan Baez and Lila Downs. (Not lying. I couldn't make that shit up.) It was a purely magical experience. I'd been thinking all weekend about how amazingly alive and connected I feel at shows. So much so that I was inspired on Sunday to commit a lot of money and travel a lot of miles to go with my friends to see Tori Amos play in Oregon in November. So I was riding my bike on Monday, and Brené's talking in my ear about the importance of connecting with strangers, now more than ever. The bridges that we can build with simple but emotional experiences. Then, like she's reading my mind, she begins talking about concerts. About all the studies indicating that experiencing music with others is one of the fastest, most powerful ways to build those connections. Music is so immediately visceral, it's no wonder it's one of the best and easiest ways to connect with strangers. To name and unearth our pain, and to experience joy. This information rings so true, because our hearts have always known it. Emotionally connecting with ourselves and each other is why humans make and share music in the first place, isn't it?
Soon after I arrived at work, I learned of Tom Petty's death. I thought of my brother and my friend who both saw him in concert recently, realizing a dream they'd long had. Of my friend's initial hemming and hawing over the price of the ticket, and how glad she was that she'd decided to buy it. (Even before he'd passed, but now more than ever.) I thought again of how I felt when Prince died, but mostly, of how I felt when he lived. Because he was truly alive. And he helped me and everyone around me to truly be alive.
And it was not lost on me that the Las Vegas tragedy was during a concert. The horror of it all. Was it made better or worse for people because they had experienced a heightened sense of love and connection with strangers, right before the violent hatred? Only the survivors can tell us. My hope is that their belief in humanity is kept afloat partly by some of the beautiful experiences they had, even immediately before they had one of the worst experiences imaginable.
I know that my own belief in humanity involves- requires, actually- dancing and singing and smiling and embracing. And all of that comes much more naturally when there is music.
So, buy the damn concert tickets. Buy them to support artists. Buy them because watching You Tube alone at home shouldn't be the only way you experience music. Buy them because it's called live music for a reason. Buy them because having something on the calendar to anticipate will immediately spike your happiness. Buy the tickets to the show because it is in line with your values of spending on experiences over material goods. Buy them because, of all the things you regret spending money on, going to a concert has never been one of them.
So, just buy the damn concert tickets.
Literally, for humans' sakes, buy them.
Me at 14. Before being affected by mental illness. Or hair dye.
I don't remember when I first picked my skin, but I bet I liked it. I think for most primates, picking clogged pores, tugging at scabs, and extracting foreign objects from the skin can feel pretty satisfying, and sometimes even necessary. For most humans, it probably begins at a young age, and so it was likely the same for me. I don't remember. I do, however, remember when I really noticed my picking- when it began to feel out of control. I was fifteen. A few months prior, we had moved out of my childhood home, and I'd started high school: a private, Catholic, all-girls school after my years of public coed. All big changes for my yet small life. It was the first time I didn't have to share a bathroom with my entire family. The new house was smaller, but my parents had their own bathroom. My brother and I could share the other bathroom to get ready for school in the morning and for bed at night. It was tiny, though, and he was a senior in high school now. Gone were the days of standing in front of the mirror together, making faces while we brushed our teeth. Of him pulling his T-shirt onto his head and doing Beevis and Butthead's "Cornholio" bit, or sneaking in to pour ice cold water over the shower curtain while I was in there. Being kids and being close felt kind of... over. Most of the time my brother was playing guitar in his room or was out driving around with friends. And my parents were trusting me to get ready and get myself to bed at a decent hour, because I was old enough to do so, and exhausted from school and swim practice and homework anyway. And because it was 1994 and there was no Internet or TV or phone in my room. So everyone was just being reasonable and age-appropriate, it seemed. Everyone but me.
I now recognize feelings of isolation, and stress from transitions, and all kinds of other triggers that make me more likely to pick. I didn't then. In fact, from the time I was fifteen until age thirty or so, I think I still firmly believed that the only trigger for my picking was the actual physical presence of some imperfection on my face. And therefore I alternated between gratefulness that I didn't have truly severe acne (because surely if the blemishes were thirty or forty instead of a handful, I'd pick myself into hospitalization or death, right?), and extreme guilt and shame that my "gift" of fairly clear skin was squandered on me, a person who ruined it and managed to make that skin look repulsive.
