Unrestrained by Demons

It’s been quite a year. Can you relate? I’m not speaking of 2016 (although…my heavens, 2016 has been filled with revelations and reckoning), but rather the last 12, 13, 14 months themselves. The last…long while. So much self-reflection and quite painful investigation into the what’s and why’s of this life.

It can get heavy. Being an emotional being can at times be draining, can leave us feeling depleted and weepy. The lows can get as low as they get high. It can become incredibly daunting to process the ups and downs of life, to navigate one’s own emotional liberation, while still going out everyday and operating as a functioning member of society. That sounds dramatic, but do you ever feel as though the sheer weight of processing your own grievances feels like a full-time endeavor? One you want to just commit yourself to for a week (or five), in solitude, surrounded by healing, supportive space and silence? It’s so challenging to sort through our thoughts when we’re burdened by the need to simultaneously work, maintain relationships, construct the outward appearance of having it all together (not that we’re meant to pretend that our suffering doesn’t exist, but most days no matter how lost in our heads we want to get, we still have to be adults and live our lives). This is reality, despite the suffocating moments of fear and anxiety that visit us all, from time to time.

It can be really tempting to live a life shut off from that emotional processing. Because it’s just hard. The idea of avoiding all that mess can seem easier. Sometimes denial can look, from afar, like such a cozy alternative; not having to feel our feelings, not being blindsided and ambushed by the underbelly of what it means to be an emotional creature in this huge, undulating universe.

But I would never again choose that alternative. I’ve lived in it before; the stuffy, damp, darkly shrouded realm of denial. It’s isolated. It’s claustrophobic. It actually doesn’t feel safe at all. If you’ve ever been there, you probably know that it feels like laying in a dark room with a heavy box on your chest. Even though the box may be like Pandora’s, filled with a whole mess of stuff, it can be far more productive, albeit terrifying, to throw open the windows and start sorting through the aching feelings and thoughts that lay locked up and waiting for our attention.

This stuff – the wading through the suffering, I mean – is, as I view it, the price we pay for being alive.

I’m currently reading (slowly, savoring) my favorite author, Elizabeth Gilbert’s, newest book Big Magic. Liz’s prose slay me. She is, as I say, one of those authors that “makes you feel so much more comfortable with being alive.” Because, let’s be honest, the human condition can feel really intense, lonely, daunting, and uncomfortable at times. Liz reminds us that fear (insert: trepidation, personal demons, struggles – all manifestations of fear) is always with us. She suggests that we be inclined to accept and embrace our fear. Invite it along on the journey we are taking with creativity (insert: love, joy, adventure, abundance – all manifestations of creative living). Her brilliant concept is that, on this road trip of life, we are driving, creativity gets the front seat, and fear gets the backseat. Fear is welcome to come along (because we don’t actually have any choice in the matter, do we?), and it is allowed to speak up, but it does not get to decide where we’re going. It does not get to lay its hands on the map, or even fiddle with the radio station (Liz, seriously, is my greatest inspiration as a writer – this stuff comes from the creative depths of her imagination – what a vision! – get thee to a bookstore and buy yourself Big Magic).

What a notion, right? I feel, and I’m speaking for myself here, that the overwhelming urge is to banish fear, and all its expressions, from my life. I have been standing outside the car, arms crossed, brow furrowed, tapping my toe impatiently waiting for fear to unbuckle, get out of my backseat, and let me get on with my journey.

I might as well turn my distressed gaze upward and start looking for pigs flying.

I’m not proposing, nor is my great hero Elizabeth Gilbert, that we should be super comfortable with the idea of carrying fear around in our back pockets. It’s uncomfortable; it’s supposed to be. But this is the non-negotioable byproduct of having been gifted the most exquisite opportunity of creative living (which we all have been gifted, by being born as human beings with opposable thumbs and incredible cognitive function and hearts so gloriously capable of being wrecked by love that they could just swallow up the whole world with their power for adoration).

