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Guest Posts, Letting Go, Self Care

QUIETING THAT LITTLE VOICE THAT STRESSES ME OUT

August 20, 2020
stress

By Jen Butler

I’ve spent so much of my life doing things to make other people see me a certain way. I talk about my accomplishments or my wounds, depending on the conversation and the crowd and which topic I intuit will most impress. I’ve observed people, learned their likes and their humor, and then adjusted to fit in.

Perhaps this is part of being human. A desire for connection, for a tribe. A desire to be liked.

But I wondered tonight, while folding super comfy pajama pants I normally wear with mis-matched socks and an old lady sweater (but only alone, in the privacy of my own home), “What if people would have liked me anyway? If I hadn’t have tried to be a certain way. If I didn’t exhaust myself with witty banter or getting the last word. What would be different?”

Perhaps nothing would be different. Maybe the same people would be my friends and colleagues.

Or maybe, just maybe, my life would be a little different.

Maybe if I reallocated my credits of “care” toward being myself, standing up for myself, and saying what I wanted to say rather than what I thought would be most popular… Maybe I’d have smile lines instead of the crinkle in between my eyebrows from a near-perpetual furrowed brow.

I stress myself out. And I say that in the most loving way possible. I stress myself out, recognize that I’m stressing myself out, decide to worry less and relax more, then share this awareness with those close to me, all of whom are like: “Yea duh. You didn’t realize you were a bit high strung and super hard on yourself? Glad you’re learning to take it easy.”

And I’m like: OH. I’M DOING SOMETHING THEY AGREE WITH AND LIKE. I SHOULD DO MORE OF THIS.

And so, naturally, I then dive into a very dedicated and regimented plan on how to be the most relaxed person I can be.

I’ve always been irritated by the people who say, “This is just how I am. I can’t change.”

But I realize I’ve been camping out on the other end of that extreme: “I can change everything about myself until I become the exact person I want to be.”

Spoiler alert: the “exact person I want to be” is a moving target, it’s not at all a quantifiable goal, and the comparison between myself and that dream version of me results in my feeling left behind, left out, and generally like a failure.

But it’s not that I feel I’m failing my parents or friends. I feel I’m failing myself.

I feel a compulsive need to be “good” and think only good thoughts, say only good words, and take only good action. And any time something goes poorly in my life, I tell myself I wasn’t good enough and I must have manifested it with some sort of negative thinking, and I must do better.

While walking my dog today, I marveled at the white fabric peeking out from my shoes and the fact that this was the first time I’d gone in public without no-show socks. I was wearing the “wrong” socks for the shoe choice. This would have been debilitating to me in the past. (+1 point for progress, Jen!) (But -1 for poor style, which could fall under the genre of poor self-care.) (Net zero. Try better next time. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.)

I smiled at the socks, and continued the self-analysis work I’d been doing all day (and most days). I was scanning my brain for limiting beliefs and negative thoughts so I could eradicate them all with my laser beam vision, which stems from perfectionism, which stems from seeing myself negatively rather than lovingly. I was trying to stop negativity with something that is, by its very nature, negative. Trying to fix my thoughts with my thoughts.

I then had the thought pop in my head of “restriction,” and I remembered my relationship with food when I struggled with disordered eating.

I obsessively labeled foods as good and bad, shaming myself if I ate or craved a bad food, and feeling a temporary relief (combined with a bit of elitism) upon consumption of good foods. I knew there was factual evidence backing up certain foods being healthy and others being unhealthy. This was the perfect thing for me to control! I will be the healthiest eater ever!

Until I realized that food itself stressed me out, no matter the type. And consistent stress is far more harmful than occasionally eating a bowl of Life cereal.

I removed the labels of good and bad around food and instead re-learned how to trust my body and its signals.

My relationship with food and my body are both healthier than they’ve ever been. It’s not perfect. I sometimes still stress out over end-of-the-world stuff, like running out of vegetable juice, and then my boyfriend talks me back to earth. Overall, it’s much better and life feels easier.

Today, I realized I’ve been treating my thoughts and self-work the same way. I’ve found a new application for perfectionism and obsessive compulsion: monitoring and judging my thoughts and words.

It’s like a proofreader’s dream: “Your job is to tell me what’s wrong with everything I’m thinking, saying, and doing.”

I’ve rarely ended a day without a needs improvement stamped on my forehead, in the shape of a deepening brow crease. If I feel accomplished on any given day, I feel relief rather than celebration. “No negative points today, Jen. Now just do every day like today except a little bit better and then you’ll be positive and get everything you desire.”

Is anyone else stressed out reading this? I’m stressed out writing it, while also feeling so fucking free for owning how I feel and how I experience life.

Yes, I believe it is true that our thoughts and feelings and actions and words create our reality.

It is also true that we are here to have a human experience, which is imperfect in its very nature, and I personally think it’s far healthier for me to let the fuck go and allow for a natural progression of life than to try and control every word, thought, and step.