And that's most certainly how I've often felt. Repulsive. Wholly convinced that I'm the most unsightly being in the world, or in the whole school cafeteria, which everyone knows is essentially the same thing when you're a teenager. Even when my teen years were over and I was a bit more aware of the existence and plights of others- that some people had serious scarring on their faces due to severe acne or car accidents or acid burns, for instance- I could still convince myself that I was actually doing harm to others when they looked at my face. That I had an ethical duty to spare them, to look down as they spoke to me or to stay at home and avoid interaction ("grounding" myself did double duty because I could both spare others and punish me). Even now, when an episode of picking has ended- especially one that was several hours long- the irrational thinking continues on. That's the power of the ego, I suppose. And if you don't believe me about the power of relatively rational and functional humans to create their own reality, well then I fear you haven't been paying attention to the local evening news. Or to family conversations at holiday mealtime. Or to history class. Or to your own thoughts.
But I think most of you do believe me. I think that most folks reading a health blog are likely aware and reflective enough to know that it is the power of our own thoughts and perceptions that shape nearly everything. And that we are usually our own worst enemies. And that our negative ruminations are often the quicksand that captures us in this life.
My journey to find an effective treatment plan began with my parents discovering me at age sixteen at 3AM on a school night in front of the bathroom mirror with a bloodied face, five or so hours into a picking session. And that journey was much longer, more arduous, and more costly than it ever should be in a country with so much wealth. But I'm here. Alive. And am incredibly grateful to them for taking me to a psychiatrist then, despite their own humble upbringings and limited experiences, and the messages they'd undoubtedly received that said shrinks were only for people who are rich or crazy or both. It is the reason I'm here and alive, and the reason that I didn't self medicate and develop a substance abuse problem as a teenager. I was fortunate. (Others in my family with mental illness were not so fortunate, and the consequences were dire). Maybe my parents had read something in the Akron Beacon Journal. Maybe my mom saw something on Oprah or Donahue. (In which case, thanks Oprah/Phil!). In any case, Mom and Dad drove me to my appointments-and paid for them, talked to me, bought me a book. My dad stayed up late at night sitting on my bed, monitoring me while I washed my face in the bathroom, over and over. I will never forget him crying softly one of those nights. (The only other time I'd seen him cry was the single tear he'd shed at my great grandfather's funeral. Both times broke my heart.) This late night, I'd probably said something about how I hated myself, and wanted the pain to end. Through his tears, he told me how much he loved me and saw in me, and how much he wished I could see that much in myself. His plea was a common one from a parent to a self-hatred riddled teen, I suppose. The ache I felt was one of guilt for the pain I caused him and the self-pity I dared to have while others were suffering more. It was also an ache of complete helplessness. Whatever mountain I had to climb in order to feel good about myself was insurmountable, I was certain. I was confused at how he could even think such a thing- that I might love myself like he loved me. It was a completely unreachable goal, self love. I didn't even want it, didn't believe I deserved it. I felt desperate to stop my dad from crying, to keep from causing him pain, though. This desperation to stop hurting others- my mom, my dad, and later my husband- with my disorder is what drove me to battle it. But of course, as much as I didn't want the cliché to be true, it ended up that I had to learn to strive for myself and love myself, before I could make any real headway.
As I feared might happen, the pressure to always write a blog post in a structured way that attempts to be somewhat all-encompassing of complicated topics, has lately proven to be too daunting. And too daunting equals not writing. A whole crapload of nothingness. So here's my promise for this blog post: it will be better than nothing.
(Which, if you think about it for a minute, is a much higher standard for writing than it sounds like. Because, nothing is really just fine. The world will be ok without another blog post from an introspective white girl. So don't think about it for a minute, ok?...
How does she do this, you say?? Simple instructions on how to rapidly spiral into debilitating negative self-talk are available upon request... Ok wait, maybe lets not bury mental health issues in jokes. Today, at least. I'll change the subject to my dog instead).
This is a photo of my dog, along with some other adorable dogs. Her name is Kita and she's almost 11 and is the softest and fluffiest mutt you can imagine. Seriously, if your fingertips aren't currently tingling just imagining touching her fur, than you aren't thinking soft enough. She goes out with a dog pack on Fridays called Active Dog Adventure Club (I shit you not) and suddenly they now have amazing cameras, and their dog wrangler extraordinaire, Emily, is required to be a skilled photographer on top of everything else because what is a business these days without a kick-ass Instagram account? In this particular gorgeous shot, my Kita is leading the pack while squinting in the sun and happily sporting a mud-encrusted neck, because Emily never tells Kita to stop rolling on the ground like her uptight mother does. This photo has nothing to do with this post other than I need to include visuals so you'll come back, and because cute animal photos and videos help immensely on mental health days- especially if they are starring my perfect angel. May they help you too.
