This morning, I walked into Bruegger’s bakery and surprised the girl behind the counter. “Diet Coke?” she asked, reaching for my mug.
“Actually, I’m going to try some coffee,” I replied, trying to feel brave. I’m a regular at this place, and I always have my “bottomless mug” filled up with Diet Coke, no ice. So she must’ve been surprised that I ordered coffee, though she didn’t say so. She guided me through their different roasts: hazelnut, house, french roast, french toast. I settled for hazelnut.
It smelled good. I’ve always loved the smell of coffee.
But I’m leery of drinking it. I’ve never been a coffee drinker. It’s too bitter, it makes me jittery, it tastes horrible unless I dump in a cup of sugar and even more creamer. Then it’s unhealthy, and I don’t like drinking my calories. That’s been my excuse to stick with Diet Coke.
And here I am, trying to drink coffee for the first time in years.
Ironically, my first published short story was entitled “Coffee.” It’s about a girl who gives up coffee in favor of water after a close friend’s death. (It’s symbolic, okay?) Go figure that I’ve never cared for the substance.
I stare at the Bruegger’s mug with the vile substance swirling in it. People in movies and on television drink their coffee black, so I cautiously take a sip.
I grimace. My daughter’s watching; she wants to see the face I make, she says. “Go, Mommy!”
It needs sweetener. I look at the nutritional info on splenda and nectresse (the two non-sugar sweeteners I have available) and opt for nectresse. I’m not sure it’s a great choice and tomorrow I’ll try to do without artificial sweetener.
It’s still not fabulous. I’m still grimacing, and wondering, like I did the one time I had a wine cooler, do people really drink this for fun? I decide that creamer might help tone down the bitterness. Thankfully, a few teaspoons of skim milk helps the coffee go down.
I miss my Diet Coke.
I drank my last Diet Coke yesterday, after a lecture from my doctor about the dangers of diet sodas. I drank it slowly, wistfully staring at the liquid chemical cocktail that has been my constant companion since I was a tween. I’ve known the pleasures of diet drinks since before I met my husband, before I went to college, even before I went to high school, so this farewell drink feels sad. Parting is such sweet sorrow, Juliet claims, and I agree.
In my defense, I’ve cut back—way back—on how much soda I drink. I used to average around 100 ounces of Diet Coke a day (and wonder why I was so jittery and nervous all the time). Recently, I’ve been down to around 36 ounces a day, with water as my other beverage of choice. Now I was looking at zero ounces. The last drops of Diet Coke were gone.
I burned a candle after I finished the drink. It seemed appropriate enough, since it was in a little coffee mug and supposedly smelled like cafe latte. (It smelled like generic vanilla candle to me.) So the candle was supposed to be both in memory of my favorite drink, and in anticipation of tomorrow’s coffee drinking pleasure.
My doctor would be so pleased.
Even a quick internet search revealed that Diet Coke is unhealthy. Obesity, kidney issues, headaches—all linked with high doses of Diet Coke. It’s pretty much all chemicals, after all—nothing that remotely resembles anything in nature—so why wouldn’t it do wacky things to our bodies?
I’ve known all this before. Dr. H isn’t the first doctor to lecture me on the horrible effects of my addiction to artificial sweeteners and caffeine. But then he trotted out the results of a recent study. High doses of Diet Coke can increase the risk of depression thirty percent. Thirty percent!
Part of me was shocked, part of me was contemplating kicking the silver can to the metaphorical curb, and part of me was wondering how he always remembers study results and statistics. Last time I saw him, he recited the benefits of kale. Previously, he’s told me about studies relating to fish oil and postpartum depression, and a multitude of other data that are simultaneously interesting and head-scratching. (Who thinks of doing scientific studies on some of this stuff? Not me.) How on earth does he remember all this? Is that an inborn talent, or a skill they teach in med school?
The second half of what he said was interesting, too. Coffee—in moderation—can possibly lower your risk of depression by ten percent.