Because even if I say everything positively and in alignment with my positive new belief system, I’m still doing it from a place of fear. And stress. And furrowed brow-ness.

What’s in between “This is just how I am; I can’t change” and “I’m gonna’ change everything so I can be perfect.”?

I don’t know. I’m thinking it’ll find me. And I’m thinking it starts with removing the labels of “good” and “bad”.

Did you know I lost the extra fat on my body when I removed labels on food, even though I increased the “bad” foods and decreased the “good” ones? It’s because I stopped giving them so much power. I learned what it felt like to feel actual hunger rather than approaching diet analytically as if I was a research project.

If my brain is ever like, “OH NO YOU SHOULD GO EXERCISE OR YOU’LL GET FAT,” I will march my happy ass into the kitchen and eat a “bad” food and be like, “I refuse to exercise with that mindset or to be held captive by it. So this chocolate is code for FUCK YOU.”

And then I eat it.

And then the thoughts shut up because they don’t know what to do with their hands. And the stress immediately leaves.

And do I get fat? Nope. I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Truly.

I’m not sure what the equivalent will be for the self-help, self-analysis stuff. Maybe it’s as simple as removing the labels and seeing what happens next. Maybe if I find myself being all like, “Oh that thought was bad, -2 points, and now you’ll attract negative things from the Universe” I can respond with something like “Gosh I sure hope my head falls off” or “Fingers crossed for food poisoning!” or “I sure like the word ‘c*nt’ even though it pisses people off.”

It’s the same approach recommended for people to escape other perfectionistic or anxiety-ridden tendencies. For instance, folks who nervously sweat can start being like, “I’m going to sweat more than I ever have today. Gallons of it. GALLONS!” And, in time? The nervous sweats stop.

Yea, seriously. It’s real.

So, while all y’all Love and Light Brigaders are telling your clients that the reason their lives are the way they are is because they need to eat clean and that their thoughts aren’t perfect enough, I’m going to be eating chocolate and exclaiming “CU*NT!” from my basement apartment while wearing a grandma sweater and mis-matched socks.

Maybe it won’t get me out of my apartment. Maybe it won’t bring me abundance. Maybe after a surprising unexplainable beheading you can be like, “I knew Jen before her head fell off.”

But, in the meantime, it’ll be a helluva lot more fun. And maybe, in the process, I’ll gain some smile lines.

Jen Butler is a comedic real-talk writer and artist in recovery from alcoholism, addiction, self-harm, disordered eating, cancer, Breast Implant Illness, and a weird period of time when she only listened to dubstep. Her passion is helping people feel less crazy and alone by openly sharing her own experience, strength, and hope. Her portfolio, books, and one video with a flamingo puppet can be found at www.jenniferannbutler.com.

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Guest Posts, Self Care

Madame Defarge in the age of Corona

March 29, 2020
knitting

By Caroline Leavitt

Years ago, in 2004, while my husband Jeff and I were sitting watching the election returns, I was stress knitting in terror. That evening, I made twelve (I’m not kidding) fingerless mitts that I, always the writer, embroidered with the words Hope on the left hand, Love on the right.

It didn’t help. Bush won. Crying, I wrapped up all those mitts and sent them to the friends I had made them for with a note: Maybe next time will be better.

Next time isn’t better. The next election, a day before I am due to go out on Book Tour, for a new novel, Cruel Beautiful World,  about how the world drastically changed from the late sixties to the early seventies, my world drastically changes as well. Trump wins. I get on a plane and people are crying. I have two events, ticketed, $70 a pop and five people show up for the first, and only three for the second.

I keep writing. I keep hoping. I have a new novel coming out in August and I sold the one after that, too, though on a partial, so I have to write it. And as I hoped, this year is something very different, but not in a good way. Trump terror seeps into everything we hear and see and do. People worry that he might stop the elections, that he might make himself Emperor for life, which given his erratic sociopathic nature, is not implausible or impossible. A second term would be a disaster.

And then in the midst of this, sneaking in on little virus feet, is Corona.

I live in the NYC area, and things are quietly surreal. On the subway, I actually can hear the usually garbled announcement which urges everyone to wash their hands, to cough into their elbows, to not panic. Don’t panic. Don’t Panic. Don’t Panic.

Panic.

Of course we all do. A man coughing in the subway is glared at. More and more people are wearing masks. I try not to touch the poles, to keep my hands away from my face. For the first time in years, I am not biting my nails. Stores are emptying out of goods and people. Things are being cancelled. Concerts and plays we had tickets for. A big event I had for my novel coming out in August. Gone. The Poets & Writers 50th anniversary extravaganza. Gone. Publishing houses are working at home. Even my cognitive therapist tells me we can do sessions by Face Time, since she has just come back from a vacation in Germany.

