My Friend Atticus

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It was about this time last year that I noticed the perfectly preserved Monarch butterfly that had chosen my bedroom curtain as its final resting place. I would come to spend many hours studying this beautiful specimen- as exquisite in death as it was in life. My friend Atticus was in the final months of tirelessly fighting brain cancer, and I was having trouble parsing out the reality of the situation. Every week I called my best friend Lina, Atticus’ partner of eight years, doing my best to be present with the great weight of what we both knew, on some level, was imminent. Most 26 year-olds are having existential crises about what to do with the rest of their lives. Atticus, incredibly, never seemed to be in crisis. Not during his first diagnosis during our junior year of college, nor in the last two years of his life. Each time I flew to LA to visit him and Lina our time together was spent doing beautifully ordinary things. Living life. Walking their dog, Boo, around their Silver Lake neighborhood, camping in Ojai, deciding to buy both kinds of ice cream bars at the corner store because- hey, life is short, right? Atticus never wanted people to treat him any differently for being sick, including himself, and few people knew the reality of the situation until the very end.

The day before Atticus died a huge rainbow appeared in Malibu Canyon, ending right where Atticus lay in bed. We gathered together there, a small group of friends and family, making our final jokes with Atticus, reflecting on all of the adventures we’d had together, and folding paper cranes. I laughed through my tears as I recounted the time he brought Lina a laundry bag with straps to use (in addition to the real hiking pack he’d acquired) for what we did not realize was (in total) a 22 mile hike. The straps broke immediately, and Atticus and Ryan ended up trading off carrying the bag for the duration of the hike. Five miles in, Lina’s knees were giving out. Atticus took her pack from her, carrying it on his back with the laundry bag in his arms for the next 6 miles until we reached our final destination. “You are incredible,” I said to Atticus. “You know,” he said calmly, “Any time I can come to Lina’s rescue, that is a great day for me.”

My friend Atticus never sweat the small stuff, always had a silly joke ready, made the best bacon and eggs, and loved Lina with his whole entire heart. As cliche as it feels to write, seeing him off on his departure from this world has really shown me that life is short. In an incredible way, risks that used to terrify me now seem like obvious choices.

After Atticus left I went to Hawaii for a month, to grieve in my own way, while working on a farm. I decided to move through my fear of rejection and apply to graduate school. I’m now in my sixth week of getting my Masters in Counseling Psychology, on my way to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. When I got back from Hawaii, the Monarch was gone.

I think back on the first moment I contemplated the Monarch, wondering if the universe sent it to me to help me see the beauty in death. As we’ve studied existential psychotherapy in school, I’ve been contemplating my thoughts and feelings around death and grieving, something that is rarely mentioned in my age group. All I know is that I see Atticus in the future clients I work with, in Lina’s decision to become an acupuncturist, in each Gibraltar I order, and every piece of perfectly cooked bacon I eat.

My friend Atticus was a rad human, who left an incredible lesson with my soul. Wherever he is now, I’m sending eternal gratitude his way.

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Under consideration

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Where do we draw the line between expectation and aspiration?

How do we find it within ourselves to cling to hopes and dreams that are rooted not in reality, but in the psyche?

What does it take to rectify the experiences that divide us into the camps of realistic, idealistic, optimistic and pessimistic?

Why is it so hard to choose between the risk of accepting the things we already have, and the risk of venturing out into the world and taking a chance on what we might discover within ourselves?

When will I learn how to balance my emotional intuition with my logical analysis?

Does true adulthood arrive with accepting that these and so many of life’s great questions may never be answered?

Weekly inspiration.

 

Lowercase grief

When the big, existentially sad thing happened, capital letter emotions came with it. CONFUSION. SADNESS. ANGER. GRIEF. They stuck around for a while, sitting shiva with the heart. The world continued turning, and the limited number of capital letters moved on to fulfill other duties. One day little lowercase grief arrived to stay, quietly setting up camp next door to the heart. “Why hello there, how can I help you?” asked the brain, noticing the new arrival, but the responses given by little grief were unintelligible. The brain shrugged to the heart and went about its business. The heart, on the other hand, sat down on the ground next to little grief and waited. After a few days little grief crawled into the hearts lap, and the heart began to gently rock it. They quietly stayed this way while the brain stayed busy, keeping the legs running and the hands moving.

Weeks passed, and the heart waited.