We all have our “things” that hold us back. We all have our demons. But we are worthy of living lives unrestrained by demons. If we can, collectively, stop waiting for the demons to release us, for fear to get out of the car, and just realize this uncooperative passenger is going to endlessly serve as a beacon of where we don’t wish to go (because, at its root, fear is a mechanism of self-preservation, sounding off when danger might be present), we can see its purpose. We are high-functioning human beings with the discerning power to notice when we are being chased by a lion and fear should get to use its lung power with all its might, for good rather than evil…and when faith, love, intuition, and creativity are being drowned by the drunken, garbled hollering of our backseat fear (who somehow seems to have climbed onto the dashboard and got its sticky hands on a microphone).

We have the capacity to take a step back, look at our lives, and see where we’re being pinned (or, sometimes, glued) to a spot we no longer wish to be. We have the power to investigate why we’re immobilized. We have the capability to change that.

I have a tendency of getting stuck in a rut. I am fearful of change, and the unknown brings me great anxiety. A life of ritual and routine has brought me great comfort. My chest grows a bit tight at the image of jet-setting wanderlusts, living out of suitcases and going where the wind blows. No, no, I’ll wait patiently for my niiiiiiice, detailed itinerary please.  But that’s just me. And a huge part of this presses is in getting to know ourselves, and embracing our quirks and tendencies. Learning, through trial and error, where to push our boundaries and where to respect our needs. I went heaving and hyperventilating into a 3-month study abroad venture overseas back in 2009. I literally fought for breath and sucked on tears as I wrestled with the militant French operator and a dinky little calling card in a Parisian phone booth, begging my mom to come and visit because WHO DECIDED IT WAS OKAY TO PUT AN OCEAN BETWEEN US FOR A QUARTER OF A YEAR and I hadn’t slept in 36 hours and HOW DID I GET TO FRANCE?

By the end of my trip I was seriously devoted to finding a way (ANY way) to stay in Italy, cash in my plane ticket, and preserve the little world I had created with my friends in this foreign land where everything exotic had become familiar and reality was suspended in favor of 20 year old, wide-eyed, first-time independence.

…didn’t see that coming.

What made it so wonderful and tolerable was that, after the initial shock and severe discomfort of having no familiarity, no routine, and no way of predicting what was ahead…I reestablished all of those things that kept my needs met. I made routines. I settled into my Florentine flat, put my belongings in their new places, found a local market, carved new neural pathways in my brain, got to know my surroundings, created nourishing relationships, and set up a daily routine. All while testing my boundaries.

I did return home as planned, fortunately, but I do think back regularly and fondly on my time living Europe as an experience I’m so deeply grateful I had. It showed me I am capable of wrestling fear to the ground and making a run for it.

Letting go of control and powering through the impending horror such an act produces makes for a sweet, intoxicating exhale; like a flood of dopamine, or (on some much smaller level) the ecstatic amnesia a new mother experiences, forgetting the pain and agony of birth upon beholding their precious infant.

It is so tempting to stay on the shore where everything is safe and protected. But, the reality is that we only perceive this space to be safe and protected. It’s a deeply seductive act, for many of us, to try and preserve a sense of stability and safety by putting on our control freak panties and hyper-managing every aspect of our lives. This doesn’t make us safe. This sacrifices sanity for perceived safety. Not even real safety. Just our carefully constructed belief patter of “if I do this, and this, and this, everything will stay okay. I will be safe.” That is a very sad and disappointing way to live each day, I think.

I’m not saying we all need to turn our lives upside down, or go jump on a plane and live in Europe for 3 months in order to experience life from a place of love and creativity rather than fear (though maybe the thought makes your heart skip a beat and, actually, is just the type of experience you do need). For many of us, though, the healing medicine can be found on a much smaller scale. It can be accessed in our day-to-day lives. It might just mean doing things differently today than you did yesterday (that is often a big enough shake up for me, honestly, as a diligent creature of habit). It also doesn’t mean things have to be different every single day, because ritual and routine are beautiful and holy, just so long as they don’t come from a place of fear and seal every crack in the structure where love and creativity might try to seep in and stir things up.

