A Tale of Unmatched Socks and Miracle Chili

Essential Care, Handling and Training of Oneself
Part 3 of 3

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine invited our family over for lunch. She was serving “Miracle Chili.” The miracle, she said, was that for the first time in her life, she had discovered how to cook something that she liked to eat and wanted to share with others.

I understood exactly.

I remembered a hazy afternoon in my early 20’s, laying on an unmade bed, wearing the sweatpants I’d put on the night before to save time, surrounded by piles of clothes, books strewn about, an empty fridge, and a notice of overdraft on my checking account. I dreamed of a magical day in the far distant future: a day when all of my socks would be matched and tucked neatly in a drawer. When I would know how to balance my bank account and have invented some schema for paying bills on time. I would know how to shop and plan a menu and cook something I might actually like to eat.

If I’d had more energy or imagination that day, my fantasy might have become even more complete: I might have a regular exercise routine, a physical practice that I approached with structure and commitment. I would discover some spiritual path, a meditation practice and a values-based community that would feel authentic to me, not strained, randomly chosen or forced. Some part of every day would be silent. I would learn what my body needed to be able to get to sleep at a reasonable time, stay asleep through the long night, and wake up feeling ready to face the world. I would have time to read books of my own choosing, spend enough time in nature, and explore museums to feed my hunger for beauty. I would remember to take my vitamins and get my haircut when I needed it. I would find a doctor – a general practitioner, a gynecologist, a dentist, and an acupuncturist that I trusted and would keep appointments regularly.

The process of self-care and healthy self-parenting never ends; it moves and doubles back, re-formulates as we age, change careers, and enter into new stages of life.

In my mid 20’s, I realized for the first time that I needed to begin some kind of regular exercise practice, when I first dated a guy who ran regularly.

I bought a cheap jogging trampoline – with legs that I could screw off and store under my bed. I would run/bounce, singing along to loud music with all the lights off. Obviously, I could only engage in my chosen “sport” when my roommates were out of the apartment. As a long-term exercise plan, it had some limitations.

I signed up at the public pool, swam laps at designated shifts. Frozen hair in the winter with no blow dryer outlets in the changing room ended that. I joined and quickly quit a gym- skeeved by all the indoor sweating, the damp leather seats, and the disturbing Orwellian image of people watching the Nature Channel while running on treadmills.

By my 30’s, as I began my clinical practice, it became clear to me that I needed a daily physical practice more than ever to feel well – and that my own right exercise needed to happen outside. I needed air, weather, horizon, wind, ground, and distance. I began hiking the trails outside of the city on weekends, and taking 10-12 mile urban walks during the week. I skipped subways and scheduled appointments so that I had opportunities to walk as my primary transportation. I bought an ergonomic backpack and all the weather gear I needed.

As my schedule intensified and I had less time, I bought books and looked at videos on speed walking. I did my pointy-elbowed-hip-swinging-goofy laps, 3 miles religiously around and around Washington Square Park. I grew less embarrassed, and prouder of myself, when I began to pass the slower runners.

A move to a new apartment put me near a softer running path – and I began running 2 or so miles several days a week. When we became parents, I realized that since there was no more reliable silence in my home, I needed my exercise to double up with my meditation practice. I began studying tai chi and bagua individually once a week with a martial arts master. For the past 7 years, I’ve had my own regular practice – running, meditation, and martial arts practice 4 or 5 days a week, outside, in the park near our home. And with the proper gear, neither snow nor rain nor heat will delay this courier from my appointed rounds.

Learning to cook, finding the right health care providers, establishing a meditative practice, finding a spiritual community, creating systems for housekeeping, devising my own rituals for good sleep hygiene, all involved lengthy processes of building up mastery, growing pride in myself, uncovering knowledge about what was realistic and sustainable for me, and gathering data about what actually felt good, right, interesting and pleasurable.

Don’t even think about getting it right the first time. Forget about finding and “settling” on one routine or system. Your needs will shift; your time, your energy, your location, your commute, your finances, and your priorities will change over time. And so will your bill-paying routing, your workout, your diet, your shopping list, and your bedtime.

As all things, these are fluid practices – you are unlikely to find a routine that “fits” all of your life stages, local logistics, and physical changes as you grow and mature. In Winnicottian terms: “holding” and what it takes to feel held becomes increasingly complex and changes throughout life and development. An infant is easier to hold and care for than a toddler; and providing a sufficient holding environment for a teenager is a far more complex process than mere diapering and bottle warming. Holding our adult selves well – creating a rhythm of life and activity that makes our adult needs feel contained, soothed, regarded and respected is a veritable Rubik’s Cube: needs coming into conflict with each other, switching and flipping back, working through, to find the right time and space for them all.

And then doing it over again when growth or change messes it all up.

Miracle Chili actually takes years and years to cook. Years of first learning what you are hungry for, what you like, what you digest well, what tastes good together, and what really feeds you.

And I vividly remember the day when I opened my dresser drawer and realized that somehow – after years of struggling to pay attention, many starts and stops, relearning, reworking, and regrouping – that all my socks were matched and rolled neatly in my sock drawer.