The brain projected and stressed, searching for distractions and answers to where little grief had come from, and how to send it back. The teeth gnashed and the fingers scratched. The stomach showed up to help with a familiar coping mechanism. “How wonderful!” it thought, “I almost thought this one was history.” And still the heart waited, cradling little grief, rocking it back and forth.

Finally the brain tired itself out. It came back to the heart, and this time it listened patiently to the mumbled noises of little grief. To the brain’s surprise, the mumbles began to change into intelligible sentences. “My name is grief, and I’m here to stay,” said little grief. “I am here to remind everyone that life is finite, but love is infinite. If you give me regular acknowledgment and honor my purpose your existence will benefit. If you ignore me or try to fight me, I will simply transform and show up in bigger, badder places.” The heart, still rocking, nodded quietly in agreement. The brain went for a long walk to consider little grief’s words.

The Impermanence of Body-Image, Jekyll & Hyde, and 10 Years of Before & After Photos

They say that love is a battlefield. Forget that. Self-love is the real battlefield.

 

I have been aware of my weight for the last ten years. I have been aware of the numbers on the scale going up and down over those ten years for a number of reasons including but certainly not limited to, and in no particular order:

  • being on ritalin for adhd
  • going off of ritalin
  • going on vyvanse for binge eating disorder and adhd
  • falling in love
  • being in a long distance relationship
  • being broken up with
  • ending relationships
  • my parents getting divorced
  • starting college
  • hating parts of college
  • putting on weight when starting birth control
  • counting calories and restricting my food intake to lose weight
  • learning a gym routine that helped me build muscle
  • ignoring that I was allowing myself to go back to my old eating habits as soon as I’d reach my goal weight
  • periods of time when I wouldn’t get on the scale for months at a time
  • beginning to recognize my binge eating as an eating disorder
  • working on understanding why I binge when it happens
  • going to therapy
  • going to acupuncture
  • beginning a mindful eating practice
  • going off of birth control after being on it for ten years

Needless to say, there have been innumerable factors that have taken me from one number to another on the life scale.

My body has gone through a lot of changes this year, which is no surprise given that it has gone through so many changes every year. But this year in particular I went off birth control, I started going to acupuncture, I started a mindful eating practice, and I fell in love- and that combination of things caused me to lose some weight that I had not set out intentionally trying to lose. Fitting into my old jeans has thrown me in a way that I was not expecting.

When I look in the mirror and I fit into jeans that I should have gotten rid of when I purged my closet of all the things I wanted to stop hoping I would someday fit into again, I’m filled with angst. I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this, but the thin and less thin versions of myself feel a bit like Jekyll and Hyde.

When I’ve been at thinner weights, I’ve gotten more attention from everyone. In the past I’ve liked that attention, and I’ve responded to it. Sometimes I’ve done reckless things because having that attention made me feel so powerful. I’ve learned a lot from that. People have assumed I was less intelligent when I’ve been thinner, which made and makes me angry. To this day, the gazes I get from men feel more predatory when I weigh less- and it’s hard to know whether I’m projecting that or not. When I’m thinner I see a younger version of myself looking back at me in the mirror, and the vibrancy of my inner child feels like it shines through more intensely. All of these feelings exist concurrently, even when at odds with each other. The times I’ve been thinner have corresponded with both self-hate (calorie counting, starvation, not going out with friends to avoid calories) and also times of self-love (working on mindful eating, listening to what my body wants and needs, responding to how certain foods make my body feel, etc). The fact that most people respond to you getting thinner in the same congratulatory way every time (not knowing what route you took to get there) feels abrasive against my heart and soul- even when they are trying to be complimentary.

When I’ve been at less thin weights, I have more anonymity within which to navigate the world. It feels like people take more more seriously- at least people who don’t know me. Maybe I take myself more seriously. I don’t worry about getting hit on, or attracting attention that I don’t want. Times of my life when I’ve weighed more have also corresponded with times of depression, and being so far into running away from my feelings that I would binge eat in a way that felt akin to blacking out. Thanks to Geneen Roth’s books in particular, I have made strides on working through my relationship with food (and yes, I had to eat a LOT of cookie dough, and gain about 15 pounds, to get to the place where I am today, some 25 pounds less). 