Maybe it means starting a creative project or finishing a degree. Maybe it’s finding the courage to use some of that built up PTO and taking a trip. Maybe it’s climbing out of the unemployment shame and getting excited about a new career. Maybe it means going to a yoga class for the first time or revisiting a forgotten passion for hiking. Maybe it means going out to eat, or maybe it means staying in and preparing a favorite recipe. It could mean asking for help. It could be breaking a pattern of isolation and going out with friends, for an introvert. It could be a day or night of self-care and indulgent alone time at home, for an extrovert. Perhaps it’s looking at your body in the mirror and not breaking your gaze until you are able to see yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you unconditionally. Maybe it’s a commitment to a new routine, or maybe it’s the courage to break out of a rut. Maybe it’s the act of daring greatly enough to build an avenue between the two.

Whatever it is, whatever your sweet, pulsing heart knows in its very depths is an act of great courage…that is the first step in your journey. We all have demons (not a one of us is immune, no matter how “perfect” someone else’s existence and “put together” life may seem…they too struggle, I promise).

We all experience loss, fatigue, sadness, anxiety, depression, negative self-talk, FEAR. We are all united in this human condition, no matter what ways our fear and creativity display themselves. We may look different, but we are not. We are all the same. We are all paddling our little boats furiously towards freedom and love. But perhaps, in a joint effort of all the eyes reading this, we together can start to see our fear as something new. Rather than a block of darkness, threatening to sink our boat, we can view our fear as something useful. As a necessary component on our journey, an irreplaceable cog in our wheel of healing. A threatening shadow of heaviness to keep the brilliant light from blinding our eyes; a little hunk of pressure providing just enough weight to slow our speed, so that we don’t race feverishly past all the opportunities to pause, and be shattered by the staggering beauty of how very far we’ve already come.



The Moral is Always Awareness

Did you know that compulsive over-eating is the number one eating disorder in the nation? It makes sense, right? But you may not have known it. It makes perfect sense although, upon hearing it, I realized I never held that in my mind as a fact. Why is that, I wonder? Well, I think I have an answer. Because it’s socially acceptable.

Compulsive over-eating -“binge eating,” if you will – is simply a social norm. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it’s the perfect example to illustrate this notion. A holiday built around one meal, after which many people end up in sweat pants and overeating is simply common practice, in no way is the act of stuffing oneself at the Thanksgiving table seen as disordered eating. Taking it further into the holidays themselves, many people take the rich, calorie-laden food as a cue to eat, eat, eat and then eat no more come January first. Ergo New Year’s resolutions. And we all know how those end up…

I totally realize that food is an expression of love. It can be such a beautiful gift to share. Making someone soup when they’re unwell, baking with apples and pears fresh off the tree, picking bits from the garden to build a glorious salad, sharing culture and tradition, mincing garlic, grinding spices, massaging herbs…the whole episode of cooking can be very sensuous, very romantic. I resonate with that. I am positively enamored by the experience of creating healthy masterpieces in my kitchen! In fact I’m working on a recipe eBook. That, however, is completely beside the point.

The point of that was to convey that I don’t abhor the holidays, by any means. I have beautiful Thanksgiving memories from my childhood! This entire notion extends far beyond the holiday season, but I couldn’t resist using these notoriously overindulgent couple of months as a prime example for socially acceptable gluttony. 

What I find puzzling is that the act of compulsive overeating is validated from early childhood. Sleepovers were prime time to completely binge on candy, junk food and other nutritional terrors that would assist in a preteen attempt to stay up all night. Look at families out at restaurants, though. Even out in the light of day it’s become common practice in America to gorge oneself until one needs to unbutton one’s pants! What’s seen as abnormal behavior is asking the server to halve a dish before it’s been brought out. Asking for a meal to be made healthier. Choosing to cook more healthfully and eating normal sized portions. These are the rarities and seen as confining. 

