Thursday, April 3, 2014

Learning to Unlearn...

I'm not a big fan of "self-help" as it is traditionally defined. In the past, the books I've read, the counseling sessions I've attended, the workbooks, journals and seminars I've participated in have all been focused on my past...looking for a cause and effect as if finding the source of my depression or anxiety would miraculously make me less depressed or anxious. There might have been some positive thinking sprinkled in there for good measure but I often felt like my "problems" were my fault because I was too weak (minded or willed) to have dealt with them as they were emerging. So, I have been living in the past for a very, very long time.

Every time a relationship failed I thought about the past...the boys I 'let' mistreat me, the approval I constantly sought from my alcoholic father, the not-so-happy marriage my parents struggled through. And every time I sat on the side lines...a wallflower of sorts...never sticking my neck out for anything (be it a cause or promotion or recognition for work well done) I thought again about the past...the competition I created with my sister who was very outgoing, the girls in my class who were called pretty, the times I felt invisible or was picked last in games and being laughed at or ridiculed when I did fail. For every shortcoming I had I was directed to look at a specific event (or person) to place the blame...leaving me (and many others) sure that if only I could receive a sincere, heartfelt apology I could become whole again...why else would we search so hard for the source?

But by always focusing on past "mistakes" or past "reasons" I was basically inviting the same results in to my present.

Every rejection and break-up solidified my self-worth. Every success was chalked up to sheer luck. The self-help books I was reading at the time felt like weights around my ankles keeping me aware of my short comings (and perhaps creating more) with no real direction to move forward other than writing letters to those who hurt me and thinking positive thoughts or looking at myself in the mirror and saying "you are beautiful" over and over. Those books also tried to make me feel better by saying I wasn't alone...constantly trying to equate my pain with others...or attempting to diminish it by saying some people have it worse.

And while I understand that there are people around the world who do have huge challenges, who are abused, or sold into slavery and starving I also know that these facts do not just take away the pain someone is feeling. We can't 'cure' ourselves by stepping on (or using) those who are also struggling. Comparison can be dangerous...being sad about a pet who died is okay, one doesn't have to "put it into perspective" and try to diminish those emotions because some else, somewhere in the world suffered a "worse" tragedy. All that it does is make us feel selfish and wrong for our feelings of sadness. And now we are back in the cycle of needing to be "fixed" because we've learned our emotions are inappropriate.

I think there is a better way...a way to reflect on our past (not live in it) and use it to change our now (and our future).

I cringe when I hear people say things like "well, nobody's perfect" and "everyone has issues". Not because it isn't true (most likely it is) but because phrases like those are often used as crutches to justify a  kind of giving up, the kind that comes from accepting our condition and allowing our minds to remain in the rut we've created.

What I mean is...when we are always accepting (and expecting) a certain outcome (or emotion) we might be creating a pathway for the same thing to keep happening "to us" over and over again. I used to get panic attacks which were often work related. It got so bad that by Sunday morning (I was off on the weekends) you could find me curled up in a dark room crying because Monday was looming over my shoulder like the Grim Reaper. It wasn't that I had some horrible task to take care of Monday morning that I was was simply that the weekend was ending. Sure I hated my job...but not only was I unhappy at work but now I was unhappy at home because I was constantly thinking about work and evoking those horrible feelings even when things were "okay" in the present moment. Of course, by the time the work week started I would have a miserable time and the days would feel like weeks. Again, there wouldn't necessarily be any horrific 'thing' that happened but my mind created (and recreated every Sunday morning) a disaster of a week. And the week almost always lived up to my expectations.

My weekends were no longer a source of relaxation and fun...they became almost as unbearable as going to work. I would look forward to having two full days off only to then torture myself by counting down the hours until I had to go back to that hell hole. The same thing would happen on vacation. Imagine having a week off, splashing in the pool, drinking a cocktail with an umbrella in it only to break down in tears because you realized that every sunset wasn't beautiful anymore because it was really a dreadful reminder that it was now one day closer to the vacation ending. I became sullen, depressed and inconsolable. A real Debby Downer.