For the first time in my life I have a partner who wants to proactively communicate and support one another in our respective struggles and journeys in self-love. For the first time in my life I have someone else to consider when thinking about doing something that is long-term harmful to my body, as does he. That is a whole new piece to this that is already having a positive impact on both of us, which feels really, really good.

At the end of the day, whether I’m 138 or 168, I’m still going to have Binge Eating Disorder. It’s still going to be something that I have to work to keep in check by constantly gravitating in and out of my self-care practice. I sat down to write this piece many times, and it was hard. These last few weeks of confusion over why I’ve been able to fit into size 4 and size 6 dresses, struggling with the fear of re-gaining weight which leads to binge eating (see how this is a negative cycle?), before coming back to self-love, compassion, and acceptance, has all been a reminder that I’m on a journey with a body that will never be permanent. I’ll leave you with a piece from “You Are Here,” that I’ve been trying to keep at the front of mind lately. Hope it helps you too. * 

“Our body is not a static thing- it changes all the time. It is very important to see our physical form as something impermanent, as a river that is constantly changing. Every cell in our body is a drop of water in that river… We should train ourselves in this vision of impermanence. When we look deeply at the nature of things, we see that in fact everything is impermanent. Nothing exists as a permanent entity; everything changes. It is said that we cannot step into the same river twice. If we look for a single, permanent entity in a river, we will not find it. The same is true of our physical body. There is no such thing as a self, no absolute, permanent entity to be found in the element we call “body.” In our ignorance we believe that there is a permanent entity in us, and our pain and suffering manifest on the basis of that ignorance. If we touch deeply the non-self nature in us, we can get out of that suffering.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

 

 

Sometimes Self-Love Isn’t Fun.

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Man, sometimes practicing self-love is really fucking hard. Yesterday I woke up to my 5:10am alarm to go to spinning, and I immediately felt the tight sensation of anxiety in my chest. I felt exhausted. I took a pause and asked myself whether I would feel better or worse if I went to spinning (sometimes imagining how I will feel after class is enough to get me out of bed). After a minute or two I came to the conclusion that what I really needed to do was to lie on the couch and breath, allowing all of the feelings I’d been compartmentalizing in my heart to come out to play.

It wasn’t fun. But it’s exactly what I needed to do. Eventually I took some deep breaths and asked myself what I actually felt like doing, instead of what I thought I should be doing or “needed” to be doing. I ended up making some art, which gave me an activity that was both enjoyable and meditative, something I need when my feelings are too intense to simply sit with during meditation. I ended up binge eating that night, but I was able to apply enough self-awareness to the situation surrounding why I did it to say, welp, shit happens, I’ll try to give myself even more love and support tomorrow. And it’s been a pretty lovely day so far.

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I came back to this post this morning after writing it and leaving it in my drafts. I was looking at my calendar thinking I should schedule myself a massage because I’ve been stressed and sick and sore lately- I caught myself feeling anxious about picking a day to schedule the massage for in case I didn’t actually feel like getting a massage that day, or wanted to be somewhere else before or after. Ironically that was a great reminder to myself that the main pathway out of my anxiety is by breathing and living in the present. I’ll continue letting my inner planner and my inner buddhist duke it out as they strive for balance. In the meantime, I’ll be heading to Onsen to enjoy Lina’s last morning here (for this visit), to soak it out and take some deep breaths.

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On Paying Attention to Intention

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In the last few months I’ve felt better overall than I have in a long time. My current combination of self-care practices seem to be working well for the most part, and it feels good when I’m able to maintain a feeling of balance for extended periods of time. My main struggle continues to be meeting the sense of losing balance with stress and frustration. After a wonderful Sunday of biking around the city, lounging in the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, and hanging out with friends, I woke up feeling anxious and stressed on Monday (primarily related to pending housing uncertainties). My inner dialogue starts up the anxious thoughts of, “Ugh, but I was doing so well yesterday!” and, “I must immediately figure out a plan! That’s the only way to get out of this stress!” When I allow myself to fuel these thoughts with similar ones like them, the fire spreads, and I have a much harder time remembering the tactics that help me maintain balance.

Part of the issue here is the false narrative that because I was “doing so well yesterday” (read: feeling happy) the reappearance of stress or anxiety signals that I’m no longer “doing well”. Feeling balanced, like anything in life, is not a linear trajectory, which is extremely hard to remember in moments that feel anything like a setback or a failure. I try to remind myself that the movement above and below the state of balance is a cycle. Unfortunately I still forget this, and worry when the lower feelings surface or catch me by surprise.