Today I want to focus on three holy truths:
Truth 1 is a focus today because it must be said over and over again that if you have- for instance- bipolar disorder, you are no less legitimately sick than someone who has breast cancer. And also because it is somehow still news that even if you don't have bipolar disorder, you must attend to nurturing your mental health. Just like every single person must attend to their physical health, even if they don't have breast cancer. Is it not obvious that we should have classes on stress reduction techniques, for instance, starting in elementary school, just like we have P.E.?!
Truths 2 and 3 are focal points (like, "foci"? really?? ew) because so many people are so singularly hell- bent on having more money and more power, that it's clear that they've forgotten that having the health and freedom to spend your life how you want is supposed to be the ultimate goal of all of that money and control anyway. On the other end of the spectrum, of course, there are those who cannot possibly make the mistake of always focusing on having "more more more", because they must always focus on striving just to have enough. On providing for the most basic needs of themselves and others. Which means that they may feel like holy truths 2 and 3 don't apply to them. Which doesn't make 2 and 3 any less true, but it does mean that those of us who are privileged enough to have enough, better recognize it. We'd better help others less fortunate, and quit our endless pursuits of an immeasurable quantity of material goods, leading to a disappearing quantity of empathy. (Seriously, just quit that shit. It's not making anyone happy anyway).
So I am home from work right now, even though I love my job and I wanted to go and I didn't even have any shitty meetings or legal paperwork on my to do list today. And even though I do not have a cold or the flu or a family emergency or an appointment. I am home from work because of my mental health disorders. Or my mental illnesses. Or because I need a mental health day. Whatever are the acceptable words of the moment. And though I haven't had a cold or the flu in a year- more in future posts on how I've helped my body achieve that- and I have an educator's schedule (summers off, two weeks off in the winter, one week for spring break, government holidays, etc.), I will generally use every one of the ten sick and personal days I get each year. And some years even a few more than my allotted days, which will cost me a bit of money, but thanks to my union and my contract, will not cost me my job. So when the previous night's or the early morning's combo of anxiety/panic attacks/depression/bloody BFRB (more on that below) has been overly debilitating, you're unlikely to find me at work.
I'd be lying if I said that I have completely let go of all guilt about missing days. If I said that I don't sometimes, on these days, still avoid telling friends and family who call that I'm not at work (guilty of that ten minutes ago, in fact. Sorry, Justin!). I'd be lying if I said I don't find it at all necessary to righteously and defensively tell you that it's ok, don't judge me, because as a classroom teacher I did thousands of unpaid hours. And that my salary is pretty shitty anyway- we're notoriously underpaid. And that my work is in service to others every day, which means even if I work fewer hours than people in some other jobs, I'm still contributing more to this world and the people in it. And that because I'm such an engaged-multi-tasking-flow-state kinda person, when I am at work, I'm usually three times more productive than the average worker.
But even though all those things are true, if they weren't, you probably still wouldn't see me at work when things were horrendous. Because working isn't always possible. Everyone should be able to stay at home when they are ill. But that's not the case- especially for poor folks, folks of color and LGBTQ folks- which is one of the many reasons the US has loads of misery and reduced productivity and early death and poverty and unemployment and folks on disability. Loads that are way disproportionate to our GDP.
If you have a mental illness:
The truth about sick days- mental or physical (aren't they all BOTH?)- is that some of those days you can concentrate on all kinds of healthy and healing practices, that will help get you back to the other things you want to do in life. And others of those days you spend lying on the bathroom floor in convulsions, wishing it would swallow you up. And many of those days are in-between. If you have mental health disorders like me, you sometimes have to carefully evaluate your decision on how to spend your days off. Maybe you can't see people, yet too much isolation will plummet your depressed heart even lower. Maybe seeing your therapist or psychiatrist is necessary and helpful, or maybe the traffic on the way there will just crush you, so you may need to just call them from the cocoon in your closet, or use half the money that an extra session would cost to order in some food, because you can't possibly cook right now. And on slightly better days, sometimes even going to work or to school or that other thing you need to do can absolutely be the best thing, and you just need someone to help motivate you or even literally prop you up to brush your teeth. (I live with mental health disorders EVERY. DAY. If I didn't ever leave the house on the days that I have to deal with my mental health disorders, I would NEVER LEAVE THE HOUSE. And never get a chance to focus on the amazingness of not focusing on myself.)
