Enter the Weighted Blanket

Summer break has officially been in effect for seventeen days. The usual end of year overstimulation/overbooked/house descending into hoarder chaos never really let up since we plunged directly into two weeks of various day camps and were getting up even earlier than during school.  I was shuttling my three plus others, coordinating ride shares, packing lunches, trying to cram in quality Mom-kid time with the one kid I had home each week, working on my run streak, tackling revoltingly filthy camp clothing and gnarly sneakers and then trying to usher all the overtired kids to bed then lying wide awake myself.

This week is the first one I have all three kids home with nothing scheduled and it occurs to me that what I’ve been struggling with the last few months is kind of being amplified by being the sun to three needy planets who are orbiting 24/7. I have sat down ten times to write and immediately been bombarded with requests for snacks, complaints of being bored, squabbles over Fortnite, requests to go somewhere, pleas for assistance with some random lost item that has suddenly become vitally important to a childs’ very existence. You know, the usual.  And it hits me that motherhood, even as my kids are getting older is still the toughest job there is and one I struggle mightily with when it comes to BOUNDARIES. It will take all you have and then ask for more and it’s a breeding ground for exhaustion and resentment if we allow it. Which brings me to towels.

Imagine a Turkish towel. The magical kind found in fancy hotel rooms that most of us can only dream about but have maybe experienced once in a lifetime. Baby chick soft, deliciously thick loops of perfectly fluffy cotton that envelop you and magically suck the water off your skin. You wrap yourself in it like a giant hug. That’s how I envision self-care.  The best, softest, most decadent kindness you can give to yourself.  And you know what my self care has been lately, at least the last six months as I am juggling single parenting and major change? Like an OD green Army issued bath towel.  If you are unfamiliar with what this is, it’s a horrible brownish green towel issued to every recruit during in-processing.  It is about half the size of a regular bath towel. It is scratchy like coarse grade sandpaper, it is utterly non-absorbent, it barely covers even your most essential parts and it looks like something your grandpa would use in the garage to mop up oil or paint spills, then throw in a dusty corner to dry into some kind of stiff crunchy folds.

What I can’t seem to get though my very slow-learning brain is WHY on earth, when I have experienced the Turkish towel would I consciously choose the Army towel? Yet that is what Moms are doing right now in this culture. We give our best to everyone, give until empty, bitterly laugh off the exhaustion, fiercely love our kids and then all get together and bemoan the fact that  we are so so tired and unappreciated and how moms give and give and all we get is the crappy towel. No wonder a glass of wine or five sounds appealing. After all, billions of dollars are spent in advertising telling us this is true. Just open your eyes and see the messages we are bombarded with any time we go into a funky boutique. The pink wine glasses, the funny tea towels all saying that Moms need wine: “I drink because my children cry” is the battle cry of the modern American mom these days. I may have removed alcohol from the equation 846 days ago but I still fight against the old internalized messages.

But the truth, (which no one is hiring a plane to fly a banner down the beach with) is that we don’t need to numb or take the edge off or distract ourselves from the real pain that is mothering without a break. We need an actual break. Real self-care: deliberate moments of peace wrapped in a Turkish towel of our own design. Yet somehow the message is that a Mom taking a real time out, to go to a museum alone, going for a long run or tucking herself up in a corner with a book is somehow selfish.. But add a glass of wine or a beer to that then, somehow it’s OK. After all, we live in a culture that praises selflessness, the Pinterest “Moms who do it all” and then blatantly encourages women to self medicate with alcohol when they realize they have lost themselves somewhere along the line.  Don’t look inside, don’t question whether this is killing you, just drink up. All the fun Moms are doing it.  Unless you can’t handle your booze or endanger your kids because you went too far and then you are a worthless piece of trash that thousands of online commentors would burn at the stake. What a mess.

Real self care looks different for each of us.  Some need meditation and essential oils, some need to pick up some heavy weights and listen to loud techno. Others need to write poetry or bust out their old paints or take long walks and others enjoy being in the middle of the bustle of a big city or need join a roller derby team like they’ve always dreamed of. Others need to do hot yoga and others need to reaquaint themselves with long-lost hobbies. What appeals to me might not to you, but we need to get more creative about what a time out or self care is. Drinking ethanol is not a time out or a break. It’s slowly poisoning yourself and basically guaranteeing that none of your aspirations regarding yourself will ever come to pass. It’s a very costly trip to nowhere. You can’t smash the patriarchy or write that book or finish that degree or start that clothing line or be a woman of integrity in your life if you are letting alcohol drive the bus. It’s just that simple and that hard and going against so much overt programming is tough but when you get to the other side it is crystal clear.