Fortunately, the more awareness I have (depending on the levels of self-care being maintained), the better able I am to disconnect with stress becoming all consuming and eventually somewhat apocalyptic. I strengthen my awareness through meditation, and setting intentions. The following four (and a half) intentions have become the base of my practice, and seem to work well at helping me achieve the balance I need to feel calm and collected throughout my days. I try to pick one to focus on each day, though ideally they’d all be in practice at once!

1. Focus on now, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. This intention is my foundation. As a planner, I tend to channel my anxiety into try to create stability by planning everything out. (Spoiler: it ends up making me more anxious). By reminding myself that I don’t need to worry about what is going to happen in the future, or even in more than a few hours from now, I take the weight of trying to predict the future off my shoulders. Not getting caught up in thinking about / worrying / analyzing past is equally as distracting and unhelpful. It’s over, there’s nothing else I can do about it, just let it go, (as much as this is easier said than done).

1.5 Do one thing at a time. This is closely linked to the foundation intention, but I figured it deserved its own half bullet. Like planning, multitasking is something I do when I’m stressed. The idea becomes something along the lines of, “If I can get everything done, then I can relax,” but ultimately gets more stressful as I’m not fully present with anything. When I am fully present with each task I have the headspace to say, “huh- I may not have time to complete my whole to-do list right now- that’s totally okay.” This is extremely freeing, and without being present intentionally it is so much harder to be aware of the world and people (and their thoughts and feelings) around me.

2. Remember self-love/care/support. There’s a part in my meditation packs that asks you to remind yourself why you’re doing the meditation and then think about the people it will benefit. I always start with, “because I love myself, and I’m here to support myself,” which always brings the biggest smile to my face. When I’m focusing on self-love I take time to do nice things for myself like getting a massage, buying myself a kombucha, noticing how happy I feel when I’m cozy on the couch with a book and my slippers on, calling my grandparents, watching the sunrise, etc. Exercise is an important daily self-care ritual for me, but I’ve learned that it must be kept in the context of, “I am doing this because it will make my body and mind feel good,” and if it starts to feel like something I must do instead of something I want to do, that’s a sign my body needs to rest.

3. Engage with the world. When I’m aware of my surroundings I’m able to disengage with my inner dialogue and interact with the outside world in a positive manner. Smiling at fellow humans when crossing paths, saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes on the bus, offering assistance to someone clearly confused or needing it, asking how the bus driver is doing- all of these kinds of interactions prove to increase my optimism in humanity, and as a bonus, make me feel better in turn. Remembering that everyone is fighting their own battle and dealing with their own plethora of thoughts and feelings is another way to lessen feelings of isolation. We really are all in this together.

4. Appreciate and give thanks. A few Thanksgivings ago my Mother hung a banner that said “give thanks” spelled out in a bunting style with metal letters over our table. She let me keep the banner and it now hangs in my room next to my bed, a reminder to give thanks every day. When I focus on being grateful I am often filled with amazement at the beauty of my life. I am surrounded and supported by so many wonderful friends, family members, and coworkers. I live in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet that gives me access to clean drinking water and clean air. The days I focus on gratitude I go to extra lengths to call, write, and connect with the people I love.

4.5 Nurture my family as people. I’m not sure why it took me so long to really connect with the idea that my family members are people too, but I’m glad it’s something I figured out sooner than later. I make a lot of effort to nurture my friendships, and know my friends very well, but this year I’ve been working on applying that to my family members as well. Getting to know my parents as people gives me a better understanding of them and myself. Finding out common interests I share with my grandparents has allowed my relationship with them, one I always took for granted, to become a source of deep enjoyment on both parts. Becoming fully aware that my extended family members are all individually complex, interesting people, who love me to boot, has been a wonderful realization (albeit a kind of, “well duh” one), and allowed me to focus time and effort on getting to know them in a way I wasn’t able to as a child and teenager. This is something I feel incredible gratitude for, and brings me joy in the moments when I feel the most alone. Through therapy I was about to let go of the ideas I held about what a “perfect” family was, and realize what incredible love and support my family gives me. I released the fantasy, let go over the disappointments, and discovered so much more. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. You won’t be disappointed. 