If you don't have a mental illness:
There's space in many discussions for lists of things to do to help those with mental illnesses. Today I'll make it easier. Here's three things not to do. (Everyone likes lists of three in these things, right?) Even if you don't actively do anything for the cause of mental health, NOT doing these things can help us a lot.
Imagining you all out there, readers, has given me purpose and helped me through this scary and healing work of writing this on my day off. So thank you.
Teaser alert >>>>
Dermatillomania is a real, and awful, and humiliating thing, that is now finally in the DSM-V. It is not OCD, but is like a distant cousin of it. It is not popping a few zits and moving on. It's a destructive BFRB (Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior), often coupled with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, that involves building neural pathways in the brain that associate self-destructive behaviors with triggering soothing feelings, or satisfaction. Those good feelings are what separate it from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder behaviors. The positive feelings are short-lived, however. After the trance-like episode, debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, and even suicidal thoughts can move in. Skin-picking episodes can last several hours, and can end in blood loss that sends folks to the hospital in an ambulance, if veins are reached. I''ll discuss it more in my next post, but I want to reveal now that I have this condition. It' time to rip the Band-Aid off, so to speak. This is a photo I took after an episode in order to share- something I still can't believe I was able to do. But it's other folks sharing about this disorder that has helped me the most, so I want to do the same. I was convinced for many many years before that that I was the only person on Earth who had this problem. I took this selfie in October and it's taken me until now to share it. By no means my worst episode, but it ain't pretty, considering my skin was pretty much clear before it. Maybe a blemish or a couple blackheads. Nothing. Then hours. Then this. And the photo doesn't do the redness and swelling justice, which I'm kind of grateful for (and won't even fully download to complete clarity due to my dumb ass phone, hence the symbol in the corner). I"ve suffered from the disorder since I was 15, and have lost countless hours and days to it. I've done tons of self-work and studying over the years, and the information out there has increased. I understand it now more than ever. I feel I'm maybe close to defeating it. But I've never felt more scared about it than I do right now, because the number of folks who know is about to go from 7 to hundreds. Dayyuum. Truth-telling is difficult stuff...
Yeah, I know, I look pretty good in both of these photos. They're from weddings- professional photographers, hair, and makeup. Don't worry, there'll be some real shit shows in upcoming posts. Revealing oneself takes baby steps, alright?
I suppose alcohol is as good a topic to begin with as any. It starts with an "a", the country is obsessed with it (many folks probably felt they needed quite a bit of it on Election Day), and giving it up is the single biggest habit change I've made in getting healthy- and the habit change that made all the other habit changes SOOOO much easier to make. Also, starting with a post about alcohol means I can pull the Band Aid off when it comes to letting some skeletons out of the closet on this blog. (Did you catch that? Two for one clichés. You're welcome.)
So first a note about the structure that my posts may usually take: I'll concentrate on my own experiences and knowledge on a topic in the"Me" section. Then, I'll give some advice and tips for folks who might be helped by something I've learned in a "You" section. (If you are just reading to learn some chisme about my life and don't want any preachy shit, you probably should skip that section). Lastly, I'll put on my health educator hat in the "Health Ed" section and contemplate how I think this topic might be approached if you are a teacher, or have children in your family or friend group that you'd like to guide. I've learned a lot as a student of health in school when I was a kid (much of it miseducation, unfortunately, that's taught me what not to do), in my studies for my teaching and health education credentials, and in my classroom experiences as a teacher- from both my successes and my missteps.
Let's get on with the topic of alcohol.
So, here they are, some of my thoughts on drinking, which are probably fairly common:
It's wonderful, and it's awful.
I'm great at it, and it's not for me.
It was a major contributor to some of the most amazing times I've had in my life, and a major contributor to nearly every regretful thing I've ever done.
I love the taste, the history, the immediate effects on my brain, the rituals, the tools. The art it has inspired. The colors and shapes of the bottles and labels. And, I love nearly every type of it and every concoction that can be made with it.
I'm from blue collar Midwest culture, and so alcohol is very important. Particularly beer. It didn't much matter if the beer was particularly good, because- until my immediate family had better financial circumstances in my late teens- we couldn't afford and didn't know much about more expensive alcohol, other than maybe some wine coolers, Jack Daniels, or Smirnoff on special occasions.