I've recently read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and although it is geared toward the creative process I was moved by the chapter Resistance and Healing. In it, Pressfield writes about the subculture of healing being  the belief that one needs to 'complete' his healing before he is ready to live his dream. He goes on to say:

"Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work."

To me, the work can be anything from painting to writing to composing music...but most importantly it's living. Living in the here and now...not rehashing the hurtful thing some high school kid said to you 25 years ago. Not giving more power to a selfish or addicted parent who was too busy (or drunk) to have taught you about self-worth. And certainly not judging your work ethics by the actions of some asshole who thought it was impressive to fire you on the spot for asking to take a break after leading trail rides for the past 5 hours without stepping out of the saddle. Whew...I guess THAT one still stings a little.

The book I'm currently reading, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One by Joe Dispenza, takes things even further by explaining how we can become addicted to feelings we experience which means we continually seek out more experiences which produce those feelings. For instance, if at some point in our lives we've been called lazy or hot tempered or maybe even labeled as emotionally unstable (I was "diagnosed" as manic back in 1987 at an in-patient hospital but never since) we tend to start identifying with those things which causes us to "claim" those traits which then forms our personality. Over the course of 10 or 20 years we believe we are lazy or introverted or ugly or a binge eater or just not good at sports (regardless if these statements are even true!!) and this emotional state (our way of thinking and feeling) becomes becomes who we are. We even begin to define ourselves as these things..."Oh, I'm just a lazy person, always have been, always will be"..."I have a hot temper and I just cannot control it".

You see, we resign ourselves to be whatever we were told (or told ourselves) in the past. And no amount of "positive thinking" (or medication) can change 20 years of proving them (or us) right. But there is a way to rewire our brain...and part of the process is through meditation.

Now that I am becoming aware I am even more convinced that we turn over far too much of our lives and well-being to other people. We get labeled by friends, school mates, parents, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, etc., and then allow those labels define who we are. We seek out experiences that "prove" those labels are correct. We let our minds wonder with thoughts of the past or even future events that haven't even happened to simulate the feelings that keep us trapped in our current state of being.

Looking back at my earlier story about the awful dread I felt on Sundays I can see now that I was using past experiences (perhaps a particularly bad day at work) and rehashing it in my mind until I felt as bad as I did the day it occurred. I was then projecting that I would continue to have this kind of bad day every day...building up the anxiety. Going to work with that amount of anxiety meant I often missed out on the good parts of work, I was tense and on edge...actually having a physical response to the chemicals my body was releasing due to my anxiety. I couldn't get out of my own way because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, certain that anything positive was an illusion rather than the scenario I kept creating in my mind and body.

Although I am not quite finished with the book, I feel a weight has lifted off of my shoulders. I'm beginning to question some of the labels I've accepted and/or placed on being an introvert, an over-planner, "mousy-brown", invisible, prone to depression, ad nauseum. I feel like I've been given "permission" to step outside of that box I created and become who I am supposed to be...someone without paralyzing fear and self-doubt...someone who doesn't finish things...someone who is often sad for 'no reason'.

Until then, here's a little video that might peak your interest in this "new" research. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Idiocracy Meets the American Diet

I'm not a nutritionist or health expert. I don't profess to be the smartest or most educated person you'll ever run across and I am certainly not infallible (there's a reason this blog is named Learning Curves). However, I do have a bit of experience with dieting. I've done Atkins, the Rice Diet, Nutrisystem, the Master Cleanse (aka Lemonade Diet) and everything in between. I've even done calorie restriction to the point of becoming anorexic. I lost weight. I gained weight. I beat myself up and placed my personal value in that magic number on the scale. I also almost died.