It’s interesting the things society deems acceptable. Just yesterday I was talking to a customer at work, during an ordinary late afternoon transaction in broad, albeit gloomy and rainy, daylight. She was telling me that her husband had been in a motorcycle accident last week. At the gasp of horror on my face she hurriedly assured me, oh no, he’s fine, he’s okay. She continued to tell me that her grown daughter came to stay at the house for the week, having been so rattled by almost losing her father that she needed to be near. The woman said that, while she found the whole idea rather morbid, the closeness and the way her family “holed up” and “shut down,” sort of closing out reality for those few days, was the most beautiful experience. I understood what she meant. The closing in, wrapping oneself and one’s clan in a safe little bubble, just the few of you as though no outside world existed…no job, no obligations, no school, no demands, no sense of time or space. I immediately related. I was transported back to 2008 when my Grandpappy was killed suddenly. The way the German women of my family, my Tribe, holed up in my Oma’s house in a brisk corner pocket of Colorado, just off the Army base…the way we divvied up tasks, intuitively cared for one another’s wordless requests, gave silent thanks for one another and lost all track of time of day, day of week and how long it’d been since we arrived. The woman and I shared a soulful gaze. It’s too bad that tragedy is the only real excuse to do that, to retreat in such a way, she said. I nodded emphatically. It’s not socially acceptable, I said. She nodded even more emphatically, it’s NOT! Something has to be WRONG in order for us to do that! Before leaving she seemed to snap out of a deep, introspective mood, instigated by our unexpectedly profound conversation. Sorry, she said instinctively, who’d have expected a little retreat right here at the grocery store. I smiled genuinely, resisting snapping out of my own deepened spirit and instead bottling it, nestling down into the warmth of it. Here’s to retreating for no reason, I said, and then she was gone.

What makes society deem so much of what’s actually healthy socially unacceptable or “odd,” and the acts that are emotionally, healthfully and physically damning just common practice? Overworking, too little time spent with loved ones, not enough sleep and rest, poor nutrition, not enough beneficial exercise, not enough time for wellness…

This morning I was discussing with my Mum what I’d written thus far of this essay. She brought up a brilliant point. Our society is always focusing on the flaws. Even on television, the shopping network, the ladies selling makeup…They say see how this covers up her dark circles? rather than, look how this accents her cheekbones! Or they say, you can hardly tell this is a size large, rather than look how well this skims her frame. It’s all about the covering up. Even in terms of makeup which, historically, was used in rituals, and was seen as a sacred means of adorning human bodies and faces. It was celebratory. Accentuating. 

Today makeup is worn by many as a mask. Worn as a “face.” Worn because, without it, one’s face would be naked, would look tired, would be unprintable… I stopped wearing makeup over a year ago. It’s inauthentic, a character in a movie once said. This is my face, take it or leave it. I recall going through high school, feeling like makeup was the thing to wear because everyone else was wearing it. I remember relying heavily on it after high school, feeling like I wouldn’t be pretty without it. I remember sneaking out to the mirror to put on eyeliner before my boyfriend woke up. Fixing the smudged eyeliner from the night before. Preposterous! 

I remember reading books where the characters didn’t wear makeup and thinking, wow…I can’t imagine just not wearing makeup…going out into the world everyday with just my own honest face to show. I wish I could… I was twenty years old and thinking this! Now, at 25, I look in the mirror and even if I’ve a blemish or didn’t get enough rest, it’s still just my face. It’s my honest face for that day. I’ve come to appreciate every single freckle and eyelash, every divot and curve. No one else has this face. It’s all mine. I can’t even remember what it was like to cover it up everyday, as just common practice.

What was the point of all that, you ask? The concept of “common practice.” We’ve come full circle back to compulsive overeating (quite a little ride I just took you on, I know). How is it possible that a full blown eating disorder, a chronic condition within our society, has become  common practice? The same way cigarettes are legal, binge drinking is not only normal but supported by bars that open at 7am, and foods with five year shelf lives are sold everyday in nearly every supermarket.

Just because something is common practice doesn’t mean it ought to be blindly practiced. In fact, what’s “common practice” might be more aptly questioned. Investigated. Looked at inside and out. 

Men and women who are stricken with eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are often chastised, condemned even. Why is this? Because these are diseases misunderstood by the vast majority of society. Most people, gratefully, don’t know what it’s like to have this disease. They don’t know what it’s like to suffer, work through and recover from it. A blessing and accomplishment many who are stricken with this disease do not have the opportunity to celebrate. These beautiful beings are condemned because the cross they bear is one most people can’t understand. 

This society is built around overindulgence. It’s the compulsive overeating that’s seen as normal. Those who exercise regularly and are committed to balance and health are seen as the “different” ones. Those who air on the side of strict in their dedication to wellness are the odd ones, the ones who constantly hear how do you do that, I don’t have willpower like that. It’s because balance is a foreign concept to the vast majority of the American population (the only culture I’m comfortable speaking for, despite my having witnessed a culture of beautiful balance while I lived in Europe). 