As a kid, I was a voyeur of adult drinkers. A fetcher of beers from the fridge at home, and from the cooler at cookouts. I learned this lesson: Adults drink. Billboards said it, TV and movies said it, my life said it. During the week, finished work days meant beer. On the weekend, finished yard work meant beer. In the summer, outdoor events meant beer. In the winter, they meant a Thermos with liquor diluted with hot water or hot chocolate. Celebrations meant beer. Sad times meant beer. Card games meant beer. Bowling meant beer. Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, even, meant beer. I spent quite a bit of time in bars (ones that served food, so were able to qualify as restaurants- "Bar and Grill"-and to allow children), playing with neighborhood kids. While our parents drank, we scurried under high-top booths, played with the knobs on cigarette machines, prank-called free 800 numbers from the pay phones. It was a blast. Even with bars and drinking so woven into the fabric of our culture, for the most part, my family didn't overdo it. They were drinkers, but not drunks. Drunkenness of others at an event was received with a chuckle, maybe sometimes a pinch of judgement or a splash of pity.
In my late teens and on, I was a weekly binge drinker. A host of epic drunken parties. A shooter of shots. A strong contender in drinking games. (All the types. I'm good at cards, brain tricks, table games, physical feats- you name it. And winning was VERY important.)
As an adult, after graduating college and moving to San Francisco, I began to learn about wine, craft beer, and liquors I'd never heard of before. I was a bartender. A cocktail party-goer. A bar fly. A brewery tour-er. A wine club member. And perhaps, most of all, a professional, who took Friday happy hour attendance quite seriously. In fact, I organized most of the happy hour events for the staff at the schools where I taught. And I'll admit that those in stressful and helping industries like teaching, social work, and nursing, tend to party fairly hard. Not the cocaine-heavy partying of our lawyer and corporate counterparts, but certainly alcohol-soaked dive bar nights followed by dancing and karaoke, in between more rounds of beers, cocktails, or shots.
And yet, now, I do not drink at all, and I can honestly say that I do not miss it. And that the temptations are very few, and very weak. I've learned (from the help of some of the great work of Gretchen Rubin) that with many things, I'm a much better abstainer than I am a moderator. In fact, the only thing that makes me crave a drink, is a drink. If I don't have one, I don't really want one. And I'm grateful for this, because I know that many people who don't want to drink have a very hard time being around alcohol. That's not the case for me, which means I don't have to give up beautiful glass bottles with shiny colorful labels. It means folks can make me layered concoctions of herbs and fruits and bubbles and pour them in fancy glasses, which I can sip next to drinkers, with the peace of mind that comes with knowing I'm hydrating and nourishing myself toward a glorious morning. It means that I can do one of my favorite things in the world, dance, if not with the help of the lowered inhibitions provided by alcohol, at least under the cloak of the low lights of a club, instead of only under the bright lights of a dance studio or gym. It means I can hang out without a struggle in some of the few places where I still feel a sense of community in our society: dive bars. There, I can hobnob with other misfits and over-sharers. (One of my greatest fears of quitting drinking was giving up the sense of comfort I feel when hanging out with folks in dive bars. I find a lot of people there- especially the drunk ones- whom I feel a kinship with because, like me, they are willing to show emotion more readily than is the norm in many other societal arenas. And I find that they are willing to be outwardly critical and even rejecting of many societal rules and expectations. More on this later).
The fact that I love every type of alcohol has maybe even helped me, in a strange way. Or at least, the fact that I'm not a picky person. Being a lover of many things means I don't miss one when I have another. It's like, if you are eating an amazing piece of pie, are you missing cake? Probably not. Folks ask me how I was able to give up eating meat in 2005ish. Does it gross me out now? Did I stop enjoying it? Am I just insanely willful and stoic? Nope. Giving up meat became easy once I'd broadened my palate and realized I love nearly ALL food. And this has been a key aspect for me in shedding unhealthy habits: not focusing on what I am losing or giving up, but thinking about what I have, and feeling happy that I can focus more time and attention on those things. A mentality of abundance rather than scarcity, some call it.