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Recognizing Shenpa and the Struggle of Attachment

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I hadn’t planned to come to Mexico City, but when my program at Esalen fell through due to the storms we had this winter I did a quick whirl through my mental rolodex of places I’d like to go and people I’d like to see. So here I am, staying with an old friend from my summer in Santa Cruz. I’ve experienced every emotion this week- the empowerment and terror of solo traveling, the peace and stress of moving through a new city, the joys and sorrows of being alive. I came here with lots of notes I’d made on things I wanted to write about over the last month, but sitting in Maria’s peaceful apartment this morning, this is what came out of my fingers as I sat down to write (and to wait for Sufjan Stevens tickets to go on sale, if I’m being totally honest :P).

Two things have been surfacing for me lately that I’m working on reconfiguring, both necessitating the release of attachment (which it turns out continues to be amply hard to do).

The first is my tendency- knowing or unknowing- to use stress to motivate myself through my perceived to-do list. On the days I don’t roll out of bed and bike to the gym, I have a few hours before I need to be out the door. And yet, I find it so difficult to relax in my routine. The notion that I should just trust myself to get everything I need to do done makes me anxious. Instead of focusing on making coffee, and then focusing on meditating, etc, I run through the list in my brain, trying to move as quickly as possible. I’m not sure why I’m so afraid of being late- I rarely am. This tension between my mind wanting to get everything done before I run out of time conflicts with the pace my body wants to move at, naturally creating stress. I get attached to the idea that if I don’t finish everything, I’ll be late, and then everything will crash and burn. (My subconscious really has its melodramatic side). I wrote myself a note on an index card that says, “It’s okay to not get everything 100% done. It won’t kill you.” We’ll see how the does for inspiration.

The second is something I’m realizing has been a long term shenpa for me, something that has caused me pain repeatedly. (Worth reading anything by Pema Chodron for more on this). I’m very aware that I try to create a sense of security in my life by planning, which gives me a false sense of control. Taking that idea further though, I’ve realized how much pain I’ve caused myself when I’m applying this to situations of uncertainly. I think it started with watching my parent’s relationship dissolve slowly over many years. As I progressed through my adolescence and teenage years I numbed out my feelings whenever I heard them fighting, turning to music, books, situations that took me outside of my house like summer camp and my first serious relationship. It always broke my heart to leave the seemingly stable “family” communities or dynamics I found among groups of friends at summer camp, and I’d cry the whole way home- from the time I was 12-15. I dealt with hard outcomes by not really dealing with them, and at age 17, when my parents finally announced they were getting divorced, I was utterly devastated.

So I took to assuming the most negative outcomes for uncertain situations, and then trying to prepare myself for them. Unknowingly, of course.

This, coupled with an inability to validate and communicate my needs and feelings (which two years of therapy has begun to finally resolve), has gotten me into a lot of bad situations. If you assume that people are going to disappoint you, that your relationships will fail, that people won’t return the effort you put in- then how can that not become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Attaching to these negative outcomes made me feel like I had the upper hand, that I could act first and not get hurt. Turns out that doesn’t work at all. (Shocking).

I’ve been reading and re-reading two books by Rebecca Solnit recently- A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and The Faraway Nearby (which I think everyone should read). I came across a section in the latter which reads, “Buddhism takes change as a given and suffering as the inevitable consequence of attachment and then asks what you are going to do about it.” She continues later, “The coolness of Buddhism isn’t indifference but the distance once gains on emotions, the quiet place from which to regard the turbulence. From far away you see the pattern, the connections, and the thing as a whole, see all the islands and routes between them. Up close it all dissolves into texture and incoherence and immersion, like a face going out of focus just before a kiss.”

I connected wholeheartedly with these passages as the main focus of the work I’ve been doing through therapy, meditation, acupuncture and efforts of self-care and self-love over the last three years. As I begin to zoom out from my actions and understand what motivated them, I feel aftershocks of pain at the ways I acted and the ways I treated both myself and others. My therapist reminds me that I was young, and my friends remind me I can’t carry guilt for things others don’t want to work through. I’m surprised by the grief I’ve found in these reflections and new perspectives, but I’m sitting with it.

If nothing else, I can be empowered by the lessons I’ve learned, the actions I won’t repeat, and my continued effort to free myself from attachment across the board- however difficult and arduous of a journey that may be.

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