The Lazy Illusion

What if you aren’t lazy?

What if you aren’t too busy, too disorganized, a mess, a procrastinator, a scatter-brain?

What if you already have enough “will-power”?

What if those beliefs were taken off the table?

What if none of those constructs are at all useful for changing your lifestyle, creating a daily exercise routine, feeding yourself well, structuring quiet time, meditating, getting to sleep, tending to your finances, looking for that new job, or for facing down any important, self-regarding task you have been avoiding?

Berating yourself, scolding yourself is rarely useful, and usually just makes things worse, more painful, more shameful.

What if there is a very good reason that this specific task is hard, frightening, anxiety-provoking, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable for you?

Self-neglect often just feels usual, normal. The ignoring feels like a part of us. It’s how we have always done it or not done it. Sometimes we pretend that our avoidance is a proactive choice and express contempt toward others who have mastered self-care tasks that feel beyond us.

We even construct pseudo-identities on top of it:

“I don’t cook”

“I’m a spender, not a saver”

“I’m not an exercise person”

And that way we won’t even notice the void when we step in it.

But – what if that is all an illusion?

What if the truth is more complicated, and much messier? What if you’ve been avoiding the dreaded task, failing to establish the healthy habit because it is associated with something painful, scary, confusing, vulnerable, overwhelming, sorrowful, or is something you simply can’t learn how to do on your own? What if it requires your compassion, attention, kindness or understanding to make it possible to change your ways?

In some cases, we may have a wish to establish a new pattern that is simply un-familiar – literally: not of the family. If no one in your family of origin ever spoke Greek, it is unrealistic to expect yourself to be able to magically, spontaneously, effortlessly speak Greek in adulthood. If you do decide to learn a new language, it will not be an intuitive process, it will not feel natural; it will be uncomfortable, embarrassing at times, exposing, vulnerable. It will involve investing money, time, and consistent effort. It will require generous, patient teachers, role models, fluent-speakers who model proper, conversational speech for you. There are processes that we can only learn through relationships with others.

Many simply continue to parent themselves as they were parented. If your care-taking through childhood was disorganized, abusive, withholding, or passive, you will likely care for yourself the way you were, or were not, cared for. If bedtime was experienced as a battleground, or abandonment, it’s going to be very hard to learn to transition yourself through the subtle stages that precede sleep. If your needs were ignored, you may not, for example, think to seek medical treatment before a condition becomes unnecessarily severe.

In other instances, we have absorbed our notions of how to meet our needs as adults from watching how our parents treated themselves. Did they self-medicate? Smoke? Overspend? Sink into depressed, passive, depleted, deprived, neglected states themselves? Did they chronically – too generously and masochistically – set their needs aside for others?

It can feel disloyal, like a betrayal, to abandon their model, to treat ourselves better or differently than our parents treated themselves. Sometimes, self-neglect is a cherished, comforting memento from home.

Others of us are on strike: still waiting, holding our breath – well into our own adulthood – for an archetypal Grown Up to arrive at long last and take care of it all for us.

Taking deep responsibility for our own well-being means giving up hope that we will be rescued. To stop waiting for Godot means we may be left alone upon a barren mound of grief and mourning. They haven’t come, they never came, they never will come; we may have lost our opportunity to have our childhood needs met, at the right time, by an all-knowing, all-loving omnipotent caretaker. Facing down self-care may mean first accepting this mournful reality and breathing through all the painful feelings that attend a loss.

Sometimes the shame of not-knowing-already, the fear of needing to be taught, the humiliation of asking, and the vulnerability of beginners’ mind, is enough to make us avoid the things we truly need. We feel a fool – a baby, a first-grader – our savvy and maturity stripped away from us, as we struggle to learn the new thing, search for a teacher, struggle, fail, regroup and try again. We want the first meal we cook to be delicious, and to feel powerful and strong our very first day at the gym.

All of us have our own unique, inherited blind spots and neglect-holes:

One woman regularly bickers with her partner about her own messiness, until realizing that her mother, a housewife with paralyzing depression, rarely initiated and never completed necessary household chores.

Another woman, constantly overdrawing her account, discovers that her red-inked bank statements recreate the powerless feeling of living in her father’s household, the family members shamed and controlled by his money.

A man, disorganized and distracted, constantly loses his keys, his wallet, his necessary personal items, creating many anxious, angry, panicked moments in his day. When he begins to consider that there might be some meaningful reason that he does so, he is flooded with memories of being repeatedly forgotten among his many siblings, regularly left behind, and actually lost – omitted from the head count on family outings.

Another man, in a life-long angry battle with his weight and health, begins an exercise plan. He tolerates the sabotaging noise in his head, the discomfort, the agitation, the boredom, the wish to revert. He listens deeper and discovers he is increasingly anxious as he loses more and more weight and his health improves. He realizes that he holds enormous guilt for enjoying his own body, an experience he could never share with his father – who was disabled, in chronic pain since early adulthood.

For each of us, it will be different.

And the same.