I don't want to pretend that arriving at this point in my relationship with alcohol was easy. The fears about giving it up were powerful, as was the feeling that drinking was part of my identity, and that to quit meant to create even further separation from my family, my friends, my upbringing. Now I was going to solidify myself as "crazy liberal college grad health nut Cheryl who moved and became an SF coastal elite", or whatever. If I couldn't throw back beers with my brethren and folks of all walks of life, what would be the great equalizer? The thing that brought all commonalities to the surface? Surely I'd be rejected- or at least distanced- from many people I loved. Surely drinking was a road to being more truly and fully myself, to easing my anxiety. How could something that dissolves inhibitions not be?
Yes, I was terrified of the times in my life when I didn't remember what had happened the night before, or I'd made out with someone who I didn't really want to make out with, or I woke up in my own urine. But what about all my friends- and all of pop culture- that proved those to be common and laughable experiences? Yes, my anti-anxiety medication didn't always go well with alcohol, but not in a way that was really unsafe. Yes, the long-term effects of alcohol on the liver and the heart and-most of all- the brain scared me, but no one else seemed to really talk about that, so maybe that was just a symptom of my tendancy to worry too much, to over-analyze, to be too hard on myself. Yes, quiz results in books and magazines indicated that I may abuse it too much, but they also indicated that I was not dependent on it. Yes, it was a depressant in the morning, and thus made my bouts of depression worse, but it sure had the opposite effect during the drinking part. Yes, I felt better when I took breaks from it for a few weeks or a month, but wasn't giving it up entirely something that would foster the "all or nothing" thinking that was sometimes a dangerous habit for me?
This battle went on for a few years. And I am not even entirely sure today why the choice of sobriety won out, or if it always will. (There's a reason that the advice to take everything one day at a time echos in nearly all therapeutic arenas. We have these existences that are gloriously segmented with nature's two live shows a day: sunrise and sunset- and with the wonder of sleep, of course. Taking things a day at a time must be a much better idea that thinking about forever). I can say this, which might not be entirely helpful to others: a big part of it was timing. There just came a time when I was ready to take the plunge to see if some of my fears were overblown, and to really do the cost/benefit analysis for myself of being a non-drinker. I spoke about my process with very few people. Two bad-ass writers and tea totalers, Holly Whitaker and Denise Grollmus, had both assured me via email and text not to rush things or listen to others, that my questioning and seeking growth was enough until it was time to move forward. And in July, after a half a year of deep reflection and a couple of hearty alcohol binges, it became time to move forward. And I'm happy to report that I've gained so much more than I've lost, and I truly feel better than ever. And- the most important thing- more myself than ever. Which eases my anxiety and allows me to connect with others much more than drinking did. I don't think I'd even realized how much anxiety drinking caused me, rather than allieviated. What a relief it is to not worry anymore about what things I might say or how I will get home or how I might feel the next day, or ten years from now. And as far as connecting with others, I am always desperate to do that. I always desire to connect with folks on deeper levels. And now I believe that forced drunken fake romance or giggling/crying /platonic cuddling and proclamations of undying friendship may feel like the stuff we've all been missing, and may even be great for a time, but they don't feel as good as building real connection, engagement, and intimacy with people.
Maybe the most concrete and quickest gain has been time. My Saturday mornings are so deliciously long now, without the physical hangover symptoms, and without the mental/emotional hangover (that, if you have issues with anxiety and depression like me, only need a couple of Friday drinks to show up). Also, I remember so much more. My life almost feels like it's getting longer, or at least that I'm living more of it. In fact, drinking has been an unexpected way to push back against the ruminations on mortality that have become more frequent as I get older.
There is no greater commodity than time, and so this gain alone would probably be enough to keep me off the sauce. But really, there is so much more that I've gained, that I worry folks will think I'm being disengenous if I list everything. Suffice to say that I truly feel better than I've ever felt in my adult life. To be sure, quitting drinking is certainly not an isolated variable; I've made a lot of recent healthy habit changes. But those were habit changes I'd been struggling for years to be consistent with. And- as I said at the beginning of this post- without alcohol having so much power over my weekly schedule and budget, and the way my body and mind feel, it suddenly became infinitely easier to make those habit changes.
I mentioned the heavy prevalence of alcohol in my life environments not to excuse my abuse of it, but because I think it's worth noting that my level and frequency of drinking was by no means uncommon in my circles. And I think this is true in many circles. (I do think it is also important to mention that there are a TON of folks who don't drink at all, and a TON who drink very small amounts and very infrequently. Not drinking seems so radical and rare, but I noticed that it really isn't if you look deeper. Still, alcohol continues to be the most commonly used recreational drug, and the one that drives the most folks each year to seek help for drug dependence).