As my doctor kindly pointed out, I’m on several medications for my bipolar disorder. One has some potentially serious side effects, including a neuromotor disorder that is irreversible. It’s one that I’d like to stop taking. But my addiction to diet soda is possibly making my depression worse, which means I have to take the medication, which means I’m at a higher risk for this neuromotor issue with a name that I can’t pronounce. Is the Diet Coke worth it?
And again, what came to mind was the quote from Richard Foster: reject anything that is producing an addiction in you. They are the same words that prompted me to give up Facebook, and now they help me decide to ditch my beloved silver-canned drink.
My husband was leery. He probably remembered the last time I gave up Diet Coke. That time, it was for Lent and I gave up all caffeine. Miserable experience (for him and for me). I was exhausted and cranky and well, you can read the blog post. But I figure that if I can drink one small cup of coffee a day, without all the high sugar and full fat add-ons, then I’ll get some caffeine and should be fine. I only drink water for the rest of the day.
I can’t see how I’ll ever be a more than one cup of coffee a day type of person; the stuff just doesn’t produce that must-have-more craving in me. But if I ever do start drinking more than one, I’ll consider ditching caffeine entirely.
So. Here I am. Drinking coffee. And realizing that it isn’t half bad.
If you’re interesting in reading about the Diet Coke/depression study, here’s a link: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/diet-soda-drinkers-depressed-article-1.1236431
Sometimes what I read disturbs me so much that I don’t know what to write in response, even when I know that I must write to process it. It’s that way now; I’m literally shaking, though whether from anger or horror, I couldn’t tell you.
For the past hour, I’ve been researching prostitution and pornography. My second novel (for which I just finished the first draft) deals with a young woman who had been a prostitute as a teenager, and who struggles to overcome her past. As usual, I didn’t do much research for the first draft—I find it hampering when I’m trying to find the story—though I did know a little bit about it from some research I did in college. So now I’m trying to check my facts, see which intuitive choices in writing were correct, and add to my general knowledge. And what I’ve found so disturbs me that I must write about it. Here’s just a few things I learned.
“Anyone who thinks prostitution is a victimless crime, hasn’t seen it up close.” –old cop saying, quoted by Joe Parker
Back in college, I met a fellow student who claimed to have been a stripper for a while. She told all of our newspaper staff that she felt so “empowered” by her decision to work as a dancer at a strip club. I don’t know if she was still working there at the time, but her use of the word “empower” has always stuck in my mind. It struck me as wrong: demeaning would’ve been my word pick, or degrading or disgusting.
Now I think the “power” part of it was correct. Stripping, like porn and prostitution, is about power, only it isn’t the stripper who is empowered. It’s not an equal exchange, one person giving (or being forced to give) her body to another in exchange for money (which that person may or may not get). It’s not equal at all, even if the exchange is “consensual”.
“In criminal language, ‘She loves me’ means ‘I can control her.’” –Joe Parker, “How Prostitution Works”, on prostitutionresearch.com
Consensual: which, the majority of times, it is not. From my research, I’ve learned that most prostitutes are forced into it through repeated rapes, beatings, abuse of every kind, both physical and emotional. And once the victim is broken, with nowhere to turn for help, she feels that to survive means she must do what she is told to do: that there’s no choice but to do what the pimp tells her to do. The prostitute is at the mercy of the pimp and the johns.
“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: she has become a threat.” –James Baldwin
And who feels most threatened? Those who stand to profit from prostitution. On prostitutionresearch.com, one prostitution survivor recounts how she has been repeatedly threatened by the leaders of “sex worker rights groups” (who are pimps, their self-portrayal as sex workers aside). They use hate mail, social media, you name it, to try to silence those vocal about the abuse that is the sex industry. These are the people who push to legalize prostitution, who claim that porn/stripping/prostitution is empowering for women, and who profit from all of the above.
The things I read are hard to read. It would be easy to shut down the computer, close the book, avert my face. But I can’t do that. Once we have knowledge, we are responsible for how we act or don’t act on it. Those of us who care that this atrocity is happening must act. We can’t afford to stay silent.
I can be a very judgmental person. I knew this before, of course, but it really came home to me this past weekend. Here’s what happened.