So, what’s the moral here? Awareness. I think in any scenario one can emerge saying the moral is awareness. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold just as much weight as what we do understand. Just because society deems something acceptable doesn’t mean it is. Just because something is comfortable and common practice doesn’t mean it’s okay. Just because a behavior has become a crutch doesn’t mean it’s serving us.

Cultivate awareness. In everything. Every moment. Every day. Every breath. See the world, society, your own actions, the stories your own mind tells you, with clarity. Eyes wide open. Fully aware.

Because the moral is always awareness.



Moving from Emotional Eating into Intuitive Eating

How does one’s gut connect to one’s emotions? This is a question that’s been asked, in so many words, for ages. I’m talking about “mood food.” Simply eating when hungry and stopping when full is, for many, a phenomenon long since forgotten; as ancient a concept as black and white television.

Okay maybe not that ancient, but you get where I’m going with this. Intuitive eating is not in cahoots with our fast-paced, high stress, modern day lifestyle. Food becomes something we slam down between work and the gym, in bustling restaurants with dim lighting and loud music, at home distracted by iPhone and laptop…food is fast becoming an issue for many people. By “issue” I mean anything from obsession to restriction to poor relationship with food to disease by diet to completely misunderstanding one’s own physical dietary needs. There are so many layers of issues around food.

Emotional eating is no different. It’s where the term “comfort food” comes into the picture. Eating for comfort. Eating a food that serves as a reminder of a comforting person, place or time. The notion is actually quite endearing. Food plays a huge role in one’s culture and can truly serve as medicine. The downfall with this endearing concept is that, for many, food can become a numbing agent. This becomes problematic specifically with the modern day easy access to a vast ocean of junk food.

After a bad day, some people will reach for a “comfort food,” and it’s usually not a nourishing meal they remember having as a child. Quite often it’s sweets, heavy meals and empty calories like chips and fast food that come to the table as “mood food.” This creates a toxic spiral because many of these foods are laden with sugar, which creates an immediate spike in insulin, and results in a crash. Sugar is also stored as fat. Emotional junk food eating, or heck, even emotional overeating, will lead to weight gain. This, in turn, leads to decreased self-esteem, depression and, at the core, a bad mood! So, if we create a simple equation, with healthy food we create a healthy mood, correct? Even healthy food can be overeaten so let’s use this as more of a mantra than an equation.

By changing one’s nutrition, one can directly influence one’s happiness. At the core, food is fuel. If you are reading this thinking one’s relationship with food isn’t all that important, just hear me out.

Eating is an activity the average person engages in anywhere from three to seven times a day (I’m a plant based diet advocate and self-professed grazer, so I’m often on the upwards of five to seven healthy meals and snacks per day). That’s anywhere from 1,095 to 2,555 meals per year! That’s a lot of mealtimes, hence a lot of opportunities to feel good or bad about one’s food choices. Imagine how it would feel to drown a bad day in a bag of potato chips and brownie bites…mentally you’d probably feel like crud after, emotionally you’d feel even emptier than you started out feeling, and physically you’d be under a load of stress trying to digest the gut bomb you’d just endured. Now imagine you decided to nourish the beautiful body you inhabit after a hard day with a healthful meal. Our bodies are all vastly different and thrive on very different diets, so just imagine a balanced meal containing a protein, a starch, vegetables, totally bursting with flavor and nutrition. Or even a healthy cacao chia seed pudding, something decadent that nourishes the body from the inside out. Post mealtime you’d likely feel more mentally clear, emotionally satisfied, physically nourished and possibly even energized.

Food has a lot of potential. Just as it’s important to build a safe and comfortable place to sleep, as it’s an activity we spend roughly one third of our lives doing, it’s important to foster a healthy relationship with food. Eating is an activity vital to our survival and it directly dictates to what extent we physically thrive. Food has the power to heal body, quite literally, and it also has the power to harm the body. It has the capacity to make us depressed and it has the capacity to stimulate a very peaceful state. So, the next time you’re jonesing for some “mood food,” consider the mantra with healthy food we create a healthy mood… happy grazing!




Image credited to MindBodyGreen.com