So, why is abusing alcohol so common, and so casually depicted in every facet of popular culture? Why do people sit around the table with family of all ages and pound drinks, but ripping bong hits or snorting coke together at dinner is taboo? Is it because snorting cocaine is more unsightly than drinking liquor? Maybe, because, though it can be more dangerous in ways, it's not more expediently deadly. Is it because alcohol is legal? Why is it legal? Within ten minutes, one block, and very little money, I can legally purchase enough alcohol to kill myself quite easily and rapidly. Yet in most states it is illegal to buy marijuana, which won't kill you no matter how much you use. I don't currently use or promote any of these substances, and none are without their risks (I'll discuss them more in future blog posts), but I think it's important to examine the power of money in our laws, and the power of laws in dictating what's deemed acceptable in our cultures, and what's deemed taboo.
When things are common, are "the norm", we don't tend to question them. And while I will never proclaim that what works for me should be adopted by everyone else, or that everyone should quit or even cut back on their drinking, the one thing I will say applies to everyone is this: Question things. Examine your life and your priorities. Often. And remember that your everyday actions and thoughts ARE your life and your priorities.
Another thing that you gotta question is labels. You may fit a classic definition of alcoholic or addict. But you may not. And it should be mentioned that both of these terms have meanings that are still debated by scientists, still influx. There are a myriad of relationships to have with alcohol, and not all are linear or fit into tight boxes or labels. Your own processes and needs that you require for cutting back or quitting alcohol will undoubtedly differ from other people's, just as your relationship with it and your experiences have differed. People are brought together through both the shared and different parts of their experiences, though, so reach out even if you feel that you are unique. Maybe that means AA meetings for you, or maybe that just means chatting with others who are examining and changing their relationships with with bad habits. Maybe it just means, for now, reading stuff like this, and reflecting on it. And what you require now in order to help you break unhealthy habits may change in the future. Checking in with yourself often and staying connected to others will be key throughout.
Maybe you've already examined your life and decided that alcohol isn't contributing to it and to your priorities in a net positive way. Maybe you are just tired of worrying about the mental risks, or the social ones, or the emotional ones, or the physical ones, short or long term. Or your doctor told you you need to cut down or stop. Or your P.O. told you that. Or you are starting on a medication that doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or you converted to a religion that doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or your budget doesn't mix well with alcohol. Or you are pregnant. Whatever your motivation in changing your relationship with alcohol, you are by no means alone, and you have a variety of resources and options. Below are a few of my recommendations.
There's an incredible amount of issues to discuss regarding education to prevent alcohol and other drug abuse, and this post has been long enough, so I'll just mention a couple of things I've learned in my research and experience.
1. D.A.R.E. failed. And anti-drug curricula like it (that's full of lies and scare tactics) are still being used across the US and are still failing. Teach facts.
2. There's evidence that children of non-drinkers have a higher risk of alcohol abuse than children of moderate drinkers (Weil and Rosen, p.76). Not as high a risk of children of alcoholics, but still- those parents who do not drink would be wise to provide opportunities for their children to observe adult friends or family members who are good examples of moderate drinking.
3. Teach critical thinking, and critical consumption of media (beer commercials are a great place to start discussions on this).
I also recommend checking out the most truthful and comprehensive sources I've found: Dr. Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen's book From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs and the Drug Policy Alliance website. I've learned so much from the DPA's publications for parents and educators, and from my meetings with the founder of their Safety First project, Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum. Their new video collaboration (below) with writer and narrator Shawn Carter (Jay Z) and illustrator Molly Crabapple is a must-watch. It's a great critical thinking discussion-starter with teens. It's also evidence of why laws should not be the sole influencer of decisions on drug use, and of how drug laws disproportionately affect people of color.
I'll return to this topic in future posts about other drugs, but suffice to say, telling the truth is best.
Being honest is hard but usually worth it. Which is what I'll remind myself many times when I'm at this point in blogging... about to click "post".
Photo on left by photographer Cindy Hegger. Photo on right by photographer Anna Zajac.
is a health-seeker and health educator living in the US in San Francisco, California. She is also a former (and maybe future) high school English teacher, and she loves words. Maybe health seeker looks better with a hyphen, or maybe it doesn't. You should just get over it. Even if she cannot.