Sometimes the avoidance marks a trauma point, other times a battleground, an emptiness, or a low-grade chronic annoyance.

Sometimes we must open up to healing before we can initiate change.

Sometimes initiating change opens us up to be healed.

By occasionally asking you to focus on such rudimentary aspects of self-care, I may be asking you to speak a language you have never heard before and cannot fathom. Please know that these aren’t merely simple behavioral prescriptions.

Instead, I am asking you to

- look beyond self-judgement and the illusion of laziness,
– consider your accepted default, your original template,
– to explore it,
– mourn it,
– and to treat yourself in a new way.

In any order you choose.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Practice Practice Practice

Essential Care, Handling, & Training of Oneself.
Part 1 of 3

It seems that no one ever wants to talk about this.
Some sigh, others even roll their eyes.
No juicy catharsis, no shocking revelations await.
Everyone knows, everyone has heard it a million times.
It is as boring as piano practice on a sunny afternoon.

When I ask if you…

…have a regular routine to pay attention to your body’s need for gross motor activity?

…are able to keep your home clean?

…have some quiet time for contemplation built into your week?

…get to bed early enough and sleep through eight hours?

…know how to choose and cook food that you enjoy and that meets your personal digestive and nutritional needs?

…have a clear sense of your income and expenses?

…see your medical/alternative care providers regularly?

…spend sufficient time in daylight?

…overuse, abuse, or addictively depend on toxic substances – even the “regular” ones?

…participate in meaningful recreational, social, educational, or community building activities?

You may think my inquiry is annoying and overwhelming and off the point. You may think that the behaviors I’m asking about are not really necessary and that you can get along just fine without them – because the real problem is your job, your boss, your roommate, your girlfriend, your kids, your schedule, the city you live in.

You may think that it is shockingly obvious and that, of course, you read the magazines, and the Health section in the Times, and we all know what we “should” be doing to “take care” of ourselves – but that doesn’t mean that you have the time, the structure, the wherewithal, the money, the discipline, or the motivation to do it.

I know that you believe that you should be able to feel better even while you suspect that you are living in a state of active neglect/abuse of yourself. I know that you think if I would just join you and focus on the “real problem” that you will be able to face these “other things” when you feel better, or when you win the lotto, or when you retire.

This is the real problem.

Any animal who is deprived of sleep, and/or fed inadequate nutrition, sitting in its own waste, ingesting poisons, prohibited from gross motor discharge, cut off from meaningful interaction with others of its species, experiencing unrelenting stress with no respite – all of its natural drives thwarted – is going to feel like shit. We would expect it to suffer. We anonymously call animal control on the neighbors, or feel impelled to donate money to animal rescue associations after seeing animals in such states of neglect and abuse.

It astounds me how often people prefer to first consider anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication for clearly mild symptoms before they will consider walking to work, turning off the crappy late night TV to get to sleep earlier, cooking at home, or reducing their “normal” alcohol consumption.

There is ample and sound research that such self-care: the endorphins generated by exercise, the impact of mindfulness meditation on anxiety and pain levels etc., etc., all have substantial and measurable effects toward helping us “feel better” in the here and now. I’m not going to even bother to cite the studies.

And although coming to therapy is a significant and important step, therapy is unlikely to offer much sustainable solace if it is the only hour or two out of your week that you actually tend to yourself.

True, facing down these lifestyle changes won’t cure your bad marriage, a crazy abusive boss, your controlling father, your financial anxieties, or loneliness. It’s not going to take away all of the discomfort or pain.

But nonetheless: these activities of healthy daily living are also profoundly important symbolic gestures:

They are the daily rituals of self-regard. Actions which demonstrate that you value and will be loyal to your own core needs regardless of your mood or whim. Proof to your psyche that you will not be distracted, that you will faithfully show up for yourself. A message to the back of your brain that you will be steadfast and brave and true, that you can be trusted and reliable – and that you won’t let yourself down. These are gestures which create a symbolic experience of the devoted, attentive, reassuring internal parent who will care for you no matter what. It means committing to (at least) beginning to behave in a loving way toward yourself, even if you don’t always feel it.

As old Freud himself stated: “The ego is first and foremost a body ego.” Our first and most primal experiences of ourselves and our loved ones are through our bodies. Our essential sense of self is formed through how our bodies’ needs have been cared for – or not. Our sensory embodied experience is how we first know what it means to feel loved, valued, soothed, fed, and tended to.

Part of the function of therapy is to initiate you into the mysteries of becoming your own Healer, your own best Caretaker.

Yet, these first stages of initiation are so obvious, such a part of our common knowledge, that we often think we can forgo them altogether.
You can’t.
It will thwart your progress.

I’m not asking you to do it all at once.

I expect it to take time – there are likely years ahead of trial and error, dead-ends, stall-outs and do-over’s. You can feel lost, overwhelmed, and you can fail and quit, and regroup.

But we have to begin to listen to the nagging, pressing voice of our most basic needs – even if it feels as obvious, repetitive, and annoying as a good-enough mother reminding a child to eat their vegetables, clean their room, and practice the piano.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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