I finished the first draft of my novel on Saturday afternoon after a marathon writing session, spurred on by momentum and the knowledge that oh-my-gosh-I-could-finish-this book today! So my husband decided that we as a family needed to celebrate this by going out to eat. My brain was fried, so he chose a restaurant and we went. No sooner were we seated than I happened to notice a girl at the table across from us, probably about eleven years old. She was fat. She was eating an ice cream sundae.
Here’s where I became judgmental: my first thought was “She doesn’t need to eat ice cream! She’s fat! She’s got a double chin and no neck! Why aren’t her parents making her eat a normal meal?!?”
Meanwhile, we ordered dessert. Notice the irony. Even as I let my own children and husband share a huge dessert with me, I’m passing judgement on a) a child’s weight, b) her dietary choices, and c) her parents’ parenting ability. (Although I think there was cause for concern in this case, I wasn’t feeling concern, only superiority.)
This isn’t the only thing I’m judgemental about.
I also have a huge disdain for those who can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, your and you’re, and there and their and they’re. (Meanwhile, I still struggle with the difference between effect and affect. I look it up every single time I use either word, or else rewrite the sentence to avoid being wrong.)
The weight-judgment thing really bugs me, though. I haven’t struggled with my weight, per se, but I have close relatives who have struggled with being overweight their entire lives. I have wrestled with eating disorders and body image and my relationship with food.
When I first started treatment for bulimia, my parents took me out to eat, and I was so jealous of the skinny lady eating dessert at the table near ours. I knew that I couldn’t have that huge brownie sundae, not without triggering a binge-purge episode, and it made me furious—irrationally—at the woman eating it.
So technically, I should have been sympathetic toward this child. And yet I wasn’t. I was ready to yank that sundae out from under her nose and shove rabbit food at her. Not my place. Not my job. Not a healthy attitude, nor a gracious one.
Jesus talked about judging others, how we should take the log out of our own eye before we point out the speck in our brother’s (and sister’s). Good advice for everyone. Now I just have to take it.
Every so often, someone asks me about my first novel. I give my standard reply (which is usually too long and confusing, but which they politely listen to). Then I get one of two responses: 1) a blank stare while they’re obviously thinking why did she write THAT?, or 2) a blank stare and the outright question, “Why did you write that?”
I usually hem and haw (blank stares tend to reduce me to hem-and-hawing) and say something vague about being bipolar, blah blah blah.
But the truth is that when I was pregnant, I was afraid. I lay awake at night, dreaming up the worst case scenarios for what might happen after I gave birth. What if I developed postpartum depression? What if I developed postpartum psychosis? What if I tried to hurt myself or the baby or both of us? My fears were grounded in the reality that being bipolar and pregnant is not a pretty combination, and other women have experienced all three of the things I feared the most.
Finally, I decided to do something constructive with my fears: I created a character, mercilessly dumped all my insomniac nightmares upon this poor helpless creation of mine, and wrote her story. A novel was born. And in the writing of it, I was reminded of the truth that, even in the darkest of times, there is hope.
When we face our fears and pains, we find a rich source of inspiration—not just in writing but in living.
Recently, I met a lady named Heather Von St. James. When her daughter was three months old, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. It’s almost always deadly.
Talk about fear: facing almost certain death is never easy. It’s definitely not easy when you have a husband and a new baby whom you love dearly. What do you do?
Talk about courage: Heather grabbed onto hope with both hands and hung on. Hope became calling out to God for help. Help took the form of a major surgery, one that took her left lung and gave her back her life. Life became living one day at a time, living fully and facing her fears and inspiring others to do the same.
It’s now been seven years, and Heather is cancer-free. She’s created a holiday called Lungleavin’ Day on the February 2nd anniversary of her surgery. It’s a day that she and others set aside to face their fears. They write down their fears on plates: all the things, big and small, that hamper them from truly living. Then they throw the plates (and symbolically, all those fears!) into a bonfire.
It’s a celebration, but it’s also about raising awareness of this horrible cancer. Heather has taken her fear, her pain, and used it to help and encourage others.