What did I learn from spending countless dollars on books, programs, special "diet" foods, sugar-free this and fat-free that and carb-free mystery foods? Well, what I unlearned was how to eat, what it felt like to be hungry and to trust my body's needs and abilities.
We eat because the clock says it’s time to eat. We fill our plates with too much food because the plates are large and that’s what everybody else is doing. “We confuse thirst for hunger and food for love,” May says. {excerpt from an interview with author Michelle May, a physician turned health coach}
I unlearned so much of what is supposed to be innate, the simple act of supplying my body with fuel, that I have yet to relearn it after declaring myself "diet-free" a few years ago.

My thoughts...and this in only my that the diet industry, along with Big Ag and those genius marketers, have basically brainwashed the average consumer into thinking humans cannot survive by simply eating food when their body indicates it's hungry. We've been convinced to ignore our cravings (which can often indicate a true nutritional need) and substitute food-like products in an effort to "trick" our brain into thinking it's satisfied.

We eat low- or no-calorie "desserts" (sugar-free jello, for example) as a way to fill our ever expanding stomachs while depriving our body of actual nutrients. Which means we will have to eat even MORE lo- or no-calorie foods in an attempt to make our stomachs feel full. And if we ever go back to eating "real" foods we will have trouble feeling full on "normal" serving sizes.

We convince ourselves that bacon is "good for us" because some caveman supposedly ate a high protein diet thousands of years ago (but he didn't drive to work in a car, sit around and watch TV for hours, and play on Facebook all day). So, we bastardize a diet like Paleo to include processed meats as long as they "hold the bun". Of course, my philosophy is that we convince ourselves bacon {or insert your favorite food here}is good for us because we want to believe we will do anything to get healthy but really, we won't. It would be like eating the same foods and calories of say, Michael Phelps (who sometimes eats around 12,000 calories a day when training) but never swimming a lap...and then wondering why we don't have his physique.

Battered and then deep fried Twinkies are used for "buns" on this bacon burger...and why not...this is 'Murica!
In this country (U.S.) the "gluttonous movement" has gotten to the point of being a ridiculous (and embarrassing considering how many people across the world, and our own country, go hungry). It's as if people are trying to give a big F-you to health and purposely eating the most fattening, sugar laden abomination of "food" ever imagined. There's even a series from Thrillist called Fat Kid Friday which publishes "this week's most ridiculous eats". It showcases real menu items like Porky Cake Batter Ice Cream Sundae (cake batter ice cream topped with caramelized pork belly bites and chicharrones tossed in cinnamon and sugar, then drenched with bacon-caramel sauce) and the Breakfast All Day Burger which is a hamburger topped with fried hash browns, a fried egg, bacon and maple syrup.  

I mean, it's like we can't stop ourselves when it comes to shock-value regarding our food! People think it's funny to push the 'envelope' when what they are really doing is destroying themselves. Even Subway, whose profits soared with the Jerad campaign, has resorted to offering Frito loaded sandwiches! We think we have free will but based on the number of people I see jumping on this bandwagon I beg to differ. Can anyone tell me what exactly we are trying to accomplish?

The human body is highly adaptable, which is one of the reasons we are still here. But it also has it's limits when bombarded with garbage on a daily basis. There's pollution, the highly processed foods we eat and the chemicals/hormones/drugs/toxic bug sprays that cover our not so highly processed foods, the 'fragrances' added to our shampoos, lotions, soaps, deodorants and the toxins that get released from the plastic packaging our apples and carrots come in or Glad containers we use to store our leftovers.This accumulation now has a name...chronic inflammation...and it's been linked to a plethora of illnesses.
 Our bodies have become virtual dumping grounds for the tens of thousands of toxic compounds that invade our everyday world, setting the stage for a slow decline in health. The EPA estimates there are more than 20,000 chemicals that our bodies cannot metabolize. Unable to be excreted from the body, chemicals find their way into our liver, and then migrate to fat cells throughout the body where they are stored. Studies show that most of us have between 400 and 800 chemical residues stored in our cells. {Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine}
There's also emotional stress, something many people don't want to deal with because we think it's a sign of weakness. And some people are "happy" being prescribed drugs to mask their symptoms because it's 'easier' and deflects the feeling of responsibility. Somehow it's understandable to 'blame' the diet industry and marketing minds behind Big Ag and the conflicting research behind the USDA for our choices (I can't remember if eggs are good for us now or not) and our desire to eat like crap but it's a mark against us, as individuals, to admit that somewhere along the way we also forgot how to express our feelings, were made to feel even worse if we did so and lost our ability to cope.