I am revisiting the idea of self-care since my old pattern of swinging wildly from manic to exhausted is so easy to fall back into. I have found a small group of people to hold me accountable this summer. I have set some small goals which I will begin to implement this week, actually starting right now as  twenty minutes ago I announced to my offspring that I was going to my room to write and unless there is blood squirting from someone’s eyeholes or the house is on fire, I am not to be disturbed for one hour. My list is small and I think do-able, and I had to consciously reel in my perfectionist overstriving tendencies.

The list:

Be creative–either writing or art, a minimum of 30 minutes daily

Exercise/ move body every day without excuse (I’m doing a run streak challenge right now to jump start this goal and it’s been eye-opening to say the least. I’m on day 37/38)

Declutter for 10-15 minutes

Coffee and quiet time in the morning–work on incorporating meditation into daily routine

Go to bed earlier (moving bedtime back 10-15 minutes at a time).

And that’s it for now. No massive ten year plan, no ultramarathon or Ironman training (which my squirrel brains think is a great idea because then I can just keep moving instead of pausing). Instead, I chose simple, soul filling things that if I’m honest, I CAN find time to do. It may mean letting something else go and that grates on my need to control things, but I’m getting there.

The last time I wrote, I was thinking about lobsters and what we do when our shells get too tight and I decided I needed some help with leveling up.  Therapy has been like shedding a shell every single week.  I feel raw, vulnerable and self-preserving. I feel off-balance and in pain. Like I’m some kind of evolving Pokemon with bewildered anime eyes. But I recognize that this is pain with a purpose. Sitting in my old patterns and staying stuck was pain for no reason. The reasons I haven’t wanted to go are still there but I know deep in my marrow, that if I’m going to transform, put things to rest and move forward, this is necessary. It has been painful, surprising and I’ve been astounded at how utterly un-self aware I am in some areas. My second session we were talking about a past event (my therapist specializes in substance abuse and trauma and has been amazing) and she stopped me and said “what just happened” And I said “what do you mean?”She replied “your eyes changed and you seemed to check out for a few seconds.”  And I said “Oh, I think I’ve always done that when I think about tough things.”

Some more conversation and questions passed and we came to the conclusion that I dissociate.  I always assumed everyone does that. I mean, doesn’t everyone leave their body when things are too intense? It’s a great skill as an ER nurse– just watch yourself from a distance, no muss no fuss. Turns out, NOPE.  Most people do not do this. Traumatized brains do this. After my last session she mentioned that it’s ok to leave some of what we are talking about there in the room. She wants me to say it, feel the emotion and then let it go. She told me ” I smudge after every session”. The old me would have thought that was a bunch of woo woo malarkey but I smiled and said “not sure there’s enough sage in the world for all this crap” and she laughed. Some days I wish I could just roll around in a field of sage and not have to do the hard work.

The other component that I’ve been working on is sleep. I remember the early days   when I couldn’t imagine ever sleeping again but then at about four months sober I was finally experiencing natural, non passed-out, no 3 am sweaty frantic wake ups sleep and  after that for the most part I had deep, dreamless sleep where I woke up feeling rested and ready to go (this is one of the miracles of recovery people go on and on about. With good reason). Once I started therapy my sleep went out the window. Restless, tossing, like my body was working through all the things I was thinking through in my “homework”. Vivid nightmares, fighting and terror, waking exhausted left me irritable and tired during the day.

My therapist recommended a weighted blanket and said it’s great for PTSD and anxiety. I was initially wary due to the expense (they are pricey) and worried that being claustrophobic and not really a touchy person that it would be suffocating and make me panicky. But I read some reviews and ordered a mid price one on Amazon and the first night I slept like a rock.  And the second.  And just about every night after that. It has been a game changer. The second I climb under,  I can feel my overstimulated, buzzing nerve ending switching from crazy to “chill.” The weight of it stimulates deep pressure points and reminds me in an odd way of my old Army body armor. I had always found the weight and pressure of my flak vest to be strangely calming.  I look forward to the moment at the end of each day when I’ve been tested and pushed to my limits with my kids when I can climb into bed, pull it over me and exhale. It’s like a literal “off” switch. It’s not chemical or aritificial and I’ve been grateful for the restoration that real sleep brings. So, add my name to the list of believers. Definitely worth every penny and lives up to the hype.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of work to be done, including actually staying in my body. Which sounds utterly ludicrous to write.  Perhaps I should add that to my list. But what I’m trying to get at is that in the midst of doing hard things: parenting, getting sober, exorcising demons, it’s vital to replenish and support ourselves. For me, it’s making little self-care to do lists, going to therapy and obsessing on my weighted blanket and the deep sleep it provides.  Those of us who struggle with addiction and are relatively new to recovery tend to have buckets of shame, an idea that we deserve to be punished in some way. But the opposite it true.  We need and deserve to be healed. The work of recovery is just that: WORK.  What if we approach it like we are elite athletes? We do the training and stretch and break down the muscles, then provide the optimum healing environment. Hydration, rest, nutrition. In active recovery, we do the same, in a way that re-integrates mind, body and soul. No more scratchy towels and martyrdom. No more burning the candle at both ends to avoid looking at the pain, no more poison down our throats because we’ve bought into a dangerous lie. But real self-care. Which allows us to be able to give to those around us from a place of fullness and not from an empty well.