I’m so anxious I get a refill of Klonopin and my therapist tells me that small motor activity might be a good idea, even if it is just tapping my knees. Is there something I can do, she asks. “I can knit,” I tell her.

I haven’t knit it years, not since my first terrible marriage a million years ago, when I designed a sweater for him with dinosaurs feeding on vegetation, one I scissored up when I found out he was cheating on me. I hadn’t knit since. I was writing all the time, so why would I want to relax by using my fingers again? Didn’t they deserve a rest? But now, everything is bigger and seems more fraught with danger. I tell myself I will just straight knit, just to have something to do, that this is not about actually making anything, but just soothing my nerves.

I make my first sweaters, just two rectangles and two tubes, and when it is done, it has so many mistakes, it makes me wince. But I put it on, like a talisman, like a lucky sweater, and it’s warm, cozy and well, perfect. I did something concrete, I tell myself. That’s something.

I cannot stop knitting. I buy more yarn, more needles. Every night, when my husband Jeff and I sit to watch films, there is the click of knitting. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I tell Jeff and he takes my hand. “I bet you do,” he says. I think about Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities. She was like one of the Fates in Greek myth. She never stopped knitting, stitching in the names of the people she wanted killed, creating her own kind of revolution with yarn.

My second sweater, soft, glossy gray, is absurdly perfect and I am going to wear it to a reading, but the reading gets cancelled. All that day, I write my novel, thinking about the evening when I wouldn’t have to think, when I can just knit and turn off the churning in my mind. I think about how knitting, like a novel, has a structure, a spine that has to hold things together, how every stitch can tell a kind of story—that one there that is twisted is when I heard Trump say on the news not to worry. That one where I dropped a stitch is when I was stress eating. When my niece Hillary, who is supposed to come stay with us, along with her husband and two kids, cancels because of the virus, I go online and order more yarn, a deep dark blue, to knit a pullover for her the one way I can be with her.

The day I start that sweater, and WHO announces we have a pandemic. Italy is in lockdown. The first big event for my novel, The Texas Library Association in Houston, is cancelled. The Virginia Festival of the Book is cancelled. The Poets & Writers 50th Anniversary is cancelled. Colleges are holding virtual classes.

I sit with Jeff watching Sorry Wrong Number with a particularly hysterical Barbara Stanwyck, who begins to have an inkling she’s about to be murdered. I am knitting and knitting and knitting through the night, my eyes on the screen. It isn’t until I am done for the evening, that I look down at my work. To my shock, the garment has lost its structure. It isn’t totally blue the way it is supposed to be. I must have picked up the wrong yarn, because the second half of the back of the sweater is now deep green.

At first, I’m pissed. I wanted to control this. Rip it out like errant pages that aren’t working. The way this is supposed to go is not thinking, just knitting. Plus, the thought of ripping out all that work makes me ill. I’m terrible at taking out stitches and picking them back up and I know if I even try, there will be a stunning number of holes.

So I leave it. And the next day, I keep knitting, picking up other colors, making something that I don’t even think about having control over, that I can’t possibly know how it might resolve. As I knit,  I look down every once in a while, surprised, and sometimes pleased. The steady rhythm is so soothing, so hypnotic. I think about my novel, the characters so real I know what color sweaters I could knit for them, and that makes me think a bit about plot. I think about my mom, who died, two years ago, who I wish I could call to make sure she’s all right. I think about the sweater I’d make for her, deep purple, her favorite color, a sweater she’ll never get to wear. I think about my sister, who is estranged from our family and how I’d like to make her a purple sweater, too. I think about our son Max, who is in Brooklyn, who I get to see and hug. I move closer on the couch to Jeff, the click of my needles like a kind of Morse code. I love you. It’s going to be all right.

And so I keep knitting for other people. Pullovers that will hug them because I can’t anymore, at least not without a mask. Despite myself, I am getting better and better. Knit. Knit. Knit. I’ve come to realize that this is how I give up my desperation to control the narrative and the fear I’m feeling. Knitting a sweater isn’t writing a novel, not in any sense. We can’t know how the world is going to go with the virus, we cannot know what is going to happen with Trump and his cronies or with our planet that is falling apart. We breathe in and we breathe out. We wash our hands and cover our coughs and I keep knitting.

I buy more yarn. It doesn’t matter what color, just that I have enough for four more sweaters. Just so I can see the pile of yarn, provisions against terrible times and anxious thoughts. Despite the fierce intensity of my knitting, I’m no Madame Defarge, purling my way to revenge. This is not A Tale of Two Cities as much as it is a tale of one world in crisis. Instead, every night, this is how I knit connections, this is how I knit away the terror, one stitch at a time.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her new book, With or Without You set for release in August and can be ordered here.  Her essays and stories have appeared in Real Simple, The Millions, and The New York Times. Visit her at @leavittnovelist on Twitter, on Facebook, and at Carolineleavitt.com

 

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