So now we are really screwed. We don't know what to eat and can't get out of our own way to go back to the basics because we can't trust ourselves to do so. We've been told to trust our doctor even though she may be working off of old science (and might not be the picture of health herself). We are so conditioned to dismiss any "new" scientific research that puts the responsibility in our hands instead of the surgeon's knife or pharmacy's pill. And we will believe any new fangled diet book that comes along and revere it as if it was the word of God even if we have no idea who the author is as long as it promises us we can lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks without exercise and without giving up our favorite foods.

We also still can't seem to wrap our minds around the fact that the foods we eat can affect our emotional state and our stress levels which contributes to our chronic pain. And this often creates a vicious cycle.
I guess my point is that we can take back control of our minds. We can educate ourselves (it's really not that hard) and climb back into the driver's seat. Some people will want to do so...and some will continue to complain, whine, and seek attention by playing the perpetual victim to 'things' beyond their control. But it's within reach for all of us because we are born with the innate ability to not only survive but to thrive. There are things we need to unlearn and others we need to relearn but the path has been cleared for those willing to take that walk.

Further reading:

“Perfect Weight” and “What Are You Hungry For?” by Deepak Chopra

“Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung

“Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful” by Susan Albers

"Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health", "The Thrive Diet" and "The Thrive Cookbook: 150 Plant-Based Whole Foods Recipes" by Brendan Brazier

"Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything Else" by Geneen Roth

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food by Michael Moss (full article)

"Death By Supermarket: The Fattening, Dumbing Down and Poisoning of America" by Nancy Deville

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Valentine's Day Gift for My Sister

circa 1975
 My sister and I have always had a strained relationship. You can call it sibling rivalry but as a kids (and into my teens) I thought she hated me. She did the normal older sister stuff...hiding under my bed to scare me at night, telling me I was adopted (I wasn't) and tricking me into saying cuss words ('Hey sis, sing Yankee Doodle but use "F" as the first letter of each word') and then telling on me. And yes, my mom believed in punishing foul language with a bar of soap in the mouth.

But I was (and still am) very sensitive so I thought she was intentionally cruel when she wouldn't let me sit next to her on the school bus and the bus driver refused to go until everyone was seated (and I was the only one standing) or when she kicked me out of the car miles from home and left me there.

One thing we did share was our disdain for the first day of school.
Even in adulthood we struggled to be friendly to each other. We could be civil but it took work and left me drained (I'm sure she was equally put out). We were polar opposites in every.single.way.

She's blonde. I'm brunette.
She's and extrovert. I'm an introvert.
She's funny. I'm reflective.
She's tall. I'm short.
She's driven. I'm laid back.
She's loud. I'm quiet.
She's beautiful and I am Mousy Brown.
She's smart. I'm smarter. (just seeing who's paying attention)

But both of us felt the need to compete with each other and our relationship always felt on the verge of collapse. With all of their faults (and who doesn't like to blame their parents for everything bad) I'm not sure what we put our parents through was "fair" in the name of sibling rivalry. My sister had on-going issues that led to her no longer being welcome in our house and I had which led to being hospitalized for 4 months. But both of us put enormous amounts of pressure on ourselves to excel at academics and sports (mainly competitive horseback riding).