Carry on, friends.

Living Hawthorne

I’m off work today and the sky is grey and rumbly with distant storms. Today was supposed to be one of those super productive Mondays where I superhumanly tackled items on my to-do list before the rest of the week crashes onto me full of ER shifts and doctor’s appointments and tech week for yet another ballet production. But my nine-year-old is home sick today with a fever and a queasy belly after spending all of yesterday, (which was Mother’s Day) looking pale and drawn and not at all his usual self. He’s tucked up in his loft bed reading and dozing and so I find myself drawn to write.  I think I’ve written a hundred blog posts this spring, none of which have found their way into little black letters on a page. My brain has been swirling with ideas and connections but the insistent tug of real life on my elbow has meant that they get shelved for some later time when I can sit down and actually hear myself think.

So today, quite unexpectedly,  I find myself with a quiet house and a steel grey sky that seems to call for coffee and contemplation.  So those thoughts that have been shoved aside are creeping up to me asking shyly “now?”

I think the last time I managed to blog a few months ago I was battling the flu, which turned into pneumonia. My months of training and visualizing myself triumphantly (or wheezingly) completing my first half marathon devolved into a struggle to just walk up a flight of stairs without having to sit down at the top.  My lungs took their time healing, and I found myself weighing whether or not I could possibly run my race, with my longest run before getting sick only being 8 miles and then not running for almost six weeks. It was a bitter disappointment to drop down to the 8k, ( as we all know I hate quitting) but ended up being a good experience as I let go of my expectations and decided to just enjoy the experience of running a race in the nation’s capitol surrounded by history and monuments and about 9000 badass women on a blustery cold day. I stayed with a good friend I’ve made in sobriety, one of the core group of truly amazing women that I check in with daily. As I ran, and watched the sun glinting off the Potomac, surrounded by thousands, I had one of those ridiculous smiling, almost out of body moments where all I could hear was that Talking Heads song playing over and over in my mind: ‘you may ask yourself, “well… how did I get here? Letting the days go by… water flowing underground…once in a lifetime” and cracked myself up at my own cheese and sentiment.  But that’s me in sobriety.

And I think it comes back to the Hawthorne Effect. This is something I had never heard of until a few months back when I saw it mentioned in an obscure NYT article (which my swiss cheese brain has forgotten the name of) and made a note to look it up. The idea of tapping into our own potential just by feeling “seen” intrigued me.  I did a little research and then suddenly I started noticing references to this study. My hospital was undergoing a mock quality review in preparation for a visit by the Joint Commision (hide yo drinks hide yo snacks!)  and someone posted a link about a study that was conducted back in the 20s and 30 at a factory in Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago.  It had to do with industrial research and I won’t bore you with all the details but basically there was a study conducted which monitored and changed the physical conditions of factory workers after getting their input. While they found that people’s individual performances are influenced by their environments and the people around them as much as their own innate abilities, they ultimately found that workers’ productivity exceeded anyone expectations due to the fact that they were part of a study.  The fact that someone was actually showing an interest in the workers themselves and their conditions led to levels of production no one had anticipated.  Being part of an experiment, where they knew that they were being watched and not in a punitive sense meant that in the end, they did their best work and morale improved exponentially. All it took was an awareness of “positive regard” and something innate took over.  Their best work resulted from the knowledge that they were SEEN. The study called this the Hawthorne Effect. A kind of intangible, unmeasurable magical thing.

So this got me thinking about the last two years of being sober, and how being part of what started as an accountability group has morphed into something I could not have imagined.  Just about two years ago I was newly sober and shakily staring down the barrel of my first “dry” summer with three small children home. I had gotten into a routine of checking in and posting almost daily on a sobriety support group website. I was looking ahead with fear and dread to awkward pool parties and social events and knew that having my kids home and in my orbit was going to make long, leisurely posts and reading sobriety memoirs and time for self-care a serious challenge.  So, I threw out a plea asking for an accountability group that I could text at least daily to keep myself on track. Five women from all over the country answered my call and two years later we are still in touch daily.  We have been through a lot of life changes and trials and challenges as women and mothers, have had the gift of meeting in person, sitting in the same room together, laughing and crying like the dearest of lifelong friends.  We have basically exceeded our wildest expectations as to what could happen when six women who are trying to get sober decide to let themselves be Seen.