Read more about Lungleavin’ Day on Heather’s blog:
Her joy and enthusiasm for life is contagious and hope-filled and inspirational; I walked away encouraged, and I’m sure you will, too.
When I first read about the Sandy Hook shootings, I was in shock. I immediately knew that I needed to write about it, but I needed time to find the words to write and the angle from which to approach it. As I read the news stories, one theme surfaced, time after time: mental illness. As a mentally ill person—I’m bipolar II—my heart sank.
It sank under the weight of the stigma attached to this diagnosis; it sank under the weight of condemning, humiliating suggestions in the news stories’ comments. “Let’s lock ‘em all up,” one commenter wrote. (By all means keep YOUR freedom to own a gun, but take away my freedom to live my life. Very logical.) “We can’t let the crazies win,” one local newspaper columnist wrote several months ago, and I felt that stinging, dismissive-of-me attitude again all across the web.
And a part of me wondered: could a mental illness make me violent? And if I was wondering that, there must be others wondering that, too, and wondering if some day, they’d “snap” and kill innocent people.
Here is my unprofessional, unsolicited opinion. I don’t believe that a mental illness, if it is truly a physical illness, can force anyone to commit a wrong. It can make someone more prone to certain temptations (and thus certain sins) but I cannot see how an illness that originates in the physical body can cause a person to sin spiritually.
(I’m not talking about the annoying things we do that are caused by our mental illnesses, such as talking too much or too loudly or being delusional or illogical, but about actual wrongdoings, such as violent outbursts or the taking of another human’s life.)
The problem, of course, is that it’s virtually impossible to separate the physical and spiritual components of a person. We’re not machines that can be taken apart and put back together; we’re complex, complicated people with everything—spiritual, emotional, mental, physical—all messed up together. Trying to pull out one strand and conclusively define our ailments is arrogant; that would put us on level with God, and believe me, we ain’t him.
But I’ve noticed a curious thing since my diagnosis. Most people can’t view themselves or others in a balanced way. Most ignore one or more aspect of their being to focus on the others. The people I confided in about my new diagnosis responded one of two ways. Either they believed it was an exclusively spiritual issue—you must have a demon in you, want an exorcism?—or believed it was entirely physical—just take your meds and you’ll be fine (please go away)! Both responses were dismissive of the complexity of my being.
The problem was that I wasn’t fine, even with medication. I had scars, lingering wounds from my isolation during my worst days, wounds from those who rejected me because I now took meds to even out my moods, wounds from having my problems ignored or dismissed, over and over and over. No medication in the world is good enough to heal our wounded hearts.
And it became tempting to harbor bitterness toward my wounders. So in a very real sense, my physical illness led me into a spiritually vulnerable place, a place where it would be easy to allow myself to justify my anger.
Take it a step further, and I might justify fantasizing about retaliation.
Take it another step or two, and I might actually retaliate, at first in petty ways.
Take that petty revenge a few more steps along this destructive path, squashing my conscience until I no longer hear the still, small voice of God in my heart, and any number of horrible results might happen. But they’d all be destructive, both to myself and others.
This often happens, and not just with the truly mentally ill. But coupled with a mental illness, where a person can be unreasonable, illogical, and delusional during their worst moments, and the result can be devastating.
These are just my thoughts on the matter, and how I’ve worked things out in my own mind in regard to my mental illness. I’m not a professional anything, so you can take it for what it’s worth. I welcome anyone else’s thoughts about this topic.
Just some ideas that have been simmering in my brain . . .
It’s not enough to merely kill an addiction; there are always ten more possible addictions to replace the one that just died. We have to take a different approach. We have to “restory” the imagination, so that we can absorb a different story about ourselves and be changed. And that story must work not just on a cognitive level, but on an imaginative/aesthetic level.