There's a lot of truth in this's not a means to place blame but to move forward and break the pattern.
It was the kind of pressure perfectionists place on themselves that make parents worry and drive away potential friendships. I was, in particular, very much a loner....excelling at solo ventures (be it gymnastics or debates) but had no social skills because friendships were superfluous. I couldn't relate to people my own age because I had aged myself through academic and physical discipline (and later with food restriction) not realizing that one could be social and successful. My sister took a slightly different route. Although she was(is) quite the overachiever she was also just as self-destructive with questionable relationships and "shock value" escapades.

So I think we surprised each other when somewhere in our late 20's and early 30's we found that not only were we both still alive, but we were thriving. She was forging a very successful career in the Army and I was moving up through the highly competitive, all male dominated, automotive industry. But that disconnect was still there and on the rare occasion we found ourselves together (there had only been a handful of times) it felt like we were teenagers again...bickering, competing, and feeling less than.

Our family (Japan 1972).
Our dad died in 2009 after a horrific car accident. My sister and I had a huge falling out in the week before he died and remained in a coma. At the outset, this tragedy tore at the already fragile seams of our relationship, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was right when it came to her (I judged her initial blowup as an unwarranted attack at an inappropriate time...somehow growing a spine during this intense moment in time). I had spent the entire 39 years of my life feeling inferior to my sister. She was everything I wished I could be...but I couldn't tell her that. Instead I had to pick apart her faults, rehash the past and basically make myself miserable by trying to 'out do' her.

My parent's car after being hit head on by a reckless drive.
During a second round of heated battles (tragedy brings out the best, and worst in people) my sister told me that she had felt this same way...inferior to her little sister...and no matter what she did, she could not gain the approval of our parents. And now, with our dad in a coma, dying, she would never have the chance to even ask him if was proud of her.

Marylou and our dad at Disney World.
The tables had turned and for a brief moment we were able to see into each others' pain. Four decades of struggle, four decades of pulling out all the stops looking for approval, four decades of focusing energy on a rivalry that should have never existed, four decades of competing with an illusion. She was me and I was her. This was life changing. My sister's honesty was a catalyst for the direction my life has taken since that dreadful week in October 2009.

My dad's headstone.
I just spent 6 weeks with my sister camping in the New England area this past fall. Although our entire adulthood (actually, since I was 15 years old and she was 17) has been spent living thousands of miles apart we've found ourselves at the same place emotionally. We are seeking {and finding} a peace and balance in our relationship which has spilled over into all other facets of our lives...or maybe it's the other way around.

Along the Maine Coast...looking for balance {literally}.
I feel like we've been part of a "twins separated at birth" study. Both of us, far removed from our childhood past, far removed physically from each other and still traveling down different paths in some regards (like politics). But those paths are actually parallel to each other and constantly meet and intertwine, separating briefly and meandering back together more often than not. We are both now vegetarians and aspiring yogis...spiritual and inquisitive, grounded yet still dreaming, goal oriented but much more forgiving...not only of others but of ourselves.

Marylou and me at Squaw Valley Ski Resort for my wedding.
For the first time in my life I can say, unequivocally, that my sister is also my friend. I trust her with my innermost secrets free of the feeling that I will be judged or that they will used against me one day. As a matter of fact, I know that no matter how outlandish my thoughts, feelings or confessions are, when I expose them to my sister it will only draw us closer together.

My sister and I actually goofing off and having fun...together!
Befriending my sister and accepting our similarities rather than trying to force superior airs has been one of the most liberating experiences in my life. The time we recently spent together has only strengthened our bond. We spent hours practicing yoga side by side...sometimes in below freezing weather and sometimes dripping in sweat. I really believe our connection has deepened from both the tragic death of our father and the light and love we expressed in our shared yoga space. There is comfort in the fact that I know she will always be there for me, and I for her, not just because we are sisters but because we are friends.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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