We text and share articles and pictures of our kids and video snippets of ourselves telling stories and asking for advice and offering encouragement. We tell jokes.  We lift each other up. We share the profound and the mundane, the painful trials, triumphs and losses.  We think out loud and we grow as we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. You ladies know who you are and I am humbled and profoundly grateful for all you are to me. What an unexpected gift.

Allowing myself to be observed, in the most positive sense (our own Hawthorne effect) has caused me to grow in ways that I would never have done alone.  It’s one thing to live up to your own expectations and another to put yourself out there and allow your life and actions to be observed, and to be reminded what it is we are striving for.  The daily reminders of why are doing this hard, crazy thing (to make our insides match our outsides and to show others it can be done) but not doing it alone have made this journey rich beyond what I could even imagine that first shattered morning when I realized it was time to get sober. I had no idea what was coming.

And so that leads me to the second thing I’ve been mulling over.  Which is Lobsters. I know, random, but hang in with me for a minute.

As I’ve emerged from my winter funk and cast off the lingering shadows of seasonal angst and depression, I’ve found myself saying yes to things that a year ago would have sent me running for the hills.  I’m saying yes to going and hanging out again, traveling with kids, and taking steps to really do things that scare me. Because the discomfort of staying scared and anxious and stilted is just too uncomfortable.  I’ve outgrown my own stories about myself and it’s time to write new ones.  I’m drawing inspiration from a snippet I heard on a Goalcast episode,  and a story told by Rabbi Abraham Twerski.

The transcript:

“The lobster’s a soft mushy animal that lives inside of a rigid shell. That rigid shell does not expand.

Well, how can the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining, and the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable. It goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell, and produces a new one. Well, eventually, that shell becomes very uncomfortable as it grows. Back under the rocks. The lobster repeats this numerous times.

The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Now, if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow because as soon as the lobster feels uncomfortable, goes to the doctor, gets a Valium, gets a Percocet, feels fine, never casts off his shell.

I think that we have to realize that times of stress are also times that are signals for growth, and if we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity.”

So, in doing something that made me incredibly uncomfortable: asking for help and being vulnerable, I have set off a rate of growth that has caused my shell to be tight and restrictive many times over. But because I’m sober and no longer a stunted lobster, I’m casting off the shell.   I’ve come through things that once seemed impossible: quitting drinking, being able to sit in my own skin feeling all the uncomfortable feelings (surprisingly, it’s not fatal!), attending social events as my majestically awkward self, not having to numb my anxiety, navigating death and  losses, running hundreds of miles a year and completing a triathlon after rebuilding a body wrecked by drinking, writing about this experience for myself and others … an entire world has opened to me beyond the narrow confines of self-loathing and hangovers. This winter I have spent my time under the rocks and have emerged in my new shell.   I’m already feeling that this one isn’t going to fit me long. There have been lots of “Ah-ha” moments this spring like the one I had running along the Potomac with an icy wind in my face and tears in my eyes.  I’ll be writing about some of them in the next few weeks.

I’ve got lots of things to sort and examine and I’ve decided it’s time to ask for help again.  I am meeting with a therapist this week. I have low expectations, am keeping an open mind and trying to be non-defensively curious about what comes next for me. That I can even write that, is a testament to the love and patience of sober warriors who have pushed and prodded and listened and borne with me as I slowly figure it all out.

So if you are feeling the pinch, knowing it’s time to level up and be seen, I encourage you to step out and take that risk. Allow your self to be seen by others with positive regard until you can do it for yourself.  Eventually, you will begin to look at yourself that way too, as farfetched as that may sound. I know it’s hard. Hope was something I became afraid of as I reached the limits of my addiction and was trapped in the small and cynical scarred world I had made. It seemed like it was for people who were stronger or maybe just more naive.   I thought I had figured out how to stop being a lobster–numb with alcohol and just not take the risk to ever be soft and vulnerable.  I could stay forever under the rock and attempt to ignore the tightness of my own shell.  My reality was all pain and no hope, so the best I could hope for was to numb out and take some of the pain of life out. I didn’t realize I was taking life out altogether.  I’m not sure I could have said that out loud, but I was certainly living as if that was true.

Now, I say that life is pain, yes.  It hurts like hell some days. But it is also unspeakably beautiful. And the only way to go through all of this is through. It’s frightening but it’s also all real. Transformations aren’t always pretty like we think of when we think of butterflies or other ethereal creatures. I can relate to the lobster– a little feisty and snappy, down in the murk and under the rocks sometimes.  I am soft and mushy inside of a hard shell.  Sometimes I have a literal pea brain.  But I want to get really big.

Because we know the really big ones get thrown back by lobstermen and they become wily survivors who have the best stories.

I want to be one of those.