I’ll try to explain what I mean by that. First let me say that I am indebted to James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom for much of this thinking, though I’m applying his ideas in a different sphere.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. —Joan Didion
Our need for stories is built in. Stories mean on a level that escapes our abilities to articulate why they mean so much to us. (How can I possibly express why Les Miserables or Moby-Dick moved me the point of changing my life?) And stories are more than the ones printed on a page; they are ones that we tell ourselves, through our participation in them, day after day, year after year, through things that go far beyond words. Think advertisements, shopping, the mall. Think the tailgate party, the stadium, the football game. Think anything that we participate in, repetitively, that sends us a message (a story) that we absorb without realizing it. In absorbing it, we are changed.
What does this have to do with addictions? Well, what are addictions but destructive stories that we tell ourselves? For example, when I was bulimic, there was a story that I was telling myself. It wasn’t really in words, though my obsessive thoughts about food and weight played a huge role. But my body was participating in this story, too, and at a deeper level. The narrative my body and mind were participating in was this: I am worthless if I’m fat. I’m such a bad person, I don’t deserve to eat.
You can see this story played out at any women’s gathering. Someone will inevitably bring up how she’s trying to lose weight, how she was “so bad” this past weekend because she ate what she wanted to eat. Someone else will chime in about how she’s trying to be “good” and watch what she eats and exercise. Etc. (Interesting how the food we eat becomes the barometer for our morality, isn’t it? And honestly, I think some of the women participate in this type of dialogue because it’s “expected” of them rather than from a deep-rooted conviction that they’re fat.)
Through sheer will, I could stop the binge-purge cycle. But without a different, grace-filled story to take the place of it, I was vulnerable to a new disorder: anorexia. (It could’ve been any number of different addictions: cutting, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, etc.) It also wasn’t enough to have other people speak the truth to me (though that was helpful).
I had to participate in a new story, one where food wasn’t morally good or bad, one where my worth wasn’t dependent on weight, one where grace covered every single thing I did.
In other words, I had to re-story my imagination.
The new story evolved over several years.
One major step forward was when I stopped seeing food as morally “good” or “bad” but as a way to nourish my body and enjoy others’ hospitality. I tutored a Korean lady in English for a few years, and on several occasions, she invited me to her house for lunch. For a calorie-conscious control freak like me, this was hard at first. But eventually, I saw her desire to show love to me through food, and I enjoyed whatever she made for me. (I still don’t know what some of it was, but it was delicious!)
Another thing that made a huge difference was being with people who didn’t obsess over their weight or food. This is an ongoing thing. In my social circle, I’ve learned who tends to obsess over their weight and who doesn’t. I try to stick closer to those who don’t obsess over it. I’ve learned the hard way that even reading a friend’s Facebook update bemoaning her “bad” eating habits or how “fat” she is will take me back to my eating-disordered days. (Another good reason for me to stay away from Facebook!)
Of course, like any transforming story, I am still in the process of participating in it. These were just some of my thoughts on it; I’d love to hear your thoughts!
This is when it gets hard. That’s what I thought to myself yesterday when a friend started talking about a new Facebook group she started.
This is when it would be easy to rationalize re-starting my account, so easy to take that step toward losing control again, and so hard to stay firm in what I already know: that Facebook is unhealthy for me.
A friend was talking about her desperation to lose weight and how she’s tried, over and over, to lose those extra pounds that hurt her health and sense of well-being. She said that the first few weeks of a new diet are easy. Then it gets hard.
I nodded. I can’t identify with the need to lose weight, but I can identify with that feeling of wanting to give up because to keep going feels impossible. Right now, I’ve hit that point with my publication efforts, with my second novel, with my calling as a writer. The first wind of enthusiasm is long-since gone, and putting word after word on a page, with no deadline or endpoint, seems so hard.
I’m in the middle. Middles are hard.
There’s always a point in every journey where things get hard, almost impossible. You’re far from the start, but the end point isn’t in sight. And if we’re honest, the endpoint may never be there. We may never achieve our goal. I may never get my novel published or have optimal mental health. My friend may never reach her goal weight. My church may never rebuild momentum after the split. I hope that it does, but the possibility of failure and defeat is real.
So what’s the point of continuing on, even when circumstances are difficult?
It’s about the kind of person you become in the process. What kind of character am I building? What kind of person am I becoming? I don’t want to be the kind of person who gives up easily. I want to finish strong.